STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER – WORTHY CULMINATION OF 42 YEARS AND NINE FILMS

SHORT TAKE:

The culmination of 42 years and nine films, the “last” Star Wars installment, which follows Rey as she seeks out the truth about her parentage.

WHO SHOULD GO:

No inappropriate sexuality, tiny amount of mild profanities, no blasphemy, BUT there is a good deal of very intense and cartoon-violence fighting scenes in a variety of frightening landscapes: underground, in extremely high seas, space, etc. So young teens or, with parental discretion, any age.

LONG TAKE:

I had read a lot of bad press about this latest Star Wars installment: Disney princess-fied, rehashing of old storyline, feminist diatribe, devaluing of men. So two of my kids and I went in as fairly hostile audience members. Honestly, none of the complaints were truly justified. We all kept waiting for it to be bad or get bad and it never happened.

Now if repetition is your irritant of choice, certainly there was an avalanche of nostalgic homages in this (supposed) last installment of the 42-year franchise, but that was to be expected.  And director J.J. Abrams (contributor to Star Trek, Star Wars and Mission Impossible installments) with his team of writers does not disappoint with: exciting non-stop action, classically Star Wars-ian pseudo-science/fantasy, exotic species, deeply committed and self-sacrificing leads and smart aleck supporting cast dialogue.

The late Carrie Fisher appears thanks to CGI, left over footage and clever cinematography by Dan Mindel who has lent his talents to many franchises including Star Wars, Mission Impossible, and Star Trek. The most prominent of supporting cast members also include: Oscar Issacs (multi-talented actor whose resume includes The Nativity Story, Operation Finale, and X-Men) as Poe, the wisecracking pilot; John Boyega as Finn, former First Order (read new Storm Trooper) inductee and Rey’s best friend; Anthony Daniels reprising C3PO as the only cast member to be in ALL NINE movies (R2D2’s Kenny Baker having passed away); Domhnall Gleeson (About Time, the Cohen brothers True Grit, and Peter Rabbit) as the comically nefarious General Hux (whose success rate is about that of Colonel Klink in Hogan’s Heroes); Billy Dee Williams who cheerily reprises Lando with contagious enthusiasm; Ian McDiarmid returning as the oozy evil Emperor Palpatine; and the list goes on for miles. The majority of every character and actor who have ever appeared in a Star Wars movie show up regardless of whether they and/or their characters are currently dead or not.

Abrams’ writing team includes himself, Chris Terrio (D.C. universe and Argo), Derek Connolly (Pokémon Detective Pikachu, Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom SEE REVIEW HERE, and Kong: Skull Island), and Colin Trevorrow (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). There is a lot of sci-fi fantasy credentials involved and it shows.

This – allegedly – last Star Wars film examines who Rey (Daisy Ridley – Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express) really is as she fights the last remnants of the Empire with a coalition of freedom fighters. As to having a female in the lead I saw nothing wrong with their handling of this story decision. Anyone who has read previous reviews knows I am adamantly against rewrites to crowbar in females where men had previously starred (ahem – Ghostbusters 2), and am on record for looking with a jaundiced eye at female led action movies. However, I also am equally vocal in praise of well done movies like Wonder Woman and characters like Black Widow, where the protagonist is awesome and the storyline well done and the lead just happens to be a female – hero first, woman second. Rey, here, is an action hero first who just happens to be a female. Well done her.

The music by John Williams (who else?!) blends smoothly with all the rest of the franchise music. It is but a variation on the same themes, but that is not a bad thing. (They don’t call the original soundtrack the “Star Wars Symphony” for nothing.) This iconic music is as much a character in all nine of the movies as Chewie or R2 or Lando or Leia or, for that matter, the Millennium Falcon.

The cinematography is visually spectacular – as you would expect from any Star Wars film. From a stark desert landscape to a fight surrounded by CAT 5 hurricane level waves, from a space dog fight to a duel underground, the screenwriters went out of their way to be sure we got the length and breadth of how a Jedi deals with hostile environments of all kinds.

If it were not for the fact this movie is supposed to be the wrap up to four decades of films catering to three generations of Star Wars fans, I would think they maybe had over egged the pudding. As it was there were both cheers and tears from the audience as the storyline went through its paces in a most satisfying effort to pull out all the stops.

