Star Wars: The Last Jedi

It’s hard to be dispassionate and analytical about a subject that you have been passionate about for forty years. Star Wars has been a cultural phenomena for that long now, and even casual fans can get carried away by the enthusiasm of anticipation and nostalgia. This film manages to hit most of the right buttons for the cosplay crowd, while still being accessible to everyone else. I suspect it will require a couple more viewings to be a bit more objective, but even now I can see a few things that are weaknesses from my view. They are not particularly significant to my enjoyment of the film, but they were more noticeable to me than the flaws of the last two Star Wars movie. “The Last Jedi” is a good story, surrounded by an ambitious production, with a couple of cinematic weaknesses that keep it from the perfection that so many are hyping now.

First, the good stuff. Just about every sequence with Mark Hamill works and gives him an opportunity to bring a character we have loved for a long time, some new dimensions. The callow schoolboy of the original trilogy has become a wizened figure of melancholy, but one with a great sense of humor. There are several light moments in the film that provoke a laugh, Hamill provides most of these, even though he is a character fraught with regret. Writer/Director Rian Johnson has given Luke an arc that is redemptive, cynical and blind all at the same time. Since I refuse to simply tell you the story, I’ll let you find out for yourselves, but the payoff at the conclusion of Luke’s story is emotionally satisfying to all of we fans who watched the original film in 1977. This is the best kind of torch passing you will see outside of the Olympic Relay.

It’s been a year now since our Princess left us, but the character lives on in this film. Carrie Fisher has a significant role in this movie and she finishes her career with a strong presence in the film. Leia is haunted by the events from the last film in the trilogy, but she is needed more than ever by the Rebellion. There is no doubt that “the Force” lives in her, even though she is not a Jedi. Largely missing from the second act, her storyline through the rest of the film works well at keeping us connected to the reason that the “First Order” cares about a relatively small rebel force.

Many people, including myself, thought that “The Force Awakens” borrowed heavily from “A New Hope”. There were plenty of call backs but also it seemed that the story beats mimicked the original film to a fault. It has been widely suspected that this movie would end up doing something similar with “The Empire Strikes Back”.  There are several points that echo or repeat ideas from that film. They are mostly moments though, rather than plot threads. The parallel between Luke now and Yoda on Dagobah is clear but superficial. The temptation of Rey by Ben is very much in the vein of Luke and Darth Vader in “Empire”. These similarities felt like strengths to me rather than weak imitations. It is as if the pattern of the struggle between the light and dark sides of the Force are destined to repeat themselves.

Of the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens”, the ones who come off the best in this film are the principles in the main plot, Kilo Ren (Ben) and Rey. Adam Driver is being used in this film the way Christian Hayden should have been used in the two prequel films. His emotional arc is more subtle and less random than the earlier character. The behaviors that he was mocked for in the last film are not eliminated here but they are exploited to tell a story and create some motivation on his part. Getting rid of the mask will be one of the things that allows this film to be much more mature in bringing this character to the next film and the climax of his story.

Rey also gets a solid few pieces of character development, and much like Luke in the original trilogy, she is the center of the story without having to carry the whole film and plot on her back. Daisy Ridley can’t have quite the impact she did as a new character in the last episode but she grows and fights and makes choices that all work because she commits as an actor to the character. Her best moments include a series of interactions with Luke, a moment of uncertainty in a cave, and the culmination of her interaction with Ben. Everything else in the film is context for the relationship that is being formed with these two.

OK, now to some of the things that hold this movie back from it’s potential. The other characters introduced in the last episode do not fare as well in these events. Oscar Issac as Poe Dameron, is not the mix of Han and Luke that we want him to be. The character comes off as a weak version of Maverick from “Top Gun”. Head strong and unwilling to listen to those higher in the chain of command, he needs more charm to be able to pull this off. His character is underwritten and feels the most cardboard of the leads in the film. Jon Boyega’s Finn is marginally better, with more to do and a new character to play off. The problem is that the main sequence he is featured in was the weakest part of the film. The casino plot on a new planet, Canto Bright, feels the most like the prequel films. Elaborate set design, background scenes filled with CGI creations to amuse us, and a completely unnecessary chase on new creatures that we are introduced to, simply for the opportunity to have them in the film. The rushed and tacked on inclusion of Maz from the last film also makes this story thread feel like an accessory rather than something endemic to the plot.

