Tag Archives: Rian Johnson

Skywalker's Sacrifice

Over the weekend, Sean and I did a 24 hour Star Wars movie marathon. That’s all 10 movies: Episodes I, II, III, Solo: A Star Wars Story, Rogue One, Episodes IV-VIII, quite a recap going into Episode IX next week, a nice refresher. I’d only kinda seen Episodes I-VI before this – Sean made me watch them once, but I was pretty high on pain pills after a back surgery and clearly didn’t remember much. All I knew is that I really didn’t connect with them as much as people who’d grown up with them did.

Having now rewatched them properly, I think I know why I don’t love the original trilogy: it’s made for kids. So if you were a kid when you first saw it, you probably feel all warm and fuzzy toward it. But if, like me, you were a grown up, well, it’s harder to excuse a lot of its flaws. I was routinely unsettled by the characters’ coldness – every time there was a big battle, they’d immediately celebrate their victory with high fives and hugs all around, no word of sorrow for literally hundreds or thousands or a whole planetful of their friends who were just slaughtered. And the so-called romance is completely passionless. You’re telling me Han Solo is a cold fish? Really? I’m pretty sure a scoundrel like him would be making use of all the supply closets and cargo holds in the Millennium Falcon. I’d bet there’d be boxes of condoms falling out of every console on that ship. But what really gets me is the overly simplified concepts of Light and Dark. There’s good guys and bad guys and nothing in between. I thought Luke Skywalker was a bit of a wiener in Episode IV, but Mark Hamill grows him into a hero over the whole of the trilogy and I suppose George Lucas wanted to tell his fellow nerds: look, we can be heroes too. Darth Vader, meanwhile, is pretty much the epitome of villainry – the way he looks, talks, breaths, walks, it’s all so imposing and threatening. I love him as a bad guy and have a hard time getting over that he wasn’t the bad guy boss, and an even harder time understanding how quickly he was ‘turned’ by Luke in the end. I know that as a 6 year old, little Sean was relieved that Luke’s dad was now ‘good’ but big Jay (god I hope that doesn’t stick) feels quite conflicted about it. It’s just a little too easy, and unearned. Plus, the dude has slaughtered millions at this point. Sparing one hardly seems like adequate contrition.

Anyway, all that to say it’s a total relief when we finally get to the newer movies, The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. They are so much more emotionally and thematically complex that I respond to them on a whole different level. They’ve made me cry, while the previous ones didn’t even make me feel. The Last Jedi in particular feels like a real triumph in cinema – after I saw it in theatres, it grew on me the more I thought about it, the more I traced the themes of failure and perseverance and hope and redemption. But it’s only now, having watched all of the films in quite succession, that I can truly appreciate all that this film accomplished. The Last Jedi is more or less Luke’s film. He’s been in exile but Rey tracks him down, determined to gain his help for the Resistance. But Luke denies her. He is a beaten up old man who just wants to be left in peace. He doesn’t want to fight anymore. The fight has gone out of him. He suffered a major setback in training his nephew, Ben. He couldn’t keep Ben from turning to the Dark side. It even brought out some Dark in Luke as he contemplated ending Ben before he could turn into Kylo Ren. Ever afraid of the Dark, Luke runs away in shame and sadness, to a quiet life of contemplation. He turns himself off from the Force. And he’s not the only one who is suffering. His sister Leia may still be fighting, but it’s taken a toll on her. Now she knows that even victories come with a cost. She is emotionally exhausted, and burdened. And that’s to say nothing of her son, whom she has lost. It was shocking in The Force Awakens to learn that Han and Leia shared a son, but losing him tore them apart, as grief does to so many parents in mourning. We see how much life has changed Han – still a plucky, trouble-making smuggler, but also a grieving father keening for even a glimpse of his fallen son. Luke too is changed – no longer the young boy filled with optimism and confidence. He has seen too much, suffered too much. His wisdom has made him weary. It’s hard to see Luke without hope, but it reminds us of his master Yoda – he too had exiled himself in the face of failure. In fact, he only broke his exile to train Luke. And now here we are, some 40 years later, with a new young Jedi and Luke is the teacher. A reluctant teacher, of course, because Luke has been so disillusioned he’s lost his faith, yet he can’t help but step up in exactly the way that his teacher did before him, even giving his life for Rey in the same way that Obi-wan did for him. When Luke’s cloak flutters empty to the ground it’s a direct call-back to Obi-wan’s own demise, and a brilliant cinematic moment.

