MAY THE FORCE BE WITH THESE HOT TAKES: A grocery list of things I liked (and didn’t) about ‘The Last Jedi’ [SPOILERS]

I’ve written really, REALLY long reviews for the latest crop of Star Wars movies. Partially out of these movies still (for the moment) feeling pretty, darn important and partially because there really is just a lot to say.

I’m not going to do that this time. Well, I’m going to try not to do that this time. I want to give you all something a bit more digestible due in part to my disinterest in hitting every, single beat as well as simply encouraging you all to go see if for yourselves (as if I needed to convince you any more to see a goddamn Star Wars movie). Also…I feel like the internet is already full of enough think pieces, hot takes, etc.

These are all sort of “mental notes” I took while watching the flick, which I’ve seen twice now. I wrote them as quickly as possible so be sure to tell me about all the mistakes and stuff I made. I really, REALLY love those.

Also if you’re not to good at the whole “reading the title” thing, I get it. I really do, but sometimes you’ll catch something like, I don’t know, there are spoilers ahead. So if you haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet and want to remain a clean slate, there’s this nifty little feature called the “X” up there in the lefthand corner of your screen if you’re using Google…I could walk you through the other outlets, but you know…I don’t want to.

The plot:

“Rey develops her newly discovered abilities with the guidance of Luke Skywalker, who is unsettled by the strength of her powers. Meanwhile, the Resistance prepares to do battle with the First Order.” – IMDb.com

The notes:

  • “Bury the past.” That’s the mantra going into The Last Jedi and that’s going to piss off a lot of people. And you know what I think? Good. The big complaint coming out of The Force Awakens was just by-the-numbers it felt. Rogue One did a (kind of) competent job at going for something outside of the Star Wars format but unfortunately equated to brain dead fan service without any substantial characters to keep the thing afloat. The Last Jedi feels like the first attempt, since Lucasfilm came into the Disney fold, at respecting what came before while acknowledging we have to step out of the shadow of that past to ultimately move forward. As a few critics have noted, the last two movies really focused on “moments,” many of which held little substance beyond giving us what we expected/wanted. A dreamer, cast aside on a desert planet. Light Side. Dark Side. The Millennium Falcon. The death of an old teacher.  The list of repeated imagery and moments goes on and on and on. There’s a reason this movie starts with Luke throwing a lightsaber off a cliff. Writer/Director Rian Johnson knows what we want, but instead favors giving us what we need instead and he repeats it time and time again throughout The Last Jedi‘s 2-and-half-hour runtime. So many seemingly important things fans (myself included) have speculated about over the past two years are thrown off a proverbial cliff (who is Snoke, Rey’s lineage, etc). Why did we think they were so important? Because destiny, that’s why! Because the Light Side! Because the Dark Side! Because the Skywalkers! Because mysteries! Because answers! Questions the internet has obsessed over are thrown aside; sometimes in a funny way and other times in an skeptical way but always in a purposeful way because we finally have a Star Wars movie (in my opinion) in this new batch with an actual purpose rather than an extended ride atop a fleeting wave of nostalgia. I’m a big fan of Johnson, dating back to his first feature, Brick, and how he actually plays with genre. To Disney’s credit, he was the ABSOLUTE perfect guy to man this movie and, in many ways, is the best captain to steer this behemoth forward with his own trilogy.

  • There’s one character I want to discuss a little at the top because I’m afraid she’s going to get lost in the shuffle and that’s Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. It’s the conflict between her and Poe Dameron (played again by the ever-charming Oscar Isaac, who actually gets shit to do this time around as I requested) that really shines a light on this “Flipping expectations on their head” thing I’m really jazzed about. The way Johnson plays with our expectations with her so expertly. I’m not sure if it’s the purple hair, but we’re groomed for the classic “She’s wrong, Poe’s right” maneuver. Poe’s mutiny was always misguided, an example of him acting impulsively and repeating the mistakes of the past. (To those who are being harsh toward Holdo for not sharing her ultimate plan, please note that Poe actively avoided telling her his. Not to mention, he had been demoted for his massive fuck-up with the bombers. Why should she have to tell him anything?) And so the narrative flip of her quietly saving the day played right into his arc, like the singular perfect puzzle piece it was. (The same goes for Benicio Del Toro’s DJ, but I’ll get to him in a bit.) And holy actual hell, does she get a triumphant moment as a result. That silent cut of her sacrificial jump into the enemy fleet will go down as a franchise highlight. Also Dern and Carrie Fisher together in a Star Wars movie is everything I’ve ever wanted but didn’t know it until I actually saw it.

