RBG

RBGDirectors: Julie Cohen and Betsy West

Cast: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Gloria Steinem, Jane Ginsburg, and Bill Clinton

For Mother’s Day this year, I gave my mom the greatest gift one can give: a night out with me! Of course, a night out with me means the movies will be involved. But what to see? The Cineplex is just bursting with options this time of year from tent pole mega blockbusters to sleeper studio genre pieces, but my mom, the ever-bleeding-heart liberal, says, “Is the Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary playing anywhere around here?” And yes, it was. So onward we walked, past the Deadpools and Oceans, past the Solos and Incredibles, past the Jurassic Parks and Avengers, into the tiny auxiliary theater with folding chairs and a draped curtain surrounding an 80” screen, as it should be. This is one of several documentaries out right now making a splash, and I hope the trend continues.

When the lights dimmed, my eyes were greeted to the petite, wiry Ginsburg in the midst of a pretty intense physical training session, a workout routine she performs regularly and one that she has made available to the public courtesy of her trainer, Bryant Johnson. The point being, this tiny, frail-looking woman is tougher than you think.

Ginsburg, or “The Notorious RBG” as she’s come to be known, is just the documentary subject we need right now. Whether that’s for political reasons, for women’s empowerment reasons, or simply because she’s an interesting person doing an interesting job, her life warrants our attention.

The quote, “I ask no favor of my sex. All I ask of our brethren is that they take their feet off our necks,” bookends the film. This quote, attributed to abolitionist, Sarah Grimké and made by Ginsburg in her first argument before the Supreme Court in 1973, perfectly reflects the attitude of RBG and its subject. This is a woman whose career was made removing the proverbial foot of the powerful off of the necks of the oppressed.

The documentary is quite linear, and nicely arranges the details of Ginsburg’s life beginning with her childhood and spanning her legal career to the present. Of course, much time is spent exploring Ginsburg’s cases and her ascension to the Court (and her love for opera), but the high points of the film for me are the scenes with her first love and husband, Martin. Their relationship is one for the history books, not that there’s anything about Ruth Bader Ginsburg that is not for the history books.

Political leanings aside, this is an inspirational film that champions ambition, hard work, and love. At the conclusion of RBG, my mom looked at me and said, “Boy, have I wasted a lot of time.” And I can’t think of a better sentiment for this film to leave us with – a desire to enjoy life, pursue happiness, and actively participate in our society. A

RBG is rated PG and has a running time of 1 hour and 38 minutes.

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Avengers: Infinity War

AIWDirectors: Anthony Russo and Joe Russo

Screenwriters: Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely

Cast: Not Ant Man, not Hawkeye…everybody else is in there somewhere, and Josh Brolin

Is it the biggest movie ever? As of “press time,” the box office for Avengers: Infinity War is about to cross the $1 B mark, making it potentially the fastest movie to $1 B ever. But the real question is, is it the best Marvel movie ever? The short answer is no, but it’s in the top 5!

Avengers: Infinity War is the mega-anticipated culmination of 10 years of Marvel Studio films. It was originally billed as simply a part 1 of a 2 part third installment to the Avengers franchise; however last summer, Marvel backed away from that idea, simply naming this film Avengers: Infinity War. A wise move, as Infinity War is a complete film, and while we know an untitled fourth Avengers film will be released next May, calling this a “part 1,” would do nothing but add a stigma to what it accomplishes independently in the genre.

“Infinity War” refers to a conflict that has been brewing since the first Avengers film opened back in 2012. Essentially, when the universe was created, 6 powerful gems were scattered throughout the universe, and if one were to possess all six, that he or she would essentially be an all knowing overlord to the entire universe. Each of the stones has been referenced one way or another in various Marvel films, and the being who seeks to obtain them all has also had his story woven throughout these films (mostly in post credit sequences). His name is Thanos (Josh Brolin), and when Avengers: Infinity War opens, he has acquired a magic gauntlet that has been forged precisely to be adorned by all six stones. So, why does he want them? Assuming that Thanos’s reputation does not precede him, he believes that there has to be balance between life and death and currently “life” is in excess, so in order bring balance into to universe he plans to essentially kill half of the universe. Now for such a huge task Thanos needs god like power, and the one who holds the infinity gauntlet with 6 gems embedded in it will have god like powers. Hence he needs all the 6 infinity stones.

This sounds like a job for the Avengers, and it would be except, if you remember last time we saw them, they were not getting along so great. The “Civil War” has effectively disbanded the Avengers, and while they are all doing their best to protect Earth from interplanetary attacks, no one was expecting one of this magnitude to happen anytime soon. Thanos is coming, and has band of cronies are searching the universe high and low for each infinity stone, two of which happen to be currently located on Earth.

