Star Wars: The Last Jedi


In any Star Wars film sparks will fly and stuff will burn.

(2017) Science Fiction (Disney) Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Laura Dern, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Lupita Nyong’o, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Frank Oz, Benicio Del Toro, Justin Theroux, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotomo, Amanda Lawrence, Jimmy Vee, Veronica Ngo. Directed by Rian Johnson

In the annals of all things cinematic, no film franchise has ever elicited as much anticipation as the Star Wars franchise has with every film that’s come out since the first one. Say what you want about their fandom, they are among the most loyal of any fanbase for just about anything anywhere; many of its fans go back to the first 1977 film forty years before the latest one came out.

And there are no signs of the franchise slowing down anytime soon. Not only is there a standalone Han Solo film coming out this summer, but earlier this year it was announced that another trilogy has been approved by Disney (to nobody’s surprise) after the current trilogy concludes next year. Rian Johnson, director of this episode, will be overseeing it although whether that means he will be directing all three of the films, writing them or acting more like a kind of Yoda for the filmmakers who will be involved with the fourth trilogy remains to be seen.

While this is the longest of the films to date, for the most part it doesn’t seem that way thanks to incredible special effects which have become and remained the norm for the series. Like The Force Awakens there seems like a lot of story lines that were cobbled from other films in the series (a last stand on an ice planet? C’mon, guys) and elsewhere. On top of that there are all sorts of threads going on here and while they seem to reach a conclusion, it still feels like we’re slogging through story more than we should be.

But there is a whole lot to like about the movie as well. One of the main things is Mark Hamill. He has delivered one of his best performances ever and certainly his best Luke Skywalker ever. I worried early on that he would be curmudgeonly “get off my lawn” Luke for the whole movie but thankfully he shows some growth, particularly in the final act. The film ends on a grace note that is as magical a moment as you’ll find in the entire series.

There are other fine performances and storylines here but Ridley as Rey was not as compelling as she was previously. Boyega also seems to be written as kind of a one-note character. Laura Dern is a welcome addition to the Star Wars Universe, giving a performance that matches some of the veteran cast members note for note. Oscar Isaac seems to be developing into a very interesting character and the storyline with Rose (Tran) was one of the best in the film. However, I think the movie will be long-remembered for being Carrie Fisher’s last appearance as Princess Lea (Episode IX director J.J. Abrams has stated that Fisher won’t be appearing in any form in that movie).

On the other hand, there’s Snoke, the Supreme Leader of the First Order who is played via motion capture by the great Andy Serkis. When you have maybe the best motion capture performer of all time to utilize it seems a bloody shame to use so little of him. He is almost casually dispatched early in the movie which may end up being a tactical error or not. The Emperor surrogate role now falls to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren who may not be wholly evil after all as Anakin Skywalker was. But can anyone be both Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine at once? That remains to be seen.

This is superior entertainment and helped 2017 end on a record-breaking note. While many fans sniped over some of the story points (even Hamill reportedly wasn’t happy about the direction his charcter was taking) there’s no doubt that the franchise is as healthy as it ever was. Most people reading this have likely already seen the film multiple times in the theaters and await with varying degrees of eagerness for it to become available for their home collections. Well, so is this critic.

REASONS TO GO: As always, the special effects are as breathtaking as any in the movies. The action sequences are also top of the line. Hamill delivers his best performance of the series.
REASONS TO STAY: The buildup for Snoke led to somewhat of a letdown. The story is unnecessarily convoluted and once again feels like it was borrowed from other episodes..
FAMILY VALUES: As you would expect from a film of this franchise there is all sorts of action and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In addition to playing Luke Skywalker, Hamill also played a CGI character who can be seen putting money into BB-8 during the casino scene.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/1/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Scorched Earth

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Pick of the Litter – September 2017


BLOCKBUSTER OF THE MONTH

It

(Warner brothers) Bill Skarsgård, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Javier Botet. Stephen King’s creepy novel about a killer clown terrorizing a group of Maine boys and years later, the same boys as men was famously a television miniseries with the great Tim Curry as Pennywise. Now, the book is a movie with an all-new cast and an all-new Pennywise. Children are disappearing in the town of Derry and a creepy clown haunts the woods and sewers of the town, but Pennywise is much more than he seems and the danger even worse. Beware the deadlights! September 8

