Review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

After taking out a First Order dreadnaught with heavy Resistance forces losses, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is demoted by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) for failing to follow orders. Finn (John Boyega) finally wakes up after nearly dying from his encounter with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) on the Starkiller base. His first words are to ask about Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on the planet Ahch-To where he’s been in self-imposed exile since Ben Solo turned to the dark side of the Force and took the name Kylo Ren. Luke fears his failure with Ben will be repeated with Rey once he feels just how strong she is with the Force and he refuses to teach her the ways of the Jedi. When the Resistance lead ship drops out of hyperspace the First Order cruiser is right behind. The First Order has figured out how to track them in hyperspace and with their ship low on fuel making another jump is impossible. The First Order attacks and Leia is injured and unconscious. Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes command of the Resistance but Poe is unsatisfied with her seemingly cautious strategy. A young maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and Finn come up with a plan to disable the First Order’s tracking of the Resistance in hyperspace but have to do it from onboard their lead ship and they need an expert code hacker. Contacting Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), she tells them to go to the casino on the planet Canto Bight and look for the man with the red flower pin on his chest. Meanwhile Luke relents and begins teaching Rey the ways of the Force. Rey starts having long distance chats via the Force with Kylo Ren. She believes he can be turned from the dark side and help the resistance win but Luke is dubious.

As I sit at my keyboard I mimic a scene from “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” where Luke encourages Rey to reach out with her feelings. I try to do the same when it comes to how I feel about this movie. It’s a mishmash of joy, sadness and yearning for the next two years to hurry up and go by so I can see how the sequel trilogy ends. There is also a scene in the film where a character is encouraged to pay attention to what’s happening now and not look ahead to the future. So I am going to focus on what I feel from what I saw in the two and a half hours of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” and share it with you here. The short version can be summed up in one word: Wow!

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a brave bit of filmmaking. It takes a beloved franchise and turns it on its head with character choices and character deaths that come out of nowhere while still feeling grounded in the universe in which many of us have invested decades of fandom. Director and writer Rian Johnson has essentially given the franchise a clean slate from which to create whole new stories that don’t rely on Luke, Han and Leia while also giving the long-time fans plenty of nostalgia to soothe any fears that history will be set aside for the newer characters.

While Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver and Oscar Isaac get the majority of screen time, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher are likely to be the most remembered performances of this film. While only sharing the screen once, Hamill and Fisher bring it alive whenever they are shown. Hamill is an angry and disillusioned Skywalker, hiding on an island that houses an ancient Jedi temple while refusing Rey’s pleadings to return to join and lead the new Rebellion. Skywalker is something we haven’t seen much of in any “Star Wars” film: Truly afraid. Hamill gives Luke a brief glimmer of the boyish enthusiasm of old while also showing us a mature and more measured man. Hamill is able, despite Luke’s reluctance, to show there is still some of the old fighter left in the Jedi master.

Despite what happens in the story we know this is the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher’s General Leia. Media reports from not long after her death state Disney and Lucasfilm won’t use old, repurposed footage of Fisher nor will they digitally recreate her as was done in “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.” That makes her performance in this film all the more powerful. Fisher is mesmerizing as Leia. Her regal yet down-to-Earth countenance makes Leia a born leader and her leadership is desperately needed if the Rebellion is to survive the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Fisher’s ability to be both tough and motherly is what makes her an appealing character as Leia. It makes me wish for the ability to turn back time and take whatever precautions are necessary so she survives the heart attack that took her away too soon. “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is dedicated to her memory.

I enjoyed all the twists and turns of the film immensely; however, there are a few things that with more time to reflect stand out to me as issues. There are primarily three underdeveloped story threads through both this and “The Force Awakens” that seem to be unimportant to Lucasfilm and Disney. First, who is Supreme Leader Snoke? Where did he come from and who trained him in the ways of the Force? How did he accumulate the resources to establish the First Order? While secondary characters in the “Star Wars” universe have been largely unexplored (i.e. Jabba, the Sand People, Jawas, Boba Fett and others) none has been as major a player as Snoke. He’s responsible for blowing up most of the New Republic and that kind of power and influence attracts attention. Why is so little known about him? Second, what/who are the Knights of Ren? Other than Kylo we know of no other members of this mysterious order. Sith Lords from the original and prequel films aren’t as well regulated a group as the Jedi Knights but they do have some known history and a reason for being so what’s the story with the Knights of Ren? Third, who is Captain Phasma? While her chrome armor makes her stand out from the rest of the Storm Troopers we don’t know anything else about her. Before only a patch that was a different color designated any kind of rank but Phasma looks like she must spend hours keeping her armor shiny. She’s also a woman in an organization whose members had been exclusively male. There must be a reason for this and it must be somewhat interesting so why hasn’t it ever been mentioned? I would prefer to not have to read every extended universe novel and comic book to find out some backstory on these aspects of the story. It doesn’t have to be extensive, just a couple of lines of dialog between characters to flesh out people that are apparently very important to the events in these films.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is rated PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence. People are shot by blasters and stabbed by light sabers. One character is cut in half while another is stabbed through the head. Two characters are threatened with beheading. The Force is used to torture a character while they float in midair. Other characters are picked up and thrown around by the Force. There is only the mildest foul language.

