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One’s a Master, the other’s a Learner: Reviews for Top Gun Maverick and Obi-Wan Kenobi (spoilers)

Image from Deadline (Cruise in control.)

Top Gun Maverick is for me an emotional paradox. Tom Cruise is himself a paradox when it comes to one giving him sympathy and respect. You know, the most visible member of the most visible American cult that isn’t a major political party.

Top Gun Maverick is a masterfully produced popcorn summer film that goes even harder than Cruise’s recent selection of Mission Impossibles in pushing actual risk to the art of entertaining the masses. It is frankly an experience I haven’t had at the multiplex even with those recent MIs in mind since George Miller’s triumphant return to the wasteland with 2015’s Mad Max: Fury Road. Where movie magic successfully maintains the illusion that bankable stars like Cruise and Miles Teller are in absurd amounts of danger in the air, with even the act of being in these expensive fighter jets a gamble.

Obviously, plenty of the flying sequences involve actual fighter pilots doing the maneuvers. With the modern age of CG, no matter how compelling, detailed or utilized, you will still know most of the time how the computer generated imagery is covering for something much riskier, which adds to the assumption that Hollywood is in most respects a risk-free venture in the 2020s’.

With Tom Cruise’s pull in the industry, he manages to make you not just more thrilled at what is happening, but potentially more frightened at what the outcome this fictional story will have. It is a minor miracle at not only what the film’s outcome ultimately is, but as far as I know, it was a production which didn’t have a horrific freak accident.

On the other side of the paradox, it is also the best imaginable propaganda for both the U.S. Air Force and Navy you could conceive of, making Captain Marvel’s condemned use of it seem tame by comparison. I know what the American Navy and Air Force is often used for when it comes to my nation’s involvement in foreign affairs. I can’t necessarily speak for the types of pilots who fly the jets you see in movies like Top Gun, but it’s still the same institution that double taps with missiles innocent civilians checking the rubble of a building we decimated and after the tap call it neutralization of “fun-sized terrorists.”

In the marginal defense of Top Gun Maverick’s politics and maybe even the politics of the original from a time long past, certain things are done to make it more palatable to a wider audience, to have a less mindlessly jingoistic attitude. Both films are more preoccupied with the “how” and are often obfuscating or disinterested with the “why”, though that itself can be used as an effective critique of what Top Gun is.

For one, the film has a displeased attitude about the idea of the Air Force becoming slowly but surely an unmanned program, no humans required. While it certainly protects human lives from risking a lot in the pilot’s seat, there is something uncomfortably cold and detached about AIs doing all of our air based military stuff. Potentially ominous for what happens when that tech gets out of our hands. An old but never outdated fear.

A decade ago, the Call of Duty series managed one of its more astute political commentaries with the second Blacks Ops game, where a political dissident getting his hands on both America and China’s unmanned military forces results in sheer, destructive chaos. Of all the political takeaways of that particular COD, that’s the one that will likely remain the least disagreeable. Top Gun Maverick is about the dying days of the “human” element of military air power and about that era going out in a blaze of glory….metaphorically they hope.

Regardless of your feelings on Reagan-era military thought as espoused in the 1986 original or the general attitude of the new 2022 flavor, Top Gun maintains an attractive pull through its frankly genius melding of war and sports drama. The 86′ original was basically a football movie, locker rooms and hot love interest on the side and all that. The spontaneous final showdown is for all intents and purposes the “big game”. Maverick follows in many respects the same playbook as the original, almost a soft remake akin to how Evil Dead 2 essentially redid and improved upon the first Evil Dead.

The difference is greater focus on an overall beginning to end goal in mind. The “big game” this time is extrapolated early on and remains a cloud over the cast’s heads until it’s time. Pay no attention to how it’s basically the Death Star trench run or maybe do as the movie all but brags about how it’s that basically. Aside from the practical effects done to perform this new version of one of the most recognizable third acts in film history, the details of this run would make Luke and Wedge squirm harder than they did in their own movie.

Let’s just say the optimal way to pull off this assault on an illegal nuclear test site in what is either non-descriptistan or based on the filming location, a far more malevolent Canada, would be hard to pull off in a video game. The sheer difficulty of the plan and that the Top Gun recruits under Maverick’s command are plain scared of the odds adds to how often the third act is more nerve-wracking than thrilling.

