Star Wars: The Last Jedi

We are what they grow beyond

lastjediIt went pretty much the way I thought it would. Sorry, Luke. But before I go too far, be aware that this writeup will include plot details (you know them as “spoilers,” a word that should really be banned).

We pick up where we left off, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) building up two years’ worth of lactic acid from attempting to hand Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) lightsaber back to him. We are told that “The First Order reigns,” though specifics on that are cloudy, as only a few days ago, the galaxy as a whole didn’t consider the First Order a serious threat (hence Leia Organa, played by the immortal Carrie Fisher, needed to form the Resistance and push back on her own). Ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) awakens from the nebulous condition caused by getting his spine diced up in the forests of Starkiller Base, and as usual, his instinct to help takes over. Filling out the new power trio, Poe Dameron (Isaac the Incomparable) does a one-eighty from effective squadron leader to toxic military maverick who ruins anything he touches (more on the fantastic deconstruction of the “doesn’t play by the rules” action hero trope in a bit).

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whom I still can’t really bring myself to call “the villain” even after TLJ, returns to his mentor, Supreme Leader Snoke (whose resemblance to the actual Andy Serkis creates more of a haunting, uncanny-valley-type terror than his scarred and decaying flesh does). Snoke gives him a harsh verbal beatdown for his failure to defeat “a girl who never held a lightsaber,” and you’d think, for all his wisdom, Snoke would know that Kylo is not the person to berate, embarrass, and otherwise treat like a badly-behaved animal. When he zaps Kylo with a burst of low-voltage Force lightning, a prophetic line from Return of the Jedi comes to mind: “Your overconfidence is your weakness.”

Where The Force Awakens was required to dedicate most of its time to character introductions, The Last Jedi focuses on deepening those characters, developing themes, and pushing the story forward (fast). My hope was that director Rian Johnson would be the “company man” that J.J. Abrams was, catering to every part of what makes a Star Wars movie a Star Wars movie while also leaving his own indelible prints on the saga. The language is more colloquial than ever: A New Hope contains lines like “More well than you can imagine!” Here, the youngest character uses “like” as an interjection (and she should, shouldn’t she? If she’s to be a role model for actual kids who exist in the real world?) and Poe uses the phrase “big-ass door.” Interestingly enough, the legacy characters still speak more or less like they did in the original films, creating a realistic generational dichotomy that pays off most when certain characters try to understand the decisions and perspectives of the others. And within those of us who grew up with the originals, it creates the need to adapt.

The film’s core theme, spoken verbatim by Kylo to Rey, is leaving the past behind in favor of creating a new self, and it’s fairly easy to apply the theme to all of the principal characters. Rey knows that her parents were “nobodies” who sold her into slavery for booze money, but she still wants to believe that she’s from special stock. As a mirror in a cave strong with the dark side shows her, she is the only one who can face the truth of her past and leave it behind for good, and she ends the film with better control of her already-impressive Force abilities along with the knowledge that she can now become virtually anything (and she chooses to take the sacred Jedi texts and use them for something less rigid, less stuck in old, harmful ways). The theme applies to Finn, too: for the second time in the series, he tries to abandon ship, but Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) calls him on it. With one thing and another, they end up on an adventure that teaches Finn what the Resistance is fighting for, that its goals are attainable, and that it needs its people to commit to working together, not to seek individual glory (which is kind of difficult when you’ve got the stories of Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa as your backdrop).

Kylo, of course, who insists on “killing the past” if you have to, thought he made his choice when he killed his own father, but his soul (like his face) is split down the middle. His Force Bond scenes with Rey are emotionally resonant and powerful, and though Kylo chooses to push forward in his bid to leave his “good” self behind and seize the galaxy in place of recently-bisected Snoke, he remains a wildcard whose fate could take any shape, rather than the “Big Bad” he wants to be.

As much as I appreciated how most of this was handled, I will say that each protagonist’s characterization has its rough spots that could become problematic if not addressed correctly. For one, the Rey and Kylo “ship” can’t happen no matter how much we love their dynamic as characters. Sure, Kylo is sympathetic despite his deeds, but he’s a murderer who participated in genocide and personally kidnapped and tortured Rey. as A Certain Poet mentioned after our second viewing, pushing Rey and Kylo together creates a troubling Beauty-and-the-Beast dynamic that sort of skewers the sense of agency that makes Rey such a positive character. Secondly, Finn seems like he’s having just a little too much fun. This works when he’s enjoying the sights on Canto Bight, but not so much when the Supremacy is crumbling around him and his escape route is blocked by superior fighters who are trying to kill him. Lines like “Let’s go, chrome-dome” and his constant woo-hoo-ing during battles make him seem too aware that his character can’t die.

