REVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

There are certain things that make me really glad that I’m alive at the point in history that I am. I’m glad to have grown up with Harry Potter, for instance, and to be alive at the same time as Paul McCartney. One of these things is that I’m glad to be able to go and see Star Wars movies in theaters.

Seeing a Star Wars movie in theaters is, I think, a great experience no matter which movie it is. There’s the wave of almost tangible happiness that washes over everybody with the opening notes of the theme song, and the yellow letters beginning to scroll out backwards through space. There’s the clapping and cheering whenever familiar characters like Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) show up onscreen.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode overall and the second installment in the latest trilogy, delivered in pretty much every major way. We got to see interesting developments in terms of the characters that we already know and their relationships with each other, and we also received the pleasure of being introduced to new characters and new relationships.

One of the definite highlights of The Last Jedi was the addition of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), who teams up with Finn (John Boyega) to try to sabotage an enemy ship that has the ability to track the rebel forces through light speed. Rose was charming and relatable (even fangirling over Finn’s hero status when we first meet her), and she’s also gritty and layered. She’s not afraid to let images get in the way of the way she sees things, and we actually get to see some of her backstory up close with the death of her sister, Paige (Veronica Ngo). She also acts as our introduction to one of the previously un-glimpsed sides of Star Wars: the back characters. Rose is a technician, normally a behind-the-scenes role in the Star Wars universe. For this reason, it makes a lot of sense in this movie to pair her with Finn, who was a background Stormtrooper before he joined the rebellion in The Force Awakens.

To me, The Last Jedi felt overall like an embrace of the idea that anybody can be a hero. Rose, for one thing, was brought to the forefront. Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parentage, a lingering question for fans, was largely dismissed, which was a fresh turn in a franchise that has long been preoccupied with the power-infused lineage of Darth Vader’s family. Wealthy circles of society were outright criticized for their reliance upon forced labor, exploitation, and war profiteering. The film also ended with a glimpse of a young peasant boy using the Force to grab a broom, then looking up to the stars with a close-up of the Resistance insignia on his ring.

Finally, when Rey claims that the Force is “a power that Jedi have,” Luke Skywalker himself tells her that that is completely wrong. The Force is not exclusive to Jedi and Sith; it’s the balance between all things and all people. By removing the Force’s explicit attachment to the Jedi, and by showcasing heroes from all backgrounds and walks of life, The Last Jedi comes closer than any previous Star Wars movie to espousing what the series is all about: that anybody can be a hero if they decide to choose good over evil. Obviously, the Force doesn’t appear everywhere, but this movie shows us clearly that it can come from anywhere.

There are almost too many good things in The Last Jedi to count: the performances of newcomers Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, and Benicio del Toro; the development of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) as a villain and of his terrifically interesting relationship with Rey; the immortal strength of Leia and of Carrie Fisher. There’s the fun cameo from the eternally awesome Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), and the affection between pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and his droid BB-8, and the chemistry shared between pretty much every single character onscreen.

In short, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is doing pretty much everything right. It is a more than worthy follow-up to The Force Awakens and to the rest of the Star Wars franchise, and hopefully a very good indication of things to come.

PREVIEW: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I can still remember when Star Wars: The Force Awakens came out. I hadn’t seen a Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back had come out when I was in elementary school, which I remembered being a huge deal, but one I was still a little too young to appreciate. I saw The Force Awakens twice in theaters and spent hours talking to my friends about what we thought of Rey, Poe, and Finn, and that crazy climax with Kylo Ren and Han Solo, and what Han, Luke, and Leia had been doing all these years.

Even that feels like forever ago, which is why I (along with, undoubtedly, so many other people) am so excited to see The Last Jedi in theaters. The second installment in a trilogy usually ends up being my favorite, personally — Catching Fire might be a good example — because it’s not as emotional and melodramatic as the closing chapter often is, but you’re still familiar enough with the characters by that point to know who to root for. The Last Jedi is definitely going to show us more of Luke, which is something to look forward to, as well as likely to expand on the relationships we’ve already gotten to see between Rey, Poe, Finn, Leia, and Kylo Ren.

Beyond that, it’s hard to say what this new movie will bring, but there is one thing we know for certain: The Star Wars franchise has a history of success, so it’s reasonable to expect good things.

REVIEW: Dont Look Back

Bob Dylan is celebrated far and wide for his sense of enigma. It draws many fans to him like a magnet — the fact that he rarely, if ever, reveals details of his personal life, the impenetrable nature of his ever-changing persona. In fact, I actually went to see him in concert this October, and I was surprised by the fact that he didn’t say a single word outside of the songs that he played. This mystery is a trait that he carries even to this day, and it can be traced all the way back to the very beginnings of his fame in the 1960s.

