Category Archives: Action Films

“Solo” a mishmash of ideas and concepts

When you have too many cooks in the kitchen, the result can be a sloppy mess of mixmatched ingredients and half-baked concepts. Especially when you fire your cook when the meal’s almost done and hire another cook to try and salvage the dish.

“Solo” tells the beginnings of Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), a rebel on the planet Corellia trying to escape with his girl, Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke). A series of events leads him through the Empire, a band of new rebels and a group of smugglers led by Beckett (Woody Harrelson) as well as future companions Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover).

The film is now infamous for the firing of directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller near the end of the film’s production. Ron Howard was brought on board and the result was a rushed schedule and costly reshoots. The final film is a conglomeration of different ideas and loose ends, some obviously Lord and Miller’s, some Howard’s and some the studio’s, specifically Kathleen Kennedy, whose reputation continues to take a beating with the constant behind-the-scenes drama that unfurls with each new Star Wars film.

The very idea of a Han Solo spinoff film seems uninspired, more like a safe excuse to make another Star Wars film; another franchise character, some small tidbits about his past and a whole new array of potential merchandise opportunities. Alden Ehrenreich is a serious step down from the charismatic Harrison Ford. Rumors of acting coaches being brought in during the shoot certainly must not have done well for his confidence and his chemistry with Emilia Clarke is lacking. He’s caught between trying to be the cocksure, charming Ford while being his own thing while adapting to modern day acting in contrast to the 1970s and 80s Ford style. It’d be difficult for any actor, and it just doesn’t work.

There are some fun moments to be sure. After a dismal first half, the film picks up with double-crosses, space battles and slave uprisings. There’s a few funny moments (probably delivered by Lord and Miller) and some of the action scenes are fun and interesting. But they’re surrounded by a production that feels mismanaged and lacking focus.

*SPOILERS*

If a Han Solo film needed to be made, a focus on Solo’s character was needed. How did he become who he becomes? The film does try to show how he gets the Millennium Falcon and how he meets Lando, but doesn’t show his character progression.

How did he become the burned-out, selfish renegade at the start of “A New Hope”? The natural progression would be from idealist to cynic. You can see during the film that’s where things were generally heading, but the character change is minimal at best, most likely because Disney was planning a sequel to complete the narrative (as evidenced by an open ending and an eyeball-inducing cameo from Darth Maul). For this to feel like an actual, complete story, Han’s character arc needs to be complete.

Imagine this: the film starts much as the film actually does; a young Han and his first love, Qi’ra, scrounge on Corellia, dreaming of getting out and being rich and happy. They make plans and try to ignore the destitution they live in. Then the Empire roars in and drafts all able-bodied men and women into the armed services. Han and Qi’ra are separated. He sees Qi’ra personally taken by an Imperial commander, a man who has a history with the couple and has always wanted Qi’ra for himself (let’s call him Zoran). Han eventually runs off from the Empire after he refuses to massacre the Wookies on an Imperial campaign, in the process saving Chewbacca. Chewbacca and Han connect over their lost loves, Han missing Qi’ra and Chewie, his life partner. They are recruited by Beckett who teaches them how to survive as smugglers (a la Oliver Twist), seeing in Han an innate gift for the job. Han is wary of compromising his morals, but Beckett promises that after their big score, which he’s been planning for years, he’ll personally take him to find Qi’ra. They gather a crew, including Lando, and, heist style, detail exactly how the operation is going to go down: a cosmic, fun, intergalactic scenario that barely succeeds, but ends in success. Beckett stays true to his word and takes Han to Qi’ra aboard an Imperial shuttle under the guise of an emissary to the Empire. There, he discovers Qi’ra has married the Imperial lieutenant, who is secretly working with crimelords on the side. Han tries to run with Qi’ra, but she is torn. She tries to convince him that she loves Zoran, but he doesn’t believe her. Then he is betrayed by Beckett as the old man makes a deal with the crimelords on Zoran’s side. Trapped and alone with just Chewbacca, Han becomes the bitter man we know. Chewie saves him by breaking him out and they escape. Qi’ra, realizing her love for Han, tries to abscond with him, but is held back by Zoran. Chewie and Han are trapped in an elevator shaft, but Qi’ra manages to make it to the control panel and release them, saving them as they blast off on a stolen ship into hyperspace. Qi’ra is detained by Zoran, her fate a mystery. We cut to a year later, Han a womanizer going from job to job with Chewie. They rendezvous with Beckett, cornering him in a bad deal with Lando’s help. The two men talk about their father-son relationship, talk about old times and how the world has led them to this place of eat-or-be-eaten. Han shoots Beckett before he can draw.

