Movie trailer review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

OK so the trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”. I can’t even tell you how excited I am for this movie. Let me count the ways:

First and foremost, Kylo Ren. I don’t think there’s been a more beautifully balanced anti-villain in my lifetime. I want so desperately to see this murderous little shit redeemed—I want to see him redeemed despite that he killed literally my favorite fictional character of all time, I want to see him redeemed SO HARD, AGAINST A WALL… wait, where was I? Right, Kylo Ren and how masterfully these folks have managed to put us both in sympathy with, and in terror of, this complete and raging asshole. It starts with the very first scene, a contemplative and quiet moment as Kylo Ren looks out a window. It’s so peaceful and pretty that your brain almost doesn’t register that the shower which he’s watching out the window isn’t rain, but sparks from assembling weaponry. We’re meant to draw a parallel between Kylo and the weapons outside—both he, and the At-Ats and other insensible war machines, are just tools for Snoke to manipulate, as the voiceover makes clear: “When I found you, I saw raw, untamed power… and beyond that, something truly special.”

The trailer cleverly uses this as the pivot point to Rey, who is presented as Kylo’s opposite in every way: dressed in homespun tones of dust and cream, sharing an island with Luke that is as green and verdant as every space occupied by the First Order isn’t. Rey, upon realizing that the Force is active and coursing within her, is looking for help learning to control it, and the voiceover makes it sound like she’s asking Luke for that help. “Something inside me has always been there, but now it’s awake and I need help.” I’m going to go ahead and guess that this snippet of dialogue is actually from her encounter with Kylo Ren at the end of the trailer (“I need someone to show me my place in all this.”), which encounter I’m furthermore going to guess takes place in the flaming wreckage that Luke’s eventually going to crawl out from under. That makes sense as a story arc, right? Hermit!Luke trains Rey, behaves like kind of a dick to her because he’s Luke and it’s been lonely on the island, and when the full extent of her powers reveal themselves he gets spooked and refuses to train her further. We don’t get to see him change his mind because Kylo Ren picks that exact moment to show up and burn shit to the ground; Rey, still stung by Luke’s rejection, decides that Kylo is the only other mentor who can possibly understand her and goes off with him, leaving Luke, who knows what kind of danger she’s in, to dig himself out from under the flaming drywall and follow them—with C3PO as his erstwhile sidekick. Finn, too, is surrounded by enemies—he’s back in his First Order uniform, embedded with the enemy on a mission of subterfuge. Poe is the only one of the trio who seems to be free of the First Order and running loose around the galaxy; my guess is that he’ll take the wild-card/Han role in the new trio of friends, providing rescues and sex appeal as needed.

Beyond speculation, this trailer offers tantalizing glimpses of two new creatures—a Porg, which, we learn, has a battle yelp like the beginning of “Immigrant Song” as sung by a Furby, and a crystal fox, which looks like a coyote designed by Swarovski. We’re going to need some interesting animals around to distract us from the knowledge that we’re watching Carrie Fisher’s last performance. Even if Kylo Ren doesn’t kill her, 2016 did, and seeing Leia in a situation of terrible peril with the knowledge that she’s gone feels strange and obscene, especially from the vantage point of 2017, when we are all in terrible peril. The Aboriginal people of Australia refuse to see any movie that may contain images of a dead person. I’m beginning to understand why. “The Last Jedi” promises us an ever-darkening world, just as “The Empire Strikes Back” did. I only hope we all live long enough to see the return of the Jedi.

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Carrie Fisher

It’s a cliché to say of any actress that “you feel like you could be friends with her”. Usually, that feeling of accessibility is formulated as carefully as Coke: add two parts recipe- and lifestyle-focused magazine articles to one part romantic comedy lead role, season with one public heartbreak or klutzy episode on a red carpet, and boom. Instant celebrity friend. Jennifer Aniston is the ultimate celebrity friend; more recently, Jennifer Lawrence has taken her crown. Others have tried and failed: Anne Hathaway by being annoyingly perfect, and Reese Witherspoon by revealing herself to be a drunk-driving, tantrum-throwing terror. There are a lot of ways to fail at being America’s celebrity friend.

But Carrie Fisher succeeded where others failed, precisely because she went about it completely wrong: by going publicly crazy. By talking about her crazy, by owning it, by picking an unpopular and misunderstood therapy and then talking about that. By owning her family drama and talking about that. By owning her drug addiction, and then talking about that, too. In general, America does not like women who talk too much about themselves (other topics, such as holiday recipe traditions, are fine). But Carrie Fisher never stopped talking about herself—she wrote several books on the topic, and a one-woman play, and as she got older she talked about that, too. She was un-shut-uppable on the topic of her personal truth: what it was like to get electroshock therapy, what it was like to get collagen, what it was like to be manic depressive, what it was like to fall in love with Harrison Ford when she was nineteen and he was married. (When she told him she was planning to talk about that, he said, “Lawyer.” She talked about it anyway.)

Carrie Fisher owned her entire life, and thus got out ahead of everyone else who could have wished to own her. Which (given that she was the privately cherished first love of an entire generation of straight men and quite a few women) was a lot of people. Even Jabba the Hutt wanted to own her, and he was a gigantic slug. But Carrie Fisher was her own person, a real human being, flawed and aging and fragile in all the ways celebrity best friends aren’t supposed to be. Which made her more than our cocktail buddy, more than our shopping pal, more than our confidante. It made her royalty.

Long live the Princess.

Movie review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

So “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”.

