Thursday, December 21, 2017

MOVIE REVIEW/Star Wars: The Last Jedi
A More Balanced Force, Led By Warrior Women

John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", directed by Rian Johnson. 

Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
Thursday, December 21, 2017

Wow.  Rian Johnson is a smart, sensitive, savvy filmmaker.  He brings the "Star Wars" franchise firmly into the 21st century with the dynamic, enervating "The Last Jedi", traveling to new dimensions with story and character.  Women are a galvanizing, authoritative Force in this new, highly moving experience that won my heart from the opening frame.  That first frame is of a woman three-quarters close-up commanding a man to do something.  I didn't remember what the order was.  All I knew was, the image was not lost on me.  It riveted me.  It told me what to expect: something different, even revolutionary.

As the odious First Order fights back against The Resistance, Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to gain Jedi apprenticeship under a bitter, scornful and cynical Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), self-exiled and isolated on a beautiful mountainous location in Ireland.  Why so serious, Luke?  A new dawn awaits you, man.  You don't even have to lift a finger!  Use your life force.  He does.  Luke however, has reservations about force and power.  Rey, a bold, rare and audacious spirit, anchors Luke as much as he anchors her, maybe more.  Rey is powerful, fearless and authentic.  But a test will come.

Mr. Johnson's film takes time to explore choices, dilemmas, feelings, thoughts, sensory realms and perceptions.  This is a deeper "Star Wars": singular, contemplative and refreshing.  The yin and yang percolate brilliantly throughout this intimate yet giant-scale action film that makes small moments between characters as large as big battle sequences.  This film absorbs and consumes your imagination and sense of involvement.  Spatial relationships and light are so important to "The Last Jedi" and its atmosphere.  Use of space or a lack of it could be seductive or a gulf or a nearness exploited by powers, malevolence or some innate yearning to reach out and harmonize with someone.  It can get lonely when you fight to save a galaxy.

No character is insignificant, and "The Last Jedi" has a wickedly playful sense of humor even among its villains.  One of the most clever and intriguing things about Mr. Johnson's film (he also wrote it) is the character development of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), whose mind and heart have divided loyalties.  It's one of the most attuned underpinnings of character and nuance I've seen in the "Star Wars" series. 

In "The Last Jedi" I watched characters with depth of feeling and reflection breathe, emote, make me laugh, almost make me cry.  And I'm not the crying kind.  Never have I been as emotionally fulfilled and enriched by a "Star Wars" film in a theater as I have this one -- and that includes "Star Wars", which I saw in a movie theater when it opened in 1977. 

Carrie Fisher in her final film performance, in "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", directed by Rian Johnson.  Disney/LucasFilm

Women are central to the narrative -- and their presence isn't a political calculation other than the obvious need to give a universe what has been missing for a long time on the Hollywood big screen: its most cherished hidden figures.  The welcome abundance of women in "The Last Jedi" isn't about numbers or diversity but meaningful inclusion and impact on the storylines defining this clean, ornate sci-fi drama.  There is duality within us, and Mr. Johnson takes care to expose that well in each of his main characters.  These women are the conscience, a calling, a caution and leadership.  Let any annoyed fanboys or fearboys panic and pout all the way back to their basements.

Laura Dern brings stature and resonance to the face-off with The First Order as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who commands a wave of Resistance pilot fighters led by Poe (Oscar Isaac), who eagerly wants the first crack at The First Order.  Ms. Dern brings a calming peace and time-stopping element to this busy landscape, slowing things so you can gain full measure of her captaincy.  A touch regal, Holdo's capabilities are not to be trifled with.  "The Last Jedi" and its sincerity about gender representation isn't some cynical P.C. move.  Mr. Johnson's film honestly appreciates and respects women and wisely recognizes that galaxies and armies aren't formed and fortified by men alone.  The push-pull between genders in "The Last Jedi" has a feel of comedy to it even if the settings are formal and serious.

