Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star_Wars_The_Last_Jedi.jpg“Let the past die.”  – Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

I left the theater feeling completely taciturn. It’s an onerous task to begin articulating all the jumbled fragments circulating through my mind but I will try my very best.  Certainly, there is a great deal to be enjoyed and to be relished about Episode VIII and you would be served well to go into The Last Jedi not searching out its faults but reveling in the successes that are there. Let it be known that there are many and Rian Johnson is a fine maker of movies as he guides us through the Resistance’s latest evasion of The First Order still up to their old business of quashing anyone who dares defy them.

True, I did not necessarily find it a narrative of revelatory reveals or epic showdowns in the vein of what I initially envisioned. However, I can see the picture separating itself from all of its predecessors — subverting the norm and drawing away from all that we knew before. That gels with much of what was said in the wake of The Force Awakens. It could not simply be another Empire Strikes Back if the new franchise was to flourish. In that regard, there’s no doubt Johnson’s film is an undisputed success building on the character arcs instigated in J.J. Abrams’ effort.

Yet my feelings are somehow conflicted.  Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) call to action to Rey (Daisy Ridley) midway through was never more pointed. “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to.” And that’s much of what has been done here. Not simply in a single film or to the Jedi order or the legacy of a character but in some respects to an entire franchise.

I am realizing that though I cherish Star Wars as my own, the many aspirations and fantasies of my childhood, it is a communal narrative. It might seem odd to get so thoroughly introspective but I can’t help it. Star Wars is almost inbred into my DNA.

Watching this film might topple the white knights. For one, the Jedi order as we know it. They lose much of their mythical stature that they always evoked. We already lost Han Solo and it’s little surprise that Luke and Leia (with Carrie Fisher’s passing) will most likely not be returning either. The old guard has been all but removed from their posts (with the exception of R2, C3PO, and Chewbacca though Anthony Daniels is the only other returning core cast member).

But it’s no surprise that I often savor the past — the way things used to be. That’s part of what made The Force Awakens such an enjoyable ride. There was an innate sense that this was something new, yes, but it was also squarely centered on the glories of the original trilogy. If I said it once I said it a thousand times, it was like returning to the company of old friends.

Now the old is gone and don’t get me wrong the new additions were greatly appreciated. Once more Rey (Ridley), Fin (John Boyega), and Poe (Oscar Issac) are indubitably winning personalities and fine action heroes. It’s easy to become immersed in their individual journeys along with the newcomers such as Rose (Kelly Marie Tran). However, that doesn’t take away my wistfulness at the conclusion of The Last Jedi.

It wasn’t even the kind of bittersweet conclusion we saw in earlier installments either but a plaintive ending without a giant climax. Harrison Ford received a venerable though tragic send off. His contemporaries not so much. There is still hope and events have been prolonged for Episode IX but not in some monumental cliffhanger fashion.

Whenever I take in a new film I am also constantly filtering it through the reference points that I already know. Obviously, Star Wars has such a vast lineage that must be sorted through but this latest film also can be read through various other archetypes. It strikes me that Luke Skywalker, the Star Wars hero I always aspired to emulate, was like Welles’ Harry Lime in The Third Man — waiting in the wings until he finally stepped out of the shadows.

Though I enjoyed that moment and the pure rush of adrenaline when he came back to the fore, expectations do not always correlate with reality.  Although we get to see Luke Skywalker and there are some enjoyable moments, the best of them come as all too brief reunions with his faithful astromech pal and his sister followed by a showdown with his main adversary — The nephew who turned to the Dark Side — again it was this wistful sense of an anticlimax.

We see in Luke what Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) once was at least in a visual sense. A hermit who has removed himself from society. Cloaked, bearded, and detached. But whereas Old Ben was a wise, eccentric, and even a fatherly wizard, Luke has become a world-wearied, surly misanthrope. A far cry from the man we dreamed about.

