Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill
Directed by Rian Johnson
Accepting reality is one of life’s most difficult challenges. Answers elude burning questions, or arrive with baggage you couldn’t expect. The wrong decision feels one hundred percent right; the right decision leaves everyone feeling wrong. These ideas form the core of The Last Jedi, an entry in the Star Wars saga that blurs the good versus evil / black against white mythos that’s been cemented in this entertainment monolith for decades. The results are dream-like, surreal, mostly captivating, occasionally bonkers—yet you witness a growth, not just with the characters but the franchise itself.
The Last Jedi picks up right where 2015’s The Force Awakens left off; Rey (Daisy Ridley) has located the hermit Luke Skywalker, whom she hopes will join the Resistance against the First Order while training her in the ways of the Force. Luke, still reeling from events in his recent past, is wary of this young newcomer and the trouble she may bring to his doorstep. Meanwhile, a power struggle is coming to light within the First Order as Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) openly doubts the abilities of Darth Vader’s grandson, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Ren is battling his own demons and is not in fact very present in mind for what the First Order believes will be the final push against General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her Resistance. There’s internal distress on that side, too, as spicy boy pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and ex-stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) bristle under Resistance leadership and ultimately go rogue.
Ideas that the Star Wars prequels fumbled to infamy are presented here with grace and wonder. There are also moments in The Last Jedi where they roll the space dice and come up with droid eyes. Of course, this echoes the film’s aforementioned themes—you can’t always get what you want, reality can be a bitch. Director Rian Johnson has broken away from the formulaic feel that many believe hampers The Force Awakens; at the same time, Johnson (who also authored the script) deepens the chemistry between the leads, bringing resonance to the fact this war for the galaxy’s heart is extremely personal.
And yes, the rumors are true: this might be the Star Wars with the most jokes. One liners, visual gags, even bits reminiscent of Monty Python. The levity is appreciated as it bridges the gap between emotional set pieces. Don’t forget, The Last Jedi is two hours plus. A little editing may not have hurt, but perhaps that would decrease the perfectly feverish ambience.
FINAL SCORE: Three and a half porgs (out of four).
Star Wars celebrates 40 years of escapism, influence, and cultural currency today. The founding chapter of this now colossal property was released May 25, 1977, across a pittance of screens. Popularity ignited like a house on fire and before anyone could blink this thing was obliterating contemporaries like A Tale of Two Critters, Herbie Goes to Monte Carlo, and Viva Knievel!. Only Smokey And The Bandit gave Star Wars any kind of run for its money, and there’s still a gap of about $180 million in domestic gross between the two. Burt Reynolds just couldn’t charm his way around Chewbacca.
There’s a documentary feel to the 1977 Star Wars which helps it resonate deeply, a framing where the audience isn’t following narrative but observing environment; the awkward broth of fantasy exposition is dismissed and we’re allowed to ferret out details as we witness events in these alien realms. This is especially true of desert planet scenes where the robots fumble along, get swooped up by the junk dealers, and are unceremoniously dumped into Luke Skywalker’s life. This fly-on-the-wall style counters so many other sci-fi films that desperately want to impress upon you their grandiose, mythical nature. Star Wars just drops you in there and lets many fantastical moments unfold nonchalantly, because these characters see lasers and blue milk every day.
Pivoting on that point, one of the best decisions George Lucas ever made was to insist this beginning Star Wars is actually the fourth installment of a who-knows-how-long saga. That let our imaginations go purple trying to fill in the priors. As incredible as the visuals and characters in Star Wars are, they suggest much more with that context. On the other side of the ewok, one of the dumbest decisions George Lucas ever made was giving in to temptation and actually filming the first three chapters, bluntly extinguishing the dreams we spun for ourselves across several decades.
Star Wars numbers four and five came before one, two, and three; there are probably those who also believe the immediate sequels—1980’s The Empire Strikes Back and 1983’s Return of The Jedi—should have never been made, allowing the 1977 film to remain the purest of entities. Foolish mortals! Star Wars made so much fucking money it was never going to be singular. Let’s just count our blessings over the miracle of The Empire Strikes Back, that rare sequel which bests its founder in pulp, artistry, and thrill. Star Wars 6 and 7 (and Rogue One) are great too, but there’s just something about the dreamy nightmare of Empire that cannot be equaled.