I couldn’t help but see the parallel to the long running thread at the heart of  The Blacklist‘s seven-season (and still going strong) tale, wherein the FBI’s most wanted (James Spader’s Red Reddington) turns himself in to aid the FBI in hunting down criminals so dangerous and elusive the FBI doesn’t even know they exist. But Red will only speak to Elizabeth Keen, newbie Quantico grad, who has never even heard of Reddington aside from his rap sheet. Though the titular storyline involves pursuing bad guys in clever ways, who Keen is to Red is the engine that propels the core of the show.

Similarly, the Star Wars Saga’s wrap up films have explored Rey’s search for closure. Rey is their new version of Luke – the Padawan with inexplicably extraordinary Force abilities – who searches for her parents and is occasionally sorry she asked.

There is something eternally appealing to the quest to reveal our origins, harkening back to our search for our place in the Universe and ultimately our relationship with our Creator. The annals of cinema history is rife with examples of orphans searching for their place in the Universe: Little Orphan Annie, Oliver Twist, Heidi, Dorothy from The Wizard of Oz, Cosette from Les Mis, even Billy Batson from Shazaam! and Peter Pan – all search for what they see as their missing piece. Some, like Billy and Dorothy discover they never truly lacked anything to begin with and there was no place like home with people who already loved them. Others were disabused of idealized fantasies. And this is the identity crisis with which both Rey and her antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver – Paterson SEE REVIEW HERE and Logan Lucky SEE REVIEW HERE) wrestle. Rey wants to know who her mom and dad are/were and why they left her. On the other hand, while Ren knows who his parents are, he is in a constant state of struggle in coming to terms with them and their beliefs. (And boy with 6 kids isn’t THAT a familiar theme.)

SPOILERS

Dove-tailing with the search for identity embarked upon by the lead antagonists, the resolution for Kylo Ren comes from a very Christian based theology. Ren has done terrible things: genocide, patricide, torture of innocents, random violence, all in the service of becoming a galactic tyrant.  All very NON-Jedi activities. For the 3 or 4 people in the solar system who might not know, a Jedi is a monk-like warrior who leads a fairly aesthetic existence while fighting, armed only with a light saber and his connection to the “Force” of life, to ensure freedom and protection for innocents, even at the cost of their lives. Ren is the polar opposite of this, despite his parentage of Princess Leia, twin sister to Luke, a powerful Jedi master-knight and Han Solo, Luke’s best friend. But when Rey fatally bests him in battle, then, in an act of mercy, shares some of her life force with him to heal his mortal wound, he turns his back on what he has become. Ren repents! And when  he dies, in a turn about to save Rey by re-offering ALL of his life force back to her, he disappears as Yoda and Obi Wan had done – a sign of ultimate acceptance by the Jedi Force of his worthiness.

So with Ren’s genuine repentance and his willingness to die for his one time enemy, to love his “neighbor” as himself, came true redemption. A laudable and admirable lesson with which to close out (if this truly IS the last) the Star Wars Saga.

On a completely different topic – A lot of ink has been spilled over a same-sex kiss. The film makers made a big deal about this but it is truly “much ado about nothing” and a ridiculous effort at some glad handing political correctness. It occurs during a World War II Victory-like moment of joyous abandonment and celebration of life so that everyone is hugging and kissing everyone else. The kiss was about a sexual as if, in the joy of the moment Poe had kissed Maz or Rey had smooched Chewbacca. It had the same feel as when Ernie kissed Burt on the forehead after they finish singing for George and Mary’s wedding in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Were it not for the hypersensitivity in this artificially created lame-stream media’s constant attempts at shoving politically correct agendas down mainstream audiences throats, I don’t even think anyone would have noticed. Noticing it and attributing any particular significance to it hints at a subtext. But the kiss comes out of nowhere and BECAUSE of the attention brought to it in advertising campaigns, it effectively commits the cardinal sin of breaking the suspension of disbelief, needlessly popping the viewer out of this otherwise wonderful moment which was 42 years in the making.

The only other significant critique I would give is the insufficient amount of time given to the, as my kids put it, non-“Emo” Kylo Ren. Ren spends the majority of his time in these movies growling behind a Vader-like mask, barking orders, destroying things in fits of anger, glowering, killing people, and generally  being a REALLY tough audience. Ren’s moments of slight gentle humor after his miraculous healing by Rey are a surprise and delight. They are simple and little but effective moments where Ren is FINALLY channeling his father, Han Solo – like saying “Ow” after a fall or giving a wry smile and shrug as he pulls a lightsaber from nowhere to school some opponents. These are the best moments in all of Ren’s appearances in the entire franchise. They are memorable but tragically ever so brief minutes before he dies. Would that they had made an entire feature film with this aspect of his character.

