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Tuesday, December 26, 2017

DAMN Good Movies -- STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI


This is not going to go the way you think.

That's right, it's time once again for another of my movie takes, this time on Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the latest in the Star Wars film series.  As always, if you haven't seen the movie yet and you don't want it spoiled for you, then please step back from your computer or whatever electronic device you're reading this on and stop reading now.  If, however, you're wise enough to know that movie reviews with spoilers are always more interesting than the ones without them...well...May the Force be with you...

After the huge success of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which resurrected the Star Wars franchise to over $2 billion in worldwide box office, expectations were understandably high for Episode VIIIRian Johnson, writer of director of the time-travel movie Looper, was brought in to do the same here, with many fans hoping Johnson would take the Skywalker Saga in a bold, unexpected turn similar to The Empire Strikes Back.  

The film opens right after the events of The Force Awakens, with Resistance fighters, led by General Leia Organa, evacuating their base as a First Order fleet arrives, similar to the escape from Hoth in EmpirePoe Dameron leads an effective but costly counterattack that costs the Resistance their bombers, but First Order is able to pursue them through hyperspace using a tracking device.  Leia's son Ben, now known as Kylo Ren, destroys the Resistance support fighters, but hesitates to fire at the lead Resistance ship after sensing his mother's presence.  I guess killing one parent was enough for Emo Ren, hunh?

Well, TIE fighters end up destroying the ship's bridge anyway, killing several Resistance leaders, including Admiral "It's a trap!" Ackbar.  It was a pretty shocking moment to see Leia sucked out into the vacuum of space, and with Carrie Fisher's real-life death, it felt really wrong to see Leia go out in such an abrupt way.  Well, credit to Rian Johnson here, who played against expectations and revealed that the Force is indeed strong in Leia as well.  Anyone who ever hoped to see Leia's game stepped up beyond being Force-sensitive had to be fist-pumping with delight as she used the Force to survive the coldness of space and propel herself back to safety aboard the Resistance command ship.

With Leia understandably sidelined, a new, purple-haired character named Vice Admiral Holdo steps up out of nowhere as next in command.  Finn, meanwhile, decides this is a good time to finally wake up from his injuries in The Force Awakens.  He takes a beacon dropped by Leia that will lead Rey back to them, and quickly attempts to board an escape pod, only to be caught by another new character, a maintenance worker named Rose Tico.  Rose, whose sister Paige was a Resistance bomber that Poe carelessly got killed, isn't exactly down with Finn's whole desertion thing right now.  She's about to turn him in, until Finn informs her about the First Order tracking device that she might be able to disable.  They run their plan by Poe, who contacts Maz Kanata for help, only to have her tell them to look for a "master code breaker" at a casino on the planet Canto Bight.  Poe then runs their plan by Holdo, who says the word is no, but Poe, Finn, Rose and BB-8 are therefore going anyway.

And hey, remember that cliffhanger from The Force Awakens on the remote planet of Ahch-To, where Rey was trying to hand Luke Skywalker his old lightsaber back?  Well, he finally takes it...and throws it away as the Price is Right fail music plays.  It turns out that Luke is very disillusioned with being a Jedi these days, ever since his former padawan Ben Solo flipped to the Dark Side, killed Luke's new Jedi order, and burned down his spiffy Jedi temple.  Surrounding himself with Porgs, Luke has zero desire to train Rey in the ways of the Force and is quickly freaked when she displays her considerable raw power that, surprise, is as powerful as Kylo Ren's.  Things that make you go hmmmm.

We head into the Second Act on Canto Bight, where Rose starts bonding with Finn as she explains the shadiness of the lavish casino city, whose inhabitants have made their fortunes selling weapons to both sides of the war.  Unfortunately, most of this sequence gets a bit frustrating to watch, especially when you realize there are more important storylines in play and "alien casino" clashes with the film's overall tone.  After being arrested by the Canto Bight police, Rose and Finn encounter DJ, a slicer (hacker) who releases them from prison.  Riding towards their ship, now destroyed by the Canto Bight Police, they again run into DJ, accompanied by BB-8, who conveniently comes to their rescue aboard a stolen vehicle.

Back on Ahch-To, Luke keeps being a dick and ignoring Rey, until R2-D2 goes right for the emotional jugular by replaying the footage of Luke's sister Leia pleading Obi-Wan Kenobi for help in the original Star Wars movie.  While Rey keeps having visions of Kylo Ren with his shirt off, Luke finally agrees to give Rey three lessons of the ways of the Force (two of which we actually see), and tells her why he believes the Jedi must end.  He eventually reveals to Rey that he had sensed Supreme Leader Snoke's corruption of Ben and considered killing Ben in his sleep to put an end to it, but the idea quickly vanished.  Ben, however, woke up to see Luke's lightsaber drawn, and became disillusioned with Luke and the Jedi (Go figure), allowing himself to become Kylo Ren.  

