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.

 

 

 

 

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Rogue One

Jynglorious Basterds

jynersoI became worried about Rogue One when it was reported that George Lucas loved it.  That the creator of the Star Wars prequels, writer of the infamous “I don’t like sand” monologue, father of Jar Jar Binks, who apparently found zero value in last year’s powerful The Force Awakens, would love this one, concerned me more than any amount of reshoot reports.  On top of that, I keep hearing that Rogue One is “brutal,” a “war film,” and “a Star Wars movie for grown-ups.”  But wait a minute.  There’s not even any blood in this movie.  The Force Awakens had blood, both rubbed on a stormtrooper’s helmet and leaking out of Adam Driver’s body as he punched himself in his own gunshot wound.  That movie was also full of psychological terror and contained the telepathic version of sexual assault.  I’m starting to think that a certain number of people either don’t remember what they saw last year, are still sore about Han Solo, or Disney simply told them to fall in line on this one (they did).

A note here: Rogue One is better than a good percentage of blockbuster fare, but as the studio has at least four more Star Wars films coming up (and a responsibility to make them good), I think it’s more important to discuss what sucks about this one.

The film follows a ragtag group of misfits who find themselves involved in a mission to steal the plans to the Death Star, leading up to the moments before A New Hope.  The mission is led by Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who has had enough of the squabbling and doom-saying of the Rebel Alliance’s brass. She is joined by Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), a Fulcrum operative who plays like a darker Han Solo; Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed), a pilot who defects from the Empire; Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), a warrior monk from Jedha (essentially a Mecca for Force-believers); Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen), Chirrut’s bodyguard/apparent life partner; and K2-S0 (Alan Tudyk), a wise-cracking droid who works as Cassian’s copilot and comic relief (because let’s face it: Cassian is a bit of a downer).

On the other side of things, ambitious bureaucrat Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn), who has been invested in the Death Star project for over a decade, continues to try to impress the Emperor and become the station’s commanding officer.  As we all know, that role eventually goes to Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing, recreated here with terrifying CGI).  Mendelsohn plays a great villain and Krennic is even sympathetic at times, but if you haven’t read the tie-in novel, James Luceno’s Catalyst, Krennic comes off as a bit of a hollow shell with no motivation but to be a badder bad guy, and he’s upstaged by the combo of Tarkin and the returning Darth Vader.

In fact, none of the characters are greatly developed; their depths as people and reasons for sacrificing themselves to the cause are thrown aside in favor of exhaustive battle scenes involving mooks in different shades of black/white/gray armor.  The entire third act is like playing chess with one of those special boards where the pieces actually look like people: it’s a bummer when you lose one, but it’s not a real person, so what are you really losing?

The haphazard treatment of characters is even more infuriating if you’ve read the novel.  Lyra Erso (Valene Kane), Jyn’s mother, whose perspective you’ve spent hundreds of pages on, is predictably and unceremoniously killed in the first five minutes of the film (and in a way her novel counterpart could have easily escaped from, given that she dealt with much worse).  The other returning characters, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) and Saw Gererra (who also appeared on the Clone Wars series and in Catalyst, played here by Forest Whitaker), are given only slightly more to do before they’re dismissively brushed off the board.  It’s all in an effort to showcase the “Wars” part of the series title, which mostly works, but you have to be willing to pretend you don’t see each cliche coming.

But the most egregious disservice goes to the main characters themselves.  Yen’s limited screentime causes his character to have no real reason to be in the final battle, unless you headcanon the idea that the Guardians of the Whills allow the Force to use them as a tool, and that he sees a purpose for himself (none of this is addressed directly though).  Chirrut and Baze have a close and seemingly very old relationship, but we don’t get to be part of it.  Bodhi’s redemptive arc and ordeal at the hands of Gererra are all for nothing, as he magically recovers from the supposedly irreversible torture, and is sloppily eliminated from the film just as he becomes one of its best characters.  Gererra, so important to Jyn’s upbringing, simply allows himself to die after he gives her some vital info, as if he’s fully aware that the plot no longer needs him.  What happened to his Che Guevara rebelliousness?  How/why did he end up with a breathing apparatus and golf clubs for legs?

