Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019): An Adequate Force Awakens Sequel

Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_poster.jpgYou might say I turned up to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker out of respect for the dead. Because we’ve lost many of our beloved figures. Han. Luke. Carrie Fisher. Peter Mayhew. Kenny Baker. You get the idea. And from the rumblings I couldn’t avoid hearing, it felt like Star Wars might be dead on arrival too.

After seeing the final installment of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, my reaction is hardly so dramatic, and you can judge whether that is a good or bad portent. In many ways, it succumbed to all the fears a myriad of voices had shouted out in years gone by. In others regards, it still managed to be entertaining, albeit with a host of caveats.

There’s a nagging conflict inside of me not unlike the dark or the light side of the force — this tug-of-war between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I want to enjoy Skywalker for all its delights and at the same time, it does feel like a bit of an out of body experience.

Because I look at this film, and it zooms by. There’s plenty of spectacle, likability, and adorableness to get us in the seats; it’s so easy to pass over the lapses (as it is with just about anything when its played against John Williams’ magnum opus).

Highlights include the return of Lando (Billy Dee Williams), another cameo worthy of a buzz of adulation. In this episode, C3PO (Anthony Daniels) has more license to jabber on (though R2D2, yet again, feels decidedly less important). There’s also a particularly hallowed place for Carrie Fisher within the film acting as a nice tribute.

The relationship between Rey and Keylo remains the most dynamic and intriguing element, carrying itself through the series as they maintain their intimate connection through the Force.

Daisy Ridley was positioned as the heartbeat of the franchise, and she more than proves her mettle navigating the last leg of the journey with an earnest conviction. Adam Driver is her near equal. Not perfect, but there’s something not entirely phoned in about him, an issue Poe (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) sometimes fall prey to. Invariably, Rey and Keylo have it out in a turbulent lightsaber duel recalling some of the epic glories of old.

However, now that the third and final trilogy is done, it does feel a bit haphazard, like it was dashed off without giving immense thought to how all the pieces fit together. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels all but cast aside, her place filled by two new strong female characters (Keri Russell and Naomie Acker) not without their charms, but really it’s too little too late. One questions why they showed up now and not in The Force Awakens.

A continuous trail of blatant MacGuffins and exposition along with a deus ex machina in the form of a giant convoy stuff the story end-to-end. To that point, the finale feels drawn out in a cavernous throne room high on mind-numbing spectacle but somehow empty of the genuine conflict I felt when Luke faced Darth Vader or when father saved son.

Did it all feel like a lie after what Rian Johnson’s film had suggested? Was it like a last-minute patch job to bring Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) back for an ending that looked eerily familiar, simply drawn out on a bloated scale? Somehow bigger explosions and darker interiors didn’t help the film’s case. It’s like anything. Bigger isn’t always better. Excess can make it lose its significance.

Because while Star Wars was always a broad galaxy, it remained grounded through characters and very personal stories we could relate to about family and friends. And whether it was entirely true or not, it always felt like George Lucas was some kind of marionette master who had at least an inkling of a plan for his world.

With Disney’s trilogy, we have been left wondering and as a result, there’s been a general lack of cohesion, which has been aggravated the further we’ve gone into this revamped franchise. Abrams feels like he’s making a sequel to The Force Awakens and thus if Rian Johnson’s movie didn’t exist, it might mesh better. But The Last Jedi does exist as is, and it deserved a finale worthy of the questions it dared to ask.

I’ll do something I’ve never done before by quoting myself from an earlier review. Because with The Last Jedi I said all of  Rian Johnson’s breaks with tradition would be worth it if the subsequent film could stick its landing:

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions.

The Rise of Skywalker falls back on what is, for the most part,  familiar. This partially comes down to giving J.J. Abrams the impossible task. Instead of saying this is the end of one trilogy, it’s implied this is supposed to be the thrilling summation of eight other films spanning over 42 years. That’s like catching force lightning in a thimble. Of course, he’s not going to be able to pull it off.

I very rarely cast dispersions on anyone, but I think it’s safe to direct our ire toward Disney if there is any blame to be had. Time has reminded us over and over again, Disney was more invested in their lucrative commercial investment than giving us the best story they could.

