Review: ‘Last Jedi’ is an epic in the best and worst of ways

The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.

While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.

In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.

Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. Continue reading →

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Review: With ‘Silence,’ Scorsese’s passion project finally comes to life

An edited version of this review appeared in the ABQ Free Press, and can be viewed here

Martin Scorsese has proven to be a consistent a filmmaking force over the years, having succeeded in multiple eras of cinema where other directors may have lost touch with their audience. But while consistency in his filmography reigns, the accessibility of his projects in recent years vary wildly.

It’s hard to think of a Scorsese movie that exemplifies this better that “Silence.” It represents a long-gestating passion project for the director, about Christian priests searching for their missing mentor in 1600s Japan, where the religion is not only outlawed, but met with swift brutality.

It’s easy to say that “Silence” has a straightforward premise; it certainly isn’t tough to follow, even when the seemingly intimate story occasionally lends itself to broad, epic strokes of storytelling.

Rather, it’s the underlying tale of conflicting religious and cultural ideologies that makes “Silence” one of Scorsese’s most profound works to date.

That the movie, clocking in at a little over two and a half hours, tells a story that simultaneously self-contained and transcendent of its setting is a testimony to Scorsese’s script, which he worked on alongside Jay Cocks.

Scorsese’s seemingly lifelong interest in the project is absolutely on display here. Consequently, some in the audience will find it hard to engage on an emotional level with what they see on screen, whether it’s because they were expecting something more in the veins of the frenetic “The Wolf of Wall Street” or they can’t relate with the characters in terms of belief in a higher power.

silence-stuff

But the ones who can engage on an emotional, even spiritual, level might find themselves deep in thought at various points in the film, particularly at moments of discussion between Andrew Garfield’s priest Rodrigues and the anti-Christian Inquisitor. These intellectual clashes serve to show that there’s not really a traditional good guy and bad guy in “Silence”; just a difference in perspective.

Speaking of perspective, Rodrigo Preto conjures up imagery behind the camera that is nothing short of majestic, a visual contrast to the figurative nothingness suggested by the film’s title. In a year with many superbly-shot films, “Silence” demands a seat at the table.

Fog is a pervading element in the movie, acting as nature’s answer to the wisps of doubt that slowly creep into Rodrigues’ mind. And the use of Christian imagery at the most unexpected of moments is chilling, if not meant to make us feel a similar weight that is on Rodrigues’ shoulders.

Garfield is fine here, enduring through initial impressions of having been miscast with a performance that becomes more physically demanding the more he looks like Jesus himself. Adam Driver, as the priest Garupe, is acceptable with the unexpectedly limited screentime he has, and Liam Neeson is expectedly satisfying as the vulnerable missing priest Ferreira.

Meanwhile, it’s silence itself that feels like it has the most noteworthy performance, a character in its own right that almost acts as a mediator in the proceedings. There’s the figurative silence that Rodrigues must grapple with in his journey, but the virtual lack of any score in the film gives a certain amount of levity to the narrative.

At times the technique makes “Silence” feel like a historical documentary (which, to an extent, it is, having basis in fact). Other times it’s authority is so  pertinent that we hope for just a pin drop to break the tension. On that end, Scorsese delivers with the occasional, but extremely vivid, display of brutality.

The modern cinema is a place where most movies are rife with spectacle that is as easy to absorb as it perhaps is to forget. “Silence” instead is formidable in its resolve to remind us that the physical lack of cinematic bombast can be even louder, and certainly more thought-provoking.

Scorsese is offering us an invitation to the table where identity and culture collide in constant conflict; whether that’s under the authority of a hanging crucifix or not is up to us.

 

“Silence” is rated R for some disturbing violent content

Starring: Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver, Liam Neeson, Tadanobu Asano

Directed by Martin Scorsese

2016

 

The Force Awakens Review: A Star Wars for the old generation and the new

J.J. Abrams has a knack for this franchise-resurrecting thing.

That’s the first thing one with knowledge of Abrams’ resume will think once the credits for Star Wars: The Force Awakens rolls, after what feels like a slightly longer time in the theater than the running time suggests.

Rarely is that ever a good thing. It is here, for the most part. This is no trap; this is the rehabilitation of a franchise that is finally getting the modern treatment it deserves.

In regards to Abrams’ entries in the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek properties – which feel minuscule compared to the behemoth that is The Force Awakens – he certainly has learned from his past success, and puts it all together in the newest entry for one of the planet’s most universally recognizable entertainment properties.

Oh, yeah, Abrams knew what he was doing at the helm of this film. And it shows in nearly every facet, from the sense of adventure and heavy stakes and levity to enchanting characters old and new, and a universe you don’t have to be in IMAX or watch in 3D to feel like you are very much in it.

