Call Me By Your Name (Guadagnino; 2017)

It’s Italy in 1983.  Mr. Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg) is a highly regarded American professor specializing in Greco-Roman culture who summers with his wife Anella (Amira Casar) and son Elio (Timothee Chalamet) at their home in Northern Italy.  It’s a tradition that every summer the family invites one of Professor Perlman’s grad students to spend the summer with them, and this year the student of choice is Oliver (Armie Hammer).  The film opens with Oliver’s arrival and the story is of the events that take place over this particular summer focusing on the relationship between Elio and Oliver.


Call Me By Your Name is an unusual film in that there is no conflict in the film outside of some short-lived inner turmoil.  Rather than conflict, Call Me By Your Name uses some nostalgia and some wish fulfillment to keep the audience’s attention.  While watching the film, I couldn’t help but think of it as a mirror image of last year’s Best Picture winner Moonlight.  Instead of an urban Florida setting in which a young black man comes to terms with his sexuality while also struggling with his life of poverty and absentee parents, Call Me By Your Name gives us an idyllic rural European setting in which a rich white young man with an incredibly intelligent and supportive family has to come to terms with his.  Where in Moonlight we were transported to a rather dark world and experienced tragedy after tragedy in Chiron’s life until he finally found a way to escape through hardening himself and becoming a man he didn’t really want to be, Call Me By Your Name shows Elio in a world in which his biggest trouble is disappointing the girl who has fallen in love with him and wondering about the appropriateness of his feelings toward Oliver.

The scenery of the Northern Italy village is shot beautifully.  Every single scene takes place either in a setting of small ancient buildings of spectacular architecture or a natural setting so empty of the trappings of society you could believe that no person had been in that locale for years.  The director of cinematography Sayombhu Mukdeeprom takes his time with his camerawork using the slow pacing of the film’s story to allow himself time to revel in the beauty of his surroundings just as the characters in the film do.


The writing in Call Me By Your Name is borderline pretentious, and I have no doubt there are those who will say it crosses that line, with characters who are capable of gleefully discussing off the cuff the etymology of the word apricot, the reasoning behind decisions made by ancient Greek sculptors, and how a particular song would sound had it been composed by Bach vs Liszt.  But, past just demonstrating how intelligent the characters in the film are, there is nothing about the dialogue in the film that is meant to be showy nor judgemental.  Once we establish that these people are highly intelligent and sensitive, we really don’t get any more intellectual displays as once the intelligence of our characters is established the screenplay leaves those elements behind for the most part and focuses on the relationships between these people.   These relationships are genuine if also idealized and it’s this factor that keeps me from calling this film pretentious and just an honest look at a very intelligent, very well to do group of people.

This honest portrayal obviously could not happen without strong performances, and Call Me By Your Name does give us those.  I wouldn’t call any of the performances on display spectacular, but they are earnest and well thought out.  I have to wonder that Armie Hammer isn’t a larger star than he is, as I have yet to see a performance from him that isn’t at least charismatic, and he is most certainly easy on the eyes where the camera is concerned, and the performance here is good enough that it could lead to the bigger and better things down the road he seems destined for.  The rest of the cast is also captivating and in particular, the intensely vulnerable performances given by the younger cast members Timothee Chalamet and Esther Garrel as Elio’s best friend and maybe more Marzia make me hope we will see more from them in the future, as well.


Final verdictCall Me By Your Name is one of the sweetest coming of age films I’ve seen.  Its total lack of nearly any conflict works in this case due to its embrace of nostalgia, authenticity, and a true love for its characters and their experiences.  Call Me By Your Name is not a film for everyone, as I believe it will be immensely boring for those not interested in romance nor coming of age films, but for those who don’t need tension in their drama every time Call Me By Your Name will plaster a huge smile on your face while simultaneously putting a lump in your throat with its entirely genuine, familiar, and yet still very personal tale of young love, friendship, and family.


All the Money in the World (Scott; 2017)

Even if you have no idea what this film is about, or don’t even recognize its name, you have probably heard about the controversy surrounding it, so I’ll start by addressing that.  All the Money in the World is based on the true story behind the kidnapping of J. Paul Getty’s, the richest man in the world and that time ever, grandson John Paul Getty III.  Kevin Spacey played the role of the eldest Getty, the film was all but finished and very near release when the news of Kevin Spacey’s scandalous past surfaced.  So, director Ridley Scott reshot every film Spacey was initially in with Christopher Plummer recast in the role and re-edited the entire film in nine days in the reports I’d heard.  It’s an incredible achievement and had the story not been so widely known there would be no way of knowing from watching the film that major changes had ever been made to what was thought to be the final cut.  It was probably a smart decision from a business standpoint, and an ethical one as well, but it can’t have been an easy one to make nor an easy task to pull off, and even after seeing how well it was done I couldn’t help but wonder throughout the entire film what the film would have looked like with Spacey in the role.