Of course, Star Wars at 40 is more of a conglomerate than ever, absorbed by Disney so they can have Darth Vader roaming the halls of their luxury hotels with minimal overhead. Star Wars belongs to our entire planet but it’s a U.S. invention and there’s nothing more “American” than celebrating a successful business. So rats off to maximizing profits and creating a global brand. And thanks for being so lenient with the fans who have restored and distributed the theatrical versions of the ’77 movie and its two sequels; this must be an admission of guilt or disagreement regarding “the vision” George Lucas suddenly decided he had for the original trilogy in 1997.
What else is there to say? Nanu nanu, put more Greedos in Star Wars 8.
Part of a Star Wars display at the Mall of America Lego store in Bloomington, MN. There are some artistic liberties occurring here, which I encourage.
Incredibly sexual centerpiece at the Mall of America Peeps store. Should marshmallow be this arousing?
My best friend John owning it in the style of his birth city (the Bronx).
A very beautiful lake in Stockholm, Wisconsin.
I attended a wedding looking like this (and I wasn’t thrown out!).
Abandoned rubber chicken in the mailbox area of my Orlando apartment complex. Never got the full story on this sensational find.
Main entrance of Florida’s infamous Howey Mansion. I was granted exclusive access when I wrote a story about it for Orlando Weekly.
Angry mid ’90s Rolling Stone reader.
Orlando area toll plaza decorated for Halloween.
Record store regrets.
Street art spotted deep in Mexico.
Some of my roommate’s nonsense.
Some of my own nonsense.
Rogue One occupies an odd place on the Star Wars timeline; a prequel set just a handful of days before the original 1977 Star Wars, this film follows the exploits of the brave Rebels who capture and curry the Death Star plans to Princess Leia shortly before she slips them into R2-D2. It’s a vital juncture in this decades-long interstellar fantasy, yet it’s also very compartmentalized with no strong connection to the other seven entries. The heroes of Rogue One have never been identified previously. Their harrowing mission is a blip in the distant future during the other three prequels and by the time we meet troubled rural teen Luke Skywalker their exploits are yesterday’s news.
Rogue One is also occurring at a weird moment in our own world—just a year ago we were hit with The Force Awakens, a continuation of the main Star Wars narrative set 30 years after Return of The Jedi. Why walk us back pre-Hamill already? Where’s the ball droid? Where’s Adam Driver? Where the hell are the singing cats?
The arrival of Rogue One may not make a ton of sense, but the movie is so fantastic and gripping it doesn’t matter. Director Gareth Edwards paints with astonishing visuals, using perspective and scale and rich special effects to inject a “wow” factor absent in many of the previous chapters (it is extremely satisfying to watch a space battle that looks like a space battle, not a video game). Rogue One even makes the unthinkable work—the film resurrects Peter Cushing 22 years after his death (digitally, of course) for another turn as Imperial official Grand Moff Tarkin. As other characters interact with the Moff it is difficult to tell they are acting against a cartoon. We must consider the possibility Gareth Edwards is an occult priest who used black magic to literally raise Peter Cushing from his grave.
Tarkin assumes control of the nearly completed Death Star early in the film, which we learn was the brainchild of a morally conflicted architect named Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen). The Empire tears Erso away from his family for the home stretch of this space laser project and that surely motivates his decision to leak compromising intelligence about the Death Star’s reactor to the Rebellion. The Rebellion turns to Erso’s daughter, Jyn (Felicity Jones), who is willing to throw in with this galactic coup malarky if there’s a chance her father can be freed. Along the way Jyn builds herself a posse, including a handsome Rebel dude (Diego Luna), an extremely droll robot (Alan Tudyk), a blind holy man who may or may not be Jedi (Donnie Yen), and this sort of space Rambo (Jiang Wen). The group only grows tighter as the game changes around them.
