Sunday, December 17, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

For at least the second year in a row, by the time I think to pre-order tickets for the new Star Wars movie, it's for a pretty early show on Saturday, but it's okay - pretty packed house, enthusiastic, and even in the second row, it's not particularly distorted or hard to see, even in 3D. I'm kind of surprised that AMC doesn't just sell the waffles from their chicken-and-waffle sandwiches when they have shows that early; seems like it would be easy money. Mostly, I'm glad to report that my crowd liked it, or at least certainly gave that impression - it was loud, there were cheers, and I didn't hear people complaining on the way out.

It's petty, but I'm kind of enjoying the folks who are freaking out about this movie. As with Fury Road, a lot of complaints seem to come from people obsessed with the surface elements and get really upset when those are thrown into disarray even if it's in service of doing something more inclusive, ultimately more in lines with the ideals underneath, or just wanting "cool". Rian Johnson dispenses with a lot of stuff that is flashy but doesn't really serve a strong storytelling purpose here, and also comes up with a more egalitarian set-up, less reliant on princesses and chosen ones and more about everybody having a part to play. It's a course-correction I genuinely love, and it seems like it shouldn't be nearly this controversial.

But, hey, more seats for me when I see it again sometime this week!

Speaking of repeat viewings: I watched The Force Awakens Friday night as "prep", and it holds up pretty well, even if do still feel that the first half, when new things are happening, is better than the second, where it feels like a lot of beats are being repeated. Also, kind of interestingly, the 3D Blu-ray seems to have a little more in the way of ghosting than the other 3D discs I have. Still, that scene where the Star Destroyer is breaking the plane of the screen and thus seems to be sticking out of the TV and into the living room is pretty cool.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

* * * * (out of four)
Seen on 16 December 2017 in AMC Assembly Row #1 (first-run, 3D digital Imax)

Saying The Last Jedi is the best Star Wars movie since the original ten minutes after walking out of it seems like an obvious knee-jerk overreaction even as I did so in response to my friends and family's texts, but I'm pretty sure I'll feel the same way tomorrow, and next week, and next month, and in December 2019 when J.J. Abrams will have a heck of an act to follow. It's an emotional, thrilling adventure that gives its audience a more intense version of everything it loves about the series even as it upends the whole thing.

And it could use a good flipping over, both coming on the heels of a 2015 entry that repeated too many familiar beats and decades of stories that became too beholden to mythology (both the internal and Joseph Campbell variety). At times, Rian Johnson seems too enthusiastic about bringing it all crashing down, whether by inserting dialogue that questions the series's good-versus-evil foundations, tossing aside what seemed like carefully-placed foreshadowing from 2015's The Force Awakens, or having the villainous First Order deal the Resistance continuous crushing blows; it's intense and sometimes a bit much, but there's a purpose to it. As Johnson discards some mysteries and puts the characters he inherited through the wringer, what emerges is a Star Wars movie (and, presumably, an altered direction for the series going forward) for a generation less likely to look back toward a lost golden age than to try and build a better future no matter what is thrown at them or how impossible the odds may be. Some folks aren't going to like it - spend forty years getting attached to something, and you might resent the changes to how it works - but it's a reinvention that gives the series a new sense of urgency and unpredictability.

The past is far from discarded, of course - when the film moves to focus on Rey (Daisy Ridley), who discovered she was strong with The Force in the the prior installment, and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the self-exiled Jedi Master (and hero of the original trilogy of films) who would be content to let that tradition die with him, filling in the story of how Luke's nephew Ben Solo became the vicious Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is important both for satisfying viewers with questions and for how it reflects the similar potential for darkness Luke sees in Rey. But much of the action takes place away from there, and the situation with the Resistance is desperate indeed, as their small fleet is relentlessly pursued by Kylo, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) himself, and a daring mission led by hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) may have done more harm than good. It's led General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) to ground Poe, and when his friend Finn (John Boyega) and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) think they've discovered a way to throw the Order off their sent, Poe has them run the mission off the books rather than bring it to Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern).

