The First Trailer for ‘Star Wars: Episode IX,’ Arrived It Has

The first trailer for “Star Wars: Episode IX,” arrived it has. And with our first look at this eagerly anticipated conclusion to the latest “Star Wars” trilogy, it comes to us with the following title we were ever so eager to learn of: “The Rise of Skywalker.” This is an interesting title to be sure as Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) left the realm of the living in “The Last Jedi,” but thanks to the Force, you can’t keep a good Jedi down.

Luke is not seen in this teaser trailer, but his voice is heard and his presence is felt throughout as he tells the Force sensitive Rey (Daisy Ridley, looking more intense than ever before) of how a thousand generations of Jedi have been passed on to her, but that this is a fight only she can take on. Still, he says how the Jedi will always be with her, and that no one is ever gone. Oh, the magic and possibilities science-fiction stories bring with them! Luke is right, no one is ever really gone, and it makes me believe a number of surprises are in store for us next Christmas.

“Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” marks the return of J.J. Abrams to the director’s chair after reinvigorating the franchise to tremendous effect with “The Force Awakens,” and this trailer makes it look and feel like an Abrams film alright. It does what any good teaser trailer does which is wet our appetites, and we will all be dissecting it endlessly long before the next trailer comes along.

There are many sights I delighted in seeing such as Ridley’s infinitely committed portrayal of Rey, and the actress has long since been proven to be one of this franchise’s best additions. Another major delight was seeing the original Lando Calrissian, Billy Dee Williams, back in the pilot’s chair of the Millennium Falcon alongside Chewbacca as he rediscovers the joy he has in flying it just like he did when he escaped from the fiery corridors of the Death Star in “Return of the Jedi.” And judging from the way he handles the controls, it is clear Lando is not drinking a six-pack of Colt 45 while behind the wheel.

Adam Driver is back as Kylo Ren, and I was surprised to see a glimpse of him putting his mask back together. I wonder why he would bother doing so after smashing to pieces. We only get brief moments of John Boyega and Oscar Isaac, but it is enough to put a smile on my face to see these two charismatic actors back as Finn and Poe Dameron. Even the late Carrie Fisher returns as Leia, albeit in footage taken from the previous two movies. As always, Fisher has the last laugh.

The title “The Rise of Skywalker” left me wondering what it means just as “The Last Jedi” did. How will Skywalker rise, and is the bloodline really at an end? Lucasfilm has been smart to keep us in the dark about this episode’s story, and the titles they have given these three films only peak our interest as they tell us only so much. As history has shown, there has always been one more Skywalker than we were originally led to believe. You remember what Yoda said to Obi-Wan Kenobi in “The Empire Strikes Back,” right?

“No, there is another…”

And plus, there is that laugh at the trailer’s end. Could it be Darth Sidious making a comeback?

Yes, I am super excited for “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker,” and I am doing my best to keep my expectations in check. Heaven forbid the hype overwhelms the final cut. At the very least, it looks to be much better than the disappointiment that was “Solo.” With Abrams back, we should be in for a fantastic voyage throughout a galaxy far, far away. It also marks John Williams’ last time composing a “Star Wars” film score, so it is a goodbye in more ways than one.

I know Christmas 2019 will be here before I know it, but I’m not sure I can wait that long.

Star Wars The Rise of Skywalker teaser poster

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Tony Farinella’s Top 10 Movies of 2018

2018 was not a great year for cinema, but the films that were good were really good.  The year started out strong, it died out in the middle, and finished good but not good enough.

Honorable Mentions for Really Good Movies:

“Game Night,” “Blockers,” “Assassination Nation,” “Paterno,” “Halloween,” “Never Goin’ Back,” “Creed 2,” “Widows,” “The Hate U Give,” “Three Identical Strangers,” “The Wife,” “What They Had,” “All the Money in the World,” “Sorry to Bother You,” “Fahrenheit 11/9” and “Upgrade.”

Love Simon movie poster

10) “Love, Simon”

This flick came out in March, and it is truly a film which needed to be made.  It was directed incredibly well by Greg Berlanti.  Here is the thing about films which deal with someone being gay and not being sure how to tell their friends and family: these are stories that help others feel more comfortable about coming out. This film was funny, touching and incredibly moving.  The lead, Nick Robinson, shows the audience all of Simon’s conflicting emotions from coming out to his parents, played by Josh Duhamel and Jennifer Garner, as well as his group of friends. Katherine Langford from “13 Reasons Why” is terrific as his best friend, and Tony Hale is also great as the vice principal of the school.  The film deals with the subject in a sensitive but profound way.  At the end of the day, it is a love story filled with a big heart and a lot of humor.  If you missed it back in March 2018, now is the time to see it.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Love, Simon.”

