Skip to main content

Review: "Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi"

There was something electric in the air when that first teaser for Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens premiered back in 2014. A sinister voice on the soundtrack asked, "There has been an awakening...have you felt it?" Then there was a barrage of clips teasing something familiar for Star Wars fans. That familiarity was the style and look of the original trilogy's western frontiers, with a kick of space cowboy bravado. It was void of the prequel trilogy's green screen approach and cutting edge technological risks (though I will defend those jubilant George Lucas entries til the end of time). Unfortunately, J.J. AbramsThe Force Awakens ended up being a pleasantly mild carbon copy of A New Hope, recycling tropes and story situations from that film as some gesture of assurance for a new generation of fans; if anything, it was setting up a dutiful cover song trilogy. So when it was revealed that writer/director Rian Johnson was going to helm Episode VIII, I have to admit that it shot to the top of my list of anticipated films. I believe Johnson's Looper to be one of the best sci-fi films ever, so the fact that he was taking over the reigns of sci-fi cinema's holy grail was more than promising.

I saw Star Wars: Episode VIII - The Last Jedi yesterday afternoon and I can tell you that it boasts some of the series' most exciting action sequences, plus some of its most frustrating shortcomings and bafflingly silly moments. They add up to a finished film that shouldn't be as long as it is in running time, and one that fails to resonate as soundly as the lean, focused and ultimately more emotionally moving Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. In short, the Rogue One spinoff ends up being the best entry out of these recent Star Wars outings.

The Last Jedi picks up right after where The Force Awakens left off, with the evil First Order hot on the trail of the remaining mobile formation of the Resistance. Johnson wastes no time into throwing us into a dazzling space battle between several X-wing Starfighters and TIE fighters. At the front of the Rebel star fleet again is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), who is more than trigger happy and defiant of his leader Leia Organa (the late Carrie Fisher) as he whizzes his comrades into battle. This first half hour of the film is the strongest because of this tense action spectacle and because it also gives us our first clear engagement with Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis, doing spectacular motion capture work even though he's mostly sitting down). In a wonderfully written scene, Snoke basically pisses on the consistently dull villain that is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for essentially being a pussy in all of Episode VII. It's devilish in its wording and you can almost hear Johnson pounding away on his Macbook keyboard as he wrote this scene, echoing what so many of us have been internally saying this whole time.
But less than an hour into The Last Jedi, we're given the first of the film's *here's where a certain character dies but wait! it turns out they didn't die* moments. Such narrative devices tend to deflate the drama in stories and unfortunately The Last Jedi does this more than once with VERY major characters. It's a flip flop rhetorical ploy that proves as frustrating as Kylo Ren's ever-growing indecisiveness on whether he's a good guy or a bad guy. That indecisive schtick gets old quick and it cements Kylo Ren as the first Sith who is a self-entitled Millennial, which is a shame because Driver can be an interesting actor with the right material.

The rest of the narrative jumps back and forth between Rey (Daisy Ridley) trying to convince Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to train her in the Jedi ways on his secret island and the aerial conflict of the Resistance trying to flee from the First Order before running out of fuel on their main ship. There's also a really bad subplot involving Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) on a casino planet trying to find a master codebreaker, that doubles as a PSA against horse racing tracks. It's here where Benicio del Toro shows up as a crook named DJ, whose accent is a mix between Tom Waits and del Toro's Fred Fenster character from The Usual Suspects. We also get a momentary glimpse of Justin Theroux on this planet. Considering Theroux's appearance and Laura Dern playing Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, not to mention Snoke's spaceship lair covered in blood red walls, I mused on what a David Lynch Star Wars film might've looked like.
Look, I love Star Wars. I own all the films. I grew up with the original trilogy on VHS. I'll own this movie too eventually. These films are critic-proof not because they're big, intimidating productions but because it's the "idea" of Star Wars that people respond to and come back to, time and time again (including me). Am I disappointed in The Last Jedi? At some of its parts, yes. I could've done without the broad Disney comedy sight gags, like Luke milking the tit of alien island creature just to get blue milky shit in his beard. Also, as a fan of the lore within the Star Wars universe, I found it kind of cruel to reveal who Rey's parents were in a mere throwaway line, sans any visual representation or backing. But I love hearing those lightsabers turn on and it's always exhilarating seeing that beaut of the Millennium Falcon soar through the skies and fly through explosions. The appeal of it all is losing a little bit of magic, sure, but that happens with franchises emptying the tank on nostalgia and its weaponry of franchise motifs. We saw the same thing happen with the less-than-spectacular second season of Stranger Things on Netflix. When you try to please all targeted audiences with different renditions of the same film, you end up not pleasing any one of those audiences wholly.