There are some treats that come along with the story, which help compensate for some of the excess. The opening battle sequence is excellent as is the fight at the climax of the film. The material where Snoke confronts Rey and Ben is also a welcome surprise and turn of events. As I have already said, the Luke Skywalker payoff was maybe the most satisfying thing about the movie and the reveal and reactions to it were well played by all involved. This is officially the longest film in the Star Wars franchise, and it did not need to be. I was never bored but I was sometimes overwhelmed by having to keep track of so many events taking place simultaneously.

“The Last Jedi” can work as a stand alone feature but it does set up future events for subsequent films. The film looks terrific and there are plenty of action scenes to keep us involved, but only the plot with Luke and Rey and Ben feels like it is relevant to the story that is being told. I wish it had ended on a note that builds anticipation and discussion for the next film, but this movie feels complete. Clearly there are characters that have to be resolved, but It is unlikely to create the kinds of discussions that took place after either “Empire” or “The Force Awakens.”.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

This is the first of the Star Wars Universe films that I did not see on opening day. It’s not that I did not want to, but someone in the house had other commitments and the likelihood was that if I went without them, we would have had our own war on our hands. So in addition to avoiding spoilers for months, I had to avoid reviews, tweets, and tidbits of knowledge for an extra few days in order to make this experience more complete. I’m sure many of you have done the same kinds of things and believe me, I will stick to my no-spoiler policy for these comments, but I can say that this is probably my favorite of the Star Wars movies since the original trilogy was completed in 1983.  “Rogue One” feels like an integral part of the story, without having to rely on the characters we have from the other films. There is a small amount of bleed over, but for the most part this is a newly original part of the galactic battles taking place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

Unlike last years “The Force Awakens“, this film occurs prior to the original “Star Wars“. It is not a repeat of the plot points from that film like Episode VII, it is however a supplement to the story that ends up deepening the events of the original trilogy and setting up a number of story threads that we have already seen completed in other films. One thing that is definitely true about this new film is that it may be the darkest of all of the movies with the possible exception of “Revenge of the Sith” which after all did include the murder of children as a plot point. At the conclusion of the film, there will be a realization about how dark this movie really is, that is only leavened by a call back piece of fan service that I think is totally justified.

The first third of the story introduces so many new characters, that it is a whirlwind to observe. Frankly, there were so many names and they were so hard to remember and distinguish from one another, that ultimately I just stopped trying.  Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is our heroine, and whoever she is encountering at any given moment was the only character that mattered.  Character development here may not be as important as in the continuing story, since this is a stand alone film, but it means that some of the events that take place in the film will not have the emotional impact that they would in the longer running series. Believe me however, there are plenty of strong emotional elements, and if a character was not fully explored for this story, it is usually so that the plot and action could be kept moving. There are some characters however that manage to make a mark without much more than a unique look or ambiguous reference to the past. I suspect a fan favorite will be K-2SO, an Imperial Droid reconditioned to work for the rebel alliance. There is a great deal of humor in the lines and situations where that character is included, and the voice work of Alan Tudyk is just right for the part.

Diego Luna as Cassian Andor is supposed to be a conflicted character, and his relationship with Jyn is an uncertain one. There are several moments of the film that are ominous because we don’t really know how his character is going to play things out. Jones is tough and unpredictable, while Luna is shady and enigmatic. In fact, there are elements to their two characters that I suppose are designed to represent the edge between the good and the dark sides of “the force”. About halfway through we get an answer, but it does not keep the two lead characters from having a continuing  substrata of tension and distrust.  It may also be the actor’s accent that made it difficult at times for me to pick out which character who was not present in a scene was being referred to. My ear for articulate pronunciation was hampered by my unfamiliarity with the sounds of his speech patterns. Another character that I quite enjoyed was Bodhi, the pilot, played by Riz Ahmed. While the characters exist more than thirty years apart, he seems to be the foreshadowing embodiment of the kinds of doubts that produce the new hero in Episode VII, Finn.

There are a half dozen or so characters who have appeared in another Star Wars film and show up briefly in this one. It is no surprise that Darth Vader is in the movie, his character was teased in the trailer. Some of the other recurring characters have only the briefest of moments in the film and are really just there for fan service, although that was totally welcome by me. Two or three of those characters however are a major component of the plot and one of them is the saving grace of what might otherwise be a very downbeat outcome for the film. One member of our group was a little resentful of this character being in the film at all, suggesting that a shadow or silhouette might have sufficed. I would strongly disagree. I think the choice made was exactly right and provides the emotional kick that the movie needs to make it fit in with the rest of the films. It will probably be a discussion point on a great many podcasts but I will not step into spoilers here, as tempted as I am to defend this choice.

