Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

December 28, 2017 by  
Filed under Movies

40 years ago, the “Star Wars” phenomenon began with “A New Hope” (then only called “Star Wars”). It ushered in a new kind of film franchise: the sci-fi action film. It broke box office records, and along with “Jaws”, began to define a new sub-genre of film: the blockbuster. Since then, we all know the story. We all know the characters. We all know the downfall.

In 2015, “Star Wars” came back to the “original trilogy” to continue the story–without George Lucas. Episode VII “The Force Awakens”, tried to appeal to the audiences that Lucas had alienated in his prequel trilogy. It seemed to work, but I believe there was still some restraint, some resistance (no pun intended), to fully embrace the new story. After all, these were not only the characters that everyone had come to love, being brought into a new era–it was the same actors, too. Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford, all reprised the beloved roles of Leia Organa, Luke Skywalker, and Han Solo respectively.

But “The Force Awakens” wasn’t really about them. It was about a new cast of characters: Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (John Boyega), Poe (Oscar Isaac), and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Though Leia, Luke, and Han all play roles in the new arc, they are more a relic than anything else. And though a chill runs through you as Han speaks the words: “Chewy, we’re home” to his furry friend in “The Force Awakens”, we learn pretty soon…we’re anything but.

With that, comes “The Last Jedi”. Throughout “Star Wars”, the Force lore has mostly been seen as a positive entity that can bring peace, hope, and love. Only by perverting its power can you use it for evil, and go to the “Dark Side”. In “The Last Jedi”, there’s more talk about the “balance” in between. It’s more like Yoga. It’s something that you need to harness, otherwise you’ll most definitely go to the “Dark Side” because of the temptations of its power.

So, we are back with Rey, who clearly has The Force–and she’s drawn to its mystique, and she has found Luke Skywalker, on the planet of Ahch-To, a remote island world that belonged to the Jedi Order as a training ground. Rey believes she can entice Luke to join the Resistance and snuff out the First Order. But he has no intention of returning to civilization, and just wants to die peacefully. He’s also hesitant to train her in the ways of The Force, but that’s because he feels he already failed someone in that regard.

That would be Kylo Ren, who returns as confused as ever on how to proceed as a person. Is he a villain, or a hero? He begins to connect with Rey through The Force, and it seems as though they create a bond between them. This comes to a head when Rey returns from Ahch-To and comes face to face with Snoke (Andy Serkis), seemingly as a sacrifice from Ren. But there might be something else in the cards for Snoke’s fate when they meet.

Much of “The Last Jedi” is wall-to-wall action. And there are a lot of storylines whizzing by, trying to be resolved in its 155 minute running time. This proves to be a bit overwhelming at times–and you do feel as though the weight of that running time begins to squeeze your patience. Though there’s a lot going on, not all of it amounts to much in the way of the plot. There are dead ends, and misdirections abound. And, the question of whether Luke will train Rey sometimes becomes aggravatingly tiresome.

There are also characters that seem to be in there just to be an obstacle, such as the purple-haired Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (say that five times fast), who is part of the Resistance, and right-hand woman of Leia. Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) comes up against her a few times, and it just seems like burning up time rather than pushing the plot forward.

So what is the plot anyway? It’s not complicated. The First Order is cornering the Resistance, and there’s a bit of a stalemate because the Resistance has enough space (heh) between them and the FO’s major ships that they can bide time. But mostly, it’s one big retreat after another.

The film tries very hard to stay away from being too similar to “The Empire Strikes Back”–but sometimes it’s inevitable that there will be familiar plot devices and character narratives because…well, this is a bridge movie. All bridge movies in a trilogy have to get you to the finale, so there’s always going to be unresolved things that draw you to the next film.

But, the film tries to resolve a little too much at times, and its third act seemingly never comes to a close. When it does, it almost feels like it’s trying to wrap itself up completely.

There are also some scenes of inexplicable comedy, and some cameos that will make you smile–some will fall flat, too.

The weakest part of the film, though, is its central villain. While I held out for hope after “The Force Awakens” that we would be treated to something bigger and better; here, I feel a bit dismayed that Driver cannot pull off Kylo Ren’s internal struggle. It’s very important, and vital to develop in order for this to be a satisfying trilogy.

I had said in the last film that this cast & crew have their work cut out for them. As much as I could still enjoy this film on the basis of it being a rollicking caper, I’m still waiting for the big finale. After this, I’m not sure it’ll really pull through.

But…I still have hope.

My rating: :-)

Pacific Rim

July 24, 2013 by  
Filed under Movies

Guillermo Del Toro always fascinates me as a filmmaker because he’s one of the most joyful visual expressionists I’ve seen in my lifetime. He seems to have a knack for creating interesting looking creatures and putting them in colorful and sometimes dangerous worlds, and it’s always intriguing. He had wanted to film an adaptation of the classic H. P. Lovecraft short story “At The Mountains of Madness”, possibly one of Lovecraft’s most beloved stories. Unfortunately, I don’t know that the film will ever be made, which is a shame, because it’s one of my favorites. Though we get tastes of it in movies like John Carpenter’s “The Thing”, I don’t know we’ll ever really get the actual story in motion picture format. With Del Toro at leas you know it’d be visually stunning.

Instead, Del Toro teamed up with screenwriter Travis Beacham, writer of the 2006 remake of “Clash of the Titans”, and made what’s called a “kaiju” film–a movie about giant monsters–and I think some of the creatures were meant to be “similar” to Lovecraft’s Cthuhlu mythos universe. Well, I’m probably reaching, because what they came up with to fight these Kaijus are giant robots. I don’t think Lovecraft really wrote about those.

