Monday, December 31, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

So yeah, this movie. I’ve held off on reviewing it for about a year, because so many people have said so many things… and a lot of it has been toxic and nasty. There seems to be very little middle ground with The Last Jedi and I was hoping that a year down the road it might be safe to have a normal conversation about the film. But man, does this movie seem to trigger the haters. I’m having flashbacks to the post Phantom Menace world. Still, I can’t put it off forever. So here are my thoughts on this, the most divisive of Star Wars films yet.

Summary:

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) finds the Resistance on the ropes. The First Order lead by the fearsome Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has discovered their secret base, destroyed it and now is relentlessly pursuing them. With limited fuel, ships and personnel, the General finds herself between the Rancor and the Sarlacc Pit (see what I did there). Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Ocar Isaac) and newcomer Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) hatch a dangerous plan that may allow the fleet to escape from the First Order.

Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) journeys with Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) to a distant world to find the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Turns out that Luke is a bitter and angry old man who blames himself for the rise of Kylo Ren’s dark powers. Rey does her best to convince him that his twin sister and the Resistance need his help. She also reveals her budding powers with The Force. Luke remains convinced that he will only do harm by restoring the Jedi Order. Meanwhile, Rey finds herself in a strange Force fueled communication with Kylo Ren, and she feels she may have a chance to pulling him from the evil Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) sway. Before it is all over, the fate of the galaxy will rest in the hands of The Last Jedi. Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro round out the cast.

Good Points:
  • Impressive, dynamic visuals make this the best looking Star Wars film to date
  • Shatters audience expectations
  • Creates some truly iconic sequences 

Bad Points:
  • Tries a little too hard to shatter expectations
  • One of the storylines feels like nothing more than wheel spinning
  • At times feels like it is attacking the previous films and mythology

Overall:

To be honest, The Last Jedi was what I wanted this episode to be. It veered away from being a copy of The Empire Strikes Back, and at nearly every turn surprised me with the narrative direction. It doesn’t always works, with Finn and Rose feeling like they suffer a frustrating narrative arc. There are some amazing visuals in the film. Kylo Ren and Rey get some excellent sequences together. When all is said and done, the film moves the series in an interesting new direction, and I’m looking forward to see what happens next.

Scores(out of 5)
Visuals: 5
Sound: 5
Acting: 4
Script: 4
Music: 4
Direction: 4
Entertainment: 4
Total: 4

In Depth Review

At the end of my review of The Force Awakens I wrote the following:

But I will also say that I won’t accept that kind of safe story telling for episode eight. The stage is set for some really interesting plot and character development. I want to see new worlds, new paths and new revelations. I don’t want to see Empire Strikes Back in a new coat of paint. If episode eight forges its new path, than I think those that don’t care for The Force Awakens too much will be willing to accepts its role in the series. But if episode eight continues down this path of manufactured familiarity, we’ll see some disgruntled fans that may be wishing that Lucas were back in the drivers seat.

Rey is ready to take her next step into the larger world.
Looking at the reaction The Last Jedi got, it is kind of funny about how wrong I actually was. I think there were a lot of fans who spent way too much time predicting how the movie was going to play out, and how most of that was going to be a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. They were let down by The Last Jedi because it didn’t follow the same beats as the 1980 film. And then because of certain narrative choices, these fans felt the film was actively attacking them… and it kind of was.

So let’s get this out of the way. The director has said that he wrote the story to deny many of the fan theories out there. It resulted in people feeling like they a) wasted their time and b) are stupid. He was basically trolling a portion of his audience. Never a good idea. The result has been a lot of very toxic and angry commentary directed at a movie that doesn’t really deserve it.

Luke trolls Rey, just as Johnson trolls his audience.
Is The Last Jedi a great film? No. It’s a good Star Wars film that does a lot of things right and takes things in a fascinating new direction. That is fine. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it is what we should expect. There have been only one truly great Star Wars film, and quite a few good ones (and yeah a couple stinkers). So these folks who are acting like The Last Jedi broke Star Wars are just blowing it all out of proportion.

