Tag Archives: Rian Johnson

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.

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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.