Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) – Enjoyable but Weakest of the New Trilogy

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      ‘The Rise of Skywalker” is a mess with a ton of flaws and is easily the weakest out of all the new Trilogy. I felt that the things that were strong helped elevate the mess enough to the point that it still managed to be an enjoyable film, even though I hate how derivative it is of “Return of the Jedi.” A lot of my fears about Abrams return were certainly validated in this film but due to actor performances and character relationships that really made it work for me, as extremely flawed as it is.

The film was directed by J.J. Abrams who co-wrote the film along with Chris Terrio.

The story picks up a few years later with Leia training Rey as a Jedi as Kylo Ren finds Emperor Palpatine alive with his hidden fleet. From here it is a race against time as our heroes must stop Palpatine and Kylo Ren before they conquer the galaxy.

SPOILERS ahead

The Pros:

The Soundtrack – John Williams is once again showing why he heads this series. He is once against the master of his craft here. I will definitely be listening to this soundtrack again and all his work with the prior films.

The Action – The action is good but nothing stands out like the fights in the prior film. There is emotional resonance to some of the action, specifically anytime Rey and Kylo fight one another. This film is primarily action though so it had to be at least serviceable. In that I’d say it succeeds but it isn’t as good as the action in “The Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.”

The Core Characters – The core characters are what makes this film work, even though I disagreed with some of the character choices done with them. For the characters I feel like were the strongest I’ll be going into more depth below as it was really these characters that made the film work enough for me in the end.

Poe – Poe takes up the leadership role that was left in the last film as we see him leading the Resistance after Leia’s death. He is made more like Han Solo in this film (which annoyed me) but I liked us seeing him clash with Rey. Both are headstrong so it’d make sense they’d clash. It also got away from shipping them, which I appreciated. Oscar Issac’s is of course wonderful as always.

Finn – John Boyega is one of the strongest of all the new actors and that is once again demonstrated here. Here we get hints that Finn might have the force (he senses things, especially when Rey is in trouble). I wish this could have been explored further, but I did enjoy him playing such a key role in the final battle and fully embracing his role as a member of the rebellion. He even meets a former stormtrooper in this who he forms a friendship with. He is my favorite of the new characters besides Kylo Ren / Ben Solo and I would like to see what is done with him in the future.

Leia Organa – Leia finishes Rey’s training from the unused footage from prior films. It worked for me and I like that her last act was reaching out to Ben Solo so he could return to the light. It was strong and you see that Rey’s healing in the force probably came from Leia’s training. R.I.P. Carrie Fisher. I’m glad we got to know her more in this. One of the strongest scenes is when Luke tells Rey that when Leia finishes her training from Luke she realizes what becoming a Jedi will do to her son. The consequence of having the power is recognized and I like how that shaped her and made her choose to stay the politician and general instead.

Kylo Ren / Ben Solo – Ben Solo’s arc is the biggest re-tread of prior films but it is also one of the things that works most about the film. In this it is in the act of Rey healing him and his mom reaching out to him with the last of her life force that change him to the light. After this he speaks to Han in his memory before casting away his red lightsaber. Adam Driver is acting the hell out of this film and he is a huge reason the film works. His redemption story is predictable but the way Kylo versus Ben carry themselves is noticeable and the steps to the transformation are rushed but worked. It was that heart of the film that I really felt anything and I appreciate that Ben dies to save Rey. It brings the story full circle and makes him the most developed character in the entire series.

The Cons:

Knights of Ren – The Knights of Ren show up and have no payoff. They don’t feel like a threat. Phasma did more and I felt like she wasn’t fully utilized or explored. We don’t learn anything about them and they have no interaction with Kylo beyond being enforcers and fighting him at the end. They are missed potential in a big way and could have been worthy foes.

Palpatine and his Plan – We never lean how Palpatine survived “Return of the Jedi” except that the Dark Side cult is probably tied to the reasons and maybe he did have a contingency like his hidden fleet with Death Star weapons. Ian McDiarmid is of course amazing in the role, but his existence is just a re-treated of “Return of the Jedi” as we never get what his plan was for the First Order, since he created Snoke.

Rey’s Origin – I wish Rey’s parents had been nobody. Her being a Palpatine makes this universe so small, with everyone being related to everyone. Plus it is hard to imagine someone who wants to live forever (Palpatine) ever having a kid. In the prequels and original Trilogy he shows no interest in romance or sex at all. So her origin story becomes nonsensical and meaningless. She’d have fought Palpatine anyway regardless of her bloodline so it changes nothing.