This sort of storyline would show a clear progression of Han’s character and a streamlined story, with more dramatic moments and actual sorrow, joy and tension. The new Star Wars films are too preoccupied with repeating the formulas of the past: shoot ’em ups, blasters firing, good and evil, etc. Branching out and trying something different would have gone a long way. The plot I outlined above includes some Dickens, some classic Western, some heist and some film noir. Not nearly enough thought beyond franchise building went into “Solo.”

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“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” continues franchise’s deeper morals

In its fifth outing, many find the “Jurassic” franchise lacking in originality and freshness. They’re tired of people running from through the jungle from blood-thirsty beasts. Evolve, change, they say. But the “Jurassic” franchise has never been coy about what it is: an action-adventure romp featuring dinosaurs. That’s what it always will be. No one criticizes James Bond or an Ocean’s movie for not evolving. Movies fit into their genres and reflect variations on a concept. So “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” in general succeeds because it doesn’t deviate from what works and yet it adds some new underlying themes about animal rights and mankind’s responsibility.

The movie picks up three years after the events of the previous film. Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard) is spearing an effort to save the abandoned dinosaurs on Isla Nublar with an upcoming volcanic eruption promising to wipe them out. She gets help from a benefactor, Eli (Rafe Spall), who works on behalf of one of John Hammond’s old partners, Benjamin Lockwood (James Cromwell), to rescue the Velociraptor Blue. This leads her to reconcile with her old boyfriend and dinosaur trainer, Owen (Chris Pratt). Meanwhile, secrets about Eli and the Lockwood corporation begin to emerge, especially regarding Lockwood’s granddaughter, Maisie (Isabella Sermon).

The film is sectioned off in two sections, one on the island to save the dinosaurs and then after the dinosaurs are captured. Unlike “The Lost World” which feels like two different films after a similar return to the mainland, the plot moves forward in a logical sequence to make a concentrated story. It builds off themes hinted at in “Jurassic World” about the rights of animals, corporate ownership and human responsibility. If an animal is created in a lab, does it have the rights afforded other creatures found in nature or is it the property of a company? What responsibility do Claire and Owen have in regards to their ambition overriding their judgment? Why do we have to keep relearning the same lesson about tampering with nature (with current connotations to global warming, warfare, etc.) before we stop doing it?

The film is far from perfect. The characters in general are still rather one-dimensional, especially in regards to the villains, who are cookie-cutter evil businessmen and hunters. Some depth (perhaps a character who changes his mind about his inhumanity a la Roland in “Lost World) would have gone a long way. Both Owen and Claire are given a wider role than in the previous film and their chemistry seems to have grown. Their previously forced-in romance feels natural here as does the weight of their past. Claire in particular is not the frigid damsel, but a fully-developed character who can get stuff done. If only Eli was given a little more development (though it is worth noting that previous films’ villains have also been giving little depth such as Hoskins in “Jurassic World” and Peter Ludlow in “Lost World”).

And the revelation involving Maisie is unnecessary and strange. The whole subplot involving the Lockwood corporation seems tacked on and not important to the overall story. It could have been just as easily any corporation and it would have served its purpose just fine.

The film is a popcorn-munching, high-octane thrill ride that’ll leave most viewers eager for a repeat viewing. The action set pieces are tense and interesting and the film sets up what should be another exciting chapter. Nostalgia still runs deep and drives the franchise too much, but as a solid action movie, it’s worth your money.

On Rewatching “The Last Jedi”

Like many, I was disappointed with Rian Johnson’s recent Star Wars film. I thought “The Force Awakens” was a great film, evoking the spirit of the original trilogy while also adding new characters and moments to the mythos. Yes, it borrowed its plot too heavily from “A New Hope”, but the core dynamics of story and character worked and, after the disaster that was the prequels, it was a great improvement.