Speaking of Jyn, the newest in a line of incredible Star Wars heroines with their own stories (Leia, Rey, Ahsoka, Asajj Ventress, etc.), the part is played with such confidence and skill by Felicity Jones that it’s a shame this character will never get more room to expand and breathe.  Despite her motivations for launching a suicide mission being a bit murky, she’s ultimately the film’s sun and moon, and I would have traded any amount of fanservice for more time with her.

The biggest delights in Rogue One are references and easter eggs planted there for superfans and the generally observant: unused footage of Red Leader and Gold Leader from A New Hope; the inclusion of Hera Syndulla from Rebels; a run-in with the ill-fated Dr. Evazan and Ponda Baba; a mention of the Whills; the line “May the Force of Others be with you” (the original “May the Force be with you” before Lucas revised it), to name the most notable ones.  A cameo by C-3p0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, which felt jarring to many, was a relief for me.  “Hey,” I thought.  “At least those guys make it out of this.”

The original ending of this film had the characters surviving, but last minute changes led to a “darker” ending where the characters achieve a Pyrrhic victory by sacrificing themselves to get the plans to Princess Leia.  This change supposedly came late in the process, with director Gareth Edwards not knowing that Disney would be fine with him killing everybody off. I’m not sure I buy the idea that two ships run as tightly as Lucasfilm and Disney didn’t communicate about this before production even began, but whatever happened, the real sacrifice was that triumphant shot of Jyn and co. storming the beach, Death Star disk in hand, living to see the fruits of their labor.  I’m not saying everyone needed to survive, but the deaths of all seven characters aren’t earned by the time they happen.  And Edwards/Kennedy’s justification for this?  “Well, they’re not in A New Hope.”  Do I need to mention that the Rebels were battling the Empire all across the galaxy?  That Luke/Han/Leia just happened to be at the center of the group that fought Imperial leadership, and thus are the ones we follow in the original trilogy?  That there were thousands of Rebel ships at the battle of the Second Death Star, with unnumbered pilots and solders we don’t see?  That characters in the Aftermath novels (canon stories approved by Lucasfilm) fought on Endor, but weren’t in the movies?  There were plenty of ways to end this without a contrived bloodbath.  The ending isn’t the worst this film could have had, but it’s rushed and out of order.

One thing I do appreciate is the diversity of the cast.  However, it’s a diverse cast of people destined to be cannon fodder and who are never remembered by the main characters of the trilogy.  Now we know why the original Star Wars is all white people: everyone else died in this fucking movie.

220px-rogue_one2c_a_star_wars_story_posterRogue One (2016); written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy; directed by Gareth Edwards; starring Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, and Donnie Yen.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I have a cautiously optimistic feeling about this.

Star_Wars_6-580x387Suffice it to say my reasons for seeing a Star Wars movie today are different than they were when I was five. “Fun” is pretty easy to come by without spending twelve-something on a theater ticket, and “entertainment” is something I can achieve by watching nuthatches devour birdseed outside my living-room window, so that’s not the reason.  Is there nostalgia involved?  Yeah, sure.  But I’ve voiced my views on those things during plenty a review of the pop-culture brainjunk that I get off on chewing into so many celluloid pieces, so I want to look at The Force Awakens objectively.

Fair warning: story and character details (read: “spoilers” for the entire movie, including the ending) follow.

J.J. Abrams (in danger of being called “Jar Jar Abrams” until the end of time if he’d screwed this up) directs the film, under the watchful eye of Kathleen Kennedy and with help from Lawrence Kasdan (the screenwriter who did edits on Leigh Brackett’s original Empire Strikes Back script). Set thirty-something years after Return of the Jedi, the story follows Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger who reminds one of a young Luke Skywalker, both in environment and fashion sense.  Sadly, Rey is homeless, abandoned by her parents on the desert world of Jakku at age five.  She lives in the shell of an Imperial AT-AT walker in Jakku’s pseudo-badlands, where she is (mostly) left alone but always aware of the fact that while she awaits the return of her family (who never actually promised to return), she risks spending her entire life spit-shining pieces of salvage for an uncaring dealer (Simon Pegg) who trades portions of food for refurbished parts.  An early scene that simultaneously warms and breaks the heart involves Rey eating dinner (a sort of instant-biscuit powder) while wearing an old discarded rebel pilot helmet and grinning at a starship leaving the planet.  No dialogue necessary.