  • Speaking of Fisher, I’m seeing some complaints in regard to both her using the Force and how she used the Force i.e. pulling herself out of space. On the former, if you haven’t been pulling for Leia to use the Force at any point then you and I are just never going to see eye-to-eye ever and you can leave. The latter however has some wiggle room, I guess. I wasn’t bad, if anything I was so excited I didn’t even have time to consider if I thought it was good or bad honestly. Seeing Leia actively use the Force (something she did in the now non-cannon EU from time-to-time) is something I’ve been hoping for since I was a kid and having her use it to cheat death was appropriate in my opinion. Did it harken back to Superman, sure. I don’t think that was deterrent however. Now to the nerds that are citing plausibility grievances can kindly show themselves the door. “We’ve never seen a Force-user do that before so therefore it’s not plausible!” What the…? Like, what movie do you think you’re watching? Since we’re on Leia, I’m happy/devastated to say this is probably this a best for her. Happy because she wasn’t given all that much to do last time and it’s nice to see her given proper due with a lot of hefty story stuff and character moments (she FINALLY gets that hug from Chewie!). Devastated because this will be the last time we see her. Given her passing, it’s natural to feel as if she still wasn’t we still didn’t get enough of her. (The plan, made clear here, was that TFA was to be Han’s movie, TLJ is Luke’s and the closing chapter would be Leia’s, something that I’m sure has been no easy task for those behind the scenes to amend.) I think as a closer though, Fisher shines and the galaxy will be all the duller without her there.

  • Fisher isn’t the only returning cast member of course as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is finally given his due in a performance he’s deserved to give for so, so, so long and that is Luke, Jedi Master. It’s a performance imbued with humor and love. Beyond just coming back for a paycheck, Hamill wants this to mean something. Harrison Ford was great in his return as Han, but Hamill recognizes the absolute significance of what his return means for a lot of people. He’s gone on record as saying he initially disagreed with Johnson’s direction for Luke here and having now seen the movie, I get it. I don’t want to picture Luke as a man, haunted by his past doomed to die alone on an island so far from all his friends. But this was the direction we needed him to go for this story. And good god, his scene with Yoda (Frank Oz). It’s basically everything it needed to be and such a stark reminder of how blatantly ham-fisted all of the fan service in Rogue One came off as. As a quick aside, it was so great to have OG funny while also sage Yoda back (in puppet form no less) and not super grim and pouting Yoda we got in the prequels. It all builds to what may equate to one of the best “last lessons” a Star Wars movie has imparted on us, the audience. And that’s the importance of failure and learning from that failure. We may need to bury the past, but we can’t do away with it altogether. Particularly when it comes to our mistakes because otherwise how do we learn anything? It’s a necessary lesson each and every one of us has to learn, and who better to get it from than Master Yoda himself. I ASSUME he’ll be back in some capacity as a Force ghost to impart some final words, but if he doesn’t I think this was one hell of a closer for the character.

  • The revelation of Rey’s parents being no one was exactly what I wanted, and adding the fact they were ultimately shitty people too (meaning Rey’s basically been in denial this entire time) is incredibly interesting. Sure, you could argue Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was simply lying to get a rise out of her but I want to take this at face value particularly given it ties so beautifully well into the larger theme of the movie. Unlike Disney, the Skywalkers shouldn’t have a monopoly on the Force. It all sort of ties back into how I really, really, really dislike the “destiny” angle or at the very least think it’s utterly played out. It equates to the “DO YOU KNOW WHO MY FATHER IS” asshole we see/hear in nightclubs. Hell, we even have a nice self-aware version of this in the form of Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (the always great Adam Driver). I was dreading a “I’m your father” moment in that throne room sequence. Instead I got something shocking and altogether much more satisfying. The two have a number of great scenes throughout the movie thanks to a brilliant narrative device (that pays off with Luke’s appearance later as well), that all leads to that moment of temptation and the first time I can recall where the Dark Side actually seems seductive. Kylo wants to burn everything to the ground (the Jedi, the Sith, etc) with him standing high above the ash, and he wants Rey with him. She’s just a kid whose parents sold her away for booze, an unimportant girl who therefore needs to share her place among those destined to be great (quite like himself obviously), in order to be great. But Rey won’t do it, because of course not. There was really no doubt in my mind she’d stand firmly by the side of the Light, but also because she’s not just anything. She, like Finn or Rose or the kid with the broom near the end or any other number of character “filling in” the gaps, are everything important about TLJ. They aren’t born of legends. They don’t have ties to the canon. They are distinctly and singularly their own and coming from “nothing” makes them no less of hero than Luke, Han or Leia.