Upon first viewing “The Last Jedi”, I found myself distracted by story inconsistencies and the pacing. Comedic scenes such as Luke tossing the lightsaber behind him or Finn walking through the command ship naked and leaking in his coma suit didn’t work for me. New characters like Holdo and DJ seemed unimportant in the grand scheme of things. Certain scenes seemed strange and grating such as ghost Yoda blowing up a tree and Leia using the Force to guide herself back to her spaceship after it is attacked. And the revelations of the mysteries posed in the previous installment were trite and uninteresting. Rey has no connection to the Skywalkers? Snoke is unimportant?

Certain moments I did enjoy. Some of the action scenes were interesting and the moral of the story, that anyone can be a hero and hope never truly dies, is solid. But the whole structure of the film felt mismanaged.

Upon rewatching the film in the comfort of my own home without the high expectations from my initial viewing, I found myself with a more positive view of the film with some of the same old qualms still.

The interaction of Luke, Rey and Kylo is the heart of the film. Every time those characters are on screen, the story sings. Fallen mentor, fallen student, new student, forbidden love. It’s the Shakespearean dynamics that Star Wars is known for. I’m okay now with Rey not being a Skywalker or a Kenobi or a Solo. I just wish her involvement with the story was more invested. Perhaps the story could tie in to the prequels a little bit (just a little) and the prophecy of bringing balance to the Force. In “Force Awakens”, Luke’s lightsaber calls out to her. She’s destined for something, but “Last Jedi” doesn’t focus on this aspect of her character. She doesn’t need to have important parents, but she does need to be important.

Some of the action scenes of the First Order fleet chasing down the Resistance are interesting and exciting, but as a whole, the subplot of the story is dramatically lacking. The plot is basically bad guys chase good guys and good guys try to escape. It’s not very interesting. The good guys should initiate action of some kind. Perhaps an assassination mission against Snoke. Perhaps a trip to a neutral world to try and recruit the natives to your side instead of the First Order’s. Perhaps a quest to decimate the First Order base by recruiting spies on the inside, someone that Finn knows. Poe, Finn, Leia and Rose need something to do other than just run away.

And perhaps the film’s biggest detriment is that it doesn’t feel like the middle chapter of a trilogy. It feels like the end. Luke is gone, the Resistance has escaped and will live on, Kylo has lost all sense of who he is. The story feels completed. The middle chapter should build on the previous’ questions and set you up for the finale, not leave you wondering what else can come from this story. There’s no intrigue with the tale anymore. Basically all we have is Kylo is evil and Rey and the Resistance must stop him. If there was a tie-in to the prophecy, that would at least promise something climactic to follow this adventure, but there’s not. If this were the final film of the saga, it would indeed end the new trilogy on a strong note thematically: anyone in the galaxy can be a hero, no matter how destitute you are., and hope will always live on The final shot of the kid using the Force to manipulate his broom and looking to the stars is how Star Wars should end. But instead we have another chapter still. Where do we go from here?

Whatever fans may feel about “Force Awakens”, JJ Abrams was able to replicate the magic of the Star Wars universe in his film more than anyone else has (even older George Lucas). Where he goes from here, no one knows but perhaps his ending to this trilogy will make “Last Jedi” more complete in the whole saga. In another two years, perhaps how I view the film will improve even more.

“Black Panther” a cultural milestone for cinema

Director: Ryan Coogler

Producers: Victoria Alonso, Jeffrey Chernov, Louis D’Esposito, Kevin Feige, Stan Lee, David J. Grant, Nate Moore

Writers: Ryan Coogler and Joe Robert Cole

Cinematographer: Rachel Morrison

Editor: Debbie Berman, Michael P. Shawver

Actors: Chadwick Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita N’yongo, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, John Kani, Andy Serkis, Letita Wright

 

Synopsis:

T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns to his home of Wakanda after the death of his father, King T’Chaka (John Kani). Wakanda is a technological marvel hidden in the heart of Africa, powered by a precious metal called vibranium. After going through the ritual ceremony to become the next king, T’Challa dons the persona of the Black Panther, a superhero figure of legend and myth. He sets out to find Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis), one of the few outsiders to know of vibranium and a killer of the Wakandan people and bring him to justice, along with his bodyguard Okoye (Danai Gurira), his ex-girlfriend, Nakia (Lupita N’yongo) and with the help of his sister, Shuri (Letita Wright). Little does he know though that a new enemy, the dangerous commando, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), lurks in the background and seeks to usurp the throne.

