Darke Reviews | Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

NO SPOILER ZONE AHEAD. REPEAT NO SPOILER ZONE AHEAD.

I only say this as I found out today more than a few people don’t read my reviews as they are afraid of spoilers. Thought it would be worth it to recap that, especially on what has been one of the most anticipated movies of the year. Now as to the movie, I have given my fan girl credentials before so no need to do so again. Let’s get to the meat of this review right away and not waste anymore time with my usual preamble. Not even going to get quippy or referential with the question I ask:

How was the Last Jedi?

The movie was written and directed by Rian Johnson who doesn’t have a lot of credits to his name, but is beloved by the majority of the folks who have seen his previous work; most especially 2005’s high school retelling of a noir mystery film Brick. 2012’s failed film Looper of course gave folks pause, but his vision on that was clear its how the studio muddied the waters that left a far murkier film that should have been better. Of course that brings us to The Last Jedi and Disney, ok Kathleen Kennedy specifically, giving the reins of one of the most profitable franchises ever to a director who is at best 50/50 on his success. Granted this can come from his ability to be directed by the producers effectively so they don’t run into a Gareth Edwards (Rogue One) situation again, yet at the same time it is also trusting a man who its clear has vision and capabilities that exceed many of his peers in the past ten years. What could he do with that opportunity I wonder?

For one he could make a solid Star Wars movie that doesn’t lean too heavily on what has come before. While I am sure there will be people who invariably compare it to Empire Strikes back, and there are similarities in more beats than I like, it doesn’t hit it as close as Force Awakens did to A New Hope. The arc of the movie is wholly original within the Star Wars stories we’ve seen before, and even a majority of other science fiction. He does manage to craft real tension and characters into the story that have purpose, meaning, and weight to them which only adds to your investment into the story. You come to understand why Luke gave the look he did at the end of Episode VII. You get more into the psychology of Rey, Finn, and Poe to a point that they are truly exploring their own arcs and identities and all of it makes sense and shows the characters growing into the people they are meant to be for better or worse along the journey. It is a much smaller story than we are used to as well, and while it does hit the three planet rule most of the other films do, they aren’t the focus or even a true backdrop to appreciate against the overriding pulse of the film – with perhaps the exception of Crait.

Yet, it is far from flawless in its scripting and story. It is bloated with truly unnecessary characters and beats, which hurts when you consider the movie runs just over two and a half hours from crawl to credits end. There’s easily ten to fifteen minutes of unneeded footage in the film that does nothing to add to who the characters are, their arcs, or the arc of the greater ‘verse that is being told. There are too many humorous beats that don’t work or are otherwise just a touch awkward and out of place. It’s not nearly as bad as Thor Ragnarok was in this regard, but it was noticeable. Frequent readers may go something like this now “Jess, you don’t like comedy” and this is true for the most part. The trick here is this piece of feedback, while noticed by me, was commented on by my movie going partner this time and they DO like comedies. A few jokes here and there are good, and there’s more than a few that land just right. The movie did edge into the land of too much comedy and oddly modern dialogue here – but only just a little. There are other flaws beyond this though that detract from the movie if you think about them in the slightest; most of which are flaws in logic and for me a few beats of “why was that needed?”

The actors were all on point though, Daisy Ridley (Rey) continues to impress, Oscar Isaac (Poe) can do no wrong, and Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) glowers his conflict well. Carrie Fisher will bring you to tears every time Leia says farewell to another, even if she comes across more Carrie than Leia – but she’s earned that. Mark Hamill (Luke…duh) was a joy and gets to do far more than glare this time.  We need to talk though about John Boyega.  His character isn’t treated as well as he could be, but damnit if this man can’t react so well with his face. I absolutely loved him in Attack the Block and he continues to impress here and show a wider and wider range. I don’t think next years Pacific Rim movie will do him any favors, but I promise you he is going to act and emote his heart out like he did here. Alas; even in casting there are weaknesses. Familiar faces show up and while one may not detract (Laura Dern) another (Benecio Del Toro) did for me. It is great and all to have familiar actors in these roles and I am sure they loved getting to act along side the others and be in a Star Wars film, but some folks just have a certain presence they bring with them which can be detrimental to the production – even if it is *very* minor. You would expect Jack Nicholson to swagger and smarm his way through any performance, Clancy Brown to use his voice and physical presence, and with Del Toro you expect some weird voice affectation and odd body language that just leaves him feeling off. He does that here and it just doesn’t work (for me).

