The Last Jedi Review

I was 7 years old the first time I saw the original Star Wars trilogy.  I was with my dad and siblings at my uncle’s cottage.  We watched all three films in one sitting – and I’m pretty sure my mom was pissed when we didn’t show up at home until well after midnight.  It is one of my favorite memories.  It’s been quite some time since that night, and the memory is getting considerably hazy under a rose-tinted fog.  The feelings I had that night, though, they’re as clear to me as they ever were, and I feel the same childlike sense of wonder every time I go back and rewatch those films.

The past is important in defining who we are.  The memories we have, the mistakes we’ve made, our trials and successes, etc.  Equally important is what lies ahead.  While you can’t remain fixated on the past, it’s important to reflect on it.  Similarly, in a fictional universe, it’s important to reflect on the established canon to ensure your characters remain true to who they are so the decisions they make can be reasonably believable in the given context.

“Let the past die,” is a line uttered in a bit of pivotal dialogue, and it’s a sentiment that is stated several times in other expositional exchanges throughout the film.  It’s Rian Johnson’s ham-fisted attempt at less than subtle direction toward the audience.  The film literally urges you, through dialogue, to let go of the past – to let go of your heroes, to let go of the 40 years of established lore and development, and to embrace this new saga.  Unfortunately, it makes little effort in letting go of the past itself while doing an outstanding job of bastardizing it.

I wouldn’t be able to fault Disney for trying something new if they actually tried something new.  It’s been 40 years since A New Hope, and this time is reflected in the new films, but there’s an overwhelming familiarity with everything from the First Order and all of their weaponry to the merry band of misfits trying to take them down.  Despite the fact that the Rebel Alliance defeated the Empire and established a New Republic, the galaxy as a whole still shares the aesthetics of the original trilogy.  The First Order is, essentially, what I suspect the Empire would look like after 40 years.  That all holds true in The Last Jedi.

The opening title scrawl informs audiences that the New Republic has fallen – I am assuming that this is because the Republic Senate was destroyed by Starkiller Base in The Force Awakens.  This is fairly hard to believe right at the onset – especially given that “The Resistance” was able to deal a devastating blow to the First Order in return by destroying Starkiller Base.  However, it’s the setting we are asked to accept, so accept it you will.  So, the New Republic has fallen and all that’s left is the dwindling forces of The Resistance – and they’re on the run from the First Order to establish a new Resistance base.  This is where the film opens.

The opening scene hits all of the right notes with a highly entertaining space battle that echoes the WWII dogfight films that inspired George Lucas for his original films.  Amidst the excitement, there’s the desperate attempt to make a break for it and get out of the First Order’s sights.  It attempts to evoke the sense of loss during the scene with multiple on-screen deaths of nameless or off-screen characters, and is fairly effective with the exception of a cheap all-hope-is-lost fake out.  It’s a strong opening for what should be a strong film.

Unfortunately, the film that follows is a bloated and plodding mess lacking much in the way of plot and character growth.  Exposition is less interested in decent plot progression and character growth than it is in throwaway jokes and divvying out side quests like a poorly written video game.  Finn’s bumbling charm is overdone and strays from what made him enjoyable in The Force Awakens.  Poe’s opening gag is entertaining and mirrors his introduction in The Force Awakens, but it drags on far too long.  Additionally, his actions and decisions this go-round seem antithetical to the character that was established in the previous film.  In place of a man who put himself at risk for the good of The Resistance is an impulsive “flyboy” who is okay with executing an ill-conceived plan that will result in heavy casualties.

The damning change in character, however, is in Master Jedi Luke Skywalker himself.  Gone is the hero of the Rebellion, redeemer of Darth Vader, and last of the Jedi Order.  In his stead is a disappointing, poorly executed analogue for Alec Guinness’ Obi-Wan Kenobi.  The resultant character and related subplot makes me wonder if Rian Johnson has, at all, any understanding of what Obi-Wan’s motivations were in his self-exile in addition to question his grasp of who Luke Skywalker is as a character.  There are shining moments – Luke toying with Rey when she reaches out to feel the Force oozes with the personality of Yoda on Dagobah and is one of the best light moments of the film, and his role in the film’s climax made me feel like a child watching Star Wars again – but the events that transpired between Return of the Jedi and The Last Jedi (which are touched upon in flashbacks during the film) are far from sufficient for this drastic departure from the established character of who Luke is at his core.

