A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it sure was a whole lot easier to put a damned bow on a franchise. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams’ return to the trilogy he kicked off with The Force Awakens, is clearly facing some monumental pressures in its quest to deliver a satisfying ending, with a litany of production woes ranging from the passing of Carrie Fisher, the dismissal of the original director, and the ire of random goons on the internet. Given all of the agita, the fact that the final movie comes off as something other than a clear victory lap is less than surprising. What’s odd, though, is how much of the narrative chaos feels self-inflicted. This is a finale that somehow registers as both flabby and rushed, expending at least as much energy in rubbing out perceived past snafus as in moving forward. I mean, it’s still better than Attack of the Clones, but the line is perilously close at times.
Nostalgia can only get you so far, even when wookiees are involved. While 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens succeeded in its designated task of rescuing the venerable franchise from the doldrums of its prequels, it also practiced a frustrating form of risk aversion, putting the next generation of characters through some very familiar paces. (Now coming up on your left: another Death Star!) Thankfully, The Force Awakens’ thunderously hyped sequel, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, takes a much more proactive tack, fully honoring the touchstones of the series while zigging and zagging in satisfying, provocative ways. If the previous entry presented a respectably staid melding of old and new, this one wires everything up, cranks the juice, and lets her rip. It’s escapism on a grand scale—the kind of experience that reminds you why you fell in love with movies in the first place. Believe the hype, and then some.
The Logan brothers list their family’s dismal relationship to luck, ticking through some of the calamities that have befallen the clan. One piece of evidence is “Uncle Stickley’s electrocution,” a colorful citation. Who was this Uncle Stickley? How did he get electrocuted? Why was he named Stickley? These questions remain unanswered and Uncle Stickley is never referred to again. Part of the pleasure of Steven Soderbergh’s Logan Lucky is its flair for throwaway lines and little character beats. This movie does not aspire to greatness or significance; being extremely clever and thoroughly competent is the goal here.
The film borrows the shape of Soderbergh’s Ocean’s Eleven series in its devotion to the old formula of the heist picture. But the setting is the opposite: Instead of sophisticated thieves plotting to knock over a Las Vegas casino, the conspirators here are a bumbling collection of blue-collar West Virginians whose dubious plan is to rob Charlotte Motor Raceway during a NASCAR event.
If Paterson, New Jersey, already seems overblessed with great poets—William Carlos Williams and Allen Ginsberg both laid claim to the place—Jim Jarmusch believes it may have room for one more. In Jarmusch’s Paterson, the bard in question is a bus driver, an agreeable young man who organizes his life according to a timetable. He has to; he’s a bus driver. But he also writes poetry, and periodically we see his poems projected on the screen. They are written in the off minutes of his job, and they have the beguiling lightness of words written in off minutes. Despite the appearance of casualness, we can see that these words are carefully and precisely chosen.
That is of course a description of the peculiar charm of Jarmusch’s own movies, which—from Stranger Than Paradise to his 2013 gem Only Lovers Left Alive—have projected a superbly crafted shagginess. Paterson joins this list, and is one of the most pleasurable movies in recent memory.
I still marvel at how the Vancouver International Film Festival seems to be one of the best-kept secrets on the West Coast. Opening a few weeks after Toronto, it is almost concurrent with the New York Film Festival, which makes headlines with the official American premieres of some of the season’s most anticipated films. Many of those very same films are screening across the country in Vancouver, often a day or two before NYFF, and it is a mere 2 ½ hours away from my Seattle domicile. It’s one of the quirks of the festival circuit: the films that made their respective North American premieres in Toronto (after a possible “unofficial” screening at Telluride) vie for a spot at NYFF, where it gets the media spotlight, while Vancouver quietly slips somewhere around half of those into their line-up.
