Tag Archives: The Last Jedi

Top Nine Movies of 2017

So it’s almost halfway through the year and I’m finally putting together my year end list. For 2017. Yeah. Kinda forgot about it. And by forgot about I mean procrastinated.

Anyway! Here we go! Top Nine; leaving a space just in case there was something amazing I missed.

9. Logan

This one edges out Thor Ragnarok just by virtue of how singular it is (though Ragnarok is also quite singular in a different way). Logan takes the idea of a dark and gritty superhero film but, rather than using this just to show how adult and grownup it is, it funnels it into a heavy atmosphere that evokes a Morricone western by way of The Last of Us. The result is a beautiful contradiction, the pulpy fun of a superhero story set in a harsh, unforgiving mood. That Logan has something to say and it’s not just “look how gritty and violent I can be with my R-rating” is the icing on its brutal cake.

8. Coco

Where do I begin. It’s no exaggeration when I say that Pixar is home to some of the best storytellers in the world, and Coco proves that point over and over again. It’s a fantasy, but one that draws on Mexican traditions rather than western ones. Not content with just being a fairy tale with a Latinx cast, Coco revels in its beauty and celebrates love and family.

7. Lady Bird

It’s so seldom that we see a movie about being a teenager that presents it as, well, just how it is. Lady Bird makes no attempt to overly romanticize or deglamorize turning eighteen and the result is a movie that feels beautifully, brutally honest. There’s no judgement of poor decisions, no moralizing, it’s just life.

6. The Big Sick

Like Lady Bird right above, The Big Sick tells a very specific, personal story (that of the co-writers’) and in doing so tells a story that feels very personal. Maybe I’m biased, given that I’ve spent my time in and around hospitals and am currently in an interracial relationship, but isn’t the point of art the way it affects you the viewer? Plus, the movie has heart to spare and I will never not be happy to see mixed race relationships on screen.

5. Get Out

Speaking of interracial relationships! It’s a horror movie where white people are the monster. If that’s not inventive enough to warrant Get Out a place on this list, than know that the movie operates with such craft and imagination that it never feels like a one trick pony getting by on that conceit. At times both funny and terrifyingly tragic, Get Out is a great movie that looks at race relations with a horror movie’s lens. And hot damn, it works.

4. Atomic Blonde

There is always a joy in finding a movie that knows exactly what sort of movie it is and then plays it to the hilt. Atomic Blonde is a stylish, sexy spy movie whose Cold War Berlin punk influences permeate every aspect of its design. Throw in some terrific action scenes and more style than half the movies released last year combined and you have the recipe for a really kickass action movie.

3. Baby Driver

One of my favorite parts about driving is listening to music. Baby Driver makes that element of soundtrack vital to its slick, slick style. Technically excellent (that editing! that sound design! that driving!), it also tells a really fun story with some really fun characters. Edgar Wright is one of my favorite directors, and Baby Driver does not disappoint.

2. The Last Jedi

Where The Force Awakens was a celebration of what made the original movies so great, The Last Jedi forges a path into what Star Wars can be. I’ve written a bunch about it on this blog, and suffice to say, it finds ways to reinvent and play with the Star Wars mythos without losing the heart of the saga. Plus, the Throne Room fight is one of the best action sequences in a Star Wars film.

1. Your Name

It’s an anime where two teenagers, a boy living in the city and a girl in the countryside, wake up in each other’s bodies. And it will make you cry as it runs circles around whatever genre (rom-com, teenager comedy, etc) you try and pin it in.. It’s so hard for me to sum up why I love this movie so I’m just gonna make quick statements. It’s really funny. It does a lot with its fantastical elements. It’s uniquely Japanese. The music. The animation. The feels. Your Name is a movie that can somehow only exists within the innate magical realism of an anime. It’s really a wonderful, wonderful film.

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Star Wars as an Anti-Capitalist Discourse

Oh you thought I was kidding? Here we go.

Star Wars takes a lot of cues from Westerns. Characters like Han Solo and places like Mos Eisley’s cantina make it pretty obvious. But it’s also apparent in where it takes place: the fringes of society. Be they remote planets desert or frozen, these stories take place away from economic and cultural hubs. Which, given that we follow the good guys, makes sense: implicit in the Star Wars movies is the idea that places of wealth and opulence are the breeding grounds of evil. In other words, the real villain in Star Wars is capitalism (and the Sith too but bear with me here).

Let’s look at where we spend time among the wealthy in the Original Trilogy. Outside of Imperial Battle Stations, the only place we visit that is remotely ‘first world’ is Cloud City, a gorgeous city whose wealth is built on Tibanna Gas mining. It’s beautiful in the way sci-fi modernity is. But its gleaming hallways belie a darker secret. It is when the Rebels come to Cloud City (the richest civilian place we’ve seen) that they are sold out. Han is tortured and frozen in carbonite, Luke is lured into a trap and told that the bastion of evil is his father. But Lando’s a good guy, you say. Well, he was. He’s Han’s friend, turned ‘respectable’ by the capitalistic influences of Cloud City. It’s when he’s compromised as such that he betrays his former friends, but he finds redemption when he leaves Cloud City and joins the Rebellion on the outskirts of the galaxy.