 

A Quiet Place movie poster

9) “A Quiet Place”

As someone who tries to attend the cinema as often as possible, I know how hard it is to get an audience to keep quiet.  While watching this movie in a packed theater, it was total and complete silence.  It was a truly surreal and great moviegoing experience.   This was an April release and it did well at the box office and with critics.  It stars John Krasinski and Emily Blunt as a family that must survive during a time where, if there is any noise, monsters will appear and attack and kill you. Krasinski is also behind the camera on this one, and he shows some real talent as a filmmaker.  When the stakes are so high and no one can talk or make any noise, the tension is unnerving and unsettling in the best possible way.  The film also features two great performances from the two children: Millicent Simmonds (hearing impaired in real life) and Noah Jupe. It was great casting to find a young actress who was really deaf as it lends to the film’s authenticity.

Wont You Be My Neighbor poster

8) “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

How in the world did this film get overlooked at the Oscars? How did it not even get a nomination?  This is something which will puzzle and bother me for quite a while.  This is a tremendous documentary and a great film.  Everyone remembers Mr. Rogers, and this film shows the impact he had on children and the world.  It also dives into other aspects of his life and leaves no stone unturned.  It is the kind of movie which makes you feel good, and we need more movies like it during these trying times.  Mr. Rogers was a special person, and this is a special film.  As the tagline on the poster says, “A Little Kindness Goes A Long Way.”  It will take you back to when you were a kid and grew up watching and responding to him.  He was never afraid to tackle tough subjects in a profound and thoughtful way, and his impact will forever be felt.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

BlackkKlansman movie poster

7) “BlacKkKlansman”

Spike Lee’s “BlacKkKlansman” is a mind-blowing film which shows how Detective Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) was able to be part of the Ku Klux Klan as a black man with the help of Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver), his partner.   Stallworth does all of the voice work over the phone to convince David Duke (Topher Grace) he’s really white while Flip shows up to various meetings.  The usual Spike Lee humor is infused in the script as well, and it works because he is still taking the subject matter seriously.  Racism is still very much alive today, as they show this in the end credits, but Lee makes an entertaining true story come to life here.  Washington keeps proving he is an actor and not just Denzel’s son.  This is tough material, no question about it, but Lee has never been afraid to go there.  You have to go there in order for real change to occur.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “BlacKkKlansman.”

Eighth Grade movie poster

6) “Eighth Grade”

Bo Burnham’s directorial debut took the world by storm in the summer of 2018.  My wife and I went out of our way to see it.  We have always been big supporters of independent cinema, and we were glad to see it and more than happy to make the drive.  Burnham is very much in touch with social media, and even though he is not a girl in eighth grade, he taps into what it feels like to be in that mindset and how terrifying it can feel.  It feels like the end of the world and all of this pressure is mounting on you. Elsie Fisher is the star of the show, and she’s so likable, funny and interesting, even though she does not see it.  In interviews, Burnham talked about how she was a shy girl trying to be confident in auditions, and this is exactly what he was looking for as everyone else was a confident girl trying to act shy.  The best scenes in the film are the ones with her and her father, played by Josh Hamilton. It is a great movie which more people need to discover now that it’s out on Blu-ray.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “Eighth Grade.

Boy Erased movie poster

5) “Boy Erased”

The LGBTQ community got another great film in “Boy Erased.”  This was a November release which sadly did not perform well at the box office.  It was written and directed by Joel Edgerton and adapted from the novel by Garrard Conley. The film deals with something called conversation therapy.  Those who perform this therapy believe they can turn someone who is homosexual into a straight man or woman.  Edgerton also plays the leader of this program, and he has some unusual methods to say the least. Lucas Hedges tells the story of Garrard Conley, although his character’s name in the film is Jared Eamons.  His parents are played by Nicole Kidman and Russell Crowe, and this is shockingly their first time working together.  Things are complicated because Jared’s father is a pastor, and his father believes this is the best way to handle this situation. The mother is not really on board with it, but she is sticking by her husband even though you sense her regret.  It is a haunting, scary and emotional film which deserves to be seen.  People are unaware places like these still exist in so many states. The only way they will not exist is if people pay attention and do something.  It is an eye-opening film which was criminally overlooked by moviegoers. Just because a film deals with tough subject matter, it does not mean audiences should not view it.  Film can educate and inform us.

First Reformed movie poster

4) “First Reformed”

Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” is yet another great movie which audiences decided to turn away from at the box office.  I understand people enjoy their Marvel movies and their popcorn entertainment, but there are films which can create discussion.  That, to me, is the power of cinema.  The always terrific Ethan Hawke is a pastor named Toller at the First Reformed church.  One day, Mary (Amanda Seyfried) comes to his church and asks him to help out her husband Michael (Philip Ettinger) who is worried about the state of the world, the planet and what we are doing to it.  Her husband wants to do something about it, has been arrested and he feels people are turning a blind eye to these major issues going on in the world.  Toller starts to believe in a lot of what he is being told by Michael and even questions his own faith and his church.  He has health problems and is not happy with how things are being run over at Abundant Life, which is part of First Reformed, by Jeffers (Cedric Kyles, a.k.a. Cedric the Entertainer ).  He is journaling everything and trying to process his feelings.  Toller also has some issues from his past which he has never gotten over as well.  This is an impactful movie which left me speechless.  It is a must-see.

