AD ASTRA – A VERY DIFFERENT KIND OF SCI FI

SHORT TAKE:

Journey by a son in search of his father, set in space.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens minimum for some language but mostly scenes of violence and the resulting dangers one might expect in tackling hard space. There is no sexual content.

LONG TAKE:

Ad Astra (meaning “to the stars”) directed by James Gray, one of the writers, is a very interesting movie but not about what you might think. Ad Astra could have taken place as a western, underwater, in a haunted abandoned funhouse, a post-apocalyptic wasteland, in any normal day of a big city, or climbing a mountain. The writers James Gray and Ethan Gross chose to place this well told story in space and it is as good a backdrop as any of the others would have been. Combining allegory with pragmatic and brutal realism, Ad Astra plays out more like the Greek epic of discovery, The Odyssey or the Christian parable Pilgrim’s Progress, than a conventional science fiction story. Gray, writer/director, himself has compared his story to Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.

SPOILERS – BUT MINOR AND OBLIQUELY AS I CAN

The story is about Roy McBride, a top-flight astronaut, played by Brad Pitt (most recently in the wonderful role of a protective stuntman in Once Upon a Time in Hollywood), whose father, Clifford, disappeared 16 years before. Roy’s father played by Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black, The Fugitive, Captain America) is a brilliant scientist who went in search of evidence of extraterrestrial intelligence, then fell off the radar after leaving Saturn.

A series of catastrophic electronic storms have recently begun to devastate Earth. The Surges, as they are referred to, seem to be emanating from Neptune, and are suspected to be linked to Clifford’s disappearance. Roy is sent out to investigate with his father’s old partner, Thomas Pruitt, played by acting veteran Donald Sutherland.

As an aside, I am a big fan of Donald Sutherland. Sutherland’s career dates back almost six decades. Playing opposite the likes of Robert Duvall, Helen Mirren, Orson Welles, Gene Wilder, and Julie Christie, his career includes an incredibly eclectic collection of almost two hundred entries, ranging from comic to horror to personal drama. His resume includes everything from classics like Hamlet and Pride and Prejudice, to monster movies like the bad  Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors and the brilliant Invasion of the Body Snatchers, military black comedies like M.A.S.H. and Kelly’s Heroes, deeply emotional personal dramas like Ordinary People, the modern dystopian franchise The Hunger Games, screwball comedies like Start The Revolution Without Me, straight war movies like The Dirty Dozen and Eye of The Needle, and avant garde suspense like Don’t Look Now – the list goes on and on, and it was a pleasure to see him again even in a small character part.

Rounding out the cast is Ruth Negga (the prickly – in more ways than one – antagonist in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) as Helen Santos, an ally who appears, like a messenger from a Greek myth, to provide Roy information he needs to urge him along his quest. Another character who hands Roy along like a baton is Colonel Levant played by Sean Blakemore. Liv Tyler (Lord of the Rings, Armageddon – so not Tyler’s first rodeo as a character enamored of a space cowboy) is Eve (to Roy’s Adam? – perhaps representing all mankind and their errors) the girl Roy leaves behind as Roy seems compelled as a lemming, without his father’s guidance, to repeat his father’s mistakes.

However, Ad Astra is not really about the search for Roy’s father, but ultimately an insightful, honest and frank inner journey undertaken by Roy to conquer the demons left behind by Clifford’s abandonment of Roy’s family.

Modern culture tries to expunge the need for a father in the home. Ad Astra highlights, at least in part, the fallacy of this destructive philosophy.

The tone of the film reminds me of, and owes a lot to, Stanley Kubrick’s groundbreaking but ethereally distant 2001: A Space Odyssey, which created a mythology about mankind’s leaps of progress. In contrast, Ad Astra is relatable, in that it is told from the intimate point of view of one man’s personal evolution. The pace of Ad Astra is very slow and deliberate, arguably even sometimes dull. But such adagio of movement is necessary for the contemplatively atmosphere necessary for this pensive tale.

The events that transpire during the course of the film are anything but boring. The theme of obstacles structure the story and manifest in every way you can imagine: verbal, bureaucratic, intentionally hostile, the indifference of nature, clandestine, emotional, instinctive brutality, and the simple fact of the mind-numbingly immense distances required to complete Roy’s journey.

The cinematography is magnificent. The depiction of the outer planets is stunning and awe-inspiring and brilliantly conveys the overwhelming majestic size of space itself, underscoring the enormity of the pilgrimage that Roy undertakes.