The fact that Luke was hidden on a similar desert world, Tatooine, in order to conceal his identity, is lost on zero percent of the audience, not to mention that Rey’s surname is withheld.  More on that in Rian Johnson’s sequel, we can assume, but the backdrop here is that the First Order, a splinter group formed when the Empire collapsed, has now taken a Germany-invades-France approach to reclaiming the galaxy.  Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, of course) has vanished after his attempt to restart the Jedi Order was sabotaged.

The new “power trio” is filled out by Finn (John Boyega), apparently the only individual in the legioned stormtrooper army who thinks rallyin’ ’round a family with a pocket full of shells isn’t something to do casually, much less every day for the rest of your life; and Poe Dameron (the incomparable Oscar Isaac), a character mentioned in Shattered Empire and Leia-centric spinoff material.  Poe, working for Leia’s Resistance (the current incarnation of the Rebellion, no longer working to overthrow a corrupt and tyrannical governing body, but now pushing back against an illegal terrorist occupying force), meets Finn in the first of many endearing scenes between the new protagonists.

While George Lucas’s prequels (which now feel more like a recurring childhood nightmare – toxic but blurry enough that you can discuss it when the mood is just right) attempted to develop characters by having them shout expository dialogue in one another’s faces, not to mention giving each character so few layers that even a pre-Strindberg playwright would have cringed, the characters of The Force Awakens have real layers, both implied and directly explored, and the most wonderful thing is that the writing, directing, and acting allow for characters to often say a lot without speaking (something severely undervalued and sorely needed in the Star Wars universe, and used to achieve a remarkable degree of genuine emotion here).  Gone are the days of “I will be the most powerful Jedi ever!” and “Careful, Greedo, or you’ll come to a bad end!” and “I don’t care what galaxy you’re from – that’s gotta hurt!” and the vending-machine version of the original trilogy’s most winsome humor.  Anyone can claim to have a story about watching a protagonist grow from nobody to hero, but here, the most important facet of that formula is intact: we actually know the people doing the growing.  When Rey, a scavenger who has never had a friend, smiles or gets excited, it means something.  When Finn, a trained killer who may as well be the TK assassin droid from Knights of the Old Republic, drops a hilarious one-liner, there’s something beneath the laughter he induces, something that the Jar-Jars and Van-Wilder-era Threepio and Artoo of the prequels could only dream about.  I’m only talking minutiae here, but that’s what makes a story with archetypal roles and formula narratives worth telling at all.  Here’s the aphoristic version of what I mean: archetypes and characters cannot occupy the same space.

And then there’s Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the face (well, mask, at least) of the movie, expected to fill the shoes of Darth Vader for the new trilogy.  But here’s the thing: Ren himself knows that’s what he’s supposed to do.  He’s got Not-Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis), the dopily-named mentor who turned him from light to dark, expecting great things, yet the very thing that turned him against his own family was his own insecurity.  When a mook delivers bad news, Ren destroys a computer terminal and then employs the infamous force choke.  When an opponent expresses the least bit of resistance, he becomes afraid.  Even with Han Solo (Harrison Ford, obvi) and General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, duh doy) as parents, and Luke as a master, he couldn’t settle into himself.  His crossguard lightsaber represents his own personality: warped and unstable, and even the parts meant to guard the user can be used as weapons.  He wears a breather mask that distorts his voice, but he doesn’t need it.  He’s a perfectly beautiful human being underneath it (and impervious to helmet hair, no less).  Everything about Kylo Ren, including his assumed name, is an attempt to create an identity as opposed to inheriting one.  And he’s a great character because he’s not an oven-ready villain; he’s a person with serious mental health problems experiencing a forced transition.  All that stuff he tells Han about being torn apart isn’t a line of bullshit, even given how the conversation ends.