  • Much like Rey’s much-theorized linage, I’m also a pretty big fan of the outcome for Snoke as well…in that he fucking dies in movie two. I’ve read a lot of complaints in regard to the character just upfront dying before any substantial ground was covered in his part in the larger story. I argue however we got just about everything we really need to know about him and his motivations between these two movies. Snoke was just a very old, very powerful, very evil force-user. In the original trilogy we get about just as much information on the Emperor as we did on Snoke in this new set of films, and it works in the same exact fashion. I’m of the mindset that less can be more, particularly in relation to your BIG BAD. What exact kind of traction would we gain by the reveal of where Snoke came from and his precise motivations? How did that work out for Palpatine? Or better yet, how fucking happy were we with how that turned out with Darth Vader?

NOW, ONTO THE LIGHTING ROUND…

  • My favorite bit of acting comes from Driver as he screams at his subordinates to fire on the Millennium Falcon. It both speaks to how much he hates his dad and how the First Order/Empire really, really, hates that fucking ship.
  • I loved the exchange between Snoke and Kylo Ren that basically confirms the helmet was Kylo’s idea and Snoke just accepted as a parent would begrudgingly accept their adolescent, moody teenager to pierce their nose.
  • Big fan of the Kylo and General Hux a.k.a. the most British man in the galaxy (Domhnall Gleeson) rivalry. They came off as assistant managers, and I loved it. I reminded me of the Dwight/Andy feud on the Office and I can’t wait to see how it evolves with Ren now in charge.
  • Another example of fan service done well: R2’s use of the original Leia hologram. Served a narrative purpose in addition to being a sweet call back. Also a “subtle” jab at Rogue One is a plus in my book. “Cheap trick,” indeed.
  • So happy it was BB-8 in that AT-ST, saving the day and not DJ.
  • If we’re going to talk about the biggest weaknesses (for me), I’d just recognize that this sure was a long movie. Like really long. Scenes by themselves generally worked, but the structure felt…wonky at more than one point throughout. That isn’t to say I couldn’t watch a 48 hour Star Wars movie, but I’m thinking within the realms of plausibility and reasonability. If we’re cutting anything out, start with the Canto Bight stuff. You can rework some of that stuff with the kids and DJ (Benicio del Toro) as they’re actually pretty important but everything else falls under the movie wanting its cake and eating it too. A casino planet is a pretty cool idea but at really no point during Finn, Rose and BB-8’s time there did I feel any real sense of urgency. It’s not bad per se, but it felt more like a detour when it should have felt like an essential route.
  • For all the internet, fanboy buzz, the Porgs were ultimately fine. Yes, they’re cute but so is BB-8. We can have cute things in our FAMILY fantasy movies and they never evolve beyond funny little side-attraction. Had they been some sort of key to defeating the First Order (much like the Ewoks), I’d be singing a pretty different story but they didn’t so hopefully we can all take a breather on our Porg-centered anger? Now if you’ll excuse me, I have quite a bit of Porg merch to buy.

