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Movie Review: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

The eighth Star Wars picture, The Last Jedi, underwhelms. This begins to become apparent with the lackluster three-paragraph opening crawl, a series staple. It thins and flattens out from there, though readers should note that I do not regard any of these films as great motion pictures.

That said, I gave 2015’s entry, The Force Awakens, a positive review (as well as a tepid recommendation of last year’s Star Wars-themed Rogue One). Nearly everything about The Last Jedi is mediocre, formulaic and, frankly, as fresh and exciting as waiting in line at a government checkpoint for permission to travel.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson (Looper), characters return, picking up after the end of The Force Awakens. This means that Han Solo’s son, Ben (Adam Driver), spunky Rey (Daisy Ridley), dastardly Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), plucky Poe (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), Luke (Mark Hamill), Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) and the usual creatures and droids are back (with new ones, too). Isaac and Driver fare best this time out.

Most of the cast have cardboard roles with dreadful lines. Luke delivers at least three lines referencing the island where he lives and they all stick out without support or exposition. This is not necessarily Hamill’s fault. But the screenwriting impairs what ought to be his command performance as Luke Skywalker.

Each cast member seems directed to act out each role with sameness, which is not to be confused with consistency. There’s no range here. For example, Rey’s composed and very 21st century in dialogue while gallivanting on Luke’s island one minute, but she’s an emotional New Age wreck the next. Whether Rey’s crying, hugging, holding hands, mind-melding or jabbing with her lightsaber, she’s too on her mark, pat and scripted. In action scenes, for instance, she’s always screaming, moaning and breathing heavily like it’s a command she’s executing rather than an experience she’s having.

It’s not just Rey. Even Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Agora), looking thinner and noticeably trying to breathe life into the role, stiffens. Boyega’s Finn fares worst, not merely because the already-underdeveloped character has the least to do that matters to the plot, other than as a prop for a new Asian tomboy character (Kelly Marie Tran). Only Driver owns his role, physically imposing himself extremely well, making sensitively dark, tormented Ben/Kylo Ren the most interesting part of The Last Jedi. The less said about the late Miss Fisher as Leia, the better.

Snappy comebacks are gone. So, largely, is any sense of fun. Even a segment of the picture set in a galactic Monte Carlo-like getaway lacks playfulness and stamina, existing strictly to serve The Last Jedi‘s theme that the “downtrodden” are inherently noble and the upscale are inherently not. It’s as though everything’s deployed to serve a specific plot or marketing function. The stilted quality pervades The Last Jedi. The sameness suctions both its sense of life and nostalgia. What are probably final scenes of iconic characters with other iconic characters amount to lost cinematic opportunities.

Add multiple plot points pushing a kamikaze-sacrifice morality, several scenes which seem to have been storyboarded solely to please PETA, as against adding, alleviating or advancing action and a bombastic score and The Last Jedi underperforms. Potentially interesting scenes, such as a spearfishing moment when two of the good guys appear to prepare for a bite to eat, are cut, lost or mangled. Remember when Yoda trained Luke on Dagobah? Scenes lingered and the extended sequence added depth, danger and mystery to both characters and enhanced The Empire Strikes Back. Here, such bonding moments are pushed away, sacrificed as quickly as characters’ lives. A ghostly space float scene stops all motion and takes the audience out of the movie.

Long and choppy, dragging for stretches without action, Star Wars: The Last Jedi too easily makes the audience want to affirm one character’s declaration that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” Creator George Lucas has said he made nine stories in his space saga. This laborious eighth is a mediocrity.

Movie Review: Rogue One

The Star Wars prequel, Rogue One, induces fatigue. Though based on a major plot point in the original Star Wars film in 1977—and prominently featured in the marketing campaign—the studio asks for no spoilers and I promise this review is intended to inform and enhance, not distort and detract from, one’s cinematic experience.

That said, I wish I had known more about Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in advance. Coming so soon after last winter’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a better movie which takes place after Return of the Jedi, Rogue One starts in a haze of sameness that the uninitiated or occasional series viewer may find disorienting and confusing.