The reverberations of the past echo down in other ways too from the inciting distress signal from his sister that started him off on this cinematic adventure all those many years before and then a visitation from a furry friend.

Likewise, the final showdown is somehow more reminiscent to the archetypal lightsaber battle of A New Hope than all the fanciful epic showdowns we imagined of Jedi Master Luke Skywalker tackling every conceivable villain with his green lightsaber. The old man’s words even mirror the final lines of his late mentor (Strike me down in anger and I’ll always be with you. Just like your father).

Even briefly with lightsaber in hand facing down the greatest forces in the universe as we always thought possible in our mind’s eye, there’s a momentary catharsis. Though the full satisfaction of the moment is stripped from us. Luke is not quite how we remembered him, nay, maybe not even the same man Mark Hamill embodied all those years ago.

It does bring to mind the mythological line out of John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” And it’s still true of Luke Skywalker for those in the galaxy far, far away and right there he can remain a hero.

The film’s most intriguing dynamic reveals itself in the perceived connection between arguably our two most crucial characters in Rey and Kylo Ren also known as Ben Solo. But that core struggle between the two of them — literally the dissonance between the Light and Dark sides of the Force — is rudely disrupted. It’s such an ambiguous dividing line between good and evil and though it still remains, the character of Supreme Leader Snoke, equally implicated in this web comes off as little more than a ploy. All the potential grand conspiracies around it are gone in a puff of improbable smoke.

Intertwined with this is Rey’s familial identity which has been of paramount importance to everyone ever since these new pictures were conceived. It’s not so much that I minded what the revelation was (minor as it was) but it was more the fact that this bit of seemingly crucial exposition was so quickly cast aside as well. It felt once more a bit like a bait and switch — as if the Star Wars saga was somehow rewriting its own mythos in counterintuitive ways.

Maybe for once, Star Wars has become a bit more pragmatic; it has sought out realism and the things of this world more than a galaxy far, far away. Here I will admittedly contradict myself but I am not sure how to deal with this development because Star Wars was always a fantasy, always a science fiction fairy tale built out of imagination and dreams. Now it seems to be inching more and more toward the real world. Not because there are any fewer lightsaber battles or blaster fights or fewer alien species and star systems to explore, but the makeup of the new generation of characters is somehow different.

It is a pipe dream to believe that Star Wars could always be the same because it was not created in a vacuum, it is no longer George Lucases, and it has so many other parties invested in it. I for one must come to accept that. The film ends on a rather odd beat with young children getting rapt up in tales of the Last Jedi and looking off into space empowered by the hope brought by the Resistance before the credits roll. Though it felt very un-Star Wars it’s somewhat fitting given this new direction.

Hopefully, younger fans eat up this latest installment and conceive adventures and worlds of their own like I once did, feeding on the visions of the screen as fuel for countless Lego lightsaber battles and made up assaults on the enemy forces with their ragtag band of Rebel Scum. These new films don’t mean so much to me but maybe they can mean something to the current generation. Maybe that’s what they’re meant to do.

Will I see the Last Jedi again? I wouldn’t be at all surprised but unlike The Force Awakens, this isn’t so much an extension of the original trilogy. This is a breaking of the chain. This is something starkly different and it’s taken the galaxy into uncharacteristic territory.

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions. But the boy inside of me still yearns for the Luke Skywalker of my youth as naive as that might sound. I suppose I’ve never been much of a realist.

4/5 Stars

101 Dalmatians (1961)

One_Hundred_and_One_Dalmatians_movie_poster.jpgDisney is, by now, a gargantuan media empire of parks, merchandise, and movie magic. It’s easy to forget that there were days when the studio was in desperate need of a hit. 101 Dalmatians proved to be just what the vet ordered.