INDEPENDENT PICKS

Animal Crackers

(Arclight/Blue Dream) Starring the voices of John Krasinski, Emily Blunt, Danny DeVito, Sylvester Stallone. A young family man has the horrible job of taste testing dog biscuits. When he inherits a rundown circus, he discovers the secret to the circus’ past success – a box of magic animal crackers that allows him to turn into any animal in the box and then back to human again. However, he must contend with an evil uncle who wants the circus for himself. The trailer looked awfully cute and heartwarming; this might be a sleeper family hit. September 1

Dolores

(PBS) Dolores Huerta, Cesar Chavez, Hilary Clinton, Robert Kennedy. One of the most successful labor movements in American history was the United Farm Workers, which radically improved working conditions for the mainly Hispanic farm workers of California. Although most associate Cesar Chavez with the movement, the heart and soul of the UFW was truly Dolores Huerta. A firebrand of a leader and an indomitable advocate for those she represented, her contributions are largely unsung due to her being a woman but this documentary aims to rectify that oversight. September 1

 Man in Red Bandana

(Verdi) Gwyneth Paltrow (narrator), Barack Obama. This time of year usually brings back memories of one of the worst days in American history and of course movies about that day – September 11, 2001. There are so many stories about heroism in the face of unspeakable horror but few are as unforgettable as that of Welles Remy Crowther, a young man in a red bandana who saved ten people (at least) at the World Trade Center that terrible day. September 8

School Life

(Magnolia) Neasa Ní Chianáin, David Rane. Education is important and despite attacks on the institutions of education from all sides, there remain places where it is taken seriously. In England, a boarding school in a converted manor has taken a rock and roll attitude towards learning, giving students more of a say in what they learn. With two long-time teachers at the school retiring, we get an inside look at the joys of growing up, learning and being inspired. September 8

The Force

(Kino Lorber) Juan Carlos Zapala, Libby Schaaf. This timely documentary explores an embattled urban police force from the inside out. The Oakland (California) Police Department has a legacy of corruption and police brutality that it struggles to deal with on a daily basis. With the citizens of Oakland growing increasingly frustrated over the dysfunctional relationship between the cops and the African-American community and with pressure mounting from above to fix it, the OPD tries to make real changes from within while keeping the safety of both cops and civilians uppermost in mind. September 15

Loving Vincent

(Good Deed) Starring the voices of Saoirse Ronan, Helen McCrory, Chris O’Dowd, Robert Gulaczyk. Ten years in the making, this is the first film to be fully animated using oil paintings on canvas as the medium. The story revolves around the mysterious death of master Post-Impressionist Vincent Van Gogh; was it suicide or was it murder? A young man charged to deliver a letter from the recently deceased painter to his brother Theo discovers that Theo has also died and becomes determined to understand the painter, his works and his death. September 22

Stronger

(Roadside Attractions) Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany, Clancy Brown, Miranda Richardson. The latest from director David Gordon Green examines the true story of Jeff Bauman, an ordinary man thrust into an extraordinary situation when both his legs were blown off during the Boston Marathon bombing. There only to win back his girlfriend, he battled back to become a symbol of hope that inspired the entire city but it was no easy path to get there. September 22

Lucky

(Magnolia) Harry Dean Stanton, David Lynch, Tom Skeritt, Ed Begley Jr. A 90 year old atheist, reaching the last days of his life, goes on a journey to try and discover the meaning his life has had amidst an odd collection of eccentrics in a desert town. Stanton, one of the legends of cinema, may very well be on his way to a Best Actor Oscar nomination for his performance here. September 29

Star Wars: The Force Awakens


Home at last!

Home at last!

(2015) Science Fiction (Disney) Harrison Ford, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie, Simon Pegg, Pip Torrens, Greg Grunberg, Kiran Shah, Andrew Jack, Warwick Davis, Sasha Frost. Directed by JJ Abrams

So, no joke, this is the cinematic event of the year – and one of the biggest event movies ever. Certainly it’s box office explosion, mowing down box office records like so many innocent civilians at the hands of Stormtroopers, gives credence to that. People weren’t just excited to see it – they were absolutely insane to see it. Many have gone back and seen it three or four or more times since it opened. But is it worth all the hype?

