Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

J.J. Abrams ends the Skywalker saga with a hot but entertaining mess

The circle is complete. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker finds J.J. Abrams returning to the trilogy he kicked off five years ago, and the result is…a hot mess, to be honest.

Admittedly, two and a half hours isn’t a lot of time when you have to introduce three new humanoid characters and a few highly-merchandisable non-humans, re-introduce two legacy characters, resolve two films’ worth of dangling plotlines, and provide some sort of tribute to the late Carrie Fisher. So Abrams wastes no time in establishing the basic plot, which boils down to the search for Emperor Palpatine‽ (interrobang required), who has…returned…somehow (cue a million diehard fans crying out in rage at Abrams for pilfering the now-decanonized pre-Disney EU for ideas).

Abrams’ strong points are developing characters and establishing mysteries, which is why he was a great choice to kick off the sequel trilogy. His weak point is resolving those mysteries; ask fans of Felicity and Alias if they thought those series ended satisfactorily. (For the thousandth time, Lost doesn’t count because by the time that show ended, he had zero creative input.) So you can probably see the problems coming a parsec away.

Predictably, the things’s a mess. The narrative lurches from set-piece to set-piece, each one more heavily laden with fan service than the last. Rey, Kylo Ren, and Palpatine all now have nearly godlike proficiency in the Force, making their altercations feel like superhero battles. The now-requisite climactic dogfight-in-space, pitting the scrappy Resistance against an impossibly huge fleet of Ginormous Star Destroyers, lacks a sense of true stakes.

As for Skywalker‘s relationship with its predecessor, Rian Johnson’s contentious (but excellent) The Last Jedi…well, Abrams clearly doesn’t approve of Johnson’s twists and subversions and walks them back as much as he can. To his credit, he manages to squeeze out two or three genuine surprises and manages to make them work surprisingly well. It would have been nice if he had rolled with the changes, though.

Now, you may get the idea that I hated this film, and that’s far, far from the truth. Yes, it’s very uneven, with too many scenes eliciting eye-rolls or groans. Yet the scenes that work work exceptionally well. A lot of it comes down to the sequel series cast, with Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac holding things together brilliantly. (Sadly, Kelly Marie Tran gets short shrift, garnering less screen time and fewer lines than Abrams’s Lost buddy Dominic Monaghan.)

The new additions shine as well. Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie squeeze sparks out of their scenes with Isaac and Boyega, respectively. Richard E. Grant is such an obvious to play a First Order/Imperial officer that one wonders why it took so long to get him into a Star Wars movie. Also, D-O is adorable.

The legacy cast doesn’t fare quite as well. Carrie Fisher’s scenes feel isolated and detached from the rest of the proceedings (which is understandable, as they were cobbled together from Force Awakens and Last Jedi outtakes). Mark Hamill gets one lame scene. It’s great to see Billy Dee Williams again, even if he doesn’t actually do a whole lot.

Abrams’ direction, while somewhat pedestrian (he’s certainly no stylist), at least keeps the energy level high enough to prevent the audience from noticing the glaring plot holes until they get home from the theater.

As the (apparent) official close to both the sequel trilogy and the larger Skywalker saga, The Rise of Skywalker just about does the job. It can’t help but disappoint, but it could have been a whole lot worse.

Ultimately, though, 2019 will be remembered as the year of The Mandalorian; so if you don’t mind, I’ve got a date with Baby Yoda.

Starring Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Naomi Ackie, Domhnall Gleeson, Richard E. Grant, Lupita Nyong’o, Keri Russell, Joonas Suotamo, Kelly Marie Tran, Ian McDiarmid, Billy Dee Williams. Directed by J.J. Abrams. 141 minutes.

My Year in Film: 2017

My favorite things in film in 2017

The Top Films of 2017

Yes, I know I’m late with my lists. So sue me.

Favorite Film of 2017: The Last Jedi

Favorite Movie of 2017 — Star Wars: The Last Jedi

14 Runners-Up: The Shape of Water

Fourteen Runners-Up

Yes, there were good movies released in 2017 whose titles did not involve the words Star and Wars.

  1. The Shape of Water
  2. Baby Driver
  3. Get Out
  4. It Comes at Night
  5. The Post
  6. Kedi
  7. Okja
  8. Blade Runner 2049
  9. Good Time
  10. It
  11. Colossal
  12. Marjorie Prime
  13. Dunkirk
  14. Super Dark Times

The Blackcoat's Daughter

Five Honorable Mentions

The Blackcoat’s Daughter worked the festival circuit in 2015 (when I saw it under its original title, February) and 2016, but A24 didn’t release it until early this year. I tried very hard to justify it as a 2017 film, but ultimately, I just couldn’t. If I could, these lists would look very different.