All the Money in the World lets us know how J. Paul Getty amassed his oil fortune early on in the film while using the same time to establish the Getty family dynamics.  The kidnapping of John Paul Getty III happens very quickly after the necessary exposition and from that point on the film focuses almost entirely on four characters in three storylines.  One storyline is that of the kidnapped Getty’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) and the elder Getty’s chief security officer Fletcher Chase (Mark Wahlberg) working together to find where young Getty has been taken and why.  Secondarily, we have the story of what Getty III (Charlie Plummer) and what happens to him under the care of his kidnappers.  Finally, we have the story of John Paul Getty himself and his attempts to remain in denial of the entire situation and his refusal to pay any kind of ransom.

We will most likely never know how close to the truth the events captured in All the Money in the World are, but we do know that the broad strokes of the story, at least, are almost entirely accurate.  The kidnapping did occur, the divorced single mother and the agent did work together to find the son, Getty did refuse to pay the ransom, and kidnappers did use certain means which are now infamous to let the Getty’s know they were serious.  Past that, a lot of it is conjecture on the part of the film’s writer David Scarpa.  To its credit, though, it seems like conjecture which is very interested in remaining factual as it never takes an easy route where dramatic effect is concerned and seems very intent on keeping the story grounded in reality.  The most over the top elements of the story we know actually did occur, and the relationships between characters which is the part which had to have been filled in the most seem natural and honest.


Michelle Williams gives a fantastic performance here making me wonder why in the hell Hollywood doesn’t use her more often in larger roles.  Perhaps it’s her choice and she prefers to work in smaller budget films that let her really sink her teeth into a meaty role, and if that’s the case she gets all the respect in the world from me.  If it’s not, start giving this woman more love and attention, Hollywood, she is never anything less than amazing.  The other actors can’t match the same level Williams gives us, but they are still all solid.  Wahlberg sells us his agent character and the transformation he has to go through, and while Christopher Plummer doesn’t come anywhere close to giving us a performance we know he’s capable of, he does give us one strong enough to allow us to forget the circumstances under which he’s playing the role.

If I were to call out one major problem with All the Money in the World it would be the movie’s pacing.  There are far too many scenes which seem to be glamour shots meant to show off all the time and money spent on the grandiose sets in the piece, and while I know I have praised films for not being afraid to do this exact same thing in the past, there is an art form in the cinematography and the editing of a film to make these long lingering scenes work, and it isn’t captured well here.  Rather than establishing tone and pace, the camerawork in All the Money in the World seems to be a choice made by Scott more because he personally loved the way a certain set looked instead of making that choice because it would help the dramatic flow of the story.  That’s not to say the movie doesn’t have some gorgeous settings and cinematography, it absolutely does and should be commended for both, but the choice of how to incorporate those visuals do as much to hurt as help the story making the viewer wish the director would pick up the pace.


Final verdict:  All the Money in the World is yet another true story for 2017, though its focus on a story rather than a character means it isn’t yet another biopic, and it absolutely deserves to be recommended in a year overflowing with good movies based on true stories (and which still isn’t done, as I have yet to see and review Molly’s Game, I, Tonya, nor The Post).  While I firmly believe that this film will be remembered more for the circumstances surrounding it than for the content of the film itself, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film worth watching.  It manages to toe the line between gripping drama and a commitment to the facts quite well most of the time, and Michelle Williams is always worth watching in anything she does.

Darkest Hour (Wright; 2017)

Darkest Hour is the 13th film to be made about Winston Churchill and the second in 2017 alone, and that doesn’t count Dunkirk, a film in which he doesn’t appear but which does cover the same events.  With a topic garnering so much attention, to the point of saturation it could be argued, you had best make sure that something about your film stands out.  In a year with so many biopics and with two other films covering the same territory, Darkest Hour does give itself a bit of distinction, but not nearly enough.

Darkest Hour covers the period of time in Great Britain just prior to Neville Chamberlain being forced out of the office of Prime Minister of England due to a lack of faith in his ability to wage war against Hitler and ends with the rescue of the British troops from the shores of Dunkirk.  Unlike the earlier Dunkirk which showed the event from the point of view of the soldiers stranded and being picked off on the French beaches, Darkest Hour focuses more on the political intrigue surrounding Churchill’s earliest days in office.


I’m going to come right out and say it straight away, Darkest Hour is prototypical biopic fare.  You’ve seen this movie before, perhaps even about Winston Churchill, in which we have a great actor give a great performance about a renowned historical figure making it appear as if they can do no wrong and anyone who opposes them in any way may as well be a supervillain in a comic book film and along the way we have some good to great cinematography.  That sums up Darkest Hour in a nutshell: rote, by the numbers but very competent biopic filmmaking.

Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill is excellent.  You do see past the veneer of Winston every once in a while and catch Gary peeking through, but overall his portrayal of the man who charted England’s course through World War II is captivating.  Churchill’s lauded dry and often self-deprecating wit shines through, and on top of that Oldman shows us how Churchill learned to transform himself from a cranky recluse to a someone who truly loved people in order to better perform his duties.  It’s the depth the performance needed to make sure Oldman was truly embodying a character and not just mimicking another famous person.  One scene late in the film which takes place on a commuter train is particularly captivating and during those ten minutes or so you forget completely you are watching one person play another, or even that you are watching a film, but become entirely engrossed in watching a man evolve into a someone better than he was before.


