“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

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“STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” (2017) Review

Following the success of the Disney Studios’ first hit STAR WARS film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”, I had assumed that producer-director J.J. Abrams would helm the next chapter in the franchise’s Sequel Trilogy. I was eventually surprised to learn that Lucasfilm president, Kathleen Kennedy, hired writer-director Rian Johnson to both write and direct “EPISODE VIII”

My positive reaction to the news about Johnson being hired by Lucasfilm originated with my reaction to his 2012 film, “LOOPER”. I found Johnson’s 2012 film to be original, ambiguous and well written, if not perfect. I had hoped Johnson would create a better STAR WARS film than J.J. Abrams, who was the creator behind the 2015 movie. Then the movie hit the theaters in December 2017 and I was relieved by the high level acclaim it had received from the critics.

Titled “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”, this 2017 movie picked up immediately after the last scene of the previous Sequel film. Well . . . almost. Actually, “THE LAST JEDI” about an hour before “THE FORCE AWAKENS” ended, or around the same time. The movie opened with the Resistance forces abandoning their base on D’Qar during an attack by the First Order. Resistance pilot Poe Dameron disobeyed General Leia Organa’s order to retreat and led a costly counterattack that destroyed a First Order dreadnought, but following the Resistance’s escape into hyperspace, the First Order managed to track them using a code and continue its attacks. Leia demoted Poe for disobeying her order and leading many of their pilots to their deaths. Following another attack by the First Order, Leia is seriously injured, leaving the Resistance leadership in the hands of her second-in-command, Vice-Admiral Holdo. Meanwhile, Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2’s arrived at Ahch-To. Rey tried to recruit Jedi Master Luke Skywalker to help his sister Leia and the Resistance. But Luke; disillusioned over his failure to successfully mentor his nephew, Ben Solo aka Kylo Ren; refused to leave Ahch-To. He also refused to train Rey in the ways of the Force. Initially.

Following the opening battle between the Resistance and the First Order, former stormtrooper Finn recovered from the wound he had suffered in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. He discovered that Rey was missing and that the fleeing Resistance was being tracked by the Force Order. Fearful that Rey might return and find herself in a tenuous situation, Finn decided to leave and track her down. Only he was stopped by a maintenance worker named Rose Tico. Grieving over her sister, who had been one of the bomber pilots killed in the opening, Rose believed that Finn was defecting. Once she realized otherwise; she, Finn and Poe devised a secret mission to find a code breaker to disable the First Order’s tracking device. Not long after Rey began her training under Luke, she discovers that she has a Force bond with her enemy, Kylo Ren. And without bothering to tell Luke, Rey and Ren begin communicating with each other.

I have to be brutally honest. I did not like “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Not really. I thought the 2015 movie suffered from too many plot holes and felt like a remake of the 1977 movie, “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Being a fan of Rian Johnson’s 2012 movie, “LOOPER”, I had high expectations for “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI”. I hoped that the film would improve J.J. Abrams’ work on the previous film. Fortunately, I found a good deal to admire about the film.

One of the aspects of “THE LAST JEDI” that I truly admired was its visual style. I had nothing against the 2015 movie’s visual style. But if I must be honest, “THE LAST JEDI” took it to another level. Steve Yedlin’s photography struck me as sharp and colorful in scenes that featured the movie’s opening battle; and the duel inside the throne room, aboard Snoke’s starship the Supremacy. Yedlin’s photography assumed a rich and sleek style in the Cantonica sequence that featured the Canto Bight casino and the escaped animals chase scenes, as shown below:

 

However, Yedlin’s photography would have been something of a waste, if it were not for Rick Heinrichs’ production designs and the Art Direction team led by Kevin Jenkins. This was especially the case in Snoke’s blood red throne room aboard the Supremacy, Luke Skywalker’s habitat on Ahch-To and . . . of course, the Canto Bight Casino. What can I say? I really enjoyed the visual aspects of that scene. Between the photography, the visual design and the whole elegant, yet corrupt atmosphere of the scene; I have not been this impressed by a visual setting in a “STAR WARS” scene since the Outlander Club sequence in 2002’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE II – ATTACK OF THE CLONES”.

If I must be honest, I never really had a problem with the acting in “THE FORCE AWAKENS’. Nor did I have a problem with the performances in “THE LAST JEDI”. In fact, I would go as far to say that the performances of three cast members actually improved. One of them was veteran actress, Carrie Fisher. As many know, Fisher passed away during the last week of December 2016. I must admit that I was not that impressed by her portrayal of the aging Leia Organa Solo in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. In “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to regain a good of her sharp and natural style, despite being missing from the film’s middle acts. Another improvement came from Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of General Armitage Hux, a high-ranking commander of the First Order. Personally, I found his performance in “THE LAST JEDI” rather strident. A bit of that stridency managed to manifest in the film’s first twenty minutes; but otherwise, Gleeson’s performance struck me as good deal more subtle. I thought Gleeson did a first-rate job in conveying Hux’s negative realization that an overemotional man child had become his new leader. Daisy Ridley’s portrayal of the former scavenger/potential Jedi Rey struck me as an improvement over her performance in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Her performance struck me as a lot less labored and more subtle – especially in her scenes with Mark Hamill. However, I still believe that her best performance, so far, was the 2017 Agatha Christie movie, “MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS”.

However, those performances from other returning cast members were just as first-rate as they were in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Oscar Isaac finally received more scenes to strut his stuff as energetic Resistance X-wing pilot and squadron commander, Poe Dameron. Granted, there were moments when he came off as a bit too energetic. Otherwise, I had no problems with his acting. I can also say the same about Adam Driver’s portrayal of the villainous Force user, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. I have a confession to make. I do not like the Kylo Ren character. But I do believe that Driver provided some excellent acting in this film and did his very best in injecting as much ambiguity as director Rian Johnson would allow. I had feared that when given full reign, Andy Serkis’ voice performance as Supreme Leader Snoke, would go over-the-top. Well, in the Snoke’s throne room scene, it nearly did. But in the end, Serkis eventually kept his performance under control and gave a very sinister performance. Lupita Nyong’o returned to provide the voice of Maz Kanata, the former pilot and smuggler who owned a tavern on Takadona. Her role in “THE LAST JEDI” was brief, the actress provided one of my favorite moments in the film as her character provided information about a code breaker to Finn, Poe and Rose; while fighting off a “union dispute” in the middle of a hologram transmission. As usual, Nyong’o was wonderful. I read somewhere that Johnson had originally planned for the Finn character to remain in a coma throughout most of the film. Eventually, Leia came very close in experiencing that fate. Thankfully, actor John Boyega did not have spend most of the movie lying on a bed or platform. Instead, audiences got to, once again, enjoy Boyega engage in his own kind of magic, as the movie sent his character, former stormtrooper Finn, into new adventures.

