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

Ex Machina (2015)

Ex-machina-uk-posterThe film industry needs films like Ex Machina. They’re smaller productions, but that usually means they’re more audacious and oftentimes far more interesting. First time director and veteran screenwriter Alex Garland delivers up a story that takes place in an isolated, ultra-modern getaway that’s a helicopter ride away from civilization. Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) gets dropped into this little piece of paradise thinking he’s won a huge honor, and in truth, he has hit the jackpot. He makes his way to this isolated locale and comes face to face with Nathan (Oscar Isaac), the mastermind behind his little company. We don’t quite understand why Caleb was called in or what the following hours will look like exactly.

Nathan quickly clears up any ambiguity with one pointed question: “So do you know what the Turing Test is?”That begins the jumping off point for the entire narrative which is compartmentalized into different sessions of observations. It’s Caleb’s job to interview the one and only Ava (Alicia Vikander) over the course of a couple days to decipher whether or not she can pass the Turing Test. Yes, Ava is a highly intelligent A.I., but just how intelligent we’ll find out over the course of the story.

This is most of the film, but there are a lot of oddities that plant themselves in back of our minds. Who is Kyoko the maid? Is Nathan to be trusted? After all, Ava induces powercuts so she can talk with Caleb in confidence. Because she knows we act differently when unobserved — when all the eyes aren’t watching us.

Ava is strikingly metallic, mechanical, and still somehow incredibly lifelike. Nathan has developed her in such a way that she has attraction down to a science. She somehow exudes a robotic sexuality.  The trick is finding the perfect algorithm for action that is not automatic. Getting the precise equilibrium of nature vs. nurture.

The mind games delve ever deeper as Caleb tries to maintain a balance between his intellect and his own insecurities. Ava asks to question him, and the tables are quickly turned. Caleb is manipulated constantly and he himself manipulates. But he realizes too late that he served one function, only to be quickly discarded.

Ex Machina is fascinating as it spirals deeper and deeper into an abyss of deception and disorientation. It exists in that terrifying realm of the not so distant future, and while we are not there yet, it feels like we may be on the cusp of such a world. It brings up questions of man’s desire to be God and the dichotomy that arises between the creators and the created. The history of computer science arguably extends all the way back to Alan Turing, and it certainly has opened grand avenues of exploration. But with such power, including Artificial Intelligence, Search Engine Optimization, and the like, we are opened up to a far more perilous world. A world, where if we’re not careful we can lose all grasp of reality and all confidence in our fellow man.

4/5 Star

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

insidel2More often than not Llewyn Davis turns out to be a worthy character and I mean that in the sense that he is readily watchable. This probably isn’t the real folk scene of the 1960s, but it is the time and place seen through the Coen Brothers’ somber lens. Inspired by musician Dave Von Ronk, Llewyn is his own unique entity entirely. The film itself has a dreary look of washed out tones mimicking the days that most of us now know from black and white imagery. There are folk tunes wall to wall, befitting such a melancholy film, adding layers of melody and ambiance to this austere world of isolation.

In fact, we first meet Llewyn in a low lit bar singing the ode “Hang me, Oh hang me.” He’s not some budding talent or has-been. He had a partner once, who committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. They had a record that came and went out almost as fast. The unsold copies sit in a warehouse somewhere rotting away with the rats. That’s really Llewyn’s life. He’s couch hopping his way through Greenwich Village, a pitiful wanderer with the cat he was entrusted with in one hand and his guitar in the other. In the frigid winter air, he doesn’t even have a real overcoat. He can barely afford it.

insidel4The film goes so many places only to return to where it was. So much goes on without anything happening and so on. Llewyn has it out with Jean, a transformed and caustic Carey Mulligan, who doesn’t know who the father of her baby is. How it could ever be Llewyn’s doesn’t make much sense, since she seems to despise his guts. Why would she sleep with him?