In fact, plenty of the film’s characters subvert their antecedents.  Kylo Ren aspires to be the new Vader, which is a secret to no one, but Vader was more measured and secure with himself (despite having very few of his own body parts and the inability to breathe without wearing a suit of metal and circuitry) and didn’t mind taking orders.  Rey seems to be destined for greatness, but she’s not a bratty Aryan extrovert like Luke; in fact, she has demons we have not yet earned the right to see (just look at Maz Kanata’s face when she examines Rey’s eyes).  Finn thinks he’s supposed to be a combo platter of Luke and Han, but everyone who looks at him sees something more like C-3P0.  General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), the most effective evil character in the film, plays the same role Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) did in A New Hope, but he’s more ruthless and twice as smart.  Both are aboard their own version of the Death Star when it crumbles, but Hux isn’t foolish enough to think it’s invincible, and he lives on to hold another Nuremberg Rally in the next episode rather than becoming an easily forgotten Disc One Final Boss (hashtag: NoDisrespectToGrandMoffTarkin).

The original power trio also appears, made meaningful by the fact that they’ve grown quite a bit in the last thirty years.  Han, once jaded and self-centered, is now gentler, perhaps too gentle to continue on with the lone smuggler life he once led, especially now that he’s swindling opponents who are younger, faster, and more tech-savvy.  He tried to settle down and start a family with Leia, but the Kylo Ren incident caused another rift, and each of them went back to the thing that always distracted them from confronting their emotions.  For Han, that was gallivanting around the galaxy with Chewie (Peter Mayhew), and for Leia, it was concentrating on her military career and putting the screws to the First Order.  It’s difficult to watch them try to reconcile, mostly vocalizing things the other (and the audience) already knows, sharing what always threatens to be their final embrace because Han keeps pointlessly wandering off.  Even R2-D2 has become despondent, choosing to stay in “low power mode” ever since Luke disappeared.  The only ones who haven’t changed much are Chewie and Threepio, the latter of whom still seems to exist only to obnoxiously interrupt poignant moments between Han and Leia.

Happily, the film’s only objective issues have to do with quality control and things that could have been fixed with a single line.  For example, how the hell did Poe’s jacket get where it was?  Why does Finn automatically assume Poe is dead, creating a synthetic element of surprise for the audience in place of actual suspense?  Does the Resistance really need to keep a protocol droid around when galactic technology has been more or less streamlined in the last thirty years?  Why does R2-D2 have free will?  Stay with me here.  I love Artoo, in all his snarky adorableness, as much as the next nerd, but let’s face it: in-universe, he’s a piece of equipment.  How does he simply choose to shut down with no possibility of any tech expert in the Resistance able to revive him?  Did everyone just forget about him because he became obsolete when BB units were introduced?  I like to think that Luke programmed him to behave this way and to reactivate when Rey arrived, which would make her more than an everywoman who fell into this adventure (Han and Leia’s other child?  More on that if you talk to me in person).

Speaking of the map pieces, that scenario is taken from Knights of the Old Republic, as is the basic design for Kylo Ren’s armor.  And speaking of Kylo Ren, the whole “Han and Leia’s son becomes a dark Jedi” story is straight outta the EU.  While I think it’s worthwhile to acknowledge these things, the film actually takes much of the best stuff from the EU (including stuff that’s still canon, like KOTOR) and utilizes it in an original and passable way.  At least they didn’t rip off anything from Mass Effect (which is more than I can say for any other space opera of the last five years).  There are enough other plot-related nitpicks to satisfy the parameters of any drinking game.  I guess the studio would not have been as fine with a 3-hour Star Wars as virtually everyone else would have.

There’s also a scene mid-film that goes on so long that it evokes (albeit in a coded way) sexual assault, and if the characters involved are potentially related (or, by the same token, we take into account the horrors that Rey may have endured after being abandoned as a five year-old and dragged into a world of skeevy men, few women, and no law enforcement), the implications are more than a little uncomfortable, and maybe not intentional.