The film enters the story originated from the Dodie Smith novel, by utilizing the point of view of our protagonist, the Dalmatian  Pongo (Voiced by Rod Taylor). He’s intent to get his faithful “pet” Roger the songwriter hitched, in order to liven up his life a bit. His escapades eventually end in success with Roger landing Anita and Pongo winding up with Perdita. They live in a humble little home perfectly happy with the kindly maid Nanny and a litter of puppies on the way.

In walks one of Disney’s most glorious creations in Cruella De Vil, the witchiest, cruelest, villain you could ever happen to encounter. With billowing furs and long cigarette holder, her presence is hard to avoid and she’s very eager to get some puppies for her nefarious purposes.

15 little bundles of fur arrive, but Roger puts his foot down and won’t give them up. Not about to be foiled, De Vil gets her two hired cronies Jasper and Horace to swipe them. And so begins Pongo and Perdita’s journey across hill and dale to rescue their children. They utilize the “Twilight Bark” to spread the news about the missing pups to try and get any help they can.

The word spreads and they are led to an old mansion in close proximity to a shaggy sheepdog “The Colonel” and his cohorts “Captain”  the horse, and “Sergeant Tibbs” an adroit tabby. Together they begin the operation to extract the pups. Although after doing recon, Tibbs realizes there are a few more hostages than he was expecting. Still, they put the plan into action trying to flee from the two menacing buffoons.  Jasper and Horace look threatening but only succeed in hurting each other. Pongo and Perdita arrive just in time to lead the pilgrimage back to London, but the snow and the adversary are nearly unrelenting. It’s in these moments that the tension is built up because on one side we have 10s upon 10s of these cute puppies fleeing in the snow with Cruella De Vil hot on their cute little tails. It’s enough to make kids young and old get invested in this animated classic. The most important part is that it ends happily ever after — at least until they have to feed all those dogs.

Although the animation is certainly not their most polished effort, Disney once more develops a setting in London and the surrounding countryside that is thoroughly engaging as a visual feast for the eyes. The voice work from the likes of Rod Taylor, J. Pat O’Malley, and Betty Lou Gerson is impeccably spot on. Perhaps most importantly of all, this film gives the dogs and other creatures of interest the perfect balance of reality and anthropomorphism. And of course, the pups like Rolly, Patch, Penny, and Lucky are endearingly cute with their baby British accents. Yet another reason Cruella De Vil is so evil. How could she ever want to harm cute bundles of joy like that?

4/5  Stars

“Cruella De Vil, Cruella De Vil
If she doesn’t scare you, no evil thing will
To see her is to take a sudden chill
Cruella, Cruella De Vil”


Zootopia (2016)

ZootopiaDisney has scored again. On almost all accounts Zootopia is grade-A family entertainment. To address the elephant in the room, the film is rather formulaic in its hero’s journey and at times it feels like we are attempting to systematically check off all the necessary moments in the rise, fall, and redemption of our spunky heroine. However, there are moments of wit and grace that begin to slowly grab hold of us an audience. It, in turn, becomes ceaselessly inventive with this metropolis of anthropomorphic animals, whether it is the rhythms of daily life or the social issues present that look strangely familiar.

In truth, it works as a thinly-veiled parable for mankind in our present condition. The lines are not black and white, but predator and prey. True, there are differences and they give way to pernicious spells of racism or more aptly in this context, “specism,” but there is room for understanding and symbiosis, to use an ecological term. We could go back and forth for a long time about the actual mechanisms and minutiae of evolution and whether it makes sense or not, but the bottom line is that humans and animals have a lot in common.

Zootopia playfully makes that blatantly clear, and within all the subtle ribbing, it does have a broader message which is true of all great pieces of family-oriented animation. Movies have the ability to allow us to more fully understand the world we live in and that applies to children as well–in fact, they are even more malleable.

