Monday, December 18, 2017

The Last Jedi - Spoiler Filled Thoughts

I already wrote a review of The Last Jedi, but I came away disappointed with my own words, or lack thereof. See, this is a film that is very challenging to articulate exactly why I loved it without delving into spoiler territory, so that's exactly where I am going to go now. The following is going to be filled with spoilers, so you have been warned. I'm going to type the word spoilers again right now, and again, spoilers, so that I don't get yelled at by anyone who reads this without yet seeing the film.

There is always a chosen one. In the Star Wars universe alone, I grew up watching the original trilogy on repeat, the story of Luke Skywalker, the chosen one, the Jedi warrior that would bring balance to the force. Before him it was Anakin Skywalker, the chosen one. The man who would bring peace to the galaxy, and that ever elusive balance to the force. When Disney purchased Lucasfilm and announced a brand new trilogy of Star Wars films, a continuation of the so called Skywalker saga, the immediate question was what kind of story would they go with? Luke defeated his father, Palpatine is dead, the Empire crumbling into ruins, and the Rebellion threw a god damn rager of a party on Endor with the Ewoks. It was over. The chosen one served his purpose, stronger than his father before him, able to resist the temptation of the power of the dark side and bring forth the light. So was the story simply going to be a new evil is born, the resurgence of the Empire under new leadership, and it would be up to a much older Luke to vanquish them again? After all, he is the chosen one.

In The Force Awakens we meet our new hero, the young, resilient Rey, much like Anakin and Luke living each day on a desert planet only instead of Tatooine she is left scraping together enough parts to sell for food on Jakku. Our assumption of Luke being the chosen one was wrong, as clearly his ability to turn his father and destroy evil wasn't enough to keep it locked away for good. A new foe called the First Order has risen from the ashes and it will be up to young Rey to save the galaxy. She is the chosen one, or at least that's what J.J. Abrams lead us to believe in The Force Awakens, the defining moment that would announce her arrival as the one being that epic shot of her with the lightsaber after striking Kylo Ren to the ground in the snowy forest on the Starkiller Base. The incredible power, the ability to channel it with essentially no training. Rey is the chosen one, and clearly her parents are Luke Skywalker and the daughter of Ben Kenobi because that's the only possible combination of characters in this vast, mostly unexplored universe that could create such a bad ass.

Two years of fan theories about who Rey is, who her parents are, why she is so force sensitive, and here comes writer/director Rian Johnson with his new film, the 8th installment of the saga The Last Jedi, and he completely turns his back on any of that stuff and it was the single most brilliant thing that he could have done. Anakin was not the chosen one. Luke was not the chosen one. Rey is not the chosen one. There is no chosen one. This film is out to tell the world that the force isn't inside a few select characters that make up a family lineage, the force flows through everyone, around everything, and it can be all of ours. When Kylo Ren reveals the identity of Rey's parents, that they were pathetic deadbeats who literally sold their daughter for drinking money, it caught so many people off guard who are now online demanding that this nine film saga be perfectly tied up together, that Rey must connect to Anakin or Luke or Leia or Obi-Wan somehow, but the franchise is so much better off because of this revelation and its implications, that a revolution doesn't hang on the fate of a Skywalker or a Solo or a Kenobi but rather a girl left to rot away on a remote planet, a girl that happens to be force sensitive and strong enough to search for her place in the universe and determined enough to do what she must to save it all.

The most stunning scene in The Last Jedi, both visually and narratively, takes place in the throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke. Rey has flown straight to them by choice, believing that she has seen the good inside Kylo and can turn him, and having his power on their side would be the turning point in this war. Luke, both referring to what will happen to Rey if she follows through with this plan and also foreshadowing what was to come for the audience and their expectations, says "This is not going to end the way you think!". Some predicted that Rey and Kylo would end up working and fighting together, and during that brief incredible sequence they likely thought they could brag about being correct, but in actuality Kylo Ren has never been more evil. He kills Snoke, a character that also spawned numerous theories about who he is and how he fits into the grand scheme of the universe and as of right now appears to simply be a deformed force sensitive piece of shit who preys on the vulnerable to turn them dark on his quest of evil domination (which is pretty much exactly the grand total of what we knew about the Emperor by the end of the first trilogy too), but Kylo turns the lightsaber on his master not to save the Republic but rather to burn everything down. He does this because Kylo Ren, formerly Ben Solo but now completely turned away from his previous identity, doesn't care about the First Order or the Resistance, Sith or Jedi. He cares only about his own power, his own place in all of this, his own story. Kylo Ren killed Snoke because he doesn't want to answer to anyone, doesn't want to be manipulated by someone, doesn't want to have to bend the knee and vow his allegiance to the Supreme Leader. Kylo Ren is the only big bad guy heading into the final film of this saga, and that's the way it should be.