That’s the conflict in a nutshell, but the film is epically bigger than this simple explanation leads you to believe. Like all of Marvel’s best films, Infinity War is a careful mix of action, adventure, humor, and style. Wisely, producer Kevin Feige tapped the director duo responsible for the best Marvel film ever, Captain America: The Winter Soldier to direct Avengers: Infinity War. Anthony and Joe Russo also directed the excellent Captain America: Civil War, so they were more than ready to tackle a true Avengers film. Now the news on this film was all over the place from, “there are too many characters,” to, “they’re all going to die,” to “this is all a ploy to get our money,” and the reality is that, none of this is true. Remember back in 2012 when Marvel’s Avengers came out, and everyone was saying, “how in the world will they balance a film with all six Avengers in it?” Look how that turned out. Now here we are six years later, 13 films further, and predictably with twice as many main characters, but no damage is done. In fact, I wager Avengers: Infinity War is the best of the three Avengers films, just barely edging out the original. The immenseness of the stakes in this film are only rivaled by the vastness of its scope. Everything you loved about The Avengers is here in this third film along with the vast epic nature of a Star Wars film. The Russos and screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely flawlessly balance the top-heavy cast by somehow giving us more than we expected of our favorite characters and still leaving us wanting more. Furthermore, with a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes, this film lines right up with the running times of each of the previous Avengers films. Additionally, in a film about hidden gems, Avengers: Infinity War is full of hidden little Easter Eggs for the film franchise lover, the comic book reader, and even the Arrested Development watcher that give the film a heavily re-watchable appeal.

Still the fact that I just wrote a movie review without mentioning any of the central characters specifically, save for Thanos, shows you that this is no kind of character study. And while a film with this much going on can not match up to the strength of the more genre-bending, cinematic, and inspired entries in the franchise, Infinity War does offer some emotional punch that few Marvel films have managed to provide, allowing it to just barely outshine its predecessors. Yet another feather in the MCU cap, and another crowd-pleasing and laudable summer blockbuster. A-

Avengers: Infinity War is rated PG-13 with a running time of 2 hours and 29 minutes. Stay until the end for one post-credits sequence that sets up at least 2 upcoming 2019 MCU films.

The Rundown – An Updated List of the People’s Critic’s Rankings of the MCU Films

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – A

Thor: Ragnarok – A

Iron Man 3 – A

Avengers: Infinity War – A-

Marvel’s The Avengers – A-

Captain America: Civil War – A-

Iron Man – A-

Black Panther – A-

Avengers: Age of Ultron – A-

Captain America: The First Avenger – B+

Thor – B+

Spider-Man: Homecoming – B+

Ant-Man – B+

Iron Man 2 – B

The Incredible Hulk – B

Thor: The Dark World – B

Guardians of the Galaxy – B-

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – C+

Doctor Strange – C+

Ready Player One

readyplayerone-tributeposter-highres-backtothefutureDirector: Steven Spielberg

Screenwriters: Zak Penn and Ernest Cline

Cast: Tye Sheridan, Olivia Cooke, Ben Mendelsohn, Simon Pegg, and Mark Rylance

Ready Player One is the highly anticipated adaptation of author Ernest Cline’s best selling novel. The film opens with a shot of Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan), a high school student living in Columbus, OH in the year 2044. We are introduced to Wade as he navigates his way down from his trailer at the stacks, a futuristic “projects” where trailers are “stacked” on top of each other to conserve space due to the widespread poverty being experienced. Energy and environmental crises have rendered the world mostly back to the stone age with petroleum-fuel a thing of the past and poverty running rampant. One advancement has managed to proliferate through the classes however, and that’s the Online virtual world known as the Oasis. The Oasis is a place where everyone can escape their reality by entering a virtual space where they can be anyone and do nearly anything. All you have to do is log on to the Oasis, invent your avatar, and you’re in!

The Oasis is mostly an entertainment device, but it does serve many practical purposes as well. With the infrastructure of the real world crumbling, the Oasis has become a place of commerce, communication, and even education (although exploration of this concept is curiously missing from the film adaptation). The Oasis is the biggest thing in the world and it has made its creator, James Halliday (Mark Rylance), a trillioniare. However, Halliday takes ill, and with no heir or even true friend to designate his estate, he releases a statement that he has hidden an Easter egg, or hidden object, deep within the Oasis. Whoever is first to find the egg will inherit everything.

