Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A dispatch from the outer fringe, where I have, after much struggle and soul-searching, come to the conclusion that it is perfectly fine to be a Star Wars fan without being a super-fan.
The release of The Last Jedi brought back some of the sense memories and reluctance that hampered my initial response to The Force Awakens (2015): the uncomfortable crush of crowds; the disheartening realization of the scope of Disney's cynical, inescapable cross-marketing campaign; the chilling, shrinking feeling that attends acknowledgment of the possibility that one can no longer enjoy something that once brought joy. And in that former case, of course, there came the compounding element of a movie that was so reverent of its source, so faithful in its storytelling and its aesthetic, that it felt like so much — maybe too much — more of the same. (For the record, I've re-watched it since and have found more to like, but my opinion remains fundamentally unchanged.)
I suppose the logic holds that the re-establishment of this story's world should be undertaken by an acolyte, a director with the originals coursing through his bloodstream. And so J.J. Abrams was the perfect choice, as the record clearly shows: The Force Awakens looks and feels like a lightly polished addition to the first three chapters, almost like it could have come out just a couple of years after Jedi. That's no small feat, especially when considering the fact that George Lucas made three prequels that seem to have come from a completely different mind than the originals. And it confounds me a little, given that I so enjoyed Abrams' Super 8 (2011), which looks almost exactly like it was directed by Steven Spielberg in 1987. Abrams is a super-fan but he is also a supremely capable synthesizer of the material he so admires, and a storyteller of some esteem. So I must believe that he was wise in choosing to make his Star Wars movie the way he did. The almost-fantastical global box office seems to support this notion. In considering this, and in finding greater enjoyment in Rogue One (2016) than any Star Wars I had seen since childhood, I realized that I don't go to Star Wars only seeking more Star Wars. As with any other, I go seeking a good time at the movies.
Because I love Star Wars conditionally, more of the same just isn't enough anymore. Rogue One is a war movie that exists within a specific narrative universe; it incorporates new elements into an arguably tired formula, while still building out the continuing story. It was with this newfound understanding and re-adjusted set of expectations that I went into The Last Jedi, which I now see as the best installment in this saga by an almost immeasurable margin.
I've heard rumblings of an internet backlash. I haven't looked into it and don't intend to. But the very fact that this movie is contentious among fans pleases me and reinforces the notion that it is a more significant work of cinema than it is "just a sequel."
Writer-director Rian Johnson has, for the last dozen years or so, been gradually building one of the more solid, if compact, bodies of work in Hollywood. His debut, Brick (2005), is a deceptively concise genre piece, a truly hard-boiled detective tale peopled by modern-day Southern California teenagers. The Brothers Bloom (2008), a globe-trotting swindler's adventure, was something of a financial failure but stands out as a sophomore effort defined by ambition, strength of vision and old-fashioned charm. Johnson went on to direct a few of the pivotal episodes of Breaking Bad and then made Looper (2012), a time travel story that actually adds something to the science-fiction genre in a distinct and meaningful way. The scope and imagination of Johnson's work have increased progressively from project to project, all while maintaining a unique perspective and wounded, defensive humanism. His visual style may not be as discernible from a single frame as some of our more prominent directors, but his framing and camera movement and cutting are always in service of the story, of focusing the viewer's attention and enhancing the events on-screen. With The Last Jedi as evidence, he seems an ideal candidate to add to the world's most popular franchise. It is not only the strongest installment, it is his finest and most ambitious work to date.
I have avoided a plot summary thus far, and will continue to do so. Suffice it to say Johnson manages to sustain multiple, interwoven storylines, all fully realized and vital to the greater narrative. And he somehow transitions between them almost seamlessly, leaving one and entering another at just the right moment. The movie strikes an emotional balance none of the previous entries have even broached — I was on the verge of tears within the first 10 minutes — and rises to more climactic peaks than any of them. But, perhaps most importantly, it's got jokes. Lots of them, and they all work.
