Wednesday, December 27, 2017

Film Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Spoilers!)

Star Wars, the saga set a long time ago in a galaxy far far away, may seem the ultimate escapist movie series. And yet, in a year in which audiences are craving escape from the real world, Rian Johnson’s “The Last Jedi” does something unexpected - it insists there is no escape, not just for the characters on screen, but the audience beholding it.  Like Rey during her force training, the audience enters the dark cave of the theater to see their own 2017 predicament mirrored before them: fears must be faced, the dark side must be resisted, and if men are to have any hope, it is through listening to women, and doing what they're told.

One can see how a bro backlash could brew from such themes, but add Johnson’s risky slaughter of sacred cows to the stew and a mixed reaction was perhaps inevitable. This is a film in which (spoilers) Luke Skywalker is isolated and cynical, is revealed to have almost killed his sleeping nephew, and is easily bested by *gasp* a “girl” in a lightsaber duel. It is a film in which the ghost of Yoda returns to burn down the past which so many of us cling to still, all to illustrate a lesson on the value of failure. It is a film in which the late Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa is revealed — in a surreal and utterly fabulous scene of death and resurrection — to have access to the Force. At least, that’s how many interpreted her near death space flight. Some male fanboys saw the moment as Luke using his force powers Harry Potter-like, to save his squib sister from the other side of the galaxy.  Perhaps the truth is often subjective, but in this case: fuck off, fanboys, it's her last movie and Leia’s found the Force at last.

Astoundingly, the audacity of many of these directorial risks pay off, and this is, by my lights, the greatest Star Wars film ever made about the Force.  We are a long way from the nadir of the George Lucas prequels, where we are told, ridiculously, that the Force is a product of a “midichlorian” count one is born with — that you either have it or you don’t. Instead, in a sequence parallel to Yoda’s training of Luke on Dagobah in “Empire Strikes Back,” we are treated to Luke’s mystical description of the Force as a invisible connection between all things, which one can meditate upon and access via a sort of Buddhist enlightenment. And while reluctant teacher Luke emphasizes the light and warns against the darkness, his mentee Rey is immediately drawn to the dark, entering the Hellmouth on the island and falling into another surreal scene in which she faces the black mirror of the theater-cave and confronts the pressing question of her own identity and parentage.  We expect a big answer —  in the parallel episode from the original trilogy we famously learned Luke’s father was Darth Vader — but later in this film, daringly and brilliantly, Adam Driver’s Kylo-Ren causes Rey to remember the disappointing truth, that her parents were “nobodies” - that she was born of nothing: the ultimate "dark father."  If the Force was once closer to a metaphor for Bloodlines and Royalty, and Princess Leia and Luke of Force-Royal blood, this revelation is radical — Rey is a “nothing” commoner who seeks the crown, and in doing so implies everyone has access to the Force’s secrets if they seek it, not just a select genetic few.

This film, which at times risks jokes too corny and creatures too cute, goes gloriously further with the Force, thrillingly following its established rules to the ends of its own logic. Time and space are collapsed as characters communicate via telepathy across vast distances and the rebel force discovers not even lightspeed offers escape from the seemingly All Seeing Eye of the First Order. In so doing, the film is more dreamlike and less constrained by what we still misunderstand as the laws of physics than any Star Wars film before it.  For some this will take them out of the movie as they nitpick the mechanics of lightspeed tracking mechanisms, but anyone willing to suspend disbelief is in for a treat: as a result of this fever-dream magic, everything becomes about the psychology of the characters, the battles within the soul between light and dark, courage and fear, love and hate. And because of this collapse of time and space, our characters learn there is no escape from the battle before them. Finn, seeing the rebel situation as hopeless, mimics his desertion of the Stormtroopers in “Force Awakens” with his attempt to desert the rebels — but he is stopped by a lucky encounter with the determined Rose (and her crescent moon necklace — part of the “Space jewelry” recommended to the director by Carrie Fisher — which symbolically keeps hope alive by reflecting the light of the absent sun).  Luke has hermited himself on an island in the farthest reaches of the galaxy, his sense of purpose destroyed by his nephew/mentee’s turn to the dark side — but he is called to adventure, once again, by the determined Rey (of hope), who demands to be trained in the ways of the Force. Even the neutral casino capitalists on Canto Bite, who sell weapons to the light and dark sides alike, suffer the destruction of war as Finn and Rose crash their racing creatures through the city, on the search for a code-breaker to help save the rebels. No one escapes the showdown between light and dark, the Force demands a reckoning, and in this delicate balance everyone is forced to take sides eventually — even if, as the Codebreaker thief justifies to himself, selling out the rebels is “just business.” Every choice in this film is a test of courage, like a surreal fever dream mirage with no actual blood, just a setting meant to test one's mettle and one's soul. And in Carrie Fisher's outer space transcendence of her real life mortality,  we touch upon an ever possible truth: that the death we all fear is an illusion, the void we face and re-emerge from, glitteringly alive with the power to fly.