Rogue One’s heroes may lack the radioactive charm of a Han Solo or a Chewbacca but they are resolved and strong and you root for every single one of them in the enormously satisfying (and somewhat heartbreaking) third act. In an era where Hollywood loves nothing more than to hit you with false endings, this venture gives you but one, an audacious and stimulating one, and sews it pretty well to the start of the founding late ’70s passage we all memorized growing up. Rogue One may have single-handedly saved the fate of the word “prequel.”
Also, somewhere in the middle of this adventure, you get to see Darth Vader’s house. It’s not carpeted.
FINAL SCORE: Four fistfuls of ewok fur (out of four).
Ain’t never seen a dog chewin’ on a palm frond until I went to Mexico. Actually, I heard it first; the sound of something slowly and methodically tearing through underbrush. I poked my head outside and there he was, some lazy hound gnawin’ on leaf. If my prolonged stare made the dog self conscious he / she didn’t let on. On the whole, the animals of rural southwest Mexico seem unfazed by the human presence. Dogs, cats, chickens, goats, iguanas—even bugs are relaxed, refusing to skitter about like lunatics as they do in the States. America, we’re giving our pets complexes.
What brought me to Troncones, a beachside village slipping out underneath acres of lush jungle, a village so tiny most buildings have no proper address? My friend John and his wife Karen currently work at an area resort, teaching yoga, giving massages, fishing, etc. They invited me, and how could I decline this ostensible paradise? I’m working on a book about punk rock around the globe anyway, thus the extra incentive of potentially uncovering Mexico’s answer to Topper Headon. Don’t snort; screen legend Hedy Lamarr spent her final years in an Orlando suburb five minutes from my current home.
I learned a lot about Mexican culture from these eight days, a handful of which were spent four hours inland amidst terrain and altitudes comparable to America’s southwest. The least important fact: flat screen televisions have come to the quesadilla huts that line the Mexican backroads. Washing down chorizo with a torpedo sized Coke, I caught half an hour of prime afternoon tube during one lunchbreak. There were ads for college, ads for antacid, even ads for Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Just as my mouth began watering for those eleven goddamn herbs and spices, John announced the nearest city, Zihuatanejo, is bereft of the Colonel. No tenemos Harland Sanders.
So that shit happens here too. Commercials for stores that don’t exist.
Before departing the United States I made two purchases at my local dollar store: sunglasses and sandals. The sunglasses continue to work perfectly but the sandals could only handle about forty-eight hours of my oceanside trampling. In their defense, I’ve never been much of a beach person and I’m sure I was walking in them incorrectly. Maybe I’m just making excuses for shitty footwear. It doesn’t matter, I survived.
Will it surprise you to learn I am also not much of a yoga person? The resort where John and Karen work, Present Moment, is very yoga-centric. My brain has never been able to hook into that stuff—even when I was dating a high priestess of yoga who was known to yoga for up to nine hours at a time (I am not joking). This week was no different. I was assured my poor yoga aptitude is because I simply have not done enough yoga yet. So it’s like hard liquor. You must acquire a taste?
Present Moment, by the way, is not any kind of fortress resort keeping guests ensconced away from “the real” Mexico. There is little separation between its expertly landscaped courtyard and the local community of Troncones. In fact, there seems to be a good amount of symbiosis between the two.
It wouldn’t be a trip to Mexico if I didn’t try cacao, the magical base elixir from whence we get chocolate. Taken raw it can be a gateway to mind expansion, to hyper awareness and ultimate clarity, or so they say. I imbibed, sprawled on the ground, and felt…nothing. I mean, nothing aside from the usual weird slurry in my brain. What’s up with Daniel Radcliffe? Am I asleep right now? Are these girls next to me sisters or are they just friends who look alike? Is my t-shirt too tight? Is it too loose?
