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

‘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 * * * *

 

Sandy King Revisits John Carpenter’s ‘Body Bags’ at Cinefamily

Body Bags Blu-ray cover

Remember John Carpenter’s “Body Bags?” It was a horror anthology containing three stories: “The Gas Station” which has a female college student working a graveyard shift and getting terrorized by a serial killer, “Hair” about a hair transplant which goes horribly wrong, and “The Eye” where a baseball player loses an eye and gets a new one from a recently executed murderer. Many see it as Showtime’s answer to HBO’s “Tales from the Crypt” as it featured Carpenter as a creepy-looking and deranged coroner who introduces the three stories while drinking formaldehyde as if it were a martini, and it looked like the start of a wickedly demented series. Was it meant to become a series, or was it simply intended to be a single movie? These questions were answered by Sandy King, the producer of “Body Bags” and Carpenter’s wife, when she dropped by Cinefamily which showed 1993 horror anthology as part of its Friday Night Frights series.

King told the audience Showtime originally wanted a 3-story movie and that it was supposed to be a one-shot movie for her and Carpenter. As soon as they were done, they would be off and running to their next project. King remarked how anthology movies were very hard to finance as they were typically not successful at the box office, so bringing one to a cable channel like Showtime made more sense. When it was finished, Showtime then decided they wanted to turn it into a series, but King explained why she and Carpenter decided against it.

“We shot it in California, mostly in Los Angeles, which allowed us to get a lot of the great cameos with Wes Craven, Sam Raimi and Roger Corman,” King said. “Showtime, however, wanted to lower the budget and shoot the series in Canada, and we felt the amount of money they were putting into was not going to be enough to get it right. Plus, shooting in Canada would have made it enormously difficult to get the cameos we got. So, we basically told Showtime thanks, but no thanks.”

“Body Bags” was in many ways a family affair as it involved King and Carpenter working with people they worked with in the past. King had previously worked with Bobby Carradine and Stacey Keach on the Walter Hill western “The Long Riders,” and she had worked with Mark Hamill as well. Peter Jason has appeared in many of Carpenter’s films, and he even used his own car for his appearance in “The Gas Station.” As for the cameos from Craven, Raimi and Corman, she reminded the audience that the horror community is a small and tightly-knit one as everyone knows each other in it.

Carpenter has never seen himself as much of an actor for those who have listened to his various commentary tracks on the movies he has done. After making a Hitchcockian cameo at the beginning of “The Fog,” felt he would be better off behind the camera instead of in front of it. Still, King said she wanted him to play the Coroner in “Body Bags” and that it actually didn’t take much to convince him. She also described Carpenter as an “inner looney” to where he allowed himself to let loose, with the help of Rick Baker’s makeup, on set. Also, Carpenter did not direct himself as the Coroner as King said a friend was brought in to handle his performance and to make sure he hit all his marks. Truth be told, casting him as the Coroner was very inspired.

King said she and Carpenter worked on “Body Bags,” “In the Mouth of Madness” and “Village of the Damned” all in a row. It was originally planned that Carpenter would direct all three stories in “Body Bags,” but as he was already in post-production on “In the Mouth of Madness,” she said Carpenter told her he couldn’t direct all three. To this, she replied, “Okay, we’ll get Tobe.”

The Tobe she was referring to was Tobe Hooper, director of the horror classics “Poltergeist” and the infinitely terrifying “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Getting Hooper to direct “The Eye” was a bit tricky as he was very disturbed by the material which had a husband attempting to kill his pregnant wife, but King told him it would be fun and that he could make it work. She also said it was fun to watch Hooper do comedy as he had a cameo at the end with Tom Arnold in which they play two morgue workers who perhaps enjoy their jobs a little too much.

It was great fun to watch “Body Bags” on the big screen and with an audience at Cinefamily, and it was especially nice to see Sandy King drop by and talk about its making and development. She even brought some Shout Factory Blu-rays of Carpenter’s movies to give away, and this writer was lucky enough to win a copy of the one for “Body Bags.” For Carpenter fans, the Blu-ray is a must as it features a great commentary track, a wonderful making-of documentary, and a trailer for the movie as well. It had been out of print for years, and the previous DVD released by Artisan Entertainment gave us a severely edited version which took out a lot of things like Craven’s inspired cameo and some especially gruesome moments. “Body Bags” may not be epic filmmaking, but it sure is a lot of fun for horror fans.

Poster and trailer courtesy of Shout Factory.

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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 * * * *