The cinematography is also excellent for the most part.  For a film so focused on locales we are used to seeing grandly shot such as Buckingham Palace and the British Parliament Building, director of photography Bruno Delbonnel gave us a much more claustrophobic, dingy style than we are used to in the grand towers of London to convey the sense of fear and uncertainty so prevalent at the time.  It’s a smart choice and makes for some truly spectacular shots.  The one problem I do have with the cinematography is that every now and then Delbonnel does show off and give us a truly artistic visual which is momentarily awe-inspiring but breaks the mood and flow of the film due to it being so out of place.  Without giving away spoilers, I’ll say that most any shot in the film which starts or finishes from an aerial viewpoint is an example of what I mean.

But, in a year which seems to be redefining how the biopic is made whether it be American Made‘s resemblance to an action film, Stronger‘s nearly complete lack of dramatization, or Professor Marston and the Wonder Women‘s combination of tone, themes, and subject matter, Darkest Hour‘s greatest sin is that it is a very stereotypical biopic.  Winston Churchill is the focus of every scene and is shown to have barely any weakness or character flaw and even on those rare occasions only to allow us to sympathize with him.  His enemies are practically cartoon villains and exist only for us to cheer when Churchill overcomes their plots.  The film shows us that the people who opposed Churchill did so because they feared what war would do to Great Britain and wanted to engage Hitler in peace talks.  With the gift of 75 years of hindsight we can see that Churchill was in the right, but to portray those seeking peace as fools and villains is not only a disservice to diplomats and pacifists everywhere but also makes for a far less interesting story.


Final verdict:  Darkest Hour is a film worth seeing due to great cinematography and performances, but don’t expect much in the way of enlightenment from it.  We loved films like Ray, Walk the Line, and A Beautiful Mind, but the art form of the biopic has evolved since then, and Darkest Hour is a biopic of the less evolved kind.  If you’re a fan of World War II or biographies in general and are just looking for some light entertainment, then Darkest Hour is an excellent choice.  If you want something truly thoughtful, truly emotional, and truly insightful, though, there have been quite a few better choices to head out and see from just this year alone.


The Shape of Water (Del Toro; 2017)

Guillermo Del Toro’s style is easily and immediately recognizable but is also uniquely his and hard to definitively describe.  His stories are urban period faerie tales, but the period is never too far in the past.  His visuals are somehow disturbing and whimsical at the same time, which makes sense since his favorite subject matter is to follow an innocent character undergoing terrifying situations.  How great of a filmmaker he is is still very much up to debate, but even his harshest critics will admit that what he does behind a camera is impossible to imitate.  Del Toro’s imagination is distinctly and uniquely his.

In his latest film The Shape of Water, we are given the story of Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a mute woman whose job is to clean at a secret United States government facility.  It takes place during the height of the Cold War, so security at the facility is tight and paranoia is rampant.  The story begins when Elisa and her closest work friend Zelda Fuller (Octavia Spencer) witness a large container being brought into the facility by Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon).  Inside the container is a dangerous aquatic creature the likes of which no one outside the South American tribe which worshipped it as a god has ever seen before.  Elisa and Zelda are charged with cleaning the room the creature is housed in, and over time Elisa finds herself drawn to it and feels the need to spend as much time in the creature’s company as she can.


In interviews, Del Toro has said that one of the major themes in The Shape of Water is that the only characters in the film who have no trouble communicating with each other are the two who are incapable of speech.  If I hadn’t heard him say it I’m not sure I would have gotten that exact interpretation of the film, but I did see something very similar and that is that the two who are looked down on by others as lesser find in each other the drive and strength to overcome those very people who think so little of them.  It’s a common theme in a romantic faerie tale but in Del Toro’s hands it ascends beyond its common roots, really allowing us to experience the unusual nature of the central relationship while still being able to truly empathize with their plight unlike the majority of films which give us a very standard situation and merely use a character quirk here and there or an exaggerated adventure in order to make people and events seem unusual.

None of this could have worked at all if not for Del Toro’s talent with visual arts and the incredible performances of The Shape of Water‘s cast.  Art director Nigel Churcher and his crew give us a world at once familiar and fantastic.  It uses sewers, industry, and urban sprawl in a way a typical faerie tale would use dungeons, castles, and forests.  They are places of both beauty and danger but here the dragon is a sociopathic boss, the princess an isolated mute, the prince a South American fishman, and the father a homosexual artist who needs to hide his nature from the world.  The special effects in The Shape of Water are used to fantastic effect.   The fishman really comes to life through the incredible motion capture of Doug Jones and the aquatic scenes are things of tranquil, slightly surreal beauty.  Finally, the cinematography by Dan Laustsen is among the best we’ve seen this year and Sidney Wolinski’s film editing literally had me dropping my jaw in amazement on quite a few occasions.  Most impressive of all is that never once does Del Toro use his visuals to impress or to brag, but only to tell the story in the best way possible.  He doesn’t seek to wow us with his technical skill.  He seeks to let his story wow us with its depth of emotion and realizes that the visuals are one of the best ways of conveying that, but it is the story not the special effects and camera work that should be the focus.