The Prequel Trilogy brings us closer to civilized space, with the planet of Naboo, an idyllic, peaceful planet. The villains in The Phantom Menace are the Trade Federation, an economically driven group who, in the wake of a tax dispute, blockade the planet and invade it. It is a financially-driven, militaristic, occupational force that the heroes strive against. When the Republic and the Confederacy go to war, the Trade Federation is joined in leadership of the latter by other corporate entities; such as the Banking Clan and Corporate Alliance. The war is marked by economic entities turning against the government; the villains in the story are capitalists fighting against economic control.

In addition, there’s Coruscant, the glittering capital of the Republic. Like Cloud City hopped up on steroids, it is a hub of wealth beyond compare. Here is the Senate, a governing body locked into inaction; a Jedi Temple stuck in orthodoxy unable to adapt to the changing times. Not much good comes from the rich capital.

It’s in The Last Jedi where the anti-capitalist bent of the films comes to a head. In an effort to undermine the villainous First Order, Rose and Finn go on a desperate mission to Canto Bight, a rich city most known for its casino. Finn quickly learns that the city’s wealth is built on the back of the military industrial complex. The rich folks wheeling and dealing are profiteering off a war the Resistance is fighting for survival. Though maybe not outright evil, they are decidedly not good people. The codebreaker who Rose and Finn ally themselves with ends up selling them out, simply because the First Order offered him more money. It’s money, and the unfettered pursuit of it, that tends to create villainy in Star Wars.

Throughout the films, lesser antagonists are driven by a want of money: Greedo wants the bounty on Han’s head, Watto refuses to sell anything for cheap, Unkar Plutt is miserly with his rations. Luke and Obi-Wan use Han’s love of money to get to the Death Star and rescue Princess Leia; but it’s when Han stops caring about the money that he really becomes a hero. Star Wars makes it pretty clear: the capitalists tend to be villainous, those who don’t emphasize making money are heroic.

By taking place primarily on the outskirts of society, with its interactions with society dominated by free enterprise tending to lead to misfortune, Star Wars takes a stance against unfettered capitalism. To be heroic in Star Wars is to do things for more than economic gain. To pursue money above all else, to be motivated by capitalism, well, that might not make you the Empire, but you’re certainly not a good guy.

Writer’s Note:

Well. That was fun to do again. It’s a lotta fun to dig into something I love as much as Star Wars and connect dots to create a meaning that may or may not be intended (though The Last Jedi railing against the military industrial complex is certainly deliberate). Is Star Wars itself anti-capitalist? Maybe a little. Will I do more of these oddly in-depth analysis? Maybe.

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Rey and Luke

I liked a lot of things about the The Force Awakens, but easily my favorite addition was Rey, who is undeniably the best. Sure, she’s basically Luke Skywalker in the original, except she’s someone who’s grown up with those same stories and now gets to live them out. It’s cool, and she gets a lightsaber and that’s awesome.

But The Last Jedi doesn’t give Rey some grand adventure. Rey doesn’t actually do a whole lot over the course of the film. While Poe’s facing down the First Order fleet she’s… talking to Luke Skywalker. While Finn and Rose are searching Canto Bight she’s… still talking to Luke Skywalker. Then she has the Throne Room (which is an epic highlight to be sure) and her run against the TIE Fighters in the Falcon, but past that she just lifts a bunch of rocks (and saves the Resistance, sure). My point is, Rey spends most of the movie sitting on an island talking to Luke and, sometimes, Kylo Ren. Which really seems like she’s just spinning her wheels for a solid chunk of time. Why doesn’t she get to do more? Why do you take your best character and leave her idling on the wayside?

Because she’s not idle, not quite. Her arc in the film is her wrestling with the legend of Luke Skywalker: both in arguing with the man himself, but also her own desire to enact the same narrative. Let’s lay out the parallels: both Luke and Rey are from nowhere desert planets. Both wanted something more than their expected life, and both were whisked off on a grand journey to defeat a galaxy-threatening evil. Along they way they also discovered that, hey, they’re strong in the Force! Come the sequels, Luke goes to a distant planet to learn to be a Jedi and redeems Darth Vader. So now Rey, who knows the story of Luke, finds herself on a distant planet with a Jedi Master; the next steps are clearly to become a Jedi herself and redeem Kylo Ren, the heir to Vader’s legacy.

