Movie reviews: 'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' a giddy, gripping good time
Published Friday, December 15, 2017 6:00AM EST
Last Updated Tuesday, December 19, 2017 10:43AM EST
STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI: 4 STARS
One of the most famous quotes from the “Star Wars” saga must haunt the dreams of every director who signs on to make one of these continuing stories. "Do. Or do not. There is no try." The “Star Wars” films aren’t simply a night out at the movies; they are part of the fabric of many people’s lives. Some take it VERY seriously. On a 2001 census, 21,000 Canadians put down their religion as Jedi Knight. That is serious fandom.
Finding a balance between the nostalgia many aficionados hold for the iconic series and moving it forward in an entertaining and organic way is a juggling act, one that director Rian Johnson has pulled off in “Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi.”
Tried he did. Fail he did not.
Johnson, who has already been hired to pilot a new three-film “Star Wars” franchise, pushes the characters and the story into new territory while maintaining the gist of George Lucas’s vision.
Beginning immediately after the events of “The Force Awakens,” force-sensitive resistance fighter Rey (Daisy Ridley) is in the most “unknowable place in the galaxy,” the planet Ahch-To, home to the exiled Jedi Master (and Mister Miyagi stand in) Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). As she tries to convince him to train her in the ways of the Jedi, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and her Resistance do battle with the First Order, led by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his minions, General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Vader-wannabe Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).
Like the other films “The Last Jedi” is basically a tale of good versus evil. Snoke wants control of the galaxy while the Resistance is exposed and fighting back. It’s an echo of the original story but our real world has become a more complicated place since the first movie hit theatres and this movie reflects that. There have always been grey areas and nuances in the portrayal of heroes and villains in the franchise but here Kylo wrestles with primal urges. His leader, Snoke, eggs him on—“Kylo you are no Vader,” he taunts. “You are just a child in a mask.”—as he battles with the yin and yang of his personality. That to and fro gives Driver the latitude to surprise the audience in ways (NO SPOILERS HERE!) that may shock even the most hardened fans.
Johnson has not simply remade “Empire Strikes Back,” he’s made a film that bristles with energy and invention. With one eye on the past and one to the future, “The Last Jedi” finds a winning mix of humour and humanity, of old and new and good and evil.
When the talk of resistance and legacy of the Jedi threatens to weigh things down, Johnson counters with some comic relief. It’s a treat to see Carrie Fisher in her last turn as Leia—the film is dedicated to her: “In loving memory of our Princess Carrie Fisher”—and Hamill with light sabre in hand but it’s the spirit of the thing that will please audiences. Although a tad long, “The Last Jedi” is a giddy, gripping good time.
FERDINAND: 3 ½ STARS
Adolf Hitler called “The Story of Ferdinand” "degenerate democratic propaganda" and ordered all copies burned. In spite of that or perhaps because of that, the story of the big bull with an even bigger heart became a publishing phenomenon, outselling “Gone with the Wind” in 1938. The children’s book has never gone out of print and still sells in healthy amounts today.
Those sales will likely increase with the release of “Ferdinand,” a colourful animated 3D movie starring the voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon and Bobby Canavale from the folks who brought us “Ice Age” and “Robots.”
As a calf being raised at Casa del Toro to be a fighting bull Ferdinand (voice of Cena) asks his father, a fearsome bull, “Can I be a champion of not fighting?” More into carnations than combat, he doesn’t want to follow in his father’s footsteps, chasing
Matadors in bullfighting arenas. When his father is killed in the ring, Ferdinand hoofs it, running away to live on a flower farm.
He grows to be a fearsome looking bull, all chest and pointed horns, but remains the same sweet tempered creature he always was. Recaptured, he’s sent back to Casa del Toro and groomed for the ring or the slaughterhouse. Fight or food, those are his options. Selected by bullfighter El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre) Ferdinand, along with a goofy goat named Lupe (Kate McKinnon)—“I’m here to calm you so you can maim and gore later,” she says.—and three devious hedgehogs named Uno, Dos and Cuartro (Gina Rodriguez, Daveed Diggs and Gabriel Iglesias), he plans his escape.
The book is only 32 pages long but director Carlos Saldanha and team flesh out the story to feel organic to author Munro Leaf’s original vision of passive resistance in the face of violence. Pulled to ninety minutes, the story shows some stretch marks but remains likeable with lots of heart and plenty of gags.
The free-to-be-you-and-me anti-bullying messages are cleverly woven into the fabric of the tale. Ferdinand challenges the status quo, defying others to put him in any kind of box. It’s a powerful and timely lesson of acceptance wrapped in a colourful package that should delight kids. It should be noted that while the bull in a China shop gag will elicit giggles, the scenes in the meat packing plant and the climactic bullfight might be too intense for very little children.
The voice work is lively and fun. As Lupe, McKinnon brightens things up in every scene she’s in but is underused in the latter part of the film.
“Ferdinand” could have used more Spanish flavour on the soundtrack. Bland pop songs fill the ears when flamenco might have been more evocative of the time and place but by and large this is an engaging no bull kid’s story with a valuable upfront message.
CALL ME BY YOUR NAME: 4 STARS
Based on André Aciman’s novel of the same name, “Call Me By Your Name” is a delicate romance that explores the nature of consensual, unconditional love.
The story begins at the 17th century Northern Italian villa of archaeology professor Samuel Perlman (Michael Stuhlbarg). It’s 1983 and each year he invites a graduate student to spend the summer cataloguing his discoveries. This year it’s Oliver (Armie Hammer), a 24-year-old American as confident as he is good looking. “What do you do around here?” he asks Elio (Timothée Chalamet), Perlman’s “Heart of Darkness”-reading, classical pianist 17-year-old son. “Wait for the summer to end,” comes the answer.
This summer is different, however. While dating a pretty local girl Marzia (Esther Garrel), Elio experiences a sexual awakening as he develops feelings for the older Oliver. The two begin a relationship, at first playfully antagonistic, later deeply and unabashedly romantic. Ripe with the bloom of first love, Elio is devastated when Oliver returns to the United States, left an emotional wreck. Enter Professor Perlman with an empathetic speech that brings with it comfort but no easy answers.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a movie of small details that speak to larger truths. Director Luca Guadagnino keeps the story simple relying on the minutiae to add depth and beauty to the story. The idyllic countryside, the quaint town, the music of the Psychedelic Furs and the languid pace of a long Italian summer combine to create the sensual backdrop against which the romance between the two blossoms. Guadagnino’s camera captures it all, avoiding the pitfalls of melodrama to present a story that is pure emotion. It feels real and raw, haunted by the ghosts of loves gone by.
Chalamet, who impressed in “Lady Bird” earlier this year, nails the balance between joy and lovelorn, delivering a performance that bridges the gap between hormonal teenager and emotionally charged adult. The film’s final shot, a sustained close-up on Elio’s face in the grips of the realization that he may never see Oliver again, is a window into the soul of heartbreak.
Hammer, whose towering frame and handsome face suggest a typical leading man, delivers a career-best performance. Toggling between brash and beatific, he brings sensitivity to the role and isn’t simply set dressing or an object of obsession.
With Chalamet and Hammer in the leads, the movie is an extended two-hander but near the end, Stuhlbarg delivers an “if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out” speech that is worth the price of admission.
“Call Me By Your Name” is a lot of things. It is part travelogue—you’ll want to jump on a plane for Italy right away—part coming-of-age story, part romance, but, best of all, it is respectful. It is respectful of Elio’s experience and the residual feelings left behind.