  • It made me laugh out loud at how they hammer home just how pointless Captain Phasma was. I ASSUME she’s dead for real this time and if so at least she went out with a (brief) fight scene.
  • We really needed a guy to go, “Hmmm, salt,” did we?
  • I still don’t really get the whole power dynamic between the First Order and the Resistance, and this was a pretty big problem for me in TFA as well. Maybe it’s answered in a book some where but I can’t imagine it would be too hard to clarify this with a line a dialogue. So in the last movie, the First Order AND the Resistance were on the outs so to speak. Neither was in charge. The Republic had been reestablished since the end of Return of the Jedi and the Empire repackaged as “The First Order.” Then Leia went off to form the Resistance, which was like a subset of the Republic but different because Leia…didn’t trust the Republic…and still wanted to fight for freedom? I think? Anyway, the First Order blew up the Republic HQ in the last flick and now…they’re in charge? Why? When did that happen? Their HQ (Starkiller Base) was also destroyed? We’re led to believe they are in charge in TLJ or at least that is what it seems like given the Resistance (who are called rebels at multiple points in this movie, adding further confusion) are on the run. It just seems like a lot to get back to what equates to “Rebels V. Empire” again and I’m still lost on what exactly happened to the Republic. Is it gone? What happened to Coruscant? Did we leave that one behind because of the Imperial connection? I’ve never really liked this model of “read the books to understand this critical plot point” that’s been in-use since at least the prequels and it’s kind of troubling to see it carry over in the Disney exchange. 
  • Nice to see Star Wars ripping off Battlestar Galactica, which was (in its original incarnation) a ripoff of Star Wars. For those unaware, in the episode “33” of the BSG reboot the Colonies (last humans) are on the run from the Cylons (evil robots). Like in Star Wars, ships are able to “jump” from one location to another by way of hyperspace. The Colonies keep jumping to escape the Cylons. However the Cylons are able to track them wherever they jump, something not thought possible before. I’m not crying plagiarism or anything. It’s just a funny circular similarity. 
  • I’m all about Del Toro’s hacker character not getting a moment of redemption, another break from the norm as his is set up as the quasi-hybrid of Han and Lando. Instead we actually get a truly morally grey character. I absolutely love his bit about (and I’m paraphrasing here) one side blowing up the other for all time, repeatedly. It once again speaks to the normally, everyday people in this galaxy that don’t have single stock in these power plays. Maybe they’ve heard of the Rebellion or of this mythical figure named “Skywalker” but outside of that, it’s all just stories. The galaxy is a pretty big place after all. DJ takes a cynical, greedy look at the whole thing, opting for the “Hey, someone is going to win. I might as well make some money” approach. And his outlook isn’t wrong, per se, but it’s also not constructive (something he seems to fully admit to Finn before they part ways). It’s one thing to admit to yourself that life has no definable meaning. As Dan Harmon so famously said, “The knowledge that nothing matters, while accurate, gets you nowhere.” When you zoom in all the characters of Star Wars (and you know, real life) you see so many things that matter. It’s when you accept that and continue on (as Finn does) do you really find purpose. It’s echoed again by Rose as she states (paraphrasing again), “We’re not fighting to destroy the things we hate. We’re saving the things we love.”
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‘It Comes At Night’ revels in the enveloping fear of nothingness

I’ve gone through seemingly time-and-time again what I favor in a horror film. Time after time after time. Needless to say I’m going to try to hard on it again here too extensively. Suffice to say: I prefer a less is more approach.

It Comes At Night, much like 2016’s The Witch, is movie almost tailor-made to my horror sensibilities.

The plot:

“Secure within a desolate home as an unnatural threat terrorizes the world, the tenuous domestic order he has established with his wife and son is put to the ultimate test with the arrival of a desperate young family seeking refuge. Despite the best intentions of both families, paranoia and mistrust boil over as the horrors outside creep ever-closer, awakening something hidden and monstrous within him as he learns that the protection of his family comes at the cost of his soul.” – A24

The review:

As I’ve written in the past, any horror movie worth its weight in salt doesn’t simply taser your nerves with jump-scare after jump-scare. That’s completely within the realm of playing peek-a-boo with an infant. Look to any of the most iconic horror films, such as Alien or The Exorcist. There aren’t really roundtable scenes where the “rules” are discussed.

The more you know or understand about something, the less scary it becomes. It’s why the movement in the late 2000s to add backstory to some of cinema’s most iconic monsters (Leatherface, Michael Myers, etc) came off as simple sacrilege. It’s why I see little point in Ridley Scott diving into the origins of the xenomorph with his latest crop of Alien films. There’s definitely an argument to be made for some explanation (it all relates back to the movie itself and this is by no means a universal rule) but on the whole fear stems from a lack of understanding.

Generally fear comes from something you know very little about, and that’s the wheelhouse in which Trey Edward Shults opted to operate when crafting his second feature. There’s no scene of a news report providing exposition nor is there a scientist character to clue us in on what exactly our characters are dealing with.

As with his first film, Krisha, Shults translates the rawness of emotion from a personal tragedy (in this case the death of his father) to raw intensity, feeding into the universal fear of losing those closest to you. Like his earlier film, Shults explores the impulse and fruitlessness in seeking normalcy in extreme and strenuous circumstances, ultimately questioning whether such a normalcy is not only obtainable but if it even existed in the first place.