But as Luke says, this isn’t going to do the way she thinks. He is not training Jedi, and his lessons is in the Force are all to dissuade her from trying to take up the old mantle, to continue the old legacy she so desperately wants and Luke resents. Essentially, Rey wants the Jedi Order of the Republic to come back, and Luke wants it to end. Rey and Luke’s conflict boils down to whether or not to put another quarter into the arcade cabinet blinking “Game Over.”

Meanwhile, a Force connection emerges between Rey and Kylo Ren. Kylo offers another foil for Rey, someone with whom she can butt heads about who’s right, and who’s wrong. But as their relationship develops and they see their similarities, Rey also finds another narrative she can enact: the redemption of a Sith. If Luke could turn Vader, could she not turn Kylo too?

Rey leaves Ahch-To and Luke’s training for two reasons. With Luke unwilling to give her the Jedi training she really wants (and swoop in to save the Resistance), she figures Jedi Masters are bunk and she’ll save the Resistance herself. But this is also her chance to save Kylo and bring him back to the light. Screw Luke Skywalker, she’s gonna do the Luke Skywalker schtick without him and redeem Kylo, save the Resistance, and continue the Jedi Order.

Remember what I said about things going the way you think? Kylo can’t be turned, and Rey’s Ultimate Catharsis is undercut. She failed. She didn’t get to save the Dark Lord and turn the tide of the battle. And she doesn’t get to be Luke Skywalker. When Kylo turns Rey down, she not only has to contend with the loss of a would-be friend, but she also finds herself shaken to the core: she’s nobody, and she’s certainly not gonna be Luke Skywalker.

Rey does end up rescuing what’s left of the Resistance, but they lose the fight, Luke is gone, and her lightsaber is split. Things have really gone sideways. But this is The Last Jedi, a movie that wonders what to do with the past. Rey has seen the legacy she had hoped to inherit come crumbling down.

And maybe it should have, maybe Luke was right and the time of the Jedi Order of old is at an end. Maybe it’s time for Rey to stop trying to be Luke and figure out what Rey’s story is.

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Let The Past Die

Part of why I like The Force Awakens is that its characters are, in many ways, Star Wars fans themselves. Rey and Kylo Ren both grew up on stories about the Rebellion and the Empire (though with different takeaways) and so want to live out their version of the stories. Kylo fashions himself into an ersatz Darth Vader, Rey sees the chance to join up with the legendary Han Solo and maybe become a Jedi like Luke Skywalker.

The Last Jedi, on the other hand, deconstructs those dreams (and those of the audience too). And since I’m gonna be talking about The Last Jedi, this is where I let you know that here there be spoilers. About character arcs and stuff, which as we all know is what really matters.

So anyway. Spoilers. And deconstruction.

Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for being nothing except a shadow of Vader. Killing Han’s not good enough; Kylo’s just a fanboy. It becomes clear that Kylo will never come into his own so long as all he wants to do is imitate his grandfather. And so the character of Kylo Ren, as we knew it in Awakens, is dressed down and forced to forge a new identity.

Meanwhile, on Ach-To, Rey can only watch as Luke Skywalker casually tosses the revered lightsaber over his shoulder. Turns out Rey’s idea of Luke is terribly misinformed. Even her understanding of The Force (controlling people and lifting rocks) is wrong. Rey’s expectations are dashed and eventually she has to, in the words of another Jedi, unlearn what she’s already learned, and try and start afresh.

The Last Jedi sets fire to a lot of what we hold dear about Star Wars. Sometimes this is done through character (Poe is chastised for his propensity for reckless and costly space battles where they somehow overcome the odds) and other times it’s through the story itself.

Look at the Jedi.

They’re cool, right? With their dope lightsabers and all the heroing we see them do in the movies. Luke outright calls them fools, a prideful group whose hubris allowed the Empire to rise. He goes so far as to desecrate one of the finer points of the Star Wars mythos, derisively calling the Jedi’s weapon a laser sword. And Luke has a point. Maybe the Jedi weren’t all they cracked up to be (and, as we see in the prequels, they really weren’t the brightest of the bunch). The movie takes apart a chunk of Star Wars, and puts its pieces on display. The Jedi are flawed, overblown legends, maybe it’s time for them to end.

The response to this deconstructed Star Wars is embodied by the movie’s hero and villain. Rey and Kylo have both seen their goals tossed aside, goals that were, in essence, to emulate the Original Trilogy. They each respond differently: Kylo sees this as an opportunity to burn it all down and let the past die so he can remake the world as he sees fit; Rey, however, wants to rebuild from the ashes, learning from the mistakes of what’s come before. The epic battle between the light side and the dark side continues, though this time it’s one that these two have defined for themselves.

