STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Quite simply, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is magnificent. It’s no masterpiece and certainly not without a few flaws, but writer/director Rian Johnson is given plenty of room to continue the Star Wars saga, answer questions posed in previous installments, and create a world entirely his own. And that he does so without coloring outside the lines George Lucas drew all those years ago makes it all the more impressive.

First, a short spoiler-free description of the plot: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is hiding on a remote planet. Hiding from what? A moment of shame. Rey (Daisy Ridley) has been sent by General Leia Organa (Carrier Fischer, perfect in her final role) to convince Luke to return to the Resistance and fight. Against whom? The First Order, commanded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his two lackeys: General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Sith-in-training, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). But Luke wants nothing to do with the Resistance or the Jedi for that matter. Leia and her band of rebels — which include Captain Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Issacs) and First Order Stormtrooper turned good guy, Finn (John Boyega) — are a small bunch and getting smaller with each battle; The Last Jedi puts an emphasis on the “wars” aspect of the title.

A plot machination keeps several of the characters suspended in one place for a great deal of time while other ancillary stories take place — it is essential a low-speed space chase — and a large segment of the movie deals with Luke’s hesitation to train Rei. There are many, many twists and turns before we finally come to the end, which includes some surprising cameos and quite a few jaw-dropping images, but what is most surprising about The Last Jedi is how natural it all feels. Even the silly stuff — and there is plenty of silly stuff — works alongside the high body count. And here, the dead are given their due.

In this regard, The Last Jedi plays like a direct criticism to the previous installment, The Force Awakens, the cultural reaction to the movie, the growing malaise with special effects franchises, and to the Star Wars galaxy overall. “What do you want,” Luke asks when Rei impresses upon him a need to return, “Me to stand in front of an army with a laser sword?”

Well, yes. And why not? Movies aren’t just what makes sense for the story but how it looks on-screen, and there’s an awful lot of Jedi that looks great. From a red planet covered in white salt that appears to bleed with every human interaction to a trip inside a mental hall of mirrors, Johnson makes sure every new environment explodes with originality and creativity. And in turn, that originality gives the familiar even more emotional resonance. Take the scene where Luke boards the Millennium Falcon and silently walks through the cockpit and the commons, on his face: melancholic nostalgia. For the character, this the first time he’s seen this ship in ages. For the actor playing pretend, it’s the same thing.

But then Johnson goes for the gut: R2-D2, who has been mostly dormant since Luke’s self-imposed exile, suddenly whirrs to life with bleeps and bloops at the presence of his old friend, racing to Luke’s side to give him what for. It’s a touching moment in a movie filled with touching moments but this one, in particular, reached deep inside and manifested a very simple, very personal, desire: I wanted nothing more than to go home and see my dead cat one more time.

I have always enjoyed the Star Wars movies, but never before have I experienced this level of an emotional connection with the films. Sure, I find them entertaining and exciting, and with every re-watch, A New Hope routinely marvels me with its use of cinematic iconography and collective mythology. But have I ever felt compelled to tattoo a Rebel or Imperial logo on my forearm? Dress as a Stormtrooper for Comic-Con? Buy a Star Wars themed bumper sticker? Never.

The Last Jedi might change that (though I doubt I’ll be heading out to the tattoo parlor anytime soon). I have always understood the Star Wars franchise as a father-son-drama playing out against the backdrop of a galactic civil war. The Last Jedi erodes that ancient theme, urging more than one character to unload their filial burden and set fire to the past. Only then can something new be born.

Star Wars is still about family; it will always be. Luke is Vader’s son, after all. And Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, Leia’s. We may not know the biological lineage of all the others we meet along the way but they are in this family as well. The same goes for the filmmakers who make these movies. And the audiences watching.

The final image of The Last Jedi is a powerful one, and in the Star Wars franchise, one that’s been a long time coming. While marveling at it, my mind echoed with a few lines from Lilo & Stich, lines that have carried me through some of the toughest stretches of 2017: “This is my family. I found it all on my own. It is little, and broken, but still good.”

Yeah, Stich, it’s still good.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi L to R: Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) Photo: Jonathan Olley ©2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson
Based on characters created by George Lucas
Produced by Ram Bergman, Kathleen Kennedy
Starring: Daisy Ridley, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega
Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures, Running time 152, Rated PG-13, Opens December 15, 2017
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WONDER WHEEL

Set in New York’s Coney Island in the early 1950s, Wonder Wheel revolves around Ginny (Kate Winslet), a clam house waitress who lives above the amusement park’s shooting range with her second husband, Humpty (Jim Belushi), who runs the merry-go-round, and Richie (Jack Gore), Humpty’s son from a previous marriage, who speaks little and burns everything he can.