This is clearly Johnson's love letter to Star Wars, writ large, but it is also a departure, a step forward; a visually stunning, narratively complex, emotionally authentic movie that succeeds, resoundingly, both on its own merits and as an addition to the canon. PG13. 153m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK, MINOR
— John J. Bennett
For showtimes, see the Journal's listings at www.northcoastjournal.com or call: Broadway Cinema 443-3456; Fortuna Theatre 725-2121; Mill Creek Cinema 839-3456; Minor Theatre 822-3456; Richards' Goat Miniplex 630-5000.
DARKEST HOUR. Gary Oldman finally gets the role designed for his acting chops (and literal chops), portraying jowly British Prime Minister Winston Churchill as he urges his country to keep a stiff upper lip even as German planes strafe London. PG13. 125m. BROADWAY.
DOWNSIZING. Matt Damon satisfies everyone's wishes by shrinking to a size proportionate to his talent. Kristen Wiig, Hong Chau and Jason Sudekis can't save a movie whose big ambitions outpace its tiny message. R. 135m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
FATHER FIGURES. Soooo ... basically Mamma Mia but with Ed Helms, Owen Wilson, J.K. Simmons, Katt Williams, Terry Bradshaw and a whole lot of jokes about Glenn Close's libido? Cool, cool, cool. R. 125m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE GREATEST SHOWMAN. A glossy, glitzy musical about a complicated man. Hugh Jackman plays P.T. Barnum, an abolitionist and social reformer who made his money off "freak shows" and minstrelsy. Michelle Williams and Zac Efron also star. Statue of Barnum on the Arcata Plaza unlikely. PG. 105m. BROADWAY, MILL CREEK.
IT'S A WONDERFUL LIFE. Heartwarming classic about suicidal George Bailey (James Stewart) who is sent a second-stringer angel (Henry Travers) on Christmas Eve. A box office flop that has proven to be a family favorite, probably due in part to the star power of Donna Reed and a resonant message about strong banking regulations. PG. 135m. BROADWAY.
JUMANJI: WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE. A remake of a 1995 Robin Williams vehicle that somehow combines Breakfast Club teen dynamics, body-swap comedies, aggressive hippos and The Rock's skeptical eyebrow? Sure, why not? PG13. 119m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
PITCH PERFECT 3. Farewell tour for a pun-happy franchise whose talented cast (Rebel Wilson, Anna Kendrick) can't seem to synergize plot into satisfying fans. PG13. 94m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE BREADWINNER. Animated movie about a young Afghani girl who pretends to be a boy so she can feed her family under the oppressive regime of the Taliban. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.
COCO. Young musician Miguel (Anthony Gonzalez) goes on a quest to the Land of the Dead to circumvent his family's generations-old ban on music in this Pixar animated feature. With Gael García Bernal. PG. 109m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
THE DISASTER ARTIST. A good movie about a bad movie (The Room) in which the former gives the latter an empathetic gloss. Starring James Franco. R. 104m. BROADWAY.
FERDINAND. A domestic bull sent to a farm tries to get home to his family in this animated adventure. Voiced by John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Cannavale. PG. 106m. BROADWAY, FORTUNA, MILL CREEK.
JANE. Documentary about Jane Goodall's personal and professional life in the early days of her work with chimpanzees. NR. 90m. MINIPLEX.
JUSTICE LEAGUE. Batman (Ben Affleck) teams up with Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot), Cyborg (Ray Fisher), Flash (Ezra Miller) and a butched-up Aquaman (Jason Momoa) to save the world. PG13. 121m. BROADWAY.
LOVING VINCENT. An animated drama in the style of Vincent van Gogh created with thousands of oil paintings and depicting a man's investigation into the artist's death. Starring Douglas Booth and Robert Gulaczyk. PG13. 94m. MINIPLEX.
THOR: RAGNAROK. Director Taika Waititi keeps Marvel's high drama but balances it with humor and and a nimble, entertaining story. Cate Blanchett and Jeff Goldblum excel as very different villains. Starring Chris Hemsworth, Tessa Thompson and Tom Hiddleston. PG13. 130m. BROADWAY.
THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI. A sterling cast (Woody Harrelson, Frances McDormand, Sam Rockwell, Abbie Cornish, Zeljko Ivanek and Peter Dinklage) does admirable work in a drama about a small-town murder but the film unravels in the last act. R. 115m. MINOR.
— Jennifer Fumiko Cahill and Linda Stansberry