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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Logan Lucky (Soderbergh; 2017)

The very first scene in the latest film from Ocean’s 11s famed director Steven Soderbergh gives us a man doing repair work on an automobile as a young girl, roughly 8-10 years-old, chats with him and helps.  It’s apparent nearly immediately that this is a father and a daughter, that the little girl knows a lot about tools, and that her father is honestly interested in helping the girl with a beauty pageant she’ll be participating in soon.  This short, simple set up is a perfect introduction which says a lot more than it would seem possible about the film you are about to see, for Logan Lucky at its core is a movie about characters who seem to be a stereotype on the surface, who constantly surprise us with the seemingly out of character knowledge they possess, and who have this knowledge because of their strong, genuine familial connections.

Logan Lucky stars Channing Tatum as Jimmy Logan, the central figure of the Logan family, which includes his brother Clyde (Adam Driver) a bartender who lost an arm in military service, Mellie (Riley Keough) his younger hairdresser sister, his aforementioned daughter Sadie (Farrah MacKenzie), Bobbie Jo Chapman (Katie Holmes) his ex-wife, and Moody Chapman (David Denman) his ex’s current husband of some indeterminate but long time and owner of several car dealerships.  The Logans seem to have some sort of family curse, though only Clyde seems to really believe this wholeheartedly, and are further set apart from your standard movie extended family by being largely drama free.  Everyone seems to like each other, even the two fathers, and do what they need to keep the others in their lives happy.  However, when Jimmy loses his job at the exact same time Moody decides he is taking their family out of state to open a new dealership, Jimmy decides drastic measures need to be taken so he can maintain his close relationship with his daughter, and those drastic measures involve robbing the local NASCAR track, the same NASCAR track which had just fired him from his job.

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You need to go into Logan Lucky knowing that this is more than just a heist film, and I don’t mean that in an artistic “this is deeper than it appears” way, I mean it literally.   While it is billed as a heist film, largely due to Soderbergh’s direction I imagine, the heist is only one part of a much larger story which is also part family drama, part prison break,  and part police procedural.  After the heist portion of the film was over, I’d guessed the movie itself was pretty much over with just loose ends left to wrap up, but the movie kept going and going for quite some time afterward, long enough to weave in an additional major character and an entire subplot.  This threw me as for the last 40 to 50 minutes of the film I kept expecting it to wrap up at any time, and had me leaving the theater thinking the film had serious pacing problems, but in actuality it was my expectations of Logan Lucky I’d gotten from its marketing campaign that was the real problem.  Part of me wants to see the film again (and, I’m sure I will one day) to verify if the issue is honestly one with the film or with myself, but I can say for sure that knowing about this quirk of the plot’s structure will make for a smoother experience.

Aside from that, I have little but praise for Logan Lucky.  The script by Rebecca Blunt combined with Soderbergh’s direction give us a story which, while not that creative, is hilarious, charming, and often surprising.  Much like the characters, the story is one that on the surface is very, perhaps overly, familiar, but the individual pieces that make the story move are a constant source of offbeat epiphany.  The source of both the humor and the drama in Logan Lucky come from our own discoveries of why the unexpected make perfect sense with nary a fart joke nor artificial dramatic contrivance to be seen.

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The most impressive element of Logan Lucky, though, is the fact that the entire cast is made up of real actors.  For a long time the A-List movie stars in Hollywood have been movie stars, not actors.  They have enough charisma that we love watching them, and we pay to do so over and over again, but we are really just watching them be their magnetic selves with minor variation.  The cast of Logan Lucky are actors.  Real actors.  Daniel Craig transforms into country bumpkin chemistry savant Joe Bangs so thoroughly that his speech, his body language, and even the look in his eyes won’t give even the slightest of hints that he is also James Bond.

While due to his fame, Craig’s transformation may the most impressive, it’s Riley Keough’s performance that really makes me sit up and take notice as I think this is a girl of incredible talent who we will be seeing a lot of in the near future.  Her most famous role was as the red headed wife Capable in Mad Max: Fury Road.  Earlier this year she played the wife in the young family who join the main characters in It Comes At Night, and that performance was made impressive in that she had to not only play the role straight, she also had to play the role as a fantasy of one of the other characters, and neither of those portrayals was even a bit reminiscent of Capable.  Here she is again, in another completely different role again so different from her others that I probably would not have immediately recognized her had her talent not caught my attention in her previous acting work.  I’m waiting for her to do a musical, because if she can sing as well as she can do drama and comedy, then the amount of talent she has is downright unfair.