One of the most endearing moments of "The Last Jedi" is the introduction of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico.  She has Rosie The Riveter spunk and spirit that fuels her growth as a character and fighter.  She fights with her heart and mind.  Ms. Tran gives Rose sophistication and a mission without making her a stock character.  She's arguably the smartest character in "The Last Jedi" and reveals in actions more than words.  It's a completely winning turn from Ms. Tran, who epitomizes the everywoman dimension of "The Last Jedi".  Rose is a throwback to the 1940s woman onscreen, a smart, lovable dynamite character, one Barbara Stanwyck might have played.

Space and its use is key to "Star Wars: The Last Jedi", directed by Rian Johnson. Mark Hamill is Luke Skywalker.  Disney/LucasFilm

There are quiet scenes in "The Last Jedi" where you see at least two women on screen at once talking to each other -- in the foreground, audibly, and not talking about men.  There is pride, wonder, beauty and emotion in these moments and throughout Mr. Johnson's film, the finest of the "Star Wars" lot.  There's meaning in those moments.  That's what stuck with me about "The Last Jedi".  Scenes mean something.  Characters say something.  The Force isn't just a feeling, it is an attitude and intelligence, an intelligence each actor becomes symbiotic with.  Their energy on screen is consonant with the director's mission -- and neither variable cancels out the other.  Balance.

Would I have loved to see Lupita Nyong'o instead of the funny-looking whatever-it-is character onscreen she voices for?  Sure.  Would I have loved to see other Black women actually speaking on screen?  Definitely.  Finn is the only Black character of consequence in "The Last Jedi" and as in "The Force Awakens" (2015) he is introduced in laughing-stock fashion.  Finn is a fish out of water who must adjust to his surroundings.  John Boyega plays Finn as a man searching for a tailored fit in Jedi Land.  You sense Finn may have his doubts about his place in all of this but he's confident and determined.  He operates on impulse and bravado.  To hell with risk is his motto. 

Each of these "Star Wars" men are fueled by danger until other forces intervene.  By the way, Domhnall Gleeson, who has had a sensational film year ("mother!", "American Made" and others) in 2017, is terrific as the imperious and bumbling baddie General Hux.

The canvas of "The Last Jedi" is rich and vast, full of ingredients, love on the horizon and a wonderful, moving tribute to Carrie Fisher, who seems to come out of the screen (and I didn't see this film in 3-D).  Ms. Fisher, who died almost exactly a year ago, brings such gravitas and an echo to the very first "Star Wars" of 1977.  Each look, each word she speaks is her last forever on film.  Her sad passing only adds to the sentiment, affection and emotion "The Last Jedi" isn't shy to flaunt.  I was invigorated by this epic effort, which at just over two and a half hours long, flies.  John Williams' music score is as great as you'd expect and especially thrives during the end credits.

What "The Last Jedi" possesses -- more than some of the films in the "Star Wars" series -- is a soul.  A passion.  "The Last Jedi" is alive.  Sci-fi can get dry and technical at times, numbed or muted by special effects and explosions, but Mr. Johnson's film crackles and burns with an unyielding passion that is the best effect of all: one that touches the heart.  Its warmth isn't obvious as much as it is palpable and disciplined.  This is a mature "Star Wars", a careful film, a tender film, a film that is romantic in its ambitions, purpose and core but not romanticized.  "The Last Jedi" is a smart film that asks us to tap into the good in ourselves or at least aspire to be our better selves, and in that respect it is picture-perfect for these very urgent times in which we live.

"The Last Jedi" appeals to moral order and balance more than it does fighting and defeating "the enemy".  That is another of its most cherished assets.  Mr. Johnson shows us there is something daring, beautiful, humane and holistic about restraint and compassion -- and in those qualities are an endless strength and genuine hope for a galaxy to live on for many generations to come.  The face of this "Star Wars", thanks to its director, has literally changed for the better.  For the best ever.  It turns out that these Wars are wars of the heart and the conscience.  And that is what makes Mr. Johnson's film so much more valuable than the rest.

Also with: Andy Serkis and a lot of other actors I would like to let audiences discover as they watch this fine film.

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi" is rated PG-13 by the Motion Picture Association of America for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.  The film's running time is two hours and 32 minutes.

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