As the iconic opening crawl informs us, thirty years has passed since the Empire has fallen and the Republic was re-established. From the ashes of the Empire has risen the First Order, run by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Serkis) who appears via hologram as kind of a gigantic mummified cross between Abe Lincoln and C3PO (Daniels). Who appears later on in the film. C3PO, not Abe Lincoln.

I digress. Everyone is looking for Luke Skywalker (Hamill), the last Jedi Knight who has disappeared after some sort of catastrophe involving training new Jedi Knights that went horribly wrong. The First Order wants to stop him from doing what the Resistance (tacitly supported by the Republic) want him to do – to lead them to victory against the First Order. To that end, they have sent cocky pilot Poe Dameron (Isaac) to the desert world Jakku to retrieve a map which leads to Skywalker. However, the First Order led by their Sith-like leader Kylo Ren (Driver) show up and Dameron is forced to give the chip containing the map to his trusty droid BB8 (kind of like a Beach Ball with the top of a droid on it – perhaps that’s what BB stands for) and sends him rolling off to the nearest settlement. He’s captured and interrogated but eventually rescued by Fin (Boyega), a Stormtrooper who develops a conscience.

BB8 discovers Rey (Ridley), a metal scavenger who has been on her own since her parents left her on Jakku to fend for herself. In the meantime, Fin and Dameron get separated and Fin finds Rey and BB8 but with the Emp…er, First Order hot on their heels, they escape in what turns out to be a familiar spaceship.

Once away they run into familiar faces and new ones, and discover that an all-new and improved solar-powered Death Star is getting ready to do its worst. The new Resistance heroes must go to this new weapon and destroy it, but that is no easy task, even with the old Rebellion heroes on their side.

After the prequel trilogy left the Star Wars fandom and moviegoers in general underwhelmed, I can safely say that this had a pretty high bar to meet, but it has done so in spades. Frankly put, this is one of the best movies of the year and I never thought I’d say that about a Star Wars film. As you’d expect, the special effects are marvelous and mostly achieved through practical means. However, there’s more to the film than that.

Let’s talk about the story a little bit. Some have complained that there are too many similar elements to the very first film, which is now titled Episode IV: A New Hope in canon. That’s a pretty fair complaint and it is occasionally distracting, but the storylines aren’t terribly identical. I do wish they’d used something other than a desert planet to open the movie with although I suspect that the universe has more desert planets than those with greenery. But one can have a fairly barren terrain without having the same sand dunes that characterized Tatooine. However, the important thing is that the story has retained that epic quality that characterized the first trilogy (not the prequels so much).

That said, the acting here is marvelous. Ford in particular brings Han Solo back to life, giving him the same gruff, roguish qualities in the first trilogy but tempering it with melancholy – there have been events in his life since the fall of the Empire that have been bitter and some even tragic. Not all of those are gone into with much detail, but let’s just say that as a father and a husband he makes a good smuggler.

Ridley and Boyega, who share the heroic role, both show a good deal of screen charisma and promise as the new kids on the block. They both realize they don’t have to carry the film, but something tells me either one or both could if they had to. Boyega, particularly, has an incredible amount of potential, not just here but in all of the films he’s been in. His character is the most interesting one of the new ones, although Kylo Ren has some definite Daddy issues that no doubt are going to develop into something else.

The movie moves along at breakneck speed; even the pauses are well-placed and well-paced. It’s not a short movie but it never feels long. Considering all the expectations that were heaped on this property that Disney paid $4 billion for, it’s good to see that for once not only were those expectations met but exceeded. Looks like Disney has gotten an excellent return on their investment.

REASONS TO GO: Spectacular! Recaptures everything about the first trilogy that made it great. Will appeal to kids and adults as well. Surprisingly good performances.
REASONS TO STAY: Story a little too much like the very first movie.
FAMILY VALUES: Some sci-fi violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Abrams preferred to use actual locations and practical effects over green screen and CGI in order to be more aesthetically similar to the first trilogy.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/28/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 94% positive reviews. Metacritic: 81/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope
FINAL RATING: 9.5/10
NEXT: Hitchcock/Truffaut