Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

This is Christmas week, so many of you will be anticipating the holiday and gifts under the tree. When you were young, you probably dreamed of the best toy, the most awesome electronic device or maybe a puppy. Did you ever get a knockoff or a stuffed animal instead?  It was probably a perfectly decent gift but it was not what you wanted and the thought is overwhelmed by disappointment, regardless of how much you ultimately enjoyed the substitute. Get ready for the same kind of feeling. “Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker” is a Star Wars movie, it’s just not the one you wanted.

Regardless of where you come down on the Star Wars movies, whether you are a prequel hater or you liked what Rian Johnson did with “The Last Jedi“, this one will probably confound you. My main objection to the film is that the plotline is a mess of interrelated incidents that feel like a string of those plastic monkeys that come in a barrel. You have to hook the next one with the last one, and you do that by what is available to you rather than what might be most logical. For instance, a twist involving C3PO comes up as a complication. A big chink of the film id directed at addressing that point and suddenly that point becomes irrelevant and a different issue comes up that the heroes must overcome. The tracks made by each of these developments are so apparent that it might as well be a diagram/flowsheet on the screen. Unfortunately, several times, when you follow the path it is a dead end designed to merely fill the plot with opportunities for more planets, creatures and battles. Say what you will about the awful “Phantom Menace”, at least the plot points were all relevant to the story. The stitches on this amalgam of retcon and repair from the previous film is just to obvious.

Another reason that it feels so paint by the numbers is the introduction of an old character, being plugged into a the story, primarily for the nostalgia factor. This sort of fan service will be rewarding to we long time acolytes but the reappearance of at least four characters that were either dead or absent from the previous two sequels is sometimes just awkward. At least we were spared a return of Hayden Christensen. There is a major plot point which is probably not a spoiler if you have watched the trailer or heard anyone talking about the film before it was released. If you are worried about a spoiler that’s not really a secret, skip to the next paragraph. A major Sith figure returns to the story and it feels incredibly inorganic. It is used to explain some of the events of the previous film, but mostly, we just needed a main figure to turn into the ultimate “big bad” so that the story arc of one on the major characters here can play out and repeat a redirection trope from the original trilogy. Thirty-six years ago, when a second Death Star was introduced into the plot, some fans groused about a lack of creativity, but at least it made sense that the Empire would be relying on it’s existing technology to continue their program for enslaving the Galaxy. The fleet that suddenly appears in this story, complete with enough personnel to manage it, makes no sense whatever.The two sentence explanation is a major irritant. When we discover that each one of these thousand ships is capable of doing what the Death Star did, or what the Planet Killer could, nothing in the story feels right anymore.

For two movies we have been watching the character arc of Rey and Kylo Ren get more involved and more apparent where it it headed. I did like that ultimately this is the A-plot of the movie. There are a couple of revelations and memories that come back to answer the questions we had about the prior film, but those points seem relatively contrived. Why can a memory accomplish what a flesh and body person could not? Does the heritage of Rey really need to go down the plat it did or is this just a way to justify the main plot? The reveal has a momentary injection of adrenaline but it doesn’t take long for it to turn into a WTF development. I was perfectly content with the return of a character in an ethereal form,  but I recognize it for what it is, fan service. This is the conclusion of the nine part “Skywalker” story, so fans are going to want a lot of these things, whether they are necessary or not.

Other characters that were introduced in “The Force Awakens“, continue to be in the story, largely without purpose and squandering what made them worth in that film.  Poe and Finn should have been the kinds of characters that Leia and Han were in the original trilogy. In those first movies, those characters had a story arc and their actions mattered in the long run. No one seems to have figured out what to do with the new secondary characters except plug them in for exposition or as appendixes to the main story arc. Did you think the character of Rose was going to be relevant after being introduced in the last film, well guess again. General Leia Organa has a more developed part and a bigger role in the story and Carrie Fisher is of course entirely in this film through archive footage and some technical wizardry. That was not a problem for me, but obviously J.J. Abrams and his team of writers thought that was more important than doing something with new characters. I liked the fact that Chewbacca and C3PO have story time given to them, but it again feels like this is because this is the last film they will appear in rather than it was necessary for the plot.

I didn’t count but it felt like there were a half dozen separate light saber battles in the film, most of them involving Rey and Kilo Ren. I did not hate this but a little bit goes a long way and the drama of a one on one confrontation gets undermined when it is repeated and all that is being accomplished is an opportunity for some different sword-work. Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone needed one big duel to make the point, and it was a climax of the movie. These light saber battles feel like a version of tantric sex, lots of foreplay and then deferred payoff. The spectacle of the fight on the water was great to look at but it had no point, like many of the plot threads in the rest of the movie.

I wanted real emotions in the movie and I felt like I was simply being run through the process. I understand why the Rey and Leia dynamic was handicapped, but so many other relationships were as well. Finn and Ray needed to be going somewhere and there is a humorous thread about that which gets tugged on but not followed. Finn and Poe have a friendship which should be explored more, but they are rushing through so many plot complications, we don’t feel like they have the connection we expect of them. A love interest for Poe comes out of nowhere and then goes no where. There are two adorable new characters, a mono wheeled droid and a tiny monkey hacker, their presence does nothing for the plot except create a diversion while the next thing is coming along.

Long standing fans of the series will like the movie well enough. It is going to be measured by the other films in the series. But do we really want the legacy to finish on the note that “at least it was better than “The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones”? That seems to me a sad way to finish off the pivotal film franchise of  the last fifty years. That’s like opening your Christmas present and being grateful that it wasn’t underwear and socks.