There are various other reviews alluding to Animal Farm, In the Heat of the Night, and Who Framed Roger Rabbit. All are interesting touchstones for this film, but obviously, all comparisons falter at some point. For me, Zootopia has surprisingly interesting social undertones to its drama that try to make sense of these things even for young viewers. That’s no small feat and perhaps even more praiseworthy it delivers it in a delectable story that follows in the footsteps of the best buddy films and police procedurals. It’s all wrapped up in the encapsulating animation of Disney that at points feels overwhelming, but the characters of Judy Hopps (Ginnifer Goodwin), Nick Wilde (Jason Bateman), and even the likes of Clawhauser give it winsome charm.

Everything from Sloths at the DMV to a raspy Godfather possum is on point, and the film continues with a stream of gags. However, we are always being drawn back to the journey of Officer Hopps as she tries to prove herself and solve the mystery behind the 14 missing animals. But if this was only her journey it wouldn’t be all that interesting. Thank goodness she has a buddy to cross her will, make her stop and think, and ultimately stand by her when the world isn’t a utopia anymore. I’m not sure what I think about Shakira’s presence in the film, but I’ll let it slide this once.

4/5 Stars

Pirates of the Carribean: The Curse of the Black Pearl (2003)

c854d-pirates_of_the_caribbean_movieStarring Johnny Depp, Geoffrey Rush, Orlando Bloom, and Keira Knightley, the film opens with Elizabeth having her first encounter with Will Tuner and she also sees a mysterious ship. Now in the present, a man recently promoted to Commodore proposes to Elizabeth. Through a series of events she is not able to answer and then ends up meeting the notorious Captain Jack Sparrow. He is taken captive after a duel with Will Tuner. However, his mutinous former crew raid the city from their ship the Black Pearl. Elizabeth is taken captive and Jack and Will join forces to rescue her, while the Commodore makes his own arrangements. Once again they face the pirates and end up in grave trouble. Jack, Will, and Elizabeth all prove their bravery and cleverness. Ultimately, they are able to take down the immortal pirates and Captain Jack is let go once again. This film was entertaining with good action and enjoyable character. I thoroughly understand how Jack Sparrow has become an icon.

4/5 Stars

Beauty and the Beast (1991)

7bdf2-beautybeastposterMy affinity the past decade has gradually turned from the classical Disney formula to the seemingly more inventive storytelling of Pixar. However, Beauty and the Beast certainly has all the makings of a great Disney film, and it is perhaps one of the last classics to come out of the canon.

As per usual, the story gets its inspiration from books and fairy tales. This time from France. Of course, any good fairy tale must have a prince and this specific prince was unfortunately turned into a great ugly beast by an old woman-turned-beautiful enchantress who he insulted. After that trauma, he is resigned to that awful fate until he learns what true love is. Until then he lives locked away in an enchanted castle with no human contact and only a magic mirror to gaze into.

Belle is the most beautiful girl in her little French village where she devours book after book and deflects the increasing advances of the handsome yet conceited Gaston. She lives with her quirky father who has a knack for crazy inventions. One such contraption actually works and he rides off to show it off, but on the way he gets lost out in the wilderness. Lo and behold he ends up at the Beast’s fortress and is soon imprisoned. His daughter goes after him and receives a warm welcome from the enchanted staff of the castle, but the Beast will only let her father go if she stays. So she tearfully agrees. The drama is heightening.

It is slow at first, but over time the Beast’s timid side is revealed, and he begins to fall for Belle. The breaking of the spell seems imminent and yet he reluctantly lets the homesick Belle go see her father again. However, Gaston has been working in the shadows and riles up a mob to lock Maurice away and then go after the child-killing Beast. Humanity must be saved from such a villainous creature after all.

In typical Disney fashion, the final act is a wholly entertaining conclusion with an often uproarious skirmish between the villagers and the enchanted inhabitants of the castle. Top that off with a necessary final showdown, some passionate kisses, and some sumptuous final sequences, and everyone is happy. Disney has always been adept at making films with a wide range of appeal and they do it again here with their foolproof formula. They take a universal story and fill it with mellifluous music and absorbing visuals. The animation is often inventive and fun while the characters fill all the necessary spots. You have your villain, your beautiful girl, your anti-hero, a bickering clock and candle, along with a kindly teapot. What more could you want?

