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

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.

Ex Machina

Who ya gonna call?

Aex machinalex Garland’s directorial debut is a very-near-future sci-fi that uses both the “Rebellious AI” formula and a modern retelling of Bluebeard to delicately veil some vital commentary on the male gaze, what happens when women are literally reduced to objects, and the horrifying idea that the most abominable abuses of technology will be perpetrated not by mad scientists or terrorists with world domination on their minds, but by our eccentric billionaire tech moguls when they happen to be bored.

Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) is a lonely schlub doing code work for Bluebook, a facsimile of Google.  He apparently wins a lottery that rewards him with a week at the secluded residence of Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the creator and owner of Bluebook, who is so averse to trespassers and interruptions that even his personal helicopter pilot is only allowed within a mile or two of the complex (when Caleb is dropped off, he is told to “follow the river” to reach Nathan).  All of this happens within a concise minute or two, which makes room for what’s actually important (most of that is in retrospect, but it always feels like it’s moving at the right pace).

Of course, Nathan, who lives entirely alone save for a silent “assistant” named Kyoko (Sonoya Mizuno) and spends most of his time stifling hangovers, has not invited Caleb here just to hang out (although he does treat him like a frat buddy most of the time).  He wastes no time in revealing that he’s already built an artificial intelligence, and that Caleb is here to perform a Turing Test on her – normally, this would involve the tester not knowing whether he was speaking to a computer or a human, but Nathan believes that the real test will be whether Caleb still relates to the AI on a human level after already knowing she’s an android.  A round of testing begins, separating the film into several “sessions,” and Caleb meets Ava (Alicia Vikander), the real protagonist of the story, whose ordeal is only viewable through glass walls and security cameras.  They get to know each other through carefully contrived small talk, but by the third day, Ava is wearing a dress and wig and asking whether Caleb is attracted to her.  Of course he is.  Her face and body were designed by a heterosexual man.  Luckily, Caleb is aware of how preposterous this is.  He confronts Nathan about whether Ava was “programmed” to flirt with him, but Nathan just sees it as exciting proof of Ava’s ability to pass for human.

The film avoids mumble-science and plot holes by having Nathan simply not care to explain to Caleb how Ava’s circuitry works (which seems like one of those “I could tell you, but I’d have to kill you” jokes, but makes much more sense when the layers are peeled back later).  We are, however, taken on a tour (along with Caleb) of Nathan’s laboratory, where we learn that Ava’s brain is a flexible gel, not a bunch of rigid metal parts, giving her the potential to grow.  During the off-hours, Caleb and Nathan drink beer and discuss various uses of Ava’s body, including her sexual abilities, which are apparently as functional as any human’s.  These scenes are meant to be uncomfortable and gross, but imitate that thing a lot of men do: make disgusting talk about a woman’s body when she’s not in the room.  Whether or not that makes you cringe is actually the movie testing you (and I’m guessing there will be a direct correlation between folks who don’t squeam at Nathan’s claim that “Technically speaking, you could screw her” and folks who think this is just another fun android movie).

From the moment Caleb arrives, something seems off.  As the tests go forward, mysteries pile up and unravel, including a series of power cuts in the complex, ostensibly caused by Ava, but it’s a bit odd that Nathan, a scientific genius, doesn’t seem to suspect her (he blames the “power guys” who installed the system).  The power begins cutting off during Caleb and Ava’s conversations, and while the cameras are out, Ava tells Caleb not to trust anything Nathan says.  The stickiest part is that Nathan hasn’t said much of any urgency; in fact, we have no clue what Nathan’s long-term plans for his AI project are.  If Ava passes the test, what then?  The seclusion of the complex has a Kubrik effect on both the film’s camera and music, and on Caleb, who gruesomely harms himself to make sure he isn’t actually a robot.  The two “buddies” clearly suspect the other of some sort of manipulation or foul play, but neither can be sure to what end, and we as audience can’t be entirely sure that Ava hasn’t manipulated the entire situation just so she can get out of that glass room she’s been in for years.  Then there’s Kyoko, that wildcard, who supposedly doesn’t understand English, but performs physical tasks for Nathan at the drop of a hat (cleaning, dancing, and you can guess what else).