Ok, that’s about the last I want to write about the “great debate” surrounding this film. Let’s take a look at the film itself.

Visually, The Last Jedi is probably the most impressive looking Star Wars film we’ve seen up to this point. Director Rian Johnson combined the visual style that J.J. Abrams created in The Force Awakens and adds a bit more of a stylistic touch to the film. Not too surprising from the director of Brick.

Dammit Ackbar, stop playing Yar's Revenge! We are in crisis mode here!
There are some really impressive sequences brought to life in the film, including the initial bomber assault on the First Order fleet, the visually dynamic vision sequences Rey experiences, the demolition of the casino, the final confrontation with Snoke and the ensuing battle, the last ditch defense by the Resistance, and of course Luke and Kylo Ren’s face to face battle.

Johnson uses the color red through out the film, giving the color a vivid garish quality that adds some weight and threat to the film. In fact, burning, fire and red seem to be seeping into all aspects of the film. During flashbacks we see Luke among the burning training grounds where he lost Kylo Ren to the dark side. When Rey and Kylo face down Snoke’s guards the throne room is wreathed in flames and the guards red outfits and Kylo Ren’s saber move all around Rey, dressed in neutrals and wielding her blue saber. The battle on Crait features a world of red ore and minerals covered in a layer of white salt. All this plays into a key element of the finale of The Last Jedi

Johnson’s use of flames and red reminds me strongly of a similar use in Akira. We have a film where anger and rage are uncontrolled, and being unleashed. We see this in the performances by members of the First Order and even Poe. The universe is literally burning around the characters, seeming to be consumed by the hatred fueled by the dark side of the force (represented by Snoke and then Kylo Ren). This rage is power and all consuming and our heroes seem to be helpless in the face of it.

Lightsaber tag is really really dangerous. Play freeze tag instead.
To contrast this we have neutrals colors and blue around the Resistance that will become the Rebellion. I’ve already mentioned Rey, but even General Leia is primarily seen in toned down colors, as are all the ships the heroes use. This stays pretty close to what was established in the original trilogy but the direct visual contrast to red fire gives it greater prominence in The Last Jedi.

In many ways, this film is a little less utilitarian in its presentation and a bit more mythical. Images feel more iconic and powerful because of the framing and use of color. It really seems to embrace the fantasy aspect of Star Wars more than the previous few films (such as Rogue One, that went for a much more realistic feel). That works fine in these main storyline films, and I’m happy to see a director really dive into the mythical feel of these movies. Sure there are plenty of space ship battles and melee combat, but the key moments are ones between characters and how they relate to each other. This is not only done with dialogue, but also visually: isolating certain characters in frame, or using angles to create intimidating moments or eerie sequences. Johnson really gives The Last Jedi a unique but completely workable visual aesthetic that is refreshing to see in these films.

Kylo watching over Rey. Was he manipulator or manipulated?
As we expect the visual effects are top notch. All the big sequences look impressive. We get to see some new ships doing things we’ve never had a chance to see before. The bomber sequence is very intense, and something that fans of the series knew existed in the older trilogies (both the Empire and Rebellion had specialized bombing ships, but we only saw the TIE Bombers in action for about 20 seconds in The Empire Strikes Back). Johnson puts us in the bomber crews place in The Last Jedi and it is a great sequence. There are lots of new aliens, droids and ships in this film, which is always fun to have. We also get the expected planet hopping with three different locales: the islands on Ahch-To, the casino world on Canto Blight, and the red and white planet of Crait.

It is obvious that I loved the visuals in The Last Jedi; they are the strongest part of the film. The sound work rises to meet that bar. We get a great combo of the classic sound effects with some new sound work. All of it is nice and immersive. Sound is balanced to provide some nice powerful sequences while allowing us to hear the dialogue clearly.