Click here to check out The Ultimate Rabbit’s review of “First Reformed.”

Blindspotting movie poster

3) “Blindspotting”

Another overlooked critical darling is “Blindspotting” which was written by long-time friends Daveed Diggs and Rafael Casal. Diggs plays Collin, a black man on parole trying to finish it out without any incidents.  This is incredibly difficult due to his friendship with Miles (Casal), a white-man living in Oakland who is always trying to act tough and intimidate people to get respect. Collin is just trying to keep to himself and do his job so he can be free from probation, but he’s finding this hard to do when he sees a young black man killed by a police officer.  He wants to say something, but he is worried about how it will impact his parole.  “Blindspotting” is a term where people look at something and they only see one thing and are missing another piece of the picture.  The chemistry between Diggs and Casal is totally natural, as to be expected, and they have a lot of humorous moments together.   That is the beauty of “Blindspotting,” and there are similar films talking about these things happening in the world right now. You can show the ugly side and bring it to people’s attention, but you can also have some humor in there as well.  It does not have to be all gloom and doom.  There is a lot of terrific music in the film and a lot of it is free style rapping which pertains to the plot.  As Collin says, “You monsters got me feeling like a monster in my own town.”

Green Book movie poster

2) “Green Book”

This is more than your average road trip buddy movie between two unlikely friends. Mahershala Ali plays Dr. Don Shirley, a famous pianist who needs a driver to take him through the south. Tony Lip, played by Viggo Mortensen, needs some money and ends up taking the job as his driver.  Tony is not necessarily racist, but he does offer fried chicken to Don Shirley, as I imagine he is more ignorant than anything else.  Tony sees how white men are treating Mr. Shirley and is not happy about it.  He forms a kinship with him, especially after Shirley helps Tony write love letters to his wife, played by Linda Cardellini.  It is based on a true story, and the two leads knock it out of the park.  I have to give a slight edge to Mortensen’s performance, but that is only because he has the juicer lines and more material to work with compared to Ali.  Make no mistake about it, though, Ali is superb in this movie and he knows when to pick his scenes to knock it out of the park.  This is a moving picture which deals with race in a thoughtful and heartfelt way, and it doesn’t shy away from the tough stuff either.

A Star is Born movie poster

1) “A Star is Born”

If you are surprised by this selection, you have not heard me rave about this movie since I first watched it with my wife on opening night back in October. Bradley Cooper is a great director and he should have been given a nomination for Best Director.  I hope Lady Gaga wins Best Actress over Glenn Close.  This movie is about mental illness, fame, believing in yourself, putting yourself out there and so much more. Cooper is believable as a singer and Lady Gaga is believable as an actress.  The two have chemistry for days.  It’s a heartbreaking film which truly earns every tear from the audience.  The music is catchy, and it has a great soundtrack as well.  This is why I go to the movies and, as I said in my review, no film has affected me as much as since 2004’s “Million Dollar Baby.”  This is the best film of 2018, hands down.  If you don’t cry during it, you are made of stone.

Click here to check out Tony Farinella’s review of “A Star is Born.”

 

‘BlackkKlansman’ is Spike Lee’s Best Joint in Years

BlackkKlansman movie poster

Those who read my reviews know how much I despise the term “based on a true story” as it has long since lost its meaning for me. However, Hollywood has been looking for ways to provide variations on this phrase in recent years in an attempt to give it back the value it once had. One of my favorites was “Argo” which was advertised as being based on a “declassified” true story which made it worth seeing all the more. Still, every other movie these days is “based on a true story,” and pointing this out should make you wonder which ones were not. Besides, aren’t all movies based on or inspired by things we have experienced in real life?

BlackkKlansman,” a Spike Lee joint, is the latest movie to be “based on a true story,” but its poster has advertised as being “based on a crazy, outrageous, incredible true story.” Personally, I prefer the phrase Lee uses in the movie itself which says it is based on “some fo’ real, fo’ real shit.” This description feels far more honest as it would have seemed unbelievable were this movie released a few years ago. What results is the best joint Lee has made in years, and I could not recommend it more highly.

Based on the memoir “Black Klansman,” it stars John David Washington as Ron Stallworth who, when we first meet him, is on his way to apply at the Colorado Springs police department and become its first ever black detective. This distinction, however, doesn’t do much for him in the beginning as his fellow officers, particularly the slimy Patrolman Andy Landers (Frederick Weller) who does little to hide his racist attitudes, and he is eager to rise up in the ranks.

Following a boring stint in the records room, Stallworth gets transferred to intelligence where he comes across an advertisement for the Klu Klux Klan which looks to find new members. It is great fun watching Washington talk on the phone with Ryan Eggold who plays Walter Breachway, President of the KKK chapter of Colorado Springs, as he effortlessly convinces him he is as white as they come. This act quickly grabs the attention of Detective Flip Zimmerman who is played by Adam Driver, and it is a gas watching Driver slowly turn around in his chair once he realizes what Stallworth is up to.