You can’t have depth of emotion without people, and the actors’ performances in the film rival the visuals in quality meaning they are also some of the very best of the year.   Octavia Spencer and Michael Shannon are the veterans of the award circuits here, and they give as excellent a performance as we have come to expect from them which still means that they give the weakest performances in the ensemble.  Yes, everyone else is that amazing.  Richard Jenkins is absolutely phenomenal as the gay artist who lives down the hall from Elisa and acts as a sort of combination best friend and father figure.  The way is homosexual is only an element of his personality, but the element that makes him a pariah, and not the focal point of his character is written and performed with exactly the nuance more roles like this should be.  Not once does the film call attention to his sexuality, if it weren’t for one scene it would be more wondered at than confirmed, but while the film never makes the mistake of suggesting that his sexuality is anywhere near the entirety of his character it does recognize that if it weren’t for his sexuality his life would be very different.

Michael Stuhlbarg is excellent as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler.  To say too much about his character and what makes his performance so spectacular would be to delve too deeply into spoiler territory.  He is one of the few characters who shows an honest affection for the creature and adds a fascinating dimension to the Cold War element of the story.  He’s one of those actors who has been around a while, and you will recognize his face, but never remains memorable.  I don’t know if The Shape of Water will change that for most audiences as his role is a non-flashy supporting one, but he certainly made me sit up and take notice.


Then there are Sally Hawkins and Doug Jones as the cross-species lovers.  Both are entirely mute and able to communicate only with action and some sign language and both give a performance that despite, or perhaps because of, this handicap show just how fake and manufactured most Hollywood romances are.  Without speech, we have to understand what draws these two together, what makes them perfect for each other, and what it is that makes them love each other so much they would sacrifice their lives for and entrust their lives to each other.  They not only pull it off, they make it so seamless and look so effortless that by the film’s end it doesn’t even seem unusual.

Final verdict:  The Shape of Water does for “Beauty and the Beast” what many were hoping the live-action Disney version would do earlier this year, though this version of the story is far too adult and candid for most children.  The Shape of Water may not be quite the masterpiece Pan’s Labyrinth was, but it is definitely one of the best films in Guillermo Del Toro’s repertoire.  From script to visuals to acting there is not a single element in the film which isn’t masterfully done and the performances, in particular, are some for the ages.  The Shape of Water isn’t one for those who don’t like Del Toro’s style as this movie is his through and through, but for everyone else this is a brilliant, moving, and unique love story which will be remembered as a great film for a very long time.


Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (Kasdan; 2017)

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a sort of sequel, but really more of a follow-up story, to the original Jumanji released in 1995.  We start this film one year after the original story of a board game which brought chaos to the town of Brantford, New Hampshire.  The mystical board game adapts to its time and transforms itself into a cartridge for a video game.  Four high school students who are given a chore to clean out some school storage areas as a punishment find this video game in 2017, and decide to give it a play as a distraction from their detention.  Each of the four students suddenly finds themself inside the video game as the character they chose to play, and they also find that they must complete the game in order to escape.

The story of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is its weakest element as it is really nothing more than an excuse for jokes and action scenes.   The villain of the film is so weak and so personality-free that he may as well not exist.  I am not exaggerating when I say that if the villain were edited completely out of the film but nothing else was changed you wouldn’t notice a difference to the story other than it would be tighter and shorter.  As to the actual goal of taking a jewel to a gigantic statue and replacing it, it’s just a reason for the characters to not remain in one place and we never get any real sense of travel in the film, we just get to see that one scene takes place in a village, another in a chasm, and so on.


As for the movie’s greatest strength, that would be its performances and particularly the one given by Jack Black.  The main conceit of the film allows for each of the four main actors to play characters who are against type, and while all have some fun with the idea, it’s Black that really throws himself into his character of the beautiful but insecure Instagram girl and ends up giving us a performance that is hilarious but also touching, relatable, and believable.  He impresses so much that when I was describing the film to friends afterward I kept using “she” as the pronoun I’d refer to Jack Black with.  The other actors were all funny and obviously had a good time, but none manage to give the honest performance Black did.  The Rock occasionally remembers he’s supposed to be a teenage nerd who is afraid of everything, but most of the time he’s just having a grand time mugging for the camera, which since he’s so good at it is not at all a bad thing.  Karen Gillan also largely just plays herself, but does have one fantastic scene with Jack Black in which she gets to be the shy wallflower.  Finally, Kevin Hart just acts like himself the entire time forgetting he’s actually supposed to be a high school football player.  Skill of performance aside, though, all four are very funny, charming, and have incredible chemistry which do make the movie worth watching.

