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Review: Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker

*Warning!* There WILL BE SPOILERS in this review.

Written by Chris Terrio and J.J. Abrams, and directed by Abrams, “Star Wars Episode 9 The Rise of Skywalker” is the (supposed) end to the decades spanning “Skywalker Saga” as it is now called. Well, now that the film has opened and the saga is over, how does the Disney trilogy look as a whole? It looks messy, very, very messy. That’s not to say that there isn’t some good stuff in there- but it is now abundantly clear that there was no discernable pathway or structure for the story of these three movies. I’m honestly amazed that Disney would purchase Star Wars for $4 Billion dollars, throw out George Lucas’ ideas, and just wing it. Seems like a huge down payment to have a teenager’s style of approach to story structure. Granted, that being said, I did not hate this movie. In fact, I haven’t really hated any of these Disney Star Wars movies, I’m just somewhat disappointed. Oh and tired, I’m so tired… the cultural discourse surrounding these movies has been exhausting. So, what do we do now? Where do we go from here? And was it worth it?

“The Rise of Skywalker” is a crash course is witnessing a studio freefall into panic mode after a few missteps in organization. In December of 2015 we got to see what J.J. Abrams could do with a studio endorsement and backing to craft the first film to feature some of the old characters we loved from the original trilogy. I still have a fondness for “The Force Awakens”, it was an enjoyable return to that Galaxy far far away, but within that film J.J. fell into his formula of crafting an enticing Mystery Box full of intrigue and mystique. We all wondered, what’s in that box? Well, “The Rise of Skywalker” shows us, it was filled to the brim with MacGuffins. The crawl opens with enough exposition for a whole movie itself! Apparently, Emperor Palpatine has been alive and broadcasting his presence throughout the galaxy, and Kylo Ren has been seeking the Dark Lord- so that he may destroy any threat to his power as the Supreme Leader of the First Order. Meanwhile, Rey is training under the guidance of General Leia as Poe and Finn manage the resistance from the Millennium Falcon. That’s the initial set-up, and from here on out I’m only going to go into specifics for sequences that I thought were noteworthy or where things got choppy for me personally. There’s enough plot for about six films crammed into this one so combing through the story would prove arduous at best.

There are things I enjoyed about this film. Some bits were excellent, but the pacing was so incredibly fast that the good and the bad whiz by you before you know what just happened, why it happened, or how it was relevant to the plot. For instance, I really enjoyed the sequence on Kijimi where Poe returned to his old gang’s headquarters to decode the Sith inscription that C-3PO read but couldn’t say aloud due to his programming. The location was, clearly, inspired by old Samurai films as the wintry steps of the mountainous planet looked similar to the Japanese layout of shops and homes through the design choices and aesthetic. I also really loved the practical effects used to showcase the later destruction of Kijima by one of the Final Order’s beefy Star Destroyers (Hope you saw that spoiler warning at the top). I also enjoyed the bits of characterization we got for Poe’s background, though sadly the same can’t be said for Finn. Which, truly, is one of the biggest disappointments of the new trilogy. Finn had the most interesting origin in “The Force Awakens” but they did essentially nothing with his character for the rest of his time onscreen. This film played with the notion that Finn’s force sensitive, but that one inkling of a character trait isn’t enough to be honest. I also really enjoyed the return of Ian McDiarmid as Emperor Palpatine, his inclusion was a delight throughout the film. However, the very best portions of the film belong to Kylo Ren in my opinion, honestly, he’s been the most interesting character throughout the sequel series. Adam Driver’s a damn good actor and his turn to the light side wasn’t just an excellent scene, it was believable because of Driver’s commitment to the emotional requirements of that moment. Admittedly, I saw the film a second time and I noticed a lot more nods and nuances to the other films and trilogies. Even if they were only reflections mirroring themselves through visuals, ie Kylo and Rey’s lightsaber battle on Endor mirroring the battle between Obi-Wan and Anakin on Mustafar through opposing elemental forces with color palettes of red lava erupting everywhere versus titanic waves crashing on the second Death Star’s wreckage. I also enjoyed the visual callback to “Return of the Jedi” with the Emperor opening the ceiling of his cavernous ruins on Exogol similarly to the way he tried to pressure Luke into giving in to the dark side by showing both protagonists’ friends being blown to smithereens by his vast armada. Ole Palpy hasn’t changed much in those thirty years it seems, and I’m okay with that.

Then there’s Rey. Rey, as it turns out, is a descendant of Emperor Palpatine himself! Kind of a neat idea, though it seems to challenge the ideology of the last Star Wars movie. Which, if you hadn’t noticed, is the theme of this film. Or at least, it sure as hell seems to feel that way. Anyways, Rey, is an incredibly powerful Jedi, and it seems it’s mostly due to the fact that she’s Palpatine’s granddaughter. She can do things in this film that Jedi of the past could only dreamed of, and no, I’m not one of those fanboys crying “Mary Sue”, it’s fine, she’s really powerful, we all get that. Though, I feel like she would be a more relatable character if she had suffered any real losses in this trilogy, other than her new friends getting killed by lasers. I actually like Daisy Ridley’s performance quite a bit and she does a lot with what she’s given, but, things just seemed to work for her at almost turn. Characters evolve and grow through failure and their struggle, whereas Rey seems to “just be really good at everything”, I’m not gonna protest outside of Lucasfilm because of this- I just wish the filmmakers had more time to thoughtfully consider her character, and her arc through this trilogy. I mean, I don’t really know anything about Rey as a person- and hey, I guess we didn’t know all that much about Luke Skywalker in the original trilogy either, but I don’t know- maybe it was simply the insane pace of this film or the fact that the other two movies were so mired in the mystery of who she was and who her parents were. It felt as though we were only just starting to get to know a few of the new major players by the time this film ended, and it felt a bit strange for a “Star Wars” film.