Of course, Stallworth does make a critical mistake during this phone call; he uses his real name. As a result, he is forced to turn to Zimmerman who has to pretend to be Stallworth in person as they further infiltrate the KKK. This infiltration becomes a delicate balancing act as Stallworth continues to fool the racist organization over the phone while Zimmerman is forced to fool them in person. In the process, we come to discover how much easier it is for a black man to pretend to be white than it is for a white man to pretend to be black.

“BlackkKlansman” couldn’t be timelier as it digs deep into a past which has a frightening resemblance to America’s present. The KKK is shown here to be as violent and racist as they are today as they keep chanting “America first” and plot acts of violence designed to eliminate those in their way and instill fear in the general public. One of the most disturbing scenes comes as we watch them cheer unabashedly at a screening of D.W. Griffith’s “Birth of a Nation” which portrayed the KKK as heroic and African-Americans as being unintelligent and sexually aggressive. Lee does nothing to hide the racist caricatures Griffith put onto the silver screen back in 1915, and they are as infuriating to take in today as they were a hundred years ago.

It’s very ironic how “BlackkKlansman” was released in theaters around the same time Dinesh D’Souza’s latest propaganda piece, “Death of a Nation,” came out. Both movies deal with “Birth of a Nation” in different ways and acknowledge how it was the first American motion picture ever to be shown inside the White House. D’Souza portrays President Woodrow Wilson as getting a liberal erection from watching Griffith’s movie, and he took this a step further in “Hillary’s America” by having a KKK member on horseback leap out of the screen to where Wilson is shown as being completely hypnotized by this image. D’Souza, however, leaves out “Birth of a Nation’s” more inflammatory segments which include deeply offensive depictions of blacks, something Lee does not shy away from showing here.

As is the case with movies “based on a true story,” “BlackkKlansman” does take numerous liberties with the source material. The events of this story took place in 1979, but Lee has moved the timeline back to 1972 which allows him to acknowledge certain Blaxploitation classics as well as the re-election efforts of President Richard Nixon. It is also said how David Duke never realized Stallworth was a black man until 2006, but the change here was worth it as leads to one of the movie’s best and funniest scenes. With movies like these, it is more important to be true to the spirit of the facts than anything else, and those who have a problem with that can always read Stallworth’s memoir instead.

There’s some additional irony here with “BlackkKlansman’s” release as it is coming out not long after the “Superfly” remake. One scene has Stallworth talking with his girlfriend, Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), about which movie was cooler, “Super Fly” or “Shaft.” Patrice replies how “Super Fly” unfairly stereotypes black men as criminals, but it also showed a realistic grittiness to life in the city which was complemented by the brilliant soundtrack composed by Curtis Mayfield. It would be interesting to see how Patrice would have felt about this summer’s remake which threatened to glamorize gangster life more than ever before, and it made me wonder why anyone bothered remaking this blaxploitation classic in the first place.

Then there is former President Nixon whom D’Souza tried to convince us was a true progressive like any other Republican in “Death of a Nation.” We do not see much of Nixon in “BlackkKlansman,” but we do see his re-election posters displayed prominently in KKK hangouts as they were supposedly big supporters of his. Seeing this makes me think of the old Vulcan proverb Spock spoke of in “Star Trek VI” which said “only Nixon could go to China.”

“BlackkKlansman” is designed to make us mad at how history is repeating itself as white supremacist groups have flourished under the Donald Trump administration, but it is also insanely funny at times as it is almost impossible to believe anyone could have gotten away with what Stallworth and Zimmerman did here. Then again, in a time where John Melendez, a.k.a. Stuttering John of the Howard Stern Show, managed to trick Trump into believing he was Senator Bob Menedez in a phone conversation, perhaps it doesn’t seem unbelievable in the slightest

Honestly, it has been some time since I last saw a Spike Lee joint. His movies get overwhelmed at times by his camera tricks and flourishes and overly bombastic music scores which make me want to turn the volume. But with “BlackkKlansman,” Lee has crafted a film where everything feels perfect and spot on, and what results is highly entertaining and deeply visceral. Even as the “Do the Right Thing” director wants you to see how the past never left us, he invites us to revel in Stallworth’s successful infiltration even as those in power want to bury his victories.

There is not a single weak performance to be found here. Both Washington and Driver dig deep into their characters’ complexities as they try to remain professional in an increasingly volatile situation, but their own personal beliefs threaten to get in the way. Jasper Pääkkönen proves to be a fiery presence as Felix Kendrickson, the white supremacist who looks like a grenade primed to explode at any given moment. Corey Hawkins is magnetic as Kwame Ture when he rouses his followers at a civil rights rally. And Topher Grace proves to be an inspired choice to play a young David Duke who is shown to be aloof as to who Stallworth really is, and that’s even when Stallworth is assigned to be his security detail while in Colorado Springs.

