Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Writer-director Rian Johnson’s first foray into the Star Wars universe is an auspicious one, full of dazzlingly ambitious filmmaking and beautifully bold narrative twists and turns. While not without some minor flaws, this is a triumphant entry in the saga.

TLJ Battle

While internet scuttlebutt had us thinking the movie would open precisely where J.J. Abrams’ The Force Awakens left us (with Rey offering up Luke’s lightsaber), it turns out that every word they said was wrong. Johnson instead plunges us headlong into a brilliantly dizzying escape attempt by the Resistance which spirals into a thrilling battle sequence with the First Order that would be extraordinary if it was the Act III finale… here it’s the intro, which lets you know just how much of a thrill-ride this movie is going to be (a huge thrill ride, to be clear). It also charts a clear trajectory for Johnson’s take on the story and characters: everything is morally complex, situations are messy and complicated, and there few easy answers.

TLJ Luke Rey

Of course, we join Rey and Luke on Ahch-To Island soon enough, and, per Luke’s trailer line, this isn’t going to go the way you think. Johnson handles Rey and Luke’s journey in beautifully unexpected ways, which serves as a blueprint for how he handles everything else: there are at least five moments where you feel like the movie is ramping up to an ending when instead it ducks and dives and gives you a much deeper journey, and takes you to narrative places you never expect, which is such a Star Wars thing to do. Although Johnson has his own storytelling moves, including a dark and fresh sense of humor, some beautiful lighting and camerawork, and a willingness to jump around in time and space, he also has a reassuringly sure grasp of what makes Star Wars, Star Wars. The morality and positivity and hope of it all. And all of that is represented most purely in Kelly Marie Tran’s absolutely perfect debut.

TLJ Rose Finn 2

This is Tran’s first major movie role, and what a way to start. Playing Resistance engineer Rose, she owns the screen every second she’s on it, more than holding her own with the irrepressible John Boyega (their emotional journey is one of the best things about this movie), and fully centering the movie as its moral compass, as well as being a deeply endearing and fearlessly inspiring presence in the story. It’s a grounded performance that burns bright, and easily fuels the movie through the only section where it seems to lose altitude somewhat—there’s an extended sequence in a casino (this movie’s cantina) that possibly outstays its welcome, although it is critical to Rose’s arc, and also sets some other things in motion that are critical for the end of the movie (again, no spoilers). However, whenever Tran is on screen, narrative concerns fall by the wayside; she’s the movie’s secret weapon in many ways.

TLJ Rey

But ultimately, this isn’t Rose’s movie, it’s Rey’s, and boy does Daisy Ridley step up and lead this epic journey to a whole new place. There’s an extraordinary purity to the light and fire that Ridley brings to this role, and her quietly emotional and compellingly powerful performance anchors the Star Wars universe in a way we haven’t seen since it began, and Johnson is a smart enough director to allow the camera to just hold on her deeply nuanced emotions. That nuance is complemented by a supremely focused physicality as Rey discovers just what she’s capable of. Johnson serves up some exhilarating and devastating situations and interactions for her, as he does for all his leads, and there’s a huge amount of suspense in her growing connection to Kylo Ren, who is on a complicated journey of his own.

TLJ Ren

And Adam Driver knows how to play complicated. He builds on the emotionally tortured performance from Awakens and takes it so much further in an intensely physical manifestation of Ren’s rage and pain and fear. We truly don’t know where he’s going to end up by the finale, which is a testament to Johnson’s writing, and to Driver’s powerhouse acting chops. In Ridley and Driver, this universe has two white-hot talents at its forefront, which is tremendously exciting as we contemplate what Episode 9 might hold.

TLJ Leia

Terribly sadly, that won’t include the wonderful, devastatingly powerful force of nature that was Carrie Fisher. She’s simply fantastic in this movie, leaving us with a performance of grace and intelligence and charisma and humor and charm. She’s everything you expect and also nothing you expect; her Leia is a powerful leader, a woman who will never give up on herself or her people, an inspiring human being of the highest magnitude, and that’s Fisher’s gift to the character, and to us. The best way to honor her legacy is to live inspired by what Leia represents: hope, never backing down, owning your life to the fullest, having a sense of humor about it all, and being compassionate and kind. The world would be a better place if we could all be a little more like Leia, and like Fisher.

She’s a key part of the movie’s overwhelming belief in hope, in the spark that will light the fire that will keep hope alive and ultimately make everything better. Amongst the cute creatures (SO MANY PORGS! Beautiful twinkling crystal foxes!), and the droids (BB-8 is a BOSS in this movie — he gets some AMAZING action scenes!), the movie feels so relevant to what’s happening in the world right now it’s almost painful, but in an exhilarating kind of way. It ends on a note of hope that burns bright and lights the way, not only for the future of the Star Wars universe, but for the future of ours too.

And that’s what you really want from a Star War movie.

Also what we really want from a Star Wars movie? LUKE SKYWALKER F**KING SH*T UP.

TLJ Luke

Zero spoilers here, but this movie more than makes up for Luke’s lack of dialogue last time around. Mark Hamill gets some fantastic work to do, and he gives a wonderfully detailed performance as the haunted, embittered, lonely Jedi. Hamill truly connects us to that wide-eyed farmboy from A New Hope and really makes us feel the devastating journey he’s been on since he blasted off from Mos Eisley. Hamill is an outstanding actor, and has gravitas and charm to spare, qualities he deploys to an almost weaponized degree here. It’s Rey’s movie, but it’s Luke’s too, and Johnson does a fine job of finessing their arcs (and everyone else’s—Laura Dern and Oscar Isaac have many beautifully played moments) into one propulsive, highly entertaining story that barrels along relentlessly to the extraordinary finale (while still finding time for a fan favorite old friend to show up along the way in spine-tingling fashion).