Marvel was the initial template, and we’ve seen films of wildly uneven quality with the worst functioning as soulless potboilers made to order on schedule. Star Wars is too dear for me to riddle it with such criticisms. It’s a fault and a bias to be sure, but I will say, out of any of the Star Wars films, Skywalker comes the closest to what I feared. I remember vividly my reactions to Rogue One in 2016, a film I modestly enjoyed for exploring New Hope nostalgia:

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates…

Even as Rian Johnson boldly ran roughshod over Star Wars lore, it feels as if this final film has done it a major disservice by falling back on the status quo. It goes beyond plot points for me. The writing off of Snoke is easy enough, even the clarification on Rey’s parentage (Obi-Wan pulled a similar trick on Luke if you remember).

But it’s the fact that none of this film’s digressions carry more than an ounce of surprise or what we might term movie magic. There’s nothing to take our breath away or make the hair stand on end. Everything it has in terms of charm and charisma is pent up inside those characters — those protocol and astromech droids, that wookie, etc. — and I do love them as much as anyone else.

Still, I was ill at ease trying to appreciate the moments we’ve been granted and feeling, simultaneously, they’re not quite right. We deserved something better from Disney who has served us up a Ghost of Star Wars Past.

President Lyndon B. Johson famously said something to the effect that when he lost Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam issue, he had lost public opinion. There’s a related point here somewhere, and here it is.

While my older brother’s not quite Walter Cronkite, I consider him one of the most thoughtful, well-versed Star Wars fans out there. He pored over the books, played the card games, collected the collectibles, and will no doubt remain a resolute Star Wars fan for years.

However, his reaction to this latest film was lukewarm at best. If I didn’t make it clear already, he loves Star Wars. In my little pocket of the world and the manner in which I perceive this galaxy as a very real and personal entity we cherished, it feels like someone has lost.

If not the Rebels, or Disney (who will rake in more money than ever), then it’s the fans who had such a profound affection for this franchise they wanted something more than a purely wish-fulfilling imitation. It felt so close yet so far from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The movie emphatically proclaims “The Dead Speak!” Sometimes it’s best to let them rest in peace. Something I’m not sure Disney understands or is willing to do.

3.5/5 Stars

Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody needs me too much.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
– Being Alive

Logan Lucky (2017)

Logan_Lucky.png

On a surface level, Logan Lucky is diverting for the basic fact that it proves to be the utter antithesis of Steven Soderbergh’s Ocean films as far as heist pictures go. As one savvy newscaster notes within the film, it’s Oceans Seven-Eleven, if you will.

Sure, the novelty of a red-neck heist is probably enough to get us started but the execution and the characters of interest make it far more than a run-of-the-mill endeavor.

What’s evident is that there’s a quirky down-home absurdity to seeing these country bumpkin types filled by actors like Channing Tatum, Adam Driver, and especially Daniel Craig. Adam Driver’s not necessarily a classically handsome performer but he’s even more unique armed with a fake appendage and a fairly free and easy personality.

Tatum likewise is a miner saddled with a hard hat and a limp of his own. He’s a fairly sorry individual who gets laid off from work and has been estranged from his former wife for some time. The glory days as a high school quarterback with NFL aspirations didn’t really pan out. Still, he loves his daughter, loves himself some John Denver, and cares about his family. We can buy into liking such a figure.

Because even in their less than perfect life, an everyday dignity is attributed to both Logan brothers that feels relatable in human terms.  Even with these characterizations and as breezy as the scenario might seem at times, there’s still a kernel of truth buried under it all.

After being equated with Bond for so many years, there’s also this underlying sense that Craig relishes this opportunity to play such a weirdo as Joe Bang, a prison inmate with a penchant for salted eggs. His southern twang and bleached hair mask Craig’s usual British sentiments while his rap sheet leaves little doubt that he’s the man to help pull off the job, supremely capable of concocting homemade bombs out of gummy bears, salt substitutes, and bleach wrapped in a plastic bag.

Of course, the only problem is that he’s still in prison. Nothing for it but to break him out. Clyde gets himself sent to prison and starts their plan in motion. He and Joe orchestrate the perfect escape while the inmates cover for them by instigating a riot.