“THE LAST JEDI” featured first-rate performances from newcomers like Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran, Benicio del Toro and yes, even Mark Hamill. Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is another character that I am not particularly fond of. But I must that actress Laura Dern gave her usual competent performance as the Resistance leader forced to step in when Leia fell into a coma. Benicio del Toro gave a very sly and entertaining performance as a sly and treacherous codebreaker found himself a prisoner on Canto Bight. Kelly Marie Tran proved to be the newest addition to the Star Wars mythos as a Resistance mechanic named Rose Tico, who found herself grieving her sister Paige, following the latter’s death around the film’s beginning. Tran gave a very strong performance as the emotional, yet strong-willed and determined Rose. She also managed to form a solid screen chemistry with Boyega and Isaac. Technically, “THE LAST JEDI” proved to be Hamill’s second appearance in the Sequel Trilogy. However, he only appeared briefly in the 2015’s last scene without any dialogue. Thankfully, Hamill was able to strut his stuff as the older and somewhat embittered Luke Skywalker. Although his characterization in this film proved to be controversial, I cannot deny that Hamill gave a superb performance, as usual. It seemed a pity that he never had any scenes with Boyega. I would have given my right arm to watch those two share a scene together.

Is there anything else about “THE LAST JEDI” that I enjoyed? Honestly? No. Despite the fine performances, the excellent photography and superb production and art designs, I was not impressed by the movie. In fact, my opinion of the film proved to be lower than my feelings about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. And I never thought that would be possible. I had two major problems about the film – the narrative and characterizations written by the director, Rian Johnson.

One of the main problems I had with “THE LAST JEDI” proved the length of time between it and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. Judging from the film’s opening, the Resistance had fled its base on D’Qar and engaged in that opening battle against the First Order before Rey, Chewbacca and R2-D2 arrived on Ahch-To. Why did Johnson decide to begin the movie with such a small time frame? I have no idea. But thanks to this time frame, I found some of the events in the movie rather questionable.

According to the film’s opening crawl, the First Order had “decimated” the Republic and took military control of the galaxy. I found this hard to swallow. Yes, the First Order used their Star Killer weapon to destroy the New Republic’s capital and a few planets in the same system. But the Republic was spread all over the galaxy. Also, the First Order had suffered two major defeats near the end of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” – at Takodana, where it was searching for the BB-8 droid and the map to Luke Skywalker; and the destruction of the Star Killer weapon and its base. The last defeat proved to be a severe one for the First Order. Why would the entire galaxy surrender to the First Order when its super weapon, the Star Killer base and God knows how many troops and personnel were destroyed by the Resistance? I can understand the First Order licking its wounds and eventually conquering the rest of the Republic and going after the Resistance – but not so damn soon. Not within a space of one or two days.

The time frame produced another problem. After Snoke had punished General Hux for the Resistance’s destruction of the First Order’s new starship, the Dreadnought; the general informed his leader that he had used a new tracking device to follow the Resistance fleet through hyperspace. How exactly did this happen? When did Hux find the time – between the First Order’s defeat at Takodano, the destruction of the Star Killer’s base and the Resistance’s abandonment of their D’Qar base – to connect a tracking device to the Resistance convoy? When? I checked the Wookiepedia website on this hyperspace tracker, I discovered that it simply provided nothing more than a vague description. The website also failed to describe how Hux managed to have it planted in the first place. That is when I began to wonder if this tracking device was nothing more than a deus ex machina created by Johnson to keep the First Order on the heels of the Resistance fleet.

I have other problems regarding the First Order’s pursuit of the Resistance. One, how did the Resistance’s bomber fleets managed to drop bombs on the the dreadnought ship . . . in space . . . where there is no gravity? Would it have not been more sufficient for them to use the torpedo launchers of their X-wing fighter ships? Once the First Order managed to somewhat catch up with the Resistance fleet, it just basically kept its distance, while taking potshots at various Resistance ships; claiming that their enemy moved too fast for them to sufficiently destroy its convoy. What???? Did Hux fail to notice that the Resistance convoy was not particularly moving that fast? And whether the Resistance convoy was moving too fast or not, neither Hux, Snoke or Kylo Ren even bother to consider ordering part of the First Order’s fleet to jump into light speed ahead of the Resistance . . . and box the latter into a trap?

Rian Johnson’s handling of the Resistance proved to be equally problematic. A conflict has developed among the franchise’s fans on who was right – General Leia Organa or Commander Poe Dameron – regarding the bombing of the First Order’s dreadnought. Poe’s determination to destroy the dreadnought led to the destruction of Resistance’s bomber squad. On the other hand, if the dreadnought had continued to exist, who knows what would have hap . . . You know what? I do not give a shit one way or the other. I do not care. I found other things to complain about this story arc. I understood why Poe Dameron had blatantly ignored Leia’s order to retreat at the movie’s beginning. I do not understand why Paige Tico and the other bomber pilots did not follow her order. Surely, they had overheard Leia’s retreat order over the fleet’s communications system. And yet . . . like Poe, they ignored her order. And then we have Leia’s “Mary Poppins” moment, after the bridge of her flagship was destroyed. You know . . . the scene in which she used the Force to float back to her ship, after she and Admiral Ackbar (we hardly knew you pal!) were blown into space. I cannot believe that one of my last visions of Carrie Fisher on the screen was that ludicrous moment. God!

After Leia became incapacitated, Vice-Admiral Holdo took command of the Resistance. Chances are that Poe and some other members of the Resistance would have refrained from staging a mutiny . . . and sending Finn and Rose Tico on that mission to Canto Bight, if Holdo had informed everyone about hers and Leia’s plan to evade the First Order in thie first place. Only she did not. When she finally did, Poe and a few others dismissed it as cowardly and decided to stage a mutiny. This “mutiny” eventually led to Finn and Rose’s mission to search for a master code breaker at the Canto Bight Casino. I have one or two problems with this scenario. One, I could not understand why Holdo kept the evacuation plans a secret for so long, since it did not require a “need-to-know” reason. And two, why did Holdo wait so long to set hers and Leia’s plans in motion? Not only did I find this delay unnecessary, it allowed other factors in the story – Finn and Rose’s Canto Bight mission to affect the actual evacuation. One could dismiss this as an example of Holdo’s personality flaws. But the timing of this story arc makes it difficult for me to do this.

Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan and gas lighting of Poe were not the only problems I had with their characters. I also had a problem with their costumes. Do not get me wrong, I found the costumes designed by Michael Kaplan rather elegant and lovely, as shown below:

 

But I could not help but wonder why both women wore outfits suited for dinner reception, a party or even a political meeting (in the STAR WARS universe). Their outfits seemed unsuited for military commanders in the field . . . especially military commanders who were attempting to guarantee the survival of those under them, in the middle of a life or death situation. Was this Kaplan’s attempt to outshine Trisha Biggar’s designs from the Prequel Trilogy. Who knows? Who knows? His costumes worked in the Canto Bight casino scenes. But they simply did not work for Leia and Holdo, who were not in elegant situations like the casino during this film.

Speaking of the Canto Bight mission . . . I honestly do not know what to say. It was such a crap fest to me. The only aspect of that mission that I enjoyed were the visual designs for the sequence. Otherwise, this whole story arc was marred by bad writing. Poe’s opposition to Holdo’s evacuation plan led him to send Finn, Rose and BB-8 to find someone who could break the code to the First Order’s tracking device, a master code breaker who hung out at the Canto Bight casino on Cantonica. So what happened? The pair landed their transport on a private beach and ended up getting arrested at the casino for illegal parking. Arrested . . . for illegal parking? Unable to contact the code breaker, due to being incarcerated behind bars, Finn and Rose met another prisoner named D.J., who claimed to be a code breaker. When he broke them out of jail, they recruited him to help the Resistance break the code . . . instead of returning to the casino in order to find the Master Code Breaker they had originally spotted. After the trio and BB-8 board Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy; Finn and Rose are betrayed by D.J., who also spilled the Resistance’s plans to escape from Leia’s cruiser via cloaked transport ships. Except . . . wait. How in the hell did D.J. know about that plan? He could not have learned everything about it from Finn and Rose, who only knew that Holdo and Leia had plans to evacuate. But they knew nothing about the transport ships being cloaked or that Holdo planned to send the Resistance to Crait. Hell, not even Poe knew the specific details, until he woke up aboard one the transports after being stunned by Leia. How did D.J. learn about Leia and Holdo’s complete plan?

I found something else rather odd about the Canto Bight mission. Finn and Rose were able to escape from Leia’s cruiser undetected and head for Cantonica in a cloaked transport ship. This sounds strangely similar to Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. I have already pointed out that the entire Resistance personnel could have done this and rendezvous at an arranged location a lot earlier in the story, instead of waiting until the last of the Resistance fleet was close to Crait. If Poe was able to help Finn and Rose slip away from both the Resistance convoy and the First Order fleet, why did he continue to oppose Leia and Holdo’s evacuation plan. Why did Poe believe that the evacuation plan was so cowardly (eyeroll) that he set in motion that ridiculous Canto Bight mission? I mean . . . honestly, Finn and Rose’s successful evasion of the First Order’s fleet and the Resistance convoy should have made him realize that Holdo’s plan – well, most of it – was pretty sound.

Another aspect of the Canto Bight story arc that I disliked was Rose’s revelations about the casino’s use of slave labor and the owners’ profiting from the conflict between the Resistance and the First Order, as arms dealers. Apparently, this entire story arc was created by Johnson for Finn to learn a valuable lesson about greed and corruption, enabling him to understand about what the Resistance is fighting against and drop his “selfish” concerns about Rey. WHAT . . . UTTER . . . BULLSHIT!!! There was nothing wrong with Finn being concerned about Rey not walking into the current conflict between the Resistance and the First Order. And there was no need for him to learn any damn lesson. And I sure as hell did not appreciate watching Rose lecture Finn about the evils of corruption, let alone slavery. You know, originally I thought she and had been a former slave herself. Then I checked Wikipedia and discovered that Rose and her sister Paige had been smuggled off their homeworld by their parents, before they could be snatched by the First Order and forced into slavery. So, why did Johnson believe it was necessary for her to lecture Finn about slavery, when the latter had been enslaved by the First Order ever since he was an infant? If anyone was qualified to give that speech, it was Finn.

The Canto Bight sequence did not feature the only problematic scene between Finn and Rose for me. Another occurred during the Resistance’s defense against an attack by the First Order at an old Rebel Alliance base on Crait, near the film’s finale. In one scene, the remaining Reisistance fighters – which included Finn, Poe and Rose – charged at the incoming First Order forces in order to give the others time to make their escape. While the surviving fighters broke off from the charge, Finn decided to make a suicidal charge against the First Order siege cannon that threatened to break into the base. And guess what happened? Rose stopped Finn’s charge. And what was her reason? Well . . . let me quote her:

“We’re going to win this war not by fighting what we hate, but saving what we love!”

What . . . in . . . the . . . hell??? Let me get this straight. According to Johnson, it was fine for Vice-Admiral Holdo to sacrifice herself to prevent the fleeing Resistance from being destroyed before they could reach Crait. But Finn was not allowed to sacrifice himself against the First Order’s siege cannon, because . . . why again? Hatred? What made Rose believe that Finn’s actions were all about hatred for the First Order? And when did Johnson convey the idea that Finn’s suicidal charge was all about hatred on his part? And why did Johnson keep creating scenes that gave Rose an opportunity to lecture Finn for the slimmest of reasons? Or decide that she knew better than him? Were the Canto Bight casino and Crait scenes indicative of some racism on Johnson’s part? Is he just another person who regards people of color, especially those of African descent, as childlike? I wonder.

Then we come to Rey’s experiences with Luke Skywalker on Ahch-To. Most critics of “THE LAST JEDI” tend to focus most of their complaints about the Canto Bight mission. My strongest complaints against the film are all about Rey’s experiences from start to finish. Judging from the first scene between Rey and Luke Skywalker, I got the impression that Johnson had written his own version of Luke’s first meeting with Yoda in “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. Actually, this scene was one of many that seemed to remakes of those from the 1980 film and “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. I do not know how to describe Rey’s first two days on Ahch-To. Unlike many other fans of the franchise, I had no problems with Luke tossing away his/Anakin’s old lightsaber that he had lost on Bespin. As far as I am concerned, it should have remained lost. However, I noticed that Luke’s initial rejection of Rey as a padawan struck me as a lot crueler than Yoda’s initial rejection some thirty or so years before. Actually, I was not that impressed by the dynamic between Rey and Luke. I hate to say this, but Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill’s on-screen chemistry did not seem that interesting to me. There was another problem in this story arc. Rey ended up receiving very little training in the Force. How long did Luke train Rey? What? A few hours, before it was interrupted by Rey’s discovery of the whole Luke-Kylo Ren mess? It seemed like it. There was one scene that featured Luke milking a rather . . . busty alien called Thala-Siren that just . . . I found this just as embarrassing as Leia’s Mary Poppins moment. It did not help that the creature’s udders resembled those of women. Oh God. Also . . . is it just me or Luke did not seem like himself? He seemed rather cynical, in compare to his younger self. And snarky. Luke seemed more like the younger Leia and Han . . . or Mark Hamill. I understand the circumstances that led Luke to his exile and how it may have emotionally damaged him. But his refusal to leave Ahch-To in order to help Leia . . . just did not feel right. I just cannot see him initially refusing to help his own sister, whose life was endangered.