And pilgrimage Roy’s trip truly is. A pilgrimage of discovery. The pilgrim nature of Roy’s quest is underscored by the occasional but respectful and deliberate references to traditional Christian theology and belief. The spiritual nature of Roy’s expedition is also demonstrated by the way the writers strip Roy, piece by piece, of his armor plating – literally and figuratively, physically and emotionally – until he must confront his destiny as any questing knight must – face to face and alone. Roy’s progress is cleverly documented by way of periodic psychological tests he must take and pass in order to continue his journey. This serves as both a practical plot device as well as a metaphysical manifestation of Roy’s inner progress.

The music by Max Richter is both triumphal and eerily beautiful, contributing to the contemplative feel of this mystery.

Ad Astra is not for everyone. It’s not properly a science fiction story, though it is set in a pragmatic future vision of human-conquering space. But it is far more violent than the average audience for a movie which primarily deals with inner analysis.

So go see Ad Astra if you are of the right age and want to see a thoughtful, meditative but dangerous odyssey. But go without any preconceived notions, for it is not the kind of science fiction movie you might expect, but approach it as you might a friend mulling over a retreat inspired epiphany which he wants to share.

ALITA – BATTLE ANGEL – A WELL TOLD, BUT ADULT, TALE OF A CYBORG HERO IN A DYSTOPIAN FUTURE SOCIETY

AUDIO PODCAST OPTION OF ALITA: BATTLE ANGEL REVIEW

SHORT TAKE:

Fascinating animation/real action mix story based on a long-running Japanese manga series,  about a cyborg girl reconstructed and “adopted” by a human and the dystopian society they both must navigate to survive.

WHO SHOULD GO:

Older teens/young adults minimum for language, and extreme violence.

LONG TAKE:

BEYOND HERE BE OCCASIONAL SPOILERS

This first heads up is more of a warning than a spoiler. Alita: Battle Angel is nowhere near a completed story. James Cameron takes a page from Peter Jackson’s playbook – giving us great character introductions, wonderful interpersonal relationships, interesting and fearsome enemies, exciting battle scenes …. and an abrupt unfinished ending. OK – technically the titular director is Robert Rodriguez but with James Cameron as the scriptwriter you know many of the decisions in the filming of this movie were done as a collaborative effort.

A musical analogy would liken it to ending a symphony on a dominant chord instead of the tonic chord, meaning a note that does not feel complete. Another way to look at it would be to begin the phrase ” shave and a haircut…”

Anyone who has seen the brilliant three-part Lord of the Rings series or the bloated Hobbit trilogy knows that Mr. Jackson likes to end his first story not exactly with a cliffhanger but with a temporary break in the action, taking Donald O’Conner’s advice to: “Always leave your audience wanting more,” to heart. Jackson ends his movies at about the place where one might choose to hit the pause button in the middle of the movie after one has had too many sodas.

And Mr. Cameron and Robert Rodriguez have done exactly the same thing with Alita – starting with an involving, well told story which then drops off a cliff. To be fair, this is on purpose.

HOWEVER, this is not surprising as Alita: Battle Angel is based, in whole and in part, on the first four of a NINE VOLUME manga series written between 1990-1995 by Yukito Kishiro called Gunnm (translated literally as “Gun Dream”). Alita: Battle Angel, the movie, like the manga series before it, is about a cyborg girl rescued from a dumpster and reconstructed by a cybernetics physician in a dystopian society set about 500 years from now.

The CGI was astonishing. James Cameron, who has been enamored of this manga series for about 10 years, said that he was waiting for the technology to become advanced enough to meet the demands of how he saw the film should be made. And he does not disappoint.

Rosa Salazar who plays the eponymous character is quoted to have said: “I’m a walking piece of technology, so that made it actually quite easy to fall into the physicality of a cyborg.” Photos of her show her dressed literally from head to foot in motion capture, including the unusual addition of two cameras on her face. Watching the behind-the-scenes was amusing as the actress would have to subtly duck and weave around the other actor’s head when coming close to avoid clobbering them with the extra headgear (which technology was, of course, CGIed out in post production). But the slight dance goes smoothly in the final product due to Ms. Salazar’s skillful body language and the technical prowess of the computer geniuses who brought Alita to life.

It’s interesting to see Christoph Waltz as a good guy. Usually he plays very rough, sometimes cold blooded or downright evil characters – such as being the most recent incarnation of James Bond’s antagonist Blofeld in Spectre, or the chilling psycho-Nazi Landa in Inglourious Basterds (sic), or the abusive plagiarizing husband in Big Eyes – the list goes on. But in Alita, Waltz is a nurturing protective creator/father-figure, his normally scary edge giving believability to his “side job”.

Jennifer Connelly, whose pedigree dates all the way back to David Bowie’s 1986 fantasy, Labyrinth, is Ido’s estranged wife and, therefore, Alita’s “mother”.