I liked The Last Jedi for having the courage to show us failure. Every other movie (and by no means do I just mean Star Wars) shows us heroes facing down impossible odds and overcoming them. This is a new kind of test: how to get knocked down and get back up again. How to keep going in the face of failure. How to let go of the past. And these films mean that last bit in more ways than one, literally passing the torch between the older generation and the new, but teaching both that only by letting go can we truly move forward.

Video evidence of our movie marathon:

Knives Out

We went to see our little nephew play hockey on professional ice today. It was a fundraising effort for his team – we bought tickets to see the pro home team play, and then the kids took to the ice afterward. They got to walk onto the ice through fog, with swirling lights, have their names announced, and stood for the anthem. Then played a game with music breaks and the announcer throwing out goal credits, and our nephew rose to the occasion with a hat trick. It was a perfect way to spend our Saturday noon, except getting in and out of the parking garage was perfect hell. The arena was in the same area as a big open-air Christmas market and the whole thing meant we spent 30 minutes driving to the venue and 50 minutes waiting to park, and the exit process was looking to be just as harrowing only with more honking, so we got into our car, considered our options, and got back out to spend our time more wisely: paying for a movie that at least one of us had already seen.

[It’s awards season, so besides Frozen 2 and Last Christmas, which we’ve already seen, the theatres are packed with things one or both of us have seen previously at film festivals.]

Of our options, we went with Knives Out, even though we grabbed two of the last 5 seats in the theatre, which means we were watching from the front row and Daniel Craig’s head was horrible distorted.

The script, however, was just as delightful. So even though I’ve already given you a full review of the film here, I wanted to urge you, if you’re at all interested in this film, to check it out at the cinema. Our packed theatre was having so much fun, laughing out loud consistently, it’s such a great communal experience to laugh alongside your fellow hooman.

TIFF19: Knives Out

Every year there are a few TIFF titles that have everyone buzzing, and those tickets become nearly impossible to get our popcorn-greasy hands on. This year, those titles were Jojo Rabbit, Joker, and Knives Out. I saw all 3 because I am very, very fortunate, but I was the only Asshole to see Knives Out, which also means that I have a pretty big responsibility to get this right.

Harlan Thrombey (Christopher Plummer) is a highly successful mystery writer. His family gathers under the roof of his mansion to celebrate his 85th birthday, after which, they all retire to bed. The next morning, Harlan is found on his sofa with his throat slit. Initially ruled a suicide, both the local police and a private investigator are suspicious. As they start interviewing the family it becomes clear that each and every one of them has a motive, and that they’re all pretty enthusiastic about pointing the finger at someone else.

First, let’s get the cast of characters out of the way.

Marta (Ana de Armas) is Harlon’s nurse, and the last to see him alive. She put him to bed after administering his meds. As an outsider, she becomes P.I. Benoit Blanc’s (Daniel Craig) go-to source for all the family secrets.

Linda (Jamie Lee Curtis) is Harlon’s daughter, a successful businesswoman. She is married to Richard (Don Johnson) who is perhaps a bit of a leech. They have a son, Ransom (Chris Evans) who is way too old to never have worked a day in his life. He is supported by Grandpa Harlan because, though rebellious, Harlan sees a lot of himself in Ransom.

Joni (Toni Collette) was married to Harlan’s now-deceased son. She and daughter Meg (Katherine Langford) are still quite close to the family, and are supported by Harlan. Joni is a bit of a free-spirit and doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the more conservative clan, though she may not realize it. She’s also at the other end of the political spectrum from brother-in-law Richard, and of course the two butt heads.