Background Info:

The Black Panther character was created by writer Stan Lee and artist Jack Kirby in 1966. The first mainstream black superhero, the character was moderately successful during his initial run and bounced around with general comic’s popularity over the coming decades. In this age of superhero film mania, it’s surprising (disappointing) that a film starring a black lead has taken so long to get to the big screen (18 years since the first X-Men film though it’s important not to forget the “Blade” trilogy even though they never quite had the superhero budget treatment). With Ryan Coogler, after his success with “Fruitvale Station” and “Creed”, and the Marvel movie machine behind the production, the hype for releasing the film was tremendous as it has become the highest grossing superhero film yet and the third-highest grossing film ever in the United States.

General Review:

The film feels different than the other Marvel films in its single focus and intimacy. You don’t have Iron Man or Thor showing up for a comical cameo or a whole lot of universe building that sets up future films. T’Challa himself is a very serious character with no quipping, no clever lines and no camera winking. It’s a relatively simple story of a son atoning for the sins of his father and learning about the responsibilities of being a king. It’s a path Marvel should take more often.

The look and feel of the film is impressive, bringing a new culture to life that is both new and familiar. When the film lags or stutters from time to time, it is still never boring or uninteresting as the viewer is immersed in this new world, part sci-fi, part African tribe, part dream.

Many point to the film as Shakespearean, which is indeed the case with the relationship between T’Challa and Killmonger. The familial line and feuding brothers and a fight over the throne all add different dimensions to a film that tries desperately to break the Marvel mold. It elevates the story beyond just another fun time at the movies.

There are points when the film feels a bit aimless and trying to find its way as in a car chase sequence in South Korea or a bank robbery in London, almost as if such sequences were pushed on by the studio to make the film more action and adventure when it doesn’t really need it, but the dynamics of incorporating some James Bond-esque scenes are nevertheless intriguing. You can still ride the ride of the film and feel the power of the story. Taking root in mythology and family gives the movie added emotional weight and featuring the “black experience” in today’s world makes the film timely.

What matters most from a cultural standpoint is what Black Panther represents. Much like “Wonder Woman” last year, seeing a different type of superhero (not a straight, white male) is inspiring. What he represents is in some ways more important than who he is. The film does a good job of balancing that expectation of illustrating the image of a black superhero without playing it up for selfish reasons. Add to that the representation of strong female characters who fight alongside him and serve as his preeminent bodyguards and you have a fully diversified film, still a rarity from Hollywood.

SPOILER SECTION

Plot Breakdown:

  • Inciting Incident: T’Challa returns home to be crowned king.
  • Act One Climax: T’Challa decides to find Ulysses and bring him back to Wakanda for justice, his first act as king.
  • Midpoint: KIllmonger defeats Black Panther and throws him over the waterfall’s edge.
  • Act Two Climax: After rising from the dead, Black Panther concocts a plan to take down Killmonger using the help of his sister and loyal subjects.
  • Act Three Climax: T’Challa retakes the throne and decides to share Wakanda’s technology with the world.

Analysis:

An argument can be made that Killmonger is a more interesting character than T’Challa. His position that the world has turned its back on those of African heritage and they must seek to overthrow the world is interesting. The betrayal of T’Chaka against Killmonger’s father adds further fuel to his anger and gives him empathy. His role could have been expanded more and truly represented the repressed African spirit. Perhaps we see glimpses of his youth and the hardships he endured. Perhaps he comes to Wakanda and presents them pictures of the slums of LA and Washington, DC, showing how the colonizers are still abusing Africans and how the Wakandans have turned their backs on their own people. This would have really elevated the film more as an ethical examination. The film nearly breaks free of the superhero genre in the way that “The Dark Knight” and “Logan” have before, but doesn’t quite get there.