The most common response I have been seeing when someone compliments the direction Johnson took Luke in this film is the fact that it is known that Mark Hamill personally didn't care for the way his character was handled, and therefore it most have been a poor screenplay because no one would know Luke better than Luke. Hamill of course is currently saying all the right things, clarifying that while he took issue with it when he first read the script, talking it through with Rian and then actually seeing it through allowed him to see why this vision made sense, I am curious what a really candid and honest Hamill would say now that he has seen the whole thing. Perhaps I am being a pessimist by not taking him at his word, perhaps he isn't merely saying the right things but rather his honest feelings at this moment. I hope so. I hope the man who plays the character sees what I see, because not only was this Hamill's finest performance of the saga and probably the single greatest performance by anyone throughout the now 9 Star Wars movies, but it just feels right. I can appreciate what Johnson conceived here, the idea of a legend broken by his failures, choosing to shut himself off from the force and the resistance and the belief that Jedi are good and necessary because it is accurate to point out that past Jedi moves had only lead to more darkness. It feels right that for a fleeting moment he would stand over his nephew with his lightsaber ready to strike because it feels like an honest piece of storytelling. Drop your deeply held beliefs that Luke isn't capable of such a thing for a second simply because he rose above it 30 some years ago and consider what it would be like to live in a world of peace and harmony after so much death and destruction, so much galactic turmoil, only to see it happening again inside the mind of someone with so much power and potential. Think of how scary that would be. Ultimately, after only a brief moment of being overcome by the fear of a renewed resurgence of evil, Luke realizes that this is the wrong path, that striking him down in his sleep is not who he is, and the scene when he lays out this truth is filled with such authentic pain and deep regret. The look of fear in Ben's eyes when he awakens to see his master standing over him ready to strike haunts Luke to that day. It's the moment that shaped who Kylo Ren is now, a man capable of killing his Jedi master and his Supreme Leader because his trust in others is broken. This is why I don't think Kylo ever intended to kill Snoke when he entered that throne room. It wasn't some master plan. I think something snapped inside him when Snoke admitted to playing both he and Rey into setting up that moment. Kylo Ren was done being tricked by elders, done bowing down to legends. It was time to kill the past.

Ultimately I think time will be kind to The Last Jedi. I think years from now, hopefully aided by a terrific conclusion with the 9th film, the vast majority will see the decisions made by Johnson were beneficial to both this outstanding film and also for the future of Star Wars. The subtle and very quick moment at the end when the young oppressed boy working in the stables in Canto Bight is telling the story of Luke Skywalker standing up to the First Order to the other children only to be ordered to get back to work, and he uses the force casually to grab his broom from the wall, succeeds and resonates because of the revelation of Rey's ancestry. The next hero, the next "chosen one" doesn't have to be from the stories we have already been told which while wonderful and original were undoubtedly narrow in scope when you consider just how little exploration of character and setting were done through the first six films. It could be anyone, from the daughter of drunks left for dead to a slave boy abused in a stable, surrounded by a city filled with nothing but selfish greed. As long as that spark of hope created by the resistance survives somewhere in the galaxy, the next hero will rise.

Now just please, for the love of god, someone stop J.J. from writing a gotcha twist into the 9th film that her parents are actually Luke and Maz Kanata and Kylo was just lying to her and manipulating her mind, and don't let the film include the First Order building a new Starkiller Base. Rian Johnson managed to push the Star Wars universe forward in such an exciting way. Don't ever go back. Kill the past.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

"This is not going to end the way you think!"

I recall walking out of the theater energized over the return of my favorite cinematic franchise two years ago when The Force Awakens exploded onto screens across the world and dazzled the majority of viewers, myself included. I got home and contacted a buddy of mine, a friend so close throughout life both in the strength of our bond and in literal proximity as he was my neighbor since the age of 5, only now in adulthood we reside thousands of miles away. See, he and I grew up on the original trilogy, we practically breathed them in to stay alive for years, and we reconnected even as we grew ever so slightly apart to see all of the prequels, so our journey through this galaxy was a shared experience. 