It is no mistake Lee concludes “BlackkKlansman” with footage from the Unite the Right rally which took place in Charlottesville, Virginia as the movie is being released on its first anniversary. We see white supremacists marching the streets with tiki torches saying they will not be replaced, we see the real David Duke talk about how Trump is making “America great again,” we see Trump respond to the rally by saying how there were good people on both sides, and we see the car attack perpetrated by a white supremacist which injured many and killed Heather Heyer. While we look at the past as if it is barely visible in our rearview mirrors, it is real events like these which remind us how these same mirrors have the message of how things we see in them are much closer than they appear.

The image of an upside-down American flag which fades into black and white is the perfect image to end “BlackkKlansman” on as we are truly living in “The Twilight Zone” with everything that’s going on. It also reminds me of the final image of that same flag in John Singleton’s “Higher Learning” which ended with the word “unlearn” being typed out over it. Those who do not learn from the past are condemned to repeat it, and history continues to repeat itself again and again and again. The fight for justice has never ceased, and the progress we all thought Americans had made is not as great as it seemed. Lee has made an overtly political movie which could not have come out at a more appropriate time, and it is his best one in years.

* * * * out of * * * *

‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Defies Easy Expectations

Star Wars The Last Jedi movie poster

With “Star Wars” movies now becoming a yearly tradition, I wonder if they will begin to feel less like an event and resemble a typical episode of the “Law & Order” franchise. You know a version of the show is always on television in one form or another, but are you as excited to watch an episode as you were when you first discovered it? Perhaps this is an unfair comparison, but considering where Disney is taking this franchise, it is beginning to feel like it no longer takes place in a galaxy all that far away.

I bring this up because I couldn’t stop thinking about this during the opening crawl of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Each new “Star Wars” motion picture feels like a major event to where it should be declared a national holiday, but since it’s becoming a regular thing now since Disney bought Lucasfilm, will the franchise still feel this special with each future installment? Well, hopefully this remains the case as “The Last Jedi” proves to be a rousing piece of entertainment which stays true to the franchise’s ideals, and it even has a number of surprises up its sleeve to where I eagerly await the next episode set to come out in 2019.

While each “Star Wars” film typically takes place several years after the last one, “The Last Jedi” begins where “The Force Awakens” concluded. Rey (Daisy Ridley) comes to meet the legendary Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has long since exiled himself on the planet Ahch-To (gesundheit), a much nicer destination than Dagobah. Meanwhile, the Resistance finds itself feeling the First Order after the latter obliterates their main base. From there, the rebels are on the run, but they can only get so far before they realize the First Order has tracked their whereabouts and to where they are trapped with little hope of escape. It is up to the daring and dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) to save the day with the help of friends both old and new.

Revealing more about a “Star Wars” film just as it is released tends to result in actions which will prove to be infinitely painful to say the least, so this will be a spoiler-free review. What I can tell you is while this episode deals with the subjects of hope and the need to discover more than what can be found on the surface, the key subject writer and director Rian Johnson deals with here is failure. All the characters are dealing with failure in one way or another, and it comes to haunt every action they take. The characters we grew up with are dealing with failings they cannot escape, and the ones we were introduced to in “The Force Awakens” are now discovering the irreversible consequences of their actions.

Johnson previously wrote and directed “The Brothers Bloom” and “Brick,” but his best known film before helming “The Last Jedi” was “Looper,” a sci-fi time travel motion picture which was ingenious as it was thrilling. Having seen it, I went into this “Star Wars” extravaganza with the confidence he could pull it off, and he did. Even though “The Last Jedi” threatens to overstay its welcome at two hours and 32 minutes, making it the longest “Star Wars” movie to date, you cannot punish Johnson for his ambition as he covers a lot of ground while leaving us salivating for more.

When it came to the prequels, you had to forgive the actors because they were being directed by a man, George Lucas, who is a master storyteller but deeply deficient when it came to dealing with the human element. But Johnson, like J.J. Abrams before him, knows how to elicit strong performances from his cast, and each actor is more than up to the challenge.

Watching Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher was deeply fascinating as their adventures in the original “Star Wars” trilogy remain forever burned into my consciousness, and it still feels like I first watched those movies just yesterday. Their youthful exuberance in fighting the dark side was contagious as I wanted to fight alongside them, and I know I’m not the only who feels this way. When we catch up with their characters of Luke Skywalker and Leia Organa in “The Last Jedi,” the years of endless battles and devastating defeats show in their faces as we wonder how much of a fight they have left in them considering what they have been through. While they are heroes, both have grown weary in the face of an enemy which is every bit as imposing as the Galactic Empire, and their confidence in their abilities is shakier than ever before.

It’s especially poignant to watch Fisher here as this was her last movie before she passed away, and knowing this will be the final time we will see her as Leia is a real heartbreaker. Even as Leia’s accent changes yet again, Fisher imbues the former princess with a dignity and humility which will not be easily shattered in the face of defeat. Even as the odds get worse for the Resistance, Fisher makes Leia stand tall, and she makes clear to the audience that this sci-fi icon will not go down without a fight.

