Tag Archives: Laura Dern

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Review: A humanist, subversive, new kind of ‘Star Wars’ story

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the most signficant franchise in popular culture awoke from a deep slumber. However, it did so with a sense of familiarity that, while perhaps necessary, hurts the film in hindsight.

But Star Wars: The Last Jedi takes another necessary step, that of subversion of the very things that The Force Awakens hinged on. And in doing so, The Last Jedi breathes urgent purpose into the new trilogy, purpose it had yet to prove.

What’s immediately evident about The Last Jedi — through a nailbiter of an opening sequence, which includes an absolutely hysterical bit that tops Poe’s opening of “who talks first?” in The Force Awakens — is that this film is interested in people. While some large scale action films focus on the spectacle, writer-director Rian Johnson and cinematographer Steve Yedlin’s camera situates us with the fighting, the sacrificing and the dying that fuel those battles.

When it comes to his focus on our main characters, Johnson succeeds in giving them all heavy, deeply personal character arcs. Finn needs to learn how best to fight for the Resistance. Poe needs to learn leadership that thinks ahead of the enemy, that thinks of everyone that a potential failure in leadership might affect. And John Boyega and Oscar Isaac inject the same kind of charismatic vigor into their characters that made them so lovable in the first place.

But Johnson’s portrayal of Luke Skywalker, this mammoth figure in pop culture, is the film’s most dynamic feature. And that’s because Johnson takes him out of the familiar, out of what we know him to be. Essentially, Johnson dissects “the legend” of Luke Skywalker, questioning that title by focusing in on Kylo Ren’s turn to the dark side years prior while at Luke’s Jedi school. It gives Mark Hamill new space to explore, as a rehash of pure heroism would’ve failed to be profound, and Hamill offers up a hilarious, pained, tired and tender performance. Though the trilogy jumps decades, we still get to feel the weight of those decades because Hamill bares it tangibly and beautifully.

Johnson intertwines Luke’s arc with those of Rey and Kylo in a way that challenges Rey’s almost original-trilogy-Luke sense of purpose, and in a way that cuts straight to the heart of Kylo’s light-dark conflict. It’s a brilliant framework, as the film adds new layers to Kylo, not only in the context of his turn but in the context of his purpose moving forward. Adam Driver ingrains those emotions deep into his performance, rendering him as one of the more complex villains in large scale cinema.

The framework also places Rey at the forefront, mainly through her search for identity now that she’s been thrust into the world of the Force. The film’s answer is decidedly feminist, fitting into Johnson’s overall idea of who heroes are, and Daisy Ridley capitalizes on the material, delivering a performance that is, appropriately, searching, yet also gripping in its painful anger and raw vulnerability.

The film is truly an ensemble piece, even more so than most typical ensembles as there’s a sense of individualized growth within nearly every character. And the performances of the rest of the cast are wholly committed, including vibrant work by newcomer Kelly Marie Tran, a towering presence from Laura Dern and a brave turn by the late Carrie Fisher.

This is, however, where the film slightly falters, as it becomes, at times, too stuffed with so much character work happening at the same time and in different places, which impacts the film’s pacing. Certain moments, such as when the plot needs to catch up, happen too quickly or conveniently and other moments, such as those of thematic significance, feel a bit too drawn out. The film also has four acts, which is not unusual, but it requires an extremely careful sense of flow and progression, perhaps exemplified by The Dark Knight. And while the flow from the third act into the fourth isn’t terrible, it’s unbalanced.

But the film, despite its flaws, is genuinely stunning. Johnson choreographs action — both in space and on the ground — with such rhythmic intensity and fluidity, but also with an underlying grit informed by the film’s humanism. And the settings within which that action takes place are so singular and transfixing, often due to Rick Heinrich’s spellbinding production design and Steve Yedlin’s soaring and awe-striking cinematography, especially in his long shots. 

The story, while not perfectly executed, also holds beauty. As said before, this film is about people. And Johnson engages with the political, shedding light on the First Order’s impact on the poor and forgotten, on those that come from nothing but a little bit of hope. Fascinatingly enough, however, Johnson, while portraying the Resistance lovingly, doesn’t shy away from critiquing the larger notion of the “machine” of the Resistance.