Mahershala Ali (Green Book – see my post on that brilliant movie) is the lead baddie’s main henchman.

Keean Johnson does a delightful job of charming Alita as the shady boyfriend, Hugo, in a mixed motivational character with shifting alliances that Clark Gable might have played way back when. And I MUST note that Mr. Johnson is a HOMESCHOOLED KID!!! Check out his bio here on us.imdb.com.

There are also some VERY fun cameos, which are designed for Mr. Cameron’s hoped for sequel. Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys – and don’t laugh at me, I REALLY LIKED that movie – see my post on it here) plays Jashugan, a champion in Motorball, the gladiatorial game played in Alita. Edward Norton (he is to Hulk as Tobey Maguire was to Spiderman – close but no cigar, also in Collateral Beauty – see post here, Fight Club, and American History X), appears in a couple of  – don’t blink or you’ll miss it – moments as Nova the ULTIMATE controller of the sky city of Zalem, who becomes Alita’s nemesis and the target of her future goals to storm said city. Both have uncredited parts. Mr. Cameron explained that even if they never make the sequel, that those characters were must-haves in the story and essential to show. And, he said, if they did make a sequel that they wanted heavy hitters for those roles. Both men, Courtney and Norton, are friends and work colleagues of Cameron’s, so were more than willing to participate even in these tiny roles to help further the prospect of a sequel.

The soundtrack, written by Antonius B. Holkenborg, who goes by Junkie XL, is gorgeous and positively symphonic, creating a delightful variety of emotions from Alita’s sweetly, almost fairy-like awakening in Dr. Ido’s home to Terminator-feel violent reflections of her experiences in the Motorball battles against homicidal cyborgs during the Rollerball-level lethal game.

For anyone who is not old enough or geeky enough to remember the 1975 movie Rollerball, starring James Caan (whose credits date from the iconic tear-jerker sports game Brian’s Song, to the ill-fated Corleone son in The Godfather, to the voice of the tech-befuddled Dad in Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs), it is worth taking note.  Motorball, as presented in Alita is a DUPLICATE of the murderous gladiatorial eponymous game played in the movieRollerball,   set in another dystopian ultra-violent society. It is obvious Mr. Kishiro is familiar with this story.

There has been some controversy over the use of oversized eyes in Alita. Some say they are disturbing and off-putting. I strongly disagree with the naysayers. Alita’s unusually large orbs perform a multiplicity of plot functions. For one, it highlights Alita AS a cyborg. There is no mistaking her for a natural born full human. For another, if windows are the eyes to the soul, then Alita wears hers not just on her sleeve right next to her heart but right there on her face for all the world to see. Between the fine acting and the quality CGI every subtlety of Alita’s growing and changing emotions and character are there for the audience to relate. Large,  disproportionate eyes are also a feature of small young creatures, including humans. It is one of the designations which mark an inchoate being, not just inspiring protective feelings of those around them but signaling their fundamental innocence. While Alita does do some horrific things it is from her training in her previous life and only done for the protection of others – Ido, her human friend Hugo, even a stray dog.

Alita has a couple of obstacles to hurdle to gain the attention and affection of a Western audience. The first and most obvious is, of course, the manga origin, which is a subset of an already limited demographic of comic book sales. The second is her identity as a warrior cyborg, which could have been an automatic bias against her given the Terminator series. I think her preternaturally large eyes help create an almost instant connection to this character, helping break down those barriers. I thought the device clever, without being (IF you will excuse the VERY deliberate pun) “in your face” and quite effective.

While animated AND based on a comic book character, Alita is NOT for children. There is EXTREME violence, which includes dismemberment, crushed heads, and death. It is likely the movie might have been saddled with an R rating had Cameron and Rodriguez not had the simple foresight to make cyborg “blood” obviously manufactured blue instead of gory red. There is at least one gratuitous “F” bomb uttered by Alita, herself. And they even violate one of MY personal taboos – they KILL A DOG! Though this happens, admittedly, out of sight, Alita smears the dog’s red blood under her eyes like war paint before beginning her quest to defeat the tyrannical forces which have been unleashed against her and her ersatz family.

As a result this is not a movie either for the young nor the faint of heart.  For a more mature audience, however, it is a spectacular and creatively told outing. It is interesting to almost “feel” the Japanese manga origins in the way the characters react in more restrained, almost “Vulcan” ways than an America audience might be used to.