T’Challa is a strong character, but a little too perfect. He has no inner challenges in regards to character. Perhaps if he was fearful of the throne and the burden it will bring to him. Perhaps if he failed in a more dramatic fashion than his inability to capture Ulysses and the tribes grumbled about his lack of leadership. Maybe he considers letting Killmonger have the throne as it has brought him nothing but misery. Such plot points are hinted at in the film, but could have been enhanced even more.

Another thing missing is a representative character of the Wakandan people, someone who witnesses the events of the plot as a spectator. Perhaps T’Challa meets a young child on his first stroll through the city as king and talks to him, encouraging him to be a doctor or engineer like his sister and reminding him not to fight with his siblings as peace is the way. As the battle over the throne commences, we see the conflict among the common people through his eyes as different families take Killmonger or T’Challa’s side and conflict erupts on the street. The boy sees peace as the way and forms a group that refuses to go along with Killmonger’s war plans, bringing the people to T’Challa’s side as the final battle begins.

Wakanda is a dream representation of an African utopia, a place of beauty, innovation and peace, a black Camelot in a way. It represents a world that could have been were it not for colonization, racism and genocide and all the negative forces of the globe. Seeing that representation is a hope for all peoples, not just Africans, but everyone who believes in an ideal world full of culture and peace. The film does an admirable job of creating a world that many dream of and hope to create. For so long, Camelot was a place of Anglo-Saxons, but seeing a new type of El Dorado and Atlantis onscreen is important. That will ultimately be “Black Panther’s” legacy. The final shot of the film, an impressive T’Challa in his regal robes and spaceship next to a young boy playing basketball, is an uplifting image of hope.

 

 

 

New “Tomb Raider” leaves much to be desired

When you’re making any movie, it is important to establish a strong plot and deep characters. A film based off a videogame usually requires some beefing up of those elements to compensate for their lack in general gameplay. The new “Tomb Raider” does none of these things and while I’m sure it is better than Angelina Jolie’s previous fetish films, it is still a boring, monotonous “action-adventure” flick.

Lara Croft (Alicia Vikander) is the daughter of the archaeologist Lord Richard Croft (Dominic West). When he goes missing during her youth, she faces years of anguish and wonder about what happened to him. Discovering clues to his exploits, she takes it upon herself to follow his trek and hopefully find some answers. The tale pushes her to a mysterious island and a secret organization called Trinity who seek a powerful, medieval weapon. Led by Mathias Vogel (Walton Goggins), Lara must stop them before a WMD falls into their hands.

To say the film is uninspired is an understatement. It’s a perfect example of by the numbers, formulaic action film. Insert protagonist. Give goal. Give backstory to drive character. Plug in antagonist. Make him seem evil. Action sequence #1. Action sequence #2. Midpoint revelation. On and on. It’s as stale as four-week old bread. The inability to create fun and exciting sequences hampers the film even more as even if the plot were boring at least it could be fun, but it’s not. We’ve seen the dangling over the waterfall, the boat crashing into a rock and the booby trap temple before. It’s all so boring.

Imagine this instead. Perhaps the film is a commentary on the action-adventure genre. Lara Croft has a sidekick who continuously points out the tropes of the story as they are about to happen (Do you think those shrunken heads spit poisonous darts? I bet they do), playing the comic relief to her serious persona, adding some fun to the proceedings. Throw in some interesting action sequences that take place in exotic temples and you’ve got a fun hit. Or perhaps the film is full on serious, ditching the campiness for an intense, gritty drama with Croft beaten by thugs after being captured, having to heal herself a la “The Revenant” after her escape, facing death in her quest for truth as she goes up against a small band of mercenaries with guns in the jungle. The villain is a complicated lunatic with an interesting backstory with a personal connection to Croft’s father. The quest to stop Trinity is given added weight because of what this villain means to Croft. Just something interesting for the audience would have gone a long way.

Films need deep characters and ingenuity and surprising revelations. Just because a movie is part of the action genre or horror genre is not an excuse to avoid basic filmmaking effort. “Tomb Raider” is devoid of anything memorable or inspired, a purely cash-grab effort. It’s a shame for anyone who enjoys archaeological action films.

 

Best Films of 2003

2003 saw the ending of a fantasy saga as well as some great indie films and big-budget animation giants. It was an eclectic year that saw a return to form for directors like Clint Eastwood and the emergence of new greats like Sofia Coppola.