Force Bloodlines and Return of the Prequel Problems – Rey being a Palpatine and Ben being a Skywalker bring back the prequel problem of the force and bloodlines, when it looked like the “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” were trying to get away from that. Leaning all in just elevated the problem of the origin story in the first place and takes away the mystique of the force. I hated in the prequels and I hate it once again here.

This film is a mess and I do wish they’d been more original than re-treading “Return of the Jedi.” If you are a Star Wars fan chances are you will find something to like, though the things I hated might be a bigger deal for you as well. The Skywalker story is the strongest part of the film (Ben, Luke and Leia) and really what makes the film good. The characters are who carry this frenetic mess and elevate it to an enjoyable experience. If you liked the prior 2 films, you will probably enjoy this one. The flaws are huge and I wish Disney had been more original, but for a Trilogy that only really took risks with “The Last Jedi,” this worked but could have been so much more.

8.6 / 10

Top 5 Films of 2017

This was a great year for film. Hell, the honorable mentions I’ll be talking about were in tight competition for 5th place and it was only due to multiple viewings it won as there was no other film I saw a second time in theatres this year. As always, I’m curious to hear about your lists and what films would be your Top 5, Top 3, Top 10 or Worst of as well. Lists are a lot of fun to do, and I stick to 5 because I want the 5 to mean something. Making a Top 10 would be far too easy given how great this year (and past years) have been for film so keeping it tight makes the order actually mean something. So lets kick things off with some Dishonorable mentions before I get into the films I actually liked.

Dishonorable Mentions:

This was a year where a few films had great premises but horrible execution. I walked out of “Justice League,” so I can’t recommend that, “The Circle” was technology paranoia garbage with an amazing cast who could not save it, “The Dark Tower” missed the entire point of the book and series and felt like a forgettable cheap action flick, and “Split” was an insult to those suffering through mental disorders while being a poorly done horror film and “Deathnote” is a film that misses the entire point of the source material and is a poorly cast and acted Netflix endeavor. These are my dishonorable mentions and films not worth your time I saw this year.

Honorable Mentions:

This was  great year for film and choosing my 4th and 5th place were difficult so I’m going to do something different and say a little bit more than my dishonorable mentions in regards to the honorable mentions.:

Wonder Woman – This was a film we needed this year, from the “Metoo” movement to a sexual predator being elected president..”Wonder Woman” was the answer to that as we got Gal Gadot rocking it as the only thing keeping the DC film afloat. I loved her film and how Robin Wright as her mentor is just fantastic. It only really falls apart in the 3rd Act, and the fact none of the villains work, but you should check it out. I own this film and I can’t wait to watch it again.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/06/05/wonder-woman-2017-dc-finally-finds-a-hero/

Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 – This film was also in tight competition for making the list as I love how it explores toxic masculinity (Ego being one of the best Marvel villains thus far), father figures and abuse and explores my favorite characters in the MCU (Yondu and Rocket). For me it was on par with the first film, but there were sadly films that were better in both loss and character exploration.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/05/09/guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-2017-the-greatness-of-these-characters/

Logan Lucky – This is a heist film told through the eyes of the southern working class stealing from Nascar. It is beautifully done with Daniel Craig’s Joe Bang and Adam Driver’s injured vet Clyde Logan as the stand out performance. Only thing against it is the 3rd act is overlong. I did drowse off a little during the heist which is the worst thing that can happen in a heist film. Loved the movie though.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/08/26/logan-lucky-2017/

Coco – “Coco” is easily one of the best films Pixar has put out. This is a film that explores family, mortality, death, loss and does it all through the lense of “The Day of the Dead.” The biggest thing going against it is I hated the protagonist until he finally stops acting selfish, but his family, especially those in the the Land of the Dead are awesome. I can’t recommend this film enough.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/12/05/coco-2017-an-amazing-pixar-epic-that-explores-family-and-love/

