Friday, December 15, 2017

GHOSTS OF THE PAST CONFRONT THE FUTURE: a review of "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi"

Based on characters and situations created by George Lucas
Written and Directed by Rian Johnson
**** (four stars)

It feels so supremely fitting that this film has arrived in the very year that "Star Wars" reached its 40th anniversary.

Dear readers, never did I ever think to myself that a full 40 years after seeing George Lucas' "Star Wars," his iconic, revolutionary motion picture game changer for the very first time on May 25, 1977 at the age of 8 years old, that the stories and overall mythology of Luke Skywalker, his friends, enemies and family would still capture my imagination and so fervently at that. All I knew when I was 8 was that my life was irrevocably changed, as if it was indeed struck by that proverbial lightning bolt. Simply stated, and I am certain, just as for so many of you, my life seemed to have a certain line drawn in the sand: my life before "Star Wars" and my life after "Star Wars," for it has permeated my existence so deeply that it is difficult for me to think of a time when "Star Wars" was not in the world.

Over these 40 years, I have remained ever enthralled with George Lucas's vision set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away as I have greeted and re-visited every film (including the prequel trilogy which I still firmly believe are unfairly maligned) with a joyful abandon as the elements of space opera, 1930's science fiction serials and the classic to primal tales of good and evil remain untouchable to me. For me, "Star Wars" has felt like a classic tome that I can always lose myself within over and over again.

Ever since George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney, effectively stepping away from his own creation, I have remained skeptical of whatever subsequent films would be made without his influence because for better or for worse, it cannot be denied that with the first six films, you could see Lucas' fingerprints on the entire proceedings and I would have hated to see something so personal just become another shiny, flashy, money grabbing greed machine.

So far, the results have been wonderful, from Director J.J. Abrams' sequel trilogy opener "Star Wars: Episode VII-The Force Awakens" (2015) and Director Gareth Edwards' riveting stand alone war film "Rogue One" (2016), both of which fully honoring the universe George Lucas built while gradually pushing forwards with new characters, storylines, a more complicated and complex emotional and moral palate as well as some daring cinematic risks within this particular film universe (the climax of "Rogue One" for certain).

Yet, the past and potential future of this series as well as the respective pasts and futures concerning the characters of Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa-Solo and all of our intergalactic heroes and villains has not ever been confronted so explicitly, boldly, poignantly and as brilliantly as achieved in Writer/Director Rian Johnson's sequel trilogy middle installment "Star Wars; Episode VIII-The Last Jedi."

What Johnson has accomplished with his time at bat was beyond superlative. If Abrams' "The Force Awakens" was a home run, then Johnson's film is a beautifully and passionately delivered grand slam!!! So much so, and so triumphantly and most importantly, completely, I really have no idea of how Abrams is even going to attempt to follow it up with "Episode IX" in two years. Simply stated, Rian Johnson has delivered the very best "Star Wars" film I have seen since that very first film 40 years ago. This film is outstanding, astonishing work and easily one of 2017's highest honors!

Now in the interest of not producing spoilers or giving away too much plot information, I will stick to the basics. Picking up immediately from the events of "The Force Awakens," "The Last Jedi" finds the increasingly decimated Resistance, led by General Leia Organa-Solo (the eternal Carrie Fisher), on the run from the legions of The First Order, under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (the riveting Andy Serkis), his sniveling commanding officer General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and of course, his conflicted Dark Side of the Force apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Meanwhile, defected Stormtrooper Finn (a muscular John Boyega), recovered from his injuries in his duel with Kylo Ren, teams up with hotshot/hotheaded X-Wing fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), his trusty droid BB-8 and Resistance mechanic Rose Tico (a wonderful Kelly Marie Tran) for a top secret special mission which lands them on the wealthy casino driven landscape of Canto Bight.

And as for Rey (Daisy Ridley), when we last saw her, she had successfully found the thought-to-be-missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who actually resides within a self-imposed exile upon the planet of Ahch-To. Despite Rey's impassioned pleas for his return to the fight to save the galaxy, Luke Skywalker, now grizzled, angry and broken, possesses not only no interest in rising to the challenge once more, he surprisingly is wishing for the final breaths of the entire Jedi religion.

It is within the entirety of "The Last Jedi" where all of our characters wrestle furiously with the ghosts of the past, and legends and myths both real and created as the desperate future approaches rapidly and with an unapologetic roar.

Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" is magnificent, marvelous and majestic storytelling and filmmaking that honors George Lucas' creation with innocence and reverence. To that end, I applaud Johnson tremendously for not allowing any sense of reverence to stifle his own creative voice and inventiveness. True to form, Johnson more than delivers the goods with the required spectacle as the film opens with a spectacular space battle dogfight and I have to say that the film's final hour provides so much breathless excitement, white knuckle adventurousness, as well as honest levels of surprise, pathos and even humor that he ensures that his entry into the "Star Wars" cannon is equal part Wagner and "Flash Gordon," while also generating more than enough honest emotion to produce very real and very earned tears.

It would be so easy for Rian Johnson to have just delivered the lightshow of blaster shoot outs and lightsaber duels and nothing more but reveled within the nostalgia, something the new films do run the risk of with new stand alone features like the troubled young Han Solo film which will be released next year plus a proposed Obi-Wan solo film as well. While I do wish those films the best and I hope they turn out sparklingly well, there is this part of me that seriously wonder just how much longer can the powers that be at Disney and Lucasfilm mine the original three films for new material.  I mean--we can blow up variations of the Death Star only so many times, right?