The Force Awakens respects its audience enough to let themes, motifs, and vaguely related moments speak for themselves.  Rey has a trigger involving being pulled by the hand, something that she would understandably be annoyed at anyway (especially when it’s some dude she just met who thinks he needs to rescue her), but then, later, when she touches Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber, the Force shows her a vision that partially involves reliving the day her family abandoned her.  We see her being pulled by the hand as she cries at the sight of her parents’ starship leaving Jakku’s atmosphere.  Layers!  And the film doesn’t ruin it by having Rey explain to Finn why she doesn’t like having her hand held while they’re running for their lives.  Similarly, during the above-mentioned-mid-film scene, when Kylo Ren claims that he can “see the island” in Rey’s mind, there’s no need to explain what it is or what it means, because even if we don’t know why her brain conjured that image, both of the characters in the scene do.  In the last moments of the film, Rey ends up on an island.  Is it the same one?  Did she invent the island in her mind as a place to escape to when it became difficult to deal with the harsh desert landscape day after day?  Or did the Force decide it was Rey who needed to fly to Ireland and give Luke his saber back?  These are good questions to have at the end of a story like this: not questions of clarity, but questions that open up dialogue about people we’ve just gotten to know.   A question of clarity would be how exactly Finn has no trouble interacting normally with other people when he’s just been sprung out of an organization that raised him to be a mindless war machine.

Abrams’s Star Wars is the most well-characterized of the series, and we can only hope Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow (the one I’m most worried about after the boring, CG-slathered, bizarrely sexist fiasco that was Jurassic World) can maintain the quality.  The original characters have aged realistically, and the fatigue shows on them all, especially Luke, in what might be Mark Hamill’s best piece of onscreen acting ever.  Han, for all his solo-ness, just wants to be useful, and truly cares about Rey (look at his face when she mentions not knowing there was “this much green in the whole galaxy”), not to mention approves of her as a successor to the Falcon.  Would the old Han have admitted being impressed by anyone else?  Leia continues to be a competent leader that everyone respects, and has even grown to be able to tolerate Threepio (though the ranking system in the Resistance is a little murky – the crawl claims that General Leia runs the entire thing, but Ken Leung plays a guy with “Admiral” as a title).  Poe is every bit the guy you’d want running your ace X-wing squadron: able to both destroy a planet-sized genocide machine and handle diplomacy with secret contacts, but also treats his underlings like family (he’s even got Jessika Pava from Shattered Empire as a wingwoman, played by Jessica Henwick).  Finn is not only charming and hilarious, and not only serves as an example of how the stormtroopers can be just as victimized as anyone else, but also provides an interesting look into gender roles: when he’s drinking the gross water on Jakku and runs over to help Rey (who doesn’t need it), what is he doing?  Does he think she needs help because she’s a girl, or is he trying to begin his atonement by helping anyone he sees?  If it’s the latter, it’s worth noting that although Finn has no knowledge of the natural development of things outside the First Order, he’s still falling into the gender trappings of what boys his age generally think they should be doing: “protecting” girls (who, again, don’t need it).

Finally, there’s Rey, the film’s hero, and the new Golden Child of Star Wars.  Where Luke whined his way to destiny and had his path set before him by twenty years’ worth of planning by Yoda and Obi-Wan, Rey is a hardened, involuntary loner from a bitter environment.  Despite this, she hasn’t lost the ability to experience joy, to recognize irony, or to take advice, even when it criticizes her own tendency to pine.  She’s athletic and powerful, but not physically infallible.  She’s driven, but knows how to laugh.  She appreciates little things.  Every decision she makes and every lie she believes makes sense, and they all serve to deepen her rather than weaken her.  She can channel the force, but has very real reasons not to.  She’s independent, but has plenty of room to grow and mature – specifically in areas of interdependence, something she might understandably have difficulties with going forward.  The most important thing is that she’s been given the space to grow in just about any direction, and if Johnson’s script can avoid making her a flouncy shell of what she was in this movie (can’t you just see the filmmakers chalking it up to her recent “socialization”?) or giving her the sudden urge to have sex with the nearest action dude (as Johnson’s women characters tend to), this might truly be the beginning of a saga that should be passed forward.  To call Rey “wish fulfillment” or a Mary Sue is an insult to those of us who have had to put up with an eternal assembly line of indestructible male mannequins with the same stupid stubble, dubious morals, unpunished womanizing, and identically stiff delivery of meaningless bromides.  Rey is not just an answer to that crap; she transcends it.  And the story ends with exactly what she needs as she comes upon a world-weary Luke Skywalker, and what we need as we ponder her future: a profound moment of quiet.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015); written by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams; directed by J.J. Abrams; starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher.