All is not well in Coney Island; profits are down, people are leaving the city for the suburbs, vacationing elsewhere, and Ginny and Humpty are barely able to make ends meet. Currently in recovery, but never far from a relapse, Humpty is a man of violent tempers and lousy decision making skill. That might be why Ginny seeks adventure elsewhere — specifically with the Bay 7 lifeguard, Mickey (Justin Timberlake, awkwardly cast) — or maybe Ginny simply can’t get out of her own way. “What’s my one tragic flaw?” she asks Mickey without irony, knowing full well that the fault lay not in our stars, but in our selves.

Into this melodramatic whirlwind blows Carolina (Juno Temple), Humpty’s daughter from a previous marriage who ran off with a gangster at an early age against her father’s wishes. Now Carolina needs shelter from the storm — she knows where the bodies are buried — and Humpty and Ginny reluctantly take her in. Then Ginny inadvertently introduces Carolina to Mickey and things go from bad to worse.

There is enough in Wonder Wheel to love and plenty to detest. The cinematography from Vittorio Storaro magnificently captures the golden glow of a sunset, the garish neon of a carnival, and the momentary glory of sunlight slipping between the clouds. The performances from everyone, save Timberlake, are exceptional, and considering director Woody Allen famously offers no direction to his actors, show that Winslet, Belushi, and Temple know exactly what they are doing.

But while Allen offers no direction to his actor, he gives plenty to his audience, wearing Wonder Wheel’s influences on its sleeve: Eugene O’Neill, Mildred Pierce — the casting of Winslet, who starred in Todd Haynes’ 2011 remake isn’t the only clue — and, with increasing discomfort, Allen’s own life and the sexual abuse allegations that stick to the writer/director like Lady Macbeth’s guilt-ridden spot.

It is impossible to shake the baggage Allen brings to Wonder Wheel and hides in plain sight. Mickey, who annoyingly narrates the film from upon high, is a writer who dreams big, starts an affair with the mother before turning his attention to the step-daughter, echoing Allen’s real-life relationship with Mia Farrow’s adopted daughter, Soon-Yi Previn.

What is Allen attempting to accomplish by restaging these events for the camera? To explain himself? To rationalize his actions? To confess? To ease his conscious? Possibly. It’s almost as if he is using the cinematic canvas to work through the events himself, curiously peering beneath the surface to see what rot lies below. Or maybe he’s just thumbing his nose and doesn’t care who gets burned along the way.

Kate Winslet in Woody Allen’s WONDER WHEEL. Photo by: Jessica Miglio. © 2017 Gravier Productions, Inc.

Written and directed by Woody Allen
Produced by Erika Aronson, Letty Aronson, Edward Walson
Starring: Kate Winslet, Jim Belushi, Juno Temple, Justin Timberlake, Jack Gore
Amazon Studios, Rated PG-13, Running time 101 minutes, Opens December 8, 2017
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Weekly Round-Up (11.2.17 – 11.30.17)

Gary Oldman stars as Winston Churchill in director Joe Wright’s DARKEST HOUR, a Focus Features release. Credit: Jack English / Focus Features

The Denver Film Festival turned 40 this year with nearly two weeks of features, shorts, panels, and parties. Highlights from weekend one, and weekend two.

DFF40’s closing night film: I, Tonya

Also in Film: a glowing review of Brimstone & Glory, some praise for Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and some thoughts on The Square, a movie that had me thinking about mother!Justice League, and the abominable Downsizing.

Elisabeth Moss and Claes Bang in The Square. Photo courtesy of Magnolia Pictures

Over at Drink: an interview with Whitney Way about City Star’s latest barrel-aged stout, a preview of Left Hand’s Nitro Beer Festival  (one of the best fests around), the inside scoop from Ashleigh Carter of Bierstadt Lagerhaus about their magnificent Slow Pour Pils, a beginner’s guide to Session IPAs, and a recap of a busy Fall beer season.

Courtesy of Brewers Association

And last, but certainly not least, I had a chance to speak with Pixar’s Danielle Feinberg about Coco‘s technical triumph.

Danielle Feinberg

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ROMAN J. ISRAEL, ESQ.

Not everyone fighting for equality can be found on the frontline. There has to be someone in the shadows, toiling away, fueled by indignation, righteousness, and uncompromising ethics. Roman J. Israel is such a man.

