Friday, December 15, 2017


Opening this week:

Star Wars: The Last Jedi--After a lively space battle at the opening to get us warmed up, the latest from the franchise picks up right where The Force Awakens left off. Scavenger-turned-warrior Rey (Daisy Ridley) has caught up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), now a recluse on a windswept island on some distant planet. She's been sent by his sister Leia (Carrie Fisher) to fetch him back into the struggle between The Resistance and the brutal "First Order."

While she pleads with Luke to get back in the game, Rey is also in psychic touch with Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Leia and Han Solo's wayward son who is still in the service of the dreadful First Order overlord Snoke (Andy Serkis). Elsewhere in that galaxy far, far away, the last ragged remnant of the Resistance is trying to elude the First Order's ships, with the help of a desperate plan by former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), hotheaded space ace Poe (Oscar Isaac) and others. This involves a detour to a Monte-Carlo-like casino planet, and then sneaking aboard the First Order's warship, none of which goes smoothly.

As with The Force Awakens, much of the pleasure in The Last Jedi comes from the attractively non-generic actors, saddled with cringe-inducing dialogue but at least allowed some welcome freedom to be funny at times. Through the character of the commoner heroine Rey, the story also takes a mild stab at acknowledging the dynastic bias that has been such a persistent part of the Star Wars series, and the attitudes on class that it would seem to imply. These movies are more fixated on the inherent importance of bloodlines than a documentary on the Royal Family, and the treatment of the revelations about Rey's lineage would have seemed quaint in the '30s.

But much amusement also comes, as with all Star Wars movies, from the marginal verisimilitude--such casually observed fauna as the elephant-seal/dinosaur-like creatures which provide Luke with sustenance, and the toad-like maintenance workers that keep up his domicile. The obligatory adorable creatures this time, by the way, are the porgs, beakless, wide-eyed seabirds with nesting-doll-shaped bodies.

I liked all of this, and I thoroughly enjoyed The Last Jedi. But as so often with big blockbuster movies it seemed too long to me. Since this is such a perennial cranky complaint from me, I was relieved to hear others saying the same as I left the screening. It isn't just a question of a tired backside; director Rian Johnson, to whom the script is solely credited, puts together one of those big climatic finales typical of the series, crosscutting between several strands of action and building to a noble act of self-sacrifice, and turns out it's not the end at all. There's another whole act still to go, and another big climactic confrontation. And a very good confrontation it is, but by then we've had our emotional release. And also, our backsides are tired.

Despite the Gotterdammerung title, The Last Jedi is not slated to be the last of this Star Wars trilogy. It was, alas, the final film of Carrie Fisher, who has an imperturbably majestic mien here, and whose absence will be sorely felt in the series.

Even so, the best thing about the movie is Hamill. As Luke in the original films, he was sweet and likable but callow to the point of insubstantial; it was like Richie Cunningham at the center of a space opera. In The Last Jedi, with his scraggly hair and graying beard, his raspy voice and haunted, haggard eyes, he has a bearing that can fairly be called Shakespearean.

Ferdinand--Fox Animation and Blue Sky Studios are bravely opening this animated feature for kids the same weekend as The Last Jedi. Maybe the theory is that they'll get the spillover audiences if the Star Wars flick sells out.

In any case, it's a sweet film. It's an adaptation of Munro Leaf's 1936 children's book, with superb illustrations by Robert Lawson, about the gentle-souled bull in Spain who doesn't want to fight, he just wants to sit under his favorite cork tree and smell the flowers. Leaf and Lawson's tiny, beautiful classic (sometimes condemned for its hero's nonviolent nature) was already turned into a very faithful, Oscar-winning 8-minute cartoon short by Disney, Ferdinand the Bull, in 1938.

Turning it into a feature is another matter, of course. The story had to be embellished, and to some extent vulgarized. It's spun out into an escape thriller, as Ferdinand (voiced by John Cena) and his "calming goat" Lupe (Kate McKinnon) try to help the other bulls crash out of their corral, having figured out what will happen to them wether they win or lose in the ring.

It took me a while to warm up to this over-plotting, but happily the movie is willing to go silly. About the time that Ferdinand and his pals were engaging in a dance-off with the uppity German horses in the next stable over, I started to crack up. Said bulls are voiced, by the way, by the likes of Anthony Anderson, Bobby Cannavale, David Tennant and, of all people, Peyton Manning.

By the end, Ferdinand had won me over with its generous heart. Which, I must confess, did not stop me from having a hamburger the following day.

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