Some parts of this ship work better than others: A Star Wars Episode VIII review

*This review contains no spoilers.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” has most of the right ingredients and the right ideas to succeed, but doesn’t always dose these ingredients correctly. Ergo, while it’s not bad, it’s not the film it could have been.

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The movie picks up where “The Force Awakens” left off, with the odds stacked massively against General Leia Organa’s (the late Carrie Fisher) Rebellion in its fight against the First Order a.k.a. the Empire 2.0, led mostly by Domnhall Gleeson’s General Hux. Poor Leia has her hands full not only with the First Order, but with keeping daredevil X-Wing extraordinaire pilot Poe Dameron (Oscaar Isaac) on a leash. Meanwhile, Jedi-in-training (well, not yet, but you know what I mean) Rey, still played by Daisy Ridley, has found Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and plans to ask him for his help on behalf of the Resistance.

Of course, it’s not the only reason why Rey wants to see Luke. She can feel the force inside her, and it frightens her. In addition to her impression that her gift controls her much more than she controls it, there is the impending threat of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, backed by his master, the Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). Then, there is the problem of Luke’s firm intent not to get involved, as he is clearly tortured over losing Kylo – or Ben Solo, as he was previously known – to the dark side.

In “The Force Awakens,” we met Jon Bonyega’s Finn, a storm trooper turned rebel soldier who became very (very) good friends with Rey. In “The Last Jedi,” because Rey is with Luke, Finn is relegated to a glorified subplot. The screenplay teams him up with a maintenance worker named Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), as they are sent to retrieve a master code breaker who is needed for reasons that I don’t wish to spoil, but which feel remarkably minor in the movie’s grand scheme of things. (Although I’m always happy to see the actor who plays the code breaker in question.)

And that’s the setup for the movie, which runs into some problems. I love the idea of diversity in entertainment, but Bonyega isn’t exactly Denzel Washington in terms of his on-screen charisma. While he and Tran have a few fun moments, it’s hard to care about his character when Ridley isn’t there to generate emotional investment, and my indifference was only enhanced by the fact that his and Tran’s subplot is almost completely disposable. Tran’s Rose is a likable character who sometimes seems to belong in another movie.

Also, I’m still not sure about the casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. I understand he’s supposed to be conflicted, and Driver can act, but I need a little more steel from a bad guy with the plans he has. Between him and Gleeson’s General Hux, the old Empire’s leaders scared me more.

Writer/director Rian Johnson clearly set out to make a Star Wars movie that doesn’t take itself too seriously. That’s a noble goal, but I suspect Star Wars afficionados will wish it took itself just a bit more seriously than it does. Indeed, off the top of my head, “The Last Jedi” strikes me as the most gag-loaded installment of the series by some distance, but the larger problem is that too few of them work; those that do are the subtler ones we’re accustomed to in Star Wars movies. However, the very first conversation in the film, between General Hux and Isaac’s Poe Dameron sounds directly out of a Seth MacFarlane screenplay, and we also have to suffer through a scene where Luke “milks” a cow-like creature for a bright turquoise substance. The shot of Luke staring at Rey with lots of the liquid stuck in his beard is not something anyone needs to see.

Several critics of “The Force Awakens” brought up the fact that it felt, at times, like a shameless remake of “A New Hope.” The Honest Trailers gang on Youtube couldn’t help but sarcastically quip, “gear up for a film so desperate to recapture the magic of the first Star Wars, it practically IS the first Star Wars.” Well, I can already hear these same people calling “The Last Jedi” a shameless remake of “Return of the Jedi.”  It’s not a baseless accusation, either. I mean, the scene with Rey, Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke is just so reminiscent of the final battle between Luke and Darth Vader that it even drew an ‘oh, come on!’ from me.

And I sure wish the movie hadn’t shortchanged the likable Poe Dameron character in the following two ways: 1) He doesn’t get enough screen time. I would have liked to see more of him and less of Finn and Rose, except for the part where… 2) For no discernible reason other than screenplay contrivance, his superiors keep him in the dark about a plan so sensible he clearly would have gone along with it had they kept him in the loop.

So, after all the things I criticized about the film, why am I still saying I liked it? Mostly because it has lots of things going for it. Between Mark Hamill’s proper return to the series and Carrie Fisher’s last hurrah as Leia, in addition to a handful of other details, the nostalgia factor remains through the roof. It has a glorious soundtrack by John Williams, which mixes in the cult Star Wars themes with some new ones to keep the listening experience pleasant. It has its shares of customarily easy-on-the-eye shots and action scenes (a fight scene taking place on a planet where the grounds yields red salt when it gets scratched is absolutely gorgeous).