Third: Poe, maybe the true antagonist of the film, seemingly forgets everything about chain of command and command continuity, taking things into his own hands like so many action heroes before him: Snake Plissken, John Mclane, et al. But where those characters are praised when their rule-breaking leads to victory, Poe’s every move is a spectacular failure that gets hundreds of Resistance members killed. He leads a mutiny on Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern), forgetting that she’s Leia’s oldest friend and carrying out Leia’s original plan. In the end, Poe learns to respect those with experience and begins thinking like a leader himself, which is a glorious surgical procedure on the Han-Solo-type character and how he fits into a structure that requires people to be selfless and united, but looking at what’s literally happening, you’ve got a hotheaded young guy pissed off that the women in charge aren’t doing what he wants, so he throws a fit, repeatedly fucks up, and is still rewarded even though the lives lost because of him aren’t coming back. The problem is that plenty of people watching the film (namely guys who always wanted to be Han Solo) may be tempted to watch those scenes and blame Holdo, saying, “Well she could have just told him the plan!” even though Poe had already screwed up before that and publicly insulted her before she could tell him anything, nevermind the fact that her actions later in the movie (ramrodding Snoke’s flagship at the expense of her own life) are more heroic than anything Flyboy has ever done. At least he eventually comes to understand this.

As satisfying as most of Johnson’s subverting of formula is, there are a few anti-payoffs that I suspect stem from a lack of communication between the parts of Lucasfilm that produce the films and those that publish the books. Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the masked leader of the stormtrooper corps, was built up over the past year in a fantastic eponymous novel by Delilah S. Dawson, as well as a four-issue comic series that deepened the character, revealed her motivations, and set her up as a merciless, indestructible badass. As the novel and comic were both part of a campaign called “Journey to The Last Jedi,” you’d think that meant Phasma would have a major role in, say, The Last Jedi. Sadly, Christie appears in only one scene, where she falls victim to villain tropes that would make Roger Ebert cringe, and apparently plunges to her death in a scene that seems like it was filmed for one of the low-tier James Bond movies. I know Phasma has been referred to as the Boba Fett of the sequel series, but if this is really her last appearance, perhaps we’re to take that literally: cool-looking, underused, and dies stupidly.

By the same token, Dern’s depiction of Holdo is not quite the same character many of us fell in love with in Leia: Princess of Alderaan, where the two fourteen year-old girls underwent grueling trials of strength together, and eventually discovered the existence of the Rebel base on Crait (where The Last Jedi concludes). In that story, Holdo was a Luna Lovegood type who formed a fierce bond with Leia, and who had the potential to be the first straightforwardly queer character in a Star Wars film (in the book, she mentions that she considers only dating human males to be “limiting” – whether she’s attracted to women, aliens, or both, we’re left wondering, but the films have yet to show us a same-gender or different-species attraction of any kind, while the novels have done both. #SWrepmatters). The film’s Holdo is still a wonderful creation, but we don’t get to spend a whole lot of time with her before she basically tells Leia she’s teeing up a heroic sacrifice.

The film never feels as prepackaged as it might with more Disney interference, and the emotional tug is real (mainly due to the performances of Driver, Ridley, and Hamill). Occasionally, though, it’s manipulative. It introduces ace pilot Tallie Lintra (Hermione Corfield) and gets us just invested enough before giving her a horrible death two scenes later. Lots and lots of Rebels die in the film, and as much as it’s about the persistence of the whole, the body count becomes exhausting. The pretty-much-offscreen death of Admiral Ackbar is another good example: sure, the character is a glorified extra in RotJ, but he’s been a fan favorite for thirty-something years, and having an unnamed character announce his death (right after we almost lost Leia) takes some serious wind out of the narrative motion. The unnamed Rebels who die get graphic-ish deaths, screaming and burning up, while the bad guys who die are either not shown being engulfed in their ships, or just look sort of annoyed/disappointed as they’re blown up. Even Snoke, who probably killed fan-favorite Rae Sloane and who irreparably damaged everything Luke worked for, simply gives a surprised look and topples over when he’s shish-kebab’d. There’s a bizarre unbalance to it, designed to keep us angry and worried and frustrated. It works, but sometimes in a way that’s too meta: I’d like to be angry at the Space Nazis, not at the filmmakers.

One of the best things about The Last Jedi is that it’s a sublime return to form. Some have referred to it as “divisive,” but these fans (read: younger millennial dudes) are mainly those who grew up with the abysmal prequel movies. The original Star Wars trilogy (and most of George Lucas’s other films, like THX and American Graffiti) is pro-democracy, anti-fascism, and pro-resistance. It’s becoming clear that the villains aren’t going to win this round of Star Wars, whereas the prequels spent three films humanizing a creepy fascist who murdered children, choked his pregnant wife into unconsciousness, slaughtered indigenous people (and called them “animals”), and pledged himself to the Devil because he was denied a job promotion. Oddly enough, this guy went on to be the most beloved character in the saga, Darth Vader, while there are still people complaining that the new series has a girl Jedi and women in charge of things (citing this as “exclusionary”). If you don’t understand why that attitude is a problem, you apparently missed the first 35 years of Star Wars, not to mention the first 30,000 years of civilization.