It’s not merely that both pictures sport a British-accented brunette in the female lead. There is also a scientist named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelson) on strike from developing the Death Star who’s a farmer with a wife and kid on the farm like Luke Skywalker’s uncle in the 1977 movie. Other scenes are strikingly derivative, too, to the point that Rogue One feels like a stew of Star Wars movies you’ve seen before. It’s always on the verge of tying into some previously known plot point.

Aligning everything Star Wars comes at a cost. I don’t know if you’ve experienced this while seeing the current crop of series films (1977-2015) in theaters, but, whenever something remotely familiar in the Star Wars universe (no matter how obscure) appears on screen, certain audience fanatics audibly react, taking me out of the movie and making me stop and think about what connection, if any, what I may have seen (or missed) has to the story and series. It’s mentally exhausting. There’s a lot of that here, and I’m not supposed to say what. A movie should stand alone and Rogue One does, in some respects, but audience response from series fans may get in the way.

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“Trust the Force” is Rogue One‘s meaning, which is neither more complicated nor more logical than that. Tracking Erso’s daughter (a bland character ably played by Felicity Jones), the tale of mild intrigue revolves around the rebellion’s efforts to halt construction of the evil Empire’s Death Star. As a girl, Erso’s daughter Jyn witnesses an act of heroism and it’s implied that she gets some sort of training (and there’s a kyber crystal) but, more than Rey in The Force Awakens, she inexplicably becomes an adult who’s suddenly imbued with technological, weapons and combat superiority and a curious blend of cynicism and idealism. Lacking sufficient development, Jyn’s journey runs rather flat.

This is not to say that all is dull. Indeed, parents best bear in mind that the Death Star as a means of mass death is fundamental and Walt Disney Pictures’ Lucasfilm doesn’t go soft in this regard. Rogue One reminds everyone that the series created by George Lucas is extremely dark and death-driven. The body count climbs pretty high.

With balmy beaches, jungles, rainy weather, Imperial walkers and destroyers, all kinds of new and familiar aliens, returning cast members, computer generated surprises and new characters, such as a blind monk who may have a same-sex partner (it’s a bit vague) and a drone dubbed K-2SO voiced by Alan Tudyk (42) that’s both less prissy and more jaded than C-3PO, Rogue One has a lot to look at and listen to. Among the new ride-alongs with hard-charging Jyn are a cagey rebel named Cassian played by Diego Luna (the most developed, consistent and interesting character). A pilot named Bodhi (Riz Ahmed) seems half-stoned for most of the movie. But even an urban scene evoking Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner channels the series’ proclivity for hooded, cloaked and caped creatures.

All the rebels are divided over an “extremist” (Forest Whitaker, Arrival, Phenomenon, Black Nativity) who proves crucial to the cause, though he’s not in Rogue One for long. Writers Chris Weitz (Cinderella) and Tony Gilroy (the Bourne movies) do their best and cram heaps of plot, character and action, especially in the battle-heavy third act, to dramatize the rebellion converging to win the star wars.

“The Force wills it,” someone says in a climactic battle, and Rogue One may be the most explicitly religious of the Star Wars movies, turning the Force into a catchy new chant. An infidel converts to mysticism. So Rogue One is more about having faith than it is about going rogue. Director Gareth Edwards (2014’s Godzilla remake) downplays compelling and ethically and politically-charged points—questioning unchecked government surveillance of communications, what constitutes peace and security and why self-sacrifice is the series’ highest virtue—in favor of the generic idea that buying time for the good to prevail requires faith, sacrifice and mass death, with hope and dry humor sweetening what’s at root a dark and bitter deal.

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The new, heavily hyped and highly anticipated Star Wars movie is good if you like science fiction/fantasy/mythology stories. This entry in the series created by George Lucas, the first installment since the Walt Disney Studios bought his Lucasfilm, Ltd., is neither as overblown as the 1999-2005 trilogy nor as thrilling as the original 1977-1983 trilogy. Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks a solid return to form.

It’s far from the year’s best or worst picture and it is squarely in the better half, even better if this is your sort of movie. In retrospect, I have problems with the whole series but I can also take them as they are. The Phantom Menace pod racing was agonizing for me, like watching an aimless video game, and I disliked Jar Jar as much as anyone else who did, though I liked Darth Maul’s purposefulness and the strokes of anti-fascist romanticism in Attack of the Clones. I was excited as a youth for the original pictures. But Star Wars was always about Luke Skywalker to me, and I grew progressively less interested in (and more tired of) the dark, death-premised mysticism that climaxed with the last release, Revenge of the Sith. So, that’s my context.