Colossal – “Colossal” is a powerful indie film that explores abuse and healing from it. Anne Hathaway does an amazing job as the unlikable drunk who has burned all her bridges but is trying to put her life back together while Jason Sudeikisis’s Oscar is a fantastic villain and threat. The fact that it is also a monster film on top of all of this is a reason why it was so hard for me to keep it from making 5th place, the characters aren’t really likable except for Hathaway’s character until the end though, so that was a dealbreaker for me.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/05/18/colossal-2017-an-amazing-exploration-of-monsters-as-metaphor/

Logan – The post-apocalyptic genre is popular and this is a film that is essentially “The Last of Us,” but with X-Men. There is no hope in this film as both Professor X and Logan are the last of the X-Men in a broken world. They both find purpose in X-23, Laura an experiment who escapes and has Logan’s power. This film is one I own and highly recommend seeing. It didn’t make 5th though because in the end it didn’t have a point. This is a film with no hope, though it gives our protagonists some amazing sendoffs.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/03/08/logan-2017-a-dystopic-western-masterpiece-that-explores-the-depths-of-pain/

That was the competition, and believe me it was close, so without further ado, here are my Top 5 Films of 2017:

5) Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Director Rian Johnson

“The Last Jedi” was a film that not only managed to subvert what expectations I had (was expecting an “Empire Strikes Back” rehash) but was also about the Resistance and First Order finding an identity beyond the Original Trilogy. This film explores this through the minor characters of Rose and Holdo as well as through Kylo Ren’s choice. The themes of resistance through class are given voice as well as showing the corrupt can be more than Jabba’s gangsters. Every action has consequences and no one wins. This is a film where you feel loss and it doesn’t stop hitting you with that loss, but it is still Star Wars and it remembers hope, even in despair. This was Carrie Fisher’s last film and in this we see why she is both one of the last Skywalkers and the General of the Resistance. R.I.P. Carrie, you got quite the sendoff as your film was the only film this year I saw in theatres twice and loved just as much each time.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/12/21/star-wars-episode-viii-the-last-jedi-2017-an-amazing-subversion-of-expectations/

4) War for the Planet of the Apes

Director Matt Reeves

Much like “The Last Jedi” this is a film full of loss and explores the themes of resistance and in the end what sentience means. This is the end of the Caesar’s story and the Prequel Trilogy and it is powerful all the way through. This film brought me to tears a few times as you see both Caesar’s humanity and pain. The Ape characters are once again the most human but Woody Harrelson’s Colonel is one of the best villains this year in how warped and nationalist he is, while still being vulnerable…as you see this is after the nuclear fallout and all that remains are military outposts in a world that is ready to leave humanity behind, while at the same time we have hope through the young Nova, who recognizes the apes humanity and in turn it shows her own. Andy Serkis deserves an Oscar for this role and I hope Matt Reeves gets to make his Batman film. He is a brilliant director and in this we see what happens when humans lose and gain their humanity as we lead into the world of “The Planet of the Apes.”

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/07/23/war-for-the-planet-of-the-apes-2017-growing-beyond-caesar/

3) Get Out

Director Jordan Peele

I can’t wait to see what Jordan Peele’s next project is, as “Get Out” is his first full length film he both directed and wrote. This brilliant social satire is fantastic in how the mystery unfolds and why our hero returning to this nice small town full of rich white people is so horrifying as nothing is as it appears to be. As a thriller, an exploration of racism and classicism and as a horror movie it really works. The only place where it falls flat is we never get the motivation of the people who inhabit the town and I would have liked to learn more about the protagonist’s girlfriend’s motivation in the film.  Regardless, this is a film I highly recommend, and was number 1 for me for a long time until the other 2 upcoming films came out.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/03/17/get-out-2017-a-brilliant-horror-film-that-tackles-racism-and-privilege/

2) Baby Driver

Director Edgar Wright

“Baby Driver” is a work of musical, editing and cinematic genius. You are shown rather than told so much and every character is a flawed anti-hero with the exception of Debra, who is Baby’s (our protagonists) girlfriend. The music is genius and I love how it tackles the different ways certain characters are trying to escape or to free themselves, whether it is through internal redemption through an act of bravery, seeking revenge or owning up to mistakes and actions. This film is so much fun and the soundtrack by Steven Price, is easily the best soundtracks of the year. I can’t wait to see what Edgar Wright does next, but I’m glad he left “Ant-Man” and the MCU as this was the work of art we got in return as this was a film be both wrote and directed. Again, this film has an amazing story but the film is worth it for the music and visuals alone. Up until yesterday, this was my Number 1 film of the year.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/baby-driver-2017-the-unforgettable-soundtrack-of-a-life/

