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Review: Star Wars Episode VIII The Last Jedi

*This is your warning- THERE WILL BE SPOILERS IN THIS REVIEW*

   -SPOILERS! SPOILERS! SPOILERS!-

Written and Directed by Rian Johnson, the eighth episode of the Star Wars saga, “The Last Jedi” is upon us. Thus I and countless other nerds and movie critics across the internet and on opposite sides of the lunch table will be debating, praising, cursing, and analyzing this latest episode of the decade spanning space opera. After the seventh episode left the Resistance (Rebels) triumphant with the Starkiller Base (Death Star) destroyed after the loss of one of our heroes in Han Solo (Obi-Wan Kenobi) we had several new heroes in Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron to pick up the pieces of the fallen republic and continue the fight against the dark side. So what happened after that cliffhanger ending of Rey seeking out Luke Skywalker and holding out his father’s lightsaber? Subverted expectations, that’s what.

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So, let’s dive into it. First, since I have less negative things to say about the film overall, we’ll address the things that didn’t work for me in the film. 1) The humor (in parts). Personally, I am okay with a film that subverts your expectations, I would rather be surprised than being able to predict every beat and scene before they happen, however when Rey finally hands over the Lightsaber that has transitioned all three sagas- Luke nonchalantly tosses it over his shoulder as it’s played for a laugh- this did not work for me. I understand where Luke is at that point after seeing the movie, but I just didn’t care for the tone of the moment, he could have discarded it without playing the scene for a laugh. The only other major play for humor that didn’t work for me was Poe’s jokey attempt to buy time in the opening scene with General Hux, granted, that style of humor has already been built into Poe’s character like when he was captured by Kylo-Ren on Jakku in The Force Awakens, but that specific style of comedy doesn’t exactly work for me. 2) Holdo withholding info from Poe. I have mixed feelings about this aspect of Poe’s story arc. Overall I really enjoyed the ace pilot’s story in The Last Jedi, he learned that you can’t always “Jump in an X-Wing and blow something up” to solve your problems and that leadership can be cumbersome at times. The part I take issue with is Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo’s decision to withhold her plan to save the Resistance from total destruction. I understand that this was a story technique and it helped to further the film’s style of subverting the audience’s expectations by allowing us to side with Poe but then realizing that both he and we were wrong- but what did she gain from not informing the few people that were left alive? Alas, this is one small pet peeve surrounding this story arc. 3) Finn and Rose’s Canto Bight adventure. This part of the film, while being important in the larger scheme of the story, was a tad overlong in my opinion. I wasn’t as bothered as some critics have been with this segment of the film, but this does hurt the pacing of the film a bit. I feel that there were more efficient ways to get those story beats across without using up as much time as they did, they could have kept the main point of the story intact without sacrificing the mood of the film as a whole. Moving onward however, there is much more of the film that I enjoyed than what I did not.

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The opening space battle between the Resistance’s bombers against the Dreadnought Starship was exhilarating! Poe Dameron may have made poor leadership choices that led to massive Resistance losses, but damn was it an enjoyable and effective edge-of-your-seat sequence. From the overly red lit deck of the Dreadnought with a First Order Captain barking orders to the last second success of Rose’s sister, this scene was ecstatic and I loved it. From there we’re introduced to Luke Skywalker and his life on Ahch-To, the ocean planet with several islands dotting the surface. We’re greeted by an older and far more cynical Luke Skywalker that wants nothing to do with the Empire, Sith, the First Order or even Jedi newcomer Rey. Rey follows him around begging for direction and training but it isn’t until Luke boards the Millennium Falcon once more and finds R2-D2 waiting there that he finds a spark of hope. There are flashes of the old Luke Skywalker in this scene as he happily rejoices at seeing his old droid, but when R2 shows the hologram of Leia from a New Hope he chides his robot friend for pulling a “A cheap move”. This gets Luke to begin to guide Rey, though he isn’t exactly a cheery mentor.

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There are scenes and sequences throughout the remainder of the film that hint at, and sometimes outright say, what the theme of this film is- failure. Every arc or main character experiences failure in this film. From Rey leaving Ahch-To to heading straight to Kylo-Ren in order to attempt to turn him to the light side, to Finn and Poe being sent to Canto-Bight to retrieve a master code breaker but ultimately escaping with another code breaker that has no allegiances to the light side or the dark, there are massive failures throughout but as force-ghost Yoda pointedly tells Luke at one point (which may be my favorite scene in the film) “Failure, the best teacher is..”. It is what these characters learn from their failures that propels them through the third act. Luke’s part in the third act was right on point for me, he displayed new and mesmerizing powers of the force and had his cinematic journey book-ended with his first appearance in A New Hope. Luke Skywalker is again shown in a wide shot with two setting suns before vanishing to become one with the force.