Meanwhile, on the outside, Jimmy gathers the talents of his sister Mellie behind the wheel (Riley Keough) and Bang’s two cockeyed yet surprisingly competent brothers (Brian Gleeson and Jack Quaid) to bring all the pieces together in a remarkably efficient operation organized on meager means.

However, somehow, through it all, there manages to be that continued dose of humanity on display and an uncertain amount of depth to our everyday antiheroes. Look no further than the former flame and physician assistant that Jimmy sends a donation to or his joy in seeing his little girl go off script and sing his favorite song at her beauty pageant. You aren’t going to find those scenes in Oceans Eleven (2001) or Baby Driver (2017) for that matter.

But the payoff is the kind of double-take ending that makes us rethink the events we have witnessed, suggesting that things are not always as they appear. Still more satisfying than any of that is that Jimmy still has his family and there’s this sense of closure to it all. We can sit back with a smile on our face and really take a moment to appreciate all that has transpired. No better place to end up than the old watering hole Duck Tape. Classic.

One of the film’s major pluses is the number of characters who just randomly seem to pop up within its frames. Foremost among them is Hilary Swank as a government investigator, an almost unrecognizable Seth Macfarlane as a batty racing promoter, and Sebastian Stan as his health-conscious driver. Fans of The Office and Parks and Recreation will also see a couple strangely familiar faces.

By my own admission, I have never considered Steven Soderbergh in the upper echelon of filmmakers but there’s no disputing his station as a skilled craftsman and Logan Lucky proves once more that he knows how to assemble efficient entertainment of quality and levity. Expect both in this much-appreciated riff off your typical sleek heist confections.

It’s perfectly fit for laid-back blue-collar, NASCAR-cheering, John Denver-loving Americans.  The kind of people who know full well that some days are diamonds and some days are stone. Logan Lucky is a crime film carrying that kind of sentiment.

3.5/5 Star

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpg“Let the past die.”  – Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

I left the theater feeling completely taciturn. It’s an onerous task to begin articulating all the jumbled fragments circulating through my mind but I will try my very best.  Certainly, there is a great deal to be enjoyed and to be relished about Episode VIII and you would be served well to go into The Last Jedi not searching out its faults but reveling in the successes that are there. Let it be known that there are many and Rian Johnson is a fine maker of movies as he guides us through the Resistance’s latest evasion of The First Order still up to their old business of quashing anyone who dares defy them.

True, I did not necessarily find it a narrative of revelatory reveals or epic showdowns in the vein of what I initially envisioned. However, I can see the picture separating itself from all of its predecessors — subverting the norm and drawing away from all that we knew before. That gels with much of what was said in the wake of The Force Awakens. It could not simply be another Empire Strikes Back if the new franchise was to flourish. In that regard, there’s no doubt Johnson’s film is an undisputed success building on the character arcs instigated in J.J. Abrams’ effort.

Yet my feelings are somehow conflicted.  Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) call to action to Rey (Daisy Ridley) midway through was never more pointed. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And that’s much of what has been done here. Not simply in a single film or to the Jedi order or the legacy of a character but in some respects to an entire franchise.

I am realizing that though I cherish Star Wars as my own, the many aspirations and fantasies of my childhood, it is a communal narrative. It might seem odd to get so thoroughly introspective but I can’t help it. Star Wars is almost inbred into my DNA.

Watching this film might topple the white knights. For one, the Jedi order as we know it. They lose much of their mythical stature that they always evoked. We already lost Han Solo and it’s little surprise that Luke and Leia (with Carrie Fisher’s passing) will most likely not be returning either. The old guard has been all but removed from their posts (with the exception of R2, C3PO, and Chewbacca though Anthony Daniels is the only other returning core cast member).

But it’s no surprise that I often savor the past — the way things used to be. That’s part of what made The Force Awakens such an enjoyable ride. There was an innate sense that this was something new, yes, but it was also squarely centered on the glories of the original trilogy. If I said it once I said it a thousand times, it was like returning to the company of old friends.

Now the old is gone and don’t get me wrong the new additions were greatly appreciated. Once more Rey (Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Issac) are indubitably winning personalities and fine action heroes. It’s easy to become immersed in their individual journeys along with the newcomers such as Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). However, that doesn’t take away my wistfulness at the conclusion of The Last Jedi.