Another thing that makes this movie feel like a tangential story to the original trilogy is the effort to make practical sets and effects a part of the film making. There is plenty of CGI to go around, but many of the environments are clearly real set locations and not computer based backgrounds. There were more animatronic  puppets and costumes in the film than in any of the prequel films and even more than “The Force Awakens”. Director Gareth Edwards, who’s  only previous work I’d seen was “Godzilla”, does a good job of making sense of the story given some of the convoluted plot elements and ambiguous characters a script cobbled together by four writers provided. In the long run, a lot of the movie works because Edwards keeps the story moving fast enough that we don’t have time to ask questions about motivations and history. The main characters are introduced with some efficiency, although  I think we could do with a bit more back story on Jyn before she is unceremoniously “rescued”.

Lets say that in the end there were plenty of space battles, heroic sacrifices and light saber lore to keep the audience happy. The surprises in the film are well earned and even the nods to the other stories that are included are not obnoxious, they are just enough to keep the legions of Star Wars fans engaged. “Rogue One ” has at least three great emotional beats that will make your throat choke up a bit. It also has a climax that next to “The Empire Strikes Back” is emotionally satisfying without being particularly happy.  The Galaxy is a pretty big place and there is room for a multitude of stories about the ride and fall of the empire. Just as happens in movies about WWII, there are some stories that cross paths, but there are others that take place simultaneously which can be just as compelling as a single thread of history. “Rogue One” may be a stand alone story, but it is also an outstanding story that fills in Galactic Rebellion history, without detracting from the main event. As a fan, I’m happy to say “More please”.

Star Wars Poster Finally Ready

Way back in 1987, I visited my favorite store in Hollywood, “Hollywood Book and Poster”. At that time they were located on Las Palmas, just North of Hollywood Blvd. It was a cavernous room with high ceilings which made it possible to display all the cool new posters that were for sale. I’d purchased a number of items over the years, usually in the $10-$40 range. The most notorious find was the original “Revenge of the Jedi” poster I bought when the movie was still called “Revenge of the Jedi” in December of 1982. Last year I took it to a screening of the Drew Struzan Documentary and the artist signed it for me. If you click on the image it will take you to my story about that day. SAMSUNG

1987 was the Tenth anniversary of  the original release of “Star Wars“. When I walked through the store that day, I spotted a beautiful lithograph poster on a thick piece of paper stock that took my breath away. It was a pricey item, at $120. I’d not seen anything like it and because I am a geek, I decided I had to have it. It became one of many Christmas gifts to the family that were a tradition between my wife and I.

It was much too nice to put in one of the standard poster frames you can get at Aaron Brothers or other stores, which I used to display many of my other posters. The idea of having to bend a corner to fit it into a prefabricated frame was an anathema to me. We decided to wait and get it custom framed. Flash forward twenty-five years: we have moved into our house for about eighteen years and I decided to do an inventory of my posters.   One of the things I find is that poster I bought back in ’87 and had done nothing with. After having had several pieces done at a local business that specializes in framing (Richards Framing), I knew that the project would not be cheap. So again I bide my time and wait for an opportunity to splurge.

The opportunity came up as I am celebrating my 57th birthday this year. There is a new Star Wars movie coming, and it turns out, as I expected, that the poster I bought in 1987 was painted by Drew Struzan himself. It was a print run of 3000 and he had signed them all. I suspect this was one of the projects that ended up unhappily with the agent he worked with at the time and was mentioned in the documentary. I sure hope he got paid because the image is fantastic.

I just returned from my friendly locally owned and operated business, where Karen, the owner, has done a fantastic job on the project. I have several images to share of the project.

IMG_1018We picked out the matting based on the colors in the poster and she has a very sharp eye for color. This is a perfect match of the blue and orange hues found in the art work.

IMG_1019I tried to get a slightly different view with this second shot and I turned off the flash. Although neither of these images does justice to the poster itself, the mat and framing work is pretty evident. At the moment I don’t have it up on the wall but I expect that to be remedied shortly. I will include a shot or two at the bottom of this post when I get that done.

At the foot of the poster is the numbering of the lithograph and the signature of the artist, it is just below and off to the right of the image of Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. I tried to get a close up, but I’m working with a pretty basic older digital camera and I don’t always know what I’m doing.

IMG_1022You can see that this is number 739 of the 3000 prints in this run. It’s a sweet little birthday gift that originated as an impulse Christmas gift and has germinated into one of the nicest pieces of movie memorabilia in my collection of geek worthy stuff. I hope you enjoyed the share and if you can ever make it to our neck of the woods, I’d be happy to have you come and look at it in person. It will definitely distract you from the debris in the rest of the house.