But that was nothing, until the movie revealed what led to Luke’s estrangement from his nephew, Kylo Ren. Rey learned from the latter that Luke had a vision of his nephew/padawan causing a great deal of destruction and briefly considered killing the sleeping Ben. Although he relented, Kylo/Ben woke up and spotted Luke with his lightsaber drawn. An enraged Ben killed Luke’s loyal padawans in retaliation and joined the First Order, because he felt betrayed. Let me make this clear. I am aware that Luke is capable of terrible deeds or allowing his anger to get the best of him. These traits were apparent in both “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE” and “RETURN OF THE JEDI” when Luke had engaged in bouts of murderous rage. But to deliberately contemplate murdering his own nephew, because he had visions of a destructive future from the latter or Snoke’s influence? Luke Skywalker? I simply do not see it. He is not Obi-Wan Kenobi, who has proven to be not being above doing or suggesting something terrible for the greater good. Luke has always struck me as the type who needed to have his emotional buttons pushed in order for him to commit a terrible deed.

While most detractors of “THE LAST JEDI” had a problem with Luke’s characterization, I had an even bigger problem with Rey’s . . . and the story arc she shared with Kylo Ren. What in the hell was Rian Johnson thinking? He managed to create another story arc that I believe was marred by the time span between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”. The whole Rey-Kylo Ren story seemed wrong within the Sequel Trilogy’s time frame. As I had earlier pointed out, not long after Rey had began her brief training into the Force under Luke, she discovered that some mental Force bond had developed between her and the man who nearly killed her, Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. This . . . Force bond led Rey to discover what Luke had nearly did to Ren. And this, along with her telepathic conversations with Luke’s nephew and visions of him being redeemed convinced Rey that it was necessary to travel to Snoke’s ship, the Supremacy, and save Kylo Ren and convince him to give up evil; evoking memories of Luke’s attempt to save his father, Anakin Skywalker, in “RETURN OF THE JEDI”.

When I watched as Rey decided to travel into “the bowels of evil” in order to save an overprivileged and murderous man child from himself and Snoke, I could not help but indulge in a massive face palm. Or groan. This was just simply ridiculous to me. Was I really expected to accept that Rey had developed compassion or any other kind positive feelings for Kylo Ren two to three days after what he tried to do to her in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Does anyone realize how unrealistic that is from an emotional point-of-view? After all, only two or three days had passed since Rey had witnessed or experienced the following in “THE FORCE AWAKENS”:

*Kylo Ren kidnapped Rey during the First Order’s attack on Takodana.
*As he had done earlier to Poe Dameron, Kylo Ren tried to violate Rey’s mind in order to learn Luke’s whereabouts, using telepathy. Only she managed to defend herself using the same method.
*Rey, Finn and Chewbacca witnessed Kylo Ren’s murder of his father, Han Solo.
*Kylo Ren tried to injure or kill Rey by tossing her into a tree, near the Star Killer base.
*Kylo Ren maimed Finn during a light saber duel.
*Rey engaged in her own light saber duel against Kylo Ren, in which she managed to wound him.

During Rey and Kylo Ren’s telepathic interactions in “THE LAST JEDI”, she managed to develop compassion for him. And I am at a loss at why she would do this over a person, who had caused so much harm to her and those she cared about . . . in such a short period of time. When Rey asked Kylo Ren why he murdered his father, the latter explained – in a scene in which he was shirtless (a massive eyeroll) – that trying to cut out any sense of emotional attachment. WHAT IN THE HELL???? That was his excuse? And she bought it? And when Rey questioned Kylo Ren’s murder of Luke’s loyal padawans, he revealed how Luke had contemplated on killing him. Never mind that I believed this did not jibe with Luke’s personality. This was a lame excuse on Kylo Ren’s part. Those padawans had not played a role in Luke’s brief contemplation to commit murder. Those padawans had done nothing to Kylo Ren or anyone he may have cared about. And yet . . . Rey failed to continue questioning Kylo Ren’s murders. She expressed anger at Luke’s behavior, which I do not blame her. But she also decided to use this and Luke’s reluctance to save his nephew as an excuse to surrender to Snoke in an effort to save Kylo Ren, someone who had wronged her and those whom she cared about . . . VERY RECENTLY. As far as Rey knew, Kylo Ren was not related to her and a long period of time had not passed between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “THE LAST JEDI”.

Another problem seemed to manifest this story arc – namely Rey’s visions of Kylo Ren’s future. I am not claiming that he was redeemable. But did Rey ever consider that her visions had been manipulated in the first place? Did she ever consider that her telepathic bond was manipulated, which the movie later confirmed during Snoke’s monologuing? I realize that Rey was somewhat naive. But considering her recent past experience with Kylo Ren attempting to violate her mind, she never considered that this might be another attempt? Or that he had successfully found a way to violate her mind and try to manipulate her? Apparently not. Instead, Rey simply jumped up and rushed to Snoke’s ship in an effort to “save” Kylo Ren. It seemed obvious that Johnson had set up this whole scenario in order to plagiarize the Palpatine throne scene from “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Unfortunately for me, it failed on so many levels. Worse, it made Rey looked like “the Idiot of the Galaxy”. This entire story arc struck me as incredibly stupid.

One could say that Rey’s stupidity in the above scenario finally erased the Mary Sue label from her character. Perhaps. There was also the fact that in compare to Snoke, her mastery of the Force was a joke. He handled her like a toy doll in the Supremacy throne room sequence. And yet, she was able to master the Force with easy in other scenes. The movie’s novelization, written by Jason Fry, explained that the telepathic connection that Rey had unexpectedly formed with Kylo Ren enabled her to learn his skills with the Force. In other words, Rey is the “STAR WARS” version of Chuck Bartowski from the NBC series, “CHUCK”. For me, this was one of the most idiotic and lazy piece of writing that I have ever encountered in a movie or novel. To make matters works, the movie’s ending revealed that Rey had stolen Luke’s ancient Jedi texts. This seemed to be a hint that she will continue her Jedi studies using those texts. Jesus Christ! This scenario had failed when an Extended Universe (EU) novel used it to explain Luke’s development of his Force skills in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” after failing to return to Yoda on Dagobah for more training. This scenario strikes me as even more ludicrous, considering that Rey’s actual training lasted a hell of a lot shorter than Luke’s.