In addition, the plot moves along quickly and efficiently. It does not dawdle on relatively trivial points on which many similar genre American movies might languish. For example, there is a bit of tension created from Ido not telling Alita initially that the name he chose for her was that of his murdered daughter. (In the original manga series it was Ido’s cat, but Cameron’s script, wisely, I thought, decided on a more emotionally compelling attachment). Honestly, in an America movie this omission might have been held on to for a prolonged period then left as a mid-first act or even mid-second act “reveal”. Instead, Alita establishes this “secret” only long enough for the audience to find out, then has Ido explain it to Alita fairly expeditiously.  To avoid spoilers I won’t give any more examples, but suffice to say this style is adapted throughout the movie. Such choices clear the way for a more intelligent plot.

I do recommend Alita but only for an older audience of late teens/young adults and up. It is refreshingly different and well written. It features excellent acting, especially considering the massive amounts of green screen in the landscape and motion capture equipment on the people with which the actors must contend. The music is worth listening to all by itself. But DO keep in mind the ending is VERY unsatisfying – albeit contrived purposefully so – as a build up for the next installment.

A SECOND LOOK AT THE NEW DR. WHO, A LOOK BACK AT AN OLD STAR TREK: NEXT GENERATION AND THE PRO-LIFE MESSAGE

SHORT TAKE:

The recent Dr. Who shows have been FAR better than the pilot and rely on puzzles, history, and most importantly, in The Tsuranga Conundrum, features — a pro-life message.

WHO SHOULD WATCH:

Anyone.

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LONG TAKE:

I was not wrong. The first of the new Doctor Who's was terrible. Click HERE to see why. However, the stories immediately began improving and I had already intended to write a revised blog. But episode 5, The Tsuranga Conundrum, put me over the top and inspired me to get it done.

Let me first say a little bit about the other improved episodes. Rosa, much like TOS Star Trek's "City on the Edge of Forever", where one person's decision changes the course of history, revolves around whether or not Rosa Parks will refuse to stand for a white person on a bus in the 60s. Her act of civil disobedience, striking a blow for the dignity of every human, sparked the Civil Rights Movement. The antagonist for the show was a fellow time traveler who wished to interrupt this key event. The Doctor and company were there to protect the time line. Rosa was a lovely story and the theme harkened back to Doctor Who's original 1963 intent of being a time-traveling historian and scientist.

The other shows highlighted the female Doctor Who's natural strengths of intellect and puzzle-solving. As a woman, she does not have the upper body strength to physically handle altercations. The other doctors, aside from Christopher Eccleston, though of  "academic" builds, were still far stronger physically than this one could be. So her strength lies in her being, as David Tennant put it often, "clever". And this comes off very well again in this story.

While her companions are still not especially noteworthy, you kind of get used to them, and they have the virtues of neither being bossy nor abrasive as previous companions have been. Neither is there some long game arc with them as the linchpin to the mysteries of the universe, which is pretty refreshing. So the shows have definitely improved.

But the most recent Dr. Who episode was the icing on the cake and deserves special commendation. Doctor Who has always been pretty pro-life, much like Star Trek was pro-life. The value of sentient life was recognized,  regardless of how they looked. And there was respect for life and Creation in general, (even though there was only rarely a reference to a Creator). And Doctor Who is very much in the same vein. Enemies' lives are respected, valued and protected with as much alacrity as friends' lives. Character arcs are often about redemption, and rarely does the concept of revenge in any form rear its head.

Acknowledgement of life's importance in all forms is an understood thread that weaves itself though both shows. But only once before this most recent Dr Who show have I seen the pro-life position so clearly and plainly stated as it was in "The Child," from Star Trek the Next Generation.  In "The Child" Deanna Troi finds herself pregnant from an unknown entity. The consensus from the rest of the command crew was extreme caution and Worf, the Klingon security officer, even recommended abortion of the "fetus". But Deanna, not even knowing how she got pregnant, not knowing what was the intent of the entity who, frankly, raped her, flatly stated to her captain: "Do whatever you feel is necesssary to protect the ship and the crew, but know this, I'm going to have this baby". Not fetus, not product of conception, but "baby".  The only issue to Deanna was protection of the child that she carried and an acknowledgement that it was indeed a baby.

DR WHO SPOILERS

I am so very pleased to commend this new Doctor Who, and obviously the writer, Chris Chibnall, for making the same clear pro-life statement. In episode 5, "The Tsuranga Conundrum", the premise is that The Doctor and her companions are trapped on a hospital ship without her TARDIS. Their literal deus ex machina is temporarily out of reach on a planet several days travel away. The main storyline revolves around an attack on the hospital ship by a new mysterious alien, the Pting. But that is not really relevant to the point of this blog, so I will let you enjoy that part on your own. 