1) The Shape of Water

Director Guillermo de Toro

Sometimes you have to wait and the order of a list can be upset. The first Top 5 I created in 2014 had “Noah” as Number 1 until I saw “The Grand Budapest Hotel” and the genius of Wes Anderson upset Darren Aronofsky. This happened once more with the genius of del Toro upsetting Wright. Why is “The Shape of Water” Number 1? Because it does what all the other films do as either better or on par. Like “War for the Planet of the Apes,” “The Last Jedi,” and “Get Out,” it explores the themes of resistance and the voiceless as our mute protagonist Elisa fights to save the creature who is being tortured by the government agent in the lab, as her closeted roommate Giles and co-worker Zelda hep her succeed. The villain like in “War” and “The Last Jedi” is an insecure Colonel (in a creepy and powerful performance by Michael Shannon) who abuses others while assuming he has a right to others because of his position and privilege. The music is on par with “Baby Driver” while the cinematography and story are like a surrealist fairy tale. This is easily one of the best movies of all time and I can’t wait to buy it when it comes out. There was steep competition this year in films but after seeing this film, this film deserves its place at the top, and I can’t wait to see what else is born out of the fantastic imagination of Guillermo del Toro who not only directed but co-wrote and co-produced this unforgettable film.

https://cameronmoviesandtv.wordpress.com/2018/01/05/the-shape-of-water-2017-a-transcendent-romantic-fairy-tale/

This was an amazing year for cinema, though a crappy year for politics and many of the people these movies were fighting for. I’m curious to hear what your Top 5, Top 10 or worst films of the year are as well and I can’t wait to see what 2018 brings in regards to the fantastic stories that can be born out of the art of film.

Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017) – An Amazing Subversion of Expectations

   “The Last Jedi” is my second favorite Star Wars film. This is a series that is second only to “The Empire Strikes Back,” and in many ways has greater depth even though the structure of this film is a bit of a mess. What this film does though is upset the status quo, delve into the reasons the First Order and Resistance have for even existing in the first place and also a much deeper analysis of “The Force” that we haven’t really gotten since the Original Trilogy. Before I get into spoilers, this is a film with the best characters and themes thus far, amazing character development and emotional payoff, amazing action and it is easily the most beautiful of all the Star Wars films. Seriously, check it out.

The film was directed and written by Rian Johnson while being produced by Kathleen Kennedy and Ram Bergman.

The story involves the Resistance attempting to escape from the First Order who are attacking them after the destruction of Starkiller Base, while Rey is seeking Luke’s help in their fight. Things soon get more complicated when the First Order executes a trap that forces members the Resistance to seek outside help  to escape the First Order trap, and a clash within the Resistance itself between Poe and Vice-Admiral Holdo after General Leia is incapacitated.

SPOILERS

The Pros: The Cinematography – This is visually the best looking of any film in the Star Wars franchise. Whether it is the filming of fight sequences in space or within a ship…the camera executes the action beautifully and each planet was somewhere I wanted to return back to after it was done.

The Universe – This Star Wars has quite a few different environments and animals. From the adorable porgs, to crystal foxes, to the salt world of Crait, Luke’s Island and Snoke’s Flagship and a Casino World. I was never bored because there was always more to see as each environment was so rich.

The Reason for Resistance – One of the major themes of the film is the reasons to resist. We see this as a class struggle in regards to oppression through the eyes of kids and Rose, a character we are introduced in this film…and also that personal identity is a huge role too and that finding the balance between them is important. Poe is driven by ego and glory for much of what he does but comes to see that it is bigger than each fight, the war is larger than any one person as the individuals and groups define what it means to resist, just as much as if not more than the personal reasons to fight.

The Cost of War – So many people die in this film. There are lots of heroic sacrifices, but also the people who are being oppressed by those profiting from the war, the deaths of so many soldiers on both sides who die. You feel that in this and it does a good job humanizing both the Resistance and the First Order. War is hell and sometimes no one wins, this film captures that theme beautifully.

The Characters – The characters are the best part of this film. This film is all about relationships between characters, be it Leia and Poe, Rose and Finn, Kylo and Rey or Luke and Rey. Each relationship gets developed over the course of the film and reveals layers to the characters that didn’t exist in “The Force Awakens.”