Flaws in characterization aside, the story of the film, as a whole, seems like it would be served better as the first act of a three-act film than as the entirety of a two-and-a-half-hour film.  Aside from the Luke and Rey subplot, and a 40-minute detour filled with questionable visual gags and CG characters that would be condemned had they showed up in the Special Editions or Prequels, the entirety of the film follows the adventures of a small band of Resistance fighters looking for a new home base.  Where previous Star Wars films were epic and expansive adventures through a previously unseen galaxy, the latest entry is, at its core, a chase scene in the vast vacuum of space.

The film isn’t without it’s merits, however.  It is hard, for the most part, to fault the film’s visuals.  The use of red and high contrast in certain scenes is absolutely gorgeous.  The reds and whites of the climax are visual candy, but this scene is hindered by the fact that it is a poor reconstruction of the battle of Hoth.  The throne room is arresting in its oppressiveness, but it is also the setting for one of the most disappointing scenes of the entire film – not because of what happened, but because of how unbelievably anticlimactic it did happen.

Some of the film’s stronger points are not necessarily well-executed.  The film plays with the themes of profiteering from war and conflict – an idea that should spawn several post-film discussions.  However, the heavy-handed exposition leaves little subtlety and feels jarringly out of place.  Unfortunately, that can be said about the majority of the dialogue in the film.  There’s a disconnect between the events occurring on-screen and the behavior of the characters experiencing those events.

If this weren’t a Star Wars film, I have no doubt that I would have been able to enjoy it for what it was.  But it is a Star Wars movie, and its many sins are unforgivable.  It succeeds in evoking a lot of the emotions I have while watching the original trilogy because it does such a fantastic job of emulating those films.  But, that doesn’t make it a good movie – and certainly not a good Star Wars film.

Star Wars, to many people, is more than just a series of films – it is something that transcended the idea of what a movie could be.  It defined modern cinema and reshaped science fiction.  It gave us some of our greatest cinematic heroes – heroes that weren’t infallible, and sometimes weren’t even likeable, but they would go on to have a lasting impact on the audience long after the credits rolled.  It gave us some of the greatest large-scale battles in cinema – it gave us Hoth.  But, above all of these things, it gave us the Jedi.  The original trilogy gave us Jedi as mystical space wizards that are all but extinct.  The prequel trilogy gave us the Jedi in their prime – it deconstructed the mysticism and presented them in a way that could be seen as an analogy on corporatist religion in positions of government influence.

The Last Jedi takes 40 years of established lore and character development and discards it in favor of doing “something new” while refusing to actually do something new.  It relies on familiar aesthetics and emulates iconic scenarios in a successful attempt to evoke nostalgic feelings of joy.  What it doesn’t do is maintain consistency with its previous entry, regard canon, or respect its characters.

As a film, The Last Jedi is enjoyable, but ultimately forgettable.  It fails to establish its own identity while urging you to forget the past – meanwhile, it beats you over the head with the past with blatant mimicry.  As a Star Wars film, it’s insulting, and I can’t imagine the return of the Jedi in the next film being anything more than another play on nostalgia lacking any kind of originality or respect for the established lore.

 

1 / 3 – Bad

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Logan Review

The X-Men film franchise is one of the most lopsided film series out there.  The first two films helped to define modern superhero cinema.  Origins was mediocre at best, terrible at worst.  First Class helped to restore my faith in the franchise, while Apocalypse was a massive letdown.  I’ve come to learn that it may be best to go into an X-Men film with no expectations to help lessen any potential disappointment.  I forewent that that rule with Logan.  I’ve been 100% hype for that film since the very moment rumors of an Old Man Logan film started making their way to the internet.  I was not disappointed.

The timeline in the X-Men films is so convoluted and filled with inconsistencies that it almost doesn’t matter when or how this film takes place.  It’s 2029, mutants are a thing of the past, Logan is a bitter old man and a heavy drinker, and Charles is kept locked up in a collapsed water tower.  It’s a tragically bleak setting with a compelling backstory that doesn’t get fleshed out in heavy-handed dialogue.  Instead, audiences are left to connect the dots as characters engage in conversations that have a real-world, organic feel.  There are no moments where the film breaks character to tell you something.  Every bit of dialogue that is spoken is said to someone who has lived in this world – someone who is familiar with what has happened over the last decade.  Viewers are visitors in this world, and it’s a harsh world that won’t welcome in anyone with open arms.  But those who take the time to familiarize themselves with their surroundings and its history will be well rewarded.