When I first wrote about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri a couple of months ago, I declared it one of the best films of the year. Since then, I’ve given it some reconsideration and it turns out I don’t like it as much as I initially did. I’d hoped to do a full piece on it, but I never had time to write it. Oh well.

I wanted to rewatch Buster’s Mal Heartmother!, and Raw before finalizing this list, but ultimately couldn’t make the time.

Sicilian Ghost Story

The Five Best Non-Qualifying Films

I tend to find film festival programs work at odds with best-of-year lists. What’s the point of naming such-and-such a movie one of the best of the year if it played only a handful of film festivals? Here are the five best 2017 films I saw at festivals that didn’t see wider release.

  1. Sicilian Ghost Story (Chicago International Film Festival)
  2. Mohawk (Cinepocalypse)
  3. Trench 11 (Cinepocalypse)
  4. The Endless (CIFF)
  5. The Crescent (Cinepocalypse)

Individual Acheivements

Best Director: Guillermo del Toro

Best Director — Guillermo Del Toro, The Shape of Water

Guillermo del Toro, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Rian Johnson, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Jordan Peele, Get Out
  • Trey Edward Schulte, It Comes At Night
  • Denis Villeneuve, Blade Runner 2049
  • Edgar Wright, Baby Driver

Best Leading Actress: Sally Hawkins

Best Actress in a Leading Role — Sally Hawkins, The Shape of Water

Runners-Up:

  • Nicole Kidman as Dr. Anna Murphy, The Killing of a Sacred Deer
  • Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
  • Noomi Rapace as Monday et alWhat Happened to Monday
  • Daisy Ridley as Rey, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • Meryl Streep as Katherine Graham, The Post

Best Supporting Actress: Carrie Fisher

Best Actress in a Supporting Role — Carrie Fisher as General Leia Organa, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Carmen Ejogo as Sarah, It Comes at Night
  • Marianna Palka as Jill Hart, Bitch
  • Octavia Spencer as Zelda Fuller, The Shape of Water
  • Lois Smith as Marjorie, Marjorie Prime
  • Allison Williams as Rose Armitage, Get Out

Best Actor: Daniel Kaluuya

Best Actor in a Leading Role — Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington, Get Out

Runners-Up:

  • Timothée Chalamet as Elio Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Adam Driver as Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, Star Wars: The Last Jedi
  • James McAvoy as Kevin Wendell Crumb et alSplit
  • Gary Oldman as Winston Churchill, Darkest Hour
  • Robert Pattinson as Constantine “Connie” Nikas, Good Time

Best Supporting Actor: Mark Hamill

Best Actor in a Supporting Role — Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Runners-Up:

  • Armie Hammer as Oliver, Call Me by Your Name
  • Richard Jenkins as Giles, The Shape of Water
  • Patrick Stewart as Charles, Logan
  • Michael Stuhlbarg as Mr. Perlman, Call Me by Your Name
  • Jason Sudeikis as Oscar, Colossal

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

Best Ensemble Cast: Get Out

(Daniel Kaluuya, Allison Williams, Catherine Keener, Bradley Whitford, Caleb Landry Jones, Marcus Henderson, Betty Gabriel, Lakeith Stanfield, Stephen Root, LilRel Howery)

Runners-Up:

  • Call Me by Your Name (Timothée Chalamet, Armie Hammer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Amira Casar, Esther Garell)
  • It (Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton)
  • The Post (Meryl Streep, Tom Hanks, Bob Odenkirk, Tracey Letts, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Carrie Coon, Jesse Plemons, David Cross)
  • The Shape of Water (Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones)
  • Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro, Frank Oz, Billie Lourd, Joonas Suotamo, Jimmy Vee)

Best Screenplay: Jordan Peele

Best Screenplay — Get Out, written by Jordan Peele

Runners-Up:

  • Colossal, written by Nacho Vigalondo
  • Good Time, written by Ronald Bronstein and Josh Safdie
  • Marjorie Prime, screenplay by Michael Almereyda, based on the stage play by Jordan Harrison
  • The Post, written by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer
  • The Shape of Water, screenplay by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor, story by Guillermo del Toro

Best Cinematography: Roger Deakins

Best Cinematography — Roger Deakins, Blade Runner 2049

Runners-Up:

  • Drew Daniels, It Comes at Night
  • Sayombhu Mukdeeprom, Call Me by Your Name
  • Andrew Droz Palermo, A Ghost Story
  • Hoyte van Hoytema, Dunkirk
  • Sean Price Williams, Good Time