Dont Look Back, a 1967 documentary focusing on his 1965 tour of London, England, brings its audience closer to Dylan — the “real” Dylan, if there is such a thing — than any of them are otherwise likely to get. This Dylan is striking, more than anything, because he wavers so much between different facades. At times he is visionary, playing guitar and singing straight from his heart, or talking honestly with people who see life differently from him; at other times he is downright arrogant, interrupting people often and discounting their opinions in favor of his own. Sometimes he is quiet and attentive, carefully listening while fellow musicians like Donovan and Joan Baez play music for him in hotel rooms; sometimes he is loud and angry almost to the point of not making sense, like when he demands to know who in his hotel is guilty of throwing glass into the street. He’s humble and down-to-earth, but also remarkably full of himself (“I know I’m big noise,” he taunts to a man he has accused of being guilty of the glass-throwing). Sometimes he’s very serious, and sometimes he grins and makes jokes — and what’s more, he’ll often switch between many of these attitudes within the span of a single minute.

Of course, many of these less endorsable sides of Dylan — that he is argumentative, acerbic, full of himself, etc. — are traits that a great deal of his fans will easily dismiss. They’ll say, “That’s just the way he is,” or, “That’s what makes him so great — he’s not afraid to tell people how it is!” Luckily, the film itself takes no sides; with no retrospective voiceover or imbalance regarding what footage it decides to show us, it is indiscriminate. It leaves its audience to make their own decisions.

The crowning achievement of Dont Look Back, then, is that it’s honest. It gives fans an inner look at everything they love about Dylan — the ways in which he can be at once relatable and completely, untouchably elevated — while refusing to shy away from the paradoxes of his character that at times can undercut this. I’ll admit feeling a personal pang of anger during a moment in the movie when Dylan tells a reporter something on the lines of, “I know more about you and your profession, just now from meeting you, than you will ever know about me.” But I also laughed anytime Dylan told a joke, and watched breathlessly during recordings of his live performances of songs like “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue” and “Talkin’ World War III Blues”.

Dont Look Back was filmed at the height of Dylan’s fame and at the cusp of some of his most major creative breakthroughs (a.k.a., his 1967 triple-album win with Bringing it All Back HomeBlonde on Blonde, and Highway 61 Revisited). It situates us directly in Dylan’s touring life, to the point that we feel like we’re actually sitting where the camera operator is sitting, three or four feet away from him. It is arguably the closest any film has ever or can ever really come to penetrating the eternal mystery and captivating persona of Bob Dylan, for better or for worse.

REVIEW: Loving Vincent

A painting in motion — Loving Vincent. Brushstrokes that mimicked the iconic artistry of Vincent van Gogh’s own paintings moved to tell the biography of Vincent in a never-before-seen feature film. An hour and thirty-four minutes of animated paint, in the style of Vincent van Gogh, was an exquisite film that I felt honored to behold with my own two eyes.

It was a rainy Sunday night, with the typical wind chills of early November in Ann Arbor, when I went to see the film with some of my colleagues. We had just come from a fantastic dinner of pizza, including margherita pizza — my favorite kind of pizza — and joined the ranks of Loving Vincent moviegoers lined up outside of Michigan Theater.

Luckily, we had arrived just in time not to miss the beginning of the film itself. The whole lot of us settled upstairs in the balcony, appreciating the extravagance of the Michigan Theater’s classic theater setting and ambience. As soon as we settled into our seats, the lights dimmed and the screen flitted between trailers of upcoming indie films and the like. And then, at long last, Loving Vincent painted itself across the screen.

In a word, Loving Vincent was…divine. Artistic. Exquisite. Every second of it, quite literally the epitome of a painting in motion, enraptured the audience with its imagery.

Honestly, the second the movie opened, I was already mesmerized by the names rolling on the screen through their careful and immaculate brushstrokes. I was watching the lines of colors, imitating Vincent’s illustrious and iconic style, move across the screen in unison to depict movement. It was enrapturing.

I felt chills go down my spine.

The movie opens with the most renowned and perhaps most well-known work by the artist: Starry Night — hooking every audience member with its fine brush work and celebrated imagery as one of the most historically reputable works of art. It was so meaningful to see that be the opening scene to a film revolving around the artist, to whom the film is dedicated for, I was just captivated and touched by it. And then, when that Starry Night picture began to actually move, animated brushstrokes depicting the scene, my heart melted. Such an extraordinary picture transformed into a setting for a narrative to take place. It was the most fitting way to tell the biography of Vincent van Gogh.

As for the narrative itself — the story follows Armand Roulin, who is to hand-deliver a letter from Vincent to Theo van Gogh, Vincent’s brother. In this narrative, Armand learns more and more about the late artist Vincent, who had been a new artistic sensation in Paris at 28 but took his life while at the verge of his own impending success as an artist. Although skeptical and critical of Vincent in the beginning, Armand slowly grows wistful and fond of him. In fact, Armand even comes to Vincent’s defense when bad gossip arises and surrounds his death and reputation.