Their subplot, partially intended for comedy, is really the most important part of the story. Yoss is a young unmarried man, in the last stages of pregnancy. Now bear with me. Though the young man looks human, he is a different species and this IS a science fiction show. When asked how he knows the child will be a boy, he responds matter-of-factly: "Boys give birth to boys and girls give birth to girls. That's how it is." So – yeah – alien. Somehow this struck me as especially funny, as I am sure the writer intended. When two of The Doctor's companions, understandably confused, ask him how this could have happened, meaning – how could he, a man, become pregnant?!!! the scared new dad misunderstands and explains that it was the result of an ill-thought out one night stand.

Here is where the pro-life begins. There was never any mention of Yoss considering abortion even though he makes clear that pregnancy was the LAST thng he wanted at this time in his life and that he feels woefully underprepared to be a parent. In addition, the writer, through Yoss, goes out of his way to show the companions what his unborn baby looks like in a series of 3D ultrasound images. There was no plot purpose to this slide show, but it made a brilliant point and, I thought was the highlight of the episode. His species' gestation takes only 5 days, therefore the pictures he shows are a succession of developmental shots only a few hours after conception, then after the first day, the second day, third, and fourth, all of which show dramatic gestation of a species that looks just like a normal human child. The last picture of his unborn baby, taken three hours earlier, shows a full-term, perfectly beautiful,  baby boy to the awe and delight of the attending companions.

I thought this masterfully done. Whether the writer intended to or not, he makes it clear, even to the most uninitiated, that it takes no time at all to get from "conception" to "baby".  And giving this species a five day gestation brings that thought home in a very condensed way.

There are some predictable but still funny moments of two squeamish human men in a delivery room assisting with the C-section birth of a baby. But all the concepts are treated tactfully, so not to worry. The rest of the subplot is cute as well and involves his decision whether or not to keep his baby or give him up for adoption.

And there's a bit of lagniappe. Usually Doctor Who, and even my own beloved Star Trek, avoid religion at best and take sly jabs at it at worst. But in this Doctor Who, during the funeral for one of the guest characters, prayers are requested from saints! While, unfortunately, no mention of God was there, reference to saints, a distinctly Catholic spiritual concept, was a delightful and blessed breath of fresh air.

As I have not been shy of doing in the past, I have re-evaluated the show. I hereby backtrack on my previous overall negative impression of the new female Doctor Who. While I continue to maintain that the first was poorly done, it did not put her best foot forward. The steep incline of improvement has been quite a pleasant surprise.

So, I recommend for all of you Doctor Who fans who have not tuned in yet, to give Miss Whitaker's Doctor Who a try. Based upon shows 2 through 5 she deserves another chance.

And bravo to our new MISS Doctor Who for her profoundly pro-life message. I will be tuning in again.

ANT-MAN AND THE WASP: A MIXED BAG – BUT ANOTHER PUZZLE PIECE IN THE MARVEL UNIVERSE OVERALL PICTURE

SHORT TAKE:

Flawed selfish characters in a plot full of holes, but even faulty Marvel hero films are fun. If you do go – STAY FOR TWO IMPORTANT END CREDIT SCENES!

WHO SHOULD GO:

I'd advise parental discretion here. There is a lot to commend it as a fun action-adventure. But while Ant-Man is altruistic and focused on his family, the Pyms are selfish and unconcerned about the damage they do to others. And there is a sprinkling of mild "cuss" words as well as one very inappropriate strong profanity, especially for a child's film, uttered by Hank in a moment of stress.

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LONG TAKE:

Before I start my review, let me just say that I LIKED Ant-Man and The Wasp. The story and characters are very flawed, but like the oddly cut, and hard to place piece in a jigsaw puzzle, it fits into its own little niche.

TRIED NOT TO SPOIL BUT SOME REFERENCES INEVITABLY IMPLY THINGS SO HEREBY BE FOREWARNED

The Pyms are the singularly most flawed enhanced individuals in the Marvel Universe. I don't call them "heroes" because during the course of the entire movie they don't do one heroic thing. Lang and his ex-cons are another story, as they risk their lives, livelihood and freedom to help the Pyms. But outside of Loki and pretrained Dr. Strange, the Pyms are the most selfish "good guys" we've met. Strange reforms and Loki is at least witty and has spectacular style.

Even Thanos THINKS what he's trying to do is for the good of the Universe and is willing to make personal sacrifices for others – no matter how colossally and tragically misguided Thanos' intentions are.

And DEADPOOL! While, admittedly, Deadpool has an agenda of vengeance, his goal is to take out bad guys, which is to the benefit of innocents everywhere, AND he is willing to sacrifice his otherwise potentially immortal life for a kid he hardly knows. When Deadpool is a better moral example than the Pyms, you know the Pyms have issues.