But it’s those like Rose Tico (Marie Tran), someone who works alone in the dirty underbelly of a Resistance ship and is not really a part of any “machine,” who can embody a heroism in the face of tyranny that leaders of the Resistance have yet to fully understand. It’s heroes like Rey who can represent the greatest that hope can stand for.

In that sense, The Last Jedi is a new kind of Star Wars story. Along the way, the film challenges a lot of what we’re familiar with, especially in regard to the mythology of the universe. At points, the film almost feels satirical in how it critiques what we expect a Star Wars film to be.

Therein lies the film’s value. More of the same, especially in a wasteland of traditional, unengaging hero stories, would’ve been a shame. It was necessary for The Force Awakens, for that film to care about what we thought of it.

But The Last Jedi believes in a new kind of hero and, thus, a new kind of Star Wars.

Grade: A-

 

Featured image via Lucasfilm.

Redemption, redefinition and renaissance: When actors change their path

This Friday, Michael Keaton will appear in ‘American Assassin,’ and we are forever grateful that he is continuously gracing the big screen today. For a long while, Keaton seemed to be an actor of the past, someone stuck with the haunting specter of ‘Batman’ and ‘Beetlejuice.’ But in ‘Birdman,’ one of the most meta films of recent memory, a comeback tale informed by the past of the actual man himself, prompting the actor’s own comeback tale, Keaton returned to prominence. And that got us thinking.

There are so many brilliant stories of similar nature: actors who fell off the map only to gloriously resurface, actors who redefined themselves in entirely unexpected ways, actors who turned their careers around with that one special performance.

In honor of Michael Keaton, we posed the following question: What are your favorite redemption or redefinition acting stories? Here are our answers:

Channing Tatum — 21 Jump Street

Sony Pictures/Columbia/Courtesy

We almost all were aware of Channing Tatum prior to 21 Jump Street. He was the guy from the Step Up movies and one of the many charming male leads of a Nicholas Sparks adaptation, his being Dear John. There were rather judgmental notions of him, but it’s fair to say that, at that point, he hadn’t displayed particularly strong acting talent, and he hadn’t appeared, at least notably, in genres outside of romance and action.

But then came Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s comedy with Tatum and Jonah Hill — and an entirely new side of Tatum was unveiled, along with a massive hotbed of potential moving forward. Granted, Lord and Miller’s script and direction, the source material and Jonah Hill all provide much of the circumstance within which Tatum is able to shine. But it’s Tatum who, himself, also elevates Hill and the material. It’s the revelation of his intensely perfect comedic timing, of his pitch perfect rapport with an actor familiar with the genre that is so shocking from someone who hadn’t showed any indication of such. And, even better, it all comes with a film that works, a rated-R vehicle that can not only show off these comedic talents, but display them in their peak form.

Many may point to Foxcatcher for Tatum, which is undoubtedly a fascinating dramatic turn. But the build of the dramatic seemed to be more evident. 21 Jump Street through us all for a loop. It was perfect chemistry, almost as if one particle of unobtainium had a nuclear reaction with a flux capacitor — carry the 2 (of course) — changing its atomic isotoner into a radioactive Channing f*cking Tatum.

— Kyle Kizu

Steve Carell — Foxcatcher

Sony Pictures Classics/Courtesy

When you’re casting the role of millionaire murderer and recluse John du Pont, one doesn’t think to gravitate toward an actor who’s played a regional manager of a paper company, a mid-life virgin or the world’s greatest villain or, in Steve Carell’s case, all three. Known worldwide for his comedic chops, the actor had begun delving into more dramatic parts in such films as Little Miss Sunshine and The Way, Way Back when he was cast in Bennett Miller’s biographical drama, Foxcatcher. As the psychologically and socially stunted du Pont, Carell sheds any hint of past comic stylings while commanding the screen with a somehow paradoxically timid yet forceful performance. In lieu of caricature, upon which, arguably, his career was founded, he crafts a portrayal of subtlety – both exuding and manipulating pathos for du Pont’s own unnerving ends. Though he was denied a Best Lead Actor ‘W’ at the 87th Oscars, Carell’s grace in transitioning from comedy to drama was not lost on his long-time and newfound fans alike. He made doing something really hard look easy as hell (that’s what she said).

