Back in full Force
When Star Wars: The Force Awakens debuted exactly two years ago, its detractors groused that it was a timid and lazy movie insofar as it never deviated much from the template established by the original Star Wars back in 1977. I would counter that this isn’t exactly true — while it did borrow plenty of plot points from George Lucas’ first baby, it did so in imaginative and exciting ways — but never mind. Star Wars: The Last Jedi likely won’t be dismissed with similar charges, even if one sizable chunk feels like a rehash of The Empire Strikes Back. Written and directed by Rian Johnson, The Last Jedi is very much its own entity, exploring new routes as it teases out themes that have always been present in the Skywalker saga. It’s a bold and challenging work — exactly what we would expect from the auteur of Brick and Looper. In the debit column, it’s also a tad bloated, and it contains an almost risible number of false endings — admittedly not as many as the 42 or so that closed The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King, but enough to draw attention.
The last thing anyone would want in a review of a new Star Wars movie is spoilers, so let’s tread carefully, shall we? As we saw at the end of The Force Awakens, new Jedi on the block Rey (Daisy Ridley) has finally made contact with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who’s been hiding out on an island populated by Porgs (this movie’s equivalent of those infernal Ewoks, though thankfully employed only sparingly). Meanwhile, in another part of the galaxy, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is doing her best to keep the Resistance from being crushed by the First Order. In other story strands, the bravery exhibited by Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is weighed against his recklessness; Finn (John Boyega) finds a new friend in maintenance worker Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran); and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) continues to fret and fume and throw tantrums with the best of them.
Actually, the character arc given to Kylo Ren is an excellent one marking him as one of this entry’s most intriguing players. Yet the greatest appeal is in watching Hamill and Fisher again explore and expand upon their iconic roles. Fisher delivers a commanding performance in both senses of the word and knowing that her tragic death means this will be her final appearance further lends the proceedings a somber and bittersweet tone. As for Hamill, this might represent his finest work in the 40-year-old franchise. Johnson allows the character of Luke Skywalker to evolve in some startling and unexpected ways, and Hamill is with him every step of the way, contributing a turn that’s weighty and wonderful.
At 152 minutes, The Last Jedi is the longest of the nine Star Wars films to date — it’s also the only one where the length is felt (that riveting Trade Federation chat that opens The Phantom Menace, though…). While all the scenes involving younglings should have been deep-sixed, the rest of the bloat can be forgiven, since it simply meant Johnson wanted to make sure fans were saturated and satisfied. Yet there aren’t many vignettes that couldn’t have benefited from a judicious trim here or there.
Still, this is a minor quibble when placed against the magnitude of the movie. Between its acute attention to character growth, the excellent effects that serve rather than dominate, and the poignant moments that tie back to past entries (a particular scene that employs a snippet of vintage footage is nothing less than glorious), it’s easy to imagine true believers’ emotions hitting hyperdrive as they anticipate the concluding chapter that’s landing on December 20, 2019.
Beauty and the Beast meet The Creature from the Black Lagoon in The Shape of Water, an unusual love story that emerges as writer-director Guillermo del Toro’s best English-language movie to date.
Del Toro, whose Spanish-language efforts (particularly Pan’s Labyrinth) remain more deeply satisfying than his Hollywood output, has crafted (along with co-scripter Vanessa Taylor) a sensual and often surreal drama in which a mute cleaning woman named Elisa Esposito (Sally Hawkins) finds romance in an unexpected place. Working alongside her best friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) at a research facility in 1960s Baltimore, Elisa is naturally curious when government operative Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives on the property with a water-filled tank in tow. Elisa soon discovers that Strickland has brought an amphibious humanoid to the facility, a highly intelligent creature he fished out of the Amazon. While Strickland abhors his nautical discovery and wants it destroyed, Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), a scientist with a clouded past, wants to study it. For her part, Elisa just wants to become friends with a being whose silence and outsider status pegs him as a kindred spirit.
If The Shape of Water never quite breaks out of the confines of what’s basically (to quote B&B) a tale as old as time, it’s still an artfully executed diversion further strengthened by an excellent central performance by Hawkins and stellar supporting turns by Stuhlbarg (also memorable in this season’s Call Me By Your Name) and Shannon. As for the “Amphibian Man,” he’s played by Doug Jones — no, not the Doug Jones who humiliated accused perverts Roy Moore and Donald Trump in Alabama nor the Dougie Jones made famous in the latest Twin Peaks season, though either would have been fascinating. This is the Doug Jones who’s best known for playing critters in such works as Pan’s Labyrinth, Mimic and the Hellboy twofer. He’s basically del Toro’s own Andy Serkis, and the director is lucky to have him.