There is some complaining on the Internet (imagine that) about the film. How some characters are used or underused and that it tries to copy “The Empire Strikes Back” (didn’t see that at all) along with other complaints. It may be a tad too long, sending characters off on side missions that don’t make a great deal of sense and ignoring the backstories of several important players, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” also gives a needed creative boost to the franchise and wipes the slate clean for the characters introduced in “The Force Awakens.” And it cannot be argued against that there are moments in the film that are jaw-dropping. There are an infinite number of directions the story can take and I for one look forward to going along on the ride.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” gets five supernova stars.

This week your choices include getting small, chasing after a wayward dad and hitting a high note one more aca-time. I’ll see and review one of the following:

Downsizing—

Father Figures—

Pitch Perfect 3—

Listen to The Fractured Frame podcast available wherever you get your podcasts. Follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan and send emails to stanthemovieman123@gmail.com.

Reviews of “Inherent Vice” and “American Sniper”

Two very different movies about two very different subjects left me with two very different opinions. Let’s start with a film based on a Thomas Pynchon’s novel “Inherent Vice.”

Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is not your usual private detective. His office is located in a walk-in medical clinic and Doc spends more time stoned than working on any case. Arriving at his home unannounced is his former live-in girlfriend Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She is concerned her boyfriend, millionaire real estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts) is the target of a plot by his wife and her boyfriend to put the businessman in a mental institution and take all his money. Doc tells Shasta he will look into it and she leaves. At the office the next day, a former prison inmate Tariq Kahlil (Michael K. Williams) hires Doc to find a former cellmate named Glen Charlock (Christopher Allen Nelson) that owes him some money. Kahlil tells Doc Charlock works as a bodyguard for Micky Wolfmann. Doc heads out to a new residential development being built by Wolfmann called Channel View Estates where he finds nothing but desert and the beginnings of a strip mall containing only one business: A massage parlor that is actually a brothel. Doc asks Jade (Hong Chau), the receptionist, if she knows Charlock and she says yes, that he comes around with the rest of his Aryan Brotherhood biker gang when they are protecting Wolfmann. Doc looks around the business briefly but is knock unconscious. He wakes up lying next to the dead body of Glen Charlock in front of the strip mall and is surrounded by police. Doc is taken downtown to talk with Lt. Det. Christian “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), a no-nonsense, beat-the-truth-out-of-you cop who also aspires to be an actor. Bigfoot tells Doc he is his prime suspect in the murder of Charlock and the recent disappearance of Mickey Wolfmann but the interview ends when Sauncho Smilax, Esq. (Benicio Del Toro), Doc’s attorney, arrives and stops the interrogation. Bigfoot doesn’t have enough to charge Doc so he lets him go. Soon after, Shasta also goes missing putting Doc into a panic as he hasn’t fully gotten over his feelings for her. During his investigation, Doc encounters drug smuggling dentists, back-from-the-dead musicians, political shenanigans and memories of Shasta, all of which make his job that much harder.

Based on Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, “Inherent Vice” is another of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s microscopic looks at a tiny segment of American culture and how greed, lust and power tend to be corrupting aspects in the lives of his characters. Anderson has done similar examinations in his films “Magnolia” and “Boogie Nights.” While those films had fascinating characters and riveting stories, “Inherent Vice” is stuffed with dozens of often bizarre characters and a story that is so dense and complicated I had a hard time keeping up with who was who and how they were connected. Despite there being a resolution that directly or indirectly ties all the characters together, it is a thoroughly unentertaining two hours plus to arrive at the finish line.

The best part of “Inherent Vice” is Joaquin Phoenix. His performance is that of a man on the edge of mental and physical collapse, living on pizza, beer, cigarettes and weed. He approaches his work as a PI as nonchalantly as you and I toss away a used paper towel. Doc always has a cover story ready as he talks to people on the down low during his investigations. He will put on his one good suit and top it off with an obviously phony toupee should the need arise. Still, he is never so on the job that he would turn down a drink, or a joint, or a roll in the hay should it be offered. Doc is of such loose moral character he seems like the last person who would be hired to investigate…anything. Phoenix is so loosey goosey in his performance he makes it impossible not to watch him.

Sadly, Phoenix was the only thing I found enjoyable in the film as it moves at a rather leaden pace and so many conversations are hushed and whispered it makes hearing all dialog nearly impossible. Not that it would matter if you clearly heard every word as the story is so complicated as to require the audience to keep notes just to maintain some degree of order. I don’t mind a film that challenges the audience to pay attention but “Inherent Vice” acts like it gets bonus pay for every audience member that leaves confused. The movie isn’t really about what the audience is led to believe in the opening minutes. Exactly what it’s about is still something of a mystery to me.