I swear James Bond is about to enter stage right.
Following along is the music composed by John Williams. It is a pleasure to hear Williams continue scoring these main storyline films, and his work on The Last Jedi seemed to take him in a new and yet familiar direction. Williams created a sequel score that essentially takes many of the themes from The Force Awakens as well as the familiar Force theme from the original trilogy and builds with those blocks. Williams will usually present multiple new themes in these films and blend them with the older ones. But for The Last Jedi, Williams only gives us one new theme for Rose, and couple minor motifs. The rest of the time he manipulates his older themes in interesting and unexpected ways.

Those looking for a fresh Star Wars experience from a musical point of view may be disappointed. But Williams keeps things interesting by allowing all the older themes to play off each other and shift in interesting ways. I love Rey’s theme from The Force Awakens and we get quite a few new variants of it in The Last Jedi as her character continues her journey. Kylo Ren’s theme gains more power and menace as the film moves forward.

Admiral Holdo doubts the veracity of your claim.
But it is the return of old themes that really clicks. We get a taste of Yoda’s theme, as Luke struggles with his role as a mentor. We get a wonderfully touching version of Luke and Leia’s theme as the siblings meet again after so many years apart. In fact all the variants of Leia’s music in the older trilogy (Leia’s Theme, Han and Leia’s Theme, Luke and Leia’s Theme) all make an appearance during the film. Hints of The Emperor’s theme during Snoke’s interview with Kylo Ren (as well as the Imperial March) are played. For fans of Williams work in the previous film, this score almost becomes a game of spot the theme.

It works well in The Last Jedi supporting the action and emotions. But part of me wishes there was a bit more new musical color in the film. It is part of what gives each Star Wars film a unique personality, and yet tied to the whole. This film score feels like an extension of The Force Awakens, which the film really is. It is a minor issue, but one that did stick out to me a bit. Williams’ work is always top notch and as always works wonderfully in the film. So I can’t fault any of that.

I said... get off my lawn.
The cast was pretty much set in The Force Awakens. I really enjoyed their performances in that movie and thought they continued their fine work here. Our protagonists are all very likable (even when they are doing foolish and ridiculous things). Of the main cast I think Ridley and Driver have the best scenes in the script and get to play them very well. Ridley does an excellent job with Hamill and Driver, and really holds her own in some intense scenes. Boyega has good chemistry with newcomer Tran, and they have some really fun scenes together.

Are space slugs supposed to do that? Gross!
On the dark side of things Driver dominates the scenes as Kylo Ren. The character has so much going on, that he is really the most interesting and imposing of these villains. Gleeson chews up all the scenery as Hux, and he looks like he is having a good time. Serkis gets a bit more screen time as Snoke, and his arrogance almost physically manifests. 

The Last Jedi was Carrie Fisher’s last performance, and she does a fine job as General Leia Organa. She feels like the heart and soul of the resistance and her interaction with Isaac and Dern are handled well. As I already mentioned the scene between her and Hamill is one of the best in the series. It isn’t very long, but both actors really give you the feeling that they are siblings who care deeply for each other and yet have grown distant. 

"I must know... do you still keep in touch with Wicket?"
The only weak point, from an acting point of view, is Laura Dern. I’m still not sure what it is about her performance as Admiral Holdo but it just doesn’t’ click for me. This is so strange; normally Dern is excellent in just about anything she is in. But here, I never really felt that she was that character. The movies doesn’t give us a lot of screen time with her. It just doesn’t ever seem to gel, until we see her interacting with Fisher late in the film. But it is so brief, it just kind of goes by.

So now we come to the main issue with The Last Jedi, the script. We have a story that feels like it is focused on two things, building tension and shattering expectations. I think the script handles the tension elements pretty well, and goes above and beyond when it comes to shattering expectations.

Finn is the RAD RACER!
I think we are missing a clear idea of where the characters were going to end up. As the middle section of a trilogy, you need to really put the main characters through the ringer, so they can rise to the challenge in the final episode. Star Wars films are mythology after all. There is a clear set up for how these things build and release. In the original trilogy, we had the classic hero’s journey. In the prequels we had the classic tragedy. Based on how The Force Awakens was executed we are heading into classic heroes journey again. 