So after all the reveals and (sort of) character deaths and familial connections resolved within the Star Wars Universe, you might think they really mean it when they say this is the LAST Star Wars movie to ever be made. Everyone who believes that shout out loud. (*so quiet crickets can be heard*) I agree and that’s just fine. See you at the NEXT “final” Star Wars movie.

SOLO – GAP FILLER AND WELCOME “THROW BACK” TO THE ORIGINAL STAR WARS STYLE OF A NEW HOPE

SHORT TAKE:

FINALLY, a return to the classic style and pacing of the original family friendly clean agenda free (mostly) Star Wars, in the origin story of the one and only Han Solo.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Pretty much anyone. Not as violent as Rogue One and less cleavage than Carrie Fisher's gold metal bikini in Return of the Jedi.

LONG TAKE:

WARNING: CONTAINS A FEW CRUCIAL SPOILERS TO OTHER STAR WARS MOVIES.

When I was a kid I used to do jigsaw puzzles with my Dad. 300 piece, 500. I think the biggest one we ever did together was a 1,500 piece puzzle of the French Quarter at Night. Similar to this one.

No one piece stands out, except as you are fitting it into the bigger picture. Originally made from wood in 1760 and cut into pieces by a jig-saw, most jigsaw puzzles are now made of cardboard, but the fascination remains. Each piece has its own unique "personality" and has only one place where it will go to complete a bigger overall picture. While you are searching for just that right spot, that one piece becomes very important and you know, briefly, every detail of its shape – every tab and blank, edge and curve fitting specifically into one part of the tesselation that is a completed jigsaw puzzle. But then, when you figure out where it goes, its success is defined as how well it blends in with and disappears into the rest of the picture.

Solo reminds me of that – appropriate for such a movie to be named for a single, unpaired, individual – Solo is as unique in shape but as uniform in texture and picture as all the other Star Wars movies, so like a unique puzzle piece stands alone yet fits in beautifully to the overall picture. This is not a bad thing.

The point I’m making is that Solo fills an empty spot in the larger overall painting that is the Star Wars Universe. In the original films, Star Wars – A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi  – there was a LOT of missing back story to Han that worked as a mystery then, but over time became niggling points for which people would enjoy answers. What was this card game from which Solo won the Falcon "fair and square" from Lando? How did Solo and Chewy meet? Where did Han come from? How did he acquire the skills he so effortlessly displayed as a smuggler? There was no mention of a gang or family business. No mentor or sponsor. Were there any women in his life before Leia? Why does Chewy stay with and take orders from this annoying, snarky, only marginally successful representative of a significantly physically weaker race? Were there any defining watershed moments in his past which would help shape this surprisingly complex character, who was part scoundrel with a soft heart and part hero with a large Machiavellian streak? Why are Lando and I the only creatures in the Universe that think Solo’s first name should be pronounced with a short vowel – Han – like hand or fan? And where did he learn to speak —- Wookie? Well – MOST of these questions are artfully answered, at least in part by the new Star Wars installment – Solo: A Star Wars Story.

Personally, I find the timeline for the release of the Star Wars movies very convoluted. We start with Star Wars, originally released as a stand alone movie in 1977 but then renamed Star Wars – A New Hope IV in 1981 when they started making the sequels. The SECOND Star Wars movie made, Empire Strikes Back was numbered V and Return of the Jedi – really the third born, was numbered VI. THEN they made Phantom Menace and the sequels to IT 16 years after the Return of the Jedi but were subsequently numbered I, II and III. THEN THEN Force Awakens and Last Jedi were made in 2015 and 2017 but they REALLY belong after Return of the Jedi which was released in 1983. But THEN THEN THEN Rogue One’s story belongs squeezed between number III – Revenge of the Sith (2005) and IV – A New Hope which was released in 1977, which REALLY should force a renumbering AGAIN if it weren’t for the possibility that the Star Wars fans might storm Lucasfilms and…..wait……that changed too. Disney bought them out.

Well.  *sigh*

Where does that leave Solo’s timeline you might ask? Crammed between Revenge of the Sith (III) and Rogue One, leaving LOTS of time BETWEEN the timelines of Solo and Rogue One to fill in more of Han’s life adventures before he basically…catches up to himself.