“Inherent Vice” is rated R for drug use throughout, sexual content, graphic nudity, language and some violence. Numerous drugs are shown being smoked, snorted and shot up. There is one sex scene that is far from sexy. One woman is seen fully nude. There is another scene where two women are suggested to be having sex. There are also numerous depictions of nude women in art, advertising and neckties. There is some scattered violence including one man beating another man with the lid from a toilet tank. There’s also a shooting. Foul language is common.

I guess “Inherent Vice” is beyond me and I’m not smart enough to get it. Whatever the reason, I didn’t like the movie other than Joaquin Phoenix performance. It’s like swimming in wet concrete: If you work really, really hard, you’ll get somewhere with it but it isn’t worth the effort.

“Inherent Vice” gets one star out of five.

American Sniper

Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper) is a ranch hand and a rodeo cowboy in Texas when he sees news coverage of the US Embassy attacks in Kenya and Tanzania. Kyle joins the Navy and enters the SEAL program, enduring rigorous and brutal physical and mental training. One night at a bar after training, Kyle meets Taya (Sienna Miller) and the pair begins a relationship that leads to marriage. At their reception, Kyle gets word he and his unit will be shipping out to Iraq where he will provide security for Marine patrols by being a sniper. Kyle is very good at his work and over the course of four tours of Iraq tallies 160 verified kills and possibly another hundred more. Also during his tours, his reputation led to a bounty being put on his head by the insurgents. An Olympic gold medal winning sharpshooter who is called Mustafa takes on the challenge and nearly succeeds. Mustafa is also responsible for the deaths of many US soldiers and he becomes as big a target for Kyle as Kyle is for Mustafa. The violence and stress causes Kyle to suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and he becomes distant from Taya and his two kids and unable to relax and settle back into a normal life.

“American Sniper,” based on the book of the same name by Chris Kyle, has been adapted by director Clint Eastwood into a thrilling, tense and painful movie to watch. The battle sequences are very tense and often caused my chest to tighten with anxiety and my hands to grasp the armrests until my knuckles were sore. Even when Kyle and another soldier are sitting on a roof overlooking a patrol with nothing happening, the atmosphere is rich with dread and possible disaster. Eastwood is also able to show Kyle in his home with his wife and their painfully domestic life in such a way that it becomes more understandable why some soldiers have such a difficult time transitioning back to normal civilian life. The film shows us how Kyle slowly sinks into depression when he’s home and how he comes to life again when he goes on another tour. It seems counterintuitive but the movie explains Kyle had a deep feeling of responsibility to his fellow soldiers. Kyle is asked by a VA doctor if he felt guilt for anything he did and Kyle replies he only feels guilt for those soldiers he couldn’t save with his talents. That may make Kyle sound like some kind of saint but he is portrayed throughout the film like just a normal man who had an extraordinary gift when it came to shooting a rifle.

What makes “American Sniper” painful is knowing how the story ends. Kyle was shot to death at a gun range by another soldier who was suffering from PTSD. Kyle had received help from the VA in getting back to himself and volunteered to help other soldiers by getting them out of the hospital or their homes and taking them out to shoot target practice. In the film, Kyle is shown as both a patient teacher and a loving father. It’s this seemingly decent man who we know will die at the hands of a fellow soldier that causes pain despite his successes on the battlefield.

Bradley Cooper, who has been nominated for a Best Actor Oscar, portrays Kyle as rarely getting very demonstrative for any reason. He is shown as the emotional rock of his family and of his fellow soldiers. Cooper is fantastic in the role and deserves the nomination. His Texas drawl and laid back manner exudes an air of confidence and security. Cooper as Kyle is the kind of man with whom other men want to hang around and knock back a few beers, go hunting and fishing and watch the game on Sunday. He is the quintessential Texan about whom we have all heard but weren’t sure still existed. Cooper’s performance looks effortless and he appears to occupy the skin of Kyle with ease. A couple of reviews ago I said Benedict Cumberbatch was my favorite for the Best Actor Oscar. Now I’m not as sure.

“American Sniper” is rated R for some sexual references, language throughout and strong disturbing war violence. The sexual references are scattered. The violence is consistent with many bloody head and chest shots shown. There is a scene where Kyle is watching video that shows a soldier shot in the lower leg and then the chest. That may be the most graphic of the shootings. Foul language is common.

The book “American Sniper” is based on has been the subject of a fair bit of controversy involving some of Kyle’s stories of what happened both in Iraq and here in the US. One of those stories is the subject of an on-going lawsuit involving former Minnesota Governor Jesse Ventura who was himself a SEAL specializing in underwater demolition. There are other stories that have drawn some scrutiny for either their accuracy or their veracity. It appears Chris Kyle liked to stretch the truth from time to time; however, what can’t be questioned is his dedication to his mission of protecting his fellow soldiers during his four tours in Iraq. “American Sniper” is both a thrilling and heartbreaking look at a warrior who had his human weaknesses just like the rest of us and should be remembered as a hero.

“American Sniper” gets five stars.

This week, three new movies with decidedly lighter subject matter hope you decide to drop some coin at the box office (and concession stand). I’ll see and review at least one of them.

The Boy Next Door—

Mordecai—

Strange Magic—

Send email to stanthemovieman@comcast.net and follow me on Twitter @moviemanstan.