The video game element of Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle also allows for some clever humor and situations.  The fact that the movie is meant to actually be a video game actually makes this a better video game film than any film actually based on an existing video game franchise as it never pretends to be anything else and can, therefore, have fun with video game tropes and cliches.  The downside to this is that once you learn what these tropes are or if you are an avid gamer it makes the film predictable as the rules of the world tend to telegraph how any given situation will be overcome.


Final Verdict:  Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is a fantastic film for kids, and still a relatively good one for the adults who take them.  The story is as predictable as they come, but the charming cast and the comedy at the expense of video games make up for that and make for an entertaining ride.  If the kids want to see this one, take them, but if it’s your adult friends who want to take you to see Jumanji you can wait until the movie comes out for streaming services and rentals.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Johnson; 2017)

This week’s review is going to be different than my normal.  When I review a film I assume that the people coming to my site have not yet seen it and are reading what I have to say in an attempt to decide whether it is a film worthy of their time and money.  This is not the case with Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Since the majority of the world’s population is going to see this film no matter what reviews say, this week’s write up will be less review and more deconstruction.  I intend to talk about parts of the film in far more detail than I usually do and without trying to avoid talking about surprises and plot points which means there will be major, surprise ruining spoilers ahead.  I will write my usual Final Verdict section first without any spoilers, and from there on out do not read any farther unless you have already seen Star Wars: The Last Jedi or you don’t care at all about spoilers.

Final Verdict:  Star Wars: The Last Jedi very nearly, but not quite, manages to both take the Star Wars series of movies in a new direction while also remaining the Star Wars which enraptured us from 1977 – 1983.  Almost.  The film never quite has the guts to fully commit its bold changes to the Star Wars Universe’s usual moral tropes nor its strict adherence to the typical Hero’s Journey, but it does explore a less black and white view of morality often and maturely enough to raise eyebrows in a positive way for those who want a more modern Star Wars and in a negative way for those who find the white hat/black hat dichotomy the strongest part of Star Wars’ appeal.  The Last Jedi should appeal, and therefore I recommend it, to most audiences except for those who have never seen a Star Wars movie before, but I don’t see many coming away with it as their favorite Star Wars film.


Establishing a universe is more than writing a story

Arguably the biggest challenge the makers of the new series of Star Wars films face is establishing a coherent universe in a series that really didn’t need one before.  We didn’t need to know how the Empire came to power, who the founders of the Rebellion were, nor what the relationships of one planetary system was to another in order for the original Star Wars trilogy to work.  We just needed to have characters we could invest ourselves in and an exciting, engaging story.  In fact, once George Lucas decided to start telling a story which needed to involve politics and a larger galactic timeline the seams of the universe Star Wars is set in not only started showing but also unraveling.

A lot has happened in the larger storyline which wasn’t created with an abundance of detail in mind, but now that we have a context of 8 films plus television shows plus a plethora of novels and even a few video games which take place in this galaxy far away questions which were unimportant before are necessary to establishing a decent amount of suspension of disbelief and show that these new films are an actual story and not just a cynical cash grab via nostalgia and toys.  After The Force Awakens, we were left with many questions.  Who are Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) parents and why is she such a natural at using the Force (and anything else she puts her mind to)?  Where did The First Order come from and how did they rise to power and crush the government created by the Rebel Alliance so quickly?  Who is Snoke (Andy Serkis), and why had we never heard of him in any of the other films before now?  What caused Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) to turn to the Dark Side of the Force?  Why did Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) go into hiding?

When you’re making a trilogy, most understand that not only do you not need to tell everything in the first installment but it’s actually best if you hold quite a bit back so you can create tension in the mystery and entertainment value from the reveal.  Since you want to establish your story and characters in the first installment and bring the story to its climactic finish in the third, most of these reveals will take place in the second installment.  The Last Jedi does hold to that pattern for the most part but it fails to answer a handful of important questions and many of the answers we get are at best unsatisfying and occasionally infuriating.


We learn, for instance, that Rey’s parents were no one special.  They were just scavengers who abandoned her on Jakku.  There’s nothing wrong with that explanation, in fact, it’s rather nice that the makers of the film didn’t feel a need to tie her into the grander storyline through a shoehorned in explanation and went with something believable and realistic.  If that is her origin, though, how do we explain her extraordinary number of talents?  She could have learned to repair a starship and how to fight from her time scavenging, but how did she become an expert pilot?  How does she speak Wookie?  Or droid?  If she’s such a natural at using the Force, why did it never manifest itself in the many, many years she was struggling to eke out an existence before the start of the film?  The answer we’re given to Rey’s parentage is satisfying in that it is not the typical grandiose origin we expect, but it’s entirely unsatisfying in that it raises just as many questions as it answers, and in this case, those questions are not due to a mystery but due to sloppy character writing in The Force Awakens.