All that said, the concept of where this episode needs to end must be clear. To me, it feels like this was lost somewhere in the writing process. Then remembered at the last moment and shoehorned back in. Both Rey and Kylo Ren have clear arcs that feel like they build to where they need to go. But the Resistance and the characters locked in that conflict feel like they didn’t accomplish all that much. But you could argue that the main point of that storyline is destroy the resistance and create the rebellion.

The tempest of mystery calls to us and Rey
But here is the problem; we never have a clear idea of what “the resistance” is. We get an idea of what “The Rebellion” means to people, and that comes across pretty well. But The Force Awakens never made the political situation very clear. I think this was done because everyone complains about the “boring senate scenes” in the prequels. But part of the issue there is that we have no investment in the politics in the prequels really. 

For old fans of the original trilogy, we are invested in the heroes and the fate of the rebellion and empire. The Force Awakens never clarifies any of it, and The Last Jedi continues on its merry way. We never get the idea that the Resistance is this small rag tag organization – and if it is, what the hell is the big deal of creating The Rebellion. Is it more than a matter of semantics? If that is the main goal of the second storyline in The Last Jedi and all the events tied to it feel hollow.

To quote a famous scoundrel, "This deal is getting worse all the time."
That brings me to the whole construction of that storyline, the extended chase scene. The logistics that seems odd on the first watch, and then fall apart during your refrigerator moment. We are essentially going through a storyline that is an exercise in futility. And you can make that kind of story work, and in many ways, it does work in The Empire Strikes Back. But in The Last Jedi it feels less like a series of cliffhangers where the enemies keep getting the upper hand, and more like a series of mistakes and bumbling that could have been avoided. 

I would trust Poe to blow up a Death Star, or two.
Why does it feel that way? Because Rian Johnson’s script goes out of its way to avoid any predictable plot elements. More than that Johnson’s script actively attacks audience expectations, but not replacing them with anything that furthers the second storyline or builds the desperation in a meaningful way. The whole Poe vs Holdo storyline feels poorly executed, because we are invested in Poe, and his viewpoint seems very clear to us. Holdo comes across (through writing and performance) as very unreliable. If Poe had been a bit more impressed with her war record, and had Holdo actually attempted to engage in productive conversation with one of her best soldiers, it might have worked for more viewers.

Then you have the Rose and Finn storyline. I really like Rose as a character and Tran does some great things with her. She has some really good moments with Boyega, but man, does their whole side quest feel forced and uninteresting. It doesn’t stop the story dead like I’ve seen some folks endlessly complain about. It does end up feeling futile from a narrative point of view, or at least have a very tiny pay off (tied to the rebellion vs. resistance issue). And yeah, you could argue that the whole point of that side story is express how some things in life are pointless and futile… but is Star Wars really the place you want to express that theme? And to do it in a side story gives it even less importance. Star Wars is mythic storytelling; heroes in myths rarely do anything that ends up being pointless. 

Well at least Phasma has a point in this movie... oh wait... 
The other issue I have with separating all the characters up was that part of what made The Force Awakens so much fun was the great character interplay, especially Rey and Finn. To have them separated for nearly 98% of the movie was a bit of a letdown for me. I like Rose, and think she makes for a good addition to the cast, but there had to be a better way to use this character.

Finally lets take a look at the theme of the film, because boy is it confusing. The imagery of the movie feels very clear – let go of the past, look toward the future. The script seems to support this in the way it destroys so many of the expectations viewers had about how they felt The Last Jedi was going to play out. It didn’t, and I think that is great. It fits the theme of letting go of the past. But here is the problem with the way the theme is executed here

I AM suppressing my rage!
What is the beacon shimmering in the future? The rebellion. The state of affairs that was established at the end of Revenge of the Sith. So, the future state of hope is based in the past? Wait, what? 

