Friday, December 15, 2017


While 2015’s Star Wars: Episode VII—The Force Awakens established the next era of the Star Wars universe and positioned it for the future, Episode VIII—The Last Jedi puts forth the notion that for a generation to truly come into its own, it must break with the past. That notion is voiced quite fervently by Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo (Adam Driver), who, as you may recall, murdered his own father, Han Solo, as a means to completing his journey into darkness. And it is reinforced by none other than Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Ren’s uncle and former Jedi master, who declares, “It’s time for the Jedi to end.”

Not everyone feels that way, though. First and foremost is Rey (Daisy Ridley), the young Force-wielding scavenger from the desert planet Jakku, who has emerged as the new central figure of the Star Wars saga. Since the end of The Force Awakens, it has been her mission to bring Luke back into the fight against the First Order, the power-hungry group built upon the ashes of the Empire and led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Rey is committed to holding on to the past; in addition to her belief that Skywalker’s return is crucial to defeating the First Order, she also clings to the hope that she will find her long-missing parents and feel whole again.

The Star Wars series itself faces the same issue as it continues to push forward beyond creator George Lucas, who famously sold the franchise, along with his company, Lucasfilm Ltd., to the Walt Disney Corporation in 2012. As written and directed by Rian Johnson, whose previous work includes 2012’s Looper and several episodes of Breaking Bad, The Last Jedi emphasizes that the few remaining elements from the Original Trilogy are slipping away, with the newcomers introduced last time—including Oscar Isaac’s hotshot pilot Poe Dameron and John Boyega’s stormtrooper-turned-Resistance fighter Finn—forced to step up and take over.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) continues to lead the Resistance, which has been severely weakened after the First Order’s Starkiller Base destroyed the capital world of the New Republic, and the losses continue to mount. The survival of the fleet depends on a desperate secret mission undertaken by Finn and a spunky maintenance worker named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), with whom he forms a fast friendship. Poe, meanwhile, has begun to openly defy orders he doesn’t agree with, whether they’re issued by Leia or her fellow Resistance leader, Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern).

There’s also plenty of internal conflict within the First Order, as Kylo Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) continue their rivalry and their efforts to outdo each other in the eyes of Snoke. Each man has his own task to complete for the towering, elderly Supreme Leader: Hux is bent on wiping out the Resistance once and for all, while Ren is focused on finding Rey and killing Luke.

Speaking of Skywalker, his relationship with Rey, which was teased in the very last moments of The Force Awakens, is the centerpiece of the new film, and it is fascinating, moving, and, in the end, thoroughly satisfying.

The same can be said about The Last Jedi as a whole. Though it clocks in at about two-and-a-half hours, making it the longest Star Wars movie ever made, there’s not a dull moment. It is filled with twists and turns and surprises that will cause the jaws of even longtime, jaded fans to drop. There are many deeply emotional moments that will trigger tears and cheers. And, at times, it’s pretty damn funny. Rian Johnson can proudly take his place alongside Lawrence Kasdan as one of the best writers to work on the series. In fact, it’s fairly clear that Kasdan’s work was a major influence on Johnson, as, throughout The Last Jedi, there are strong echoes of both 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of the Jedi, both of which were written by Kasdan.

The end result is the best Star Wars movie since Empire, which is widely acknowledged as the high point of the series.

Much of the credit for the film’s success must go to the cast, all of whom are top-notch.

Mark Hamill delivers what just may be his greatest performance as Luke Skywalker, though his stellar work in The Empire Strikes Back is tough to surpass. Anyone who felt slighted by Luke’s brief, non-speaking role in The Force Awakens can take solace in the fact that the no-longer Young Skywalker is a key player this time around. It’s not the story arc that I would have chosen for Luke—and Hamill has said the same thing on numerous occasions—but nonetheless, Hamill pulls off a combination of tragedy, humor, eccentricity, sensitivity, and badassery that overcomes any—well, most—of the qualms that I had.  

Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

In her final turn as Leia, the late Carrie Fisher too is given more to do, and she handles all of it with charm, wit, and grace. Her interactions with Oscar Isaac are particularly wonderful. It is impossible to watch Fisher in this movie and not feel the weight of her untimely loss. And yet it’s not a distraction. It’s just comforting to watch her once again playing her most famous role, and to see her doing it so well.

Carrie Fisher as Leia Organa

Incidentally, Isaac provides some of the biggest laughs in the film, bringing the kind of down-to-earth, mischievous irreverence that was the stock in trade of Harrison Ford in the original three movies. It’s now common knowledge that Poe Dameron was originally supposed to die in The Force Awakens—and it’s a very good thing that he didn’t.

Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron

Daisy Ridley continues the masterful work that she began in the previous film. She is, without a doubt, one of the best actors to ever appear in a Star Wars movie, and she has been turning in among the very best performances in the entire series.

Daisy Ridley as Rey

Adam Driver builds upon his work in The Force Awakens by making Kylo Ren a more complex, more multi-faceted figure whose actions cannot be easily predicted. I would argue that Ren is a significantly more effective, more compelling character here than he was in the previous movie.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren

John Boyega, who was truly one of the main highlights of The Force Awakens, remains a strong presence. While his character Finn doesn’t get quite as much room for major development here as he received last time, Boyega’s performance is every bit as good. (And his American accent remains a marvel.)

John Boyega as Finn

Of the new characters, Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose and Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo are among the real standouts. Tran is adorable, Dern is enigmatic.

Also of note: Benicio del Toro, who is delightfully eccentric as a shady character that Finn and Rose encounter on their journey.

Returning players Serkis and Gleeson are given more to do as, respectively, Snoke and Hux, and both are more than up to the task. Gwendolyn Christie also reprises her role as stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma. And of course, Anthony Daniels is back as See Threepio, who gets some nice, touching moments.  

This being a Star Wars movie, it goes without saying that the visual effects are spectacular. And John Williams turns in another excellent score, building upon the work that he did in each of the previous seven films.

Needless to say, a lot happens in The Last Jedi. Surprisingly, several key plot threads introduced in The Force Awakens are definitively resolved here, instead of being carried over into the third film of the current trilogy, which is scheduled for release in December 2019. But there’s plenty of subject matter still left to explore, and returning writer/director J.J. Abrams has a strong starting point from which to build the next—and concluding—chapter.

The last shot of the film, which I won’t describe here, captures that sense that we are at a new starting point, and perfectly conveys the message that regardless of whether we embrace or discard the past, as long as there is hope and wonder and imagination, the future will endure.

Not a bad message, for this galaxy or one thats far, far away. 

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.

Friday, November 17, 2017


I walked out of last year’s Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice so dispirited, so depressed, so utterly disappointed to see so much potential squandered, that I couldn’t even summon up the energy to write a review of it. I didnt want to think about that movie any more than I had to. Not so with Justice League. It’s a flawed film, to be sure, but it’s also entertaining and fun, and hopefully a sign of things to come from the DC Comics Movie Universe (or whatever it’s officially called). 

The film picks up on the death of Superman (Henry Cavill), which of course happened in BvS, and shows how the passing of the Man of Steel has affected the world as a whole. In a nutshell, Earth’s sorrow and fear over the loss of its greatest defender enables an alien invasion of the planet to get under way, led by an imposing warrior named Steppenwolf (a mostly CGI character voiced by Ciarán Hinds.) 

Aware that the world is in jeopardy, and with Superman gone, the Batman (Ben Affleck) works with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) to put together a team of super-powered beings to stop Steppenwolf and his seemingly endless horde of insectlike para-demons. They try to enlist Arthur Curry, a denizen of Atlantis referred to as the Aquaman (Jason Momoa); Barry Allen, a young scientific genius who, after having been struck by lightning, can move faster than the eye can see (Ezra Miller); and Victor Stone (Ray Fisher), a young former football player transformed into a highly advanced cyborg by his scientist father, Silas (Joe Morton), after a devastating accident.

But forming a league of super heroes isn’t as easy as you might think. Much like in Marvel’s The Avengers, these unique individuals don’t necessarily get along. Most of them aren’t sure they want to be part of a team, even for this one occasion. Ultimately, the threat of Steppenwolf is too great to ignore, so the heroes fall into line. That, however, might not be enough to save Earth and everyone on it from conquest and, ultimately, destruction.
There are some moments and scenes in this movie that I did not quite understand. One in particular is an exchange of dialogue between Aquaman and Mera, a woman from Atlantis who singlehandedly tries to defend the underwater city from Steppenwolf. I couldn’t get a sense of whether these characters knew each other or were meeting for the first time, or what exactly they were talking about. Maybe it will become clearer with a second viewing, but this first time, I just didn’t get it. There’s also a moment early in the film, where Batman is interacting with a criminal on a rooftop, that left me a bit confused.