Best Film – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King

Capping off the greatest film trilogy of all-time, director Peter Jackson delivered his most grandiose and dramatic Lord of the Rings film in The Return of the King.

The quest has taken a toll on Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood). On the last leg of the journey, the evil forces opposing him and his shattered fellowship push forward with devastating effect. Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) must ascend to the throne he has hidden from and Gollum (Andy Serkis) continues to plot his own nefarious deeds that could spell doom for the world.

Relieved of the pressures of needing to introduce realms and species to an audience, all of the building storylines are brought to a close that is heartfelt, intimate and epic, creating a sensation few films have ever been able to achieve. In due time of course, Jackson would return to Middle-earth to complete another trilogy in The Hobbit series, but he needn’t have bothered. With The Return of the King, Jackson delivered an emotional epic that may never be topped.

Finding Nemo

Pixar delivered one of their greatest hits and most memorable films in Finding Nemo.

The tale of a father clownfish, Marlin (voiced by Albert Brooks), searching for his young son, Nemo (voiced by Alexander Gould), Marlin is forced to swim across half the ocean, aided by his bumbling sidekick, Dory (voiced by Ellen DeGeneres). They come across sharks and jellyfish and all sorts of dangerous creatures, pushing forward to find young Nemo, who must confront his own mortality in a dentist’s fish tank.

Featuring great comedic moments, mesmerizing animation and a heartwarming message, the film still stands today as one of Pixar’s finest achievements.

Lost in Translation

Sofia Coppola’s masterpiece of finding simple connections between people regardless of gender, age or status, Lost in Translation features two of the best performances of Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson’s careers.

Bob Harris is a past-his-prime film star scraping work together in Japan, where he is completely out of his element. He meets Charlotte, similarly lost, her husband a photographer on assignment. Finding each other and trying to find themselves on the crazy streets of Tokyo, they learn about the nature of connection and what their futures entail, whether it is what they want or not.

Understated in its approach, strong in its emotional power, Lost in Translation succeeds by using Bill Murray’s brilliant sense of comic timing to punctuate the laughs and bring meaning to the story.

Mystic River

Clint Eastwood had been a touch out of step after his instant classic film Unforgiven (1992) won him two Academy Awards in 1993. Making rather average movies such as The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and Blood Work (1992), it was natural to wonder whether the movie icon would ever reclaim his past success. With Mystic River (2003), those fears were laid to rest.

Dave (Tim Robbins), Jimmy (Sean Penn) and Sean (Kevin Bacon) are three friends growing up together in Boston in 1975. When Dave is kidnapped by two mysterious men and sexually abused for days, their friendship wanes. Now adults, they are drawn together once again as Jimmy’s daughter, Katie (Emmy Rossum), is found murdered with Dave the prime suspect and Sean the police detective working the case. Fate has brought them together again and their destinies are all intertwined, for better or worse.

The film is about childhood loss of innocence and how that loss impacts us for the rest of our lives. Dave, Jimmy and Sean are all tied together through their past, present and future, helpless against the pain of time and regret. Mystic River is a haunting, beautiful film that truly explores the connections between people and the past.

Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring

Ki-duk Kim’s Spring, Summer, Fall, Winter… and Spring (2003) is a story of rebirth. The soul, the body and the world are reborn over the course of its telling, set in the Korean countryside.

A young boy (Jae-kyeong Seo) is raised by an elderly Buddhist master (Yeong-su Oh), who yearns to teach him the ways of peace and solitude. But the young boy, as all boys are, is impatient and gives in to his emotions, torturing animals and acting destructively. Once he gains sexual lust, he abandons the master and ventures off into the world. Only after he commits a heinous crime does he return to try and find the peace that the monk had tried to teach him. But both wonder whether it is too late; too late for the boy to find the inner peace he desires and too late for the master to overcome his previous failure and purpose in life.

Featuring beautiful cinematography and a deliberate pace, the film is a touching examination of the essential forces at work in the world: love, nature, mentorship, anger, desire and the continual rebirth of those forces over and over again.