It works a little better with The Force and the Jedi order. We saw how ineffectual the Jedi Council was in the prequels. We saw how old thinking nearly destroyed Luke in the original trilogy. It makes perfect sense to move the Jedi into something new and fresh. And THISis what the new trilogy should have been about. Seeing how powerful and interesting all this material in The Last Jedi is, makes me realize that this is the storyline that should have been explored in greater depth. Drop the First Order and Resistance material that feels all surface and no depth. The Force Awakens feels like a title that never got the movie it deserved. 

Drawing a line in the salt.
I agree with Luke, the Jedi order had its time, before the prequels. Now is the time for something new. Rey could and should be the first of that new direction. We seem to be moving in that direction, and because Johnson already took the great Luke-centric moments from the original trilogy and twisted them around in The Last Jedi. He put J.J. Abrams on the spot. He can’t rely on recreating Return of the Jedi’s scenes without looking like he is aping to previous films. Hopefully this forces his hand to go in a new direction for Episode IX.

All in all Johnson’s direction is very good. Even when The Last Jedi feels like it is spinning its narrative wheels, he keeps everything moving and visually interesting. He created a very good Star Wars film, one that does some great stuff. I think he should have given the script a few more passes, tried a bit less hard to troll old time fans and fan sites obsessed with predicting the way the series was going to play out (and I admit, I found all that super annoying too, so I understand his frustration). He should have focused his script on telling a compelling story. Instead we have a good movie with one great storyline and one that feels like if flounders around in a visually exciting way. We almost got another Great Star Wars film.

Their last battlefield?
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Friday, December 21, 2018

Let's Have a Patrick Swayze Christmas!

I saw this posted by the folks at Satellite News a few years back, and I just make sure it makes the rounds again this year. Remember the little ditty that Joel and the Bots sing during the Santa Claus Conquers the Martians episode? Well someone decided to take that, arrange it for a choir and then record it. Check out the serious faces as they sing these wonderful festive lyrics. And keep an eye peeled for a nod to Pod People as well.


Just figured I'd spread some MST3K inspired holiday cheer! Hope you all have a great end of the year.

Friday, December 14, 2018

And Then This Happened... Santa Claus Conquers the Martians

Hooray! I thought I had posted an image from this fine film to our little caption game a couple years ago. I was wrong. So really, how could I resist putting one up this year. Tis the season and all that.

You know, one thing I've noticed over the years, is that Santa Claus in most family films and shorts is not really jolly, or even holly jolly. He's insane. For some reason the line gets crossed. Not sure if it is the acting, the direction or the story surrounding the character, but when Santa laughs the whole world wants to back away. I think most of this comes from the fact that MST3K and Rifftrax always find the most disturbing holiday films they can find for riffing, but that is my impression and I'm sticking to it.

Case in point. Good old Saint Nick in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians seems a bit unstable at times. I mean the man is interested in interplanetary conquest, so maybe he's more Ming the Merciless than Santa Claus. All I'm saying is that the FBI may want to open a dossier on this guy.

And then this happened...


Monday, December 10, 2018

Score Sample: Scrooged (1988)

Time to listen to some more holiday movie music. But what to pick, what to pick? Could go with some classic stuff, or even with some John Williams. But I decided to go a little stranger. And even though I highlighted his work in October, I'm once again throwing Danny Elfman some love on this blog.

Elfman's film scoring career really took off in 1989 with Batman. But before that we got a bit of a warmup with his score to the Bill Murray Christmas comedy Scrooged. Elfman's distinctive style is present from the opening cue, and fans of his work from Edward Scissorhands will certainly recognize this era of Elfman's writing. Elfman has fun adapting some familiar Christmas carols to his unique orchestral voice, but it is the children chanting "la la la" in an eerie voice that just gives the score its darkly festive touch.

The fun start with the Main Titles/Terrorist Attack as Elfman gives us his main theme combining dark overtones and festive la las. Then it transitions to sparkling joy as we enter Santa's workshop. Things take a turn for the action packed as Elfman unleashes a strident propulsive action theme as terrorists attack Santa's workshop. The only man who can save them... Lee Majors. I'm not kidding.

So enjoy the opening track from Scrooged composed by Danny Elfman.