For me, this wasn’t a bad “Star Wars” film, but it wasn’t a great one either. I don’t envy J.J. Abrams for having to course correct and react to everything that “The Last Jedi” did. To be fair, I don’t blame Rian Johnson for this new sequel trilogy being as bumpy as it is either. He tried to break the mold and do something new with “Star Wars” and that’s an admirable effort. Honestly, I blame Disney for not having the wherewithal to plan the trilogy out. They also should have put far more consideration into which writers and directors they hired for their newly acquired property, Rian Johnson and J.J. Abrams are nearly complete opposites in style and tonal creative decisions. So, with the end of the Skywalker Saga comes my end with Star Wars films. I’ve got to be honest here, I think I’m just done with having my nostalgia milked for all its monetary value, and the cultural conversation surrounding these films is just death now. May the Mandalorian save us all.

Final Score: 9 Episodes

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Review: Pacific Rim – Uprising

Written by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, T.S. Nowlin, and Steven S. DeKnight and directed by DeKnight, “Pacific Rim Uprising” is the sequel to Guillermo del Toro’s initial film featuring giant robots fighting giant monsters in 2013. Uprising takes place ten years after the end of the first film and focuses on the son of Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost, Jake (John Boyega). As the film likes to point out on several occasions, Jake is not his father, and there’s a feeling that the screenwriters’ would like you to measure your expectations as this film is not Guillermo’s either. Which isn’t to say that the sequel isn’t fun, it has plenty of giant robot fighting action to sate the core audience, rather the film simply lacks the stylistic touches that Guillermo brought to the genre film the first time around. When the action does begin though, it is pure genre fun.

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This film has a harder place to begin with than the first, how do you follow up cancelling the apocalypse after all? Set during a rebuilding post-war society, there’s less inherent drama to drum up the tension, so the focus falls to Jake and his run in with Amara Namani (Cailee Spaeny) a young upstart Jaeger engineer who’s built her own pint-sized mech. While Jake had reaped the benefits of a broken world on the black market, Amara had built something from it- illegally though. When they’re both caught and turned in, they are given a choice, recruit to the PDCC (Pan Pacific Defense Corps) or imprisonment. Once they arrive at the shatterdome the story follows some atypical Top Gun style cadet infighting with Scott Eastwood using his father’s likeness to great effect as the lead Ranger Nate Lambert (Jake’s former Jaeger co-pilot) before turning our attention to the returning characters from the first film.

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Gratefully, one of the best attributes of this film is that it very much lives and breathes in the world created by the first “Pacific Rim”. The quirks and peculiarities of the first are kept in place, each Jaeger still needs two pilots who need to be drift compatible in order to pilot them, the headquarters of each base the PDCC runs are still called shatterdomes, there are even a few breaches and plot points from the first film that come back in surprising- but spoilery– ways that I feel would be best discovered through a watch of Uprising itself. Speaking of twists and turns, I won’t divulge the details, but I personally found them to be delightfully weird and a fun contribution to the world of Pacific Rim as a whole.

Now, as for the downsides of the film, there’s a noticeable lack of style and atmosphere that the first film was steeped in. There was a few questionable choices throughout the story as well. While Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi), Dr. Newton “Newt” Geiszler (Charlie Day), and Dr. Hermann Gottlieb (Burn Gorman) all return in various scenes, the lead from the first film, Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), is only mentioned once. His absence from the story is never explained whatsoever, not even a line to say that he’d died in-between films. Another equally confusing decision is the lack of use of the score, or theme, from the first film. It’s brought back for one short montage and never noted on again- which is a shame as the first one used that signature theme as often as possible and helped to craft the tone of the film. Another palpable vacancy is the sense of scale and weight that accompanied the Jaegers and Kaiju in the first film. They were gigantic, yes, but slower in movement while the angles and framing accented the towering nature of these behemoths. Uprising certainly has gigantic and thrilling action sequences, but the Jaegers here are so unrealistically nimble and graceful in their actions that immersion becomes more of an afterthought to the Power Rangers style choreographed fight sequences. My last nitpick here is of the flat lighting. Which, yes, might seem incredibly nitpicky of me, but while this provides admittedly more visual clarity during some fight scenes, it speaks to the overall theme of lacking atmosphere and the touches of artistic quality that comes from a more deft filmmaker.

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Overall I have to say I honestly really enjoyed “Pacific Rim Uprising”. It might not have everything that made the first film special, but it certainly has a lot of what works in this genre of movies- beautiful special effects and lots of visually stunning fight scenes. The film introduced some good new characters and an intriguing evolution to the mythos that I didn’t expect. You probably already know if this is a film you’d enjoy or not, but if you liked the first film, this is a solid sequel- even with a few detracting factors.

Final Score: 3 Kaiju, 4 Jaegers

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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