We had always agreed on the six previous films, and here I was, ready to gush about Episode VII, about new characters and old, about new planets and familiar ships and fan service dialogue and callbacks that were undeniably forced yet still made me smile. He hated it all. I had never heard him so disappointed about a film, and the bizarre thing is while my opinion of the movie remains unchanged, as after maybe 8 viewings I still maintain a deep love for it, I can't disagree with anything that caused him to feel completely the opposite. Yes, The Force Awakens was essentially a reboot of A New Hope in terms of character and setting and plot. Yes those callbacks were a little cringe worthy, placed only to get a reaction and to invoke nostalgia with no actual benefit to the progression of storytelling. Despite this, I wouldn't be budged from my feelings and neither would he, and that's okay, but I would be lying if I said that for two years now I haven't been hoping that the next film wouldn't just follow the exact same beats as The Empire Strikes Back, the work of a studio that saw such major success by bringing back the old and deciding to just do it again and again. 

I haven't spoke to that friend tonight since my screening of The Last Jedi ended, honestly I don't know if he even saw it tonight or if the stink of his feeling of the last episode pushed him away from making an immediate run to the theater, but one thing I do know, that I feel fucking great about right now, is he certainly can't hate this one for the same reasons that the last left him so cold. Never before has a Star Wars film felt so bold, so willing to take more than a few steps out of bounds, away from the constraints that can sometimes be created due to corporate earnings and suits with little vision beyond the bottom line, afraid of a new direction. This is not a reboot of any kind, more of a reawakening, a film that still embraces it's predecessors by utilizing aspects of them that were done with perfection while also being willing to light everything before it on fire, unafraid to say that this is a franchise that will not die anytime soon, and you won't be able to guess what's coming next. The Last Jedi absolutely rocks, one of the most entertaining and satisfying trips to the theater I have had with moments that pay off so perfectly and without predictability that I couldn't help but quietly say wow to myself aloud surrounded by so many others doing the same. 

I will not spoil a thing here because I couldn't possibly do anyone such a disservice. Honestly, over the years i stopped getting so upset about being spoiled regarding the plot of upcoming films, as I found with most movies the payoff of seeing how artists get to that point is still worth the price of admission even when you know it's coming, but god damn am I glad I had no idea what to expect at any point during The Last Jedi. I can't wait to take my wife and kid back for my second viewing, their first, and watch their reactions.

I cannot say that Rian Johnson directed the best Star Wars film, because after one viewing The Last Jedi still cannot rise to the levels of A New Hope and Empire, but I can say that Rian Johnson is the best Star Wars director ever. I was over the moon when he was selected for the job given how much I admire and enjoy his most recent previous work, the superb science fiction film Looper, and he did not disappoint here. As I sit here now, I not only understand why he was chosen to lead his own new Star Wars trilogy in the future, I am appreciative that I get to step foot in a new world he will create inside this galaxy, and again without spoiling anything, a revelation in this film that has been discussed and theorized for two years now serves as a brilliant reminder as to how much we don't know and how little has been explored beyond the legacy of the name Skywalker.

Speaking of Skywalker, Mark Hamill returns in a big way in The Last Jedi, for me probably the shining performance among a whole lot of very talented people delivering throughout. His portrayal of an emotionally broken Luke, hidden away from the world by choice, is so nuanced and fascinating, filled with the pain of what he feels he has done wrong overshadowing the pride of everything he heroically did right during those original three films. He mostly works side by side with Daisy Ridley here, as their story picks up right where it left off at the end of The Force Awakens, and they are wonderful together. What a choice Daisy was to play Rey in this new trilogy, she is an absolute star and a wonderful character to fall in love with and root for and give a shit about, much like Luke was all those years ago. 

I don't want to go into even the slightest detail regarding plot, as even the basics I didn't know much of and it was a deeply rewarding experience. Just see it, although even typing those words seems silly because I assume you either planned on seeing it already or you didn't and a single review won't be the motivating factor for a person to buy a ticket to a movie that will make over 2 billion dollars. I just hope you love it as much as I did, and I can't wait to see it again. 


Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Let's Do It Again: My 100 Favorite Films of All Time #10 - #1

Finally we have arrived at the top 10 of my 100 favorite films of all time list. I think my favorite thing to do on this site is compiling and publishing lists, and I am very much looking forward to my usual 50 favorite films of the year list, although unlike many professional critics I can't help but fall behind on seeing every movie I want to so expect that list out in February, and also my 20 favorite television series of the year list as well.