The reveal of Kylo Ren’s turn to the Dark Side is far more satisfying.  In fact, the two short scenes which deal with his turn are far more effective and engaging than three entire films dealing with Anakin Skywalker’s turn were.  We see his story from both Luke’s perspective and from Ren’s himself, and this sort of mini “Rashomon” shows how a character can become a Sith with far more nuance and true characterization than anything Star Wars has done before.  Luke senses Snoke’s influence in Kylo Ren, and in a moment of panic and doubt decides its best to kill Ren before he kills everyone else.  But, Ren wakes up at the last second, manages to defend himself, and Luke’s rash decision causes Ren to do exactly what Luke feared he would.  This shows that heroes in this universe are subject to panic and bad decisions, though we have seen that in good guys who aren’t necessarily the heroes before in Star Wars films, but more importantly it shows that the villains in a Star Wars story can have recognizable realistic motivations for their wrongdoing.  Sure, Snoke metaphorically whispered in Ren’s ear and planted some seeds of doubt, but it was Luke’s attack, his betrayal, which actually turned Ren.


Examining the storylines

 The primary focus of the film is the relationships between the users of The Force.  In an obvious reference to The Empire Strikes Back, The Last Jedi starts with Rey seeking training from Luke which Luke is dead set against due to his past with Kylo Ren.  Shortly after we learn that much to their surprise Kylo Ren and Rey have some sort of mental link with each other through which they can see each other, but only each other and not their surroundings, and through which they can communicate.  It’s an odd situation which doesn’t entirely work, but it does accomplish something very important to The Last Jedi‘s plot, themes, and tone which is that the primary protagonist and primary antagonist can relate to and truly understand their opposite.  This link means that they are not just opposing forces needing to get the other out of the way to achieve a goal, but that they are mirror images who see in the other what they are seeking in themselves.  This is even more nuanced and three dimensional than the relationship Darth Vader and Luke had and it’s accomplished without resorting to familial relations and without a need for one of the characters to be ignorant of their ties.  We take this journey along with them, and that makes for a more organic and multi-faceted relationship than we are used to between hero and villain particularly in a Star Wars movie.

Luke and Snoke are also mirror images of one another in the film due to the fact that both have at one point been masters to Kylo Ren, one for the Light Side of the Force and one for the Dark.  This mirrored relationship is not as nuanced and important as that between Kylo Ren and Rey, though.  This is partially due to the fact that these two are more traditional Star Wars hero and villain, but the primary reason this relationship fails is that Snoke himself is such a nothing character with no obvious connection to any of the heroes in the story.  In fact, I would go so far as to say that with no explanation of where he was during any of the other films, where he came from, how he came to lead The First Order or any other background of any kind other than he’s Kylo Ren’s master, Snoke is less a character and more a simplistic plot device.

The way the confrontations play out between these four is also highly uneven in quality.  Snoke, once again, is nothing but a mouthpiece for stereotypical villainous dialogue –  threatening and glowering but never actually doing anything which drives the story.  When Kylo Ren kills Snoke it was so obviously telegraphed that it would have been far more surprising had Kylo Ren attacked Rey as Snoke was continuously monologuing he would.


However, the confrontation immediately after between Rey and Kylo Ren largely makes up for the disappointment with Snoke.  This is where we see the two main characters recognizing in the other traits they need.  Ren killed Snoke where Rey couldn’t have and it was the fact that he is steeped in the Dark Side which allowed him to do it.  In Rey Ren sees the balance he needs to keep from losing himself entirely to his rage.  In earlier films, the “join me” invitation is one which comes from a tactical power grab.  Darth Vader and the Emperor get a powerful subordinate to help them in their quest for more power, but they are never prepared to make nor view their invitee as an equal.  This offer from Kylo Ren to Rey adds a new twist to this now familiar Star Wars trope.  You can tell he does view Rey as an equal, as a true partner, and this offer to join him is less a power grab and more a warped marriage proposal.  This is a great twist which gives new depth to the Star Wars Universe and its characters as we glimpse the fact that balance between the Light and the Dark does not necessarily mean an even conflict but can instead mean the two sides learning to combine their strengths and counteract their weaknesses.

Finally for this storyline is the climactic confrontation between Kylo Ren and Luke.  This is a highlight of the film cinematically and dramatically, but a lowlight thematically. Since the two major plotlines come together at this time, I’ll speak on that after I talk about the other major plot in The Last Jedi.

The other major storyline is that of the Resistance and primarily of Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn (John Boyega), and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).  I found this to be the more interesting storyline of the two as here the writers had the guts to flip the usual Hero’s Journey story on its ear and also had the guts to commit to it unlike the primary storyline involving the Force users.  This is a subplot which seems to be the usual impetuous hero comes out on top by disobeying orders and showing his superiors that his way may not be by the book, but it is the best.  As we continue down the path Finn, Rose, and Poe (with BB-8 along for the ride) decide to take, though, we see that what they are doing just keeps making things worse and worse and the eventual payoff we’re expecting doesn’t appear to be coming into reach, and ultimately we learn that the more practical and less flashy plan the leaders of the Resistance came up with would have worked, but because Poe and Finn decided to buck command and be heroes, the Resistance is all but destroyed.  That is so un-Star Wars like as to be completely unexpected and is the real heart of The Last Jedi, in my opinion.  The second act of a trilogy is meant to leave the heroes at their lowest point, but it’s rare that that low point is reached due to their own arrogance and incompetence.  That is exactly what happens here and leaves room for a redemption storyline for the characters who are not Force users in Episode IX.


