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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Wild

You’re a woman!

WildWild, based upon Cheryl Strayed’s memoir, has all the makings of 1) a heroic self-acceptance tale, and 2) an Oscar-winning film.  In the first five minutes, we get gruesome suspense, body horror, Reese Witherspoon topless, endearing humor, and lots of cussing.  It’s the type of underdog story that the Academy loves, but it’s riskier and more dangerous than any of the year’s contenders because not only does it have a female hero, but it makes no effort to portray her as a synthetic ingénue whose purity cannot be pierced.  Here, we have a three-dimensional, decision-making person with recognizable foibles, which is to say a real person.  I suppose it helps that she is a real person.

Cheryl, played by Witherspoon, walks away from scrambled memories of divorce, drug use, destructive sexual escapades, and the loss of her mother (Laura Dern) to hike a thousand miles on the Pacific Crest Trail.  It’s clear from the start that she has not trained for this: she does not pack enough food, carries plenty of supplies she doesn’t need (which causes fellow hikers to refer to her pack as “monster”) has no clue how to ignite her camping stove, and her tent is far too large (which is probably a filmmaking flub, not a commentary on Cheryl as a greenhorn).  Gradually, events are revealed as they happened, and Cheryl’s perilous journey becomes a quest not to “redeem” herself for acting out (as Strayed has put it herself on plenty of occasions), but to come to terms with her experiences, and hopefully, to move forward.

Unlike Tracks with Mia Wasikowska earlier this year, Wild is more about Cheryl’s reasons for making the trek than the trek itself.  There is not much “hiking” to speak of in the film – there’s some walking up hills, some climbing over rocks, some ambling through the expected assortment of wilderness tile-sets (green forest, hot expanse of sand, snowy plains, and even rundown suburban road), but the film gives us the Hollywood version of the hike, and the one that appeals to this generation of filmgoers: the version that doesn’t take up much time or get bogged down in actual details.  Instead, the home drama drives the film toward its goal while the hike serves as the parable/myth: Chery’s feet are bruised, then bloodied, then broken, then stripped of boots (protection), then repaired by hand with Cheryl’s resourcefulness and improvisation, and then finally, last we see them, they’re in brand new boots.  She displays her foot injuries to other hikers to show how far she’s come.  There are animals and children deliberately placed to evoke certain somethings in an audience (and I say “deliberately placed” as in the filmmakers using elements of Strayed’s real-life narrative to cleverly, albeit sometimes predictably, perpetuate its own themes). There’s even a symbolic fox whom Cheryl initially begs to “come back” and is eventually able to let go.

The film’s core emotion is fear.  In the broad sense, it’s the fear of not succeeding, that Cheryl’s journey will yield nothing but hunger and exhaustion.  Cheryl’s biggest threat in the wilderness is not wild animals (in fact, she barely meets any, other than a spooked rattlesnake, a caterpillar, a horse, and a domesticated alpaca), but the men she comes into contact with.  There is a clever mislead early on when a farmer (W. Earl Brown) promises to give her a ride, then says he’s bringing her back to his place for dinner and a hot shower, just after Cheryl finds a pistol in his truck.  When they arrive, the man’s wife is home, having prepared a meal, and while the man has some antiquated ideas about what women should be “allowed” to do, his intentions are completely benevolent.  This scene isn’t just a good mislead; it plants a seed that stays with us: throughout the rest of the film, we’re just waiting for an aggressive pervert to show up and antagonize Cheryl for real. This happens in the form of two hunters who amuse themselves by directing rape jokes at Cheryl and later making very real threats (which one of them considers to be harmless flattery), and Cheryl stands her ground.  It’s a vital scene because it forces the audience, regardless of gender, to inhabit the receiving end of the dangerous “Can’t a guy give a woman a compliment?” attitude/behavior that threatens and victimizes so many in our current culture.

Wild‘s feminism is evident in its premise alone, just as it was in Tracks: a woman leaves it all behind to find herself in the wilderness, and survives conditions that would have made Hemingway shudder (as would the assertion that roughing it in the bush could be anything other than a “manly” pursuit).  In fact, a male hiker Cheryl befriends (Kevin Rankin) quits the trek after mentioning how rigorously he trained for it.  Cheryl is already an activist and an avid reader, but the idea of feminism is continuously denormalized, particularly in a scene wherein a traveling journalist (Mo McRae) mistakes Cheryl for a hobo and mentions that there are “almost no female hobos,” treating Cheryl, along with her ideas about the responsibilities heaped upon women vs. the fact that very few women are reckless adventurers, as novelties.  Later, a group of young male hikers refer to Cheryl as their hero.  These incidents (and the fact that they’re not just movie fabrications) make Cheryl’s eventual triumph all the more gratifying.

I’m tempted to mention that Robyn Davidson’s completely-on-foot journey across Australia involved no home-cooked meals, bus rides, or prolonged human contact (not to mention being deep-fried by the sun), but these films really should not be stacked against each other.  Both stories deal with big decisions, solitude, and identity.  Both involve lost parents and the execution of a beloved pet, and the hardships that come with those for emotional, thinking people.  Robyn and Cheryl are both incredible role models and vital figures in his/herstory, and these films are continuing (and more importantly, helping to normalize) the tradition of the empowered, independent female hero, and of depicting this character as a person, not an archetype, something that the Brontës had to hide their identities to do, and that Kate Chopin’s work was ostracized for.  Things that matter: you’re not gonna get them from Clint Eastwood.