— Sanjay Nimmagudda

Kristen Stewart — Clouds of Sils Maria

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In Kristen Stewart’s defense, she actively resisted falling into a boring Twilight acting rut from the very first movie, with mixed results. The world may have seen her as lovably awkward Bella Swan for a good five years after she first swooned at Robert Pattinson, but Stewart herself never got that memo. Between starring in increasingly bad installments of the Twilight saga, Stewart started exploring indie roles in Adventureland and The Runaways. It took a few years after her final Twilight performance, however, for Stewart to really reinvent herself as one of the most surprising, talented young actors in Hollywood. The words “Kristen Stewart” and “Oscar buzz” would have seemed preposterous in 2012, but after a turn in Olivier Assayas’ Clouds of Sils Maria in 2014, those were the exact words on everyone’s lips. Since then, Stewart has re-teamed with Assayas in Personal Shopper, turned heads in Certain Women and Cafe Society, and has a long list of prestigious projects lined up (starring opposite Laura Dern in a JT Leroy biopic? Yes please.) It’s worth noting that Stewart has also thrown off the expectations that her early roles placed on her personal life — from adopting an androgynous personal styl  to speaking out about her sexuality. A recent hosting stint on SNL earlier this year prompted the iconic line, “I’m, like, so gay, dude.” You do you, Kristen.

— Kate Halliwell

Robert Downey Jr. — Iron Man

Marvel/Courtesy

Robert Downey Jr’s comeback might be partly responsible for the success of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and there are almost as many ramifications as there are MCU films. So that means something in the ballpark of 57,328,000 ramifications for the film industry. Obviously, not all of them are good — Universal threatened us with the Dark Universe, and studios’ focus on building cinematic universes takes resources away from mid-budget films. Whatever the long term consequences of the first Iron Man movie may be, RDJ’s comeback in that film heralded the modern age of comic book movies. He heralded it with the same all-in enthusiasm of a Stan Lee “excelsior!” Since this week’s question is about a favorite comeback acting story, I couldn’t respond with anyone besides RDJ, since his tenure as Iron Man has yielded the onscreen realization of my geek dreams, time and time again. Kevin Feige might be the mastermind of the MCU, but without RDJ’s first performance as Iron Man, I doubt we’d have gotten modern comic book gems like Deadpool or Wonder Woman. On a more personal note, my love for the MCU kickstarted my general love for film, so thanks RDJ, for bringing me into a world of blogging, trailer-analyzing, Oscar-predicting and pretentiousness.

— Harrison Tunggal

Featured image via Fox Searchlight.

Top ten films premiered at Telluride Film Festival since 2010

Amid the swaths of festivals, Telluride, taking place between September 1-4, stands out as an unpretentious yet incredibly prestigious venue for some of the most honest films of the year. Like the town in which it takes place, Telluride is small and intimate. It evokes the best of what a film community can be, in genuine artistry, but also in just being fans of movies and of movie-makers; it was a key moment in the great friendship between the La La Land and Moonlight creative teams, which maintained despite the audience split that sprouted during the awards season. And while many of the Oscar hopefuls look to the Venice Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival for their starts, the quieter premieres at Telluride often have the grander impact. Since 2010, the best of the best from Telluride Film Festival are breathtaking. From Oscar winners to profound independents to landmark documentaries, the top ten Telluride films of the last seven years show the best of what cinema can be.

10. Wild

Fox Searchlight Pictures/Courtesy

While many may point to Dallas Buyers Club and Big Little Lies when thinking of Canadian filmmaker Jean-Marc Vallée, it would be a shame to ignore the gem that is Wild. First and foremost, any film that features the sublime, timeless, astounding Laura Dern in even just a slightly weighty role is one to adore. But Wild crafts not only its character, Reese Witherspoon’s Cheryl, so instinctively, but it also crafts the journey of Cheryl so tenderly and affectingly. Cheryl confronts the wild in her long walk from the top of the U.S. to the bottom, and the film follows suit, embracing a sort of vulnerable physicality in its color palette, in its subtle sound and intimate cinematography. Wild may not be the most jaw-dropping or impressive film, but it’s one that finds its way underneath one’s skin and into one’s bones because it is so human.

