‘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 * * * *

 

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Denis Villeneuve’s ‘Sicario’ is a Seriously Intense Motion Picture

Sicario

I think we have all long since come to the conclusion that the war on drugs is, to put it mildly, an utter failure. Instead of ridding the world of illegal substances, this war has allowed the drug trade to exist in a way it never intended to. Furthermore, many fighting this war have become just as bad as the drug czars they are pursuing, and this should not be seen as anything new. And when you cross a drug cartel, they punish you in the most painful way possible and let the rest of the world know it in a horrifyingly unforgettable manner. In short, we will never get rid of illegal drugs if we keep going on the route we have been on for far too long.

There are many movies which have chronicled the pointlessness and shocking brutality of the war on drugs and the unscrupulous politics behind it like Steven Soderbergh’s “Traffic,” “Kill the Messenger” and David Ayer’s “Sabotage” which I liked more than most people did. “Sicario” is the latest film you can add to the list, and it proves to be one of the most riveting and nerve wracking of its kind as we follow an idealistic FBI agent as she descends into the hellish center of this war and learns a number of harsh truths never taught at Quantico.

“Sicario” hits the ground running with a very intense scene which sets up the chief perspective you will see things from. We meet FBI special agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) as she rides along with her fellow agents to a drug bust in which they raid a house where a kidnap victim may be at. Things get even more heightened when the agents discover dozens of dead and decaying bodies hidden in the walls, and this is only the beginning of what’s in store for the audience.

This bust leads Kate to be enlisted, voluntarily of course, by an undefined government task force led by Matt (Josh Brolin) which is put together to aid in the drug war escalating at the U.S./Mexican border. But once there, Kate will find her idealistic nature put to the test as she discovers this war has become more personal to some than she was led to believe.

It should be no surprise “Sicario” is a seriously intense piece of filmmaking considering it was directed by Denis Villeneuve who gave us the equally intense “Prisoners” a few years back. He succeeds in putting us right into Kate’s shoes as we follow her every step of the way as she enters a town as foreign to her as it is to us. We discover things at the same time she does like a couple of naked dead bodies hung from a nearby bridge, a chilling warning of what happens to those who interfere with the drug trade. We also share her sense of panic and terror when a character next to her says, “Keep an eye out for the state police. They’re not always the good guys.”

The movie also makes us share in Kate’s utter frustration as Matt and his troops keep the nature of their overall mission a secret to her and her partner, Reggie (Daniel Kaluuya). But once she is sucked into this increasingly insane mission, she finds it impossible to tear herself away from it even as she questions its legality.

Villeneuve is a master at creating a slow burn intensity which keeps escalating for what seems like an eternity before the situation finally explodes. The picture he paints of the drug war is an a very bleak one, and I imagine this movie won’t do much for the Mexican tourist trade. He is also aided tremendously by master cinematographer Roger Deakins who captures the bleakness of a town long since ravaged by the drug war in a way both horrifying and strangely beautiful, and by composer Jóhann Jóhannsson whose film score lights the fuse to “Sicario’s” intense flame and keeps it burning to where, once you think it has hit its peak, it burns even brighter.

Emily Blunt proved to the world just how badass she can be in “Edge of Tomorrow,” and she is clearly in her element here as an FBI agent who has yet to learn how the drug war is really fought. Seriously, this was one of the best performances by an actress in a 2015 movie. Blunt fully inhabits her character to where you can never spot a faked emotion on her face. It’s a fearless performance which must have emotionally draining for her to pull off, and I love how she never strives for an Oscar moment. Blunt just is Kate Mercer, and you want to follow her into the depths of hell even if you know you won’t like what’s about to be unveiled.

Josh Brolin is perfectly cast as Matt Graver, a government agent who clearly knows more than he lets on. We can see this is a character who has seen a lot of bad stuff go down and has long since become numbed to the effects of an endless drug war which shows no signs of stopping. Brolin doesn’t necessarily have one of those clean-scrubbed faces as his is rough around the edges, and Hollywood doesn’t seem to value this kind of face enough. Some actors benefit from having history written all over them, and Brolin is one of those actors as he makes you believe he has long since been to hell and back.

But make no mistake; the best performance in “Sicario” belongs to Benicio Del Toro who portrays Alejandro, a mysterious figure whose motives and intentions are eventually revealed towards the movie’s conclusion. Del Toro is great at hinting at the horrors his character has faced as Alejandro looks to be suffering a serious case of PTSD, and he makes this character into a dangerously unpredictable one whose next move is always hard to guess. His role in this movie reminds us of what a brilliant actor he can be, not that we ever forgot, and he succeeds in increasing the already high-tension level this movie already has.

“Sicario” is a hard-edged and remarkably intense thriller which grabs you right from the start and holds you in its grasp all the way to the end. Like any great movie, it will shake you up and stay with you long after you have left the theater. Some movies are made to be watched, but “Sicario” was made to be experienced. It’s not the kind of experience audiences are always pinning for, but those willing to travel down its dark path will find much to admire.

* * * * out of * * * *