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Final verdict:  Logan Lucky is easily the best crime movie of the year, so far, ranks right up there with the best comedies, and shows some real heart on top of that.  The well written script isn’t without its flaws, but the acting is award worthy.  The only reason I don’t list Logan Lucky as a must see film is because it does have a lack of true depth, and that may bother those who go to see a movie primarily for intellectual reasons, but if you’re looking to laugh, cheer, and emote, then Logan Lucky will push all the right buttons, and its ending will even give you something to think about once the final frame has flashed by.

 

 

Silence (Scorsese; 2016)

This story of two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan at a time when Catholicism was outlawed in order to find out what happened to their former master and bring him back home both literally and spiritually has a long history.  Silence is originally a novel written by Shusaku Endo in 1966 and was given to Scorsese as a gift when he had finished filming The Last Temptation of Christ in 1988.  One year later Scorsese was asked by Japanese director Akira Kurosawa to play Vincent Van Gogh in Dreams, and Scorsese decided to read the novel while he has working in Japan.  The intellectual outsider’s take on the Catholic religion appealed tremendously to Scorcese and he knew he wanted to make a film out of it but other contracts and projects kept getting in the way until he had finished The Wolf of Wall Street.  Now his passion project of close to thirty years is finally getting a general release and the world gets to see a Scorsese piece focusing on his passion other than New York, his Catholic faith.

The reason Scorsese has become such a legend of film making is his incredible eye for setting up intricate camera shots.  He’s a master at setting up both moods and story using methods which are anything but “by the book” while also often incorporating many pieces.  In Silence, Scorsese uses simpler, though no less beautiful, methods than he normally does, eschewing the wonder of intricacy for the starkness of simplicity.  We see more shots from one angle held for a long time than is normal, and with edits spaced far between.  While due to the sets and set pieces no one could ever confuse Silence with a stage play, the visual work on display here has a lot in common with one worrying more about facial expressions and dialogue for extended periods of time than on scenery and action.silence-refer

Andrew Garfield and Adam Driver play the major roles of the two priests on the mission in Japan, with Andrew Garfield being the true focal character, and both really get a chance to show their acting chops here.  Their characters immediately realize that they may have gotten themselves in far over their heads in a situation where not only is their very existence illegal, but they don’t understand a thing about the people they want to help. Both excellently express their feelings of helplessness, frustration, fear, and bewilderment while still maintaining individual identities.  The rest of the cast aside from Liam Neeson are various Japanese peasants or members of the Japanese Inquisition, and again, the acting on display is phenomenal, possibly even better than that of our main characters.  The Japanese in the film not only have to present complicated relationships to the priests and to the Catholic religion, but they have to do it using a very broken English, but not so broken that it is overly difficult to understand.  Issei Ogata as Inquisitor Inoue gave a particularly impressive performance having to be intimidating, charming, vicious, and ultimately the focus of Silence‘s deep and somewhat astonishing themes about culture and religion, while still having a very thick accent and limited English vocabulary.

In the screenplay which gives us these astonishing themes, we have quite an excellent adaptation, though I can’t speak to how accurate it is since I haven’t read the novel.  The story itself, and this is the one rather large weakness of the film, is very slow paced.  There is little action in Silence‘s 2 hour and 41 minute running time, and even the tension is spread out over long intervals interspersed with conversations on religion and philosophy as well as extended camera shots of the Japanese landscape and its denizens.  I found, in fact, that the majority of the interest and entertainment to be had from Silence is not during the period you are actually watching the film, but in the hours and days afterward when you are letting what you saw play out in your head and you get a chance to interpret and ponder everything contained in the film.  This is a film that demands a second viewing to get from it everything you can, the first viewing really just being little more than a preparation for the true experience.

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As to those themes themselves, I can’t say I am certain I caught everything in one viewing, but Scorsese has a lot to say about the nature of religion in relation to the culture it has permeated.  A Christian in Europe and a Christian in Japan are not only limited in communication, but they can be said to be following an altogether different religion with only the most surface and dogmatic elements of the religion being the same.  How it inspires and affects its followers, and even what the followers perceive themselves to be worshiping can be radically different, and thus the effect the religion has on the culture of a given region can also be radically different.  It’s this observation which gives Silence its power, and which also make it an odd companion piece to Arrival released earlier in the year.  Silence also has strong similarities to the book and television miniseries Shogun in its portrayal of Europeans impacting and causing upheaval in Japanese society.

Final recommendation:  Silence is not a film for everyone.  While it is intensely thoughtful and has as deep a message as one can hope for in cinema, it’s plodding pace and nearly meditative style means that the rewards you get from the film are gained after you have left the theater and find yourself thinking about it, not in the moment.  If you are ready for something methodical and philosophical, however, Silence not only delivers on those fronts, but can also be beautiful and has some fantastic acting on display, as well.