Rey urges Luke not to give up and return to the Resistance, not to mention try to turn Kylo back to the Light Side, but Luke merely shrugs and goes "Whatevs".  After Rey leaves Ahch-To with Chewbacca, Artoo and bunch of souvenir Porgs, Luke is visited by Yoda as a Force ghost, who uses the Force to summon a lightning bolt to burn down the first Jedi temple and with it, seemingly, the sacred Jedi texts.  Yoda assures Luke that the texts don't matter as long as the Jedi continue the teachings themselves, and urges Luke to learn from his own failings.  The more things change...

Around this point, the film begins to struggle.  Holdo reveals her big plan to evacuate the remaining Resistance members using small transports and basically hope that the First Order doesn't notice.  Not down with Holdo's "run away" masterplan, Poe goes seriously rogue and attempts a mutiny.  Finn, Rose, BB-8 and DJ infiltrate Snoke's ship, but are captured by Captain Phasma, but BB-8 manages to escape.  Rey lands on the ship, and Kylo brings her to Snoke, who reveals that (surprise!) he was responsible for the mental connection between her and Kylo as part of a plan to destroy Luke.  Ordered to kill Rey, Kylo Ren instead takes out Snoke (Wait...What?) and teams up with Rey to kill Snoke's not-so-elite guards.  Kylo invites Rey to rule the galaxy with him, but Rey refuses, just to remind you that you already saw this scene in Empire with Luke and Darth Vader.  Using the Force, they struggle for possession of Anakin Skywalker's lightsaber, which splits in two and lets Rey breathe a sigh of relief that she still has two hands.

In the third act, Leia wakes up and literally stuns Poe, allowing the evacuation to begin. Holdo decides to remain on the ship to act as a diversion while everyone else heads to a nearby old Rebel Alliance base on Crait.  DJ throws Finn and Rose under the bus and reveals the Resistance's plan to the First Order.  The evacuation transports are targeted with heavy losses, and Holdo sacrifices herself by ramming Snoke's fleet at lightspeed to stop the barrage.  It's here that you wonder why Holdo didn't just pre-program the controls and leave by escape pod, and more importantly, why no one else ever thought to take out the big First Order ships with kamikaze suicide attacks.

Rey escapes in the chaos, while Kylo declares himself new Supreme Leader and probably starts tweeting about how he's going to make the First Order great again.  BB-8 frees Finn and Rose, who escape after defeating Captain Phasma far too easily, and join the survivors of the evacuation on Crait.  When the First Order arrives, Poe, Finn, and Rose lead a charge with some junky old speeders that were left behind by the Alliance.  Just when things look even more bleak, Rey draws the TIE fighters away with the Millennium Falcon, while Rose saves Finn from a suicide run against the main enemy cannon, which blasts a hole in the Resistance fortress.  Time to start shipping "Frose", I guess. 

In the film's big climax, Luke suddenly appears on Crait and has a long-awaited reunion with Leia that's over far too soon.  He then confronts Kylo alone so that the surviving Resistance fighters can escape.  Kylo orders the First Order forces to fire everything on Luke, but is surprised when Luke is still standing like nothing happened.  Kylo Ren then battles Luke himself, striking Luke with his lightsaber, only to realize he's been fighting Luke's Force projection all along.  D'oh!  Luke defiantly tells Kylo that he will not be the last Jedi, while Rey uses the Force to help the remaining Resistance fighters escape.  Back on Ahch-To, we see that the long-distance Force projection costs Luke his life, as he disappears in another disappointing end to a classic Star Wars hero.  Leia reassures everyone that the rebellion has everything they need to rise again, because hey, we still have Episode IX to go, right?  

And then, somewhat inexplicably, the film ends on Canto Bight, with one of the children that helped Finn and Rose escape grabbing a broom with the Force and gazing hopefully up into space.  I get that Johnson was probably trying to end on more upbeat, hopeful note, but instead this ending felt a bit tacked on and unnecessary.

So what about the performances from the cast and the characters they portrayed?  Well, as you might expect, I have a few thoughts...

REY -- No, we still don't know her last name.  Despite being one of the central characters, Daisy Ridley is somewhat sidelined this time out.  This is Rey's big "training in the ways of the Force" movie, although she spends more time actually training herself rather than learning anything from Luke.  We get more of Rey's strong connection to her brother/cousin/whatever Kylo Ren, who tries to convince Rey (and us) that her nobody parents simply sold her off for booze, but is anyone seriously buying that load of poodoo?