It wasn’t even the kind of bittersweet conclusion we saw in earlier installments either but a plaintive ending without a giant climax. Harrison Ford received a venerable though tragic send off. His contemporaries not so much. There is still hope and events have been prolonged for Episode IX but not in some monumental cliffhanger fashion.

Whenever I take in a new film I am also constantly filtering it through the reference points that I already know. Obviously, Star Wars has such a vast lineage that must be sorted through but this latest film also can be read through various other archetypes. It strikes me that Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero I always aspired to emulate, was like Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man — waiting in the wings until he finally stepped out of the shadows.

Though I enjoyed that moment and the pure rush of adrenaline when he came back to the fore, expectations do not always correlate with reality.  Although we get to see Luke Skywalker and there are some enjoyable moments, the best of them come as all too brief reunions with his faithful astromech pal and his sister followed by a showdown with his main adversary — The nephew who turned to the Dark Side — again it was this wistful sense of an anticlimax.

We see in Luke what Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) once was at least in a visual sense. A hermit who has removed himself from society. Cloaked, bearded, and detached. But whereas Old Ben was a wise, eccentric, and even a fatherly wizard, Luke has become a world-wearied, surly misanthrope. A far cry from the man we dreamed about.

The reverberations of the past echo down in other ways too from the inciting distress signal from his sister that started him off on this cinematic adventure all those many years before and then a visitation from a furry friend.

Likewise, the final showdown is somehow more reminiscent to the archetypal lightsaber battle of A New Hope than all the fanciful epic showdowns we imagined of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker tackling every conceivable villain with his green lightsaber. The old man’s words even mirror the final lines of his late mentor (Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father).

Even briefly with lightsaber in hand facing down the greatest forces in the universe as we always thought possible in our mind’s eye, there’s a momentary catharsis. Though the full satisfaction of the moment is stripped from us. Luke is not quite how we remembered him, nay, maybe not even the same man Mark Hamill embodied all those years ago.

It does bring to mind the mythological line out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And it’s still true of Luke Skywalker for those in the galaxy far, far away and right there he can remain a hero.

The film’s most intriguing dynamic reveals itself in the perceived connection between arguably our two most crucial characters in Rey and Kylo Ren also known as Ben Solo. But that core struggle between the two of them — literally the dissonance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force — is rudely disrupted. It’s such an ambiguous dividing line between good and evil and though it still remains, the character of Supreme Leader Snoke, equally implicated in this web comes off as little more than a ploy. All the potential grand conspiracies around it are gone in a puff of improbable smoke.

Intertwined with this is Rey’s familial identity which has been of paramount importance to everyone ever since these new pictures were conceived. It’s not so much that I minded what the revelation was (minor as it was) but it was more the fact that this bit of seemingly crucial exposition was so quickly cast aside as well. It felt once more a bit like a bait and switch — as if the Star Wars saga was somehow rewriting its own mythos in counterintuitive ways.

Maybe for once, Star Wars has become a bit more pragmatic; it has sought out realism and the things of this world more than a galaxy far, far away. Here I will admittedly contradict myself but I am not sure how to deal with this development because Star Wars was always a fantasy, always a science fiction fairy tale built out of imagination and dreams. Now it seems to be inching more and more toward the real world. Not because there are any fewer lightsaber battles or blaster fights or fewer alien species and star systems to explore, but the makeup of the new generation of characters is somehow different.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Star Wars could always be the same because it was not created in a vacuum, it is no longer George Lucases, and it has so many other parties invested in it. I for one must come to accept that. The film ends on a rather odd beat with young children getting rapt up in tales of the Last Jedi and looking off into space empowered by the hope brought by the Resistance before the credits roll. Though it felt very un-Star Wars it’s somewhat fitting given this new direction.

Hopefully, younger fans eat up this latest installment and conceive adventures and worlds of their own like I once did, feeding on the visions of the screen as fuel for countless Lego lightsaber battles and made up assaults on the enemy forces with their ragtag band of Rebel Scum. These new films don’t mean so much to me but maybe they can mean something to the current generation. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to do.