This film remedies another issue: the prequel-era Jedi Order was depicted as a Gestapo-theocracy hybrid that accidentally put the Sith in power (sorry, citizens; we set out to protect you and then plugged in the overlords). Come to think of it, even in Knights of the Old Republic (which gets more nods in this film), the Jedi Order were total pricks who got creamed by the Sith for their arrogance. In The Last Jedi, Luke and Yoda (Frank Oz!) acknowledge the errors of the old Jedi, and agree that it’s time for something to end, namely the rooms full of rigid old men misinterpreting long-winded tomes while they focus on developing cool powers (“The Force is not a power you have,” explains Luke to Rey). Adorable, drunk-sounding Empire-Strikes-Back-era Yoda returns, and gives Luke some real advice about letting go, which leads to the culmination of Luke’s story arc (at least as a corporeal being), and wow, is it powerful. I am hesitant to say Luke Skywalker “dies;” he joins the Force, absent of pain or grief of confusion, full of peace and purpose, knowing that the future of the Jedi is in good, firm-but-delicate hands. Let’s hope we can say the same for the film series.

Regarding my feelings about Carrie Fisher (and Leia missing the treatment Han and Luke got in the first two due to Carrie’s passing), I just can’t right now. But I think I articulated my feelings about her pretty well elsewhere.

This film does a better job with charming call-backs than any recent Star Wars: Luke still drinks blue milk, the Millennium Falcon is once again called a “piece of junk,” etc. The real success of this trilogy, though, depends on where the relationship between Rey and Kylo goes from here. There are a finite amount of ways it can end, and from where I’m sitting now, none of them seem quite right. All I ask (right now at least) is that all of the current nuance isn’t abandoned for a black-and-white showdown between good guys and bad guys. Not that I wouldn’t enjoy seeing Rey’s new Jedi face down the Knights of Ren, but the two characters at the center deserve more.

Seeya around, kid.

Star_Wars_The_Last_JediStar Wars: The Last Jedi (2017); written and directed by Rian Johnson, starring Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, and John Boyega.

 

 

 

 

Advertisements

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

They wasted a perfectly good short story title

billboardsMartin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a film that makes you question what you want to know, sympathizes with lots of people no other film will, challenges characters who have the best intentions, and ends in a much different place than viewers probably want it to. In other hands, the film would focus on Mildred Hayes’s (Frances McDormand) quest to bring her daughter’s killer to justice, because that’s Mildred’s single motivation throughout the story. However, reality ensues: it’s not always that easy. Resources for such a quest are hard to come by. The authorities are useless. She has another kid (Lucas Hedges) to focus on. And beyond all that, it’s just not what the movie is about.

Angela Hayes (Kathryn Newton) left the house one day after a fight with her mom, and was raped and murdered by an unknown assailant. A year later, the police have come up with nothing, having seemingly forgotten about the case, so Mildred purchases ad space on three defunct billboards on a lesser-used route into town. Put together, the message reads, “Raped while dying and still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” The police chief, Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson at his best) isn’t exactly an obstructionist, but he’s done all he can legally do, and on top of that, he’s dying of cancer. If that weren’t enough, his most assertive officer, Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) is a racist layabout whose brutal nature and utter incompetence have gone unpunished for years, so hell if there’s anyone in Ebbing who can actually hunt down a suspect who may have been nothing but a drifter who passed through town a year ago.

The film’s narrative involves Mildred’s war on the town rather than the hunt for the killer (which may or may not begin at the very end, depending on how you look at it), and is mostly a study of Ebbing’s various personalities. Mildred is a classic anti-hero, complete with plenty of anvil-drop scenes that emphasize just how badass she is, but the film often invites us to critique her actions: blowing up a police station, beating on minors, being rude to dwarfs and the terminally ill, etc. But she’s been through it all. Besides the loss of her daughter, she’s had to endure years of abuse by her ex-husband, Charlie (John Hawkes), who still won’t just go away. Bits of her real self – or at least the caring, mama-bear-type side of the self we see here – reveal themselves in interesting places, but her emotional scars prevent her from ever being who she was before, just like the literal scar on the town where Angela’s body was burned.