Rey also continued to display her Force skills in a lightsaber fight scene that featured her and Kylo Ren against Snoke’s guards. However, since the latter were not Force users, I would equate this scene with Obi-Wan Kenobi’s duel against General Grievous in “STAR WARS: EPISODE III – REVENGE OF THE SITH”. Utterly irrelevant. And to be honest, both Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver seemed like more proficient duelists in a You Tube video clip that featured them practicing the fight than they did in the movie. Whoever handled the lightsaber choreography for this film need more lessons on how to stage a fight between swordsmen.

Before Rey had made her escape from Snoke’s starship, Kylo Ren revealed to her that her parents were two-bit junk dealers on Jakku, who had sold her into slavery for drinking money. He did this in an effort to emotionally isolate her and manipulate her into serving his desires. Now, if what he said about Rey’s parents are true, who had abandoned Rey on Jakku and left the planet? If the people who had abandoned Rey on Jakku were her parents, then they had sold her for more than drinking money. Also, how and when did Rey ceased to be a slave? I read somewhere that Rian Johnson made Rey unrelated to the Skywalker family because he wanted to move the saga away from them. When I heard this . . . Jesus Christ! Do Disney and Lucasfilm even know what what the hell they are doing? If the main protagonists for the Sequel Trilogy are not supposed to be members of the Skywalker family, then why . . . regard . . . this . . . particular . . . trilogy as part of the Skywalker Family Saga in the first damn place? Why not simply regard this trilogy as something other than a part of the Skywalker family saga and utilize characters from the previous two trilogies as minor supporting characters – like 2016’s “ROGUE ONE”?

There were other characterizations that proved problematic to me. Many of the saga’s fans had complained about Snoke’s death and the fact that his background was never revealed or explored. I had no problem with this for two reasons. One, Palpatine’s background was never revealed until the Prequel Trilogy. Unless Lucasfilm plans to release films that featured Snoke’s backstory or the rise of the First Order, I must admit that as a character, he was a waste of time. And two, I am not a fan of Snoke. Despite Any Serkis’ excellent voice performance, Snoke struck me a ham-fisted and one-dimensional version of Palpatine. I could blame J.J. Abrams, who created the character in the first place. But the real blame lies on Rian Johnson’s shoulders, who had transformed the character from a somewhat mysterious villain to a one-dimensional remake of one of the best movie villains I have ever seen on screen.

Captain Phasma has to be one of the most wasted characters I have ever encountered in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. This character, who happened to be commander of the First Order’s stormtroopers, had less development than some of the one-shot villains in the saga. Hell, even General Grievous, whom I have always harbored a low opinion, was better written than her. Poor Gwendoline Christie. It was bad enough that Abrams wasted her character in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” by failing to show her in action. When she was finally featured in an action sequence in “THE LAST JEDI” – a control baton duel against Finn aboard Snoke’s ship – she was quickly killed off. And she was dispatched rather fast, due to . . . you know what? I do not know. I do not know why Johnson had shortened the Finn/Captain Phasma duel to such a ridiculously short length. I have come to the conclusion that Phasma was, in the end, a wasted character. If there was a character even more wasted than Captain Phasma, it was Admiral Ackbar, who had also appeared in both “RETURN OF THE JEDI” and “THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The Mon Calamari military commander was unceremoniously killed by the same blast that nearly killed Leia . . . before he even had the opportunity to utter a line. God, what a waste! Although Chewbacca was utilized more than Admiral Ackbar, his character had been reduced to a comic relief arc and a species called the Porg on Ach-To and Rey’s personal chauffeur. Despite having more screen time, poor Chewbacca proved to be wasted just as much as Phasma and Ackbar.

A relative of mine had pointed out that what made “THE LAST JEDI” unique was that it featured how the theme of failure in a STAR WARS movie. Others had pointed out that Rian Johnson managed to present a movie with a subversive narrative. I say bullshit to that. “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” was the first STAR WARS movie that featured the failures of its protagonists. It was also the first film that subverted the mythos of the saga that Lucas had created. And guess what? The Prequel Trilogy was basically one long saga on how Anakin Skywalker, the Jedi and the Galactic Republic failed themselves. Also, the last third of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”, the Prequel Trilogy and “ROGUE ONE” were other movies that subverted the saga’s mythos. Rian Johnson had not created anything new. Not really. Also, both George Lucas and Gareth Edwards did all of this with better writing.

There were aspects of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VIII – THE LAST JEDI” that impressed me. I thought the film’s performances from a cast led by Mark Hamill, Daisy Ridley and John Boyega were either competent or first-rate. And I was more than impressed by the movie’s production values. But overall, I found “THE LAST JEDI” to be a major disappointment. And a great deal of this disappointment came from Rian Johnson’s screenplay – both the film’s narrative and characterizations. In fact, I dislike this film a lot more than I did “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. I understand that J.J. Abrams, who had directed the Sequel Trilogy’s first film, will direct its third and final movie, “EPISODE IX”. Even if this movie proved to be enjoyable, I do not think it can save this new trilogy as a whole. After two very disappointing movies, the STAR WARS Sequel Trilogy has proven to be a disaster in my eyes.

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“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

 

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” (2016) Review

Two years following the success of 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, Marvel Entertainment released a new “X-MEN” film set ten years after the previous one. The movie proved to be the fourth one directed by Bryan Singer.

“X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” began in ancient Egypt, where the world’s first mutant, a powerful individual named En Sabah Nur, ruled by by transferring his mind into new bodies. Unfortunately, a group of former worshipprs betrayed En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse” by entombing him alive. They also killed his four lieutenants, the “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, who tried to protect him. The movie jumped to 1983 Egypt where C.I.A. Agent Moira MacTaggert (last seen in 2011’s “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS”) has been investigating a cult in Egypt that worships En Sabah Nur. Her accidental exposure his tomb to sunlight awakened the ancient mutant and produced a shock wave around the globe. Following his awakening, En Sabah Nur set out to recruit four mutants as his new “Four Horsemen”:

*Ororo Munroe aka “Storm” – an orphan and pickpocket from the streets of Cairo, who is able to control the weather

*Warren Worthington III aka “Angel” – a mutant with feathered wings on his back, who has resorted to participating in underground fight clubs in Berlin

*Psylocke – an enforcer for the black marketeer mutant Caliban, who is not only telepathic and telekinetic, but can also produce a purple-colored psychic energy

*Erik Lehnsherr aka “Magneto” – a Holocaust survivor and former friend of Charles Xavier, who has the ability to manipulate metal and control magnetic fields, and who is recently grieving over the accidental deaths of his wife and daughter by the Polish police

Apocalypse’s shock wave also caused Jean Grey, an adolescent student and mutant at Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters to have a nightmare and momentarily lose control of her powers. When Charles Xavier attempted to investigate the power source he discovered that Moira was involved. Although her previous memories of them together were erased, Xavier meets with her to discuss the legend of En Sabah Nur. But when they become aware of the ancient mutant’s plans to bring about the apocalypse; Xavier and Moira recruit fellow mutants like Raven aka “Mystique”, Hank McCoy aka “Beast”, Alex Summers aka “Havok”, and Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver” to stop Apocalypse’s plans. Xavier students like Jean Grey, Scott Summers aka “Cyclops” (Alex’s nephew) and Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler” also join the campaign to stop En Sabah Nur.

