Movie Review: “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

(It’s been way too long since I last reviewed movies—happily, it’ll be business as usual going forward. Also, be warned that there are lots of spoilers in this review.)

“The Last Jedi” is not a crowd-pleaser in the vein of “The Force Awakens.” It’s something very different indeed: a Star Wars movie that moves the saga forward without relying on nostalgia or high-dollar action scenes. It’s not the Star Wars film I would’ve made if given the chance, but that’s because Rian Johnson is far bolder than me, and “The Last Jedi” is all the better for it.

Picking up only moments after its predecessor’s conclusion, “The Last Jedi” opens with a dramatic space battle as the Resistance flees its home base. Meanwhile, our heroine Rey (Daisy Ridley) confronts long-lost Jedi master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the monastic world of Ahch-To, determined to find the truth about her dark-side counterpart Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). The supporting characters—arrogant pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), renegade stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and shy mechanic Rose (Kelly Marie Tran)—all have plenty to do, but at bottom this isn’t their movie: we’re all here for Rey, Kylo, and the truth behind Luke’s mysterious words from the trailer: “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

That’s not to say the B-plot (the Resistance’s flight from its enemies) isn’t entertaining, because it certainly is: indeed, one of the film’s best scenes takes place on a casino planet that simultaneously adopts and subverts the saga’s longstanding cantina tropes. Benicio Del Toro turns up as a lowlife “codebreaker” and Laura Dern does solid work as a Mon Mothma-lite figure. There’s a sense, though, in which at least some of this feels like padding: every time the camera cut away from the Rey/Luke drama and jumped back to the Resistance fleet, I found myself itching to get back to Ahch-To. (I still have about a million questions, but maybe that’s for the best; good worldbuilding means never giving away all the answers.)

On other fronts, there’s a lot to like here. Johnson’s visual style—a medley of dramatic pans and dives and striking close-ups—is a pleasant change from J.J. Abrams’s more conventional approach. John Williams’s score is similarly great, although I do miss the bombastic choirs of “Duel of the Fates” and “Battle of the Heroes.” And the effects—including one great particularly great use of puppetry—are everything one could hope for.

That said, the ending of “The Last Jedi” is bound to be controversial. There’s a part of me that wanted the film to end in a giant, glorious, propulsive revenge-of-Luke-Skywalker moment: don’t we all secretly want to see our legendary hero wipe out a whole army with the power of the Force? Or at the very least, beat Kylo Ren to a pulp in a brutal lightsaber duel?

On balance, though, I think the understated elegance of the film’s finale is perhaps its greatest strength. When “The Last Jedi” begins, Luke has lost faith in the Force and in the Jedi ways. That much was obvious from the firs previews: in the leadup to this movie’s release, some commentators speculated that Luke would shepherd in an era of “Gray Jedi” committed to walking a path between the light and dark sides of the Force. But that’s not how this story goes. Instead, in choosing a path of self-sacrifice and nonviolence, Luke fully manifests the power of the light side in a way never before seen onscreen; crushing armies might look cool onscreen, but doing so would be fundamentally inconsistent with Luke’s character and the philosophy he stands for. Johnson understands this, and the ending of “The Last Jedi” accordingly reflects that.

If Rotten Tomatoes is any indication, this may be the most polarizing Star Wars movie of all time. That’s because it’s something truly different from what we’ve seen before—there’s not even really a straight-up lightsaber duel. The way I felt leaving “The Force Awakens” was very different from the way I felt leaving “The Last Jedi”: exuberant and energized in the first case, contemplative and reflective in the latter. But that doesn’t mean “The Last Jedi” isn’t a success. In fact, it may on balance be the most masterful installment of all, even if it doesn’t leave audiences with the warm nostalgia fuzzies they crave. This is a movie about losing and regaining faith, about the dangers of separating dogma from discipline and praxis, and about loss and failure and the risks of mentorship. It is not your typical blockbuster, and not the Star Wars experience audiences expect, and that’s what makes it great.

A profoundly satisfying film that doesn’t just retread old ground, but pushes the saga forward in stirring ways.

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Posted by on December 16, 2017 in Sci-Fi


Movie Review: “Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales”

Somehow, like its characters, this franchise just won’t die.

The “Pirates of the Caribbean” saga is the consummate example of “making it up on the fly.” The first film didn’t demand a sequel, nor did the third…or the fourth. But with billions of box office dollars on the line, I should’ve known a revival was inevitable.

Picking up roughly two decades after “At World’s End,” “Dead Men Tell No Tales” introduces Henry Turner (Brenton Thwaites), who’s out to save his father Will (Orlando Bloom) from the curse of the Flying Dutchman. Along the way, he joins forces with Carina (Kaya Scodelario), a pretty astronomer who spends most of the film being indignant about one thing or another. (Let’s just go ahead and call them Budget Will and Budget Elizabeth, because that’s what they are.)

Enter Jack Sparrow (Johnny Depp), fresh off a somewhat unsuccessful bank robbery (and I do mean that literally). This time around, Jack’s being chased by Armando Salazar (Javier Bardem), a seafaring ghost with a haunted ship and a fierce vendetta. Budget Will, Budget Elizabeth, and Jack subsequently team up in search of the Trident of Poseidon, a mystical artifact that possesses the power to control the sea (and break any curse).

“Dead Men Tell No Tales” is not a good movie—in fact, it’s probably the worst of the “Pirates” quintet. More than once, the movie morphs from a sequel into a “soft reboot” of sorts: pretty much everything significant here—a plucky young lad and lass, a crew of undead pirates, Jack’s shenanigans—is a retread of the original flick. It’s a shame “Dead Men Tell No Tales” plays things so safe, because a lot of interesting pieces are already in play. There’s tons of potential in any plot focusing on Will Turner’s son’s quest to break his father’s curse: not only does it bring the story full circle (recalling Will’s own attempt to save his father “Bootstraps Bill”), but it raises questions of free will, destiny, and penance. “Dead Men Tell No Tales,” however, goes off in unnecessarily duller directions. It’s unclear, for instance, why this movie needed to introduce Salazar at all. Yes, he’s a cool CGI creation…but as far as the core characters are concerned, he’s nothing more than a cheap plot device used to get things moving.

But I’d be remiss in my duties if I didn’t mention the movie’s highlights. In a creative inversion of roles, the spunky Carina basically plays the dashing hero to Henry’s “damsel-in-distress.” Jack’s quirks are far less irritating when he’s not trying to carry the whole movie. The soundtrack revives a whole batch of musical cues left out of “On Stranger Tides.” The effects are appealing (particularly Salazar’s ghost ship, which has the ability to rear out of the water and strike down like a snake). And despite the saga’s endless pretensions to unearned grandeur, the ending this time around is emotionally satisfying on a very deep level.

In sum, though, “Dead Men Tell No Tales” takes no risks, and accordingly reaps no rewards. It’s not unwatchable, and there are definitely worse ways to spend a couple hours. But when all’s said and done, you won’t miss much by waiting for the inevitable rerun on TNT.

A creaky fifth installment that never quite justifies its own existence.

Normalized Score: 0.5

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Posted by on May 27, 2017 in Fantasy

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