TLJ BB8

BB-8 tho

In short, Rian Johnson wrote and directed an excellent Star Wars movie that is a huge amount of fun, tremendously moving, and that moves the whole franchise forward, setting the stage for J.J. Abrams to deliver something amazing to wrap it all up in Episode 9.

So go see it!

 

 

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Influence Is Bliss, episode three: Laini Taylor

It’s sometimes said that people look like their scripts/resemble their writing. It’s often true. In Laini Taylor’s case, with her awesome bright pink hair, she could be the long lost sister of the blue-coiffeured Karou, hero of DAUGHTER OF SMOKE AND BONE and DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT, two of the most stunning YA genre novels ever published.

Laini Taylor. Pink Hair.

Laini Taylor. Awesome Hair.

Taylor is a HUGE inspiration to us. And not just because we admire her hair (although, A really does). She is one of the most extraordinary storytellers out there, not just in YA, but in fiction, and even beyond. If you put together an elite band of the greatest storytellers from the realms of novels, TV and movies, like a superhero team up (Marvel’s Writers Assemble?), Taylor would be one of the first writers you would choose.

Her storytelling is a thing of wonder. It’s robust, muscular, epic, capable of soaring into light and diving into darkness; it’s visceral in the most emotional of ways, which are the ways that really count. But plot counts too. Her books are not just character studies. They are deeply, thrillingly plot-driven. They achieve the perfect harmony whereby character and plot are the same thing. That’s the holy grail of great writing. Karou’s emotional journey in book one is the driver of everything that happens. In book two, Taylor expands to include much more of Akiva’s story — action and character are simultaneous in his chapters too.

Her situations challenge the characters in deep, testing ways, driving them beyond their ability to cope and into that exciting, edge of your seat realm of not knowing what the hell they are going to do, or what the hell is about to happen. That’s the essence of the greatest drama, in any format: testing your characters beyond their endurance. Taylor puts her characters through unimaginable stresses and horrors, situations that are emotionally intense, and emotionally devastating. They are also situations that do not allow the characters to dwell or wallow, even for a second. They are situations that demand further action. Taylor’s worlds are kinetic on every level — there is always forward motion, which is the first law of awesome writing. Motion can be emotional, physical, plot-related, atmospheric; however it manifests, it needs to be there. And boy, is it there in Taylor’s writing. She has a beautiful understanding and grasp of advanced narrative mechanics, and she wields her characters and stories like blades in the hands of an angel.

It’s as though she’s in a simultaneous state of nithilam and sirithar.

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Daughter Of Smoke And Bone

Any writer of any kind would learn much from these two books. SMOKE AND BONE is a masterclass of character-grounding, scope-expanding narrative flights. Taylor sets up a complex array of characters, both human and otherwise, and also complex worlds and societies. Read this book closely; it’s impossible to see her doing it. Her lightness of touch is remarkable; the worlds illuminate the characters, and the characters illuminate the worlds.

BLOOD AND STARLIGHT rapidly expands its core cast and develops an array of new characters, all while driving forward a terrifyingly inexorable storyline that, somewhat amazingly, makes the events of book one seem small in comparison.

It’s a masterclass in how to write a sequel.

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Days Of Blood And Starlight

Sequels are notoriously tricky. It’s genuinely rare to find a sequel that is even as good as the original. They exist. But sequels that dwarf the preceding book, eclipse it, go supernova on it… those are like goddamn unicorns. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is one of those unicorns.

It happens in movies slightly more frequently; a subsequent installment that goes harder, does it differently, expands its universe while still retaining the spirit of the original — ALIENS, THE DARK KNIGHT, TERMINATOR 2, J.J. Abrams’ STAR TREK (technically it’s STAR TREK 11), THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK. Just a few examples at the highest end of the quality spectrum.

DAYS OF BLOOD AND STARLIGHT is in that company.

SMOKE AND BONE got progressively bigger emotionally and plot-wise, then exploded in a mind-blowing, stunning revelation that took us literally up to the skies at the end. BLOOD AND STARLIGHT made that ending look like a grainy YouTube video on a flip phone compared to its VAST, gorgeous, perception-altering, universe-expanding IMAX scope of emotion and action. That’s how you do it.

With just these two books, Taylor has made her way to the very top of our inspiration list. We devoured both books; and they consumed us. That’s the most beautiful kind of reading experience. And as writers, we bow down to her. She’s the standard we want to reach, the stars we aim for; even if we don’t always get there, we’ll be much further along that we would have been otherwise. This inspiration really is bliss; her writing is incredibly gorgeous, wild and dangerous, entrancing, stunning, exhilarating.

It’s writing you lose your head to; writing to lose your soul in.

Not only that, she writes more perceptively, intelligently and inspiringly about the act of writing than almost anybody. Just spend some time on her site at www.lainitaylor.com and you’ll see what we mean. She’s so open and honest about the whole messy, thrilling, terrifying and wonderful process of writing. Her words are always encouraging, like beacons of light in the dark night of the soul that all writers face at some point.

Thank you, Laini. For all the above.

We can’t wait for book three.