Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi

SW8Director: Rian Johnson

Screenwriter: Rian Johnson

Cast: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Laura Dern, and Domhnall Gleeson

Another year another Star Wars film. Man, if I could travel back to 1985 and tell my 5-year-old self that in the early 21st century, this will be a factual statement! That’s right, we have entered the era of annual Star Wars movies, and this year’s entry is a doozie. The eagerly anticipated sequel to 2015’s The Force Awakens and the 8th episode of the principal series is here, and it is called The Last Jedi. A formidable title for a film that like no other before it, takes the franchise to some new heights as well as one or two new lows.

This is an immediate sequel to The Force Awakens, and given where that film leaves off, that’s the right move. The First Order being victorious against the Republic, is on the move to seize control of the galaxy under Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his loyal legion including Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Admiral Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). Leia (Carrie Fisher) and what’s left of the resistance continue to stand against the First Order, while Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince the reclusive Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to join the fight.

I’d wager to say, unlike any Star Wars film before it, this one will be the most divisive. The original trilogy is generally regarded as brilliant, the prequels are generally regarded as garbage, but The Last Jedi I think will go down as having the best of both worlds: strong haters and strong supporters, not unlike the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election. Family-bonds and friendships may be lost forever over this film.

Before I get into why, I will reveal myself as one of the strong supporters. However, I do see where some of the haters are coming from. But they’re wrong, for the most part. Blockbuster films tend to have a ludicrous obligation to deliver predictable comfort-filled experiences rather than challenge audiences with surprises and risks. Most critics of the film are citing the fact that it does not answer the questions that were posed from the previous film. The choice to back away from and subvert expectations often comes with some occasional flaws, but those flaws are worth it, if the overall result is something new, ambitious, and most importantly, something that has direction. That’s ultimately what we have here with The Last Jedi; there are flaws, but at the end we have so many opportunities to see these Star Wars films continue on beyond the immediate threats playing out.

This review is going to play it safe, so I will not be discussing many specifics in terms of plot and developments, and focusing more on the mechanics and commentary. So what’s so great about The Last Jedi? There are two things that I think will stand supreme when all the dust around this film settles. First, The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film to truly capture the allure of the dark side. Many have taken it for granted, two have attempted to show it, but only this film gets it right. Ask yourself, “What is the dark side?” Why is it attractive? Is it just greed for power? Then why would they ever band together? Why would there be Supreme leaders and Emperors? Is it just basic evil for the sake of evil? Is it fascism? That’s what The Force Awakens attempted to explore. But no, it’s not that either. For all the questions fans are claiming The Last Jedi does not answer, here’s one it does answer that no one was even asking, and it may be the most important one of all. To avoid spoilers, I will leave it at this, but I will say that The Last Jedi spins the entire motivation and philosophy of Star Wars on its head and gives us the most authentic perspective of what all of this is really about!

Secondly, The Last Jedi opened the conversation about how the force works beyond just the training, teaching, control aspect. Again, to avoid spoilers, I will be brief and vague. We learn that who we think is supposedly “special” may not be so “special” after all. The force may not be so exclusive, and maybe (like what the net neutrality repeal will inevitably allow), someone is just hogging it all! The force has never been as intricate and involved as it is in this film, and I think that was a brilliant decision.

lastjedi17Where The Force Awakens was an enjoyable (and I do mean enjoyable) romp through the familiar days of A New Hope, The Last Jedi is a far more mature film. This film marks, perhaps, the first Star Wars film not aimed principally at kids and teens. While there is more than enough for them to enjoy about The Last Jedi, the more involved and complex themes will likely go over their heads. Kids will grasp on to the idea that anyone can make a difference, but they may be lost in the exploration of the disappointment of meeting one’s heroes and finding out they’re frauds. That theme resonates throughout the film and writer/director Rian Johnson runs with it to massive effect. He forces us (pun intended) to examine all of the characters and evaluate them from minute to minute with the goal of showing us that what we thought we knew may not be true at all. This is unsettling, but also an outstanding achievement for a Star Wars film or any form of entertainment for that matter.

These are the places where The Last Jedi shines. The big picture stuff. The exploration of mythos and themes, and not satiating our curiosity with sugary artificial satisfaction. Still, as I mentioned, there are a few places where the film admittedly stumbles. The 153 minute running time is not lean and mean. It’s occasionally bloated with some silly additions that feel cheesy and unnecessary, primarily a sequence involving Finn (John Boyega) and a resistance fighter named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) who are sent on a wild goose chase to a planet full of “the worst creatures in the galaxy.” Except part of why they’re the worst is because they’re rich. Really Star Wars/Disney, you want to go there? I felt a little dumb sitting in a theater after pre-purchasing tickets to see the latest TLJFathiers-696x467installment of a billion dollar franchise, which then spent a sizable portion of its running time pretending to condemn the wealthy elite. I’m not saying Star Wars is incapable of taking on this subject matter, but the “worst creatures in the world” gag felt a little disingenuous. Also, there’s a weird animal abuse subplot involving some horse-like creatures being force to race for entertainment. This whole part is problematic.