The secret sauce of Star Wars is that it is fundamentally a story about an initiation into secret spiritual truths. Without this foundation, all of the space battles, light saber duels, character identity reveals, special effects, and space politics would be little more than blockbuster nonsense.  But with it, the stakes of everything are profound, every battle and decision is infused with meaning:  an epic confrontation between good and evil, love and fear, as the heroes and the villains seek redemption and search for the secrets of the universe. Many know that George Lucas was deeply influenced by Joseph Campbell’s mythological study “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” but less are aware that a prime influence for Yoda and the Jedi training was Carlos Castenada’s “The Teachings of Don Juan,” and “The Last Jedi” understands that Star Wars works best when it is focused on the mysterious relationship between a sorcerer and her apprentice. With Luke training Rey in the ways of the Force, Rose teaching Finn the power of love over hate, and Leia and Laura Dern’s Holdo guiding Poe away from destructive machismo toward true leadership, the film becomes, essentially, Castaneda in Outer Space. No Star Wars film before has reached this far philosophically and spiritually, and like the characters, Johnson is clearly attempting to outgrow the master (Lucas himself) by seriously grappling with the implications of the Force. We are made uncomfortable by this film, our nostalgic attachments are challenged, and we are asked to accept a Star Wars born anew, infused now, like Leia herself, with a divine feminine power and a mature definition of heroism.

This is a long but rollicking movie and also a gorgeous film, and if green was the defining color of its predecessor this adventure is drenched in crimson. In the final Hoth-reminiscent battle in which scrappy rebel ships scrape the reddish salt, it appears as if the snow is splattered with all the blood ever spilt in this deadly series but never shown on screen (perhaps the light sabers sutured the wounds).  As a result we see the stakes and understand all which has been lost, but because we care about many of the characters, we also deeply feel them.  Not everything works here, but the parts that do transcend the flaws, and when Laura Dern’s lightspeed sacrifice is rendered realistically in silence, goosebumps fill the theater.  This is an ambitious film with great moments, as fitting an unexpected farewell to Carrie Fisher as could be reasonably hoped for, and the most satisfying Star Wars adventure since the 1980s. 4 stars out of 5 ****

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Film Review: Nocturnal Animals

Kevin's Review:

As a director, Tom Ford is the real deal -- his debut feature, A Single Man, was one of the greatest queer films ever made -- and this follow-up does not disappoint: Nocturnal Animals, a luxurious adult fairy tale of ennui and revenge, is one of the best films of the year, and one of the greatest revenge films of our time.

The overall weakness in the mixed-to-stunning reviews stem from some critics' inability to connect emotionally to the story (one critic, Adam Graham, says Ford "fails to connect the dots on an emotional level," Christopher Orr says it offers "Art without the heart"). Perhaps these critics missed that the heart here arrives unexpectedly -- just as it arrives for our main character -- at the end, and there is no doubt that for the enraptured viewer, the film captivates coldly & completely until the emotional body blow of the exquisite final scene.