Here's another way to look at it.

Whether Ant-Man AKA Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), the Wasp AKA Hope Pym (Evangeline Lilly), and Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) are good guys or bad guys kind of depends upon whether or not their universe is full of NPC's. For those of us not video gamers, an NPC is a non-player character, a critter or human which is really just part of the landscape serving as a decoration, target, or information access. Their deaths are irrelevant to the game's outcome.

The premise of Ant-Man and The Wasp concerns the Pyms who are trying to retrieve Janet Pym, (Michelle Pfeiffer), the wife of Hank and mother of Hope, from the quantum realm in which she was lost three decades before during a mission to disarm a nuclear weapon.

To accomplish this they kidnap Scott from his house arrest 3 days before he will have served his full term, which sentence resulted from his participation in the events of Captain America: Civil War. This kidnapping puts Scott at risk of getting him thrown in jail for the next 20 years and missing his daughter's entire youth. During the course of the movie the Pyms shrink and enlarge everything from cars to buildings to Pez dispensers and humans. In the real world many of these activities, especially when accomplished during car chases on busy highways and in populous areas, would have resulted, inevitably, in the collateral deaths of many bystanders.

All this in order to rescue one adult human, who, though lost performing a heroic act, volunteered knowing exactly what would happen to her. While their goal is admirable, the lengths to which they go are not. I understand WHY they do what they do but it does not justify their actions.

There is a Biblical truism which warns that no goal, no matter how good, can be justified with even a single evil act. While granting that rule must be temporized with common sense, someone committing a small sin to further the noblest goal would still have to take responsibility for their actions. And there is no doubt that wrecking havoc on an entire city and putting hundreds, if not thousands, of other people's lives in danger for the benefit of a single person, is neither a small sin nor an admirable plan.

In addition, Hope Pym is another in a growing list of tiresome, condescending, feminist, "I can do anything better than you can," chip-on-their-shoulder, self-absorbed, female characters which have most notably reared their ugly heads in the Star Wars franchise, as well as movies like Oceans 8. (Click on the names to access those reviews.)

All that being said Ant-Man and The Wasp is, kind of obviously even from the title, a fantasy science fiction. If we can keep that in mind, for the sake of this review, and the fantasy in which such stories live, let us presume that at least no innocent person, by some miracle, was harmed during the course of the movie and that all property damage was duly compensated by the Pyms using some kind of techno gizmo.

If you think that's absurd, then consider that we are discussing a movie wherein the characters can shrink themselves down to quantum level size and enlarge themselves to the height of tall buildings in a moment and with no permanent ill-effects.

I can live with that.

Moving forward from there, I can safely say that Ant-Man and The Wasp is a very fun movie. It is a family-friendly action adventure with a couple of provisos. Scott Lang and his crew of lovably goofy but well intentioned fellow ex-cons, Luis (Michael Pena), Kurt (David Dastmelchian), and Dave (Clifford Joseph Harris, Jr. aka T.I. shortened and altered into initials from the nickname "Tip" which his grandfather gave him), appropriately enough, run a security company. Who better would know how to stop a thief than another thief? They risk their new business to help the Pyms.

The dialogue is often tongue and cheek, such as when cliche comments are taken literally and responded to in kind. An example is a prolonged and funny discussion between Luis and the villain Sonny (Walton Goggins) as to whether or not the torture drug they are about to administer to Luis should be properly referred to as truth serum and then the Shrek style Pinocchio recitation Sonny gets from Luis of irrelevancies in response to asking where Scott is.

Little is taken really seriously so I suppose the car chases and suddenly and constantly expanding and shrinking buildings and people shouldn't be either.

The plot is interesting, especially as there are multiple sets of conflicting interests. The Pyms wish to save Janet. Scott wants to help the Pyms but stay out of jail. Sonny wants the Pym's tech to sell. Ava (Hannah John-Kamen) needs the Pym tech to solve her chronic state of quantum flux inflicted on her as a child when her father's experiment goes awry, an accident she blames on Hank Pym. Foster has his own agenda. The Fed, Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), wants to catch SOMEbody — ANYbody!. And the ex-con friends are just simply agog to be involved with super hero "stuff". Frankly, given all the contrasting interests involved, the ONLY thing that maintains Hank's priority of use of the tech is the fact that he invented and owns the technology.

Everyone believes their cause justifiable but only Sonny is seen as the real bad guy . Hwever, since Scott, the Pyms and their friends are the ones through whose eyes we see the proceedings, they are the ones for whom we are supposed to root.So we are to ignore when bystanders are put at risk……………??

OK.  I'm fine with that. This is, after all, a science fiction fantasy. I mean, come on, the guy's riding an ant.

