Thoughts on Star Wars: The Last Jedi

You know you're a cinephile when your reaction to the announcement of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is, "Oh boy, more Star Wars!" but rather "Oh boy, Rian Johnson gets to direct another movie!". I had high hopes for Star Wars: The Last Jedi primarily because Johnson is such a dynamic, interesting director of genre cinema, and secondarily because ermahgerdstarwars. As it turns out, I was correct in my excitement for The Last Jedi: it is easily the most visually accomplished film in the series, one that places emphasis on clarity of action and logical narrative progression. As a writer-director, Johnson streamlines the character motivations into something you can easily grasp from scene to scene so that even as the stakes spin dizzyingly high you have a clear idea of what our heroes intend to achieve and how the villains would like to see them fail. Johnson also exercises a considerable amount of discretion over delivering fan service throughout the film, in contrast to the previous entry's cozy wallow in the original's story beats. He takes the story in a bold new direction and leaves you at a complete loss as to what may happen next, a true accomplishment in the realm of franchise-building.

Statistically, you have already seen The Last Jedi, but I will alert you of spoilers, nonetheless.

Johnson's masterstroke was to take the question of Rey's origins and make it a complete non-issue. I do hope that the story continues in this vein through the next film--for which Abrams will return, having replaced the hapless Colin Trevorrow--rather than undoing such a compelling plot development. When The Empire Strikes Back connected Luke back to Darth Vader, it was a revolutionary twist that laid the foundation for blockbuster storytelling for years to come. You can find precedents for this sort of thing as far back as Shakespeare, but Star Wars would return to the well of the galaxy far far away being much smaller than you thought, particularly in how it doubled down by including Leia as a long-lost sister.

In The Last Jedi, Rey can actually hold on to the mantle of being no one from nowhere who just happens to be blessed with Force sensitivity. It falls neatly into the thematic arc of the now-aged Luke's resistance against the idea of control over and understanding of the Force being a natural right as opposed to a undemocratic privilege granted only to the Jedi. The identity of a hero from small beginnings who has larger dreams is a time-tested one, but to actually keep those beginnings small (or even tragic, if Kylo Ren's characterization of Rey's parents as heartless drunkards is to be believed) is an uncommon move in the Star Wars universe.

Coincidentally, we saw a similar (here comes another spoiler) plot development in Denis Villeneuve's Blade Runner 2049, in which we are lulled into the idea that K may be the miraculous love child of Rick Deckard and Rachael, but it turns out that he's just a normal, run-of-the-mill replicant who got caught up in something larger than himself (and who happens to look like Ryan Gosling). BR2049 may share little with The Last Jedi in the way of tone, but its emphasis on irregular blockbuster storytelling is certainly a commonality, a trend that I hope to see continue in future films of this scale.



Wind River

Writer-director Taylor Sheridan has come a long way since playing a supporting character in the first three seasons of Sons of Anarchy. With his screenwriting debut, Sicario, he showed audience that the revisionist Western was itself due for revision, throwing his characters into a moral gray area the likes of which Hollywood hadn't seen since the 70s. He's teamed with directors with striking visual sense - Denis Villeneuve and David Mackenzie for last year's superlative Hell or High Water - to produce some of the most exciting action films of the decade. Now Sheridan's in the director's chair for the first time and earns his spot there with Wind River, another tale of law and lawlessness in perhaps America's most forgotten area, a Native American reservation.

Despite the film's setting, which is in and around the eponymous reservation in central Wyoming, the protagonist is Cory Lambert, played by Jeremy Renner. I point out this fact because it is unfortunate that a film that is so sympathetic towards the brutish lifestyle into which its predominantly Native American cast have been historically forced has to feature a white man in the lead role. I chalk this up to the film's small, $11 million budget and the militia of credited producers: this one wouldn't have made it to theaters without Renner's presence, to say nothing of Elizabeth Olsen as his co-lead. If these are the sacrifices that must be made in order for these stories to be told, then so be it.

Lambert is a hunter and tracker who is responsible for sniping the various predators who terrorize local livestock. We first encounter him swathed in white camouflage, scoping and dispatching a detachment of wolves that are eyeing a flock of sheep. The metaphor is hardly lost on us, particularly once it sinks in that the reason for Lambert's estrangement from his Native American ex-wife (Julia Jones) is the death of their teenage daughter, Emily, three years earlier. While helping his erstwhile father-in-law flush out some mountain lions who have killed a yearling, Lambert finds the snowbound body of a different teen girl: it's that of Natalie, a local Native American girl who happened to be Emily's best friend. She's barefoot, underdressed, and bloodied up in disturbing places.

The body's also situated in the reservation, leaving the jurisdiction to the FBI. This being a remote area that has learned to fend for itself, the local police chief (Graham Greene) is sent Jane Banner (Olsen), a greenhorn g-woman who comes to Wind River by way of Las Vegas. Due to the specific circumstances of Natalie's death, which cannot technically be called a murder, Banner is the only resource the FBI is willing to spare. She enlists Lambert's help in investigating what is obviously a homicide, his tracking skills and familiarity with the territory pairing well with Banner's authority and persistence.