*Special thanks to A Certain Poet for her help and insights with this one.

Tracks

Hey, Camel Lady

tracks

In Tracks, based on Robyn Davidson’s memoir, Mia Wasikowska plays an Australian character in Australia.  We’ve certainly come a long way since Mad Max.

Tracks‘s introverted nature makes its achievements that much more profound.  Robyn (Wasikowska) procures several camels, says farewell to her (few) close relations, and sets out on a 1,700 mile trek across West Australia.  She and her dog, Diggity, whom she refers to as the greatest gift given to humans (never mind the fact that we created them through centuries of genetic meddling and inbreeding), make the entire trip on foot, never actually riding the camels.  Before she even begins the journey, Robyn is informed that Rick Smolan (Adam Driver), a National Geographic photographer who probably fits this generation’s definition of “adorkable,” will meet up with her several times in order to satisfy the publication’s interest in her adventure.  Robyn wants to do this alone, but reluctantly agrees to the occasional meetings.

The film achieves a lot in the way of characterization early, not relying on outside knowledge of celebrity to fill in a voidlike silhouette.  Sparse flashbacks hint at the suicide of Robyn’s mother (a real-life event), but Robyn’s thematic voiceover (what’s with filmmakers having Mia Wasikowska do this all the time?) assures us that there’s no highfalutin reason for her journey.  She proves able to tame camels and use a rifle as well as any of the confident males who are paid to do the same, and begins her walk with no one’s help – in fact, the idea of those peppered occasions of human contact with Smolan seem to do the opposite of comforting her.

The film’s story movement remains consistently focused on Robyn’s progress, Robyn’s morale, Robyn’s sun-dried body, and especially Robyn’s mind.  Director John Curran, working from a tight screenplay by Marion Nelson, makes no attempt to contrive outside drama by showing the hype that generates from Robyn’s exploits; it’s all-too-well illustrated in the mobs of tourists who swerve off of desert roads to get a quick glance from the “Camel Lady” (a name Robyn appreciates about as much as Benny Siegel appreciated “Bugsy”).  There are the inevitable beats that may have been retroactively (read: post-real-life-adventure and memoir, pre-finished-screenplay) invented or placed – for example, Robyn is told by an experienced camel-wrangler that if she encounters a feral camel in the wild and hesitates to kill it, she’s toast.  Before she knows it, she’s got a slobbering monster charging her way with nothing but a barely-tested rifle to ensure that this story continues.  Already in possession of a hardened personality, however, Robyn’s actions as she’s faced with these increasingly dire (and sometimes horrific) tests are neither surprising nor synthetic.  Wasikowska carries every moment of the film as naturally as if this were a documentary (a vibe that the filmmakers are undoubtedly reaching for, given this story’s origins and previous forms in media), and the growth of Robyn as a character never feels stage-managed.

It’s difficult not to give a film like this a feminist reading, but it almost hurts to call it a “feminist film,” simply for the reason that it should not be a shock when there’s a story about an independent woman who does something alone because she wants to.  Robyn decides to make this journey alone.  No one makes her.  Furthermore, she actually succeeds at what she sets out to do with little discussion about what biological snafus might prevent her from doing so (apart from having to adhere to native practices regarding this-and-that out in the places where travelers require guides).  She hooks up with Smolan once, and anyone with a basic sex drive can figure out why.  The next morning, when the heart-of-gold Smolan (with all of Adam Driver’s goofy charm) clumsily attempts to attach some strings, Robyn wants none of this chivalry, and on one of those rare occasions in film, the woman is not criticized for rebuffing a dude’s advances or accused of “playing with his feelings.”  As emotionally confused as Smolan might be, he gets it.  So should you.