Violence is cartoonish and the language is pretty clean until Hank lets loose with at least one over the top profanity I could have done without in a child's movie. For parental guidance I am quick to seek information from www.screenit.com. Membership is cheap and well worth it.

The rest is what we've come to expect from a Marvel Superhero Movie, with lots of exciting special effects which worked really well with 3D by the way. I'm not normally a big 3D fan but the flying-fighting scenes were ratchted up at least a half a notch by the glasses. The flashbacks featuring a younger Michelle Pfeiffer were the best I've ever seen, though Douglas suffered from the typical overly smoothed face and peculiar facial expressions common to this cinematographic magic trick. I think it is something about the mouth that just doesn't look right most of the time. I'm not singling out Douglas. I am aware of his medical issues and that is not the problem because this is universal to any time older actors are "youthened" by CGI.

 Also, Pfieffer's character is the point of one of the biggest plot holes – how did she survive 30 years in a hostile environment with zero resources? Food? Water? Bathroom? She aged and referenced being aware of the passage of 30 years time. She didn't even have a pack of cards so even if she didn't have to eat or drink, how did she manage not to go insane? This is completely glossed over without mention and I've found no precedent for answers even from comic book geeks on the net.

Another one that bugged (sorry about the pun) me was the physics which operated conveniently to the plot. On the one hand, being shrunk seems to afford some survivability not usually possible – like falls and impacts which would destroy a normal unshrunk human. This would imply a certain enhanced density. Granted, the suit they wear must help a lot but does not account for every instance – such as when their helmets are off. If the humans had been tiny but undense they could have been swatted like fairies or butterflies. Instead they carry an enormous amount of momentum and punch in fights. This implies the matter is all there but concentrated. On the other hand, Hank can pick up an entire shrunken building and people carry it around as though it was made of styrofoam. Even a scale model of that building would have been heavier than presented had it been made of the same unconcentrated steel girder and concrete materials, much less how many thousands of tons it should weight even in its shrunken but dense state. So which is it guys?

On the positive side, the jokes are funny, Scott doing his best as a father was refreshing, and I enjoyed the lighter tone of the movie, especially since the previous one I saw was Infinity Wars. However, on that note, and without giving any spoilers — hold onto your seat. Let's just say it is important to sit through all of the credits and that the FIVE screenwriters (talk about a story written by committee!): Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd (the Ant-Man, himself), Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari, as well as director, Peyton Reed, were definitely aware of the aforementioned movie.

In short, without a score card, it is difficult to tell whether the Pyms or Sonny is the "bad guy" team. The Pyms' goals are exclusively personally, relatively trivial in the grand scheme considering what they are willing to do to others, ignore the desperate needs of others, like Ava, casually put the safety and security of Lang's family and friends at risk by yanking Scott out of his house arrest a mere three days before he will be free, dismissively ignore Hank's possible culpability in Ava's condition, and put thousands of innocent bystanders in mortal danger.

It is not their best Marvel movie, nor does it try to be but it does hold its own and finds its place in the Marvel universe. I especially enjoyed the addition of Michelle Pfeiffer as new blood into the mix and the return of Scott's motley crue of comic convicts led by Michael Pena (Collaterol Beauty), who is always a pleasure, especially when he is telling one if his overly convoluted stories.

So, you older geeks (like me) – go see Ant-Man and the Wasp, if for no other reason than to put another puzzle piece into the overall picture that is the Marvel Universe, but I'd see it before deciding whether or not to bring impressionable kids.

HOTEL ARTEMIS: A RIOT, SOME ROBBERS, A SECRET HOSPITAL TO WHICH THEY GO, AND THE NURSE WHO RUNS IT

SHORT TAKE:

Violent but subtly humorous, action filled but occasionally thoughtful, and creative look at a near future ultra secret hotel-hospital for wealthy criminals run by an aging, no-nonsense, rough but surprisingly compassionate and maternal Nurse and her massive orderly, during a perfect storm of chaos.

WHO SHOULD GO:

This is an adult only movie to be sure. Though there is almost no sexuality of any kind, there is a LOT of violence and a large dose of bad language. NOT for kids.

LONG TAKE:

There may be no honor among thieves but at the Hotel Artemis there is at least some loyalty. The Hotel Artemis is a 22 year old run-down member-only hospital for criminals. On the 12th floor of a building in the wrong part of Los Angeles, it is exclusive, hidden and generally thought to be a myth. Hotel Artemis is an indie movie, written and directed by Drew Pierce whose credits as writer include Iron Man 3, Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation and 2020's future new Downey, Jr. Sherlock Holmes. This is his first outing directing a feature length film.  