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I’ve written before about a litmus test I have for movies called the “bound-ahead” test; if a movie inspires me to take several stutter-steps ahead of my companion on the way out of the theater, so that I can turn around and excitedly chatter at them while walking backwards, waving my hands and saying Astute Critical Things (“Did you see THAT?!!?!?”) the movie was good. The bound-ahead test is simple and instinctive and I trust it quite a bit.

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” did not pass the bound-ahead test. Because instead of bounding ahead, I waited until I got out of the theater before jumping about three feet in the air, letting out a earpiercing screech, then running in tight circles with my arms extended like an over-sugared child pretending to be an airplane. Then I ran in wide, looping spirals around my companion the whole way out to the end of the parking lot, screaming things like, “I TOLD YOU JJ COULD DO IT!” and “DIDN’T I TELL YOU JJ COULD DO IT!?!!!??” and ” HOLY SHIT, I CAN’T BELIEVE JJ DID IT!!!” back at my unfortunate companion.

What can I call a movie that so thoroughly broke my most reliable litmus test? How about: faith, rewarded. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” is a triumph, not just of storytelling and script and cinematography and score, but of single-entendre art, art not wrapped in defensive layers of snark and in-jokes and cynicism. It is a genuine, balls-to-the-wall adventure story, told with sincerity and a palpable desire to Do Things The Right Way: with script, not CGI; with a story honed to near perfection on the front end, not sliced into acceptable shape with editor’s shears on the back end. You can see that commitment everywhere: in the casting of infectiously enthusiastic, near-unknown John Boyega in the main role; in the tiny physical details, like the unappetizing bread Daisy Ridley cooks by stirring a fizzing dry mixture into a bowl of water with her finger; in the way that planets and sunrises and spaceships are treated as objects of awe, not just backdrops for expensive explosions. Gone are the rich man’s concerns that pervaded the atrocious prequels: trade routes, galactic parliaments, geneology, taxation. Here, characters are motivated by simple, human drives: Hunger. Thirst. A wish to do the right thing. A longing to regain your lost family or to rescue a friend in trouble. The desire to drive a spaceship really, really fast.

Speaking of that last one, how cool do you think you’d be able to be about driving the Millennium Falcon? Do you think you’d be able to play it down? Keep a straight face? Act like it was all old hat? Me neither. And neither can these characters—after narrowly escaping a pursuing horde of TIE Fighters by swerving through the wreckage of an abandoned Super Star Destroyer, Finn and Rey nearly collide in the center of the Falcon in their excitement to confirm to each other that yes, they really did just do that.
“Did you SEE that?!!?” Finn shrieks, neatly mimicking the question that we in the audience, delirious with adrenaline, are asking ourselves. Finn and Rey are true audience stand-ins; like us, they are genuinely excited by exciting events, and scared by scary ones. This is not the Star Wars of Acting Cool. In the prequels (which after this I swear I’ll stop mentioning them, because this movie has effectively negated their existence) bored celebrities mentally updated their resumes while telegraphing their profound contempt for this nerdy lightsaber-and-Jedi-cloak nonsense that we, the commoners, were paying to see. (And who could blame them? If you were Ewan McGregor, hair in a rattail, sharing a green screen with a squealing, simpering Jar-Jar Binks, you’d lie back and think of England, too.)

But in Abrams’s chapter, ironic distance is verboten; Boyega’s extraordinary, Golden-Retriever-like enthusiasm gives us permission to drop our guard as jaded moviegoers and admit that yes, we would like to fly the Millennium Falcon really fast, please. It would be cool if we could get our hands on one of those lightsabers, too. Maybe we could hang with Chewie? And slowly, over the course of the movie, all our wishes are granted, sometimes in surprisingly painful ways. Here are Han and Leia, grown into an achingly felt détente across the gulf of years spent fighting and fucking and disappointing each other in various ways. Their reunion feels at once tender and incredibly sad—in a single glance, they communicate decades of water under the bridge. We, sitting in the audience, can’t help but reflect on the decades of distance between the Younger Us who watched Han and Leia embark on their ticklish, sparky romance, and the Older Us who know, through painful experience, that time ends up subtracting as much as it adds, and eventually takes it all. This movie, while it gives us permission to access the giddy excitement of our youth, also gives us license to grieve what’s permanently lost in that river of time. When Leia advises Rey to accept the fact of her family’s death and give up hope of their return, we sense the weight and presence of lived experience, a stream of biography that we’ve just happened to catch four glimpses of as it flowed past. This is truly character-driven storytelling; Abrams, Kasdan, et al have allowed their characters to develop honestly, to age, to make mistakes and reflect real frailties.

The world of the movie, too, is damaged and dented, a scratched and windblasted world of spare parts and battered surfaces. The tantalizing promise made by the previews has come true: here, space is a dangerous frontier, a place where you can truly get hurt, not a gleaming CGI amusement park full of artificial thrills. “The Force Awakens” opens with a civilian massacre: suddenly, I’m reminded of the scene in “A New Hope” where Aunt Beru was reduced to a flayed, smoking skeleton; of the casual deaths and dismemberments available right alongside the booze in the cantina on Mos Eisley. Star Wars, at its very best, offered a world where loss and pain and death were real and terrifying, with the added twist of the Force, weaving the living and the dead together in a seamless braid of energy. The Force was hope; it was an afterlife without the requirement of a God; it was a beautiful and Zen-like philosophy of life that offered meaning without flinching away from the ugly realities of death and loss. The prequels broke the promise of the Force. “The Force Awakens” brings it back. If you made it all the way to this weekend in one piece, or even a few battered pieces held together with string and spit and hope, your faith is about to be rewarded.

Hold on tight.