After watching Hamill’s brief appearance in “The Force Awakens,” I came into this film wondering where he would take the great Luke Skywalker. Well, he’s no Yoda here as a devastating failure has led him to believe the Jedi should end and has robbed almost completely robbed him of his sense of humor. Whether or not this is the Luke Skywalker you hoped to see in “The Last Jedi,” Hamill dares to take this character in another direction, but despite defying expectations, the actor makes Luke the powerful Jedi we always wanted him to be.

It’s also great to see “The Force Awakens” veterans Oscar Isaac and John Boyega back as Poe Dameron and Finn as their charismatic energy lends itself nicely to the special effects extravaganza which could have, but does not, overwhelm their talents. Watching Isaac here also serves as a reminder that covering him in pounds of makeup like Bryan Singer did in “X-Men: Apocalypse” is completely unnecessary and just takes away from him. Domhnall Gleeson still makes General Hux into more of a twisted tightwad than we previously saw, and Andy Serkis mesmerizes as Supreme Leader Snoke while continuing to shroud the character in mystery.

Among the newcomers to this franchise are Laura Dern as Resistance Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, Benicio Del Toro as the codebreaker DJ, and Kelly Marie Tran comes into play as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker who becomes a key player in the Resistance. While it is great to see Dern and Del Toro here, let alone in any other movie they appear in, their characters are a bit underwritten to where their talents can only go so far with the material given to them. Tran, however, makes Rose Tico into a terrific character I am very eager to see in the next “Star Wars” episode. As for the Porgs, they are delightful little creatures who do not overstay their welcome, and they serve as a reason why Chewbacca might consider becoming a vegetarian in the future.

But the performances which really held my attention more than any others came from Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Both bring a raw intensity to their characters which left me on edge as their passions could lead them either in the right direction, or instead down a road which offers no hope of return. The connection Rey and Kylo share throughout “The Last Jedi” is one which grows stronger in each scene, and it makes me wonder if they could possibly survive without one another in Episode IX. Both actors bring a natural energy which Natalie Portman should have been allowed to bring in the prequels, and they remain as compelling as ever.

Many complained “The Force Awakens” hewed too closely to the plot of “A New Hope” to where it became an exercise in nostalgia more than anything else. So it’s only natural filmgoers are coming to “The Last Jedi” expecting something close to “The Empire Strikes Back.” However, Johnson and company have succeeded in giving us a “Star Wars” episode which surprises us more often than not. While many may be sitting in a movie theater crying out, “I knew that was going to happen,” I think they need to realize not everything is going to go the way they expect. It reminded me of the next to last episode of “The Sopranos’” second season as it left me in shock and wondering what could possibly happen next. While we feel we know and understand the formula of the average “Star Wars” movie, this one upends it to where we can only guess what will happen in the future.

“The Last Jedi” also shows us there is more to failure than we see at first, and this is an important lesson to take in as we often let failure keep us from moving forward in life. It also shows us how hope can be tested more than ever before to where we grasp onto any last piece of it. In “The Shawshank Redemption,” Morgan Freeman talked about how “hope is a dangerous thing” and that “hope can drive a man insane,” but our heroic characters still cling onto hope as nothing else will do, and surrender is not even a part of the equation.

While the continuing onslaught of “Star Wars” movies threatens to make this franchise feel a lot less special, none of my worries detracted from my enjoyment of “The Last Jedi.” It proves to be as entertaining as any other “Star Wars” movie currently out there in circulation, and yes, I include the prequels. This film also makes me look forward to Rian Johnson’s continued contributions to the franchise which look to be many, and I eagerly await the next episode as I am not sure what to expect from it. I just hope I don’t go into a future “Star Wars” movie saying to myself, “I got a bad feeling about this.”

* * * ½ out of * * * *

 

‘Logan Lucky’ Rescues Steven Soderbergh From His Unintended Retirement

Logan Lucky movie poster

I never really believed Steven Soderbergh was all that serious about retiring from filmmaking. Since calling it quits after “Behind the Candelabra,” he directed the Cinemax television series “The Knick,” helped Spike Jonze edit his Oscar-winning film “Her,” executive produced the television series version of “The Girlfriend Experience,” and he has even gone out of his way to recut famous movies like “Raiders of the Ark” and “Heaven’s Gate” (the latter which has been referred to as “The Butcher’s Cut”). This man has had filmmaking in his blood probably since birth, and you can’t keep a good filmmaker like him down.

Soderbergh is finally back in the world of motion pictures with “Logan Lucky,” and it’s another heist movie but one with a cast of characters nowhere as smart or as gloriously debonair as those from the “Ocean’s Eleven” movies. In fact, during a newscast we hear someone describe this gang of thieves as “Ocean’s 7-Eleven,” and this description feels more than appropriate given what we have seen.

Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) is a hard-working construction worker at Charlotte Motor Speedway, but this soon doesn’t matter as his boss is forced to terminate his employment after he is seen limping around the workplace due to an injury which ended his ever so promising football career. Jimmy is told his limp represents a “pre-existing condition,” a term which these days should be seen as the equivalent of a four-letter word. On top of this, his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) informs him she and her husband will soon be moving to Lynchburg, Tennessee which will make visiting his daughter, Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie), all the more difficult.