Best Original Score — Daniel Lopatin (Oneohtrix Point Never), Good Time

Runners-Up:

  • Alexandre Desplat, The Shape of Water
  • Daniel Hart, A Ghost Story
  • Kira Fontana, Kedi
  • Brian McOmber, It Comes at Night
  • Hans Zimmer, Dunkirk

Best Original Song — “Mystery of Love,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by Sufjan Stevens)

Runners-Up:

  • “I Get Overwhelmed,” A Ghost Story (performed by Dark Rooms)
  • “The Pure and the Damned,” Good Time (performed by Oneohtrix Point Never featuring Iggy Pop)
  • “To Be Human,” Wonder Woman (performed by Sia featuring Labrinth)

Best Use of Non-Original Music: "Love My Way" from Call Me by Your Name

Best Use of Non-Original Music — “Love My Way,” Call Me by Your Name (performed by the Psychedelic Furs)

Runners-Up:

  • “Bellbottoms,” Baby Driver (performed by the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion)
  • “Dear God,” It (performed by XTC)
  • “Hocus Pocus,” Baby Driver (performed by Focus)
  • “Mr. Blue Sky,” Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (performed by the Electric Light Orchestra)
  • “Voices Carry,” Atomic Blonde (performed by ‘Til Tuesday)

PORG

Breakout Star of 2017 — The Porg in the co-pilot’s seat on the Millennium Falcon, Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule Reviews: Personal Shopper; Hounds of Love; Okja; What Happened to Monday; Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Capsule reviews of Okja, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, and more

Personal Shopper

Personal Shopper

France. Directed by Olivier Assayas. Starring Kristen Stewart, Sigrid Bouaziz, Ty Olwin, Lars Eidinger, Anders Danielsen Lee, Nora von Waldstätten.

In case It Comes at Night didn’t slake your thirst for ambiguity, might I recommend Personal Shopper? Starring Kristen Stewart as a young American bumming around Paris, working as a PA to an obnoxious celebrity and waiting for her recently-deceased twin brother to contact her from beyond the veil—oops, I probably should have mentioned that the sibs are mediums—this film is harder to interpret than phone poll data for a special election in Alabama.

Stewart’s generally subdued approach to her craft serves her well here, manifesting in-character as disaffection and cynicism, and she particularly shines during a series of second-act sequences in which her primary co-star is an iPhone. This is actually a lot more gripping that it might sound. Indeed, without the supernatural element Olivier Assays (who previously collaborated with Stewart on Clouds of Sils Maria) has crafted a canny and effective thriller. But the ghosts add an extra dimension, and their presence makes Stewart feel haunted in more ways than one.

I do have to say that the final act presents a puzzle that continues to confound well after the film ends, and that while I like the interpretation that seems to prevail among the film’s fans, there is something about it that just doesn’t feel right to me. It’s not something that bugs me a lot in the end, however.

Hounds of Love

Hounds of Love

Australia. Directed by Ben Young. Starring Emma Booth, Ashleigh Cummings, Stephen Currie, Susie Porter, Damian de Montemas.

The tendency for male filmmakers to draw a line between “feminine empowerment” and “cheap exploitation” probably existed before I Spit on Your Grave. Ben Young’s nasty psych-thriller Hounds of Love works squarely in that tradition but the feminism just about overpowers the prurience. The setup is very basic: a serial-killing married couple, John (Stephen Currie) and Evie (Emma Booth, of Netflix’s excellent Aussie import Glitch), operate out of Perth in the late ’80s (the setting allowing for a montage set to Joy Division’s “Atmosphere,” one of the weirdest clichés to manifest overt the past couple of years). Their latest victim is Vicki (Ashleigh Cummings), a troubled teen with separated parents, who quickly realizes she needs to play her captors off each other to survive.

While several elements didn’t work for me—it seemed very weird that the killers would choose to target victims in their own neighborhood (they literally live two or streets away from Vicki’s mum)—what made the film was Evie’s characterization and Booth’s performance in the role. Evie is clearly damaged and disturbed but she’s also clearly a victim of John’s emotional and physical abuse. Vicki may be the film’s nominal Final Girl, but Evie is the character the audience roots for. I also liked how the relationship between John and Evie reflected dynamic between Vicki’s parents (note how much of an ass her father is).

Okja

Okja

United States/South Korea. Directed by Bong Joon-ho. Starring Ahn Seo-huyn, Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano, Byun Hee-bong, Steven Yeun, Lily Collins, Yoon Je-moon, Shirley Henderson, Giancarlo Esposito, Jake Gyllenhaal.