The characters and their relationships here are stereotypical, and that is by design and befitting the dark fairy tale structure and atmosphere.  Adams -- in an Enchanted-level performance of perfection, superior even to this year's turn in Arrival -- is an artist who has lost her soul in pursuit of material security and outward beauty; Gyllenhaal is the ex-boyfriend struggling romantic/writer who unexpectedly sends her his new manuscript, "Nocturnal Animals." We see backstory: their first date connection was real, their love was intense, their breakup because of Adams's fear of poverty, and the story we find ourselves in -- which in fact announces itself to us -- is of Gyllenhaal's beautiful, delicate revenge.  There are standout performances, beyond the main two, from Golden Globe winner Aaron Taylor-Johnson as a Texas hooligan and Laura Linney in a single, standout scene as Adams's leonine-bourgeois monster-mother figure.  The themes here are also out of a lost Grimm fairy tale -- beauty and ugliness, strength and weakness, getting what we wish for -- and are explored with artistry and genuine cinematic vision.  Ford, translating his great eye for fashion successfully into filmic language, again, skillfully hypnotizes from the start, and the deeper feelings and meanings he evokes are wordless, as fashion is and great cinema tends to be.

There is a timely, ever-haunting sequence in which a fictional (within the film, we see the events of the manuscript) character played by Gyllenhaal is driving on a deserted stretch of road with his wife and daughter and encounters a pack of young men led by Johnson, who proceed to knock them off the road, flatten their tire (and then offer to fix it), and kidnap the wife and daughter -- and worse.
They do it all without guns, with mere cajoling, as Gyllenhaal and his family go-along, trying to avoid an outright confrontation, and hoping, as we all do, for the best.  One surface lesson here -- that good faith in fellow humans, in societal norms, can be dangerously misplaced as we sleepwalk to our doom -- haunts me still in the context of current events.

See this haunting film in theaters. It is a surreal near-masterpiece for our twilight zone times.

****1/2 Four and a half Stars out of Five.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

Film Review: Jackie

Kevin's Review

Natalie Portman is a sorceress. For several seconds, the accent and breathy voice seem ridiculous -- we think, oh God, this is a catastrophe -- and then it clicks. We lock in to her face and her performance. The spell is cast; we're hers.

"Jackie" is a film about a woman asserting the reality of her trauma, her values, and her existence against a world in chaos, against power-obsessed men who want to move on from her and her murdered husband, against doubts that JFK's short presidency (or even her marriage) mattered at all.  "We were just the beautiful people," Bobby despairs, seeing no legacy, no mark upon the world. He decries her vanity and says the power was all in vain. But from the first gunshot and blood-splatter in the motorcade Jackie is in the heat of battle, on the front-lines in a war over history itself. And Beauty -- terrible, heartless Beauty -- is her greatest weapon.

Throughout the film we are one with Jackie and her trauma and her doubts and her humanities degree mantras: Tradition; Truth; Beauty; Power.  In the most glorious sequence, in one of her last nights in the White House, she plays her dead husband's "Camelot" record -- a shared cultural love that bonded the complicated couple -- and makes one last private White House tour, drinking wine, trying on her dresses, and -- thrillingly -- sitting on the American Throne in the Oval Office.  We see a woman, someone others saw as a dress-up doll, with Power, and we see her realize the reality of that Power in the moment.  We see her decide, in solitude and silence, to make her mark on history, to become an icon. To create Camelot.

Even with these stakes, one reviewer dismissed this film as a gore-splattered "fashion show." Another called it "Camelot torture porn" and "leaden." What they and others missed was that this was just as much a war movie as Hacksaw Ridge, and a much better one.  The fight is for meaning. Jackie's accomplishment of an outdoor funeral procession despite the deadly risks and fierce resistance was an act of insanity.  It was also an act of genius.  In embodying the tragic sublime in her black veil, in imprinting herself in the depths of American memory -- she wrested momentary control of the awesome catastrophe of history through the mastery of myth. It was a transcendent psychic victory, for her, for women, and for the eternal idea of America.

Because Jackie Kennedy was a sorceress too, using tools others didn't understand to create semiotic order out of the chaos of JFK's spectacle of a presidency and his meaningless murder. In the face of Armageddon, she created Camelot: she enchanted the American Presidency itself.  At last, in this film, her achievement receives the royal appreciation it deserves.  A cinematic masterpiece, a career-best performance, a crackling first screenplay, a directorial work of postmodern brilliance, an artistic risk nearly as bold as the one it depicts -- this is the film of the year, the greatest biopic since Patton, destined to be mocked and misunderstood but unquestionably one of the finest films about America ever made.