Another thing I didn’t understand: the decision to use Steppenwolf as the villain. Even in the comics, he’s not exactly one of the biggies. In the film, he comes off as a watered-down combination of Ares, from Wonder Woman, and Malekith, from Thor: The Dark World. He’s just not that interesting or impressive. When all is said and done, Steppenwolf is a fairly one-dimensional loudmouth out to cause mass destruction for a not-very-compelling reason. (Hopefully Marvel will avoid letting this happen to Thanos in next year’s Avengers: Infinity War.) With this possibly being the only Justice League movie we will ever get—Warner Brothers’ plans for its line of DC super-hero movies seem to be constantly in flux—it’s fascinating to me that the filmmakers chose not to come out swinging for the fences here with a really major villain like Darkseid, the despotic ruler of the planet Apokolips. (He’s mentioned in the movie, by Steppenwolf, but he’s never seen or explained.)  


That said, there’s a lot to enjoy here. There are some very touching moments, particularly the ones involving Lois Lane (Amy Adams) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane). As expected, Gal Gadot, who shined in Wonder Woman’s solo outing a few months ago, and was the best thing about Batman v. Superman, is absolutely terrific once again. Ben Affleck, who I thought was fairly good in BvS, improves upon that performance here. (I don’t know why some reviewers are saying he seems miserable and eager to escape the role—I think they’re letting rumors and gossipy news reports influence their observational skills.) It’s not a particularly demanding part for Affleck, but he does fine with what he’s called upon to do.

With regard to the new characters, who were each briefly glimpsed in BvS and are more fully fleshed out here, I enjoyed Miller’s Barry Allen the most. Some devotees of Grant Gustin and the Flash TV series may balk, as it’s a very different interpretation of the character, even though much of the backstory is the same. But within the context of this movie and this version of the DC Universe, Miller’s Flash works well. I will say that there are some genuine laugh-out-loud moments, most of them involving the Flash, and Miller’s performance has a lot to do with their success.

Fisher’s Cyborg captures all the tragedy of the character as created by writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Pérez, but isn’t given much of a chance to show his lighter side. That’s understandable, given that the film is only two hours long and has a lot of characters and ground to cover. But the end result is that Cyborg comes off as a bit one-note.

Momoa’s Aquaman is very unusual, certainly a major departure from his portrayal in the comics. That didn’t really bother me. But he’s certainly the most underdeveloped of the characters—I didn’t get a real sense of his background, his origin, his relationship to Atlantis and its people, and why he talks like a surfer dude. It’s not that I didn’t like the character, it’s just that he made the least impression on me.           

And then there’s Cavill’s Superman. I can’t say much about him without going into spoiler territory, but I will say that this movie serves as a major course correction. Man of Steel was a somewhat shaky start for this incarnation of the Last Son of Krypton, but Batman v. Superman really damaged the character, portraying him as a brooding, morose, thick-headed, even callous figure who isn’t fully sure humanity is worthy of his protection. Justice League pretty much ignores that portrayal, papering over it with a much sunnier, more inspiring Superman—even his costume is brighter now—while still trying to maintain at least some sense of continuity with the two aforementioned movies. (And keep in mind, the inter-movie continuity can become somewhat loose at times. Without giving too much away, Superman’s return from the dead was strongly implied at the end of BvS, but Justice League has its own, very different take on how that resurrection might come about.)        

At any rate, it’s nice to see Cavill finally get a chance to play Superman. The real Superman, I mean. I hope he gets the chance to do it again.

The musical score by Danny Elfman is somewhat generic, though it does include traces of his Batman theme from 1989, and even the John Williams theme for Superman. But these nods to the past—which I welcome, incidentally, especially when it comes to Williams’s music—are so randomly placed in the movie, and so subtle, that they don’t have the impact that they should. 

As was widely reported, Zack Snyder, the credited director, had to leave the project in post production because of a family tragedy, and Avengers director Joss Whedon stepped in to do extensive reshoots and bring the film to completion. Whedon’s influence over the final product is impossible to miss. Snyder’s take on the DC Universe, based on his work on Man of Steel and BvS, was dark, grim, violent, ultra-serious, and, overall, bleak. There’s very little of that in Justice League. This movie is mostly about hope, finding the light amidst the darkness, and working together for the greater good. There’s no greater repudiation of Snyder’s vision than when one character, who had previously shown a stunning disregard for innocent bystanders, rushes off in the midst of battle to save civilians from certain doom.    

And in another sign that WB/DC is now taking some of its cues from the Marvel movies, you need stay to the very end to see the bonus scenes. There are two. One is a delight. The other is a hint of a possible future plot line.   

Without a doubt, Justice League is a significant improvement over Batman v. Superman, though it doesn’t hit the high-water mark set by Wonder Woman. But its heart is in the right place, and that’s a good start.   

© All text copyright Glenn Greenberg, 2017.