Walt (Michael Shannon) runs Harlan’s publishing empire, though with one hand tied behind his back as Harlan has no interest in selling movie rights or any other of Walt’s money-making suggestions. His wife Donna flies under the radar while his teenage son Jacob is a known weirdo and gossiped about as the family masturbator (does every family have one?).

That’s it. Those were all the people in the house the night Harlan died. It’s up to Blanc (a Poirot type, and not a little flamboyant) and police detective Elliott (Lakeith Stanfield) to sift through the pieces to try to assemble the puzzle. One helpful hint: nurse Marta is incapable of lying without barfing. It’s a tell that’s going to come in handy.

The movie is a lot of fun. First, there’s the fact that Harlan himself wrote murder mysteries. His house is full of mementos and artifacts – a display of knives behind the interview chair feels particularly ominous. But the ensemble cast makes it what it is. The script feeds them all some pretty snappy lines. I really loved Lakeith Stanfield’s referring to the Thrombey mansion as a “Clue board” – thanks for that, Rian. In fact, though the trailer bills Knives Out as a “whodunnit like no one has ever dunnit,” the truth is, plenty of murder mysteries came before it, and Johnson is not afraid to reference them. Johnson is a movie lover, a genuine movie lover, which makes his own movies so goddamn much fun to watch. He’s winking at us from the director’s chair. Going to a Rian Johnson movie is like taking my 5 year old nephew to a frozen yogurt place. He fills his little bowl with the first flavour, then a second, and probably a third. His eyes are bigger than his little belly. But he’s just getting started. Next come the toppings, which are his favourite part: cherries, chocolate chips, sprinkles, bigs of sugary cereal, broken up pretzels, strawberry flavoured boba, chunks of chocolate bar, pieces of cookie, bits of brownie. Next come syrups. Just one? Ha. That’s for amateurs. Then you cover it in whipped cream. Then a few more sprinkles, for the colour. More is more. Every spoonful digs up a new layer of goodness. He (both my nephew and Johnson) delights in every bite. There’s a sumptuous deliciousness to Rian Johnson’s films. And I don’t even worry about the belly ache: Rian Johnson is the one time you can eat every last bite and you never quite get enough.

Which is not to say this movie is unsatisfying. Johnson elevates the whodunnit by throwing in timely social elements that take a bite out of the wealth and class systems that literally allow people like this to get away with murder.

SXSW: The Director and The Jedi

the-director-and-the-jedi-sxswWhen I was a kid, I had a behind-the-scenes book detailing how they filmed the space combat in Star Wars, and I loved it. I could think of nothing better than to get to play with the spaceship models and the huge Death Star set used for the climactic scene. I found it fascinating to see how the movie was made.

And though my book did not inspire me sufficiently to pursue a career in film, my story is not much different than one that Rian Johnson tells in The Director and The Jedi, or for that matter one that Barry Jenkins told in his amazing keynote speech here at SXSW a couple of days ago about filming Moonlight in the same projects where Jenkins grew up.  Peeks behind the scenes can inspire the next generation of filmmakers, and give birth to a dream that a kid might not otherwise know to have, because it’s not immediately obvious that for every actor there are ten creative people behind the scenes, designing sets, making costumes, and on and on. But beyond that, even for someone like me who’s made a career choice that is not film, it’s just really cool to see how a huge film like Star Wars: The Last Jedi gets made.

The Director and The Jedi spans the course of The Last Jedi’s creation and documentarian Anthony Wonke was clearly given full access to the production. In granting unfettered access to Wonke and his crew, Johnson seems to have been trying to pay it forward, and in doing so he’s given a huge gift to all Star Wars fans.

There are some really amazing moments captured in The Director and The Jedi, with a particular favourite of mine being the destruction of the Jedi library, especially seeing the creature designers lose their shit over meeting Frank Oz.  And really, who can blame them? After all, he’s probably the reason they got into that career, and maybe even the reason their jobs even exist!