The opening of the film in which Poe single-handedly confronts a First Order fleet in his X-Wing sets up this dynamic as his flyboy antics lead him to call in an entire bomber wing against the wisdom of his commanders, and while the target he wanted to destroy does get taken out, the Resistance loses nearly every pilot involved in the attack including every single bomber in their fleet.  This gets Poe demoted, but it doesn’t reign in his cockiness so when most of the Resistance leadership is killed (and Leia (Carrie Fisher) put into the hospital in a scene which is pure fan service and very out of place with the film’s overall tone) Poe refuses to listen to the deputy leaders thinking himself far more clever and instead ropes Finn and new character Rose into a desperate plan to save the few remaining members of the Resistance.

The actual implementation of the plan inside the casino is the weakest element of this storyline as not only is it tonally all over the place but also visually chaotic.  Finn and Rose seem absolutely lost as they try to take in everything around them and figure out how to find the master code breaker, and unfortunately, the audience shares that state of mind with them.  I imagine this was intended to be the most humorous scene in the film, but most of the comedy on display here falls flat (a lot of the film’s humor does as it seems to be aimed squarely at children, young stupid children, for the most part) and the attempt to make the setting look like a large, bustling playground for the rich just ends up becoming a dizzyingly busy crowd of CGI effects thrown at the screen.


After the bit in the casino, and things calm down, the storyline really gets down to business again as we see Finn and Rose in their desperation to be heroes make bad decision after bad decision including trusting the enigmatic DJ (Benicio Del Toro) who ends up being one of the most mercenary characters in the Star Wars universe who isn’t a straight-up gangster or bounty hunter.  While DJ was definitely entertaining, he was another inconsistency in the film’s story.  I loved the fact that he was interested only in whomever could pay him the most, but seemed to want that person to be one of the good guys.  He seemed to have a political awareness and pragmatism rarely seen in epic stories and never before in a Star Wars film, but he was also so incredibly skilled and well equipped you had to wonder how he found himself inside a cell in the first place, especially since he demonstrated he could escape instantly at any time he wanted.

The inevitable capture during their mission to crack the First Order’s tracking system and subsequent betrayal by DJ is the ultimate payoff of this section of the film.  Finn’s confrontation with Captain Phasma is so disappointing that it would probably have been best not in the film at all, but aside from that the payoff of Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo’s (Laura Dern) being discovered by the First Order directly due to the arrogance and impetuousness of Poe and Finn is the most powerful moment in the film from a thematic standpoint.  The villain’s to date haven’t been that organized, intelligent, nor impressive.  The heroes fail not because the villains beat them, but because the heroes are undone by the foolhardiness of some of their own.


The climactic scene

After those few left in the Resistance make their way to the salt planet Crait they are joined by Luke, Rey, Chewbacca, and the attack force led by Kylo Ren.  The concept of a planet made up of red salt covered with snow makes for some truly spectacular visuals.  The red and white powder being thrown into the air by the fast-moving vehicles and the impact of weapons fire is reminiscent of blood on a battlefield and makes for a gritty visceral feel you can’t normally get in a film made with a younger audience in mind.  Add to that the sense of scale and motion between the gigantic slow moving weapons used by The First Order versus the speedy but small and decrepit vehicles of the resistance followed by Luke standing on his own against an army of AT-AT Walkers and  we are treated to one of the most visually spectacular scenes ever put in a Star Wars film.

The resolution of the final conflict is also satisfying as it comes down to a battle of psychology.  By projecting his image onto the planet as Rey helps the survivors in the Resistance escape, Luke keeps Kylo Ren’s focus exactly where he wants it to be, on Luke, and plays off of Kylo Ren’s uncontrollable anger to distract him just long enough that the true objective of keeping the Resistance alive for a little while longer can be secured.  It’s also a pretty great payoff to the audience when we realize that Kylo Ren has been played and he was defeated not by greater power or skill, but by his own emotional weakness combined with the cunning of his opponent.  The only problem I had with the resolution of the final conflict was wondering why we had never seen a Jedi do something similar before with the Force.  Once again, creating a consistent universe containing numerous films, television shows, and books is far more difficult than creating a single contained story.


Finally, we end with the death of Luke.  This was a strange choice which seemed to come from nowhere to me.  It seems almost a given that he will appear as a ghost in the next film, so unless I am completely wrong in thinking that and Mark Hamill is still contracted to appear in the next film I see no dramatic reason why he should just die alone far away from anyone he knows and apparently due to stress rather than an unnatural cause.  The wisdom of this choice will hopefully become apparent in Episode IX, but it certainly isn’t now.