The Last Jedi is going to make a lot of money and everyone and their mom will have seen it in less than a week after I've published this review. There will be fanboys forever bitching on Twitter about spoilers and what not. I think Johnson is a terrific filmmaker and he took on a huge task by pulling off a middle entry that people will wrongly compare to The Empire Strikes Back (even though this film's second climax takes place on a snowy planet like Hoth, but one where the snow literally bleeds red). And Johnson can forever boast that he pulled off a key kickass lightsaber fight, though not with the parties you might expect. (I also liked Johnson giving Rogue One director Gareth Edwards an embedded cameo if you look closely towards the end.) Ultimately, The Last Jedi is an improvement over The Force Awakens because it marches to the beat of its own drum as opposed to painting by numbers. And on the plus side, with the removal of Colin Trevorrow from the upcoming director's chair we can all breathe a sigh of relief that we don't have Star Wars: Episode IX - The Book of Henry slated for 2019.


Popular posts from this blog

VIDEO ESSAY: Film Fidelity: Beyoncé's "Lemonade"

Beyoncé knocked the wind out of the Internet when she dropped her nearly hour-long visual album Lemonade on HBO this past Saturday night, April 23rd. The inspired film is a remarkable piece to be sure--even for the Queen Bee herself. And while everything from the sound design to the collective creative direction from the team of filmmakers, editors and art department is exceptional, much of the receptive chatter online has instead circled around the implied infidelity that spurs the narrative of Lemonade; the idea that hubby Jay Z did Beyoncé wrong with a certain "Becky with the good hair." Which is too bad; that's the kind of fodder for tabloids and it marginalizes how much great film art is packed into this thing.
So, as a reactionary cinephile, I thought I'd redirect the public's attention to the striking images that Lemonade presents, the ideas behind them and, more pointedly, where these vignettes drew inspiration from. In contrast to the possible off-screen…

VIDEO ESSAY: Paul Thomas Anderson's "The Master"

"He's making all this up as he goes along."

NOTE: I was fortunate enough to attend a rare 70mm screening of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master on Thursday August 16, 2012 at the Music Box Theatre in Chicago, Illinois. In attendance were writer/director Paul Thomas Anderson and one of the film's actors, Kevin J. O'Connor (both of whom are pictured with mehere).


The key to the success of Paul Thomas Anderson's The Master doesn't come in its mammoth achievement of being shot on 70mm film or its carefully constructed parallel origin story of L. Ron Hubbard's Scientology practices. Rather, that success is embedded in an intimate scene: a single shot close-up on alcoholic war veteran Freddie Sutton (an unforgettable Joaquin Phoenix) during a "process of time" session with Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman in prime Hubbard form). Up until this scene, the character of Freddie dutifully performed the task of delivering the film's dark lau…

The 30 Best Films of 2013

Anyone who tells you that 2013 wasn't a spectacular year for movies is either lying through their teeth or is someone who spent most of the year cooped up in their apartment watching episodic television on Netflix. Here go the 30 best films of the year.

30. Fruitvale Station - Directed by Ryan Coogler
29. Post Tenebras Lux - Directed by Carlos Reygadas
28. Side Effects - Directed by Steven Soderbergh
27. Room 237 - Directed by Rodney Ascher
26. Before Midnight - Directed by Richard Linklater
25. Lenny Cooke - Directed by Joshua and Ben Safdie
24. The Place Beyond The Pines - Directed by Derek Cianfrance
23. Blue Jasmine - Directed by Woody Allen
22. Nebraska - Directed by Alexander Payne
21. Mud - Directed by Jeff Nichols
20. Gravity - Directed Alfonso Cuarón
19. The End of Love - Directed by Mark Webber
18. American Hustle - Directed by David O. Russell
17. Inside Llewyn Davis - Directed by Joel and Ethan Coen
16. Her - Directed by Spike Jonze
15. 12 Years A Slave - Directed by

Far From Heaven: Studying The Headroom In Pawel Pawlikowski's "Ida"

Pawel Pawlikowski's Ida tells the quietly haunting story of a young nun named Anna (Agata Trzebuchowska) who sets out to find her family origins in 1960s Poland. At the beginning of the film, the once-orphaned Anna learns that she still has one living relative: her aunt Wanda Gruz (Agata Kulesza), a revered court judge in the city. As Anna sets out on her journey of self-discovery, Pawlikowski, and cinematographers Ryszard Lenczewski and Lukasz Zal, announce their visual strategy for conveying their protagonist's hopeless and essentially powerless role in the world: by dwarfing the screen figure of Anna with a maximum amount of screen headroom.

Look at how the following shot makes Anna look insignificant against the towering institution of the convent.