Some secrets have to be revealed in order to really talk about this movie, so here goes.  Caleb does legitimately fall for Ava, but although this would allow her to pass the test, he can’t reveal it to Nathan, who plans on dismantling her and creating a new model, as he has done with about a dozen other beautiful female androids who have all shared the same mind; thus, Ava has been stuck in the same glass room for countless years (the footage of the previous “models” trying to escape is truly harrowing; luckily, Ava has learned subtlety through these experiences).  The reason that Nathan feels no need to explain Ava’s construction to Caleb is that Caleb is the test subject: although he is not a robot, he’s experiencing something of a reverse Turing Test – Nathan has instructed Ava to manipulate Caleb into helping her escape, just to see if Caleb will become attached enough to her to actually help.  Success here means that Ava has true human emotion.  Still no word on what Nathan plans to do with the AI next, but Caleb is disgusted at Nathan’s treatment of the older androids and feels personally betrayed by him as well.  Ava, however, does want to escape and has manipulated Caleb, as much as Caleb might think himself a genius for arranging a snafu in the complex’s security protocols.  Nathan warns Caleb that Ava doesn’t really love him, but it’s a bit late for regret now.

The endgame, in which we’re treated to the characters’ attempts to puzzle out who has more successfully manipulated whom as we try to do the same, is not only tense, but truly means something because of how well we know everyone.  Oscar Isaac (a.k.a. Isaac the Incomparable) plays Nathan as a genius billionaire who acts like a frat boy, not like Bruce Wayne, and for all of his latent brutality, he still reminds you of your bratty brother: spoiled, deserving of severe punishment, but so fucking amiable that you can’t imagine being the one to pass the sentence (luckily, we have a certain android to sort that out). Domhnall Gleeson plays Caleb as the nerdy would-be hero of any other story like this: the scrawny everyman, ignored by women, who gets a big opportunity, uncovers corruption, and restores society’s moral compass after finally achieving his well-deserved true love.  But guess what?  He’s actually just as bad as Nathan, in all his Bluebeardedness.  Being ignored by women doesn’t make him a lovable loner; it makes him desperate and opportunistic: when he finally encounters Ava, an android woman who not only possesses human emotion and a sex drive, but whose very face is an amalgam of Caleb’s most frequently watched porn actresses, he can’t wait to bust her out of that glass room – not because of the unspeakable wrongness of her situation, but because of the promise of sex.  One of the many things the film does successfully – more successfully, maybe, than any film I’ve seen – is to subtly illustrate different types of evil and where they come from.  And I don’t mean Dark Lords and Talking Killers and expository psychosis; I mean real evil, the kind that actually exists in people who don’t consider themselves the least bit wrong.

Finally, there’s Ava, who has so thoroughly passed her “tests” before the story even begins that she is able to conceal her true feelings (and as we later find out, her plans).  Alicia Vikander plays her as what she is: an android, but also a person, and her inner conflict is perhaps even more difficult than that of the “real” humans because her past, her emotions, and her desires have all been programmed into a glob of complicated Jell-O that acts as her brain.  Like a human, however, she is able to grow, and that includes experiencing things like love and happiness, but also deceit, manipulation, and cruelty – all those things we employ in the name of desire.

Ex Machina (2015); written and directed by Alex Garland; starring Alicia Vikander, Oscar Isaac, and Domhnall Gleeson.

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.

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.

The Bourne Legacy

Nobody makes it over the mountain

The Bourne Legacy is a better film than the trailers may let on.  In fact, it’s a good deal better than either Supremacy or Ultimatum,wherein Matt Damon ran from one obscure European locale to another to escape something, presumably the contrived writing that resulted in the unforgivable demise of his romantic partner (Franka Potente) after the sweet and satisfying ending of the original film (which, for the record, also resulted in Damon claiming there wouldn’t be another Bourne film – just sayin’) as well as the inexplicable casting of Karl Urban as a Russian killing machine whom Bourne can’t bring himself to finish off even to avenge his girlfriend, adopting an attitude not so different from Bruce Wayne’s in The Dark Knight Rises, which materializes over and over again in the tiring finale of the trilogy.  Things went differently than I’d anticipated this time.

Legacy‘s Boring Hero is Aaron Cross (Jeremy Renner), one of the nine super-soldiers in the same program as Bourne – Blackbriar, Treadstone, Outcome, one of those.  There’s a lot of nonsensical jargon between the CIA characters, present only to make the film seem heady and important, but since this is a summer blockbuster, it can’t be too overbearing and the audience’s understanding of every detail doesn’t much matter (including memories of the original trilogy, since Damon’s character is only mentioned twice and wasn’t acquainted with Cross).  The film begins with Cross climbing over a snow-scalped mountain and attempting to survive travel through a winter-bitten forest while a pack of wolves follows him; his reasons for being in the wild are never completely explained, but he soon meets a character credited as Number Three, played by Oscar Isaac, probably pound-for-pound the film’s best actor despite being even more underused than he was in Refn’s Drive from last year.  Number Three is an operative also in the program, and Cross, who has lost his supply of the medicine on which his kind depend for physical ability and mental clarity, seeks help.  Unbeknownst to either of them, however, the CIA has decided to shut down its black ops programs after the Jason Bourne debacle, and begins eliminating its field agents one by one by way of a dubious operation led by Eric Byer (Edward Norton).  This is Aaron Cross’s cue to continue Bourne’s tradition of running away from stuff for two hours.