I’ll spare you all the details, but basically — the film follows Armand, a man who seems far detached from having any relation or kinship with Vincent van Gogh, and Armand’s journey to find the truth behind Vincent’s death — whether it was a suicide or a murder, what his motives were, who Vincent van Gogh truly was.

Ultimately the film really is a biography of Vincent van Gogh, which doesn’t lend itself to having that much opportunity to deviate from reality and express creativity and imagination as wildly as possible, as one might expect from an animated film. I have heard criticisms of the writing in Loving Vincent that claim the story is hard to follow, but they heralded the artistry of the film itself. Animation is a breathtaking craft, and it’s painfully difficult, and being able to dedicate an entire feature film of animated oil paintings for Vincent van Gogh is truly the only way to express his biography, I’d say. I personally don’t have a bad opinion of this film, having been so mesmerized by the immaculate craft of the moving pictures.

Now, my colleagues and myself hail from the art and design school at the University of Michigan, and inevitably we were drawn by the uniquely beautiful craft of the film, especially because we all express an interest in the art of animation. Safe to say we were all very moved and absolutely amazed by the sheer amount of work and effort required to make Loving Vincent and transform his most distinguished and impactful works of art into moving pictures.

If you have not seen Loving Vincent, I hope you at least consider it! If not for the story or biography of the great artist Vincent van Gogh, then for the beautiful craft of the film and its hundreds of artists who carefully painted and animated each frame of the film.

Go and love Vincent!

 

REVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

I walked into Blade Runner 2049 not really sure what to expect. It had gotten really good reviews, particularly in its role as a follow-up to the 1982 science fiction classic Blade Runner. I was coming in without actually having seen the original Blade Runner, and I was interested in the idea of seeing a sequel without having watched the original movie. I wasn’t sure whether this perspective was going to help me. In the end, I think it ended up sort of doing both.

Blade Runner focuses on K (Ryan Gosling), a bioengineered human — known as a “replicant” — who works for the LAPD as a “blade runner,” seeking out older models of replicants and killing, or “retiring,” them. The lingo sounds like a lot from that sentence, but it’s really not too hard to get the hang of. After the LAPD learns that a female replicant once gave birth to a child, K is ordered to find the child and retire it, since his boss worries that the knowledge that replicants can reproduce could lend weight to growing replicant freedom movements and ultimately come to threaten the order of society. This mission brings K into contact with many interesting characters, such as “memory-maker” Dr. Ana Stelline (Carla Juri) and Niander Wallace (Jared Leto), the owner of the company that manufactures replicants.

The film overall is both gripping and visually beautiful. There’s an undercurrent of environmental collapse, which by 2049 has left California reduced to a rainy, snowy wasteland. It’s easy to become invested in the character of K, as he navigates a relationship with his artificial-intelligence girlfriend Joi (Ana de Armas) and begins to question whether he is actually the very child he is supposed to kill. The story ends with a delightful twist that I won’t reveal here, but that reinforces its overall touching messages about humanity and the innate beauty of the world.

There were a few aspects in which the film seemed to lag a little. At two hours and forty-three minutes long, there were a few scenes that dragged out more than they really needed to, and Leto’s character, while well played, may not have needed to be there at all. He represented an important aspect of how people are often treated by corporations, but his science-fiction God complex wasn’t really anything we haven’t seen before. The far more interesting and convincing villain came in the character of his replicant assistant, Luv (Sylvia Hoeks). She was the one who represented the realest threat and seemed the most three-dimensional, the one who really struck fear in the heart whenever she appeared. (I was also expecting to see more of Harrison Ford based on the promotional posters, but he played the part of Rick Deckard so convincingly and I was so happy when he did show up that I forgot about this pretty easily.)

Blade Runner 2049 was ultimately a captivating story and a joy to watch. It wasn’t the action-packed thrill ride one sometimes expects from science fiction stories, favoring instead a more thoughtful, cinematic, and existential approach. But it pulled it off brilliantly, and managed to convincingly revive some of Blade Runner’s original storylines while also telling an appealing story of its own.

PREVIEW: Blade Runner 2049

Blade Runner 2049 has gotten a lot of hype recently, with critics lauding the lead performances of Harrison Ford and Ryan Gosling. I first became interested in the movie when Ryan Gosling promoted it by hosting SNL, and since then it’s only come up more and more in conversation. Blade Runner 2049 is the follow-up to the 1982 film Blade Runner— thirty-five years have passed and a lot has changed, so it should be very interesting to see how the film responds to the franchise’s preexisting legacy. Most good sequels—of which there are notoriously few in the world—have to find a balance between remaining faithful to the original and taking the franchise in new directions. It should be very exciting to see whether or not Blade Runner 2049 delivers on this.

Blade Runner 2049 is currently showing at the Rave Cinema theater in Ann Arbor, and will be for much of the rest of the season.