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While there are no lightsaber on lightsaber fight scenes in this episode of the never-ending saga, a first for the series, there is one amazingly directed fight scene between Kylo-Ren, Rey, and Snoke’s Elite Praetorian guard (pictured above in the red) and it was a visual spectacle. The fight scene was also punctuated by the story elements surrounding it in which neither Rey or the audience know if Kylo-Ren has turned to the Light Side or merely seeking more power among the remains of the First Order. This takes place roughly about the same time in the film as Amilyn Holdo’s sacrifice which was another spellbinding moment of shear fantasy science fiction as she aimed the Resistance’s last major Starship directly at Snoke’s behemoth Star Destroyer. I have rarely been in a theater where a scene goes silent to the point of being able to hear audible jaws dropping at the spectacle of it all.

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While Finn was relegated to the back of this film’s attention he did get several moments to shine in. I honestly loved the short moment of Captain Phasma’s return and Finn’s subsequent victory against her. I say bring her back for the third one, why not? She got out of the Trash compacter of a planet sized base that was blown to smithereens- she can escape this death too!

Carrie Fisher’s scenes in this film were handled quite well. I believe she had finished all of her scenes by the time she had passed, which in itself was tragic and disheartening for all of us, but this film truly places her iconic character’s end in the hands of JJ Abrams’ ninth (and final?) installment in the episodic saga. She had a lot more to do in this film and personally, I wasn’t really bothered by her use of the force in this film, it was a unique scene and it added another layer to her silver screen legacy. Speaking of the force, personally, I found Kylo-Ren, Rey, and Luke’s evolution of using the force to be mysterious and exciting. I love that this film has made the force more mystical and magical once again, I am okay with an evolving interpretation of the force. Cue all the GIFs of Han Solo telling Finn “That’s not how the force works!” you want, I enjoyed this idea and hope it’s expanded on in episode nine.

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In the end, this is a film that has moments of greatness spattered amongst a decent Star Wars backdrop. This film is a little too long, a shade or two more uneven than The Force Awakens, and the humor doesn’t always mesh with the tone at hand or the spirit/feel of Star Wars- however, this film took chances and I like how the material was handled for the most part. Let’s face it, making a perfect Star Wars film is nearly impossible these days with the range of expectations that fans new and old bring to the theater with them, but this film was a damn good effort.

Final Score: 8 Episodes

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Review: The Singing Detective

Written by Dennis Potter and directed by Keith Gordon, “The Singing Detective” is an adaption of the television mini-series of the same name in the late 1980’s. This was Robert Downey Jr’s initial starring role after his drug rehab issues in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. In fact Mel Gibson, who also stars in this film, helped to finance Downey’s involvement with “The Singing Detective” which follows Downey as Dan Dark, a pulp fiction author with a severe case of psoriatic arthropathy, a crippling disease of the skin and bones. During this latest flare-up of his disease Dark lays in his hospital bed in crippling pain dashing out mean spirited insults as fast as he can unleash them. He’s not in a good place physically, mentally, or emotionally. He frequently has feverish daydreams and hallucinations wherein his mind mixes reality with plot points and characters from his first novel, The Singing Detective. He has lost his anchor to his own past and sometimes misrepresents his past as one involving characters of his own creation, and other more recent events as a mixture of casting himself in the lead role of his story as a gumshoe detective that doubles as the lead singer of a 1940’s styled swing band.

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It’s definitely a strange combination of storylines and ideas, but in an odd and hallucinatory way, it kinda works. Dark can go from listening to his doctors discuss his illness and various procedures to imagining the various health experts bursting into song and dance as he’s whisked away on his wheeled bed through a heavily choreographed musical number ripped right from Hollywood’s golden age. His imagination knows no bounds though and his mind can bounce from overly sexualized dance numbers to himself dancing and singing onstage to a shootout between himself and the two criminal henchmen portrayed comedically and threateningly by Adrien Brody and Jon Polito. The weight of the story comes into play once Mel Gibson’s Dr. Gibbon is introduced, a psychiatrist known to play to the eccentricities of his patients. It is through his eventual work with Dr. Gibbon that Dark realizes that the inciting event of his childhood was witnessing his mother have sex with his father’s business partner, forever forging a deep mistrust and fervent paranoia of love and sexual connection.