LUKE SKYWALKER -- Mark Hamill officially returns to Star Wars after three decades, saving his best performance as Luke for last...or is it?  Unfortunately, Johnson's script completely fails to understand the character, something Hamill himself has stated publicly, and I tend to agree.  It's pretty much impossible to reconcile the Jedi who fought so hard to stay alive after having his right hand hacked off by his Sith Lord father, then came back and turned his father from the Dark Side so he could take out the Emperor, with the hopeless, self-pitying recluse that turned away from the Force because he was temped to murder his corrupted nephew that murdered his new Jedi order.  We can only hope that Luke's casual "See you around, kid" to Kylo was a tease that we'll get a more satsifying ending for Luke in Episode IX.

GENERAL LEIA ORGANA -- Does anyone else think it's odd that Leia, who passed away in real life as Carrie Fisher, actually outlived both Han and Luke?  I imagine Leia will be killed off screen by the time Episode IX is released, but at least Carrie Fisher's final performance as Leia was more substantive than in The Force Awakens.  The sequence where Leia awakens in space, revealing her full strength in the Force, absolutely floored me and I was happy we finally got a taste of Leia being a true Skywalker before Fisher's end.  Rest In Peace, your worshipfulness.

KYLO REN/BEN SOLO -- Thanks to Snoke's not-so-subtle hint, Adam Driver ditches his black bucket helmet and finally realizes that he's supposed to be the bad guy.  Sure, he feels this connection to Rey, but this time, Kylo reveals that being Snoke's henchman is getting seriously old.  The scene where Kylo suddenly takes out Snoke, hinting at a possible flip to the Light Side, was a good twist, especially when he surprises Rey by declaring himself Supreme Leader and the actual villain of this trilogy.  

POE DAMERON -- After getting only a couple of solid sequences in The Force Awakens, Oscar Isaac returns as Poe, only to find his character is just all over the place.  Johnson's script has Poe being careless with the lives of the Resistance bombers, which gets him demoted, then he gets pissy with Holdo just because she's not proactive enough, which makes him stage a mutiny that ends up failing when Leia wakes up from her coma to stun him.  Yeesh.  I'm not even going to get into his completely pointless strike against the First Order on Crait using some junky leftover speeders.  Poe, you deserved better.

FINN/FN-2187 -- John Boyega finally wakes up from his coma as Finn, and to the surprise of no one, the very first thing he thinks about is Rey.  Well, at least until Rose Tico catches him trying to run away (again) and the two are partnered up during their side trip to the casino on Canto Bight.  All we want to see, though, is Finn in another grudge with Captain Phasma, but that's over far too quickly to be satisfying.  Finn's biggest and most heroic moment comes in the Third Act, when he shows he's willing to sacrifice himself to defeat the First Order's cannon, only to have Rose deliberately ram his speeder to save him.

ROSE TICO -- New to the Star Wars saga, Kelly Marie Tran makes her debut as Rose, the likeable maintenance worker who turns out to be quite the crusader.  Rose is definitely one of the bright spots of The Last Jedi, quickly made sympathetic when we see her crying over the dead sister Paige, who was killed during Poe's reckless Battle of D'Qar.  Instead of dwelling on her sister's death, however, Rose steps up from her traditional supportive role for the Resistance and shows her distaste for oppression and injustice, both on Canto Bight and on Crait.  Rose seems to show her affection for Finn, sneaking a kiss just before she collapsed unconscious from injuries after ramming his speeder, so we'll have to wait and see what becomes of this next time.

VICE ADMIRAL AMILYN HOLDO -- Laura Dern also makes her Star Wars debut as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over for General Leia Organa after she's sucked out into space and needs to recuperate.  She ends up butting heads with Poe Dameron, forcing him to stage a mutiny, but her big moment comes when she takes out Snoke's ship, Supremacy, by jumping to lightspeed right through it.  It still makes no sense why she just didn't pre-program the jump and then bail out using an escape pod, but whatever.

GENERAL ARMITAGE HUX -- With his unfortunate spitting habit seemingly under control this time, Domhnall Gleeson returns as Hux, mostly as comic relief.  He gets a couple of decent scenes, one where Poe pretends to not hear him during a transmission between the two, and another just after Kylo kills Snoke and takes over as Supreme Leader, requiring a Force choke-hold to "encourage" Hux's approval.