In theory, any director could make a film about a young girl’s quest to save her genetically engineered pet superpig from the evil multinational globalcorp that created her (the pig, obviously, not the girl). But only Bong Joon-ho could make that film in this particular way. By turns adorable and cynical, idealistic and fatalistic, Okja is a damn-near-perfect examination of life under predatory capitalism, where the difference between life and death can be found in the margin between profit and loss.

Bong pulls off a truly awe-inspiring juggling act. Tilda Swinton slips easily into the villain position, a dual role as a ruthless yet charming corporate CEO and the less-charismatic twin sister she overthrew, backed up by an opportunistic corporate weasel (Breaking Bad’s Giancarlo Esposito) and a washed-up, alcoholic TV presenter (Jake Gyllenhaal). On the side of Good, Paul Dano leads a team of animal-rights activists who mean well but don’t always end up doing the right thing. But Ahn Seo-huyn provides the film’s heart and soul as Mija, whose bond with the superpig carries her through a whirlwind of exhilarating set pieces.

This is a lot for a film to take in, even a two-hour one, and it’s to Bong’s credit that he’s able to keep most of the pins in the air with grace. Gyllenhaal’s performance, an ugly mess of unnecessary hamming and funny voices, is the major flaw here, and yet he succeeds in lending genuine menace to the film’s most horrifying and heartbreaking sequence.

What Happened to Monday

What Happened to Monday

United Kingdom/France/Belgium. Directed by Tommy Wirkola. Starring Noomi Rapace, Marwan Kenzari, Christian Rubeck, Pål Sverre Hagen, Glenn Close, Willem Dafoe.

It would be hard to say no to seven Noomi Rapaces even in the worst of circumstances, and What Happened to Monday is surprisingly good. Set in a dystopian near-future where multiple pregnancies become more common, leading to rampant overpopulation, leading to laws limiting families to one child per, the film places Rapace in the roles of identical septuplets. Each named after a day of the week, the septs share a single legal identity (each one goes out into the world on her namesake day while the other six remain in hiding), a workable scheme until, as you can probably guess from the title, Monday goes missing.

It’s a lot of fun watching Rapace kick ass in seven different wigs, but what sets Monday apart is its commitment to its setting. Too many science-fiction actioners use their fantastical elements as little more than excuses to set up fights, chases, and explosions. Monday actually considers the difficult questions it poses. The Child Allocation Bureau and its supporters are evil, no doubt about that, with its policies bordering on eugenics. Yet the film consistently reminds the viewer about the overpopulation problem, and the final sequences explicitly address the consequences of nobody willing to make difficult decisions.

If all of that seems a bit heavy, you can always sit back and watch the characters hit each other, shoot each other, and blow stuff up. Rapace gets a number of impressive action sequences while never coming off as a superhero (or septet of them), the villains are suitably nasty, and Willem Dafoe gets some tender moments in flashbacks. Pity director Tommy Wirkola couldn’t convince Glenn Close to pick an accent and stick with it for the entire film; she’s been on a roll lately.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

United States. Directed by Rian Johnson. Starring Mark Hammill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Benicio del Toro.

The transition is complete. The Force Awakens reset the franchise, back to basics; Rogue One tested the boundaries of what a Star Wars film could do and be outside the framework of the Skywalker family saga. The Last Jedi progresses from these, in many ways inventing a new kind of Star Wars movie, one that acknowledges the Campbellian principles of the George Lucas films (and of Force Awakens by extension) while forging a new, modern mythic path, one more morally complex than we’ve seen in the series proper.

That doesn’t mean that The Last Jedi doesn’t feel like Star Wars. Everything you expect from this movie, it provides: exhilarating space battles, thrilling acts of derring-do, explorations of the outer space and inner spaces of that galaxy far, far away. Poe Dameron remains the hotheaded wisecracker, Rey the plucky, determined seeker, General Organa the grave tactician, Finn the reluctant hero, Kylo Ren the uncontrollable villain, General Hux the rabid ranter. Nor does the film neglect to riff on the series’ classic set-pieces, most effectively when it places Luke Skywalker in the role of reluctant teacher, the very position he thrust Yoda into in 1980.

But the film also challenges (an observation I must attribute to Channel Awesome’s Rob Walker). New character Rose Tico serves as the Resistance’s conscience. Luke has become a tragic figure in the classical sense. Fan complaints about the hypocrisy of the Jedi become canon. Finn and Rose’s side-quest in Canto Bight becomes an indictment of the Star Wars class system.