Alden Ehrenreich (pronounced ALL-DEN ERIN-RIKE – I know I got THAT correct as I listened for it on an interview with the actor!) is wonderful as the young Han Solo. A terrific actor in general he made quite an impression in the Cohen Brothers homage to 1950's movie genres, Hail Caeser, as an endearing, stalwart, naive Audie Murphy-type character. Ehrenreich has JUST the right twinkle in his eye, spring in his steps, mischief in his manner, unrelieved optimism in his own abilities, confidence in his mannerisms and slightly arrogant attitude that make him SO familiar to the Han Solo we grew up with. Yet this Solo is neither an imitation nor a caricature. Ehrenreich makes Solo his own but is so convincing that, like a reigning dowager at a family reunion you would have known who this young man belonged to just by watching him for 30 seconds.

Donald Glover (the scientist who figures out how to get The Martian home) plays a young brash Lando with the expected pinache and verve.

Peter Mayhew – all 7 foot 3 of him – now retired living in Texas, was the original Chewbacca. This mantle, or should I say "walking carpet," is now worn by Joonas Suotomo, a 6 foot 11 Finnish basketball player.

Emilia Clarke (Game of Throne’s Dragon Lady and the newest incarnation of Sarah Conner from the Terminator series installment Genisys) introduces a new ingredient into Solo’s early life – Qi’ra, a fellow street rat from his home world of Corellia.

Woody Harrelson (Zombieland, Glass Castle (see my blog) and 2012) brings his own unique but familiar style to the character of ringleader Beckett. Charismatic as always, Harrelson’s Beckett runs a troupe of highly specialized thieves who takes Han on in the middle of a job.

Thandie Newton (2012, Crash, HBO's Westworld series, Mission Impossible II) plays Val, a member of Beckett’s gang. As a side note I thought it was only me who kept confusing her with Star Trek’s new Uhura and Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora –

Zoe Saldana. For half the movie I was thinking: WOW Zoe is in EVERYTHING sci fi! I felt stupid when I discovered my mistake in the credits until I found these pictures and anecdotes about how other fellow actors confused them as well.

I mean, to be fair, they could stunt double for each other.

L3-37 – voice by Phoebe Waller-Bridge – is really the only sour note in the production. Intended, I suspect, to be their female version of C3PO, she is such an over-the-top feminist robot that she would have been better suited to an animated Shrek caricature or a replacement for Joan Rivers’ Dot Matrix in a Spaceballs sequel. So grinding was she that whenever she was on screen I couldn’t wait for her to be off. At least she makes Jar Jar Binks seem more appealing.

Finally, Paul Bettany plays Dryden Vos, a guy as bad as his Avenger’s Vision is Thor-hammer good. Bettany is fun to watch as he chews the scenary with calculated menace and the evil abandon required of any good Bond super-villain or Star Wars Hutt-style baddie.

Overall, I really enjoyed Solo. It’s completely family friendly. There is a bit of violence but no more than in the original Star Wars and less "cleavage" than in Fisher’s gold bikini in Return of the Jedi. The plot fills in a lots of gaps – like spackling over the holes in a well worn, well loved bedroom wall … or like one of the missing pieces of a puzzle, making it a very satisfying experience. Unlike the Last Jedi, which kind of trashed the continuity character of Luke, or the lame way they dispatched Han in Force Awakens, this story feels as Star Wars-ian as the original. It’s exciting, has lots of space races, neat aliens, is often funny and is basically a "throw back" in the BEST possible way, to the very first Star Wars – the foundational New Hope, which, personally gives ME hope that the Star Wars franchise might FINALLY be back on the right track..

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI – IT’S…STAR WARS. WHAT MORE COULD YOU WANT???

 

Have you ever gone into your parents’ attic, rummaged around and found an old favorite toy – a Teddy bear, a plastic sword, a doll house or an old board game? Suddenly you are flooded with the warm fuzzy nostalgia of childhood and the uncomplicated excitement of an anticipated adventure with like minded companions.

