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‘Last Jedi’ and looking ahead to awards
December 27, 2017

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By Tony Rutherford

Mixing iconic past moments, continuing adventures with old favorites (Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, R2D2, Chewbacca, C3P0) and further exploration of personalities introduced in "The Force Awakens" (Rey, Finn, and Poe), writer/director Rian Johnson ("Looper," "Brick," "Brothers Bloom") catapuls the space western into "Empire Strikes Back" territory.

Recognizing that George Lucas conceived "Star Wars" from an obsession for Japanese director Akira Kurosawa (Magnificent Seven, The Seven Samurai, Ran) epics, John Ford westerns and science-fiction serials, Johnson instructed his writing staff to watch "Twelve O'Clock High," "The Bridge on the River Kwai," "Gunga Din," "Three Outlaw Samurai," "Sahara" and "Letter Never Sent" for inspiration.

The writers captured the trademark of the spacebucklers - seamlessly invigorating multiple interconnected storylines, "Jedi" swaggers from the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling to evade First Order trackers which sends Rey to persuade Luke (Mark Hamill) to come out of self-imposed isolation and potentially revive the Jedi knights. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Leia's son, played by Adam Driver) faces rebuke from the Supreme Commander for hesitating to exercise powers of the Dark Side to the fullest, as an inner conscience weighs on his mind.

Fanboys (and girls) recall the franchise for lightsabers, battle armored troopers, intricate spaceships, death star weapons, video game-styled blitzes and dogfights, and Yoga-esque Force meditations. Those familiarities abound in "The Last Jedi," but foreshadows of extinction and change send emotive twinges throughout. The grayer-than-Vader villain (Kylo) demands abandoning the past - forgetting Jedi, the Sith and Skywalkers.

These familiar "toys" from the 80s fall into re-imagination just as younger personalities replace those who have literally aged. "Last Jedi" has explosive and twisting more of the same elements, preparing audiences for torch passing that soars past the death of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) last year.

It's too early to trace viewer reaction - which seems to be trending unusually below critical responses. This author's most "huh" moment came when (spoiler alert) Leia survived an explosion and floats through space to a second ship sans spacesuit. She spends part of the film recovering from the ordeal. (No other hints from the multiple plotlines from me).

Battles, music, personality conflicts, humor, emotion and special effects equal or exceed past entries including "Empire Strikes Back." Opening with a cliffhanger narration crawl (like the initial entries), the story picks up where "Force Awakens" left off, zooming intensely into starry space for spectacular "there will be no surrender" clashing of force fields and lasers.

Director Johnson tosses a few symbolic morsels jettisoning fairy tale "black" and "white" for repeated allusions to realities - heroes are not necessarily leaders and failures can be the greatest teacher (no one is perfect!). The franchise maintains its signature "hope" for the better - sparks for the oppressed and downtrodden to keep up their efforts. As "Force Awakens" propelled a continuing crusade against authoritarian regimes, "Jedi" like it elevates women's roles to those of males (and interstellar aliens and droids) maintaining equal values for all life forms (which began when Lucas' "Star Wars" premiered in 1977) and ravaging the psychological baggage which cultivates dark sides.

Upon exiting the cinema, I found no one stating a discouraging word. The next film will be pivotal - the newer generation of characters will take the lead - perhaps, in a manner of the "Star Trek" incarnations

Whether the "Force" represents a universal connection, a higher power, or a belief in God, it and droids may be one thread for the next chapter, especially since Carrie Fisher's demise as her character had been destined for focus in Episode IX.

AWARDS JANUARY

For mid regions such as this quadrant, the "specialty" releases - such as "The Post," "Molly's Game," "Darkest Hour," "Disaster Artist" - expand beyond the limited large city demographics, assisted by Oscar, Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild fever that translated into nomination publicity (and buzz from big city critics) for otherwise non-blockbuster titles.

THE POST

Possibly "The Post" will test a perception - the significance of historic screen symbolism as metaphor of real (political and otherwise) life. It's already taken on a second slam dunk. Where the Pentagon Papers expose evokes a presidential Watergate and investigative journalism signature, the unexpected "me too" coming out against sexual harassment lends further morsels with Katherine Graham's (Meryl Streep) endurance in a who-can-relate "man's world" as the Washington Post publisher.

Here's some others of which we hope we will be seeing in this neck of the woods:

THE DISASTER ARTIST

How many awful movies have you watched? And, have you seen one which essentially mocks the process of delivering a rotten turkey that's so bad, it eventually finds a niche audience? James Franco tells us the story of Tommy Wiseau, the man behind "The Room," a truly awful movie that became a cult classic. "The Disaster Artist" has been described as "funny - sometimes brutally - and surprisingly touching, it works whether you've seen the source material or not, though there are plentiful shout-outs to die-hard fans," according to the New York Post. It's also an ode to friendship.

THE DARKEST HOUR

During 1940 with allied troops cornered on the beaches of Dunkirk, Britain faces its darkest hour (of about four weeks). Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) must maneuver amongst political rivals while confronting a dire choice - negotiate with Hitler and save the people or rally the nation against incredible odds.

Critics have written:

"Oldman brings a wicked wit and compassionate heart to the role, one for which he seems almost superhumanly suited for...," it's a one man show, and "words really matter."

SHAPE OF WATER

Visual stylist Guillermo del Toro spins an other worldly fairy tale against a Cold War backdrop. Described as one of 2017's "best films," it's a re-imagining of "Beauty and the Beast" in a manner that is (according to one critic) "unforgettably romantic, utterly sublime, dazzling phantasmagoria." From a high security area, lonely Elisa (Sally Hawkins) leaves isolation behind when she falls for the object of a classified experiment. The elements of "Beauty and the Beast" have been "recast in an alternative universe that's a wonderfully rendered twist on our own."

CALL ME BY YOUR NAME

Based on the acclaimed novel by Andre Aciman, director Luca Guadagnino delivers a sensual and transcendent tale of first love. Set in the Summer of 1983 in north Italy, a professor's intelligent son, Elio, falls for Oliver, an American summer intern assisting his father. Critics have labeled it as "stylized," "erotic yet not graphic," and "ecstatically beautiful," as it handles Elio's coming of age with "grace and humanity."

I, TONYA

Suicide Squad's Margot Robbie stars as the fiery Tonya Harding in a darkly comedic tale of the American figure skater. Already nominated for a Golden Globe for her performance, Robbie conveys an emotional tightrope in what has been called a "fabulously tragic" production. It's also been hailed for its funny, unconventional writing, directing and acting. Based on fact, it sets the record straight with an "adrenaline rush that overwhelms the senses."

MOLLY'S GAME

Believe it or not, Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain, famed for "The Martian" and "Zero Dark Thirty"), an Olympic class skier, ran the world's most exclusive high stakes poker game filled with celebrities and Russian mobsters. One night, 17 FBI agents wielding automatic weapons, busts the party. Now, it's up to a defense attorney to achieve justice for the athlete. It's described as "witty, gossipy and very entertaining" examining the personalities of those who engage in discerning the motives of powerful men trying to one up each other.

For mainstream fans, January 2018 brings "Insidious: The Last Key," "The Commuter," "Paddington 2," "Proud Mary," "Den of Thieves," "Forever My Girl," "12 Strong" and "Maze Runner: The Death Cure."

February reveals a new Cloverfield production, another chapter of "Fifty Shades" and Marvel's "The Black Panther."

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