***** Five Stars. Bravo.

Lukas's Review

Jackie and its deep-digging score had me even before I saw the first image of that terribly dressed journalist stepping out of the cab, broken as his country.  And then there's the performance of Natalie Portman, that, surprisingly, lived up to its hype -- as well as a story and camerawork that were suitably torn between the myth they were destroying and falling for at the same time.

Meanwhile, the words of the script lurk in a swamp of sexism and power. And the movie bathes in it, floats on the surface and is yet aware of everything dark and complex underneath.

Start with the poster of the movie: not glorifying Kennedy's pink Dallas dress, but her red White House tour one.  From this tension this convention bending biopic generates its energy.  It finds strength in elegance, truth in fairy tales, and personal experience in iconographic images. In the end, Jackie is a comment on time and its narratives as well as a decoding process of the same subjects.

5 Stars *****

Monday, January 2, 2017

Film Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Kevin's Review

The wise imagination of JK Rowling is one of the living treasures of the western world, and her magical and ever-growing Potter universe is the supreme fantasy creation of our time. Within that context, this Rowling-penned film’s 1920s magical New York expansion of that universe is a magnificent accomplishment – albeit one of world and character-building rather than plot, which is as scrawny as the film's star.

Ah, but a star he is -- Eddie Redmayne performs his protagonist, “Fantastic Beasts” collector (and Hogwarts textbook author) Newt Scamander, with Streepian attention to detail.  Newt, combining the looks and animal-love of Prince Harry with the coy, soft-spoken magnetism of
 Jackie Kennedy, reads as perhaps on the autism spectrum, and is ambivalent toward human society in favor of his dangerous and charming beasts – and it is his decidedly anti-heroic carelessness that releases his little monsters across Manhattan, inciting the action. Throughout the story, as characters (some, like Alison Sudol’s Queenie Goldstein, glow with excellence; others merely flicker) assemble to re-capture the beasts and uncover a mystery involving the rise of a dark wizard, Newt maintains his deepest attention and affinity with his animals, even as they injure human beings, a consequence to which, like a Zack Snyder Superman, he remains eerily indifferent.  In one glorious sequence, we enter Newt’s magic suitcase as he introduces his friend, the charming and funny Dan Folger as Jacob, to his bestiary, proudly showing off their beauty, diversity, and deadly fierceness.  One such beast, a Phoenix-like creature called a “Thunderbird,” Newt explains, was found in Egypt, taken to England, and is now on its way to the Western United States.  Here, Rowling is signaling more than just fantastical fun – she’s hinting at deep esoteric meanings in these strange beings, just as the entire “magical” Potter-parallel universe serves as a mythological reflection of our non-magical world.

Let us take this further, because we are here, and because we can: this “Thunderbird,” which plays a major role in the plot’s resolution, is certainly more than just a beast – it is, like the earthly Eagle counterpart, the embodiment of a superpower's terrible beauty and awesome might – think Babylon, Britannia, and the Bomb – a mantle of worldwide responsibility handed over to adolescent, pre-war America, an ancient gift by way of her mother country.  This is the fun of such fantasy: it manifests the invisible part of the past, and allows us to see the soul of a nation in these fantastic beasts, as we meditate on meanings within events and myths within history.  Rowling – like Tolkien and Lewis before her – knows the strange power of her own narrative magic to enchant our dry textbook chronicles as well as our everyday lives.

This first film, then, is a flawed work of wonder, and the plot -- thin but pleasantly reminiscent of Jurassic Park -- promises to improve upon future installments, which shall explore another morally complex situation: the Potter-teased story of Albus Dumbledore’s dangerous gay romance with the evil wizard Grindelwald.  The casting, for the most part, is inspired – apart from the unfortunate misstep of casting a rather green-seeming actress (Carmen Ejogo) for the magical American president, who fails to convey the gravitas a Viola Davis or Angela Basset would have brought to the role.  Still, these are small quibbles, and for the most part the film is a lovely start to a series, and if the first “Potter” is any indication, is merely a piece of a whole which promises to be much, much greater than the sum of its parts.

 *** 3 Stars