But wait.  The film stars an effective deuteragonist named Marta Shearing (Rachel Weisz), a doctor who researches and administers the program’s meds without any knowledge of what her subjects (people like Bourne and Cross) actually do.  Unfortunately, part of the CIA’s initiative is to eliminate doctors like Shearing along with the agents they medicate, and one of her coworkers, Dr. Foite (Zeljko Ivanek, to whom I frequently refer as “The Canadian” after his In Bruges character), goes berserk (likely under the CIA’s orders) and executes everyone in the lab in an effectively harrowing display of violence.  After a great scene in which a CIA “psychiatrist” comes to Shearing’s house to finish the job, Shearing meets up with Cross and they travel to the manufacturer of the program’s meds (arbitrarily located in the Philippines), where Shearing will be able to relieve Cross of his drug dependency for good.

To the film’s detriment is the juxtaposition between fake-brainy dialogue and pure spoken exposition.  When a character we’ve never seen before panics about the situation, another answers, “You’re the Director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.  Act like it!”  These scenes are wedged between the important ones, which feature the thinly-developed relationship between Cross and Shearing, saved by Weisz’s superb dramatic acting and Renner’s occasional attempts to appear as though he gives a damn.  Everything in between is overwritten and the numerous CIA characters wear out their welcome and usefulness very early on, and putting the effort into keeping track of who they are results in very little payoff (personally, I couldn’t shake how much one of them looked like Rush Limbaugh).  There are confusing jump-cuts during fight scenes (such that which arms and legs belong to whom becomes a bit of a mystery) and the shaky-cam technique is consistent with the most dizzying cinematography from the originals.

But wait!  The movie uses supporting characters (aside from Isaac) well, and the colorful queue of assassins who comes after Cross and Shearing brings back pleasant memories of The Bourne Identity, wherein a pre-stardom Clive Owen played a ruthless killer called The Professor, who has become a fan favorite of the series.  The denouement includes a tender (but non-romantic) scene between Cross and Shearing in which Cross becomes a protagonist we can actually root for, and the extended chase climax with Cross’s final foil, an operative from a rival program called LARX (Louis Ozawa Changchien) is thoroughly exciting and has an ending perfect enough that I forgave the more preposterous motorcycle antics.

The Bourne Legacy serves the same purpose as the fourth Pirates of the Carribbean film did: a final breath/second wind for a franchise bloated by Hollywood execs and studio overwriting.  This is a rare case, though, in which the breath is actually satisfying.  Renner’s character is less boring and loud and confused than Damon’s, and a tough, intelligent woman participates in the action (not to mention saves Cross’s life multiple times).  Ed Norton’s one-note government villain wouldn’t be worth mentioning if it weren’t for his own versatility as an actor: look at his performance as the lovely, sympathetic scout leader in Wes Anderson’s Moonrise Kingdom, also from this summer’s lineup.

The film has a definite ending.  Our heroes are safe, Cross seems to stop thinking long enough to relax, and the credits roll over a refreshing shot of a sparkling harbor.  The final scene offers a sequel possibility, but it doesn’t much feel like it wants or needs one.  As the true spiritual successor of the first Bourne film, Legacy truly feels like a bookend; any more and you’re just spilling ink on the back cover.

The Bourne Legacy (2012); written and directed by Tony Gilroy; inspired by Robert Ludlum’s novels; starring Jeremy Renner, Rachel Wiesz, and Edward Norton.

Robin Hood (2010)

A pox on the phony King of England

Yes, it’s been a long time since the Disney version of Robin Hood, which I still maintain to be one of the best adaptations.  It had all that clever and witty fun that has come to be associated with folk tales of the type, and most of all, it was okay for the little ones.  No deaths, no innuendo (just mild talk about “kissing”), etc.  Then we had Mel Brooks’ Robin Hood: Men in Tights, a brilliantly farcical satire on the story (“Locksley and Bagel: can’t miss!”).  Not quite as innocent, but all sorts of fun just the same.

Ridley Scott’s new film, originally titled Nottingham, has got to be the best “serious” adaptation of Robin Hood since Errol Flynn first drew the bow.  It’s mature and gritty, but retains that wit and charm we’ve all come to associate with the story.  It’s also the most violent of the lot – the MPAA’s rating is PG-13, but I suspect that someone got fooled at the last second.  People get shot through the neck, stabbed in the back, drowned, crushed between the bows of French sailing ships, and dragged through the woods by horses.  There isn’t excessive bloodspray, but I’d probably have the old “movies aren’t real” chat with the kids if all they’ve seen is the Disney version and they’re begging you to see this one.