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Dark’s main interests lie in his assumption that his ex-wife Nicola, played by the always brilliant Robin Wright, has had affairs with a man that Dark imagines as looking exactly like his father’s cheating business partner (Some actors play different roles throughout the film). She visits Dark in the hospital to bring up the news that his old screenplay adaption for The Singing Detective has attracted attention from a producer in Hollywood, but Dark only assumes the worst at first, she’s clearly looking for information from him so that she might steal his work and reap the dividends. Slowly, and after much prodding, Dark begins to lessen the sting of his verbal venom and ease into healing from the work with Dr. Gibbons. His body begins to gain strength and his lesions begin to recede. Not before his hallucinations all begin to combine and further warp his own interpretation of reality though. This film is an interesting exercise in telling a story through the perception of one character as his imagination informs his world and therefore shapes how he interacts with the people in the real world around him. Robert Downey Jr. steals the show for the most part, his cantankerous spirit here is most likely pulling from some of his own self discovery through rehab, lashing out at first before coming to peace in understanding himself and the process of healing. Though that’s pure speculation on my part. Mel Gibson hides in plain sight here as Dr. Gibbons in heavy make-up with a calm and guiding demeanor, differentiating this performance from most of his previous work.

There can be some painfully apparent lip-syncing for the musical numbers, but again, as most of the film is from Dark’s paranoid and warped perspective I can give that aspect some slack as oddities play into a lot of the scenes. Part homage to Noir crime films, part musical embracing a pastiche of classic Americana, and part self discovery through medical rehabilitation, “The Singing Detective” can be an array of jumbling tones and ideas at times, but shown through the prism of our wounded author Dan Dark, we get a unique if somewhat underwhelming film that’s worth a watch at the very least.

Final Score: 1 vocal gumshoe and 1 bedridden writer 

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Review: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

Written by Guy Ritchie and Lionel Wigram and directed by Ritchie, “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” is a genre throwback to the bygone Bond era of spy films- to a time when characters like Bond made the most sense, the height of the Cold War. However this film, based on the popular television show of the same name airing in the 1960’s, has a twist on the suave American spy trope, pairing Henry Cavill’s C.I.A. agent Napoleon Solo with Armie Hammer’s Russian KGB muscle Illya Kuryakin to stop a threat greater than they pose to each other. Which is, of course, Nazis.

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The plot is simple enough, former Nazi scientists were not only scooped up by American intelligence after the war, but also by more sinister forces that seek an atomic bomb and the plans to create thousands more. This puts iron curtain enemies like the CIA and the KGB into a prickly situation, working together to thwart a greater evil for the greater good. The movie unfolds with a great opening action set-piece that showcases both Armie Hammer’s Illya and Cavill’s Solo quite well while providing a snappy sense of movement, Guy Ritchie’s sense of style shines in this scene and others like it later on. Which brings us to the potential negatives of the film. The characters and the plot are fairly serviceable but they don’t outright stun or awe. The performances, not to forget Alicia Vikander’s charming role as Gabby Teller the mechanic in West Berlin who gets wrapped up in these international spy-games, and the style of the direction are what makes this movie work. Particularly entertaining is the chemistry between the two leads Hammer and Cavill, if they had more time to flesh out the characters that they inhabit here these two could become more than they are, but I had fun with what we did get.

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I suppose it all depends on your level of expectation going into a film like this. I was looking for an entertaining spy genre flick. One with action, humor, thrills, maybe even a bit of wit and charm thrown in for good measure and for the most part, that’s what I got. This film worked for me. I’d even be ready to throw down some cold hard cash to see a sequel if another one came along. Who knows if that will happen, but I would gladly welcome another adventure with these characters.

Final Score: 2 spies, a couple nazis, and 1 atomic bomb

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Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

Written and directed by Noah Baumbach, “The Meyerowitz Stories (new and selected)” is a Netflix original movie about the inherent drama in family life and how it can be both tragic and at times, hilarious. There is a plot at hand prodding characters into rooms with each other, but the film is mostly concerned with how each of these family members interact with each other rather than involving any sort of macguffin to pursue. After months of devouring films soaked in science fiction and battered in fantasy laced with imagination, this was quite the reprieve from my more genre based consumption and I really did enjoy it quite a lot actually. Speaking of which, barring any all-encompassing Holiday errands I’ll be trying to get into showings of both “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri”, but back to the film at hand. As the film is divided into sections with title cards, I’ll mirror that and give each major character their due diligence.