Wild (2014); based on the memoir by Cheryl Strayed; screenplay by Nick Hornby; directed by Jean-Marc Vallée; starring Reese Witherspoon and Laura Dern.

The Master

Your biggest hint: the paint thinner

The Master, Paul Thomas Anderson’s widely acclaimed new drama, is actually not so much a film as it is a series of well-acted scenes that could all be from different Oscar-grade movies.  The story is nonexistent, none of the details matter, and the characters never grow, change, or reveal very much about themselves.

The action centers around Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), a World War II veteran with a drinking problem, no direction, and evidently severe PTSD.  After losing several jobs due to drunken assaults and other bad behavior, Freddie becomes a drifter and happens upon the ship of Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), founder and self-proclaimed Master of a cult-like following known only as the Cause – whether or not this is an allegory for Scientology is a question best posed to those who follow the latter.  Dodd, enjoying Freddie’s homemade drinks (which include paint thinner), allows him to stay onboard and become a member of the Cause .  In one of the film’s best scenes, which goes on for something close to ten minutes, Dodd makes Freddie participate in an exercise known as Processing, in which Freddie must reveal terribly personal secrets about himself while not blinking his eyes.  Though Freddie passes these tests, the other members of the cause, most notably Lancaster’s wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), are apprehensive about Freddie’s usefulness to the movement, as well as fearful of his unpredictable, violent behavior.  Peggy, the effective second-in-command of the Cause, tells Freddie he must quit “boozing” if he’s going to stay with the group, and he accepts this ultimatum without intention of actually quitting.  Eventually, one of Dodd’s sons (Jesse Plemons) passively remarks that his father is a fraud and improvising the tenants of his religion.  Freddie, though, defends Dodd’s honor and assaults anyone who speaks against him, including police, who arrest Dodd for practicing medicine without a license.  Freddie reveals that he abandoned his sweetheart when he left for war, and pines for her.

Why does Freddie hang around the Cause?  Does he really believe in it?  These important questions are never explored.  The entire first half hour of the movie could be cut, because all of the information given is revealed later – Freddie is angry, Freddie is drunk, Freddie is sexually starved – a lesson I often give to fiction students about where a story actually begins.  Many of the scenes are populated with very long shots, which I normally love for various reasons specific to the films that make use of them, but here, they seem not only obligatory, but indulgent.  Why is this film over two hours?  A question I’m sure the several folks who walked out during our showing also had.

Phoenix and Hoffman deliver two of the best male performances of the year, as well as two of the best performances of their respective careers.  These characters are fun to watch together, but despite the film’s dubious marketing, their interactions never amount to the buddy-story we really want.  Phoenix’s Freddie is sad, pathetic, and sympathetic when the film needs him to be, and Hoffman carries Dodd with all of the declamatory hubris we might associate with folks like L. Ron Hubbard.  The issue, however, is movement: the film remains constantly locked in place.  Here’s a scene where Dodd gives Freddie a test.  Here’s a scene where Freddie completes the test.  There is no scene before, in between, or after that gives the slightest inkling about what Freddie was supposed to learn during the test, whether he learned it, whether he believes he learned anything, nor whether either man truly believed the test was necessary.

Does Dodd even believe in the Cause, or is he a pure charlatan?  This would be an incredibly vital question in the story this film claims to tell, but only in two points is it touched on: in the above scene with Dodd’s son, and a later scene in which a Cause member (Laura Dern) politely points out a contradiction in Dodd’s work.  The situation is never explored further, nor does the Cause suffer for it; in fact, Dodd is able to open a “school” in England once his second book becomes a success.  You may be thinking, okay, the film is making a point about charlatans and frauds getting away with lies and deceit.  No – that’s Arbitrage, a film with a coherent structure and several clear goals.  I’ve heard The Master praised as “deliberately misshapen.”  No – you’re thinking of Quentin Tarantino’s films, which, even with their heavy stylization and non-chronological narratives, still have a defined structure and a story arc.  The Master plays like two hours and fifteen minutes’ worth of short films featuring the same three characters.  This isn’t Anderson’s first swing of the bat, of course – he received an Oscar nomination for There Will Be Blood, another very long and indulgent film with a hubristic male lead, but that was a film containing only one story and an effective (if nonsensical) ending.  Here, Anderson delivers another movie smeared with Oscar gloss, but nothing underneath.

The Master also falls into an old trap: as male filmmakers get older, the women in their films get younger and more naked.  I could not have counted the breasts in this movie if I’d tried.  A wonderful scene featuring Hoffman singing an old roving song is blindsided when Freddie imagines every woman in the room naked – for several minutes of screen time.  The women are dancing, bouncing, and playing instruments, so this leads to some very deliberate imagery.  Scenes like this, along with the fact that the one principle female character – Peggy – is always seen with a child (either in her arms or in her belly) gives the film that sexist tang every male film critic (who, by the way, are the only ones giving this film the astounding praise it’s received) is quick to give a pass if the overall film and performance quality are on the up and up – a dangerous pattern that helps perpetuate a cycle of anti-feminism consistently dismissed as innocuous if the filmmaker claims to be doing a “period piece.”

Here’s a lesson in avoiding indulgent storytelling: if your own work is getting you hard, you have revising to do.

The Master (2012); written and directed by Paul Thomas Anderson; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and Amy Adams.

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