Llewyn alienates his sister with his misanthropic outlook and foul mouth. He loses and tries to recover the cat of his folk-loving friends the Gorffeins. How they ever became friends we’ll never know. A spur of the moment trip to Chicago comes up and with it, there’s the token John Goodman performance that feels like an absurd aside to the entire plot. Then again, the film’s only plot is the wanderings of Davis, so if meeting passengers while hitchhiker marks his journey it seems pertinent.  A trip to the Gate of Horn for an impromptu audition turns out to be unfruitful and it is the film’s most difficult scene. Davis lays all his heart and soul out there in a poignant performance and all he gets from the producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) is that he should join a trio. He’s not solo material.

insidel5Llewyn returns to Greenwich dejected and things continue going poorly for him. So we end up leaving him about where we started. Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Joan Baez would come in time, but it’s the musicians like Davis that are a sadder tale. Those who faded away over the years. Who lay beat up in an alley for heckling a performance in a hole-in-the-wall bar. It’s the circle of life of a folk singer and you wonder if he would ever have it any other way. Undoubtedly this folk oasis was a more hopping, more welcoming place than the Coen’s painted it, but it does suggest something powerful.

Why would somebody subject themselves to this type of lifestyle? Unless they’re insane and like to suffer, it must be that they really believe in the music. They believe in bearing their heart and soul because the music makes them feel alive. Obviously, there is more to life than music, some would argue that point, but it is a brilliant starting point. We can respect someone who sticks by their convictions and their passions. Even if it means chasing through the streets of Greenwich Village looking for a cat. You would never see me doing that. Maybe if it were a dog. Maybe.

4/5 Stars

Drive (2011)

drive1You always think of the man in the getaway car as the wimp. Why else is he supposed to keep the engine running instead of helping with the job? Well, not anymore. Ryan Gosling completely demolishes that myth with Drive. It’s a neo-noir of sorts, but don’t get the wrong idea. This isn’t your conventional Hollywood action flick. Albert Brook’s corrupt thug sans eyebrows says he used to back sexy European action films and that’s ironically enough what Drive is. There’s a new age electronic score to match the stylized action. Silky smooth slo-mo mixed with golden illumination of the characters and the L.A. nightscape.

Although he’s really a stunt driver and spends his spare time working as a mechanic for the shop owner (Bryan Cranston), the Kid (Gosling) works jobs on the side as a getaway car driver, and he’s the best of the best. He proves it in the opening minutes, perfectly timing his escape with the conclusion of a Clippers game. It makes disappearing into the night that much easier.

He keeps things in check, keeps his cards close to his body, and at times reminds me of Alain Delon in Le Samourai. He’s not quite so icy cool, almost serene, and yet that can disappear in a flash. So still, so slight of word and movement, and yet behind the wheel, he has so much purpose. He doesn’t use a gun. His methods are more brutal, and he only uses them when absolutely necessary. Such a role gives me a new found respect for Ryan Gosling. He really does seem to have the true ability to take on some interesting roles of varying degrees and intensities.

drive2All the characters around him are not necessarily fully developed entities on their own, but they function as more of an essence, developing this stylized world. Carey Mulligan is the aloof woman next door with the far-off gaze and quiet demeanor. There is an aura around her much like the Driver, maybe because they don’t talk much. There’s a mystery to them. Oscar Isaac and Christina Hendricks have relatively short screen time, but they play pivotal roles in the film and they lend credence to the story because even if they’re no good, we have at least a little empathy towards them. And then Albert Brooks and Ron Perlman are real crud of the earth who we don’t mind seeing suffer. It may not be a nice thing to say, but it’s undoubtedly the truth. The Driver seems outside of this fray at first, but he ends up getting involved in it whether it’s because of Irene or her husband’s botched robbery attempt. It becomes his business and it proves cataclysmic.

Aside from Le Samourai, there’s a bit of Bullitt here thanks to the ultra sleek car chases, and maybe even some Point Blank, another film that functions as a dreamy, unconventional thriller. We never see the inside of whatever jobs are being pulled, but it actually builds the tension as we sit on the outside waiting with the driver. He’s all business as the audience sits sweating it.

drive3What this film has and what I am not necessarily a proponent of, is the brutality and stylized gore. It fits the overall tone of Drive, but it does rub against me rather abrasively in a way that seems to make a spectacle of violence. That’s something that I don’t want. But then what is that saying about me? Do I find violence more palatable when it looks like an ugly and vile act? Yes, certainly, but I think I like it best when it is implied because that in itself seems perhaps even more stylized, and far less offensive.

But nevertheless, this story that parallels the fable of the scorpion and the frog is an engaging, albeit jarring ride.  You can help someone, you can want no part of them, but they will come right back and sting you because it’s in their nature. This is a story of relationships, of destruction, and a man who kicks it into high gear.

4/5 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