For years, Israel (Denzel Washington), the partner of a charismatic litigator, has spent his time locked away in an office, pouring over books, finding inconsistencies, and plotting his greatest civil rights coup. But his partner has fallen into a coma, incapacitated by a heart attack. Suddenly, the office is dissolved, the clients are moved to a large and affluent firm run by a former student of Israel’s partner, and Israel finds himself looking for a job. He eventually takes a position at the new firm, run by George Pierce (Colin Farrell), but not after coming to the harsh reality that the social activism of the 1960s and ’70s has evaporated into an apathetic cloud of Los Angeles smog.

On its surface, Roman J. Israel, Esq. appears to be a rallying cry of social justice for the underrepresented. It is — in several notable scenes, including the conclusion — but it’s also a movie about how the world corrupts even the seemingly incorruptible. At one point, Israel looks out a high-rise window to the congested L.A. freeway below: there are a million stories out that window, but none of them are any more special than the other.

In this regard, Roman J. Israel, Esq. makes for an interesting noir film. Like many noirs, Roman J. Israel, Esq. is set in an uncaring, urban landscape — L.A. plays itself — involves a detour to a vast and hostile wasteland where physical harm is possible and admissions are made — “I made a bad choice, not my first.” — and takes an otherwise noble character — “Better than a gentleman, less than a knight.” — and sends him through the wringer. And like many noir protagonists, Israel doesn’t come out the other side clean.

Writer/director Dan Gilroy — whose previous efforts produced the equally stark, but much greater Nightcrawler — teams once again with cinematographer Robert Elswit to capture the city that famously swallows all who inhabit it. Roman J. Israel is a bit tedious at times — a side trip to Santa Monica all but stops the story cold — but the overall package ends up at the destination intact if slightly damaged. Washington is slightly out of his element, mainly because his character requires him to be less forceful than his performance is comfortable with. Israel might have worked better if Washington wasn’t playing a savant; then again, it might have worked better if Washington pushed it even further, making Israel intolerable. It holds the movie back, trying to walk a razor’s edge while claiming: “Each one of us is greater than the worse thing we’ve done.”

True, but you got to earn it.

Denzel Washington in Roman J. Israel, Esq. Image courtesy of Sony Pictures

Written and directed by Dan Gilroy
Produced by Todd Black, Jennifer Fox, Brian Oliver, Denzel Washington
Starring: Denzel Washington, Colin Farrell, Carmen Ejogo
Sony Pictures Entertainment, Rated PG-13, Running time 129 minutes, Opens November 22, 2017
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JUSTICE LEAGUE

DC and Warner Brothers’ Justice League enters the movie-sphere lugging a fair amount of baggage. Wonder Woman — 2017’s previous installment in DC’s extended universe — was a success but the two prior outings — Man of Steel (2013) and Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) — did little to flesh out the world beyond a couple of ill-shaped, somewhat moody, superheroes not quite sure of their place in the world.

While Superman, a.k.a. Clark Kent (Henry Cavill), struggled with his powers of supreme deliverance, questioning every ramification of his actions along the way; Batman, a.k.a. Bruce Wayne (Ben Affleck), sought to bring about a fascist-like hold on the criminal justice system and the savior of Metropolis. As the title of the second film suggested, the two tangled, Wonder Woman, a.k.a. Diana Prince (Gal Gadot), showed up after a century hiding in museums and Lex Luthor’s creation, Doomsday, a.k.a. Poopasaurus Rex, was bested by the three but at the cost of Superman — a cost that weighed heavily on Wayne’s conscience.

Now, and with more light-hearted jokes, Batman continues to battle evil from the Gotham’s shadows while Wonder Woman protects Paris from terrorists. Director Zack Snyder’s running commentary from Bat v. Supes continues to question a world worth saving, even opening this installment with an awkward camera video of Superman failing to answer why the world is worth a damn. A few scenes later, a group of non-descript religious terrorists try to blow themselves and several hostages up in front of TV cameras, hoping to spark a greater reckoning. It’s a cheap ploy by the filmmakers, one they later lean on when their comic book bad guy, Steppenwolf (an unconvincing mass of digital effects voiced by Ciarán Hinds), plans to do the exact same, but with three power cubes in lieu of C-4.

Though this thematic echo helps connect Justice League’s glaring divisions between the first and second hour, the movie is a mess; albeit an entertaining one. Here, the problem isn’t the material, but the sheer volume of it. In addition to continuing the themes laid down in the previous installments, Justice League has to work fast to explain the barebones backstory of its other main characters: The Flash, a.k.a. Barry Allen (Ezra Miller, the best of the bunch); Aquaman, a.k.a. Arthur Curry (Jason Momoa, decent); and Cyborg, a.k.a. Victor Stone (Ray Fisher, fine), while simultaneously setting up Steppenwolf’s plan to wipe out human existence.