EDIT INSERT HERE: I did not talk about Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico. She is a gift and I owe her an apology for not including her in the review when I first published it a few minutes ago.

From a technicals perspective there’s much like the rest of the movie good and bad to discuss.

Johnson’s camera work with his long time cinematographer collaborator Steve Yedlin (Brick, Looper, Carrie, San Andreas) know how to move the camera for the most sense of scope, scale, and action. There is a good use of wide shots and pans with good angles to let you appreciate what you are seeing, while the close ups really bring you into the characters emotions. The shots on the planet Crait (white and red planet from the trailer) are gorgeous and weighty and I could watch those a few more times happily. There is nothing ill to say about the camera control here, but alas there is in the effects department. I know right? This is an absolute nitpick but there are enough unfinished – just not quite looking right – effects that eject you from the moment. Conversely there are hundreds that are beyond amazing with one in particular that is breath taking. There is an inordinate amount of practical work and puppetry here that brings a tear to the eyes and gives me hope we will see more practical in the future thanks to films like this and Blade Runner 2049.

John Williams Score. Its perfect. Fight me.

TL;DR?

The Last Jedi does live up to its hype with me. It is a good movie that verges on the edge of great, but within the pantheon of Star Wars it is truly solid with its dedication to practical effects, characters you care about, and a story you want to see to the end. It does feel a bit long towards the end but nearly everything pays off in a satisfactory way. This review wasn’t going to convince anyone one way or another, but we or at least I write these to praise movies for what they do right and call them on what they could do better. The things this could do better are minor and really could help edge it into one of the great Star Wars films, but even a good Star Wars movie is better than the majority of what we received this year and last combined.

Should you see it?

Why are you asking me? You already plan to. Seriously though its good. I like it a lot. I am a bit overly critical but you can get that way after seeing literally hundreds of movies in a year and as my understanding of film theory grows my critical eye does as well.

Are you going to see it again?

At least once, probably twice.

How about buying it?

Without a second though. Yes.

Can I have a little spoiler? Tell me about Luke or Leia or something.

No…

How about Carrie Fisher – did they do right by her?

She’s our Princess and our General; I and this movie salute her. I understand that there’s enough footage for her to be in Episode IX posthumously, but if this one was all we had. I’d be OK with that too.

Any last thoughts on the movie?

Rian Johnson did a good job. The franchise was in good hands and I am looking forward to see what he does with his new trilogy that is being green lit – that isn’t tied to the Skywalker arc.

Also, I like the Porg still.

 

May the Force be with you to my Jedi friends and to my Sith may the Force serve you well.

 

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Darke Reviews – Ex Machina (2015)

This is a little known, but often lauded film, I have been waiting for. In multiple previous reviews I have slammed the films for having a fear of science and more importantly a fear of AI. Transcendence is one the more recent criminals in this vein. I have a near unique perspective where I am just as eager to look at and love the past as I am the future. I am not afraid of science.  I am not afraid of any advances and point in fact I resent those that hold us back from even more. Too many sci fi movies these days seem to be based on a fear response rather than hope or driving us to better ourselves, our world, and our technology.

So please pardon me if I wax a bit philosophical as I write this review, the movie asks some very important questions in the right ways.

Let’s switch things up a bit and get into the acting, this film runs on a minimal cast. While not as small as say Moon, for the better part of the film there are 3 main actors who must do all the work; those being Oscar Isaac as Nathan, Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb, and Alicia Vikander as Ava. Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Robin Hood, Drive and soon to be in Age of Apocalypse) plays scientific genius Nathan the man with a compound in a remote area of either Canada or Norway. I appreciate his take on the eccentric billionaire. There’s something roguish and even brutish about his performance yet with a calculating intelligence that drives him and his protege Caleb forward. It is a surprisingly detestable character yet he captures your attention much in the way Tony Stark does. Gleeson (Bill Weasley from Harry Potter and the Deathly Hollows) is nearly the opposite. For all the extrovert force that Nathan is, Gleeson’s performance as Caleb is almost wall flowerish. It is a well controlled and constructed performance that allows you to buy into his decision making and approach through the film His body language is on point during his Turing test conversations with Ava. Vikander (Seventh Son, Anna Karenina, Man from UNCLE), may have the hardest performance. Where the boys must be equally demanding of the camera during their shots both energetic and quiet; Vikander’s Ava must capture the camera and your attention with something else. Every motion she makes must look as if she is a machine pretending to be human but so human she passes. This is more difficult than it sounds yet she achieves it in her own body language. Her face alone is allowed full expression yet her body tells you as much in how she moves and positions herself. It’s really quite remarkable.