Let me be frank. “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was not well received by the critics and many filmgoers. I am not going to explain why they felt this way about the movie. Needless to say, I do not agree with this pervading view. I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was a great film. It was not. I believe the movie had some problems.

One of those problems is that some of the cast members were obviously too young for their roles. This certainly seemed to be the case for James McAvoy Michael Fassbender and Rose Byrne, who portrayed Charles Xavier, Magneto and Moira McTaggart. All three are in their mid-to-late 30s and portrayed characters who were in their early 50s (late 40s for Moira, I suspect) . . . with no make-up to convey their characters’ aging. Both Jennifer Lawrence and Nicholas Hoult portrayed Mystique and Hank McCoy, who were slightly younger than Xavier and Magneto. But “X-MEN: FIRST CLASS” gave a good excuse for their slow aging . . . Mystique’s blood. Another cast member who portrayed a character much older than himself (without makeup) is Lucas Till, who is at least 25 or 26 years old, reprising his role as the late 30s to early 40s Alex Summers. And finally, we have Josh Helman, who is barely 30 years old, who reprised his role as William Stryker, who must have been around the same age as Xavier and Magneto. Does Singer have something against aging in his “X-MEN” films? And if he wanted to maintain the same cast, could he have at least consider using aging makeup for at least five members of the cast?

Two, what was the point in including both Stryker and Wolverine in this movie? Why? They were not essential to the plot. Was it really necessary for Singer to convey that Stryker had ended up giving Wolverine adamantium after all? Despite the time change in “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”? What was the point? Could we at least have one “X-MEN” film in which Hugh Jackman does not appear? I also see that Singer, along with screenwriter Simon Kinberg, decided to include Stryker in this tale as a plot device to delay Hank, Raven, Peter, and Moira from reaching Cairo. Pointless. It was the most pointless moment in this movie. Finally, I had a problem with the “Four Horsemen”. Aside from Magneto, the other three were barely used. What was the point in showing how they were recruited by En Sabah Nur, when Oscar Isaac and Michael Fassbender seemed to be the only ones in scenes featuring the ancient mutant and his “Horsemen”, who had the most lines. It is bad enough that once again, Singer indulged in his penchant for ignoring minority characters like Storm and Psylocke. Then he includes Angel into this movie – who was shown to be younger than Storm, Scott and Jean in 2006’s “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND” – and barely give the latter any lines.

And yet . . . I still liked “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE”. In fact, I liked it more than I did “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. The 2016 movie had its problems, but it never seemed racked with so many plot holes like the 2014 movie did. Without the cloud of time travel hovering over the movie, the writing for “APOCALPYSE” struck me as a little clearer and a lot more straightforward. I can applause Singer for attempting to tackle something complicated as time travel. I simply believe that he, Kinberg and the other screenwriters did not handle it very well. On the other hand, the more straightforward narrative for “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” seemed to suit both Singer and Kinberg.

I did not care for the minor arc regarding William Stryker and Wolverine. And yes, En Sabah Nur’s plot to retake the world seemed a bit unoriginal. But Singer and Kinberg handled this story a lot better than they did the time travel plot for the 2014 movie. And to be honest, I rather liked it. I did not love it, but I liked it. I also liked the fact that En Sabah Nur’s plot had a surprising twist (well, one that I did not see coming) that did not involved his “Four Horsemen”.

I may not have a high opinion of “DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”. But the movie did provide some interesting consequences that played out in “APOCALYPSE”. One, both movies allowed Xavier and Mystique to become close again, following their estrangement in “X-MEN: FIRST-CLASS”. In one of the movie’s more interesting scenes, Mystique discovers that she has become something of a legend to some of the younger mutants, including Xavier’s students. The movie also allowed Jean Grey the opportunity to learn to utilize her “Dark Phoenix” powers with more control . . . and without Xavier trying to suppress her. Do not get me wrong. I am one of those fans who actually enjoyed “X-MEN: THE LAST STAND”. But it was nice to see Xavier dealing with Jean’s powers with a healthier attitude. And although I was not impressed by how Singer and Kinberg pushed Storm into the background – especially during the film’s second half, it was nice to get a peek into her life as a young Cairo pickpocket before she ended up as one of Apocalypse’s minions and later, a student at Xavier’s school.

I certainly had no problem with the movie’s productions. I thought Grant Major did an exceptional job in not only re-creating ancient Egypt for the movie’s prologue and for the rest of it, the early 1980s. This is not surprising, considering Major’s work with director Peter Jackson on movies such as “THE LORD OF THE RINGS” trilogy. Newton Thomas Sigel’s cinematography contributed to the movie’s epic and sweeping look. Louise Mingenbach’s costumes, along with Geoffroy Gosselin and Anne Kuljian’s set decorations struck me as a solid reflection of the movie’s early 1980s setting. But the two aspects of the movie’s visual style that really impressed me were Michael Louis Hill and John Ottman’s editing, especially in scenes that involved En Sabah Nur’s entombing in the movie’s beginning and the X-Men’s showdown with the ancient mutant. I was especially impressed with the movie’s special effects, especially in the very two scenes that I had just pointed out.

The acting featured in “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” also struck me as impressive. Well, to be honest, there were only a few performances that really caught my notice. However, I certainly had no problem with the other performances. Of the four actors who portrayed En Sabah Nur’s “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”, only one left no impression upon me – namely Ben Hardy, who portrayed Angel. The character barely had any lines and if I am mistaken, I could have sworn that Angel’s character was from a younger generation (that of Rogue and Iceman’s) – at least in the current movie franchise. I can also say the same about actress Lana Candor, who portrayed Jubilee. Not only did the actress barely had any lines, she was also portrayed as an Xavier student from Rogue and Iceman’s generation in a previous movie.