Both halves of the story give the characters time to talk about what informs their personal visions of right and wrong, and while the discussions Rey and Luke have are a little on-the-nose at times. Daisy Ridley gets to dive right into the dark side of Rey that was only hinted at in the previous movie - a lot of her better impulses are weakened now that she gets the sense that she's important, and she wields power like someone who has only ever been on the exploited end of that. She's got a sharp, unnerving chemistry with Adam Driver as the pair sell not just being drawn to each other, but the fantasy mechanics that let it play out. Driver, meanwhile, continues to make Kylo Ren more fascinating than he would seem to have any right to be, overflowing the sort of roiling uncertainty that's plenty seductive even though it doesn't lead to redemption very often in real life. And then there's Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, his expression constantly haunted, like he's been stewing in self-doubt for twenty years, but still very sharp. Johnson has Luke forging his own weakness into a rhetorical weapon, a paradox that makes the impossibly-heavy weight on his shoulders something the audience can grasp.

The other side has lighter performances even as it has a more immediate sense of urgency. Oscar Isaac gets to do a lot of the typical "cocky pilot with a commander he feels is too timid" material, and the gravity of it becomes more clear on his face as the film goes on, even if he's not maturing at quite a fast enough rate to keep pace, and both Laura Dern and Carrie Fisher excel at taking him down a notch (and when they get to play off each other, it's a genuine delight). John Boyega's Finn is in pretty much the same place he was before - alternately utterly terrified by the world he escaped and not quite fitting into the one he has joined - but he's got a winning foil in series newcomer Kelly Marie Tran; Rose and Finn are written to have complementary spots of naivete and understanding, and the odd-couple pairing gels just as they get to start playing off Benicio Del Toro.

Johnson fills the film not just with debate, but with action that all plays on the familiar characters' personal stories, whether the crippling doubt of Luke Skywalker or the dangerous confidence of Poe Dameron. Indeed, the very opening gambit is a stunningly effective little vignette, opening with jokes which lead to fantastic outer-space action that not only looks fantastic (the visual effects crew and stereographers do top-shelf work) but establishes that Poe is just as brilliant and reckless a pilot as people kept saying he was in The Force Awakens before finding room for another thread about the less-glamorous but no less heroic people in the fleet that's a strong self-contained story of its own. It's brilliant action as a storytelling tool on top of spectacle, and Johnson pulls it off several times. Indeed, the film's got some of the best action beats of the whole series, at least twice having a nifty, well-choreographed scene be bookended with a jaw-dropping shock on both sides. It's eye-popping, but there's always something inside that makes it count.

And speaking of eye-popping, this is hands-down the most beautiful film of the saga so far, gorgeously lensed on film and with little design choices that bring a smile, from the impossibly cute "porgs" to the armored walkers that look like they're dragging knuckles. "Beautiful" is often the right word despite the fact that much of the imagery is downright apocalyptic; even knowing there's another movie to come, The Last Jedi is able to visually convinces one of the desperation of the Resistance even as one's brain can't help but admire what a well-composed hellscape the crew is creating. While Star Wars has often focused on detailed world-building rather than the sort of sight that can be admired out of context, Johnson and his crew create some genuinely striking images here, from slow endless reflections to a battlefield that turns crimson from a pristine white.

And yet, the filmmakers are conversely never afraid to be silly for a moment, even in the face of extermination. It's clumsy early on - the jokes that the film starts with don't really feel like they belong in something as intense as it late gets - and there's even a case later on where the film suffers the opposite malady, as something that is often played as kind of funny and weird gets played straight. But there's purpose to that, too - comedy can help a person see something otherwise just accepted as the danger that it is, which is an important part of the story, and it lets a line that sounds like just a two-word quip actually have some emotional power. As operatic as this space opera has become, the moments when it leans into its own absurdity give it life.

The Last Jedi is franchise filmmaking at its best, intensely satisfying both in terms of delivering something the audience knows it's going to like while using the serial nature to deliver genuine surprises and new directions. I'll be seeing it again soon because it's brilliant, with themes to unpack and visuals which deserve the big screen, but I'm just as excited to see what happens next - both in how J.J. Abrams picks up the threads Johnson left to conclude this trilogy and to see what Johnson does with his just-announced new "Star Wars" series, where the path forward is even more wide open.

Full review at EFC

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