For right now, here we go, my 10 favorites, the films that hit a certain sweet spot for me that only the absolute best can.

10. Paris, Texas

The image above is my Twitter avatar simply because it is a shot that is so hauntingly beautiful that it stuck with me the first time I watched Paris, Texas and I've never been able to shake it. A simple shot but it is filled with so much pain and loneliness, it's just a tiny example of the perfection displayed by director Wim Wenders throughout this masterpiece from 1984. 

9. The Big Lebowski

Back in 1998 the Coen brothers released what is, in my opinion, the greatest comedy to ever grace the screen. The Big Lebowski is endlessly quotable and one of the finest written films ever, with performances to deliver those lines perfectly littered throughout the film from the starring roles of Jeff Bridges and John Goodman to the supporting work from Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore, John Turturro and the late great Philip Seymour Hoffman, and many others. I can't tell you how many times I have watched The Big Lebowski and I hope I can watch it like 30 or so more times.

8. Se7en

I am a David Fincher superfan and my love for his work can be unquestionably traced back to Se7en, his sophomore directorial effort after the much maligned (yet I truly really enjoy it) Alien 3. A cold, calculated, brilliant thriller about a serial killer (played perfectly by Kevin Spacey, boy do I miss the time not long ago when I could watch his work and appreciate it without feeling the undercurrent of sadness for his victims) and the cops out to catch him (Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman), I have probably realistically watched Se7en 20 or so times by now. It never gets old.

7. Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope

Two days away from seeing The Last Jedi, one thing this top 100 list has proven is that I really, really love Star Wars, considering 4 of the 8 films from the franchise up until this point made the cut. Here's to hoping that the next time I do one of these lists The Last Jedi is included as well. Anyways, of course the original had to be in my top ten, it's an iconic piece of science fiction fantasy filmmaking that I spent just as much if not more time with as a child then I did friends. 

6. Vertigo

Hitchcock was a genius and Vertigo was his masterpiece. Does anything else really need to be said? This film is perfect and if by some chance you haven't seen it, do so soon.

5. The Social Network

I was just raving about David Fincher a few films up, and now we have arrived at his greatest achievement, The Social Network, a film that in an alternate more just universe would have won Best Picture and Best Director over The King's Speech and that film's director Tom Hooper (I still can't believe it. I'm not upset. I just can't believe it). Every single second that I watch every single frame of this beauty is a blessing.

4. Singin' in the Rain

Speaking of blessings, checking in at #4 is easily the most joyous and intoxicating cinematic experience ever created, the classic musical Singin' in the Rain. I watch this film whenever I want to smile and feel good and it literally works 100 percent of the time. Gene Kelly, Donald O'Connor and the late, great Debbie Reynolds, this is a sublime work that gets better and better with age.

3. The Silence of the Lambs

What numbers 3 and 8 on this list demonstrate is that I am a sucker for a serial killer focused film done right, and The Silence of the Lambs is done really, really, really right, a tremendous work from director Jonathan Demme whom we unfortunately lost earlier this year way too soon. 

2. The Tree of Life

A work of arresting, stunning beauty by director Terrence Malick, a film that funny enough I turned off halfway through the first time I tried watching it and announced that I hated it. I will forever be grateful that I gave it a second chance. The words "life-affirming" are overused in criticism of art in my opinion, just seems like something people say a lot to try to prove how powerful a work is. Well The Tree of Life is life-affirming, as I found a part of myself I didn't know existed upon revisiting it: a belief in something more. I am not religious and I likely never will be, but what Malick accomplished here is a holy experience for me, a declaration of the beauty we can find in this world and the randomness that lead to the miracle of our existence, something that is difficult to chalk up to mere coincidence.

1. Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back

As you can see, it is going to take an awful lot for The Last Jedi to become my favorite Star Wars film...because it would have to dethrone my favorite movie ever made. For a while I had The Tree of Life in this spot because of what it meant to me personally and emotionally now, as an adult, but after a lot of thought and consideration the movie that was the greatest thing I had ever seen when I was a kid and somehow, inexplicably, is even BETTER when watching as an adult, has to be my all time favorite because it just is. There is something about the way I feel watching Empire that is difficult to put into words, like I can still connect with my inner child yet bask in the aspects of cinema I love as an adult as well, like the phenomenal pacing that somehow allows every memorable piece of storytelling that exists in this one movie to move with perfect fluidity during a mere two hour run time. Nothing is rushed, nothing drags, and everything is just so damn excellent.