 

“The Last Jedi” a mixed bag

*SPOILERS ABOUND*

 

There are some great scenes in the latest “Star Wars” film. A confrontation in the throne room of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) between both apprentices, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). A daring sacrifice to save the remnants of the Resistance fleet by Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern). Luke staring down his former apprentice on the slopes of a planet covered in salt.

Then there are some terrible scenes. Yoda’s ghost (Frank Oz) showing up and somehow blowing up a sacred tree. BB-8 taking control of an imperial walker. Leia (Carrie Fisher) floating in space back to her ship after it explodes.

There are subplots that work (Finn and Rose on a gambling planet is fun if pointless). There are subplots that don’t work (anything having to do with Poe). There are some good new characters (Rose), and there are some bad new characters (Holdo and DJ). It seems so consequential to characters such as Luke and Snoke and so inconsequential to everyone else. To say “The Last Jedi” is a mess of good and bad is an understatement.

The film picks up on the promise of the previous entry, “The Force Awakens.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has been found. Rey travels to meet him and begin her Jedi training, after her mentor, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), was murdered by his evil son, Kylo Ren. Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper, has joined the Rebellion after being recruited by his friend, Poe (Oscar Isaac).

The film is disjointed. Characters are introduced just to be killed off. Storylines go nowhere. The humor is hit and miss and generally more miss. It feels rushed, as if more time was needed to really iron out the story and character arcs. But in a cinematic world where franchises need to come out with new entries every year, filmmakers aren’t given the right amount of time to really get a grasp for their story. And the results are clunky films.

But the biggest issue facing this franchise is a lack of originality and purpose. While some have complained that the plot to “Force Awakens” is a carbon copy of “A New Hope” (justifiably so), the film felt like a part of the “Star Wars” canon. It seemed like a natural continuation of the saga and posed several interesting questions: Who were Rey’s parents? Why does the force call out to her? Who is Snoke? What is his backstory? What is the history between Kylo Ren and Luke? Will Luke rejoin the fight? These questions kept up the intrigue in the story. For a franchise starving for ideas (there are only so many different ways good can fight evil), these questions promised a potential new direction.

So it is disappointing that “The Last Jedi”‘s response to those questions was to just brush them away. Rey’s parents are no one. She’s important simply because she is. Snoke is dead and probably won’t be mentioned again. We’ll never learn about him and by ignoring his story, his death had little dramatic weight. There is no great revelation about the force or the Skywalker family or anything really. The big surprise in the film is that there is no big surprise. And that is a giant shame. It’s like setting up a joke and then not giving the punchline. It leaves you with a hollow feeling of disappointment.

While “The Force Awakens” promised intrigue, “The Last Jedi” offers more of the same. It’s another good versus evil, pedantic story of a young Jedi, an evil figure in a mask and failed mentors. The viewer left the theater of “Force Awakens” eager to see where the story was going. With “Last Jedi”, there is no desire. There are no lingering questions. We already know where the story is heading; Rey must fight Kylo and stop the First Order.

Just imagine this instead:

The film begins months after the events of “Force Awakens.” Rey has found Luke and begun her training, after great reluctance from the old Jedi. He questions if what he is doing is the right thing after his failing to save Ben Solo and the destruction of the rebuilt Jedi order. Rey learns about the strength of the Force, branching out, but she feels the lure of the dark side. She is frustrated with Luke’s depression and begins mentally connecting with Kylo Ren, seeing his struggle, and she sees how similar they are.

Meanwhile, the First Order reigns down havoc against the old republic. The regime that emerged from the ashes of the Empire has returned. The resistance is desperate. Leia tries to manage the war in her headquarters, but sees little hope. She recounts how Snoke appeared from nowhere, how he managed to coral the last vestiges of the empire to his will and how he needs to end.

Poe and Finn work together on missions for the Resistance, but their confidence wanes as well. Finn asks Poe how he first joined the Resistance and he remarks how he first heard the stories of Leia and Luke and how they were heroes to him on his world, a beautiful planet that was ruined by the Empire. They inspired him to become a freedom fighter. Finn remarks how he has never known freedom and Poe tells him that one day he will feel it.

Leia recruits them for a top secret mission, a last dire choice in their struggle against the First Order. Finn will go back to the stormtrooper corps as a spy and rejoin their ranks. He will offer them secret information and work his way up to Snoke in order to assassinate him. Poe works as his handler and sneaks aboard the imperial cruiser.