Wade, under his avatar Parzival is one such egg hunter, known in the film as a “gunter,” a highly problematic term, if you ask me. Wade along with his friends whose avatars Art3mis (Olivia Cooke), Aech, Daito, and Shoto are all attempting to seek out the hidden prize. This sets up an episodic adventure where Parzival travels through the Oasis searching for clues to lead him to various keys that help him unlock gates that will hopefully lead him to the egg. The catch is that in order to really play the game Halliday has laid out, it helps to know Halliday the man, which is to say you’d better know your 1980s pop culture, music, movies, and video games.

The antagonist of the film comes in the form of Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), the head of Innovative Online Industries (IOI), who wants to inherit and monetize the Oasis. Sorrento hires players to search for the egg on his behalf in exchange for suiting up their avatars with the best suits, armors, weapons, credits, and access possible. These sell-out gamers come to be known as “sixers” due to the fact that all of their avatar names are actually just a series of numbers that start with sixes.

So, what’s the verdict? As it happens all too often for many a film reviewer, I am placed in the curious position of having to evaluate a film adapted from a novel that I just adored. So, while my final grade will reflect my core value’s stance of whether the film itself is worth your money as mainstream moviegoer, I must first speak to how the film measures up to the book’s greatness.

First of all, Spielberg is an appropriate choice for envisioning this book as a film. His career and impact on pop culture is precisely what Cline celebrates in his novel, and he does get a few things right here. One scene based on the concept from the book called a “flicksync” finds the characters of the film transported into a well-known film as part of their journey towards the egg. The massively meta and fabulous poster campaign had me hoping this would play a larger role however. This scene captures the spirit of the book brilliantly while also changing things up for book readers and still pleasing non book readers. Additionally, Spielberg and screenwriters Zak Penn and Ernest Cline himself are very successful in their treatment of envisioning IOI and especially Sorrento who is portrayed brilliantly by Ben Mendelsohn. In fact most of the casting is quite good. Rylance is a very fine choice to play Halliday, and I daresay the film treatment of Sorrento’s eventual henchman iR0k (TJ Miller) is superior to the novel’s treatment. This can also be said for Art3mis who receives a more heroic portrayal in the novel than she perhaps had in the book.

That being said, the film mostly falls flat as an adaptation. The film’s focus diminishes the journey element that was so important to the book’s majesty, and instead simplifies the video game-centric quest plotline in favor of a cliché “resistance” storyline in the real world. Furthermore, the overall structure and complexity of the Oasis itself is marginalized. The crux of the novel is our understanding of this new environment as it unfolds. Its economy, its vastness, its rules, and most disappointingly its education system are all abandoned leaving the Oasis to appear cinematically as simply a game. I almost wish Spielberg had decided to take this project to Netflix or HBO in order to give it a longer play. Simon Pegg, who plays the Oasis’s co-creator Ogden Morrow, is also wasted, as much of his purpose from the book is left out leaving him quite flat as a character.

These gripes are clearly subjective, and Spielberg knew as well as anyone that many of these things had to be cut for a feature length film. Therefore, he did do one of the most bad-ass things a director of this film could do as a consolation, and that’s layer in tons of cinematic Easter eggs. There are numerous references to the various omissions I’ve just laid out all over this movie. It’s as if Spielberg is saying, “I know you love this book, but I can only include so much, so here’s a WarGames poster in the background and some fun Back to the Future imagery. The film’s ending, however is actually quite appropriate and rather clever. Some twists are implemented that work well, and overall there’s a lot to be entertained by in the final act. [Minor Spoiler Alert] However, those looking for that brilliant final “flicksync” in the end will be sadly disappointed, which really upset me; I mean the guy’s name is Parzival, how do you not go there!? [End of Minor Spoiler Alert] So here’s my take. This is a really fun movie overall. There are some great Spielbergian moments that play the nostalgia card, hard. However, the film does have its problematic moments regardless of your familiarity with the source material. What could have been a classic, instead is just kind of a pile of visuals with a story savagely butchered and left on life support. B

Ready Player One is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 19 minutes.

Wonder Wheel

WheelDirector: Woody Allen

Screenwriter: Woody Allen

Cast: Kate Winslet, Justin Timberlake, Juno Temple, Jim Belushi

I’ve been enjoying attending annual Woody Allen theatrical releases since Celebrity was released in 1998; that’s 19 of his films in 20 years that I’ve seen in the theater. Today, that streak comes to an unfortunate end with Allen’s latest, Wonder Wheel. Wonder Wheel is the first Woody Allen film to ever be released in December (December 1st actually, which is Allen’s birthday), and while reviews were mostly poor, the holiday and Oscar films marginalized it within seconds, and it just never opened in any major way. Therefore, as a little birthday present to myself, I rented it on Amazon, and I will turn the frown upside down by making it the first post-theatrical release film I have ever reviewed.