Returning to the strong, idealistic protagonist, Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams (Super 8, Star Trek) and written by Abrams with Lawrence Kasdan (The Empire Strikes Back, The Bodyguard) and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire), establishes values at stake from the start. There’s a lot to like, and enough of the other to take notice, but this seventh Star Wars movie is primarily a good piece of escapism.

Retracing familiar ground, besides the returning cast members, the action follows two men and a lady, with a droid, various aliens and three main villains in the Dark Side’s hierarchy, just as in the 1977 original’s trio of the governor, Vader and the Emperor. A jaunty resistance pilot (Ex Machina‘s Oscar Isaac), a spirited scavenger (Daisy Ridley) and a rogue stormtrooper (John Boyega) form the new trio; one’s trying to save the galaxy, another’s trying to find new love, and the other’s trying to figure out the meaning of life, or something like that.

They are each appealing and affable, in a way, though each character is limited, too. The scrappy, self-made female, named Rey, reminds me of Keira Knightley and isn’t as sharp and sophisticated as Princess Leia. The man she’s paired with, Boyega’s character, Finn, breaks free from the bad guys but he’s not provided with much of an impetus, let alone a deeper motivation. Boyega mugs for the camera—at times, his performance seems entirely composed of facial expressions—and dominates The Force Awakens. Isaac’s secondary character is more interesting, but this is part of a series, so time will tell. As it is, however, I wanted to know why the stormtrooper breaks away from his “reconditioning” despite showing no signs of non-conformity.

At least Finn, like the scavenger character, has that original spirit of Star Wars‘ can-do Americanism. Gothic, youthful nihilism is represented by a baddie in a hoodie played by Adam Driver, who steals every scene in the most engaging performance as one of the series’ many masked villians. As the trio strives to rise up against the First Order—an Empire offshoot bent on galactic destruction—with the help of a rolling, adorable droid, Driver’s hooded menace taunts, teases and tromps around spreading his bad mood everywhere he goes. It won’t be hard to see what he’s got coming and Driver makes it stick.

Series regulars return one by one, including favorite machines and characters, with seamless plot progression amid implausible scenes, such as a pivotal getaway going too quickly and certain obvious contrivances. The action-packed fight and space battleship scenes are exciting, if nothing you haven’t already seen, and the desert/winter planet contrasts work well. It’s a fantasy, so things do get silly here and there, with a bald-headed supervillain (Andy Serkis) reminding me comically of the wizard of Oz, but anyone invested in Star Wars will want very much to know what happens. This includes subplots with Leia (Carrie Fisher), now a military general, Han (Harrison Ford) and his buddy Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and, possibly, Luke Skywalker, though I don’t dare say more about him because apparently it’s supposed to be a big secret.

For all the changes—women are everywhere now, unlike in the originals—The Force Awakens is almost like a remake of the original Star Wars, which became A New Hope in Lucasfilm’s episodic parlance, and the action follows the same general trajectory. There are downtimes, scenes of wondering about one’s past, the guy not being ‘good enough’ for the girl, strange, surly aliens, bar scenes, and a heartwarming character apparently voiced by Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) whom I kept thinking of as a kind of younger, Mrs. Yoda but that’s probably just my inclination. But it’s easy to assess a movie that’s part of an iconic series in terms of this and that and lose sight of the whole movie and there is a point to The Force Awakens, even if it’s merely that the good can triumph only when good people believe that it’s possible.

The occasionally snappy line, the sweep, the sense of life—with any luck, if the writers keep up the Americanism, “I have an idea about that” may come to replace the old Han Solo saying—it’s all here, with the music, stars and landscapes. That and a timely nod to the evildoers’ fascism, neatly located in a Nazi-like setting that looks a lot like Bavaria, make it sort of fun to be in this domain again, and this probably owes, at least in major part, to the vision of Lucasfilm’s boss Kathleen Kennedy.

Audiences shouldn’t expect more than another serial about good versus evil with simple characters that cumulatively represent the underdog that’s always two steps behind. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a clever and pleasant diversion about having faith that the good is possible.