Snoke chastises Kylo for his failure to snuff out the Resistance or find Skywalker. He reminds Kylo that he still mentors the Knights of Ren, the other apprentices taken from Skywalker, with him, and that any of them could one day replace Kylo. Kylo, angry, vents his frustrations to Rey through their communications. She sees the anger and divide in him and wonders if he is a good man haunted by bad mentors. She questions Luke and his methods. Kylo hints that Luke knows more about her past than he lets on and reveals how his Jedi training failed because Luke was obsessed with making sure the dark side never came to his students, in a way ensuring that it did.

Rey challenges Luke to reveal what he knows. Luke refuses to tell her, but Rey keeps pushing him. Luke eventually relents and reveals her parentage (something dark that ties her into the Skywalker family/Snoke in some way). Conversely, Finn, in his mission to gain the trust of the First Order, discovers the past of Snoke and how it too connects with Rey. Crushed, Rey abandons her training and seeks out Kylo.

Finn and Poe are captured by the First Order as Finn is about to assassinate Snoke. Kylo meets with Rey and the two of them talk about how their masters have failed them. Kylo talks about his desire to tear down the systems of the galaxy and rebuild from the ground up. Rey tries to talk to him about how the power of compassion can save them. Kylo tells her about the captured Finn and Poe. Rey begs to save them, but Kylo does not understand her feelings. He questions why she cares so much about Finn, but agrees to help her.

Luke, tortured by another perceived failure, ruminates with R2-D2. He hints at other prophecies that have yet to come true and wonders about his role in this galaxy. Knowing that Rey will try to contact Kylo, he decides to stop her.

Finn and Poe are tortured by Snoke and his men. Poe tells Finn to remember to keep searching for that sense of freedom before he dies. Rey and Kylo arrive in time to save Finn. Snoke tries to lure his old apprentice back, but Kylo, consumed in anger, refuses. Snoke unleashes the Knights of Ren and everyone fights. As the situation appears dire, Luke appears. He confronts Kylo and reminds him that he sees the good in him, the spirit of Han Solo. For a moment, he gets through to his old apprentice. Together, they fight and kill Snoke. As the ship explodes around them, Luke sacrifices himself to save his students. The remaining characters disperse to escape pods.

Kylo and Rey end up in a ship together alone. Kylo offers to join with her and create a new order. Rey is torn, unsure whether to trust him. She accepts his offer.

The fate of the galaxy now rests on this uneasy alliance. How will these two former adversaries work together, neither with a master anymore? What will happen to the other Knights? Will the romance between Rey and Finn work out or will she grow feelings towards Kylo? What was the final part of the prophecy Luke had foreseen?

This is sort of where I saw “The Last Jedi” heading. Answering some questions but leaving others open. Raising the stakes for the characters. Forcing them into more consequential decisions that reveal more about their inner selves. This is what “The Empire Strikes Back” did for the original “Star Wars.” Luke learns about the darkness inside him, further deepening his inner turmoil. Leia and Han learn about their feelings towards each other, but that also raises complications: Han is taken by the bounty hunter, Boba Fett, and they know that their relationship could strain their friendship with Luke. Even Darth Vader, who was seen as a simple evil villain in the first film, now faces an internal test: can he convert his son to evil, against his better judgment, revealing that even he has inner struggle?

“The Last Jedi” fails in deepening the conflict within the characters. They face no great internal struggle and the audience has no mystery leading into the final chapter of this trilogy. We know Rey’s history. We know Kylo’s history. Luke is gone. Poe is uninteresting. Finn is uninteresting. It’s just a simple good versus evil story. The middle chapter of a saga should have viewers on the edge of their seats, anxious to see how the mysteries and questions posed by the previous entries will unravel. Instead, we feel nothing about the final chapter.

For a franchise that seemed to be getting back on its feet, “The Last Jedi” is a step backwards in a way. While thrilling and emotional at times, it lacks clear progression and delves into monotony. With JJ Abrams returning to helm the final installment, perhaps a bit of that old “Star Wars” magic he captured with “Force Awakens” will return.