— Kyle Kizu

9. Frances Ha

IFC Films/Courtesy

Frances Ha is director Noah Baumbach’s ebullient tribute to the cinema of the French New Wave. We follow the titular Frances (the incredible Greta Gerwig, who co-wrote the screenplay with Baumbach) as she meets friends, moves from apartment to apartment and tries to reconcile her dreams of dancing with the possibility that they’ll remain dreams and nothing more. Though the film is in black and white, the spread of emotions that Frances endures is hardly so — the film pinwheels from her trademark levity to crushing lows, before rising to a strained melancholy and finally settling on a relieved contentedness. That such dichotomies coexist in the film isn’t jarring, but rather endearing. We’ve all had nights that started out perfectly, but then take a hard left into awfulness that only seems to get worse, and that’s a sentiment that the film understands and addresses with humor and sensitivity. Befittingly, the film isn’t reliant on plot, but that’s okay — we’re happy to have known Frances, if but for an hour and a half.

— Harrison Tunggal

8. The Descendants

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Against all odds, Alexander Payne’s 2011 film The Descendants pairs adultery, comatose spouses and Hawaiian real estate in a simultaneously heartwrenching and hilarious examination of what family really means. The film follows Matt King (George Clooney) as his wife is injured in a jetskiing accident and he is forced to decide whether or not to leave his now comatose wife on life support — a decision made more difficult by the realization that she had been having an affair. Clooney and Shailene Woodley, in arguably both their finest work to date, carry the film on their transparently expressive faces, captured lovingly in close-up by cinematographer Phedon Papamichael. True to the book on which it is based, The Descendants almost veers too far into cruel, biting satire at times, but no one is better suited to walk the balance between bleak humanity and the humor found in everyday life than Alexander Payne. While certain scenes stand out as all-timers (Clooney’s famous hospital monologue, Woodley’s character revealing her mother’s affair), The Descendants in its entirety is a hard look at dealing with the past, managing the present and confronting the future.

— Kate Halliwell

7. Steve Jobs

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Steve Jobs had such a dramatic journey to the big screen — an intensely buzzed-about Aaron Sorkin script originally connected to David Fincher and with Leonardo DiCaprio and Christian Bale rumored to star. But the creative team it ended up with was a perfect match. Danny Boyle’s high-energy direction scores Jobs with an electric edge and Michael Fassbender transforms subtly yet entirely, embodying the icon with a domineering physicality, especially in vocal tone, while deconstructing his problematic persona and humanizing his core — not necessarily sacrificing one for the other. The film has massive ambitions, with a story structure similar to a play and carrying a character in light of Citizen Kane. It might not reach all of its goals, but it finds a place in contemporary cinema that so many films have tried for but failed.

— KK

6. Under the Skin

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On very simple terms, Under the Skin is an astonishing vehicle for the auric, subtle physicality that Scarlett Johansson can take hold of in a performance, as well as for the viscerally invasive work of composer Mica Levi — many critics still cite her score as one of the best of the 21st century. But, quite obviously, Under the Skin is anything but simple. Delving deep into the avant garde, as well as other more visually focused traditions, Jonathan Glazer’s sci-fi picture, about an alluring woman, is oftentimes terrifying without us even realizing how intensely so until afterward, or until the pop of a body contorted by forces beyond its control. As viewers, we oftentimes feel like a victim trapped beneath — a purposeful effect that produces a pure sense of the image, oftentimes simple in color and composition but wildly unnerving in context, that only cinema could. Of course, this leaves little easy explanation and few paths for traditional absorption, making Under the Skin difficult to encounter. But if we surrender ourselves to visual language, the film will prove deeply human, without much of the sentimentality, and gendered in its experience, deconstructivist in its angle and, honestly, just fucking weird — in a good way.

— KK

5. Prisoners

Warner Bros./Courtesy

The sense of mounting dread that director Denis Villeneuve builds in Prisoners is staggering to behold. Drenched in darkness and shadow by the master himself, Roger Deakins, this film transports the viewer into a world of ubiquitous horror, one where corpses fill basements, families descend into violence and even moments of reprieve contort into the realization that we’re all shackled to those we love, for better or worse. This is a film where your heart keep sinking to depths you didn’t know existed, right to its final shot. Prisoners also sports a stellar cast firing on all cylinders — Hugh Jackman’s intensity makes his performance in this film one of his finest, Jake Gyllenhaal showcases the cold determination he would later dial to eleven in Nightcrawler and Paul Dano ratchets up the tension by keeping the audience on its toes. Additionally, Viola Davis brings her eminent gravitas while Terrence Howard matches Jackman’s fear and desperation as they search for their missing daughters. Prisoners is arguably Denis Villeneuve’s best film, and we can’t wait to see how his sensibilities translate to Blade Runner 2049 and other future projects.