Maybe, just maybe, one young Star Wars fan will be inspired by this film to become the next Rian Johnson or Barry Jenkins. But even if not, there will be something of interest in The Director and The Jedi for every kid who ever wanted to fly his or her own model X-Wing through the trench run.

On Second Thought – Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I am not a Star Wars fan. I knew about it peripherally, the way it’s infused into pop culture and stuff, but I’d never seen the movies and never cared to. But Sean has always carried a special spot in his heart for Star Wars, or for the original trilogy anyway. He was just born when the first one came out but as a little boy he was enamoured with the series, with the very concept of space cowboys, and swords made out of laser beams, and cool flying cars. And while I think he respected my stance on keeping Star Wars out of my life for the most part, he kinda sorta took advantage of me when I had massive back surgery two years ago. High on back pills, he screened all 6 movies for me, and I was ambivalent at best. I’m totally okay with these movies existing in the world and I’m  happy for anyone who takes joy from them, but they aren’t for me and never will be. But I still experienced vicarious excitement for Sean when The Force Awakens was announced. It felt like we waited forever to get our hands on that one, and it felt a little out of this world to sit in a theatre and watch that famous crawl go up the screen. Ultimately, though, Sean was disappointed by TFA. He felt it was a little too similar to a previous Star Wars film and couldn’t quite work up the same enthusiasm for this retread. But don’t think that didn’t mean our butts weren’t in the seats opening night for Rogue One. And again for The Last Jedi, of course, and this time, Sean was a little more enthusiastic.

Warning: spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the movie yet, steer away. Maybe check out Sean’s spoiler-free review instead, or my own of the original trilogy.

I was not. Enthusiastic, I mean. I don’t mean to be a wet blanket on his boyhood nostalgia, and it wasn’t as if the film was without merits. I didn’t think it was bad, I just didn’t care all that much. And at two and a half hours, it was long and felt it, and I couldn’t help but sneer at the scenes that I thought of as bloated – that extended Finn/Rose casino adventure that never went anywhere in particular.

But later, thinking about this one scene between Luke and Rey, I reconsidered. “I failed him” he says of his nephew Kylo Ren’s defection to the Dark Side. No, she says, “He failed you.” And that’s when the movie really opened up to me and I started thinking of the film in terms of theme – that theme being failure. Triumphs are easy. Heroes are tested when things don’t go their way. Rose and Finn are not going to accomplish their mission but they never stop trying, they never stop believing, and that doggedness inspires hope in others. That mission was never as crucial as they believed. Vice Admiral Holdo had another plan in mind the whole time, and she orders the evacuation of her ship. But this plan fails too. The escape pods are picked off one by one and Holdo ends up sacrificing herself to save them. When she reveals to Leia that she’ll stay behind in what will amount to a suicide mission Leia says “I can’t take any more loss” to which Holdo responds “Yes you can.” Never mind that it feels like Laura Dern is speaking for us, the audience, who have so recently lost Carrie Fisher. It’s also a tiny admission by a formidable General that her job is hard, and weighing on her heavily.

Leia looks weary in this movie. The toll of each loss is written in the slope of her tumblr_oxl4isuDq51ruu897o5_540shoulders. But her unwavering belief in the cause encourages her to soldier on, as a Rebel and as a Leader – a figurehead who inspires others but also a teacher who is grooming the next generation. Poe seems to be a favourite of hers, though all agree he’s a bit of a hot head who prefers the shoot-em-up approach. Poe’s whole raison d’etre this film is to learn some hard lessons. He too must fail, and learn to put the Light first and foremost, ahead of even his own ego.

And perhaps it is Luke himself who needs most to learn how to continue on in the face of failure. Having failed his nephew Ben, who then serves under Snoke as the formidable Kylo Ren, Luke is so devastated and full of self-doubt he retreats. Not just physically, though he does completely disappear at a time when, arguably, the Rebellion needs him most. But he also retreats from the Force. He cuts himself off completely. And maybe it’s his fear that he’ll fail again that prevents him from giving Rey the help she needs.