The title Wonder Wheel refers to the Ferris wheel attraction at New York’s Coney Island, the main setting of the film. This is one of Allen’s most minimalist films in years or perhaps ever.  It feels and looks like a play, even more so than films Allen has directed based on his own stage plays! I am unsure if he shot Wonder Wheel at an increased rate, but it’s entirely possible. This decision to go full-Tennessee Williams, or maybe more appropriately full-Eugene O’Neill, is at first rather distracting, and I’ll admit, the film may be an homage to the stage, but perhaps a better story would be more worthy of this treatment.

Wonder Wheel is another mid-20th century period piece for Allen. It’s also another Coney Island backdrop, harkening back to Allen’s childhood, explored in several of his other films like Annie Hall, Manhattan, Radio Days, Purple Rose of Cairo, and Sweet and Lowdown among others, but this is the first completely set within the amusement destination, especially in its heyday. Kate Winslet plays Ginny, a waitress at a Coney Island clam shack who lives with her husband Humpty (Jim Belushi). Ginny ruined her first marriage by being unfaithful, and now she and her pyromaniac son live on the boardwalk with Humpty who also works at Coney Island as a carousel operator. Humpty was also previously married and had one daughter, Carolina (Juno Temple), who married a mobster displeasing Humpty and causing him to disown her and kick her out years ago. Suddenly, Carolina shows up on the boardwalk looking for Ginny to help her as she’s on the run from her mob husband and needs a place to hide. She also hopes Ginny can help her patch things up with Humpty. Complicating things one step further is our fourth-wall breaking narrator, Mickey, a Coney Island lifeguard played by Justin Timberlake. Mickey is our narrator, but he also involves himself in the lives of the characters finding himself attracted to Ginny. Ginny returns his favor and enjoys his attention, but she finds herself suspicious and jealous when on a chance meeting, Mickey also meets Carolina. The layers of drama unfold rather predictably, but that’s not to say there’s not an enjoyable arc to everything. Carolina’s immediate danger is nicely balanced with the complicated and adulterous love triangle involving Mickey, Carolina, and Ginny.

Wonder Wheel is definitely sub-standard Woody Allen. Kate Winslet is the main appeal, and her performance is actually quite strong. However, she is still the most developed character in a film full of caricatures. Allen’s three central characters are an adulterous divorcee, an alcoholic divorcee, and a mobster’s divorcee, and most of the time they are as one-dimensional as that. At the end, the story manages a brief bit of poignancy, albeit a duller sense than Allen is capable of creating. This is not the bomb it was made out to be, but like Coney Island itself, it could use a few more thrills. C

Wonder Wheel is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 41 minutes.

 

The Shape of Water

SHapeDirector: Guillermo del Toro

Screenwriters: Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, and Doug Jones

Guillermo del Toro is a visionary unlike most working in entertainment today. Del Toro has been the architect of uniquely fantastic films like Pan’s Labyrinth, the Hellboy films, and Pacific Rim as well as the outstanding and underrated television series, The Strain. He’s also a terrific artist whose published artwork notebook is brilliantly impressive and fascinating. His latest and most celebrated film to date, The Shape of Water, is no exception.

The Shape of Water is what del Toro does best, blending an imaginative plot against the backdrop of a real-world historical period. Set in the 1960s in the midst of the Civil Rights movement and an escalating Vietnam conflict, The Shape of Water follows Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins), a shy, sweet and vulnerable mute woman who lives above a Baltimore movie house and works as a janitor in a top-secret government research facility. Elisa lives a mostly simple and generally isolated existance, except for occasional visits with her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and regular “chats,” for lack of a better word, with her co-worker Zelda (Octavia Spencer).

All of this abruptly changes, however, when Elisa’s research lab receives a new specimen from South America, an amphibious man-like creature. The creature is ushered into the facility late one evening during Elisa and Zelda’s shift, accompanied by government agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) and research scientist, Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg). Strickland and Hoffstetler are united in a goal to know

Shape-Water-620-50
A Tale of Two Michaels – Doesn’t it seem like at least one of these guys is in every good movie or TV show?

more about the creature, but their methods and purposes beyond that couldn’t be more different. Hoffstetler desires to understand and study the creature while Strickland wants nothing more than to determine its usefulness to the United States government, and when Strickland is attacked by the creature, his methods become savage. When Elisa witnesses some of Strickland’s cruelty towards the creature, she becomes determined to save it and enlists the help of Zelda and Giles. Like Elisa, the creature can not communicate verbally, and she also senses the kindness in its soul. What emerges is a twisted Beauty and the Beast narrative that is both beautiful and at times rather horrifying.