Peter “Maverick” Mitchell, warts and all, is just the man for a crazy stupid plan. He knows the alternatives are stupider and even a reckless guy like him has found some wisdom in age. In contrast to other legacy sequels, where a decades later continuation starring veteran characters and their actors in an older capacity, Maverick is refreshingly at peace with how his life has turned out by the time he’s reached I’m supposing his late 50s’ like Tom Cruise in real life. Aside from one obvious thing that haunts him from his past, he’s far more concerned with external factors affecting his career as king s**t of flying expensive as hell military planes.

The phasing out of humans flying the Air Force’s toys is one thing. Even his chance to try out experimental planes, for just the thrill of breaking records of speed and just being there and doing it, is coming to an end. Like the Deans of endless 80s College movies or da Chief from Police movies of the same period, Ed Harris and Jon Hamm play two superiors for Maverick who have put up and continue to put up with his antics and finally have the ability to ground him. Following his unauthorized use of a super hyper turbo alpha jet, he is given the best punishment he could ask for: going back to Top Gun.

But, once he’s done training the cadets for that mission brought up earlier, it’s time to turn in his wings, he’s off the force. Maybe then he’ll have the chance to get back with one of his past sweethearts and stick with her this time. No, not Kelly McGillis but Jennifer Connolly who honestly looks even younger than Cruise. Tragically, it’s often the reverse when it comes to the sexes aging.

Of course, the training for the “Oh, holy gee” operation gets even more complicated for Maverick when the son of his departed co-pilot Goose arrives as part of the squad. Miles Teller plays Rooster (dignified like his dad) who remains extremely resentful for Maverick pushing him constantly back from the Air Force big leagues.

The enmity one holds over the other intentionally mirrors Maverick’s legendary rivalry with Val Kilmer’s Iceman, though with less suggestive teeth chomping and general homoeroticism for obvious reasons. Iceman himself makes a surprising appearence, considering the actor’s rather sobering real life condition. As many have already said, it’s probably the best scene not involving flying planes.

Actually, the surprising thing is how engaging Top Gun Maverick manages to be when jets are not flying overall, like the original. While the dread over the mission’s outcome is part of what keeps Top Gun 2 maintaining a need for pacing, it also helps land the more reflective moments on how Maverick tries to, nearly 40 years later, still get over a freak accident that got one of his student’s dad killed. On whether he in fact does have regrets other than that over the course of a sizable period of his life. On whether his way of doing things can still work in the age of what are over and over called “FIFTH GENERATION JETS”. Yes, I know that stands for “more advanced”, but how more so? The film’s third act gives you an idea, courtesy of the dastardly non-descriptistanian air force.

In terms of callbacks and fan service, it ranges in bluntness though there’s an earnest melancholy or sense of genuine rather than corporate nostalgia. The opening crawl and sequence of jets taking off an aircraft carrier( replete with Harold Faltermeyer and Kenny Loggins) and how the end credits are done are essentially exactly the same as they were 36 years ago, leading some to wonder if this movie is stuck in the past. Like Maverick it kinda is, actually, but in the best way fathomable.

Top Gun Maverick takes the idea of a legacy sequel that is common now and refines it almost perfectly. You will not care at all how often this movie smells its own farts as those are farts that a considerable amount of work was put into. You will also stop caring about what it says about the U.S. military and its framing of force on a sovereign nation and the almost certainly hypocritical standards it puts forth. More than any other contemporary piece of pop culture I’ve come to second guess out of concern for my moral integrity (like a lot of the MCU sadly), in this instance I happily look the other way.

Like a lot of old works for whom their political and cultural frameworks come off sorely lacking, Top Gun Maverick has layers to enjoy that can be done without eroding your own sense of how you view the world, how you view the U.S. itself today. It’s not unlike Miyazaki’s own story of the joy of allowing flight screw the ethical concerns that was The Wind Rises. That liberal with the facts dramatization of Jiro Hirikoshi, the man who designed the notorious “Zero” Japanese military plane, is all about a man, who like Miyazaki, has a lifelong fascination with machines that enable which was once simply impossible: Man flying through the clouds. So great is his love for that potential he ignores what those planes he’s creating will be used for (something that Miyazaki loathes) and that it also keeps him apart from the other love of his life, his wife, as she dies from tuberculosis. What price are one’s dreams?