The technical prowess in which the actors performed must get some credit from the writer and director Alex Garland. Garland, who previously gave us the genre redefining 28 Days Later, the lack luster Sunshine, and criminally underrated Dredd, is in top form here. It’s clear the man knows how to shoot a film and get a performance from his cast. The three films I mentioned are clearly watching a man come to understand his gifts behind the camera and with a crew with each one building on the successes and failures of the other. That leaves us with Ex Machina. Nothing is wasted in the film. Not a single shot is without some level of purpose be it literal or metaphorical. Every camera angle is where it should be for maximum effect. It truly is a technically amazing film from a cinematic point of view. While I know there is much that was in the can that hit the editing room floor, as there is with any film, we are given the purest essence of film making. Music, Light, Shadow, Color, Negatives, all interplay perfectly.

Before I talk story and the questions, I do need to say as good as the movie is – it still falls into some traps that I found displeasing. The character of Nathan, while breaking many stereotypes, hits enough of the wrong ones to bother. While the movie does not directly objectify the female cast members there is an overabundance of shots that made me think someone from Game of Thrones was involved. Obviously I have no issue with the female form, as I am in the process of giving myself one, but there’s just something off putting in the delivery here. It is largely clinical if you narrow your eyes at the movie, but a moments though and it becomes uncomfortable again. This is probably the one major flaw of the film. It’s enough of a flaw that if you genderswap any of the characters the film likely may not be made or retain the rating it did under the iron thumb of the MPAA; which is an entirely different problem in how American’s view film, much less those psychotics over at the MPAA.

From a story stand point, Nathan hires Caleb to be a living Turing Test for Ava. For those who don’t know, (though the movie explains), the Turing Test is a method in which a human tests a computerized system to determine if they can tell they are working with a computer. This is normally done as something blind, but the nature of this experiment requires it not to be. Caleb is flown in and brought to a massive remote compound and meets Ava, a fully functional AI. She deliberately looks like a machine in order to see if she can make Caleb (and the audience) forget that fact.

There are so many good questions the movie asks and it spends just a little less time on the topic than I am happy with. This is a minor flaw, as the movie delves into the philosophical topics around AI and Robotics, but doesn’t commit to them lest it lose the audience entirely. I fear that is the issue, the risk of boring the wider audience with a certain amount of techo-babble and philosophy. What it does ask creates powerful questions that we ourselves can look at and have conversations about? Questions about Gender and Sexuality; though the movie does mostly classify under the binary format, the larger conversation could be had. Questions about wants, needs, loves, lies that we tell each other and ourselves. Most importantly the movie asks us if we are human, can we truly define that? Can we define what separates us from a truly advanced AI or what really would pass the Turing Test? The movie wisely and thankfully doesn’t make us fear AI save a throw away line of evolutionary/revolutionary theory, but embraces that it is an inevitable future and what that could mean. This had me excited as the trailers kept their word. here. The trailers however, sell the movie short giving it a horror vibe or perhaps a bit of a sexual objectification vibe. I could go on for hours about the conversations that could be had from watching this film and delving deeper into the questions it literally and metaphorically asks.

TL;DR

This movie is not for everyone. I would love to give the Darke Seal of Approval (I need a seal of approval first) and that everyone should see it, but I can’t.

There is no action here, this truly is a thinking persons film. IF you want to grab a drink and chat with friends in the spring night air after seeing the movie – this is a good film for you. It is both visually stunning and mentally stimulating. For my SciFi, Philosophy, and Psychology lovers, you really need to see this film.

All others, I couldn’t say you would enjoy it. You might and if this review has made you the least bit curious then I say find a matinee and see it; otherwise give it a pass.

The movie satisfied me greatly in that it doesn’t fear AI and the scientific advances that come from it. It deserves to be a critical darling if not a box office one. There is a lot of subtlety and nuance in the film and I hope you feel the same.