Although Alexandra Shipp, who portrayed Storm, and Olivia Munn, who portrayed Psylocke; were shifted to the background after their characters were introduced; both managed to impress me in the end. Shipp’s portrayal of the adolescent Storm struck me as rather lively and energetic. And Munn was effectively intimidating as the mutant enforcer, who becomes one of En Sabah Nur’s minions. The movie also featured solid performances from Rose Byrne, who returned as C.I.A. Agent Moira McTaggert; Sophie Turner and Tye Sheridan as the adolescent Jean Grey and Scott Summers aka “Cyclops”; Kodi Smit-McPhee as the younger Kurt Wagner aka “Nightcrawler”; Lucas Till as Alex Summers aka Havok; Nicholas Hoult as Dr. Hank McCoy aka “Beast”; Josh Helman as William Stryker; and Evan Peters as the always amusing Peter Maximoff aka “Quicksilver”. If you are careful, you might also spot Hugh Jackman, Zeljko Ivanek, Ally Sheedy and of course, Stan Lee.

Only four performances in this movie really impressed me. One of them turned out to be James McAvoy’s portrayal of Charles Xavier aka “Professor X”. At first, McAvoy’s performance seemed solid . . . almost perfunctory. But once it became apparent that Professor Xavier’s fate was connected with with En Sabah Nur’s scheme, McAvoy skillfully portrayed the telepathic mutant with a great deal of emotion and pathos. Michael Fassbender proved to be equally fascinating as the emotionally battered Erik Lensherr. He did a great job in conveying Magneto’s reactions to the deaths of a family and peaceful life, and to being emotionally manipulated by En Sabah Nur. Jennifer Lawrence continued to impress me with her excellent portrayal of the complex Raven aka “Mystique”. I found it fascinating to watch the 20-something actress portray a character who had become battle hardened and mature after spending two decades fighting on behalf of fellow mutants. Many critics have complained about Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of the movie’s main villain, En Sabah Nur aka “Apocalypse”. Apparently, they could not get past the actor’s make-up or mask. Well, I could. And I thought Isaac did a pretty damn good job in portraying a villain who was not only something of an egomaniac, but also a world-class manipulator. And he did so with great skill and subtlety.

I am not saying that “X-MEN: APOCALYPSE” was one of the best movies from the summer of 2016. Nor am I saying that it was one of the best in the “X-MEN” movie franchise. But I certainly do not believe that it was one of the worst. As far as I am concerned, the worst in the movie franchise was released four-and-a-half months earlier. But I thought it was something of an improvement over the convoluted plot that seemed to mar “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, thanks to Bryan Singer’s direction, Simon Kinberg’s screenplay and an excellent cast led by James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender.

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS”and “A NEW HOPE” that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in“RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS” movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

 

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R.I.P. Kenny Baker (1934-2016)

 

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

 

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

 

“ROBIN HOOD” (2010) Review

When I had first learned that Ridley Scott planned to direct his own version of the Robin Hood legend, I merely responded with a shake of my head. The last thing I wanted to see was another take on the famous English outlaw. But since I was a fan of the director, I decided to give it a chance. 

For years, I had harbored the belief that the 1938 Errol Flynn movie, ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”, was the true story myth about the famous outlaw. Imagine my shook when I discovered I had been wrong. One of the featurettes from the movie’s DVD release revealed that there had been numerous versions of the Robin Hood folklore. With that in mind, I found it easy to prepare myself for any version that might appear in Scott’s new movie.

”ROBIN HOOD” opened in the year 1199. Robin Longstride is a common archer who had fought alongside King Richard the Lionheart of England during the Third Crusade. Following the death of Richard during a battle in which the English Army attempted to ransack a French castle; Robin and three other common soldiers – Alan A’Dale, Will Scarlett, and Little John – attempt to return to their homeland after ten years of fighting abroad. Along the way, they come across an ambush of the Royal guard by Sir Godfrey, an English knight with French lineage and allegiance. The King of France had ordered Sir Godfrey to assassinate Richard. Having discovered that the King was already dead, Sir Godfrey is chased off by the arrival of Robin and his companions. Aiming to return to England safely and richer in pocket than they left it, Robin and his men steal the armor of the slain Knights and head for the English ships on the coast under the guise of noblemen. Before leaving the scene of slaughter, Robin promises a dying Knight, Sir Robert Loxley, to return a sword to the man’s father in Nottingham.

Upon arriving in England, Robin (disguised as Loxley) informs the Royal family of the King’s death and witnesses the crowning of King John, Richard’s younger brother. Robin and his companions head to Nottingham, where Loxley’s father, Sir Walter, asks him to continue impersonating his son in order to prevent the family lands being taken by the Crown. Loxley’s widow, Lady Marion, is initially distrustful of Robin, but soon warms to him. But before long, Robin and his friends find themselves swept into England’s political intrigue between the English Northern barons and King John; along with a threat of invasion by the King of France.

I will not deny that ”ROBIN HOOD” has a few problems. If I must be honest, there were three aspects of the film that I either disliked or left me feeling puzzled. One, I did not care for the presence of Lady Marion’s presence on the battlefield between the French invaders and the English defenders. If this was an attempt to make Lady Marion’s character more action-oriented and politically correct, it did not work with me. She did not have any experience as a warrior. Nor did the movie ever made it clear that she had been trained to fight battles or handle weapons of war, like the Éowyn character in the ”LORD OF THE RINGS” Trilogy. I had no problems with the scene of Marion killing the French officer who tried to rape her. But her presence on that battlefield beneath the White Cliffs of Dover struck me as utterly ridiculous.

I also found the sequence that led to Sir Walter’s revelation that Robin’s father, Thomas Longstride, had earlier led some civil rights movement against the Crown before his death rather irrelevant. Before this revelation, Sir Walter kept hinting that he knew something about Robin. I had suspected that he would reveal that Robin was his illegitimate son or something like that. Considering that Robin seemed determined to protect the Loxleys and take up their cause against King John, I found this revelation about Robin’s father somewhat tacked on and unnecessary. My last problem with ”ROBIN HOOD” centered around the movie’s ending. Following the English army’s successful defense against the French, King John reneged on his promise to the English barons that he would sign the Charter of the Forest – a document for constitutional reforms. I had no problems with this turn of events, considering that John resisted signing the document until he added it as a supplement to the Magna Carta, some sixteen to seventeen years later. Unfortunately, in addition to refusing to sign the document, King John also declared Robin Longstride aka Sir Robert Loxley an outlaw. Why? How did the King know about Robin’s true identity in the first place? Who told him? Certainly not the main villain, Sir Godfrey, who died before he could inform John that the real Sir Robert was killed in France. Neither Sir Walter or Lady Marion would have told him. Who did? And why did the King name Robin as an outlaw? Did he decided to make this declaration upon learning that Robin was NOT Sir Robert Loxley? Even if someone could provide answers to my questions, the entire scenario regarding Robin’s status at the end of the film came off as rushed to me.