Writers Chris Terrio, Joss Whedon, and Snyder chew through the three’s origins quickly, almost comic book like — cutting between characters like readers turning the page of a comic book as if each transition stood in for that all-encompassing word: “Meanwhile…” While this favors brevity, it lacks emotional connection. That lack is felt strongest during the movie’s climactic battle: the limits and capabilities of each character lack definition and no one ever seems to be in any real danger.

But whatever, we’re not here for any of that nonsense. We want popcorn entertainment, Batman fighting alongside Wonder Woman and Superman, and another movie that set up unfathomable sequels and spin-offs no matter how little emotion they stir up inside. And no matter how bad they are, the audience returns for more, hoping this one will be just slightly better than the last. Much like James Thurber’s aphorism about martinis, comic book movies rely on a simple addictive formula: One is all right, two is too many, and three is not enough.

EZRA MILLER as Barry Allen in Warner Bros. Pictures’ action adventure “JUSTICE LEAGUE,” a Warner Bros. Pictures release. Clay Enos/ TM & © DC Comics

Directed by Zack Snyder
Screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Wheadon
Story by Chris Terrio and Zack Snyder
Based on characters created by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, William Moulton Marston, Joe Shuster, Jerry Siegel
Produced by Jon Berg, Geoff Johns, Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder
Starring: Gal Gadot, Jason Momoa, Ben Affleck, Ezra Miller, Henry Cavill, Ciarán Hinds, Amy Adams, Amber Heard, Diane Lane, Billy Crudup, J.K. Simmons, Jeremy Irons
Warner Bros., Rated PG-13, Running time 120 minutes, Opens November 17, 2017
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BPM (BEATS PER MINUTE)

Love can spring up in the most unlikely of places. Nathan (Arnaud Valois) probably didn’t have romance on the brain when he started attending Act Up-Paris meetings in the early 1990s but he found Sean (Nahuel Pérez Biscayart) all the same. Love is all around.

But romance isn’t without its share of hurdles: Sean is living with an HIV-positive diagnosis and a low T cell count. Time is running short but Sean plans to breathe every breath and live every heartbeat.

BPM (Beats Per Minute) from writer/director Robin Campillo partly tells Sean and Nathan’s tender love story and partly tells the docudrama story of Act Up-Paris, a non-partisan group comprised of gay, straight, and bi individuals who are sick and tired of dying in the shadows.

Campillo, working with co-writer Philippe Mangeot, takes his time setting up the world of Act Up-Paris and laying out the political battles facing these activists before he narrows his focus to Sean and Nathan. Little is wasted in either section and despite a lengthy running time of 140 minutes, BPM moves with energetic and clear eyes. Maybe because so much of BPM is concerned with the loss of innocent lives and maybe because Sean, like most characters in BPM, is raging against the dying of the light even though he knows, deep down, nothing is forever. “There are times when I see the world differently,” Sean tells Nathan in a moment of melancholic reflection. “Morning mainly.”

BPM (Beats Per Minute) is currently in limited release.

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BLADE OF THE IMMORTAL

A samurai watches his younger sister cut down in front of him and he proceeds to exacts his revenge. But they are legion and he is one. No matter, death is a small price to pay when vengeance is on the table. Except that death is not in the cards for this samurai, not today and not ever.

Based on the manga by Hiroaki Samura, Blade of the Immortal tells the tale of Manji (Takuya Kimura), a roaming samurai who has been cursed by a witch to forever walk between the winds. No matter what happens to Manji, no matter what injuries he sustains in battle, bloodworms will heal him. Heal his wounds but never his pain. Immortality doesn’t exactly make Manji a better fencer, just one willing to sacrifice his body in the process.

That makes Blade of the Immortal one of the bloodiest samurai movies around and the fights ultimately inconsequential. Playing by manga logic, Blade offers stylized heroes and villains, each one looking as cool as the one-liners they spit. The battles are bloody, the weapons nonsensical, and the carnage is total — it’s a wonder there’s even a samurai or two left in all of Japan following a few of these battles. But each character is defined, their motivations are clear, and they have an individual spark that manages to move the movie’s 140-minute runtime along nicely.

It also helps to have the energy and style of director Takashi Miike. Miike, who has been directing movies since 1991, chalks up Blade of the Immortal as his 100th work; a feat for any director, but at the young age of 57, the Japanese master shows no sign of slowing.

Nor does he show signs of laziness. Starting out in a black and white before moving to color, Miike’s direction is energetic and engaging, using a gliding camera to cover the action, long lenses to crowd the frame with warriors, and plenty of pauses to allow our heroes and villains a chance to pose. There’s nothing like a little flair to punch up a period piece and make a standard action movie feel fresh.

Blade of the Immortal is in limited release.

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