So, in the end, The Last Jedi is one of the better installments in the Star Wars universe.  It still has a few too many poorly handled elements such as humor which doesn’t connect, fan service which is more distracting than pertinent, and clunky dialogue to be an honestly great movie like Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back, but there are some glimpses here into true genius and talent.   Hopefully, next time around the cast and crew can continue their exploration of more realistic themes but without chickening out and returning to the standard black and white morality of the Star Wars films of the past.











The Disaster Artist (Franco; 2017)

Plan 9 From Outer Space.  Troll 2.  The Room. Ask any film lover what the worst film of all time is and you will most often get one of these three as your answer.  Whichever they answer will also be a film they will tell you you have to see to believe with a sort of gleeful sado-masochism glinting in their eye.  That’s because these films really aren’t the worst ever made, they are the most ineptly made. They are movies that make you wonder at how they could possibly have been made, at how any producer would willingly give money to such a project, and at how any director could have missed how horribly any single line of dialogue was delivered let alone every single line in an entire film.  In short, at how could a film in which every single element is so badly botched that individually they could have never passed muster in even the most mediocre of films, and yet here we have an entire film made up entirely of such elements.

If there’s anything Hollywood likes more than stories about itself, it’s an underdog story, so when Tim Burton made Ed Wood in 1994 about the director who made Plan 9 From Outer Space it was lavished with film awards and nominations.  Twenty-three years later it looks as if Hollywood history is about to repeat itself with The Disaster Artist, a film chronicling the life of The Room‘s creators Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero played by James Franco and his brother Dave Franco respectively.  The Disaster Artist starts in the late 90’s (1998 if I remember correctly) when Tommy and Greg first met in an acting class, and chronicles the story of their friendship and primarily on their decision to make their own movie as they get rejection after crushing rejection from Hollywood studios and talent agencies.


I’ll just start with what makes The Disaster Artist a fantastic film, and that is James Franco.  He is not only the star of the film but also its director, and his attention to detail in both of these roles is borderline mind-boggling.   Just after the film’s finale but before the end credits begin to roll The Disaster Artist in a moment of entertaining and well-deserved bragging shows scenes from the actual film The Room and those same scenes as recreated in The Disaster Artist, and from the acting to the set design to the camera angles to the costumes everything is impressively close to spot on.

It’s in Franco’s portrayal of Wiseau, though, that the attention to detail really pays off.  Tommy Wiseau is James Franco’s Rain Man or Forrest Gump, except that where those characters were a dedicated performance of a series of quirks, Franco gives us a fully realized character in Wiseau who is most assuredly strange, but he’s also passionate, lonely, craves attention, is hard to work with, but is also incredibly generous.  Underneath the strange accent and tics is a fully realized, completely sympathetic person with a depth rarely seen in a film.  I’m sure it helped that the real Tommy Wiseau and Greg Sestero are still here and had at least some interaction with the cast and crew of The Disaster Artist, but just because Franco had help most actors don’t get doesn’t make the performance any less impressive.


The Disaster Artist is a comedy at its core, I would call it more comedy than drama at any rate, and it’s a film which could easily fall into mockery given its premise.  It doesn’t.  Watching Sestero and Wiseau bring their dream to life is hysterical, but the film always manages to take the high ground by focusing more on the passion and heart of its characters than on their ineptitude.  This makes the film into a skewed inspirational story with a message that seems to be saying the pursuit of our dreams is more important than the actual achieving of them, and who knows, you may still achieve greatness in the last way you want or expect despite yourself.

Do you need to have seen The Room in order to understand and enjoy The Disaster Artist?  I have seen The Room once before, some time ago, and part of me wishes that I hadn’t.  It didn’t ruin my enjoyment of The Disaster Artist in any way, far from it, but I believe that the experience each person has is going to vary greatly depending on whether they are a fanatic of The Room whose seen it over and over at midnight showings and at home, whether they’ve seen The Room a time or two and at least know what it is, and if they’ve never seen The Room at all.  The fanatic is going to see a movie about the creation of a thing they already know and love, the one-time viewer will get the story but won’t have near the investment, while the person who’s never seen The Room will get an off the wall inspirational biography.  All three of these people will get an entertaining, hilarious, and at times heartwarming movie, but all three will come away with an entirely different take away from the experience, and part of me wishes I could start at the beginning and experience The Disaster Artist from all three perspectives (though, I don’t know when I’d find the time and the energy to see all those midnight showings).


Final verdict:  The Disaster Artist is just a little too oddball to be a film I recommend to everyone, but that’s the only reason I wouldn’t.  James Franco gives a performance so incredible he very well may garner his first Oscar, and while it’s more of a long shot, I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see him get a Best Director nomination, as well.   The Disaster Artist is both one of the best biopics and best comedies of the year, and that’s a combination you don’t see often at all.  If you’ve seen Ed Wood, you’ll already be familiar with what you’re getting in The Disaster Artist, but even then you will still be awed by the attention to detail in both the performances and the recreations.