Willoughby and Dixon are the other characters who are examined closely, sometimes in the right way and sometimes not. The film spends a perhaps unnecessary amount of time with Willoughby and his family, leading up to Willoughby’s inevitable suicide, whereupon he leaves parting gifts and advice to a few folks, including Mildred and Dixon. These sequences are mainly used to beat the audience over the head with the idea that one needs love and compassion to achieve their desires – advice both Mildred and Dixon can use in spades. However, Willoughby could have spent more time guiding his right-hand man more closely, rather than making excuses for his race-motivated torture of citizens and allowing him to just keep on squeaking by.  By the time Dixon receives Willoughby’s heartfelt letter, it’s too late for him to become a real detective. Worse, the film turns Dixon into Mildred’s fellow anti-hero without punishing him for his racism or his unwarranted violence against innocent people (which includes punching a young girl in the face), or even giving the slightest hint that he’s going to change his ways. Instead the film creates this “face turn” in the cheapest way possible: simply introducing someone much shittier (a bar patron who threatens Mildred and brags about sexually assaulting women). McDonagh’s thematic material needs some work in this respect. It’s difficult to reconcile the film’s overt messages of love and compassion with its demand that the audience show these things for characters that haven’t really earned it.

This is McDonagh’s third film to include conspicuous racism (In Bruges had the “race war” tirade; Seven Psychopaths had Woody Harrelson throwing the N-word around and murdering Black women), more or less without comeuppance for the perpetrators. It’s his second film to use a dwarf as a comic sidekick/victim of “midget” talk. Maybe I’m being too critical of minutiae, but if the whole point is just that shitty people exist and aren’t usually punished for their shittiness, then fine, we get it. But you’re making works of art. Do something with that. Or at least have an idea about it.

The film ends with Mildred and Dixon driving to Idaho to maybe kill a rapist who had nothing to do with Angela’s death, beginning a possible cycle of vigilantism and taking matters into their own hands. Much like Mildred’s experiences must be for the real-life people who experience them, the final shot is the beginning of a story that never ends. Ultimately, the film’s greatest success is what it says about agency, and the lengths the desperate are willing to go to obtain it.

billboards2Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (2017); written and directed by Martin McDonagh; starring Frances McDormand, Woody Harrelson, and Sam Rockwell.

 

Lady Bird

Hella tight

lb

Years ago, in my Frances Ha review, I praised Greta Gerwig’s screenwriting as being full of nuanced characters, fearless language, woman protagonists who don’t abide by male-invented tropes, and dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know whether the character is right or wrong. Lady Bird fulfills my (and probably lots of other people’s) prediction that Gerwig was going to break out big time.

A film that takes place in 2002 is a period piece now, and Gerwig’s vision of Sacramento captures a currently popular theme: the clash between nostalgia and the need to escape from home. These narratives always center around young people, and the best ones lately (I’m thinking, fondly, of Life is Strange) involve adolescent girls with difficult family dynamics, figuring themselves out as they realize they want more. In the case of Christine (Saoirse Ronan), the escapism involves abandoning her birth name, which sets her apart from everyone at her Catholic high school.

Lady Bird’s best friend, Julie (Beanie Feldstein), is her only equal, and the only person she laughs with (I’m talking actual laughing, where the laughers don’t care who’s watching or how goofy they look or what problems are waiting outside the laugh). The film is as much about the arc of their friendship as it is about anything else. The rest of the supporting cast also get complete, unique arcs, including Jenna (Odeya Rush), a popular girl whose short-lived friendship with Lady Bird is entirely based on lies; Danny (Lucas Hedges); Lady Bird’s first boyfriend, whose too-good-to-be-true vibe pays off fantastically; Miguel (Jordan Rodrigues), Lady Bird’s adopted brother with whom she shares a classic love-hate rivalry, and others. The most important relationship in the film, however, is between LB and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), who works her ass off in her job as a nurse, but just doesn’t speak LB’s language or understand what she needs beyond food and shelter.

This relationship is what the movie is about, and the writing pulls no punches. Neither mother nor daughter is allowed to be right all the time. Ronan carries every scene, playing LB as a child, wild youth, mature friend, fostering older sibling, and more. Sometimes, she says something awful and screams and storms out of a room, and love her as we might, we can’t defend her. Everyone is held up to scrutiny, even the dad (Tracy Letts), who just sort of agrees with LB about everything so he doesn’t have to be the bad guy.

Gerwig, Ronan, and the crew have really given us something here: a truthful film about the place below the poverty line, about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships (and women’s lives in general), about un-fetishizing girls in Catholic school, and a story where the men get the “stereotypical love interest” treatment (goody two-shoes schoolboy vs. pot-addled rocker guy). And it’s got a school assembly scene that obliterates the one from Donnie Darko: In response to an anti-abortion speaker’s sanctimonious baloney, LB says, “Maybe if your mom had gone through with the abortion, we wouldn’t have to sit through this fucking assembly.” Hard to argue with that logic.

Lady_Bird_poster.jpegLady Bird (2017); written and directed by Greta Gerwig; starring Saoirse Ronan.