To observe that The Last Jedi isn’t a perfect film feels like dredging up cliché, but it must be admitted. Rian Johnson doesn’t integrate his visual style as seamlessly with the series’ visual grammar as J.J. Abrams did. Benicio del Toro needs to reign in his twitchier tendencies. And, of course, like every other tentpole picture of the last couple years, it’s just too damn long.

Yet ultimately The Last Jedi is a triumph: for Johnson; for the cast, especially Mark Hammill and the late Carrie Fisher; for Kathleen Kennedy and Disney/Lucasfilm as a whole. It will likely stand as the apex of the new trilogy, as it’s hard to believe the Abrams-helmed Episode IX will surpass it. My heart will always lie with The Empire Strikes Back, but in realistic terms, The Last Jedi is as good as a Star Wars movie can get.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Only time will tell whether the first Star Wars film in ten years is the herald of a new golden age or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every reason to be optimistic.

United States. Directed by J.J. Abrams, 2015. Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Max von Sydow, Peter Mayhew, Gwendoline Christie. 135 minutes. 9/10

On October 30, 2012, the Walt Disney Company announced its acquisition of Lucasfilm Ltd. With that purchase came a drive to develop the Star Wars intellectual property into a shared “cinematic universe” à la Marvel Studios’ MCU. Three years later, The Force Awakens–the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era, the first of a new planned trilogy, the first not developed by George Lucas–is finally available for mass consumption. The waiting is finally over. Is this the beginning of a new golden age, or are we doomed to repeat the prequel era?

Well, it’s like this. Having been almost eleven years of age when Fox released the film that wasn’t yet called A New Hope, J.J. Abrams (director and co-writer of The Force Awakens, as if you didn’t know) belongs to the first generation that had the mythic scope and narrative structure of Star Wars imprinted on the part of his brain that tells him how to properly tell a story with moving pictures. Because he’s a fan, he knows what a Star Wars fan wants out of a film billing itself as “episode seven,” the official successor to Return of the Jedi.

And what a fan wants from such a film is to get the same vibe, the same sense of wonder and excitement, that they had the first time they saw Star Wars (or The Empire Strikes Back, or Return of the Jedi). Whether Abrams succeeds is up to the individual filmgoer; Star Wars fans tend to have intensely personal relationships with the series. But he damn well gives it his all. Other reviews make much of how Force Awakens replicates the plot beats of the original trilogy, particularly New Hope. This isn’t a weakness; to the contrary, it’s a necessity. For better or worse, mythic adventure is a formula. Rules must be followed.

At any rate, it’s not as if simply “rhyming” the beats makes Force Awakens a remake of New Hope. Yes, Episode VII begins with the required elements: the “A long time ago…” caption, the STAR WARS logo receding into space, the opening crawl, the downward pan. From that point forward, Abrams doesn’t bother trying to George Lucas’s (Irvin Kershner’s/Richard Marquand’s) visual style. Even when he employs dissolves and wipes, Force Awakens looks like a J.J. Abrams film: more modern and kinetic and, yes, plenty of lens flares. BB-8, a spherical practical-effects marvel who has as much personality as any human character, sums up all the strengths of Abrams’ visual aesthetic in one concise, adorable package.

This extends to the script, which Abrams developed with Lawrence Kasdan (perhaps Lucas’s best screenwriter-collaborator, with apologies to Leigh Brackett) from an early draft by Michael Arndt. The lead characters have more depth than their counterparts in the original trilogy, a crucial element in the success of the main villain, Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren. Let’s be honest: as menacing as Darth Vader is, that’s more on the design and the performances of Dave Prowse and James Earl Jones than on the writing. Thankfully, Driver accepts the challenge and rises to it, bestowing a terrifying intensity and humanity to match.

There are no dud performances in what must be one of the strongest ensembles of the year: future films seem secure in the hands of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac; Andy Serkis reminds us how he became the go-to guy for performances like this; Domhnall Gleeson and Gwendoline Christie make surprisingly good Nazis. Yet the film’s MVPs are veterans Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, both of whom are too old for this shit but pull it off anyway. Ford, in particular, looks more interested in his surroundings than he has in a long time.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens represents a new era for the series. It’s far too easy to be cynical about Disney’s plans for the property, planning to release a Star Wars movie every year (currently alternating Rian Johnson and Colin Trevorrow’s Episodes VIII and IX with standalones like 2016’s Rogue One) as long as fans care to see them. Only time will tell whether The Force Awakens is the herald of great things to come or a dead-end, but right now, we’ve every right to be optimistic.

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS poster.