Solo: A Star Wars Story

So, thirty-five years ago tonight, my best friend and I sat on Hollywood Blvd. for more than sixteen hours, waiting in line to get a ticket to Return of the Jedi. A frat guy from UCLA was holding a place for his fraternity brothers and they all crashed the line a couple of hours before the midnight screening, almost starting a small riot. Our wives met us after work and joined us in line so they had been there for six hours, and they were not happy either. We got bumped from the first show and ended up near the front of the line for the 3 am show. That’s right, 3 am. After it let out, Art and Kathy wisely went home, Dee and I went around to the front of the theater, got in line again, and went to the 6 am show. We later met Art and Kathy about 2 pm for a show in West Covina. So Three times on opening day, what a bunch of geeks. The world today is soooo different. Pre-opening ticket sales, reserved seats, a screening well before midnight, where did all the stupid fun go?

Tonight we left the house after ten, there was no line up for our showing of “Solo” because we were in a theater with reserved seats, and the suburban crowd was not as raucous as the crowd at the Egyptian 35 years ago. This time I was joined by my wife and my daughter who will turn 30 next month, yikes I am old. I’m not too old however to not enjoy a “Star Wars” film, which I definitely did. “Solo” is a controversial film because of the production disruption, the casting rumors and for some fans, a fatigue around the development of films in this franchise. Forget all of that, taken on it’s own, “Solo” is a solid space action film with a central character that we already know about and some side characters that will make the story even more rewarding.

My two major criticisms of the film are easy to knock off at the start. The set up of the character Han and his relationship with Qi’ra is rushed and a bit murky. We are dropped into an action sequence before we have much opportunity to figure out the lay of the land. It is ultimately fine but I don’t think it sets up their relationship as well as it needs to be. That’s because there is a case sequence and series of action scenes that are visually strong but don’t let their characters play off of each other enough to quite pull us into the relationship as much as is needed. The connection between Han and the band of criminals he ends up running with is developed a lot more effectively later on, and the movie gets that the character and not the action should be driving the story. The second weakness I i felt concerns the music. Without the ear friendly themes of John Williams, the music simply fills in spots rather than heightening them. It’s only when a well known motif shows up that the score comes alive. I have loved scores by John Powell before, but this just misses being the ear candy that I crave in these movies.

OK, now for the good stuff. This is a caper film with two elaborate heists driving the story. There is a lot of creativity that was put into the visuals in the film, to make those stories interesting. Traditionally, you would have a planning sequence in a heist film and the audience would be let in on the agenda. That way when things go wrong, we will be reacting to the shifts and bumps with the characters. Here the first plan is just laid out quickly to give some context but we are immediately plunged into the action and that is the locomotive for the plot at this point. This is a train heist with a myriad of complications including a rival band of pirates that attempt to steal from the thieves. The action on a freight train in a hostile world in space was elaborate, visually inventive and it allowed for some character development as well. This was the kind of thing that was necessary but missing in the opening section.

The introduction of iconic characters is the strongest element in the film. Han and Chewbacca get connected in a very appropriate manner and one that sets up a relationship that we will see play out over the original films very effectively. There is some great humor in their sequence and the by play that develops between these characters is almost immediately natural. The one character that everyone will be talking about is Lando Calrissian. Donald Glover sparks the scenes he is in in just the same way that Billy Dee Williams did in the two films from the early 80s. He is debonair and clever, but not always as clever as he thinks he is. Some might call his interactions with Han “fan service” but it is exactly the kind of story seed set up almost 40 years ago that we want to see come to fruition, and it is glorious.

There are some other characters introduced into the story that that make this film a bit more unique. The aforementioned Qi’ra is both a love interest and a potential femme fatale. Dryden Vos is the Jabba like villain who is in the threatening background of the story until the climax when he is much more at the center. Paul Bettany does not get to do much more than wear some scars until the end of the film. Woody Harrelson’s Becket is a cipher. Maybe some good in him, certainly some scoundrel, but not the light hearted scoundrel that is out title character. I especially liked the vocal performance of Phobe Waller-Bridge as the droid L3. Her tone matches the quirky and combative nature of this crew member of the team. The relationship L3 has with Lando is both touching and farcical. Along with K-2SO in “Rogue One” and R2D2 with C3PO in the other stories, it seems like the richest characters in this universe may be the droids.


There was a lot of speculation and rumor about Alden Ehrenreich in the lead role. In some quarters it was suggested that the movie was doomed because of his performance and that maybe the two directors who left the project had not done enough to get a solid performance out of him. I don’t know what went on before Ron Howard came on the project, but Ehrenreich is great. He looks the part and he can carry off the attitude in a lot of the scenes where he is called on to be both naive and a bit too clever for his own good. That he can hold himself against the charisma of Glover’s Lando is enough to tell you he is solid in the part.

Haters are going to be disappointed because this is not the failure that was predicted. This is an entertaining picture, set in the Star Wars universe, and it meets it’s objectives. The characters we want are set up for more adventures and they have the personality to succeed. There are subplots that suggest connections to the larger story but they do not dominate the film. Finally, there is a clear atmosphere of fun that is a lot closer to the original film than we have had in any of the contemporary Star Wars movies. Box office watchers will speculate all they like, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” succeeds as a movie, whether or not it outpaces, lags behind or matches any other Star Wars films or expectations.

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.”.