Here are a few titles snagged by VIFF this year: Maren Ade’s Toni Erdmann, Pedro Almodóvar’s Julieta, Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne’s The Unknown Girl, Hong Sang-soo’s Yourself and Yours, Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson, Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, Pablo Larraín’s Neruda, Ken Loach’s I, Daniel Blake, Cristian Mungiu’s Graduation, Cristi Puiu’s Sieranevada, Albert Serra’s The Death of Louis XIV, Paul Verhoeven’s Elle…. There are other films playing both fests, and plenty of films screening at Vancouver that are nowhere to be seen on the NYFF schedule, but that should give you a taste of a few of the delights that Vancouver offers over 16 days and eight venues (seven of them within walking distance of one another). It’s why I go every year that I am able.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Walt Disney, Blu-ray, DVD, Digital HD) – J.J. Abrams takes over the reins of the Star Wars franchise with what is technically a sequel (“Chapter VII: The Force Awakens”) but is just as much a course correction, a reboot, and a return to the source. It’s been called a shameless remake of the original Star Wars and refreshing return to the innocence and energy and pulpy fun that first entranced a generation of fans. I lean toward the latter, but even for those who find it rehash, I would point out that The Force Awakens is not aimed at the adult fans who grew up on the original trilogy all those decades ago. I’m one of those who saw the film on its first run and was thrilled by it. I think that Abrams is trying to recreate that experience for a whole new generation eager to be captured by the charge and action and exotic Amazing Stories covers come to life in a fairy tale space fantasy that takes place long ago and a galaxy far, far away…
To that end, this installment (set 30 years after Return of the Jedi) picks up with another scrappy kid from a desert planet who finds a runaway robot with secret plans and escapes from the resurgence of the Republic with a hunk of junk ship that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon, teams up with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who are still smuggling and scamming through way through the galaxy well past retirement age, and joins the resistance under the command of Leia (Carrie Fisher). This time, however, the kid with the essence of the force within is a spunky, inventive young woman named Rey (Daisy Ridley) and her running buddy is a former Stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega) who goes AWOL after his first mission, which turns into a pitiless massacre of innocents.
We need to talk about Alton. Nice boy, bright, well-behaved. But it seems strange that his eyes sometimes shine like the demon kids’ peepers in Village of the Damned, and that he occasionally speaks in unison with the deejay on the Spanish-language radio station—even when the radio isn’t turned on. Little things like that.
Alton’s peculiarity is at the heart of Midnight Special, the fourth feature written and directed by Jeff Nichols (Take Shelter, Mud). As the film begins, we are mysteriously in the middle of the action: Eight-year-old Alton (played by Jaeden Lieberher, the boy from The Confirmation) is being transported across Texas by his father, Roy (Michael Shannon), and Roy’s state-trooper buddy Lucas (Joel Edgerton). The authorities are after them, but we don’t know why. Meanwhile, a religious patriarch (Sam Shepard), who seems to be the leader of some sort of apocalyptic cult, orders his deputy (Bill Camp) to find the kid at all costs.
Jeff Nichols is in the zone. With just a handful of films, the Little Rock, Arkansas, native has crafted his own busy little pocket of Southern Gothic, spilling over with feuding families (2007’s Shotgun Stories), ordinary people touched with terrible prophecy (2011’s Take Shelter), and the painful limits of self-aware mythologizing (2012’s Mud). Whatever the subject, the writer/director’s movies are all marked by unobtrusive camerawork, unsparing yet respectful looks at blue-collar living, and a few touches of downright weirdness somehow specific to his region. (Shotgun Stories features a father who names his offspring Son, Boy, and Kid, which is something that you can imagine Flannery O’Connor and Harper Lee enthusiastically high-fiving about in the afterlife.) He’s got chops, is what I’m saying.
Midnight Special, Nichols’ latest, continues the director’s winning streak. While on its surface an affectionate throwback to the kid-friendly sci-fi adventures of yesteryear (as the critic Matt Zoller Seitz said on Twitter, if this had been made in the ’80s, it’d never stop playing on HBO), its underlying themes of families under pressure make it very much of a piece with the filmmaker’s other work.
Mia Wasikowska’s face, body language, and vocal delivery are in perfect harmony with the countryside that surrounds her in Tracks: human figure and landscape are equally mysterious and unforgiving. The place is the Australian desert, where in 1975 a young woman named Robyn Davidson determined she would walk the 1,700 miles from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean.
In writing a National Geographic article and subsequent best-selling book about the trek, Davidson offered little explanation for her impulse, and the movie is blunt about acknowledging that no coherent justification can be made on that score. She just needed to do it. Wasikowska’s skeptical gaze and stony delivery are ideal for this tough character, and the actress never makes a bid for likability.