That is why I am amazed with how directly Rian Johnson seemed to use "The Last Jedi" to confront that very quandary. With all due respect to J.J. Abrams, whom I have already stated performed a hero's job with "The Force Awakens," he was indeed paying while creating within Lucas' universe. However, with "The Last Jedi," we can easily see how Rian Johnson is not solely playing and creating within Lucas' universe, he is building from it, making the most familiar elements including the powers of The Force itself, refreshingly new thus inventing his own world with his own voice as completely and as intricately as Lucas. Even the film's new creatures feel to have the same inventiveness and suggested history as the ones Lucas created only adding to the fullness of this universe.

I do realize that some viewers may feel that some sections and sequences of "The Last Jedi" may feel to be a bit meandering to even transgressive, but trust me, every location and side story are all working to the creation of an experience that feels as complete as a stand-alone film although this is a middle chapter. Johnson truly left no stone unturned with his storyline as he essentially tied up some loose threads and answered questions from "The Force Awakens" while continuing to strengthen, broaden and deepen and by the film's conclusion, I wanted for absolutely nothing...that is, other than to just see it all over again.

Thematically, I do not think that I have seen a "Star Wars" installment where all of the film's major characters are undergoing some sort of inner turmoil, transformation and catharsis. Certainly for Rey, she is continuing upon her journey with The Force and how it ties to her past, lineage and her new precarious relationship with Luke Skywalker. But, Johnson delves even deeper as he weaves her struggle directly with that of Kylo Ren's, whose own inner conflict is particularly wrenching, making him one of the most compelling, multi-faceted and multi-layered villains we've yet seen in the "Star Wars" universe.

For Poe and Finn, each are confronted with what it precisely means to be a hero and a leader, as Poe's impetuousness denies him the ability to view the long game, let alone the sacrifices. As for Finn, he gradually extends his thinking beyond his own desires to leave the war behind by slowly beginning to realize precisely where he does stand within this specific space conflict, a realization spirited on by the sincere admiration of Rose who finds herself inspired by Finn's past heroism which has already begun to take on its own mythic status.

Yet, the conflicts of myths, legends, and heroism all fall within the characters who began this entire cinematic odyssey 40 years ago and Johnson also wisely plays into that very stretch of time and what it means to witness such beloved individuals as they are now in old age, facing down their pasts as well as mortality and most poignantly, for us in the audience with the full knowledge that we are witnessing Carrie Fisher's final screen performance, a fact that only adds to the feelings of sorrow within the film. For Leia, whom Fisher portrays with expert gravitas and moxie, we can easily feel the palpable weight of a woman's lifetime fight against tyranny and the painful burden of all of the lives lost for seemingly very little gain, if at all.

If "The Last Jedi" belongs to anyone it is indeed Mark Hamill, who possesses copious screen time as compared to his mere moments in "The Force Awakens" and he owns them all, again with gravitas and painful burdens of lives lost, past failures, the ghosts of his past coming to claim him in the present and feelings of intense resignation where there once was unbridled hope.

Mark Hamill is absolutely sensational, as he also brings his history of playing the character while matching it with our history of watching this character. Under the storytelling strengths of Rian Johnson, Mark Hamill graced us with the opportunity to see Luke's tale continue with several surprising details, emotions as well as a prickly sense of humor. Hamill's performance is richly elegiac and will contain moments that will just shatter you in their poignancy.

For a more aesthetic level, Rian Johnson, working with Cinematographer Steve Yedlin, has established an especially striking visual palate from the blood red elegance of Snoke's lair to the downright gorgeous climax upon the planet Crait, with its grounds of white sand that reveal brick red colorings underneath and red clouds rising upwards. But that is not the only area where the color schemes are vibrant in their presentation.

I have to make special mention of the levels of representation contained within "The Last Jedi." It needs to be said once again but it is indeed true: REPRESENTATION MATTERS!!!!! For all of the viewers of "Star Wars" for these 40 years, and for how deeply generations and all manner of races have latched themselves onto these characters, stories and universe, it was beyond incredible to witness various people of color, both male and female, taking up the reins portraying major characters in the film and all having significant screen time to shine as brightly as the sun.

For me, John Boyega again strikes a powerful image as Finn, a Black man in outer space who possesses a full story arc of his own and is given a brief yet fight with his nemesis Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie). I can only imagine what it must feel like for girls and women to see Daisy Ridley as Rey and believe me, you will easily fall in love with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, whose adventures with Finn contains a moment that combines emotions where you will stand up in your theater seat and cheer while also wiping away tears.   

I have absolutely not one criticism to deliver towards "The Last Jedi" as it was far beyond anything that I could have wished for. Never did I expect that the series would find itself in cinematic hands this confident and creative. No wonder he has been entrusted with the creation of a brand new, non Skywalker related "Star Wars" trilogy in the near future because with this film, he has more than proven that The Force is exceedingly strong with him.

Even moreso, Rian Johnson's "The Last Jedi" fulfills the promises made by George Lucas 40 years ago and for me, everything was contained in the new film's final image--of course, I will not reveal here. "The Last Jedi" masterfully and magically renews that spirit of hope and vision in a very real world that seems to be losing every thread of it. For every child and for every child within, we still need to take that look up to the stars and somehow, someway find that spark of inspiration, that reason to dream, the need to retain hope.

Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Episode VIII-The Last Jedi" is one of my most favorite films of 2017.

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