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‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ is Only OK

Like I started my “Force Awakens” review with, there’s not a review in the world that will stop you from seeing “The Last Jedi” but let’s give this a shot anyways.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is the 8th Episode of the main series and the second film in the sequel trilogy. The plot picks up with the Resistance, headed by Poe, Finn and Rey (Oscar Isaac, John Boyega and Daisy Ridley) attempting to overthrow the First Order, led by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels and Gwendoline Christie reprise their roles while Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern and Benicio del Toro join the cast. Rian Johnson writes and directs.

I liked “The Force Awakens.” It has its flaws and certainly feels like a $250 million fan film at times but it has exciitng action, complex characters and laid the groundwork for a great trilogy. So naturally I was looking forward to “The Last Jedi” with great anticipation. And how is it? I mean, like, it’s fine.

What worked best with “The Force Awakens” again works here and that is the characters. Rey and Kylo Ren have layers and are proving to be some of the most interesting of the entire saga. Daisy Ridley is as stunning to look at as she is at times heart-breaking to watch and is yet another name on the growing list of female action heroes (next up: Alicia Vikander in “Tomb Raider”). Oscar Isaac’s Poe is again the rugged cool guy but this time around he comes off as the wrong kind of cocky at times and seems to be going against authority just for the sake of it.

The one new addition I loved was Benicio del Toro’s thief character, a twitching and fast-talking guy who is only motivated by money. Del Toro is oozing with energy and I hope he is included in the next film.

Adam Driver once again steals the show as the film’s villain, Kylo Ren. The internet has made plenty of jokes about Kylo being a mopey emo goth kid, and how he doesn’t need his mask and is just a Darth Vader wannabe; and one of the things I liked about “The Last Jedi” is it acknowledges these jokes. He quickly loses the mask and once again has his uneven temper but that is part of his brilliant character. He is torn between the Dark Side and the Light and every time he seems to be being pulled one way something will happen that makes him question his actions; there is pain in his eyes and we feel it. If “The Force Awakens” left Kylo Ren emotionally conflicted and battle-scarred then “The Last Jedi” only doubles-down on it and I can’t wait to see just how far they will have him go in this series’ finale.

Some of the action here is the best we’ve had in the “Star Wars” film. There is one sequence were we get some sweet lightsaber action and another that was so gorgeous to look at that upon its climax it had the theater silent before the guy sitting next to me let out a quiet “wow.”

The problem with “The Last Jedi” is it has a lot going on but not all of it feels necessary. In fact there are entire subplots (in this 152 minute film) that feel entirely pointless and end up not affecting the plot at all. I won’t spoil anything but this could have been trimmed and I would be more forgiving of the long main plotlines that do work.

There are also some moments of complete cheese and/or eye-rolling silliness, like one character flying through space like Iron Man and having it never explained (my brother and I slowly turned to look at each other with a “what the hell just happened?” look on our faces). Some of the comedy works and some falls flat, but all too often the laughs that do land are in moments that should be serious, so it creates awkward tonal shifts (kind of like “Justice League” and lesser Marvel films).

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is not a bad film but it is a disappointing one. It just feels like a checklist of things that you expect to see in a “Star Wars” film and there is no gut punch moment like we’ve had in previous installments. It feels a lot like the prequels at time with too much CGI and cute creatures, and never feels like the second film of a trilogy. Maybe down the road I will think that this is a masterpiece (people were mixed about “Empire Strikes Back” when it was released and loved “Phantom Menace”) but as it stands right now, “The Last Jedi” is only OK and that is a crushing thing to type.

Critics Rating: 6/10

‘The Birth of a Nation’ a Well-Acted but Heavy Handed Drama

img_8255Another 2016 film, another disappointment.


“The Birth of a Nation” tells the real-life story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Nate Parker directs (in his debut), co-writes, produces and stars as Turner, with Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King and Jackie Earle Haley in supporting roles.


This shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, and that’s no accident. That film is famous for its impressive and revolutionary technical achievements and is subjectively good but objectively racist, depicting the KKK as heroes and black men (some as white men in blackface) as unintelligent. This 2016 film attempts to take the name and give it a new meaning for the 21st century, but despite the best intentions and valiant efforts from its cast, it never rises to its grand aspirations.


Comparing this to “12 Years a Slave” is somewhat lazy but I feel inevitable. And it isn’t simply because both are tales about the evils of slavery in America, but because both feature powerful performances and gorgeous cinematography, however are narratively lacking and feature heavy-handed direction.


Parker is the main character and his Nat Turner is an emotionally conflicted man. He respects his master and is strong in his faith, never wavering that despite being enslaved, God is looking out for him and his family. Parker has several scenes that display his range, going from angry to in tears at the drop of a hat. Annie Hammer plays his master and is a quiet man, and you get the feeling he resents slavery but recognizes its importance to the world he lives in. Hammer has the most arch of any character, as he begins to drown his sorrow in liquor and succumb to the evils of the system.


Subtlety is nowhere to be found here. Parker is a rookie director and this is an ambitious story to take on as a first time project, but he feels the need to make sure no implications are missed. From slow-motion stare-downs to imagery of red blood falling on white cotton, Parker doesn’t miss a chance to make sure you get every point he is trying to get at. It comes off as in-your-face and is almost insulting because he doesn’t think the audience would be intelligent enough to figure things out themselves.


The film also takes a while to find its footing. For almost an hour, nothing happens. We know the film is building towards Turner’s rebellion, so for the first hour to have his life he relatively “good” (his owner was a childhood friend and Turner travels around with him) we never feel the evils that will inevitably push Turner over the edge.


When we finally start to see the true horrors of slavery, it is awful and graphic, and even they surely pale in comparison to the real life events. However nothing feels earned; we know Turner has seen awful things but even once he begins his rebellion, his actions still feel evil and horrific themselves, not fully justified.


Some historians call Turner a religious fanatic, not too different from modern day Islamic extremists, because he used his faith to justify slaughtering men, women and children. If it was Parker’s intentions to create a divide about Turner’s place in history then the film is to be commended; however I don’t think it was his goal to have Turner remembered as anything but a hero.


“The Birth of a Nation” features impressive performances, especially from Parker and Hammer, but it never builds up stakes and is heavy-handedly directed. It is an important story however I had a more engaging and interesting time reading up on Turner’s story afterwards than I did while watching the actual film. It’s an ambitious first project, with Parker as its strongest asset and biggest weakness; but it is his flaws make “Nation” hard to recommend.


Critics Rating: 5/10


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