But despite these misgivings of ”ROBIN HOOD”, I ended up enjoying it very much. Ridley Scott and screenwriter Brian Helgeland did a pretty damn good job in portraying the Robin Hood legend from a new and completely fresh point-of-view. Well, perhaps it was not completely fresh. After all, the movie is obviously an origins tale about how one Robin Longstride became “Robin Hood”. I have seen a similar origins tale in the 1991 Kevin Reynolds film, ”ROBIN HOOD: PRINCE OF THIEVES”. However, Robin’s origin tale was merely rushed in that film’s first half hour. Scott and Helgeland decided to create a more in-depth story about the outlaw’s origin in this film. In fact, the movie only featured one scene in which Robin and his friends actually participated in an act of theft. It involved the return of grain confiscated by the Crown. I would not be surprised if many had complained about this, considering that it went against the traditional grain of what to expect in a movie about Robin Hood. However, I was too busy enjoying the movie to really care.

Another aspect of ”ROBIN HOOD” that I found very admirable was its complex portrayal of the English Royal Family. Most versions of the Robin Hood tale tend to have conflicting views of the two Royal brothers – Richard and John. John is usually portrayed as a sniveling and greedy prince who resented the reputation of his older brother. And Richard is usually portrayed as the older and noble brother – something of a “straight arrow” type. Scott and Helgeland somewhat skewered these portraits in the movie. Superficially, Richard is portrayed as noble, popular with his men and pure at heart. Yet, a closer look at the monarch revealed him to be avaricious, thin-skinned and somewhat petty. After all, the movie did start with him leading an attack against a French noble’s castle in an attempt to ransack it for riches to add to the Royal coffers. And when Robin Longstride revealed his true feelings about a vicious battle led by Richard in Jeruseleum upon the monarch’s urging, the archer and his friends found themselves locked in a wooden stock during Richard’s last battle. Prince (later King) John is portrayed as an arrogant and selfish young man only concerned with his desires and ego. Yet, the second half of the movie also portrayed him as a man willing to fight alongside his men in the defense of England and willing to occasionally listen to good advice. Neither Richard nor John are portrayed in a one-dimensional manner. Which I found very satisfying.

In fact, I would go as far to say that ”ROBIN HOOD” is a somewhat complex and tale about the effects of the Third Crusade upon the English Royal Family, its adversarial relationship with France, which ended up lasting for centuries, and the clash between the Crown and the country’s Northern citizens. Mind you, some of these plotlines have popped up in other Robin Hood movies. But Scott and Hegeland managed to weave all of these aspects into the movie’s story with surprising skill. Mind you, they did not achieve this with any perfection, but it turned out to be a lot better than most movies are capable of handling. And all of this culminated in a superbly directed sequence in which King John, Robin and many other Englishmen defended the country’s shores against the invading French. The only aspect that slightly spoiled this scene was the presence of Lady Marion in battle. Some critics have compared this movie unfavorable to the 1938, accusing it of being lifeless and grim. Hmm . . . perhaps they were thinking of another Ridley Scott film. Because ”ROBIN HOOD” struck me as the liveliest film that he has ever directed. It did have its dark moments. But I had no problem with that. Liveliness mixed with some darkness has always appealed to me. I have always had a problem with the lack of darkness in ”THE ADVENTURES OF ROBIN HOOD”. It prevented that movie from having an edge of darkness that I usually like to see in an adventure film.

The movie’s technical aspects were superb. I especially have to give kudos John Mathieson for his beautiful photography. I had feared that ”ROBIN HOOD” would end up with a slightly dark look, which could be found in the 1991 Robin Hood film and even in part of ”GLADIATOR”. Mind you, the France sequences did come off as slightly dark. But once Robin and his friends reached England . . . oh my God! The photography was just beautiful. I can think of three scenes that literally blew my mind – the journey up the Thames River to London, Lady Marion and the Loxley hands working in the fields with the threat of a thunderstorm brewing in the background, and the English Army’s journey to the South East coast near Dover. I also enjoyed Janty Yates’ costumes, as well. Were her costumes historically accurate? I have not the foggiest idea. That particular period in history has never been familiar to me.

The acting in ”ROBIN HOOD” was superb. I could say ”of course”, but I have come across movies with an exceptional cast that ended up featuring some pretty bad performances. Thankfully, I cannot say the same about this movie. Russell Crowe was superb as Robin Longstride. His performance was not as flashy as the likes of Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner or even Patrick Bergin. But I am thankful that it was not, because such a performance would not suit him. His screen chemistry with Cate Blanchett sizzled. I found this surprising, considering that the two actors from Down Under never worked together. Or have they? Anyway, Blanchett was just as superb as Crowe and gave an interesting take on a Lady Marion who was older and more experienced in life than the previous takes on the character. Mark Strong portrayed the traitorous Sir Godfrey. He gave his usual competent performance, but I have to admit that I found nothing exceptional about his performance. One performance that did caught my attention belonged to Oscar Isaac, who gave a complex and interesting portrayal of the young King John.

I also enjoyed Eileen Atkins’ sardonic portrayal of John and Richard’s mother, Eleanor of Aquitaine. It seemed a pity that her role was not that large. I am glad that Scott Grimes, Alan Doyle and especially Kevin Durand got a chance to strut their stuff. Their performances as Robin’s friends – Will Scarlet, Allan A’Dayle and Little John – really enlivened the film. It helped that Crowe had recruited Doyle for the film, due to the latter’s musical collaboration with the actor. And considering that Crowe, Doyle and Grimes are all musicians as well, I suspect they must have had a merry time with some of the film’s musical interludes. Another performance that enlivened the movie came from Swedish actor Max Von Sydow, who portrayed Lady Marion’s father in-law, Sir Walter Loxley. There seemed to be a constant twinkle in his eyes in most of his scenes that made his presence enjoyable. There was one performance that left me feeling unsatisfied and it belonged to Matthew McFayden’s portrayal of the Sheriff of Nottingham. I am not saying that McFayden gave a poor performance. I am merely saying that his presence was nothing more than a waste of time. McFayden appeared long enough to sneer and make a pass at Lady Marion, attempt to placate the invading French troops in a cowardly manner and express surprise and fear at the first note received from the new “Robin Hood” near the end of the film. Like I said . . . a waste of time.

Considering that ”ROBIN HOOD” did not utilize the usual myth found in other films about the English outlaw, I am not surprised that many would dismiss it as one of Ridley Scott’s lesser films. Well, they are entitled to their opinion. I had a few problems with the movie. But overall, I was more than pleasantly surprised to find myself enjoying it very much . . . considering my initial assumptions about it. Once again, director Ridley Scott and actor Russell Crowe failed to disappoint me and delivered a very entertaining film.