SUPREME LEADER SNOKE -- Andy Serkis reprises the role of Snoke, whom we actually get to see in person this time instead of a ginormous hologram.  Snoke was the subject of a lot of speculation from fans after The Force Awakens, so it was very surprising that Johnson chose to womp-womp those expectations by having Kylo take Snoke off the board so he could seize power for himself.  Maybe that whole "let's create a psychic bond between Kylo and Rey" thing wasn't Snoke's best idea...?

CAPTAIN PHASMA -- Back from Westeros once again, Gwendoline Christie gets a second outing as Phasma, who obviously survived being left in a trash compactor by Finn and Han Solo in the previous film.  In Round Two of Phasma's grudge match with Finn, she gets to taunt Finn and Rose after they're captured, then faces off in a duel with Finn.  Finn manages to crack her chrome dome, exposing part of her face around the left eye just before she plummets into an inferno below.  But hey, you don't really think we've seen the last of Phasma, do you?  I didn't think so.

DJ -- Benicio del Toro appears as a "slicer", which is just the Star Wars term for "hacker".  We're introduced to him when Finn and Rose are thrown in the slammer and can't find the Master Codebreaker they're looking for.  But since Finn and Rose never watched del Toro as the Controller in Guardians of the Galaxy, they end up trusting DJ way too much and are shocked when he has no problem throwing them under the bus for the First Order.  

CHEWBACCA -- Joonas Suotamo fully assumes the role of Chewie, who remains a fixture aboard the Millennium Falcon.  Chewie gets a few good scenes, mostly dealing with the Porg infestation on the ship.  One highlight is the scene where Chewie attempts to eat two Porgs he caught and roasted over a campfire, only to be guilted out of doing so by a bunch of other Porgs looking at him with big, sad eyes.

BB-8 -- Despite being a significant addition in The Force Awakens, BB-8 gets a downgraded role this time out.  Still, he gets to fix Poe's x-wing weapon system just in the nick of time, takes out several guards on Canto Bight, and he hijacks an AT-ST to rescue Finn and Rose after DJ's inevitable betrayal.

C-3PO -- Once again, Anthony Daniels reprises Threepio, who mostly serves as an assistant for Leia and Poe, while Leia is unconscious.  He gets a really brief reunion with Master Luke, who winks at him before confronting Kylo Ren, but Johnson once again wastes a good opportunity to have the characters really interact.

R2-D2 -- Jimmy "Bannakaffalatta" Vee takes over for the late Kenny Baker, although Artoo doesn't get to do much.  His biggest moment is obviously the scene where he replays Princess Leia's message to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the original Star Wars movie, which finally shakes Luke out of his apathy to start training Rey.

ADMIRAL GIAL ACKBAR CAMEO -- Timothy D. Rose Ackbar returns in his final appearance as Admiral Ackbar, who aids the rest of the Resistance in evacuating their base.  Unfortunately, The First Order initiates an attack on the bridge of their main cruiser, causing all occupants, including Ackbar, to be blown out into space and killed.  Here's hoping Ackbar says "It's a trap!" when he arrives in Star Wars Heaven.

YODA CAMEO -- The legendary Frank Oz returns to the Skywalker Saga as a Force ghost while Luke debates whether to burn down the tree storing the only remaining copies of the Sacred Texts of the Jedi.  When Luke decides against burning down the tree and destroying the texts, Yoda trolls his former Padawan hard by summoning a lightning bolt down upon the tree, setting it ablaze while Luke watches in horror at the texts being lost forever.  It was nice to see Yoda back to his mischevious, giggling self again, but where was he all that time while Luke was languishing in his depression and apathy?  Watching Netflix?

MAZ KANATA CAMEO -- I was disappointed that Lupita Nyong'o only turns up in one scene as Maz, where she tells Poe, Finn and Rose to find the master codebreaker on Canto Bight, while in the middle of a firefight that she calls a union dispute.  

All in all, Star Wars: The Last Jedi tries hard to do something different with the Star Wars saga but it doesn't always work.  Rian Johnson seems to enjoy playing against fan expectations, taking his characters in unexpected directions that often come off as puzzling, or in Luke's case, completely out of character.  J.J. Abrams made a solid effort setting up the board in The Force Awakens, only to have Johnson come along and kick the board over, making you wonder what the hell was the point of the previous film.  Some might find that refreshing, but considering the overall narrative for this trilogy, I find myself concerned that the final film of the Skywalker Saga isn't going to have enough of a payoff.  Help us, J.J. Abrams, you're our only hope.

And for those who may be wondering, here's my personal ranking of the Star Wars films:

1. Star Wars (1977)
2. The Empire Strikes Back (1980)
3. Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)
4. Return of the Jedi (1983)
5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
6. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)
7. Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)
8. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)
9. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Your friendly neighborhood movie reviewer,

Charles

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