So, what’s an unemployed father with few prospects to do? Well, rob the race track of course. For this, he turns to his brother, the one-armed war veteran and bartender Clyde (Adam Driver), to pull off this challenging heist (is there any other kind?) without a hitch. Together they assemble a team which includes convicted safecracker and explosives expert Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) who figures prominently in Sadie’s beauty pageant contest and can drive a Ford Mustang better than Bobbie Jo’s car salesman husband Moody (David Denman), and a pair of brothers, Sam (Brian Gleeson) and Fish (Jack Quaid) who are willing to participate in criminal activities as long as it doesn’t interfere with their religious beliefs.

Is “Logan Lucky” among Soderbergh’s best movies? No, but it does provide the audience with a fun time, and you can sense the director’s giddiness as he tackles the screenplay written by Rebecca Blunt with an unrestrained relish. This is familiar territory for the Oscar-winning director, but we can easily sense how inspired he felt while making this feature. There have been many heist movies and there will be many more after this one, but Soderbergh makes this one breathe as it has a lively setting and characters who could have been mere southern clichés but who are instead brought to wonderful life thanks to the actors portraying them. Soderbergh is also well-served by his frequent collaborators which include composer David Holmes, cinematographer Peter Andrews and editor Mary Ann Bernard (pay special attention to those last two names) as they help realize his vision in a way few others could.

This is one of those movies which features a big-name cast, and watching it reveals even more big names than what you may have noticed when looking at the poster. One actor I got a huge kick out of seeing here was Daniel Craig as Joe Bang represents a much-needed change of pace for the actor best known as James Bond (by the way, I’m thrilled to hear he will be playing 007 for a fifth time). Adapting an Appalachian accent which could not have been easy to pull off, Craig is an utter delight playing someone who is not the least big refined or tasteful in the clothes he chooses, or is forced, to wear. Also, seeing him deal with an explosive device he made out of household substances is especially hilarious as he has us in suspense until he doesn’t.

Adam Driver, who is quickly proving to be one of the most talented actors of his generation, is a deadpan delight as Clyde Logan as his face remains an impenetrable one incapable of showing emotions. In fact, I think he is as deadpan here as Steven Wright is in his comedy routines, and that’s saying a lot. Despite the seeming lack of emotions, Driver makes Clyde a fascinating character whose loss of an arms says more about him than he could ever say about himself.

There are many other actors worth mentioning here, but I would rather not as it might spoil the surprises you will find in this movie. I do, however, have to mention Dwight Yoakam who plays Warden Burns as this role represents something of a departure from the typical bad guys he has been known to play. Yoakam is hilarious in scenes where he tries to control a prison riot by explaining to the inmates how “Games of Thrones” show no longer follows the books it is based on. It also took me far too long to recognize Seth MacFarlane as the pretentious British businessman Max Chilblain or Sebastian Stan as NASCAR race driver Dayton White. Then again, this should testify as to what they both can get away with as actors.

“Logan Lucky” goes on a little longer than it should as various loose ends take an extensive amount of time to tie up for us to have a satisfying conclusion, but it is still a wonderfully inventive movie which represents a welcome return for a filmmaker we never wanted to see retire. While it doesn’t match up to Soderbergh’s greatest masterpieces, it does show how his enthusiasm for filmmaking is still strong even after it appeared to be burned out forever. This movie also gives me an increased appreciation for the word cauliflower as well as the music of John Denver. You may ask why, but to discover why, you have to watch this movie.

* * * out of * * * *

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star-wars-the-force-awakens-poster

We’ve been down this road before. A new “Star Wars” movie is announced and it quickly becomes the most eagerly anticipated motion picture of all time. I’ve lived through this phenomenon many times before and have always been desperate to keep my expectations in check. While I didn’t hate the prequels and enjoyed them for what they were, many fans despised them where they looked at George Lucas as some heartless bastard who utterly destroyed what was most cherished to them. So, with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” I tried to keep my anticipation to a bare minimum as I felt any expectations I could ever have for this installment could easily be undone.

Well, now having seen it, I can safely say J.J. Abrams has not only awakened the force with this “Star Wars” movie, he has also reignited our childhood innocence by bringing the franchise back to its basics. Like “Creed,” the “Rocky” spin-off, it takes the story of its famous predecessor, in this movie’s case “Episode IV: A New Hope,” and spins a new take on it with old and new characters joining forces to keep the dark side from destroying the light. Even if you feel like you’ve seen this story before, what results is a highly entertaining and exhilarating motion picture which gets many of the things the prequels messed up right and reminds us why we love going to the movies in the first place.

No one wants to spoil “The Force Awakens” for anybody as doing so would be like Homer Simpson ruining the big reveal of “The Empire Strikes Back” for those waiting in line to see it, so don’t expect this reviewer make this mistake as everyone should come to this movie fresh and experience it all firsthand instead of being forced to read the entire plot synopsis on Wikipedia.