— HT

4. Anomalisa

Paramount Pictures/Courtesy

This stop-motion picture is difficult to confront, venturing into the abstract in many areas. But, as one should expect with Charlie Kaufman, Anomalisa, a film without actual humans, is filled with a humanity unlike most other films. It is, in large part, because of the voice work. David Thewlis and Jennifer Jason Leigh provide an affectingly raw basis within this world, conveying vulnerability and the weight of the human condition through tiny inflections. And Tom Noonan, literally voicing every other figure, is shockingly hilarious and horrifyingly scary at the same time. Yet, the voices become that profound because of the imagery within which they inhabit. Kaufman and co-director Duke Johnson frame each shot with a deep understanding of theme, that everything so blandly and terrifyingly blends together, that the world is unrewarding and depressing, that finding someone within the void is miraculous and losing them to the blend is a nightmare. The amalgamation brings about an intimacy that only a masterful film could build.

— KK

3. Room

A24/Courtesy

Book-to-movie adaptations, as a rule, are difficult to pull off, and that challenge increases exponentially when the source material in question is narrated in entirety by a five year old boy with a limited understanding of the world. It gets even harder when that world consists of a tiny one-room shed, and the boy’s mother — the room’s only other occupant — chooses to raise him as if that one room really is the entire universe. So begins Lenny Abrahamson’s adaptation of Room, starring Jacob Tremblay and Brie Larson as a mother and son held in captivity until their eventual escape. Room is effectively split in two halves, which places the duo’s plotting and escape at odds with their tentative transition back into the outside world. The film would go on to win Larson her first Oscar and cement Tremblay’s place as Hollywood’s cutest kid, but it served as far more than a vehicle for its stars-to-be. Bleak, hard-to-watch moments combine with an enduring sense of childlike curiosity in what is already deservedly considered to be one of the best book adaptations of all time.

— KH

2. The Act of Killing

Final Cut for Real/Courtesy

The Act of Killing is a difficult film to watch, and if you’re at all connected to the killings that took place in Indonesia from 1965-1966, then Joshua Oppenheimer’s documentary is downright excruciating. The film’s two main subjects, Anwar Congo and Herman Koto, belonged to a government death squad that extorted from and killed more than one million communists and Chinese Indonesians. They gloat about the lives they took and how they took them, going to obscene lengths to reenact their methods. It’s a sick parody of cinephilia — Congo and Koto claim to be inspired by the violence in the films they idolized, and some of the reenactments are draped in the trappings of their favorite genres. And these are just barely the reasons why The Act of Killing is a disturbing watch — ultimately, we’re left wondering if there’s redemption in remorse. After seeing the utter impunity of the murderers, such a question becomes disturbingly difficult, if not impossible, to answer. Unpleasant as it may be, The Act of Killing is truly an essential film, reminding us that the soul is at stake when blind nationalism supersedes morality.

— HT

1. Moonlight

David Bornfriend/A24/Courtesy

With a rare 99 on Metacritic, Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight is cinematic perfection. For anyone who’s seen the film, such a statement stands on its own, though additional validation comes from its historic Best Picture win at the 89th Academy Awards. But forget the craziness surrounding the moment of its victory — such things are much too loud for a film like Moonlight. It is a film predicated on an intimate viewing experience, one in which quiet subtleties in the performances of its all black cast and precise details in the filmmaking precipitate an immense significance. From the close-ups of Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland as their characters reunite, we see heartbreak and hope at the same time, and years of toxic, performative masculinity erode with just one look. From the final embrace of these two men, we see a moment of LGBTQ+ representation that is executed with the utmost sensitivity and tenderness. Then there’s James Laxton’s cinematography, where a shallow depth of field puts us with the characters, exacting a sense of empathy that lends the film its total hold over our emotions. It is impossible to overstate the significance of Moonlight, especially when empathy and sensitivity are becoming ever rarer, but with Barry Jenkins behind the camera, there’s hope that such qualities will persevere, at least on the big screen.

— HT

Featured image (modified) via Ken Lund.