This is a very odd film. It’s saturated with a backstory that’s crammed into the first act as if we’re just supposed to be able to inhale decades of destruction and feel like the earth has been under attack and in a state of peril and understand where the technology came from to create mega robots. On top of that, we are supposed to care about characters we barely know and have complex backgrounds that aren’t given many payoffs or consequences. For instance, the main protagonist, a young strapping Jaeger pilot named Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) who loses his brother in a battle with one of the Kaijus. Jaegers, by the way, are the name given to the giant robots. Apparently two pilots must lock in to be able to absorb the power that Jaegers have in order to operate. There’s basically a “mind meld”, which means the two pilots must have things in common physically and emotionally and can lean on each other. In an ill fated battle, Raleigh loses his brother and is sent out of the program, doing construction work which looks pretty dangerous, but not very fulfilling.

Enter Marshall Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), five years later, tracking down his maverick pilot for another showdown with the Kaijus, who are continuing to destroy the earth and all our cities and ports. Apparently they come from under the sea, rather than outer space, but are considered “aliens” I think. If you’re following all of this, by the way, that’s good. Try and keep up. There’s more.

He is eventually partnered with a novice pilot but accomplished student, Mako (Rinko Kikuchi), who has a sketchy past that still haunts her but she is considered a perfect match for Raleigh, much to the chagrin to Pentecost. I’ll spare you the subplot that the United Nations decide to temporarily shut down the Jaeger project in favor of some sort of defense wall because it is imminently destroyed and serves as nothing more than a waste of about 10 minutes of screen time. The point is, Mako and Raleigh are meant to be Jaeger pilots.

But there’s a problem. She can’t let go of her haunting past, and that creates a rift in what’s called the “drift”, where the two minds meld before the Jaeger is fully operational. Pilots have to control their memories and feed them into their co-pilot in a way that isn’t aggressive or detrimental. They need to understand themselves in order to share them. So basically, if you ever happen to find yourself in a Jaeger mecha robot program, and your co-pilot is Amanda Bynes, you may as well jump out of the cockpit as soon as possible, and take your chances with gravity.

On top of all this, there’s another maverick cocky pilot (but he’s no Iceman) named Chuck (Robert Kazinsky) who doesn’t like Raleigh and thinks he’s bad news. But Chuck’s father Herc (Max Martini) has respect for Raleigh and knows the pain of losing his brother, even if Raleigh really doesn’t show it that much…because Charlie Hunnam isn’t that great of an actor. Sorry, Charlie. Loved you in “Undeclared” though.

Speaking of Charlie’s, there’s a miscalculated “humorous” subplot for comic relief I suppose with two nutjob scientists that come into play, trying to understand the Kaijus. One of them, Dr. Gottlieb (Burn Gorman), wants to find new ways to destroy the Kaijus. The other, Dr. Newton Geiszler (Charlie Day), who resembles Louis Tully, wants to study the Kaijus and understand them. He also comes up with the idea of mind melding with part of a brain they captured from one of the Kaijus. Of course Gottlieb and everybody else thinks that Newton is crazy, and he turns into Vinz Clortho and sends the giant Slore against them to kill them all.

Just kidding. However, I realize these two scientists are supposed to be funny; but the comedy kind of clangs instead of amuses. Charlie Day literally looks like he came in from “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” solely to crash the set. The only part of the comic sequences that work are with Ron Perlman who plays a black market Kaiju enthusiast, Hannibal Chau. Perlman is always good, even though his character is an unnecessary semi-villain.

Are you still with me? OK, so what Newton finds out is that the Kaijus are only sending their “soldier ants” and are actually preparing an even larger scale monster war, something beyond their “Categories” (Category 5 is the highest on their scale). He does this by mind melding with the brain of the Kaiju, of course, as he wanted to, and of course he’s right and knows how to destroy the Kaijus.

So let’s go back to Raleigh and Mako, who are given an old clunky Jaeger that runs on its own power, which comes in handy when they start facing some more technologically advanced Kaijus, and we find out that Mako’s backstory involves watching her family be destroyed by a Kaiju. But there’s a connection she has with one of the main characters that turns out to be one of the strongest and most emotional parts of the movie, and it works very well.

It took me a while to decide whether I liked this film, because as you can see, there’s a lot I have problems with. It’s very ambitious, it’s so chock full of backstory and exposition that sometimes it hulks around like a Jaeger itself. The battle scenes are tough to describe. In some ways it’s like watching an arcade video fighting game in slow motion. There are some dazzling effects, however, when these battles wind up destroying major (hopefully evacuated) cities.

Apart from some of the hackneyed “science” and major plot holes, I think I liked the main characters enough, and the relationships they develop, that it carried the film for me overall. You can lose all the other stuff and the film would be much shorter and probably more enjoyable. I think that Mako may have actually been a better central character, or Pentecost. Both actors respectively are incredibly strong and give top notch performances.

On balance, I did enjoy the film enough. But I really think that this being simply a movie does the story a disservice. While I’m sure there will be Mangas or comics that will go more into the backstory, I think this would’ve made a very entertaining Saturday morning cartoon series. It reminded me of shows like “Voltron” and “Transformers”, and even “G.I. Joe”.

I’d recommend seeing this film on the biggest possible screen to really get the idea of the scope of the battle sequences. Something like IMAX would be a great experience. I’m not sure whether the whole film will entertain you, but you will at least get your money’s worth of destruction. And for a summer popcorn movie, I guess that’s all you really need. Del Toro can do better, but this works enough for me.

My rating: :-)