What can be said is it takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” The Galactic Empire had been vanquished, but just like John Carpenter once said, evil never dies. What’s left of it has come to form the First Order which is once again hell bent on crushing every single part of the Rebel Alliance. As for the Rebel Alliance, it is now known as the Resistance which is backed by the Republic and features many veterans including Princess, now General, Leia Organa. Whatever peace was achieved in the 1983 movie has long since been undone by some Darth Vader wannabes, and those wannabes are now more ruthless than ever.

Into the mix comes Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger struggling to survive on the Tatooine-like planet Jakku who comes across a droid named BB-8 which has, you guessed it, secret information the First Order is desperate to get their hands on. From there she joins forces with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper who suffers a crisis of conscience and abandons the First Order without hesitation, and heroic fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to get the droid to the Resistance before the First Order finds and destroys them without mercy.

Revealing any more of the story from there would be hazardous to one’s health, but many characters from previous installments like Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO, R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker are back to once again fight the good fight against an enemy hopelessly drunk with power.

The first thing I have to point out is how good the acting is. This surprised me a lot as the cast had to be acting opposite a number of things they couldn’t see, and the prequels were notorious for the wooden performances which came out of them. But each actor cast in “The Force Awakens” gives us characters who are not just mere archetypes the science fiction genre calls for, but interesting people we want to follow right from the start. Many “Star Wars” fans get edgy when it comes to new characters being brought into the franchise (R.I.P. Jar Jar Binks), but the ones introduced in “The Force Awakens” are very welcome additions.

One major standout is Daisy Ridley who, before starring in “The Force Awakens,” was largely unknown outside of her native England. As Rey, she gives us a new female action hero for the ages who is self-sufficient and needs nobody to rely on, and she infuses her performance with tremendous heart and passion to where this character is not just another token female. Ridley makes Rey stand on her own from so many other female sci-fi heroes who came before her, and that’s quite an accomplishment.

Matching Ridley from one scene to the next is John Boyega who left a strong impression on audiences in the highly entertaining “Attack the Block.” As Finn, he spends a good portion of this movie in panic mode to where his performance could have been irritating, but Boyega gives this reformed stormtrooper a cutting sense of humor and an energetic personality which makes him very entertaining to spend your time with.

Oscar Isaac proves to be a combination of both Han Solo and Luke Skywalker as X-wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron, making him into one of the most charismatic characters you could ever hope to find in the “Star Wars” universe. At first it seems like a weird career move for him to do a “Star Wars” movie after giving unforgettable performances in movies like “Inside Llewyn Davis,” “A Most Violent Year” and “Ex Machina,” but he makes Poe a wonderfully heroic character you want to travel all over the galaxy with, and he looks right at home in this franchise as a result.

Adam Driver provides “The Force Awakens” with its most fearsome antagonist, Kylo Ren. Some will dismiss the character as a Darth Vader wannabe, but that’s kind of the point. Kylo seeks to finish what Vader started as we saw in the trailer, and even he sees he has big shoes to fill. What Driver does is not make Kylo into a simple villain, but instead someone with some serious issues to sort out and who is dedicated to a struggle he has essentially been manipulated into. As a result, Driver makes the character into an unpredictable menace and one who is far more dangerous than anyone realizes.

Then there are the veteran actors who return to this franchise with more enthusiasm than they would have 10 years ago. It’s great to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia Organa, and that’s even though Leia’s accent has changed yet again. Peter Mayhew hasn’t missed a beat as Chewbacca, Anthony Daniels reprises his C-3PO role as though time never passed, and all Mark Hamill has to do is give us a look to remind audiences there is no Jedi better than Luke Skywalker.

But the biggest thrill is seeing Harrison Ford back as Han Solo. It’s no secret Ford has had a lot of edgy feelings about his involvement with the “Star Wars” franchise to where he distanced himself from all the fandom which came with it. But thanks to an unforeseen miracle, Ford is back and he actually looks happy to be reprising one of his most iconic characters. While Han Solo has only changed so much, Ford still imbues the character with a humanity which made him such an integral part of the original trilogy.

For a time, it looked like it was not worth the trouble to do another “Star Wars” movie as what was once fresh had long since become the model for just about every science fiction film out there. That’s what makes Abrams’ accomplishment with “The Force Awakens” all the more commendable because he makes us feel like kids again as we watch the action unfold. And just as he did with his “Star Trek” reboot, he puts as much attention on the characters as he does on the spectacle, and this makes us fully engaged in the way we should be when we go to the movies. “Jurassic World” may have been entertaining, but it can only dream of being as good as this.

Does “The Force Awakens” get a little too nostalgic at times? Sure, and the movie’s ending doesn’t quite give us the same elation as “A New Hope” did when the Death Star blew up. But Abrams and company have managed to pull off the impossible here; they made “Star Wars” seem truly exciting again. While we can’t resist picking away at the flaws inherent in the prequels, we couldn’t care less about any of the flaws in this one because watching it is just too damn much fun.

* * * * out of * * * *