The price of enjoying Top Gun Maverick and it’s expert use of practical over computer movie spectacle and the drama of a man forgiving himself for his past errors and presenting the universally appealing fable of Man being potentially yet better or as good as Machine is to let yourself ignore that the real life utility of these men and women with their flying machines will rarely be as heroic as you want them to be.

Perhaps that is the biggest throwback Top Gun Maverick is to being “old or older Hollywood”. If nothing else, it’s a notion that still works in this changing, potentially post-American Century world, enough to earn over a billion dollars and counting. That plenty of people from outside the States can and will accept that notion too is quite something altogether.

I don’t know, maybe Cruise asked Xenu to put something in the water.

Obi-Wan Kenobi

Image from Tom’s Guide (Blue turns to Grey.)

Should you watch Ewan Macgregor’s much desired reunion tour with Hayden Christensen? Even though most will have already made that assessment by this point? …..Yeah?

I knew how to feel easily about the Mandalorian. I knew how to feel about the Book of Boba Fett. I just don’t know how to feel about Obi-Wan Kenobi. It could be that in spite of what Obi-Wan has said (hypocritically) before about absolutes, I often find myself categorizing the quality of maybe too much I consume in certain absolutes.

I’m not saying there is nothing out there that I have or continue to hold conflicting feelings over. Sometimes my opinions change. I for instance have to recognize redeemable aspects to some of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, relegated to The Force Awakens and Last Jedi (Rise of Skywalker can shove it). I even think some of Last Jedi’s philosophy might be necessary when it comes to whatever amounts to Episode 10 and after.

And yet, here we have the latest Disneyplus show, containing some of the highest highs and lowest lows of the Disney era for Star Wars. The final episode’s confrontation between Obi-Wan and Darth Vader with an absolutely stellar use of both Christensen and James Earl Jones’ voice in conjunction is on point for what Darth Vader simply is thematically and it acts as subjective proof that yes, Hayden Christensen could perform Anakin Skywalker and Darth Vader without making you laugh or regret your Star Wars fandom. It only took 17 years.

But that same episode featuring a perhaps not needed yet supremely welcome piece of prelude for Darth and Obi’s for real last confrontation in Episode 4 also has the most baffling piece of villain behavior leading up to a redemption moment that left me feeling even colder than I did when Kylo Ren became a good guy.

Much like how George Lucas had to bend and contort the logic and believability of the prequels’ narrative to get to the part you were all waiting for: Darth Vader’s birth, so too must a six episode arc of characters, plotting and behavior bend and contort itself to get to a pretty sweet duel and grim conversation between two former best of friends.

Had this been a one episode length short story not featuring all the laborious and contradictory bells and whistles leading up to it, I would risk declaring this essential Star Wars to view, making the Original Trilogy just a little bit richer. Not unlike how Filoni’s Clone Wars brought richness if nothing else to the prequel era.

It starts off well, showing how ten years of hiding on Tattoine has given Obi-Wan a lot of time to think and it’s left him weary and full of guilt at what he thinks he let happen. How the deaths of not just most of the Jedi but every victim of the Empire should be on his soldiers.

He is brought back in to the wider conflict surrounding the Empire and its activities, when he was content just making sure Luke was doing OK on the farm, when the other Skywalker in hiding, little Princess Leia, gets herself kidnapped by a Red Hot Chili Pepper. Jimmy Smit’s Bail Organa pleads to Obi for help and he reluctantly goes forward on his quest, knowing that the Inquisitors, force sensitive Jedi hunters, are just waiting for his scent.

Moses Ingram’s Reva is the featured Inquisitor and she might be the most polarizing element of the show. Before and shortly after the series began, the actress received some rather raw attacks online from the scum of the internet all over ,what else, her race. That there continues to be racism from Star Wars fans over black characters in SW puzzles me.

I mean, I get it, racists are as racists do. But why would racists preoccupy themselves with a franchise that has featured black characters since 1980? Lando Calrissian, while certainly a “player” type of stereotype often associated with African-Americans, was ultimately a heroic figure whose act of betrayal in Empire Strikes Back was ultimately due to the guy having no choice in the matter.

