Tag Archives: B-

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Producer: Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman
Director: Rian Johnson
Writer: Rian Johnson
Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio Del Toro
Studio: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

B-

The “Star Wars” universe is forty years old now, so it’s no surprise that it’s really showing its age. Of course decline set in as early as 1983 with “Return of the Jedi,” and the “prequel” trilogy of 1999-2005 was a terrible letdown, but now that Disney has taken over the property and is busily turning it into an assembly-line cash cow, the spirit of the enterprise seems to have changed. George Lucas’ 1977 original was so appealing because it simultaneously evoked the naïve charm and excitement of the serials of the 1940s for those who had seen them, while introducing a new generation to those qualities in a shiny new package, and it did so with a sense of playful innocence.

That unaffected character has greatly diminished over the years, and is now almost completely gone. The new “Star Wars” movies are skillfully made, recycling elements that made the first two pictures in particular so winning and offering a cornucopia of action, battles and thrills (much of them CGI-based), along with an obligatory dose of juvenile humor. But the recipe has taken on a mechanical feel, and because of the sensory cascade it has grown increasingly exhausting rather than exhilarating. There is a point where giving audiences too much of what you think they crave has diminishing returns. The aim of the makers now appears to be the same as that of the heroic characters in the movie—survival.

That isn’t to say that fans of the franchise—and even casual viewers—won’t enjoy “The Last Jedi,” as this latest installment is subtitled. But even the most dedicated devotee probably won’t feel transported by it, as they were by that first trip to a galaxy far, far away four decades ago. One now reacts dutifully rather than enthusiastically; as with the movies of the so-called Marvel Universe, what you’re likely to appreciate is the familiarity of it all—you feel comfortably at home with what’s transpiring onscreen because, basically, you know what’s coming. But the freshness is gone.

It isn’t that writer-director Rian Johnson doesn’t toss a few curves into the plot of this sequel to the modified remake of “A New Hope” with which J.J. Abrams rebooted the series in 2015. Introducing new characters who essentially went through a slightly altered version of the story arc that Luke, Leia and Han completed the first time around, Abrams’ movie acted as a farewell to Solo, and this one is a similar send-off for Luke. Only Leia survives—at least corporeally—at the end, presumably to have her swan song in the upcoming third part of the “reboot (or “Skywalkers’ End”) trilogy,” though one imagines that Carrie Fisher’s death will require some serious rethinking to end matters properly now.

In any event, when the film begins, the Rebels led by Leia are on the run from the troops of the First Order, or the revived empire, headed by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, in another virtuoso motion-capture turn), whose right hand men are General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, still a pale stand-in for Peter Cushing, goofy rather than stern) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, smoldering effectively), aka Ben Solo, the son of Han and Leia who has turned to the dark side, killed his father and emulates Darth Vader down to the mask. In desperation Rey (Daisy Ridley), the young force-empowered heroine who pretty much stood in for Luke Skywalker in “Force Awakens,” is sent off to find the aged, reclusive actual Luke (Mark Hamill) to beg him to intervene. Her mission is complicated by Luke’s refusal to get involved (or, initially, to train her in Jedi ways) and by a sort of unexplained mind-meld with Kylo Ren that leads her to suspect he’s not so evil after all.

Meanwhile Poe (Oscar Isaac), the hotshot—and hot-headed—pilot who’s the Han surrogate, tries to keep the tattered Rebel fleet from destruction despite insistence on caution from Leia and Admiral Hodo (Laura Dern). And Finn (John Boyega), the erstwhile storm trooper who’s defected to the rebel side, joins with Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), a maintenance worker, to invade the First Order’s headquarters ship and disable the apparatus that allows it to track the rebels even into hyperspace. Their efforts face many setbacks, not least the danger posed by Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the leader of the storm troopers, and the intervention of an unscrupulous code-breaker (Benicio del Toro).

The scenario jumps frantically from one of these story threads to another, barely pausing for breath along the way. Together they afford multiple opportunities for extravagant action scenes—chases, starship battles, light-saber face-offs, death-defying feats of heroism, self-sacrifices and hairbreadth escapes. Old friends from previous installments pop up to complement Luke and Leia. A species of tiny birds with soulful eyes are introduced to approximate the effect of the Ewoks, and some tiny hooded figures that will remind you of a nicer brand of Jawas. There are unlikely alliances, misunderstandings and double-crosses. And you may be sure that the disillusioned Luke eventually rouses himself from his lethargy to confront his nephew Kylo Ren, and a ragtag band of rebels manages to survive to fight another day—or another movie.

All of this is done up with every bit of polish that the Disney balance-sheet can muster. The effects are top-drawer, and while no one among the younger performers is especially charismatic, they all do what is demanded of them well enough. Most interest, however, will probably concentrate on the oldsters. Fisher provides a maternal presence but not much more. Though absent for long stretches, it’s Hamill who dominates as a sort of Obi-wan redux, and it must be said that while he’s adequate, he lacks either the gravitas or the mischievous twinkle in the eye that Alec Guinness brought to the first film, though he tries for both. Rich Heinrich’s production design and Steve Yedin’s cinematography are aces, and John Williams continues the tradition of his rousing background scores. Editor Bob Ducsay moves the individual sequences along with dispatch; it isn’t his fault that at two-and-a-half hours the movie overstays its welcome. That’s the fault of Johnson’s decision to pile climax upon climax as if they were on sale at Screenplays-R-Us, apparently unwilling to jettison any of the ideas he’s had for propelling the story forward.