Driving from Troncones to the mountain area of Zirahuén was very scenic and exciting, the latter in part because we were stopped and searched at one point by men in fatigues with enormous guns. It was unclear who these men were, exactly, but I didn’t ask questions. I just smiled and sipped my bottle of Squirt as non-menacingly as possible. Military checkpoints aside, the rules of the Mexican highway are a bit fast and loose. Anybody can pass anybody else at any given time, and from what I heard DUIs are not considered a major sin. Driving at night can be particular trouble, so we didn’t.
Believe it or not the above photo was not staged—I stumbled upon the bottle just like that in the wild. As I was trying to capture the perfect photographic representation, a nearby construction worker paused from his job to try and figure out what I was obsessing over. Karen told him it was just a Star Wars bottle. The man chuckled but did not emit a full on laugh of recognition until I pointed to myself and said, “Mas loco.”
The million dollar questions about this Mexico excursion are, of course, did I drink the water and if so did the water make me sick? Non-filtered aqua is unavoidable if you’re ordering coffee from a bodega or roadside taco stand, and not everyone is boiling to ensure purification. Sure, I had some; it upset my stomach a little, but I’ve consumed things in New York that have made me far sicker. I haven’t had eggplant since 2011 thanks to some searing Manhattan Super Bowl dip. Ay carumba.
Not much else to say other than it was a fun, relaxing, and educational jaunt. Folks were incredibly kind and accommodating. Thank you, peoples of Mexico. My only regret is not buying the guitar pictured below.
Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens
Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford
Directed by J.J. Abrams
Early marketing for The Force Awakens made it relatively clear J.J. Abrams and the Disney Corp would not be reinventing the wheel for this entry. And why would they? Even the sacred original Star Wars films closely mimic one another. All open in some barren wasteland, all feature dwarfish scavenging weirdos, all allow an otherwise goofy robot to play hero in a clutch moment. And so, seventh verse, same as the first: desert orphan, precocious droid, masked villain with red glowing rod, geometrically opposed spaceships.
It’s not the material, though, it’s the delivery, and Force Awakens delivers, effortlessly weaving visual potency, emotional conviction, unexpected humor, and raw excitement into a crackerjack package that provides antidote to the prequel trilogy’s turgid masturbation. Set thirty years after Return of The Jedi, the film brings us up to speed quickly: Luke Skywalker has disappeared, the Rebels have failed to consolidate their power, the Empire has not remained in defeat. That evil reich, now known as the First Order, counts amongst its ranks a brooding and violent Darth Vader disciple named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When a map pointing to the whereabouts of Luke fumbles out into the cosmos, Ren believes it’s his key to restoring Vader’s galactic vision.
Fate (or dumb luck) brings together the heroic team that quickly becomes Kylo Ren’s biggest headache. The AWOL Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) and isolated junk trader Rey (Daisy Ridley), both barely out of their teens, are a little overwhelmed as they inadvertently become swept up in the search for Skywalker (a figure neither can believe is real). Lucky for das kinder, another storied figure of lore (Harrison Ford) crashes the party and offers a lending hand (and wookiee). Meanwhile, the First Order turns an entire planet into a makeshift Death Star powered by the sun, and of course our band of outlaws winds up in an assault on that enormous menace, because what, are they not gonna help Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Admiral Ackbar?
Critics dog J.J. Abrams for doing little more than heating up other people’s leftovers in lens flare, but The Force Awakens proves when elements like a supremely talented cast and snappy scripting align the guy can slam dunk. Any bits that seem to defy whatever logic exists in this starry fantasy you forgive because the film’s whizzing you on a spirited, satisfying ride. The wonder and fun have returned to Star Wars, and not a moment too soon.
FINAL SCORE: Four precocious droids (out of four).
Nearly a decade ago I wrote a book about Star Wars fan culture that did not get published. This PDF contains the story of that failure, some chunks of the original manuscript, a few new essays about our nutso ewok lifestyle, and original artwork by dear friends.
You may have this item for zero dollars if you’d like. If you’d like to give more than zero dollars for this item (and if you have a Paypal account), you may click the shiny knob below. I’m not putting this thing out for the money, though, I’m doing it for the kicks. So thanks for reading, I appreciate that support more than anything else.
Happy Hanukkah. Stay funky, you crazy jawa jockeys.