He did have a floating city full of innocent people to think about. He manages to become one of my favorite characters from the OT era as well as a great foil of sorts to Han’s own type of roguish personality. We’ve also had Mace Windu from the Prequel era and Finn from the Sequel era. On that note, ironically for what is called the “SJW/ Woke” period of Star Wars from a certain group of dissenters, Finn and his actor John Boyega got the rawest deal of all the featured black characters. Like basically everyone starting off in Force Awakens, his arc starts off strong and with promise and is utterly squandered as the trilogy plays out.

By Rise of Skywalker, aside from being a guy like Poe who has the protagonist’s Rey’s back and that he might either be in love with Rey, force sensitive or both, he’s got nothing. His biggest purpose is to fight the bad guys, about as significant as any of the heroic named extras of the movie. An argument could be made that Disney’s handling of Finn and giving him a quasi-love interest in a brand new female black character rather than you know, working with what was possibly set up in a gay love story with Poe was at least insensitive on some level, though the biggest reason can be chalked up to corporate incompetence over malicious intent.

So, yeah, there’s the bare bones history Star Wars has had with black characters and their actors, more positive than not, which might help speak to the franchise’s enduring mass appeal. So after Lando, Mace and Finn( though the character very early on was attacked by online racists), now out of the blue does a new black character and her actress got mercilessly bullied.

Star Wars fans bullying an actor online for a perceived bad performance goes back at least as far as Jake Lloyd and Ahmed Best for Episode 1, but the added inference of racist motivations for their displeasure has grown more frequent. I don’t know, maybe something in the contemporary American culture has emboldened such types, can’t quite put my finger on it but it might have something to do with a guy who has a bizarre, vaguely orange complexion. And was also President once and may to everyone’s detriment be President again.

Starting off, Reva didn’t get on my nerves for how the character was portrayed and acted. I actually found her quite disturbing as even before the reveal of where she comes from, she is very likely connected to the Jedi of the past and represents what Palpatine’s Empire does to the Jedi it “spares.” Her cutting off the hand of a dissenting voice in a crowd as she yells for information on Jedi in hiding was adding up for me to be a character that was at least decent for its purpose. But, by the fourth episode, she was starting to get on my nerves.

I’ve heard that Ingram has done good work before starring in Obi-Wan. She played the Lady Macduff in a recent version of Macbeth and recieved awards for her work on The Queen’s Gambit. And yet, how she was portraying Reva at times felt…awkward, unconvincing. A lot of that can and should be chalked up to the awkward way the show details her tragic history as a narrow survivor of Order 66, from the Jedi Temple massacre no less, to becoming a vengeful Inquisitor who ultimately wants to bring down the guy who killed her childhood friends and nearly her: Darth Vader who she extrapolates as Anakin Skywalker based on seeing his visage before the mask and lots and lots of burning. That too was hard for me to fully swallow.

Her plan on how she does it…will either leave you thinking that maybe she should’ve gone over the details in her head a bit more or it will leave you wondering if her plan really was as simple as sneak up on Darth Vader from behind. I mean, Vader or not, force users are pretty good at detecting threats nearby anyway unless the plot demands they should be a little more sluggish like the whole Jedi Temple stuff.

The strange or contrived behavior of Reva, especially showcased in her bizarre and nearly continuity shredding actions in the final episode, played inbetween the awesome stuff with Kenobi and Vader just so everyone can contrast the stark difference in screenwriting being done is of course not limited to her. Characters old and new are victim.

In the earlier, generally warmly received episodes, our biggest gripes surrounded the lackluster security detail that little Princess Leia had frolicking in an Alderaan forest on top of how a bunch of pirates couldn’t catch up with a ten year old who wasn’t even running that fast. Leia’s magical and certainly not forced based ability to outrun grown adults would return next episode when Obi-Wan can’t keep up with her.

Some plot contrivances aren’t limited to strange, even out of character actions, sometimes it’s just logic being again contorted so the plot can happen in spite of the circumstances established. Just as you’re wondering why after Reva’s woeful assassination attempt on Vader he didn’t ensure she was dead you then will wonder how a wounded woman not only found a nearby ship after being left for dead and managed to get to Tattoine even though it’s made pretty clear that perhaps mere hours or less has passed due to the circumstances involving Obi-Wan and Leia occurring at the same time.