The story is a re-imagining, much like the earlier discussed Alice in Wonderland.  This is intended to be a prequel of sorts to what becomes the Robin Hood legend.  We see how he meets Marian (according to Ridley Scott, anyway) and how he comes to be such good pals with his merry men, as well as the solidification of his outlaw status – I’m sure everyone has seen the epic wailing of Oscar Isaac in the trailer by now.  If not, I commend you for how little television you watch.

The film itself is something to behold.  The set-pieces are incredible, and the wide shots really illustrate the work that went into recreating 12th century England.  From the nighttime scuffles in Sherwood forest to the legions of loyal Englishmen percolating out from the high bluffs as King Philip looks on in terror, it’s all real when you’re in the theater.  Never did I once scoff at the CG; if there is heavy use of computer imagery in this film, I was too immersed to notice.

The cast is an excellent ensemble.  Oscar Isaac dominates his scenes as the bratty (yet knowledgeable and calculating) King John.  Mark Strong plays the main villain for the third time in a row as the treasonous Sir Godfrey, a character completely made up for the film, and he does it with complete professionalism.  Though most of his dialogue is standard “villain” and we never get to know Godfrey as a person, Strong avoids playing it “arch,” which is refreshing.  He got to do more in films like Guy Ritchie’s fantastic RocknRolla, last year’s Body of Lies and the recent Sherlock Holmes, but perhaps this film will bring him to a wider audience.  Also in this film is the amazing Cate Blanchett, who plays Marian as a down-to-earth widow rather than a lovestruck girl, and she surely doesn’t need any compliments from me that haven’t already been said.  Kevin Durand plays Little John, the first good-guy role I can recall him ever playing, and he does it with style.  This is his second film with Russell Crowe, the first being the remake of 3:10 To Yuma in which he had a bit part, and in this one he actually gets to spend a good amount of time acting with Crowe.  I hope this role helps break him out of being typecast as a bad guy, which after his definitive evil role as Martin Keamy on ABC’s Lost (which will almost inevitably be the “Mr. Blonde” of Durand’s career) makes this seem like an impossibility. Friar Tuck: Why do they call you Little John? Little John: What exactly are ye gettin’ at? The film also features Alan Doyle, frontman of Celtic band Great Big Sea, in the role of minstrel Allan O’Dayle.  Another truly inspired piece of casting on Scott/Crowe’s part, and it’s magic to see such talented people working together.  A bearded and scruffy-haired William Hurt also makes an appearance in a very nice role as William Marshal, the 1st Earl of Penbroke, who battles with words, and his scenes with Isaac and Strong are terrific.  Matt Macfayden appears as the Sheriff of Nottingham, who turns out to be the comic relief of the film, which is an interesting twist (and a more accurate one – sorry Kevin Costner).  The immortal Max von Sydow also appears, this time as the blind Walter Locksley, who becomes something like a father to Robin as the story goes on and makes you want to give him a big hug every time he’s on screen.

Crowe himself plays Robin as what I like to call the “boring hero.”  That is to say, a protagonist whose only aim is to advance the plot.  Despite being surrounded by wonderful characters, the boring hero has to do what the screenplay decrees.  To his credit, Crowe does his best to break his character out of this mold, although there are scenes where his eyes seem to glaze over and he just says “Fine, I’ll do it, even though it defies all logic.”  For examples of the boring hero, see any movie Sam Worthington has ever starred in, or any American film with Jason Statham.

Scott makes great use of his characters.  No one seems to just be added for the hell of it.  Everyone you see has something to do that couldn’t have happened without them.  Even King John’s trophy wife, Isabella (played by the gorgeous Léa Seydoux) has something to do besides sit next to Isaac and look nice.  She is charged with informing John that his best friend is a traitor: one of the most important moves anyone makes in the film, and the resulting scene between them burns with passion and skill.

The film contains a lot of Russell Crowe gliding past the camera on horseback, whether in slow motion or otherwise, with his mouth hanging open.  I lost count around ten.  It’s always good to see, as Crowe is incredible and Scott knows his massive battle pieces, though I wonder if Scott thought, “How many angles can I shoot this from?”  The film also contains several bald villains, including Strong, who seems to collect head injuries as the film goes on.  Why do the bald have to be portrayed as such slimeballs?  I wonder if there is some sort of statistic about this.

Robin Hood (2010); written by Brian Helgeland; directed by Ridley Scott; starring Russell Crowe, Cate Blanchett, Mark Strong and Oscar Isaac.