Will I see the Last Jedi again? I wouldn’t be at all surprised but unlike The Force Awakens, this isn’t so much an extension of the original trilogy. This is a breaking of the chain. This is something starkly different and it’s taken the galaxy into uncharacteristic territory.

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions. But the boy inside of me still yearns for the Luke Skywalker of my youth as naive as that might sound. I suppose I’ve never been much of a realist.

4/5 Stars

Silence (2016)

Silence_(2016_film).pngIf we can take Martin Scorsese’s varied film career as a reflection of the human experience, then his completion of his long-awaited passion project Silence is not all that surprising. He’s crafted numerous classics, countless cultural touchstones, some spiritual, some historical, and some incredibly honest. But at this point in his career it seems like he has nothing left to prove to us as his audience and maybe at this point in life, if nothing else, we could do well to try and learn from someone like him. Because given the climate with funding and the like, Scorsese could not have made such a film just for other people or money or acclaim. He must have made it, at least partially, for himself.

There’s no question that his life has been tough at times, even taking him to the brink of death, and in Silence, we see a period tale that touches on everything that is thought-provoking and all that is paramount in life. Man has long wrestled with God. Jacob did it literally in the narrative of Genesis. Nothing is new under the sun in a sense. And Scorsese by way of Shusaku Endo is doing a truly remarkable thing to consider these very questions. I admire him for having the wherewithal to even begin to tackle this material.

Coincidentally this is also a very faithful adaptation of Endo’s novel and so rather than recount the entire plot, my best advice is to read Endo for yourself and watch Scorsese’s own musing on the text afterward. But for those who don’t know, Silence is a fictionalized account based on true events involving two 17th century Portuguese priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garppe (Adam Driver) who head to Japan in order to spread their Christian faith–a faith that already has approximately 300,000 believers. Their mission is twofold as well, to track down their illustrious mentor Father Fereira (Liam Neeson) who is rumored to have apostatized.

However, their beloved faith is under fierce attack by the Japanese magistrate and for good reason. As articulated by the oddly compelling and strangely comical antagonist Inoue, foreign missionaries sometimes come to Japan like jealous women looking to steal the country away. They often are lacking cultural understanding meaning their message is neither contextualized or delivered in such a way that is helpful to the people. Is the message missionaries brought even the same anymore or do they simply trust that it will reach the people as they intended?

But delve into this issue and doubters can beg the question, can the Truth (capital T) be universal? There are certain similarities between religions. From a cursory level, you can either draw up the similarities between Christianity and Buddhism or cast them far apart. Father Ferreira finally conceded that doing good is enough. It leads to human flourishing but also to the detriment of his previous beliefs. And that’s only the one conflict.

Silence delivers numerous other tough questions to any viewer who is willing to consider them. How do you equate personal suffering versus the suffering of others? If to die a martyr is what some call Christ-like, to let others die for you could easily be called selfish and weak.

Still, is recanting Christ, the core of these missionaries’ belief system, worth it for the safety and well-being of others? The answer seems simple and yet somehow still so divisive. Most importantly of all, and potentially the most volatile and insidious question of all is this: Can you still be worthy of love if you have doubted, turned away, or committed evil? That is the central question at the heart of Silence.

In different ways, Scorsese’s film brings to mind droves of others from the likes of Bergman and Dreyer but the polarities of the emotions are more pronounced here and somehow the nuances still manage to be incredibly subtle. Bergman’s The Silence already seems to assume God is out of the equation entirely. Ordet takes the spiritual doubts of mankind and culminates in a miraculous crescendo of hope. Scorsese’s work strikes a tougher middle ground. And for that matter, this film is undoubtedly rough going. It’s long, pensive, and unsettling.

The heroes do not arrive at some Oscar-worthy self-actualization. Violence is not some entertaining cathartic release. On the contrary, these characters are at times pitiful–even the dregs–and the violence is methodical and repetitive like a deluge of ocean waves beating us back.

But as such, this is not a film to stew in or even a film to view alone. It is meant to be seen together, ruminated over in tandem, and considered with a certain amount of thoughtfulness. It asks for its viewer to be open, to be aware, and if need be, do their own amount of soul-searching. Are there questions that you’ve never been willing to confront? And this goes for anyone from any type of background, belief, or point of view.