In a slightly different scenario, but one which will tie in to the previous analogy, have you ever been to a foreign country which had a McDonald’s? Amidst all of the unfamiliar occasionally unidentifiable store front names, the Golden Arches stands out like a beacon. It doesn’t matter where in the world you go – if there is a McDonald’s, even with a variety of specials particular to the indigenous population, you will still be able to get the same Big Mac in Lesieux, France that you could get in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin or Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Sitting in a dark theater as the simple words “A long ago time ago in a galaxy far, far away” appeared on the screen in deliberate graphic print quality circa 1977 followed by the signature trumpet Star Wars fanfare I couldn’t help but laugh in delight. Now 58, when Star Wars first came out I was 18 years old. As I have repeated in my own cautionary refrain many times to my children – the only reason an 18 year old is now considered a legal adult is because of the Vietnam War. In short, when Star Wars premiered I was still a child.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, arrived on the screen 40 years 6 months and 20 days after the premiere of Star Wars (later retitled Star Wars: Episode IV A New Hope much to the confusion of many inasmuch as there was no Episode 1, 2 or 3 for many years to come) but who’s counting, right?

During that time we have watched Luke and Leia   be born, grow up, and grow old. Many of us have grown up and grown older right along with them.

How does this all tie in? Simply.   Star Wars doesn’t change. Despite the moderate improvements in special effects the world of Skywalker and Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda and Darth Vader, Emperor Pallapatine and the Cantina on Tatooine is the same now as it was when we were all much much younger. A few of the trimmings might be tweaked but it’s still the same Star Wars I came to love fresh out of high school.

Like the dusty rediscovered Teddy Bear or the Big Mac purchased in Tokyo, the opening scenes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are familiar territory to those of us who have tread these paths for 40 plus years of 7 movies, dozens of Halloween Vader masks, uncountable action figures, Youtube analyses, spoofs, comic books, Yoda backpacks, Millenium Falcon bed sheets, fanzines, shipping theories and both canon and non-canon books. This is not strictly speaking a negative thing. Nor is it a criticism, any more than someone who is fond of vanilla ice cream might note that there is a gallon or two of Blue Belle in the freezer.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi breaks very little new ground, does not further the conflict between the dark and light sides of the Force much, or do more than mildly massage the dynamics of the characters we have come to know and love. Even those coming later to the party like Rey (Daisy “Murder on the Orient Express” Ridley), Finn (John Boyega reprising his role from The Force Awakens) and Poe (Oscar Isaac – the only really good thing in Suburbicon) fall into step with their predecessors – Luke, Leia and Han.

MAJOR SPOILER FOR ANYONE WHO HAS NOT SEEN STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS

The entire gang is here minus the significantly notable (and I continue the debate with my kids as to whether or no it was entirely unnecessary) exception of Harrison Ford as Han Solo. Mark Hamill is the aging Luke Skywalker, Anthony Daniels is C3PO, Frank Oz voices Yoda, and Peter Mayhew continues as Chewbacca. Princess Leia, too, has a major role to play, even though, ironically, the actress who played her, Carrie Fisher, has in fact, actually passed away. (Hail the bizarre technology of CGI which enhanced Ms. Fisher’s last screen moments into a fully fleshed out part.)

The premise of Last Jedi is that Rey, the street urchin who discovered her powerful Force sensitivity in the previous Force Awakens, tries to get an extremely reluctant, jaded and worn out Luke to rejoin the fight against the Empire. At the same time the last remnants of the rebel forces attempt to escape the pursuing clutches of the Imperial Fleet directed by Emperor Snoke (Andy Serkis) and lead by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson), in a caricature of evil Nazi-like officer. Hux seems to have, through a kind of Peter Principle, risen through the ranks to the limits of his capabilities, probably because of the attrition resulting from the execution of previous failed commanders. This is a source of mild amusement to the audience.

Which brings us to the one singular added refreshing ingredient to this familiar but very welcome recipe – the sense of humor which has been incorporated into the characters. There has always been an element of comedy – mostly the droids banter and the snarky comments from Han. But for the most part the other characters were straight men. Now, with a certain seasoning, they have allowed characters like Luke to include a few one liners and humorous moments. guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-1366x768-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-6474It seems that Guardians of the Galaxy has set the Gold Standard of humor, converting the likes of the Thor franchise from an almost medieval melodramatic fraternal conflict to a sibling rivalry which occasionally plants tongue firmly in cheek and wisely no longer takes itself too seriously, throwing in moments which might otherwise be considered bloopers. Star Wars has reaped the benefits of this informant as well, levitating the mood in much needed relief from its darker more sinister moments.

All in all Star Wars: The Last Jedi shows there’s plenty of steam left in this railroad or should I say fluff in this Teddy bear.

In short Star Wars: The Last Jedi is………Star Wars. And I wouldn’t want them to change a thing.