In the film’s last epic battle, between the two men who seem to have failed each other, we must contemplate what, if anything, is Kylo Ren’s failure. Though The Last Jedi is a direct continuation from where we left off in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren seems to have grown quite a bit. He’s more self-assured and he’s more powerful. But he’s still prey to his own temper, which betrays him. He should have been able to pick up on Luke’s misdirection if he hadn’t been letting his rage dictate their interaction. The truth is, temperamental as he may be, Kylo Ren is a contender now. We’ve been underestimating him, and we’re not the only ones. But does he have a fatal flaw? Certainly, Kylo Ren has failed the Light. He’s failed his parents, and his heritage. But is he also failing himself? And if the answer is yes – does he have the means to soldier on?

Now we wait for Episode IX.

Brick

Back in December, I reviewed Mysterious Skin, Looper, and Sin City: A Dame to Kill For and brick postermade no secret of my Joseph Gordon-Levitt bias. It all started with Brick. I exited the theater when I first saw it back in 2006 certain that this was an actor to watch out for and refusing to listen to my friend’s allegations that this was in fact the same kid from 3rd Rock from the Sun.

Watching it again nearly a decade later, Brick feels a bit like a feature length high school video project- complete with an extremely low budget and a high school serving as the unlikely setting for a Maltese Falcon-style detective story. JGL plays a loner named Brendan who must navigate the seedy underworld of his school to solve his ex-girlfriend’s murder. The dialogue, music, and twists seem to come from a bizarre 40s noir. Instead of a meddling cop, we get a nagging vice-principal.

Just like in the Leonardo DiCaprio version of Romeo and Juliet, first time writer-director Rian Johnson (who JGL later worked with again on Looper) relies on the anachronisms in the discourse to make an old story feel new. This gives him an excuse to tell a pretty straightforward detective story without it feeling like just another detective story. I’ll admit his style takes some getting used to and I was completely thrown off at first back in 2006. But once you get the hang of it, it’s easy to get caught up in Johnson’s surreal picture of a modern high school. Sure, they don’t talk like real teenagers but they never do in the movies anyway. At least Brick is fun to listen to.

brick

Brick runs just a little bit longer than the novelty of Johnson’s gimmick and there are a couple of times too many where he uses self-parody as a bit of a crutch. The film really works best when it’s reminding us that the darkest of secrets can be hidden within the walls of our publc schools. You’ll either love the film’s style or you’ll hate it but JGL sold it for me. He always strikes just the right note and, like the movie itself, has one foot in the past and the other in the present. He has the look of a modern troubled teenager with the soul of Sam Spade. Nearly a decade later, I am still always looking forward to his next project.

Looper

After reviewing Mysterious Skin yesterday, I was inspired to buy and rewatch Looper. I think this movie was high profile enough for me not to bother with my usual summary of the plot so I will just offer a reminder that this is the one where Joseph Gordon-Levitt (the connection to Mysterious Skin in case you were wondering) plays a specialized hitman who must hunt for his future self (Bruce Willis) who has been sent from the future for assassination.

If you haven’t already seen it, I highly recommend it. Director Rian Johnson (Brick) creates a version of the future that is different enough from our present to be interesting but similar enough to be relatable. Because people are sent from the future just to be executed, not to change the past, Looper even avoids most of the logic problems that are usually par for the course with time travel movies. Okay, there are still a few “yeah, but wouldn’t…” moments but maybe that’s even part of the fun. JGL apparently spent a lot of time watching old footage of a younger Willis and, with the help of some talented make-up artists, the two actors do a better job than you might expect of being convincing as the same guy. Oh, and you have Jeff Daniels playing a gangster. So, see it.

But I’m mostly writing this not to the people who haven’t seen it but to those who have. Or at least to those who have either seen it enough times or seen it recently enough to remember what I’m talking about. Please, please, explain that ending to me! When I first saw it back in 2012, I promised myself that if I saw it again, I’m a smart guy- I could figure it out. But I just rewatched it and I still don’t understand how the last five seconds could possibly fit. So, if you have any thoughts, please leave them in the comment section.