For the spiritual, this undoubtedly would be a tough picture because it confronts their doubts head-on. For those who do not consider themselves all that religious, it throws you right into the dilemma of fallible man and demands you at least consider the problems therein.

Thus, to call it slow or plodding completely circumvents the entire point. Such an assertion strips this film of its power which is derived from the very audacity of its silence. The way in which Garfield practically whispers his dialogue in voiceover. How there is hardly ever a score because Scorsese takes his title seriously. He’s not about to disrupt the novel’s power with Hollywood expectations. Silence can be just as powerful as noise if not more so. Some would argue that is the very power of the God of the Bible. It’s these very paradoxes that run through Endo’s entire novel.

The humility of the Japanese throughout the film is astounding and the utter hopelessness of the priests at times is equally telling. It flips the savior paradigm that we expect. The most substantive example is the Japanese guide Kochijiro and Father Rodrigues. The Father sees the other as the Judas figure, the betrayer, and yet he is Peter. He too has denied the one who loves him most. They’re no different. Except Kochijiro is far more aware of his shortcomings–there’s no pretense to think he is Christ-like. He is humbled just as we can be humbled by the sheer boldness of Silence.

4.5/5 Stars

While We’re Young (2015)

whilewere2“It’s the Goonies and Citizen Kane. They don’t distinguish between high and low.” ~ Ben Stiller as Jamie

Although not nearly as prolific, in some respects Noah Baumbach feels like a lesser heir apparent to Woody Allen, if in fact the veteran filmmaker ever stops making films. Nevertheless, Baumbach seems to have a knack for a similar cross-section of New York. Frances Ha is his Annie Hall with the cinematography of an updated Manhattan. Also, his characters are more often than not middle-class intellectuals. People who think, have deep conversations, and yet there still manages to be something funny or different about what they have to say.

While We’re Young begins something like this. There’s a middle-aged couple stuck in neutral scared out of their minds about kids, and at the same time scared of growing older all alone with just the two of them. They have some good friends, who now have a child, and now Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) feel lonely. Then, they meet Darby (Amanda Seyfried) and Jamie (Adam Driver) and phase two begins.

Baumbach proves he really is a different creature entirely, and While We’re Young embodies that with its progression. It’s not quite what we expect. It’s refreshing, lithe, and friendly. Hold that thought. Maybe that’s actually exactly what we wanted and expected — at least for now.

Very quickly these two couples connect on so many levels despite their vast age difference. The old ones feel young and the young ones are really old souls guided by free spirits. They live life as they please without the drudgery that Josh and Cornelia feel weighed down by.

He’s been working on the same documentary for eight years now with the same talking head (Peter Yarrow), and he and Cornelia have hardly been out of the house, much less the country, in the last several years. To make matters worst he feels like he’s living in the shadow of his highly-successful father-in-law (Charles Grodin). In utter contrast, Jamie imbues so much passion it’s hard for Josh to not to latch onto that.

Their friendship blossoms in such a way that Josh and Cornelia almost seem unrecognizable with their hip-hop and fedoras. It’s not obvious quite yet whether that’s a good or a bad sign. But of course, the story doesn’t end that way. Because that’s not life, or at least not the way of real life outside of the world of filmmakers and documentarians.

Darby and Jamie aren’t the perfect young couple they seem to be. Their mish-mash of culture and public domain mentality has a downside. It gets worse than just the Goonies and Citizen Kane. After all, what are we supposed to expect? Two people who build their own furniture, make ice cream for a living, and live off old records and VHS cassettes have faults too.

Something happens that shakes Josh and the audience out of their reverie. In fact, everyone is brought back to earth. The world is often full of lies or worse yet half-truths. Unfortunately, we have to learn to accept them even when it feels so unjust. Joshie learns a valuable lesson about humanity and the younger generations. They aren’t evil and they are far from perfect.

In its finality, While We’re Young wasn’t the pretty picture that we half-expected. In fact, it got downright weird, dark, and deceptive, before giving way to apathy.  But that’s okay. Life doesn’t always end there. There’s often a hopeful epilogue and so it goes with Josh and Cornelia.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star_Wars_The_Force_Awakens_Theatrical_PosterAnyone who is at least a little bit familiar with ring theory knows that the Star Wars saga has often folded back on itself, with near-mirror images, similar plot devices, and obvious parallelism. It gives any fan a new found appreciation for the films, and with that mentality, The Force Awakens can be thoroughly appreciated.

