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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Costume design and set design: not just the icing on your short film cake

Wardrobe and set design may seem like frivolous aspects of filmmaking, as if they’re the frosting on top of a cake — nice when they’re there, but not necessary to satisfy your hunger. Wrong! Trying to capture an audience without a setting is like serving a cake without having mixed the ingredients together first. And without icing. And who wants that?! Wardrobe and set design are what give the ‘cake’ its shape, and are often what holds everything together.

Mmm... cake

Mmmm… cake

Visual clues give the audience a deeper understanding of a character or situation; they appeal to our visual intelligence. It’s a way of communicating a ton of information without saying a word. Visual clues give the audience the time: are we in the future, the present, the past, an alternate reality timeline? They can also convey the financial and social standing of your characters, their points of view, as well as where they’re from. You can reflect their beliefs, morality, even their education, just by giving them the right background and attire.

So, not going to a rave, then?

So, not going to a rave, then?

In Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Black Widow wears a simple arrow necklace. As a spy, her clothes, even her hairstyle, are often arranged to fit the job she’s working. That necklace was the only piece that was her: unconnected to any SHIELD assignment. The arrow reminded the audience of her relationship with Clint Barton, and that underneath her killer moves was a person with relationships that she would break her own rules for. It was pivotal to the story that the audience remember that Natasha has a history, and isn’t just an action hero to provide backup to Steve.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

Statement jewelry. Steve not pictured.

The wardrobe can give the audience all they need to know about a character, and the set design can ground the story in less than a second. The messy desk of a lawyer in a well-tailored suit shows us someone who presents themselves as having it all together, but has a messy hidden life. A woman in flip flops on a cream couch surrounded by nautical-themed accents has the audience smelling salt in the air without a shot of the ocean or the sound of waves crashing.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

You can hear the seagulls. Seagulls not pictured.

Design is especially important in a short film, since you have limited time to tell your story. You need to use as many short cuts, visual or otherwise, as you can. However, coupled with a limited budget, design can cause some massive headaches. As with every aspect of making a low budget short, you’re going to have to get creative to to work with what you have. We hate to break it to you, but you’re not going to be able to build that Nancy Meyer kitchen set. But (assuming you don’t know anyone with a Nancy Meyer kitchen willing to let you use it, or Nancy Meyer herself), you can find a kitchen island at IKEA, put it in front of a large window, and have your cast orbit around it, giving the impression that there’s a large kitchen around them, just out of shot. As long as you evoke the impression of a large fancy kitchen, your audience will see it.

No one fights in this kitchen.

No one fights in this kitchen.

The key things to remember are:

  1. No blank spaces (sorry Ms. Swift). Actors standing in front of blank walls gives off a vibe — the boring kind. Everything the actors say to one another will be infused with that vibe. Don’t undercut the dialogue and their performance by sending out the sleepy signal. (The only exception to this is when a character is about to say or do something integral to the story and you want all the attention on them. Which bring us to…)
  2. Don’t overwhelm. Everything in the space should serve a function. If it’s not there to reflect something about the location, story or characters, it shouldn’t be there. You don’t want your audience so engrossed in your beautifully designed backgrounds that they lose focus on the unfolding story.
  3. Downsize. If the scene is taking place in one location, you only need to create a part of that location. Like the kitchen example above, why create a huge set if your actors are just sitting in place? Dressing up the corner of the room can be all you need — just remember to ensure that all your angles are covered, so wherever you want to point your camera, we’re seeing what we need to.
  4. Reuse-Recycle. This is where it’s good to be a hoarder. Or know one. If not, try craigslist, eBay, garage sales and flea markets. Felicia Day even picked up abandoned pieces of trash off the street for some props in The Guild! Home decor magazines, Pinterest, and of course movies and TV shows can provide inspiration. Just make sure to keep your characters in mind. A pig-shaped cutting board may be cute (and hopefully cheap), but ask yourself, would your character have that in their kitchen? (If you are going for a Nancy Meyer’s look then the answer is definitely not!)
  5. Have fun. You know what makes movies repeat-watching worthy? All the little things you discover each time you watch them. Keep that in mind when putting together your set. On the God’s Work episode of SouthLAnd (moment of silence for that AMAZING show), in one scene children’s alphabet letters were arranged on a table to form the producer’s initials (admittedly, this is not character-based, but it’s a fun easter egg, which is another reason to spend a lot of time on the details). In every J.J. Abrams movie there’s an R2 D2 hidden somewhere (probably won’t be too hard to spot in his next film). In Supernatural’s season 2 episode Playthings, the Shining homages didn’t end with the desolate old hotel.
That's a spooky room number you got there...

That’s a spooky room number you got there…

As we mentioned before when talking about writing, characters don’t often say what they mean. With an absence of history or internal dialogue, the setting and wardrobe are what raise the volume of what is not being said.