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.

Wild

wildDirector: Jean-Marc Vallée

Writer: Nick Hornby

Cast: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Gabby Hoffman, Thomas Sadowski

As a high school English teacher, I have a soft spot for films that look to inspire the individual spirit in the name of Romanticism and transcendentalism. Still, one can have too much of a good thing. Films like Cast Away, Dead Poets Society, Into the Wild, The Motorcycle Diaries, and 127 Hours are just a few films that successfully explored the dangerous beauty that is our natural world. Dallas Buyers Club director Jean-Marc Vallée and writer Nick Hornby bring just enough passion, beauty, and emotion to their adaptation of Cheryl Strayed’s 2012 memoir Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail to keep this film from being too ordinary.

Reese Witherspoon plays the real life Cheryl Strayed, a waitress and self proclaimed sophisticate who when life throws her a curveball, decides to ruin her life further with promiscuous sex and hard drugs. Marriage ruined, family and friends alienated, Cheryl finally hits rock bottom and when a Pacific Crest Trail guidebook catches her eye, Cheryl decides to drop everything and take on the 1100 mile hike in the hopes of reclaiming her life and finding some harmony.

Comparisons to Christopher McCandless’s story in the film/novel Into the Wild are hard to avoid. Similarly, like McCandless, Witherspoon’s character is trying to escape the corruption of modern life with a voluntary long-term immersion into nature. Much of what Strayed is running from directly relates to a catastrophic series of events involving her mother Bobbi (Laura Dern). Bobbi was a woman of considerable spirit and clearly what Cheryl is truly looking for is where, deep within her, is that same spirit that her mother possessed?

Wild is a surprising film of perseverance and beauty, and Witherspoon plays a character as far from Legally Blonde’s Elle Woods as possible. Unlike many films of this genre, Wild spends more time examining the human instinct and its conflict with reason. This is what makes it most compelling and oddly most relatable. We don’t have to agree with Cheryl’s choices, and we don’t have to understand them, but we can certainly empathize with them. At each mile marker on the Pacific Crest Trail (referred to as the PCT), Strayed leaves short passages from self-proclaimed Romantic poets like Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as well as those labeled Romantics like Robert Frost and James Michener. The distinction is subtle, but far more relevant to Strayed as she searches for her identity amongst what her instinct suggests and how reason advises.

Wild is a real showcase for Witherspoon. Where Walk the Line demonstrated the actress’s range and singing talent, Wild shows she is a real force. Laura Dern is superb as well, playing a mother but also a metaphor for idealism. The one area of disappointment with Wild is in its final scene, which strives for epiphany and comes up short. There is great strength in Wild and great heart. Quite honestly, this film resonated with me more than last year’s Oscar darling, Dallas Buyers Club, but originality does count for something, and this film does not have much in that arena. Still, Wild is an inspiring film and a great step forward for Witherspoon.  A-

Wild is rated R and has a running time of 1 hour and 55 minutes.

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The People’s Critic with his #1 fan!

Incidentally, The People’s Critic would like to announce he has been published! Volume 1 of his reviews are hard bound and beautifully rendered in a 2-book set containing over 150 individual pages of film reviews, commentary, lists, and articles. He would like to thank his wife for her undying support and help in this venture as well as his biggest fan of all, seen here!

The Fault in Our Stars

faultThe Fault in Our Stars is the film based on the wildly successful young adult novel by John Green. In an interview, Green said in writing the book that he wanted to create a moving and realistic portrait of what it’s like to be young and in love and sick. Now if that doesn’t sound interesting, you’re probably not a 15-year-old girl. Nonetheless, Josh Boone directs a film that achieves Green’s goal by telling a humanizing story about very adult situations impacting some very young people.
The Fault in Our Stars is the story of seventeen-year-old Hazel (Shailene Woodley) and eighteen-year-old Augustus (Ansel Elgort). Hazel lives with stage IV Thyroid cancer with metastasis forming in her lungs causing her to be perpetually connected to an oxygen tank. Augustus is recovering from a bout with osteosarcoma that took one of his legs. Hazel nearly died from complications of her cancer when she was thirteen, but favorable results from an experimental drug called Philanxiphor have slowed the growth of her cancer. Hazel and Augustus form an immediate bond when they meet in a cancer support group, and the film basically documents their growing relationship as it buds into romance.
As with any romantic film, much of its success relies on the chemistry between the stars, and Woodley and Elgort have it. Woodley practically makes me forget about her dull and droning performance in Divergent and instead makes me recall a much better film of hers, The Spectacular Now. She plays Hazel with the intelligence, dignity, and realism that her character deserves. Elgort brings the extreme likability of Augustus off the page and to life. Augustus’s goal is to be remembered, to seize the day and do remarkable things. Green’s book and Boone’s film do a nice job of showing an audience who is likely on the young side that being a good person is the best way to make this happen.
There’s no getting around this, The Fault in Our Stars is sad. The reason that makes it worth the emotional struggle is that the story is so human. That is not to say that the film does not pander for tears. On occasion, it does, but the film’s love, life, and spirit of humanity far outweigh its struggles, darkness, and frailty of life.
While the film does have young protagonists and is told chiefly through their eyes, there is a sphere of adult perspective from both Hazel’s and Augustus’s parents. Hazel’s mother (Laura Dern) is developed well in the film, and in some of the film’s happiest moments, Dern is responsible for the audience’s biggest smiles.
The Fault in Our Stars is a strongly accurate adaptation of Green’s novel. It is also a beautiful little film about young love under bleak circumstances. There is no doubt you know what you are getting into before buying a ticket for this film, but in the words of the film’s strangest character Peter Van Houten (Willem Defoe), “That’s the thing about pain, it demands to be felt.” B+
The Fault in Our Stars is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 6 minutes. Bring a tissue if you’re a crier.