 

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                                        -Danny-

The film begins with a title card, “Danny” and the briefest of introductions in a second card which began the film with “Danny Meyerowitz was trying to park”. The scene plays out in much the same way that Danny’s own life has, trying to find a spot, but always missing the opportunity. He desperately tries to fit in, but never quite makes it. Adam Sandler finds in Danny Meyerowitz a similar well of history and emotion to draw from that he’s occasionally brought to the odds and ends of his film work, his work here is evocative of his “Punch Drunk Love” character in his quietly building rage and incandescent sadness. Danny is the closest we come to a protagonist in the film, the first third of the story is predicated by bringing his daughter Eliza (Grace Van Patten) to his father’s house in New York the night before she’s to begin college. In a brief scene with Eliza and Danny playing and singing at the piano of house Meyerowitz we see a caring father who was once a musician with potential. In the following scenes we get to understand the inner workings of the family Meyerowitz in how Danny reveals past neglect from his father Harold (Dustin Hoffman). Harold was a sculptor turned academic that was never discovered and therefore never truly obtaining the royal treatment from the intellectual crowd that he so desires. There are years of conflict buried in the way Harold dominates conversation with his sons. He’s a character so self absorbed by his own projects and failures that he could have been a real monster if portrayed by another, but Hoffman plays Harold with enough shades of brevity and aloofness that it never slides into blatant cruelty. A perfect example of this happens when Danny and Harold go to an art show that Harold’s far more successful friend L.J. (Judd Hirsch) was hosting in which Harold tries to share a moment with L.J. but is seemingly forgotten by the crowd of New York Elites clamoring to meet L.J. We even get the briefest of cameos by Sigoruney Weaver as herself as L.J. introduces her to Harold, but she seems to question this introduction as if saying “Who is this person you’ve introduced me to L.J. and why?” Though she does this without malice or scorn. Danny seems to be the only one that listens in the Meyerowitz family, but even he has his outbursts, a tool for Sandler that allows for character moments to shine through his shlubby shouting. Danny really is the heart of the family, and of the film.

 

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                                        -Matthew-

Matthew had just arrived on the red-eye from LA, as we’re told with another brief vignette opener. The youngest child of Harold’s and the most successful of the Meyerowitz clan, Matthew’s relationship with his father has a far more antagonistic trait weaved into it. He’s removed himself from the weight of Harold’s expectations by physically living on the opposite side of the country, but also in his career choice. He’s a financial accountant for creative artists that don’t quite know how to handle their money. In Matthew’s introduction we’re greeted by a quick cameo of Adam Driver as the musician/artist/entertainer that’s having building renovations done. Stiller’s Matthew talks Driver down from needing a saltwater pool in his two floors of renovations showcasing his ability to negotiate and play to the off-kilter, quirky, personalities that embody the world of artists. Though he doesn’t look forward to his interactions with his father because of their constant competitive nature being at odds with each other, Harold does heap most of his adoration onto Matthew, the son that wants and needs it least. This second vignette of the film ends with Matthew yelling “I beat you! I beat you and you know it!” at his father as he drives off into the Manhattan night. Love in a family this dysfunctional doesn’t always look or feel correct, but there’s enough done by Noah Baumbach’s direction and the cut of the edit to show that there is connection there, even if it’s not the healthiest of relationships.

 

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                              -The Group Show-

The disparate family eventually comes together after they all learn of Harold falling and hitting his head, forcing a long gestating hospital visit. The rest of the film is devoted to all of Harold’s family working together to take notes from the various doctors and specialists they’re flung back and forth to while sharing shifts at Harold’s bedside. This shutdown of Harold’s incessant chatter allows his children to assess their relationships with him and how to best move forward in life rather than holding onto the past. Just as the film nearly forgets about Harold’s third child Jean (Elizabeth Marvel) at times, I mustn’t neglect her presence as well. Jean’s the forgotten child, She and Danny came from Harold’s second marriage, and Matthew the third. Quite the opposite from Marvel’s previous roles in “House of Cards” and “Homeland”, Jean is the quiet and most awkward of the three, but even her presence being shadowed by her brothers is ingrained in her story and is relevant to her progression later as she helps Danny’s daughter Eliza by starring in her college films-which I might add are quite the homage to the overly sexualized youth of college age film-making wannabes, but the family treats it as a creative outlet all the same, no matter how much nudity and sexual obscurity fly off the screen when they check-in on her. It would be remiss of me to forgetting to mention Emma Thompson’s performance of Maureen, Harold’s fourth and current wife. Maureen’s a mixture of meshing in with the artistic and elite intellectual crowds through her 1960’s clothing to her drunkenly making Shark soup.

“The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” turned out to be a fairly funny dive into familial dysfunction with enough nuance to keep the characters grounded and relatable. The relationships of each family member evolve based on reactions of other actors inputting their knowledge of our cast and the choices they made or the way they lived their lives, thereby informing us where the main characters may not have been the most reliably honest keepers of their own histories. It’s a fairly solid movie in a similar vein to Woody Allen’s films, so if you have the time or the curiosity, give this film a shot. “The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)” is currently on Netflix at the time of this review.

Final Score: 1 Artistic Patriarch and a Poodle named Bruno