And that’s this movie’s relation with The Force Awakens. The prior one re-established Star Wars as we remember it, replete with high-flying romantic adventure. The Last Jedi takes apart those tropes, breaking down the notions of chosen ones, daring plans, and wise masters. But writer/director Rian Johnson loves Star Wars and so, now that he’s taken them apart, he can develop them deeper than before. Luke is bitter and stubborn, a far cry from an idealistic farmboy or a sage like Yoda. But he still has much to learn, especially from his shortcomings. The idea of a wise master who knows everything doesn’t stand up, but when we take that away we’re given a Jedi Master who is still learning. Which is a more interesting, deeper interpretation.

Rey is a nobody, but she’s still strong with the Force – all that talk about chosen ones and being descended from a great Jedi (like Kylo) is bunk, but, but but but, now anyone can be a Jedi. Luke Skywalker doesn’t swoop in to defeat the First Order, because that hero could be anyone, that hope is bigger than he is.

What Rian Johnson does seems almost anathema, counter to the distilling of Star Wars that is The Force Awakens. But Johnson gives these stories new room to grow, and so he forces Rey and Kylo (and fans like me!) to reexamine the older Star Wars movies and figure out a new what’s next. Kylo Ren isn’t gonna be Darth Vader, and Rey isn’t about to be Luke Skywalker.

And we’re better off for that.

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Long Live The Resistance

It’s really easy to see the original Star Wars as an anti-establishment film. Han, Luke, and Leia are a trio of rebels vying to undermine and overthrow the Man. And given that the movie is a product of the 70s, it just might be intentional. Empire has the Man crackdown on our plucky heroes, and Return of The Jedi culminates in the final usurpation.

Of course, within this framework, any story about plucky rebels can be interpreted as anti-establishment. Mega Man Zero is about Zero and the Resistance exposing Neo Arcadia for the dystopia it is. The Matrix has Neo fighting back against the humanity-controlling Machines. Harry Potter and his friends form Dumbledore’s Army to take on Umbridge.

But antiestablishmentarianism is in Star Wars’ DNA, and not just as an idea as in some other examples. And for that, you need look no further than the prequels.

Which, sounds kinda odd, because the heroes in the prequels are part of the establishment. The Jedi Order is in full swing and Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan are members. Padmé is a Queen and a Senator. On the other hand, Tatooine, a planet beyond the reach of the Republic, is a lawless land of slavery. The villainous Confederacy is trying to destroy the peaceful Republic. Ostensibly, it’s the inverse of the original trilogy’s ethos.

But the prequels are about the fall of the Republic. And it is not brought down by an external resistance: it is brought down from within. For all the fighting the Confederacy does, they don’t destroy the Republic. The Republic is a corrupt system, full of infighting that prevents anything from being done (as we see with Naboo’s blockade in Phantom Menace). The Jedi Order is all too ready to make the jump from peacekeepers to generals. The Republic is not a good thing: it is old and decrepit, and its conversion into the Empire is a product of its own failings. In the prequels, the heroes may be servants of the establishment, but the establishment is not a good thing. Revenge of The Sith has the Senate, who our heroes have been championing, capitulating to Darth Sidious. No, the prequels don’t have Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Padmé fighting the Man, instead their loyalty to the establishment is their undoing.

The recent movies carry on this point of view. The New Republic in The Force Awakens doesn’t believe the First Order to be a credible threat and are so destroyed, leaving Leia and her Resistance to fight on. They were, to an extent, abandoned by the establishment and left to fend for themselves. Rogue One speaks for itself (if you need a reminder: ragtag team of diverse nobodies take on a monolithic empire).

So Star Wars is decidedly anti-establishment. Cool.

The Last Jedi, however, embraces this ethos with an unrivaled vigor. In the bigger, meta scheme of things, Star Wars is now the establishment. It’s no longer this weird sci-fi movie that mixes together westerns, samurai films, and Flash Gordon serials; it’s its own thing and its heroes pop culture legends. So The Last Jedi sets out to deconstruct a lot of Star Wars’ tropes, this time turning its anti-establishment lens on its own heroes. The establishment in The Last Jedi takes the form of a variety of legacies; the legacy of the Jedi, the legacy of the Empire, even the legacy of Luke Skywalker. The movie itself challenges our assumptions about these things, challenging us to ask questions about them we may not be too keen to ask. What if the Jedi should end? What does it mean to have been Luke Skywalker? Why do we care so much for legacies?

Some of these questions are answered, and some of these have no easy answer. Sure, there’s still a plucky Resistance against an indomitable First Order, but director Rian Johnson wants to figure out what Star Wars really is, and that means bringing a hammer to some stuff you’d rather not. It’s excellently done and particularly bold given how safe Star Wars usually is.

I have A Lot Of Thoughts on The Last Jedi, thoughts that I’ll need another viewing and many beer-fueled conversations with friends to mull over. But one thing that’s abundantly clear is that The Last Jedi has a very clear image of its identity, and one facet of that is as the culmination of an anti-establishment vision.

Which is pretty neat.

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