It’s been 17 years since the X-Men film franchise debuted and, since the initial film, each movie has been a (mostly) family-friendly PG-13 (Deadpool excepted).  With Logan, fans are treated with the brutally hard-R rated film they’ve been waiting for.  Seventeen years is appropriate timing for an R-rated goodbye to the two best roles in the franchise, even if it is hard to say “goodbye.”  Logan takes full advantage of its elevated rating, featuring some of the most graphic scenes in a comic book film not based on the works of Frank Miller.  But the brutality, the graphic violence, the language – none of it ever feels forced.  As organic as the dialogue is in the film, the violence on display feels equally appropriate.

As rewarding as it is to see The Wolverine in his full glory ripping through body parts with his adamantium claws, there’s a contrasting balance as the weight of his exploits weighs heavily on him.  He has long ago reached a point where this violence is something so ingrained in him that there’s nothing but a buried conscience and aching bones keeping the claws in.  The graphic action sequences and the aftermath that follows is a poetically beautiful visual of this ongoing, internal struggle that just happens to be fun to watch.

There’s a beauty in the subtler aspects of the film.  When it’s not gracing you with sharp dialogue and viscerally brutal fight scenes, Logan navigates deftly through the film’s narrative by omitting direct exposition.  The film tells you more by saying less.  Important plot points and backstories are often not told directly to the audience – they’re hinted at with offhand remarks or background noise that feels natural.  It never dumbs things down to let you know what happened, it expects you to embrace this world enough to just know.

While several of the previous X-Men films have been enjoyable in their own right, it’s sad see that the franchise waited until the two greatest players said their goodbyes to offer a truly great film.  It is a well-crafted experience that will challenge the idea of what makes a comic movie great – taking viewers on a journey through their emotional range before leaving them seated in silence as the cinema fades to black.  There may never be an X-Men movie that achieves the same level of greatness as Logan.  And that’s okay.

Good – 3 / 3

One Hell of a Night: Evil Dead Review

Recycling old ideas has been a common thing in Hollywood recently with more and more big budget remakes/reboots of classics or sequels in established franchises sprouting up all over the place.  Sometimes it works, reintroducing a classic idea to a new audience with more modern themes and effects; sometimes it doesn’t with losing sight of what exactly it was that made the classic great.  Horror movies aren’t immune to this revisiting of existing properties and the latest horror reboot is this year’s Evil Dead.  A reenvisioning of Sam Raimi’s horror classic, this new Evil Dead eschews the camp and comedy of the original two films in favor of a pure, gritty, gory horror romp through evil infested woods.

The film starts out strong with a prologue that has a father trying to purge his daughter of the evil that possesses her.  From there, viewers are brought to a familiar cabin in the woods where a group of friends is gathered to help Mia (Jane Levy) through her detox.  The setup provides the promise of some emotional character depth, but it’s quickly lost after it becomes quickly apparent that the story only cares about Mia and her distanced brother David (Shiloh Fernandez).  It’s somewhat disappointing that all this promise is lost amidst horror movie clichés, but you soon forget about it when you realize just how well they did the tension and jump scares—it’s also impossible to deny just how fun all the over-the-top gore is.  In the end, though, the bit about the estranged brother and his recovering sister works out because those characters are the ones that stand out the most, so when something bad happens, you feel it—everyone else is fodder, so you’re really just waiting for them to die.

The script isn’t particularly strong, but it gets the job done.  The writers surely had a ball constructing this new vision, but it is somewhat weighted down by clichés.  Characters do ridiculously foolish things if only for the reason to put themselves in a situation where one of them has to die—but, as a viewer, you don’t really care because that’s really what you paid $8 to see.

It’s also worth noting that in spite of not being campy or over-the-top in its presentation of humor, this new Evil Dead has its own charms.  The humor isn’t quite as apparent as it’s much more tongue-in-cheek and morbid than the original films.  There’s one scene in particular that was brutally gruesome, but I couldn’t help but let out a solid laugh—a reaction I’m sure they were hoping for.

Evil Dead is built on the ideas of the classic films, but brings to the table several of its own.  There are scenes that feel incredibly familiar, but then you’re thrown a completely unexpected (and pleasantly gruesome) curveball that freshens up the formula.  This remake/reboot is a welcome entry in the franchise and the genre as a whole and, while it is more of a “pure” horror film, it does have moments that echo the charm of the originals.  Fans of The Evil Dead and horror in general will be more than pleased with what Evil Dead has to offer.