The volatile weather conditions are a literal stand-in for the hostility with which the locals face the pair, two white people looking for answers from a society who expects only abuse from folks like them. The film poses tough questions about the nature of the relationship between the Native American locals and the white people who intrude upon them, as well as what a history of subjugation has sown in terms of resentment and crushing poverty. Wind River is a heavy movie, perhaps the most humorless of Sheridan's heretofore serious-minded work, save for some welcome, dry asides from Greene. The film has some truly tough scenes of shocking, sudden violence that punctuate the moody atmosphere established by Ben Richardson's stark, whited-out cinematography, as well as Nick Cave and Warren Ellis's mournful, string-based score (Cave, incidentally, knows a thing or two about losing a child).

Although character types from Sheridan's previous films are present, they're mixed up in such a way that feels fresh. In spite of being cast in the rookie cop, audience-surrogate role, Olsen takes a clear back seat to Renner, who sheds his natural charm in favor of a gruff, taciturnly eloquent performance, one that feels a bit out of place if you think too long about it but works very well with the tone of the film: he's given a few monologues that sound written as such. We see Olsen, instead, through Renner's eyes, realizing that she is not too much older than his daughter would be had she been alive. Their relationship keeps the film's narrative together on an emotional level, distracting us from the various plot machinations that keep occurring.

As a director, Sheridan has gleaned some techniques from the two who have adapted his previous work. He favors Villeneuve's treatment of the landscape as a source of menace that one simultaneously admires and fears. And like Mackenzie, he treats the wider cast as part of a greater ensemble that fleshes out the world of the film, as opposed to serving as tools for the plot. Particularly good, once again, is Gil Birmingham, who returns from a terrific supporting turn in Hell or High Water as Martin, the father of the slain girl. His few scenes land with intense impact, demonstrating his penchant for restraint and understatement. In only a few minutes of screen time, he manages to convey the entrenched independence and suspicion of outsiders of the Native American people.

Wind River is another well made, socially conscious treatment of the inevitability of tragedy in the neglected corners of American society. It has the trappings of many thrillers - comparisons to The Silence of the Lambs and Winter's Bone are not far from the mind - but still manages to feel vital and necessary. We also get a rare, unvarnished glimpse into reservation life in all of its rugged beauty and glaring lack of support. The fact that we see this part of the country only in this bitterly sad context is indicative of where the Native American people stand in the social pecking order, a fact made uncomfortably literal by some ham-fisted messaging as the credits roll. We nevertheless need filmmakers like Sheridan making movies like this, dour and punishing as they may be.



The Red Turtle

Let's get the Oscar talk out of the way. The Red Turtle was nominated for Best Animated Feature by the Academy this year. Its chances of winning are slim. As usual, this has little to do with the film's quality and more with its relative obscurity compared to box office giants Moana and Zootopia. This review will speculate no more on the awards prospects of this movie.

Ever since Hayao Miyazaki officially retired from the business of directing movies, I have nursed a low-level paranoia that we will never see a filmmaker with his specific aesthetic of quietly beautiful whimsy, often belying a profound message. He and his peer, Isao Takahata, are titans of Japanese animation and beyond, but they are getting old, and the creation of making hand-drawn animated films is exhausting.

Luckily, we have filmmakers like Michael Dudok de Wit to carry on their work. His newest film, The Red Turtle, has a similarly Zen Buddhist attitude towards the natural world as Miyazaki, while also including plenty of harsh real-world reality that is the hallmark of Takahata. His art style is not that of Japanese animation, but is more easily compared to the character design of Herge, of Tintin fame. Despite all of these clear influences, the film feels unique in its sensibility, more elliptical and mysterious than we've come to expect even from Studio Ghibli, the film's production company.

Its plot is simple: a castaway attempts to escape a desert island until he encounters a woman, with whom he eventually has a son. We watch the trio as they progress through various stages of their lives. Like the other films in the Ghibli canon, there is little in the way of an overarching plot. There are no villains and there is little incident. What we have instead are details that give the film flavor, like the pillow shots so beloved by Japanese auteur, Yasujiro Ozu.

For example, the castaway shares the island with crabs, who act as sort of a Greek chorus. They mostly behave like crabs, approaching the man when he appears to have food, but in one moment that felt like vintage Miyazaki, the man ferries palm leaves back and forth to the beach; one of the crabs imitates him with a small leaf, another hapless crustacean hopelessly pursuing it. These crabs aren't exactly anthropomorphized--they appear like the animals they are, and at least one is mercilessly snatched up by a seagull--but their behavior reminded me distinctly of the balls of soot from Spirited Away, who imitate Chihiro's rescue of Haku.

The film's more transcendental elements coincide with the appearance of the eponymous turtle. I don't want to get into exactly what happens, because it was a delightful yet unsettling surprise to me, but that reptile figures prominently in the film, both concerning the story and the theme. It's easy to assign Judeo-Christian associations to a film that is about a man and a woman living in (comparative) paradise together, but I don't think that's what de Wit is going for. The film is about the world's tendency towards cruelty, and how people are susceptible to adopting that sort of fierceness in their own behavior towards one another. But it's also about love, death and accepting your fate: suffice it to say that the castaway doesn't show up at Helen Hunt's door with a FedEx package at the end.

Movies this quiet and lovely are bound to be buried, particularly when its genre is characterized by noisy, witless nonsense in the unfounded belief that children require constant stimulation in order to be diverted. Some movies function well as cinematic meditation; the aforementioned Ozu often served this purpose better than anyone else. de Wit, a Dutchman, has picked up the slack superbly.