Vice Admiral Holdo – Holdo is a character who has got a lot of crap from the fanbase, but she was one of my favorite characters in the film. She was respected for winning in the past but Poe doesn’t get that. She is presented as an antagonist through a good portion of the film, and the payoff of who she actually is and what she is doing is great.

Rose and Finn – It is through these characters that we get to see another face of the Resistance and why they fight. Finn is originally a part because of his friends and is even willing to leave in order to protect Rey but Rose reminds him of the bigger picture and that at the core they exist to fight oppression. It is handled on the casino world and seeing their friendship bloom was one of the more memorable parts of this film.

Master Luke Skywalker – Luke is done with everything. Like before in the Original Trilogy guilt defines him and it is mistake that helped lead to Kylo Ren’s creation and that guilt is something he carries with him and resists until the end. He is wanting to destroy the Jedi order and die as the last Jedi until Rey helps him realize there is so much more that he’s forgotten and that he can still make a difference and change things. Mark Hamill is fantastic.

General Leia Organa – I miss Carrie Fisher. It was great seeing her in this, her whole drive is survival and protecting the Resistance from the First Order. She is the mentor who is there to remind the young folks there is a time and place for glory but you have to work to keep everyone alive, or there won’t be anyone else left to fight. This was my favorite presentation of her besides “Empire Strikes Back” and I’ll miss her in these films, now that she’s gone.

Rey and Kylo Ren – One of the core relationships is that between Kylo and Rey both of who are alone and seeking more beyond the old order as so much of who they were was tied to the legends of the past. They are connected but still adversaries and it is great relationship to see explored as Ren becomes more confident and much more of a bully and Rey finds an identity outside of her parents and her expectations of Luke and the Jedi.

Subverting Expectations – If you go in expecting “The Empire Strikes Back” or another version of “Return of the Jedi” or “A New Hope” prepare to be surprised. This is a film where most things don’t work out for any characters. Things change, both in the First Order and the Resistance in regards to their identities…but it doesn’t repeat the cycle. We get away from The Ring Cycle a bit here and from that “Star Wars” seems to finally be developing it’s own identity outside of the past. We also see The Force not being tied to bloodlines and the fantasy feel of the past films and midichlorians are implied to no longer be a factor (Rey’s background and the last scene of the film). I loved that, this is no longer the Skywalker show, Star Wars has to be bigger than one family drama and I can’t wait to see where the series goes.

Everybody Loses – Poe finds out he was wrong, Rose and Finn get betrayed, Rey isn’t able to turn Kylo Ren and even the Resistance only barely survives. The First Order isn’t in great shape either after the events that take place and it is going to be transforming further or it will collapse. That is powerful and with it we see the most potential for change both within the Resistance and the First Order. They’ve lost too much to remain static.

Okay: Welcome to the Casino / Side Quest – This first point is related to the second point, there is a side plot on a casino world in order for Rose and Finn to get a code breaker in order to break onto Snokes’s ship so that they shutdown the Empire’s ability to track the Resistance’s fleet. It explores the meaning of the Resistance so I’m not putting it as a total negative but it could have been shorter and achieved the same purpose in the plot, and I would have traded a few Finn and Rose scenes for more scenes with the codebreaker played by Del Toro named DJ. He is fun.

Structure and Clutter – The greatest issue with this film for me was the structure and how cluttered some of the different plots are. It wasn’t bad, I saw this film twice but it does feel long during some of the side tangents. The overall story and themes greatly overwhelm this in quality though and it didn’t take away from my enjoyment of the film.

This is probably going to be in my Top 5 films at the end of the year. This is a film I’ve watched twice and is easily the most fun I’ve had at a film this year since “Baby Driver.” I can’t wait to see where things go after this film as it upsets so much of the status quo. I am a guy who loves the original Extended Universe and I always will, but I’m glad they didn’t repeat it (and I still enjoy it as another timeline of Star Wars). By the time of “The Force Awakens” I was done with the Skywalker drama, predictability will kill this franchise as so many of the problems that plagued the Prequels was the lazy recycling of the Original Trilogy. This film is strange, different, takes chances and changes things and honestly, it is the only way Star Wars can grow beyond the corner it was written in to. Here is to Disney embracing that change and giving us more great stories like this film.

Final Score: 9.8 / 10. Second best Star Wars film thus far.