There are at least two other areas that came across cheesy or needless, one of which involves a very precarious event involving General Leia that definitely raised an eyebrow. Still, these are minor qualms in an otherwise, risky, different, and dare I say original installment in a now much more interesting saga. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is worthy of praise and debate. It is both enigmatic and iconic. It’s also a visual and acting masterwork. Director Rian Johnson, who is mostly known for a couple of relatively small-time films like Looper and The Lookout, shows what he’s made of. He blows the lid off the theater with one of the finest opening and closing scenes of any Star Wars film, all while carrying the weight of recently beloved characters like Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) as well as introducing new characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), and then navigating the tricky terrain of classically loved characters like Leia, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Furthermore, Hamill’s performance is easily the finest of his career, and Adam Driver’s performance as Kylo Ren is spectacular this time around. It’s also pretty darn funny at times. This movie’s got it all! In fact this review is just scratching the surface. Star Wars – The Last Jedi is not without its flaws, but it is also one of the most ambitious films of the franchise, and certainly the richest in terms of critical analysis. I think in several years people will look back on this film as the one that transformed the saga into something new. B+

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 152 minutes.

2018 Golden Globes Prediction Ballot

golden-globes-2018-logoThe 75th annual Golden Globe Awards will air Sunday January 7th at 8:00 EST on NBC with host Seth Meyers. With the climate as it is in Hollywood regarding the numerous allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment, it will be interesting to see how much these recent events will overshadow the show. This is even more fascinating given that Ridley Scott’s film, All the Money in the World, now starring Christopher Plummer who famously replaced Kevin Spacey, is up for three awards including one for Plummer!

The Golden Globes has never been a show to steer away from controversy. In fact they revel in it with booze soaked acceptance speeches, edgy hosts, and of course, some of the strangest nomination selections of any award show – I’m talking to you, 2018 nominee for Best  Motion Picture – Musical or Comedy, Get Out (or did I miss the hilarious song and dance number between the scenes of racially motivated torture and murder).

Anyway, my predictions have been made, so now it’s your turn to take a crack at your own predictions on the ballot below! Keep an eye on how your picks measure up to everyone else’s with this results document, or with my official Golden Globe Prediction Summary spreadsheet, which I will update with the actual winners on awards night.  

Lady Bird

LadyDirector: Greta Gerwig

Screenwriter: Greta Gerwig

Cast: Saoirse Ronan, Laurie Metcalf, Lucas Hedges, Beanie Feldstein, Tracy Letts, and Odeya Rush

A weird thing happened at the end of the new movie Lady Bird from first time director, Greta Gerwig. The lights came up in the theater and I heard a woman say, “Well, that was weird.” Then another person whispered, “That’s not what I thought it was going to be.” Lastly, someone else just said, “Artistic,” but in a dismissive way. Meanwhile, I sat there silent, listening to these strange criticisms while reflecting on how Gerwig was able to steal so many aspects and events from my life and just put it out there like that. Isn’t that plagiarism? I guess there are a few differences between the character Lady Bird and me. I was a good student, I didn’t have any siblings, oh and I call myself Gentleman Bird, but after that it gets pretty murky.

Saoirse Ronan plays the titular character, a confused high school student from Sacramento, California, who is desperate for a change, but is still pretty confused about who she is in the first place. In fact, Lady Bird’s given name is Christine, but she decided to rename herself Lady Bird, perhaps just to emphasize to the audience that she’s having a bit of an identity crisis. The year is 2002, and Lady Bird is in the midst of some pure adolescent angst. Her relationship with her parents, principally her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf), can be described as strained at best, and the weight and eventuality of adulthood is weighing heavily down on her.

The film casually follows Lady Bird as she traverses her seminal senior year at her Catholic high school, which she attends at a great cost from her parents who while hard-working are not financially secure. Lady Bird is ashamed of her status and dreams of the day when she lives in the big house, has adventures, receives opportunity, and lives sophisticatedly. The problem for Lady Bird and the one she grapples with most throughout the film is that she has done nothing to warrant or really deserve any of those things. What’s more, her private Sacramento Catholic high school is filled with other kids who have done nothing to deserve those things…and yet they have them. The one thing Lady Bird does have going for her is an innate artistic spirit that is picked up on by her nun teacher Sister Sarah Joan (Lois Smith). Sister Sarah Joan encourages Lady Bird to take that spirit and apply it to the school theatre program, which she does along with her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein) and Danny (Lucas Hedges), a young man, Lady Bird finds attractive.

That’s the gist of the film. It’s really rather typical in terms of its story, but there are some bits of brilliance that do move the “coming of age” film needle. Lady Bird owes a lot to the sensibilities of predecessors like Juno, The Bling Ring, and most of all Terry Zwigoff’s 2001 film, Ghost World. All of these films take a different perspective at youth culture and its influences. They all attempt in their own way to diagnose what has lead to the overwhelming degradation in the aspirations of young people, and guess what, the young people are rarely the most to blame. Yes, what this film adds to the mix is a cutting and complex portrayal of the parent/child dynamic. In retrospect, the opening scene of the film (which I think runs the gamut of human emotion all within the course of two minutes) prepares the audience for this tumultuous relationship, and as this thread develops, it grounds the film and makes it more significant. Metcalf’s portrayal of Marion may be the stand-out performance in a film with several other stand-out performances. She is likely the name we’ll hear most associated with this film come Oscar time, and if not, Marion’s character is certainly the one who is left rattling around in my head at the end.

Lady Bird is not a perfect movie, and it’s not a groundbreaking movie. It is, however, excellent at what it does, and it is very easy to like. Even those people who left the theater with me who were caught off guard by Lady Bird, most likely liked the movie. This is probably because unlike many mainstream films, Lady Bird has several different methodologies that an audience can take away. It’s a coming of age story, it’s a religious parable, it’s a family drama, it’s a love story, it’s a story about rejection and acceptance, about friendship, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. It is also a film that positions writer/director Greta Gerwig as one of the foremost emerging storytellers in cinema. B+

Lady Bird is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 34 minutes.