Without a doubt, it is positively exploding with entertainment value, up and coming talent, as well as the old friends that we were looking to catch up with after 30 long years. However, this is not simply another installment, reimagining, or remaking of Star Wars (although Abrams does succeed in rebooting the franchise). This chapter is yet another refrain in the epic intergalactic ballad that is Star Wars. As such, it points to the future and recalls the past much like many ancient texts, fairy tales, and pieces of mythology.

In this film, we do see many things that hearken back to the earlier films, which makes sense due to the return of screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan as well as legendary characters like Han, Chewie, and Leia (now known as General Organa).

The Force Awakens also introduces a lowly scavenger girl (Daisy Ridley), who is reminiscent of Luke Skywalker in her hero’s journey. A new evil has risen up in the form of The First Order, and the Rebellion has been replaced by the more progressive Resistance. They still have many of the same problems, however, like defying a menacing dark lord who is very strong in the force. There is also a giant battle station dubiously named “Starkiller” which dwarfs any previous Death Star. Young Rey must sneak around the colossal fortress much like her predecessors, and a meager fleet led by crack pilot Poe Dameron looks to find the one weakness to bring the menacing giant to its knees. We’ve seen variations of it all before, but whereas remakes get old all too quickly, our contemporary culture revels in the remix. That’s part of the magic behind what J.J. Abrams has done.

He’s left the framework: We have our obligatory opening introduction, there are the glorious orchestrations of living legend John Williams and numerous other familiar touchstones. In fact, it’s frighteningly familiar. We see the rubble of star destroyers and AT-ATs. Stormtroopers have a facelift, the Millennium Falcon is still kicking, and some of the planets strikingly resemble the likes of Tatooine, Yavin IV, and Hoth. A lightsaber in the snow brings back images of a Wampa’s cave from The Empire Strikes Back. Nightmarish hallucinations feel reminiscent to the caves of Dagobah, and plucky little BB-8’s secret map makes us think of all those years ago when R2 first took that message from Princess Leia. It all falls wonderfully into place.

But there is also so much that this film does that inches away from the original trilogy, without cutting ties completely. It brings in a new batch of capable stars: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. It gives us new pieces of backstory, more definition to this galaxy, while simultaneously creating characters, weaponry, and settings that little boys, and now girls, all across the galaxy will be emulating.

However, perhaps one of most profound aspects of the latest continuation of the saga is its diversity on so many levels. There is a strong female lead in Ridley, an ethnically diverse cast, and there are actually some juicy roles for actors over the age of 45. Aside from the newcomers and the vets, we are also treated to the likes of Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Gwendoline Christie, and even Max von Sydow. Most of them by now are well established, but each one explored different avenues with their characters allowing for greater definition and depth.

In fact, Mark Hamill has arguably the most enjoyable role, because he is the main driving force behind this whole tale (He also gets top billing to boot). Everyone is looking for him, and in this way, he’s rather like the Third Man, Harry Lime, a character who makes the most of a brief climatic cameo, due to the vast shrouded mystery that has been developed around his character. In this case, we are itching to know where he is and what he’s been up to. Why? Because he is Luke Skywalker! The last Jedi in the galaxy. Do you need a better reason?

Thus, The Force Awakens has some dour notes, but it most certainly is a narrative of beginnings, awakenings, and rebirth. We do not quite know actually where they will lead because evil still exists in the shadows and the light side has yet to bring absolute peace to the galaxy.

Star Wars VII is most everything that any hardcore fan or casual viewer could desire in a saga that bursts at the seams with cultural clout. The exciting part is the titillating prospect that there’s still so much room to grow and a lot more galaxy to be revealed. Perhaps it’s best that Abrams hands over the reins to someone else so they can try their hand at expanding the galaxy. But for now, he did a stellar job at bringing balance back to the force, at least for a couple years. We had a bad feeling about this, but we can all let out a collective sigh of relief. All is right in the Star Wars universe.

4.5/5 Stars