Those who come into It Comes At Night for an answer to what exactly “it” is, may leave this movie severally disappointed. There’s not a monster stalking the two families at its center. There isn’t even a clear villain or even a message. The horror at the movie’s core is a lot harder to define than something as tangible as a monster. Besides what could possibly more frightening outside than the thought of the danger being inside with you, under your skin.

The virus in the movie refreshingly doesn’t turn its victims into zombies or any form thereof. In fact, the film spends very little time on what exactly the disease is or how exactly it works beyond being both highly contagious and incredibly fatal. We don’t know where it originated or just how widespread it is.

At the center of it all is Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.), who serves as our de facto avatar. He is in the company of his teacher cum survivalist father Paul (a career best performance from Joel Edgerton) and stressed out mother Sarah (the ever-dependable Carmen Ejogo). The family lives already lives on the thin edge of a razor in their respective isolation when a stranger named Will (Christopher Abbott) appears at their front door.

Will has his own clan consisting of wife Kim (Riley Keough) and young son Andrew (Griffin Robert Faulkner). The two families soon merge and things are good…at first. But as movies demand, conflict arises as paranoia sets in. Travis’ nightmares, pouring with thoughts of hopelessness and desperation, become more and more frequent, eventually bleeding into reality. There’s all matter of combustions laid before the audience (sexual tension, conflated masculinity, “looking out for one’s own); all it takes is one match to set everything off.

What ultimately happens is at once shocking and inevitable, brutally so. This movie is scary enough on its own but its true horror only sinks in after its over and you attempt to wrap your head around what it all meant.

There’s an emptiness at the heart of It Comes At Night and in that emptiness viewers will either embrace the abject terror or find frustration at the lack of clear answers. Instead, we find blind animalistic panic, lashing out at an all-consuming darkness that will one day envelop us all.There are multiple sequences draped in shadow, darkness threatening to envelop the entire frame at points. It’s at these moments where the film really, really excels.

There’s no way to fully understand human nature; why we act the way we do when we’re scared. As the film’s tagline explicitly states, “Fear turns men into monsters.”

Allow me to play Carnac the Magnificent and glimpse into the future for a moment. This is a movie that will be completely bypassed come award season. I know it. You know it. Your mom knows it. And truth be told, there are much, much, MUCH worse things to be concerned about in this ever-troubling world of ours but it is a shame to be sure.

Drew Daniels paints a jaw-dropping canvas with his cinematography, by far the best I’ve seen this year. The shots within the house are tight and claustrophobic while the few times we leave for the outside feel expansive yet uncertain, leaving us never really at ease in the same way our characters are. It’s a commendable attribute for a cinematographer to pull something off like that in way that isn’t hand-holdy or obvious. The same could be said of Brian McOmber’s score which never dips into hysteria, instead serving its tight-wound atmosphere.

A common complaint I’ve been hearing relates back to the film’s marketing. Now, as of now, I’d say the film’s teaser (posted above) is one of the best I’ve seen in a good long while. Hands down the best for a movie to come out for movie this year thus far. It works as a template of exactly what a trailer should be. It’s only when you look at the full trailer (posted below) do things get kind of murky.

I’d argue this cut is still streets ahead of your run-of-the-mill trailer house output, as is the case with a lot of A24’s stuff. However it does more explicitly market this as a more traditional horror film, which is most certainly is not. It’s only during the nightmare sequences does the film dip into more familiar ground with the occasional jump scare and shocking image. On CinemaScore, audiences gave the film an average grade of “D” on an A+ to F scale which is shockingly low but still not really all that surprising.

This isn’t a movie for a “fun” movie night with your friends. Well unless those friends are like weird and “pretentious” like me, sadists or both. It Comes At Night is not a fun movie. It’s a movie that’s actually a lot more simple than it lets on, all while never going over the top (something its B-movie title may suggest) in a way that would feel false to the world Shults creates. Some may find this boring while I argue it’s refreshing.

Throughout the film, we are reminded of the red door which serves as the only entrance and exit for the home. Said door is never supposed to be opened after nightfall. As is the case with movies however, the door does open. However, we never get a glimpse of some horror such as a monster or zombie horde. Instead we only see empty blackness. A majority of horror films presume the former is scarier. Shults favors the latter however, allowing audiences to squirm in the expanse of the unknown and contemplate the familiarity we may find within our own souls.