Finally, after the forgettable prequels, we know what our parents felt like watching Star Wars for the first time in 1977. It’s because Abrams directed The Force Awakens with a passion that was so painfully and obviously absent in Episodes I through III.

He simultaneously gives an ode to the original trilogy – sometimes in ways that are a little too obvious, like a love letter to moments and details now engrained in pop culture – while working intimately and delicately to set a new one. New characters Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron (just to name a few) are part of a cast that is so large it would have been easy to forget about some characters; except satisfying and appropriate story arcs and screen time is lent to most everyone.

How The Force Awakens handles Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is both essential and very well done, for the sake of the plot as well as the audience. They never steal the spotlight, and the plot rarely hinges on them entirely; rather, their roles feel natural, as if the film didn’t need them, yet we welcome them back with open arms. They don’t need grand entrances. Why would they? We grew up with them.

Meanwhile, it cannot be understated how much fresh energy and life newcomers Daisy Ridley (Lifesaver, Scrawl), John Boyega (Attack the Block), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) and Adam Driver (Girls, This Is Where I Leave You) lend to the flow and sheer power of the film. The chemistry between any pair of these actors is utterly believable. Ridley, in particular, is remarkable, exhibiting an incredibly broad range of emotion for a character that – OK, MILD SPOILER HERE – should only get more so in future installme…er…episodes.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor - whether droid or human - that is something to be admired.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor – whether droid or human – that is something to be admired.

Driver, as well, is impeccable as Kylo Ren, a role that is ostensibly more complex than perhaps any Star Wars villain that has come before him. Indeed, his is a new, and potentially far more dangerous, iteration of sinister.

Not only does the script intelligently work with the vast cast at hand, but under Abrams’ direction, The Force Awakens – especially in its delightfully engrossing first hour alone – simply captures the essence of the franchise in a bottle. It starts fast and furious, wasting not much time for setup, before eventually meandering down into a (much) more slower paced middle act which hold mysteries that ultimately still make the wait very much worth it.

Much has been made about Abrams’ devotion to practical effects over CGI in the film, and it shows – you are thrust back in to the galaxy far, far away. The settings feel real, because they are. There are no green screens to be had. The practical aliens, environments, sounds, sights…it all is just so authentic, like lowering a needle on a vinyl record that you didn’t know you missed the sound of, and which is much more satisfying than the highly digitized, distorted sound of the modern age, leading to distorted results.

It’s something that is immediately apparent from the first sequence; a sense of authenticity that legitimately has the power to influence the way future movies create visual effects…just like A New Hope did.

Yes, The Force Awakens is different from most movies coming out these days – in terms of hype – for obvious reasons, but make no mistake: this is an entry that can stand entirely on its own, and it does. The classic Star Wars themes of interfamily drama and hope against seemingly insurmountable odds are there, as is the sense that this could be simply the most complete film in the franchise to date.

J.J. Abrams' flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

J.J. Abrams’ flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

And while that is something the new generation of Star Wars fans are excited to hear, it does come with some fine print: the nostalgia factor. While part of The Force Awakens’ appeal is in its continuation of the saga – rather than dealing with events we knew would unfold, a la Anakin becoming Darth Vader – the more the film goes on, the more it feels like a reboot instead of such a sequel.

That is, some sequences, while they are breathtaking and gorgeous, thanks to incredible cinematography, feel more and more recycled. We don’t yet know if it’s a good or bad thing yet, as The Force Awakens ends on some notes that ring of plot tropes we’ve seen exhausted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. Not all questions are answered, and new ones arise upon the first viewing. 

But answering those questions is something to worry about at a later time. For now, we can relax and watch The Force Awakens knowing that it has righted so many wrongs of the prequels; from getting the more humorous and serious tones balanced just right, to placing very real and present weight and consequences on its characters, to being utterly unpredictable, no matter how many times we might think to ourselves we just saw something right out of Hope, Empire, or Return.

Because in reality, The Force Awakens is a testament to those three movies that captured the hearts and imaginations of millions almost 40 years ago…and Abrams has achieved the same feat. Under some of the heaviest pressure ever placed upon a filmmaker – weren’t we saying that when he helmed Star Trek’s return? – he has returned us gracefully and righteously to the universe we craved, free from political-based plots we don’t care about, meandering dialogue we can’t unhear for all wrong reasons, and spastic shifts in tone that make us wonder when George Lucas lost his touch.

A universe for the old generation, and the new.

In a Nutshell

Abrams has a Best Director Oscar nomination locked down for the work he has done on The Force Awakens. Although some sequences in the latter acts feel like a shinier version of what we’ve seen before, it’s nonetheless a universe we know we’ve wanted to return to, and we should be glad we did. May the Force be with directors of future installments. Set high, the bar is.

9.2 / 10

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

2015