Del Toro’s cast is perhaps the most magnificent part of the film. Richard Jenkins and Sally Hawkins give perfect performances. Both are always on top of their game, but never have their talents been showcased like they are here. Legend has it, del Toro pitched this film to Hawkins at an awards show years ago while drunk. He was quoted as saying, I was drunk and it’s not a movie that makes you sound less drunk.” This is exactly the sentiment one should undertake when viewing this film. Objectively, this is a film that can be written off as ridiculous, but when one looks beneath the surface (pun intended), there’s the makings of a masterpiece. The performances by the cast are outstanding, the direction is deliberate and poetic, and the score by Alexandre Desplat is perfection. Del Toro’s film is reminiscent of the style of French director Jean-Pierre Jeunet who directed the films Amélie and City of Lost Children, both of which have a distinct and almost fairy-tale like quality to them.

The Shape of Water is a finely crafted film from top to bottom. It is imaginative and it is spellbinding in a way few films are able to achieve. If I had seen it earlier, it would surely have been on my list of the top films of the year, but I am guessing the 13 Oscar nominations it received will suffice. The cinematic voice of Guillermo del Toro is one I hope only grows and persists. His films deserve to be “events” not unlike those of Christopher Nolan, which makes it fitting that del Toro and Nolan will be duking it out this year for Oscars in eight different categories including the two biggest: Best Picture and Best Director. A-

The Shape of Water is rated R with a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.

Molly’s Game

MollyDirector: Aaron Sorkin

Screenwriter: Aaron Sorkin

Cast: Jessica Chastain, Idris Elba, Kevin Costner, Michael Cera, Graham Greene, (and an Aaron Sorkin cameo, of course)

Those of you who like your Wing West, your Network Social, and your Men, Few and Good already know who Aaron Sorkin is. You might know him as the author of some of your favorite long, witty monologues delivered while walking down a hallway. What you don’t know him as is a film director, until now. Molly’s Game is the directorial debut of one of the most celebrated screenwriters in Hollywood, Aaron Sorkin, whose films and television shows have earned every major critical writing award imaginable. Now, he takes his turn in the director’s chair with Molly’s Game.

Molly’s Game is the true story of the Olympic hopeful turned “Poker Princess” Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain). When a freak accident dashes her hopes at Olympic glory, Bloom turns her focus to business, and while working as an assistant to a real estate schemer named Dean Keith (Jeremy Strong), Molly is inadvertently introduced to the world of poker. Dean hosts a weekly game with pretty high stakes and a core group of relatively famous attendees. When Dean forces Molly to take on the role of organizing the game, taking records and accepting the buy-ins and giving the pay-outs, she is hooked to the intricacies of the game and begins improving the experience for the players. Soon, Molly is the real draw to the weekly game, much to Dean’s chagrin, leading him to box her out and try to rein her in. Molly instead decides to make a move and start her own game – Molly’s Game.

Things are all Aces for Molly for a little while. She plays by the rules, never takes a rake, and keeps things for the most part, legal. Until she discovers that some of the players in her game, unbeknownst to her, may have ties to the Russian mob. This catches the attention of the FBI and forces Molly to hire a lawyer, Charlie Jaffey (Idris Elba) to help save her game, her name, and her life.

Sorkin’s film is anchored by a lights out performance by Chastain. If I were the real Molly Bloom, I’d be in love with this portrayal of my life. Sorkin also proves a credible director. Many a film has fallen victim to the struggle of envisioning how to depict Sorkin’s verbose and chatty repartee between characters (See Steve Jobs), but it turns out Sorkin knows Sorkin better than anyone! He also is smart enough to hire an actor turned Oscar-winning director, Kevin Costner to play Molly’s father, a resource that I assume Sorkin tapped for directorial advice from time to time. Perhaps the casting of Costner’s Dances With Wolves costar Graham Greene as Judge Foxman is also not so coincidental. This is a tight, authentic thrill ride through the lavish highs and deplorable lows that come with games of risk. The film may get a little heavy-handed in its use of The Crucible references to get its message across, but you can’t argue with the timeliness of these references and the relevance to the national conversation right now about reputation and its importance in Hollywood, in politics, and in society in general. Molly’s Game is by no means a flop, and with an ace in the hole like Chastain, you can push your chips in at the turn and let the river run. A-

Molly’s Game is rated R and has a running time of a “Sorkin-y” 2 hours and 20 minutes.

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.