The Last Jedi is a more thoughtful and less captivating middle chapter

Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

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Middle chapters are hard. They have to move the story along without closing too many doors while not leaving too many open for the final chapter, appearing consequential but not too consequential. But they’re also hard to judge in a vacuum; The Empire Strikes Back is pretty universally considered the best Star Wars movie, but how much of that relies on knowing that Return of the Jedi, for all its Ewoks, follows through on all of its narrative arcs? If Episode IX builds upon what The Last Jedi lays out in a satisfying way, The Last Jedi may well be thought of the same way twenty years from now. If not, does The Last Jedi hold up on its own merits?

If “its own merits” means “Is The Last Jedi entertaining?”, the answer is a bit mixed. That hyped, pumped-up feeling I got from The Force Awakens was considerably dampened for The Last Jedi, potentially due to Rogue One disappointment, potentially due to simple sequel fatigue. But its also clear that The Last Jedi is just less interested in thrills. Indeed, The Last Jedi is the closest a Star Wars movie has come to art cinema, with no expert action sequences to speak of but a constant barrage of absolutely stunning images. From a particularly blinding light-speed jump to gorgeous speeder tracks on a salt-ridden mining planet, a dolly shot across a futuristic casino that apes a classic, or (most blatantly) an auditory infinity mirror hallucination, director Rian Johnson provides an unexpectedly sumptuous artistic sci-fi vision, all while still feeling very much a part of the Star Wars universe, but the expected thrills (lightsaber battles and aerial dogfights) fall a little short.

But The Last Jedi isn’t principally interested in getting those expected thrills. If The Force Awakens was a celebration of nostalgia, The Last Jedi is a deconstruction of it (its truest kin is, weirdly, maybe Trainspotting 2). The Rebels won at the end of Return of the Jedi, but forty years later, they seem to be back to the start during The Force AwakensThe Force Awakens ignored this sticking point a bit, but The Last Jedi digs into the demoralizing trudging of time, how we (and the world) outlive our glory moments and have to just keep moving past them, slowly. Across numerous characters, illusions of heroism and seemingly predestined paths are shattered. The very definitions of light and dark get reshuffled, but a form of balance finds itself. Things seem to be following a familiar path, until they’re suddenly not.

While it certainly gets more heady in themes than previous entries, The Last Jedi is also more obviously humorous than expected. The antics of BB-8 and the penguin-rat Porg creatures edge right up to the line of too cutesy, but stay *mostly* on the right side of it. While these scenes seem to be taking on a greater proportion of the popcorn-entertainment value of this installment than normal, they also keep the film from verging too far into darker-and-edgier territory. As entertainment, The Last Jedi certainly suffices, but as an entry into the Star Wars canon, it has potential to age into an absolute classic.

B

UPDATE:

OK, I saw it a second time, and loved it so so much more. The headiness of it all maybe distracted me the first time, but upon rewatch, having compartmentalized that the movie was going to be about failure and the deflation of legends, it turns out that it also works really really well as epic entertainment. Even if I still think things like the Throne Room Fight are a bit overrated, and that there’s maybe one too many Porg moments, I’m fully on board with calling The Last Jedi the first capital-g Great Star Wars movie since the originals.

A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)
Directed by Rian Johnson
Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, and Mark Hamill
Rotten Tomatoes (92%)

Catching up with Thor, Bad Batch, Meyerowitz, and Billie Jean King

The true winner in the Battle of the Sexes? Movie-going audiences everywhere! Also, Thor is an overstuffed turkey, but the stuffing is oh-so-delicious.

So I’ve been a bit everywhere the last few weeks, and haven’t had much time to put pen to paper (finger to keyboard?). But I’ve still seen some movies, and here are some quick thoughts! One strong recommendation, one less-strong recommendation, one surprising shoulder-shrug, and one unfortunate thumbs down, in that order…

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The Battle of the Sexes (2017) – B+

If you were worried Battle of the Sexes would be a heavy-handed morality tale reflecting the re-emergence of feminist to the forefront of the public eye in the last few years, well, you’d be right. But, in addition to being a bit too precisely timely, the film is also surprisingly tender and a fairly rousing sport film in its own right. It lives and dies on its two star performances, and both Emma Stone and Steve Carrell have a good shot at adding more Oscar noms to their resume. Stone finds a lost soul inside Billie Jean King, but makes it an integral part of her fighter’s spirit rather than a distraction. And Carrell finds some humanity in the opportunistic Bobby Riggs, peeking at the brokenness that feeds his chauvinistic persona. It’s a film that’s as relevant as it’ll ever be, but it doesn’t rely on virtue signalling to hold up as a classically designed crowd-pleaser simultaneously.

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The Meyerowitz Stories, New and Selected (2017) – B

I liked The Meyerowitz Stories a fair amount, owing mostly to the chemistry and history of its central characters, played by Adam Sandler (channeling his childlike rage for both comedy and catharsis) and Ben Stiller (his smugness neatly transferred from his selling point as a comedian to his character’s chief flaw). But perhaps what keeps it from being astounding is, surprisingly, the cartoonish performance of Dustin Hoffman as the family patriarch, whose responsibility for the flaws of his children is the focus of the film. Hoffman is occasionally quite funny; indeed, the film’s one Excellent Joke™ is staged between him and Emma Thompson (it involves gourmet hummus). But he never feels like an actual human being rather than a caricature drawn by writer-director Noah Baumbach, which undercuts the more restrained tone taken when his character is absent.

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Thor: Ragnarok (2017) – C+

Thor: Ragnarok is a fantastic Hulk movie sandwiched on either side by a half-assed Thor movie. Everything about it screams that director Taika Waititi really wanted to make the middle third, where Thor and Hulk wind up in a gladiatorial culture lorded over by Jeff Goldblum while making friends with a gentle Kiwi rock-creature named Korg, but had to advance the MCU plotline by including Thor’s long-lost sister Hela taking over Asgard on the fringes. Just look at how Waititi handles the Warriors Three, a strong presence in the previous Thor movies, to get an idea for how much he cares about Asgard. That middle third truly is outstandingly entertaining, and Cate Blanchett chews sweet delicious scenery as Hela whenever she gets a chance, but this really needed to be split into two movies instead of constantly distracting each other. Then we could get the Thor-is-a-gladiator and the Hela-is-a-colonialism-metaphor movies we truly need. There are enough fantastic moments to make Ragnarok memorable (melting stick! the retro score and effects! Banner’s buffoonish bifrost bounce!), but its less than the sum of its parts.

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The Bad Batch (2017) – D

And then there’s The Bad Batch. It opens fantastically, with a beautiful tableau of desolation at the gates of a sort-of desert open-air prison, where the undesirables among us are left to their own devices, and each others. The movie never tops its opening moments but constantly tries to, with occasional beautiful shots and a bonkers mute Jim Carrey performance being overshadowed by narrative incoherence and auteur touches that go from eye-rolling to motion-sickness inducing. The movie’s greatest sin, however, is its treatment of the central relationship of listless Arlen and the cannibalistic Miami Man, which is not sold nearly well enough to justify its resolution point. The concept is there, and the set design is killer, but The Bad Batch doesn’t work for either genre thrills or arthouse pontifications.