And I can now say this because, two movies in, my mind is made up about this topic: I think Daisy Ridley is a star. I really do. She has some Lena Headey and some Keira Knightley in her, alongside that oh-so-critical “it” factor. Every time she’s on screen, I care about what’s going on. I’ll be back for Episode IX, of course, but I do hope it features more of her battle against Kylo Ren, and less of the other clutter we see in this one. It’s a shame, because somewhere in there was a better movie than the one we get in the end.

 

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Suicide Squad review

Suicide Squad is a letdown but, then again, it could not have been anything else.

The pasting it took from Rotten Tomatoes a few days before its release will undoubtedly help make it an even larger commercial success than it was going to be beforehand. However, despite some interesting individual elements, the film gets sandwiched between its obvious, mostly predictable flaws and the hype machine that made it this year’s most anticipated film.

The very first trailer for Suicide Squad got us excited for the return of the Joker to the big screen, but another thing it told the semi-careful watcher was that the movie would feature too many characters. This overabundance of protagonists creates several problems for the film, the most foreseeable of which is that we therefore know that several of them will barely be given a chance to interest us at all.

Consider a scene in which the characters abruptly decide to pause their quest to save the world from oblivion to have a drink at a bar they’ve stumbled into. (Note: Meanwhile, the world is going to absolute hell outside.) We cannot help but observe the curious timing of this but, shortly after, we come to understand the bar scene is actually a half-hearted attempt to humanize the Diablo character (Jay Hernandez), whose only real use until this (rather late) point had been to serve as a setup for a typical Will Smith joke.

The large cast also creates pacing problems for the film. There are countless examples of this, including the aforementioned bar scene, but my personal favourite is the endless, and I mean endless, exposition scene at the beginning where Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) has to give an exposé about each Squad member, each packed with spottily-edited flashbacks, to a group of high-ranking government officials. I have great respect for their ability not to lose track of all this information. This isn’t a squad, it’s an entire political party.

And then, there is the fact that the movie’s super-duper stars have to get their screen time, which they do. This leads to yet another problem: the movie claims to be about bad guys, but when it comes to the stars, it gets gun-shy and tries to make them more likable than they ought to be. Will Smith plays a version of hitman extraordinaire Deadshot that would have been perfect had the Deadshot character been invented by Smith’s handlers. His charisma and sense of humour are never unpleasant to see, but will somebody please let this man play a proper scumbag for once?!

Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn has the same problem. The character is clearly off her rocker, but because her craziness contributes so little to her “badness,” we get the sense that several of her antics are meant to distract us from just how much of a good “guy” she is in the context of the movie. Also, Robbie’s beauty allows the film to carry on with the sexualization of the character started in the “Arkham” video games, but it’s done in such a heavy-handed manner that it sometimes becomes distracting. And while it was not a bad idea per se for Robbie to dust off her New York accent from The Wolf of Wall Street, she fails to keep it with the same consistency here.

As for Jared Leto, whether he is a worthy successor to the late Heath Ledger and his critically-acclaimed portrayal of the Joker character in 2007’s The Dark Knight remains to be seen. Indeed, the Joker is in this movie for such minimal time that his presence is more of a tease than anything else, to the extent we almost wish he wasn’t there at all. This film loves him, but struggles and fails to properly fit him within the confines of this story. Not since Jessica Simpson in The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) has such a minor character been so instrumental in selling a movie to audiences.

As for the plot, well, Viola Davis is a terrific actress who brings gravitas to a film that would otherwise be completely devoid of it. However, her Amanda Waller character is so smart, and has such an edge to her that we realize screenplay contrivances alone prevent her from figuring out that her plan is so obviously terrible and guaranteed to blow up in her face. Which, of course, it does.

As a result, the world finds itself threatened by Cara Delavigne’s Enchantress, who is meant to be a part of the Suicide Squad, but winds up breaking away from the gang before ever joining them, and then tries to build a weapon that… Never mind. Who cares? Certainly not the film. And this is another crucial problem.

Writer/director David Ayer has proven himself capable of producing quality; he wrote the dramatically-compelling Training Day and the light but functional The Fast and the Furious. Here, however, it’s as though he was very keen to quench the viewers’ excitement at the thought of watching (some of) these characters but only reluctantly accepted the impossibility of stasis in storytelling. You cannot expect the viewer to care about a plot that the film itself so clearly views as an inconvenience. Ergo, among the many reasons for which Suicide Squad fails is the fact that it’s much less interested in telling us a proper story than it is in merely showing us these characters acting the way they do.

 

 

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