“The Last Jedi” is a perfect example of the so-called tent-pole fantasy movies that studios depend on nowadays—efficiently manufactured and enjoyable enough but overloaded with action and effects, and sorely lacking the magic that marked the first movies in the franchise. Of course they arose in a time and place that are now far, far away and, despite efforts of some to turn back the clock, unrecoverable.

JUSTICE LEAGUE

Producer: Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg and Geoff Johns
Director: Zach Snyder
Writer: Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon
Stars: Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Mamoa, Ray Fisher, Ciaran Hinds, Amy Adams, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Joe Morton, Billy Crudup, Robin Wright, Amber Heard, Jesse Eisenberg and Joe Manganiello
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

B-

After some early missteps in its attempt to challenge the Marvel Comics cinematic juggernaut, the so-called DC Universe finally scored big with its last entry “Wonder Woman,” and with “Justice League,” its answer to Marvel’s “Avengers” series, it can boast another modest success. The picture is still visually too dark, and it’s hobbled by a villain who’s a crashing bore, but it adds a welcome dose of humor to what had been pervasive grimness, and some promising new characters as well. Whether responsibility for the lightening of tone should primarily go to Zach Snyder, who’s overseeing the DC franchise and is credited as director, or to Joss Whedon, who is listed as co-writer and supposedly did reshoots after Snyder left to deal with a domestic tragedy, will probably be a matter of continuing debate. But the important thing is that the result is surprisingly enjoyable, and as edited to under two hours by David Brenner, Richard Pearson and Martin Walsh, mercifully short as far as superhero movies go, too.

In the aftermath of the disappointing “Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice,” the Man of Steel is dead, and his demise has cast a pall on humanity that invites the return of an ancient enemy of earth, gruesome destroyer Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds, as unrecognizable as the equally heavily made-up Oscar Isaac was as Apocalypse in the last “X-Men” movie). He’s a figure from DC mythology about the realm of the evil Darkseid, and returns to terra not-so-firma seeking three all-powerful boxes that apparently can gobble up planets when linked together. He lost them on his first invasion many millions of years ago, when mankind, the Amazons and the inhabitants of watery Atlantis banded together to defeat him. Each group took one of the boxes to guard.

Now Steppenwolf is coming back with an army of flying parademons that feed on fear, and Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) senses an impending invasion. To deal with it, he recruits a league of people with special powers. The first is, of course, Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), whose number he has from “Dawn of Justice.” He is, on the other hand, initially rebuffed by Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), who prefers remaining a gruff loner, and Diana also gets the cold shoulder at first from Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), an injured young athlete whom his scientist father (Joe Morton) has saved by turning him into surly Cyborg—using, it turns out, the human-held box that Star Labs, where he works, has somehow gotten hold of. By contrast young Barry Allen/Flash (Ezra Miller) gleefully accepts the offer to enlist; he’s a guy who longs for cool friends.

A good deal of the movie is devoted to these recruitment efforts, which are amusingly depicted in the cases of Aquaman and Flash. (The Cyborg thread, at least in the early stages, is presented rather glumly, in the fashion of the pre-“Wonder Woman” installments in this DC series.) But eventually all five unite after the boxes held by the Amazons and the Atlanteans are taken by Steppenwolf, though not without occasional bursts of dissension among them. Unfortunately their first encounter with Steppenwolf does not go well, and they find themselves in need of additional power if they are to have any chance of saving earth. That’s why they decide to put the human-held box to use in order to…well, we shall leave that for you to discover for yourself. (Just check the cast credits for a clue.)

One of the particular pleasures of “Justice League” is that when the final confrontation comes, it’s in a nearly deserted area of Russia, a place left desolate by a nuclear accident obviously modeled on Chernobyl. That means that we don’t have to put up with the tired cliché of collapsing buildings and bridges as cities are reduced to rubble in an overly-familiar climax. To be sure, there is still plenty of CGI work on display here, and the culminating battle between heroes and villains is done in typically dank style (cinematographer Fabian Wagner and production designer Patrick Tatopoulos really lay on the gloom). But the number of potential human victims that require saving is relatively small (basically a few families that have been squatting in some condemned buildings), and the smaller scale in that respect acts to, rather than detracting from, the sense of human involvement.

As to the cast, even Affleck and Gadot crack occasional smiles this time around, and Jeremy Irons makes a reliable Alfred, with Amy Adams reprising her Lois Lane and Diane Ladd her Ma Kent. In his scenes as Superman, Cavill seems to be mellowing as well. But one has to feel for Hinds, stuck in some of the most unattractive costuming this side of gargoyles and barking out lines that would be absurdly overwrought even in a fifties comic.

On the other hand, Fisher, after opening scenes in which he tries to outdo Affleck for dourness, opens up nicely in the picture’s latter stages despite his heavy makeup and costuming. And Momoa and Miller are both winners. The big fellow portrays Aquaman as a lumbering, slightly dim guy in the manner of Chris Hemsworth’s Thor, with a scene involving Wonder Woman’s lasso that’s a great bit. Miller uses his comic chops to the hilt, not only delivering his quippy dialogue with cheerful new-kid-on-the-block enthusiasm but putting some welcome goofiness into his action scenes as well—including one of the extras inserted into the final credits (an addition that fanboys will especially appreciate as a salute to a frequently recycled DC topos). You can compare his Flash to the similarly upbeat take that Tom Holland gave Spider-Man in the last “Avengers” flick, as well as look forward to the solo movies promised for both Aquaman and Flash.

“Justice League” closes with nice summing-up moments for its various characters, as well as a closing blurb pointing to what’s planned for a JL follow-up. If this movie is any indication, one can anticipate that continuation with a lot more hopefulness than you possibly have for a second helping of something like “Suicide Squad.”