I must say I am curious to watch the original French version La Belle et la Bete (1946) by Jean Cocteau to see how this version varies. Until then I am happily content with this film. This is the type of animated film audiences deserve to see and hopefully they will. Bonjour and Be Our Guest!

4.5/5 Stars

Mary Poppins (1964)

4635e-marypoppinsStarring Julie Andrews and Dick Van Dyke, this Disney musical permeates joy and acts as a window to enchantment. Mary Poppins is a practically perfect nanny who begins to take care of two children. They grow fond of her when she helps them clean their room, takes them through a chalk drawing, and above all sings to them. Through their adventures they meet the Chimney sweep Burt (Van Dyke). However, their actions also cause their father to lose his job. However, as Mary had planned they grow closer to their parents as Mary herself moves on. This film is full of delightful characters, funny quips, and memorable tunes. Disney put together a nice production of animation, choreography, and of course singing. Get ready for some supercalifragiliticexpialidocious (Please don’t check my spelling here)!

4.5/5 Stars

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

13b45-saving_mr-_banks_theatrical_posterThe name Disney is universal, and if you ask people if they ever saw Mary Poppins as a kid they will probably give you a nod and break out in song. Mr. Banks is the film about the film, and it stars Emma Thompson as P.L. Travers, the difficult and complex author of the source novel. She is balanced out by Tom Hanks, who takes on the role of the larger than life Walt Disney. 

The year is 1961 and for 20 years now he has been prodding Mrs. Travers for the rights to her work. Each and every time she refused him, but now the royalties are only trickling in and so she reluctantly agrees to head to Los Angeles, very sure the endeavor will fail. She is a difficult lady and very hard to please whether it is the airplane, her talkative personal driver, the gifts in her hotel suite, and most of all her literary creation. She won’t have her Mary Poppins frolicking about and there will be no songs, no animation, and certainly no Dick Van Dyke. Disney is willing to make concession after concession in order to bring the story to life since it is very dear to not only him but his daughters as well. Mrs. Travers begins work with the Sherman Brothers and the screenwriter, but she is constantly displeased and calling for changes. It seems that nothing will satisfy her. Though some breakthroughs are made and Disney continues to be patient, Travers is distraught to learn there are to be animated Penguins. Just like that, she heads back to England.

However, that is only one-half of the storyline. The other occurs in flashbacks scattered throughout the film. Travers was a little girl in Australia with a playful father who was a banker. He encouraged her to never stop dreaming, but he also struggled with alcoholism. His problems cause all sorts of problems for his wife, for his bank, and most definitely his girls. Only later would Helen Goff, aka P.L. Travers, realize the impact of what had happened. She watched her mother nearly commit suicide, and she saw her father die because there was no thing and no one to save him. 

Back in the present, Walt Disney finally figures out a little more about Mrs. Travers, and he personally travels to England to talk it out with her. They have a heart to heart, and he assures her that Mary Poppins is not only hers but his and many others, who have enjoyed the magic and hope that came off the page. The fact that Mary came to save Mr. Banks gives comfort to her own tragic story, and with this realized the Mary Poppins film became a reality that numerous fans have enjoyed for nearly 50 years now. 

This film is made enjoyable by the back and forth of Emma Thompson and Tom Hanks. Thompson is especially good in her initially prickly but then softhearted portrayal of P.L Travers. Ralph the kindly driver and Colin Farrel as Travers Goff were also integral pieces of the film. The nostalgia and period look that is created of the 1960s is also pleasant to view. Initially, I did not care much for the flashbacks that fill the entire film, but I will concede that they are important to understanding the inner workings of P.L. Travers. All in all, this is a great sentimental picture that should leave us with a smile on our faces and a desire to sing some ditties like “Chim Chim Cheree.”

3.5/5 Stars