In the city, Anna meets her aunt Wanda and there Anna learns that her real name is Ida Lebenstein. After Wanda tells Ida of her parents' horrific death during WWII, the pair set off to find out what exactly happened and perh…

The 25 Best Films of 2014

Under The Skin - Directed by Jonathan GlazerWhiplash - Directed by Damien ChazelleSelma - Directed by Ava DuVernayJoe - Directed by David Gordon GreenA Most Violent Year - Directed by J.C. ChandorThe Immigrant - Directed by James GrayGoodbye To Language - Directed by Jean-Luc GodardInterstellar - Directed by Christopher NolanInherent Vice - Directed by Paul Thomas AndersonNightcrawler - Directed by Dan GilroyBirdman - Directed by Alejandro González IñárrituFoxcatcher - Directed by Bennett MillerGone Girl - Directed by David FincherLife Itself - Directed by Steve JamesDawn of the Planet of the Apes - Directed by Matt ReevesBoyhood - Directed by Richard LinklaterSnowpiercer - Directed by Bong Joon-hoIda - Directed by Peter PawlikowsiAmerican Sniper - Directed by Clint Eastwood

The Motion Picture Superimposed

Julien Donkey-Boy (1999) 
In its earliest days, the superimposed image was used mainly as a special effect, most notably in Victor Sjöström's 1921 film The Phantom Carriage, where it created the illusion of ghosts in the afterlife. These days, the superimposed image is almost everywhere, from an editing dissolve that suggests a continuation in mood (e.g. the transition from a saddened Don Corleone in bed to his home country of Italy where his son Michael has sought refuge in The Godfather) to a literal visualization of a character's inner psychology (e.g. the face of death on Norman Bates in Psycho). For me, I find the superimposed image to be one of the most powerful visual strategies for conveying an idea or a feeling. In fact, last year I created a video essay on the works of Wong Kar-Wai that heavily relied on the use of superimposition to demonstrate the filmmaker's trademark visual fervor. Below, I've curated some standout superimposed images from over the years,…


That moment when it feels like someone--or something--is standing behind you. But then you turn around and find nothing.

For the cinematic narrative, the point of view (POV) shot is a high-powered filmmaking aesthetic that thrusts the viewer from omniscient viewer to dynamic player within the context of the screen. Whether it's a subjective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view takes the place of the screen figure's own line-of-sight) or an objective POV (where the camera/our field-of-view exists alongside the screen figure, a la "cheek-to-cheek"), the POV shot invades the frame's axis, breaking the 180-degree rule, taking the visual rhetoric of the film to the next level. And as technology and filmmaking tools (e.g. the advent of 3D) continue to push the boundaries of audience-to-screen immersion, one thing remains constant: the audience sure enjoys their God's eye view in the universe of the movie.

Which is why the follow shot (sometimes called the "…

VIDEO: Honorable Mentions and the 20 #BestFilmsOf2015

[Scroll to the bottom for the video]

Honorable Mentions (in no particular order): Jurassic World, Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, The Night Before, Tangerine, Amy, The End of the Tour, The Martian, Bridge of Spies, The Wolfpack, The Visit, Mission: Impossible - Rogue Nation, Trainwreck, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Time Out of Mind, Danny Collins, El Club, Inside Out, Phoenix, Crimson Peak, Beasts of No Nation, By The Sea, It Follows, Youth, The Walk, The Hateful Eight, The, Nightmare, Ex Machina, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Creep, The Overnight and While We’re Young.
Best Actor: Tom Hardy, Legend Best Actress: Brie Larson, Room Best Supporting Actor: Benicio Del Toro, Sicario Best Supporting Actress: Charlize Theron, Mad Max: Fury Road Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins, Sicario Best Original Screenplay: Damián Szifrón, Wild Tales
Best Adapted Screenplay: Kevin Willmott and Spike Lee, Chi-Raq Best Film Editing: Hank Corwin, The Big Short Best Original Score: Jóhann Jóhannsson, Sic…


In an interview discussing his freewheeling and challenging film Goodbye to Language, Jean-Luc Godard made some comments on our current dependency to smartphones and, more specifically, text messaging. He questioned if anyone actually knew what the "SMS" in the phrase 'SMS text messaging' actually stood for. Godard insisted it meant "Save My Soul."
It's that very idea, that notion of being alone in the universe, that drives the dramatic weight of Ridley Scott's latest film The Martian. Much of the film involves the protagonist Mark Watney (Matt Damon) sending video selfies to NASA--and in parallel fashion to the audience in the movie auditorium. While watching the film (which is fairly conventional in regards to its plot) I was provoked by its accidental (or maybe intentional) role as a "selfie space opera."
Stimulated by this idea, I went ahead and created this video that re-imagines the film (which runs around two and a half hours) as a…

The Notion Of Independent Group Distribution--Can It Work?

Independent writer and director Ben Hicks forwarded me his recently published mammoth of an article titled "The Evolution of Film Independence" and his call for a new industry of indie distribution is both compelling--and capable of happening.
"So what is Independent (group) Distribution?
Independent (group) Distribution is when a team of independent filmmakers unite under one Film Collective, in order to effectively distribute their collective works. A Film Collective is nothing more than a trademarked name and logo that the Film Collective’s members share. No one is the owner of the Film Collective and the Film Collective does not own any of the films, the filmmakers do. Each filmmaker is only responsible for their films and are not involved creatively or financially with any other filmmaker’s work. Each Film Collective member must have their own production company from which each individual filmmaker’s films are produced through and which any and all money ea…