Set in the near future of 2028 Los Angeles, Artemis features microwave scalpels, 3D printers which can manufacture new livers, and the highly skilled Nurse, played by Jodie Foster, who is more worn down than the Artemis' elevators. Agoraphobic, alcoholic, pill popping and jaded, Nurse shuffles about the hotel and her charges, administering treatments with a confident medical hand and a tough love bedside manner.  (As an odd piece of trivia it is the second time Foster has played an agoraphobic, the first time as Alexandra Rover, the neurotic writer in the filmed version of the comedy children's story Nim's Island.)

Her only staff – part orderly part bouncer – is Dave Bautista's character, Everest, whose name is a mystery only to people who have never seen a picture of this man mountain. His strong arm but restrained hand is somehow both scary and adorable. Early on, for example, he is jumped from behind by a customer who has been turned away. Shrugging him off as a bear might an overzealous cub he cautions him with the zen calm of an experienced camp counselor not to do it again or he just might have to really [mess] him up. 

Everyone goes by a nickname gleaned from either their job description or the hotel room name and Foster's lead character, The Nurse, is no exception. The movie is about the night of the Nurse's Perfect Storm. A city wide riot, like a slow-moving wildfire, is heading their way at the same time the Artemis' owner and founder, a mob kingpin named The Wolf King/Niagra, in yet another flamboyant bad guy role played by Jeff Goldblum, enters late in the evening for ministrations, accompanied by his overeager to please son, (Star Trek's Zachery Quinto), and his gang of thugs. Caught in the crossfire are a pair of brothers freshly injured from a bank robbery Waikiki and Honolulu, (Sterling Brown and Brian Henry), a munitions dealer, Acapulco (Charlie Day)  who came off the worse for wear in an altercation with a mistress, and a mysterious hit woman, Nice, played by Sophia Boutella, whose true allegiances and hidden agenda slowly unfold as the evening wears on. I have not cared much for the one note characters Boutella played in Kingsmen and Atomic Blonde, but her Nice in Hotel Artemis has her growing on me.  The ensuing tornado of violence will expose formerly unknown histories and secrets central to the souls of these eminently interesting characters.

There are many rules for the Hotel Artemis. Among them are: no weapons allowed, no one but members through the gates, do not insult or threaten the staff, and …….. do not kill the other patients. For one reason or another all the rules will be broken this night …. for better or for worse.

The violence is considerable and the language is fairly raw but there is no sexuality. Who has time with the amount of fighting and blood shed that will go on?

Foster is the genuine article. An actor, like Dustin Hoffman, who does not shy away from looking truly ugly. But from Foster's Nurse, underneath her worn exterior, shines a beauty of genuine but rough and no-nonsense affection for her patients. She exercises an unsentimental, tough-love maternal protective fiduciary duty towards them all and it makes her character both endearing and relatable in ways that more glamorous but despicable women in movies like Ocean's 8, can not even begin to evoke. If honesty and genuine concern were coinage she would be the richest woman in this movie about a medical retreat for the super wealthy criminal. I haven't seen this kind of unique perspective on the maternal instinct since Ripley's square off with the mother creature in Aliens.

This is an unusual and creative movie. I believe it has been vastly underrated by the traditional reviewing community, more particularly Rex Reed who labeled it as a shoddy freak show. This is grossly unfair and I suspect he did not understand its themes of filial duty and responsible altruism, which the writer is asserting is a potential which lies at the core of every human soul, even the apparently mosty fallen ones among us. The characters are three dimensional and behave in often unexpected but very credible ways. They are somewhat larger than life (especially Bautista) but there are genuine and unique personalities which come out clearly in small ways and clever dialogue. No exceptions or excuses are made for their criminal behavior but there is a humanity to them which make them very accessible. And, Hallelujah, Hotel Artemis does not always take itself completely seriously. Goldblum's character is aware that he is a very bad guy and likely to come to a very bad end. Baustista's character knows he is massive and almost unstoppable but has a gentle and fiercely protective spot for this tiny fragile elderly and essentially kind maternal Nurse. Right after Waikiki warns an especially obnoxious fellow patient, Acapulco, that Nice could kill him with a coffee cup she immediately demonstrates, then warns Acapulco that it is a good thing the Hotel Artemis has its rules. Nice advises someone on how to die well: "They paid for your death, don't give them your dignity for free." And if you're the kind of movie attendee who likes to stay for the credits, the last line is: "The staff of the Hotel Artemis hopes you enjoyed your stay and that you will come again." One has to smile.

Certainly not a family friendly film, but for those of appropriate age and disposition, Hotel Artemis is more than worth your time.

 

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.