Just as you piece that together, you bare witness to essentially a repeat of one of if not the dumbest moment from The Last Jedi where a heavily armed Star Destroyer is having difficulty taking down the shields of a rinky-dink shuttlecraft. TLJ was less stupid comparatively because at least the Resistance had a full on cruiser they were using, something you imagine would have good shields. But on that same note, nobody on the Destroyer let alone Vader considers having additional star destroyers drop right in front of the tiny vessel, surround it and/or further whittle down the surprisingly strong defenses of the little ship with their many tie fighters.

If you couldn’t tell, I am getting tired of Star Wars screenwriters not having the same foresight for the scenarios they brainstorm of someone like the 28 year old blogger I am. If I could realize these contrivances, couldn’t they?

Many more moments like that litter Obi-Wan Kenobi. I’m not even wholly against some stupid moments so long as it’s a little harder to pick up on them. People have noticed some pretty glaring plot contrivances in the all but sacrosanct original trilogy like why the Death Star doesn’t simply hyperjump right in front of Yavin 4 and blow it up instantly. The answer was actually due to the original movie’s troubled production and how it was re-edited to make it more exciting than the original cut. Yes, I am saying that Oscar winning editing created possibly the biggest ignored plot hole in Star Wars history. And yet, nobody cares. They might acknowledge it, laugh it off and go about their day.

So, why this greater scrutiny over plot holes or contrivances nowadays, let alone in Star Wars? Are audiences smarter? That can’t be true, due to Jurassic World Dominion’s box office. Maybe it extends to how much we care about a property, how if we care or are invested, we are then more willing to blatantly ignore such things, with a smile even.

How much more bitter would my consumption of pop culture be if I was hyper attuned to noting any and all possible plot contrivances in media? How much more sour would I be on stuff I love with that mindset? Maybe that’s one of the reasons I’ve distanced myself from Cinemasins.

I’m currently watching and loving stuff like The Boys and the surprisingly stellar reimagining of all things, She-Ra. I imagine some potential contrivances and holes exist in those shows. Would I then call those shows bad if someone compiled the flaws of those shows? Hell, even knowing its flaws I have a soft spot for Star Trek Voyager, whose premise might be predicated on a plot contrivance.

In spite of me mentioning its high marks which include Obi-Wan vs Vader, Obi’s relationship for the most part with little Leia which actually ties very well into Episode 4 and maybe even recontextualizes the moment where she comforts a heartbroken Luke after escaping the Death Star, why do I still feel cold overall towards the show?

It’s not just because I only cared in bursts rather than for the majority of the ride (like I did with Top Gun), but because the reason why plot holes and contrivances can be forgiven is if they ultimately don’t upset the flow of what the story is doing. The plot holes and contrivances might make Obi-Wan Kenobi have a pace worse than even Boba Fett, though I would still call this better than Boba Fett.

It makes what was in practice a heartwarming encore on the set for two Star Wars actors a frustrating demonstration of growing pains episodic Star Wars is not managing to grow past. How the great idea that existed in this show was not translated correctly possibly at the behest of Disney’s demands that this show must be this long to justify their needs for a streaming service. The needs of the market over the needs of the story.

As for what Disney offers up next on streaming, Andor has potential, especially if it manages to use its setting to allow fewer instances of fanservicing at its audiences and tell a straightforward, gritty tale of how the Rebellion took root. It’s grimmer setting with an apparent lack of force-users actually makes it potentially something different if still set in an era we are quite accustomed to. Obviously there’s Mandalorian’s third season and Ahsoka is oh so promising, even if it is a glorified live action fifth season for Rebels. There are branches to some sides of Star Wars I am quite eager to see continue, perhaps giving us in time a real send off for one of the best Star Wars characters created without Lucas’ involvement.

But as has been regurgitated plenty of times and even a feeling reciprocated by those at Lucasfilm like Kathleen Kennedy herself, Star Wars has to move on from the three eras we know, especially the first two chronologically. This is despite the SW line up consisting entirely of stuff from during or near the Skywalker Saga as we call it now.

That the latest Star Wars experience is a story that is basically chained between two already determined points in a concluded story echoes where Star Wars finds itself creatively. Ahsoka conceptually feels more liberated despite being in that era and so does Mando’s ongoing tale as the end of their stories haven’t been realized. I want to know where they have yet to go.

Audiences worldwide learned where Obi-Wan was going the year Star Wars itself began, in 1977.

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