The film also makes use of actual Australian natives in the roles of themselves, including the significant speaking role of Mr. Eddy (Roly Mintuma), who acts as a part-time guide in accordance with regional tradition.  Here, Curran has dodged yet another Western film trapping: using any old non-white person to play any old non-white ethnicity (for example, Native Americans played by pretty much anyone [including Johnny Depp], actors of various Eastern European descent playing “Arabs,” etc.).  This, combined with on-location shooting and natural characterization/plot movement at the expense of heightened drama, serves to create a work of incredible authenticity.

Tracks will inevitably be compared to (and unfortunately overshadowed by) Oscar Season’s Wild, another one-word-title, female explorer film based in reality, and I will doubtless be comparing them once I get to see it, but here’s my suggestion: let’s not stand them against each other.  Let’s not continue to think of films about brave, indomitable women as novelties, or worse, as a “genre.”  Let’s not read reviews of such films with the intention of only seeing one.  Let’s understand that the intrepid, courageous woman is not a character trope.  She’s reality, and she’s not going away.

Tracks (2014); based on the book by Robyn Davidson; written by Marion Nelson; directed by John Curran; starring Mia Wasikowska.

Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

Frances Ha

O, the places she’ll go

Frances HaGreta Gerwig’s screenwriting career is promising.  Here, in tandem with director Noah Baumbach, she gives us Frances Ha, in which she plays the title character, a young dancer living with her longtime best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  They love each other, but are both straight, and find themselves in sedentary, inert relationships with various boneheads before always coming back to each other.  This little world they’ve created together, illustrated in wonderful opening scenes in which the two share in-jokes, smoke on their porch, and wrestle like children, sees upheaval when Sophie decides to move out.  She’s got a promising job and a dude who wants to marry her.  She’s growing up.  Frances is left with no real friends in New York, and must quickly figure out how to live by herself and/or find new roommates, while also struggling with what to do with her life.  Human problems.

But what follows is not navel-gazing.  Frances embarks upon a quiet journey through the city, first meeting and rooming with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) before having to move out due to a lack of rent money.  She visits her parents, has less-than-pleasant encounters with Sophie, travels to Paris alone for a short weekend, and debates with herself and her incredible patient employer, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) whether to pursue dance on her own or stay with her current company, which will have her working a desk job and teaching children when time allows.  All of this is shot in perfectly rustic black-and-white, and Frances’s exploits are far more engaging than any number of suspense thrillers and monster attacks that have been staged in that very same city.

Frances herself is funny, confident, and gentle, though not stereotypically “vulnerable” as we too often require our female protagonists to be.  At one point, she shares something very important to her: always having someone who knows you so well that when you end up at the same party together, all you have to do is catch each other’s eye, and suddenly you’re both immersed in a world that no one else can understand.  Any characters listening must suspect that Frances is pining for an idealized romance, but those of us who saw the opening shots know what she really means.  The film’s ending, which ties off every thread (almost too nicely, really), is an expert example of how to do “optimistic” filmmaking.

Frances Ha is not very concerned with why things happen.  Each segment of Frances’s life plays like its own short film, and I could have easily watched another two hours of that.  Her big decision, however, is made with little explanation, and we want to know how her penultimate encounter with Sophie inspires her to take a leap that she’s avoided throughout the entire film.  What we have in this film outweighs what we don’t, but in a cool indie film about true-to-life characters with whom we get to spend less than 90 minutes, we shouldn’t have to do too much weighing.

This is what we need more of: minimalism.  Nuanced characters.  Thoughtful dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know if the character speaking is right or wrong.  Fearless language.  Female protagonists who don’t fit into any male-invented archetype.  Male supporting characters who aren’t perverts.  Serious filmmakers telling important stories without first having to sit through ten Hollywood board meetings led by people who don’t watch movies.

Frances Ha (2013); written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach; directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner.