The Saga’s Endgame (Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker, 2019)

Star_Wars_Rise_of_Skywalker_PosterAll things must end they say. It seems like May 4th is the appropriate day for me to put out my review of the final film in the “Skywalker Saga”. While I saw the film twice in theaters, December and January passed before I started playing catch up…and then I decided to wait for the 4K release of the film so I could get one more watch. And I finally committed to a third watch.

The film opens with a quick update crawl telling us the Emperor is back. And the story picks up with Supreme Leader Kylo Ren trying to locate the Emperor so he can defeat him.  But quickly, we learn the Emperor has plans and wants Kylo to help, in exchange for an army that the Emperor and his Sith Cultists have been building for thirty years.

We then get reintroduced to Finn, Chewie and Poe, who are gathering data from someone who reveals there is a spy within the First Order.  Rey is busy training to be a Jedi under the watchful eye of General Leia Organa. Once they find out the Emperor is definitely back, they determine they must take the fight to the Emperor, but the problem is that Exogol, the home planet of the Sith, is not on any map.  They need a special Sith device that will lead them to the planet.  So Ray, Finn, Poe and Chewie go off on a series of adventures.

So, the core question, if you are reading this, I suspect is “Did I Like It?”

I…guess? I mean, I did not hate it? But I did not love it?

Some Spoilers ahead…

It was great to see the characters return. It was nice to finally see Lando back.  I like the way they used Hux in this film.  I feel like John Williams did a solid job with the soundtrack.  The action sequences were great.  I was not super bothered by the return of the Emperor, since the old Extended Universe used the idea that the Emperor had been using cloning technology to extend his life.  I also am never bothered by “new” Jedi powers being revealed in the films.  The power to move objects was introduced in Empire, as were actual Force ghosts.  And the powers exhibited in this film really build on stuff we have already seen.

Babu Frick is awesome.

At the same time?

A large chunk of the film feels like course correction. It feels like J.J. Abrams and writer Chris Terrio are trying to respect that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi Happened, but also trying too soft reboot. When Kylo Ren told Rey her parents were nobodies, he was not lying…he did not know the dark truth that her father was the clone son of Emperor Palpatine. And they were really good people trying to protect her from the Emperor. It is weird to think that Rey has had almost no interaction with Poe, but somehow they are besties in this film.

We have heard about the Knights of Ren for several years now and we meet them in this film.  Kind of.  I have no idea if they have names, but the movie shows them walking around.  We have a Storm Trooper say they are scary.  That is pretty much it. There is one fight with them towards the end and they are quickly dispatched. Otherwise we just see them walk around.

The way they tried to retro fit previously unused Carrie Fisher footage in the film never feels organic.  At no point does it feel like anyone is interacting with her. Which leads me to this frustration… Abrams and Terrio sidelined Rose Tico in the saddest way possible.  They make her a sidekick to a digital restoration of Carrie Fisher.  Why was she not part of the action on the Millenium Falcon in the early part of the film? Why was THIS guy there instead???

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The film has multiple points where it raises the stakes dramatically, only to reveal that there was nothing to worry about.  Major story impacting incidents are reversed so that we lose nothing as fans. There is not anything that engages our emotions for the story. And that is where I lean towards feeling disappointed with how the Skywalker Saga comes to a close.  It is fun, but not as satisfying as I had hoped it might be. It has some good ideas, such as Storm Troopers who rebelled against the First Order. But then instead of the obvious plot point of Finn having inspired Storm Troopers to refuse their orders, it is just never something that is connected.

So… I did not hate the film. There is stuff I really enjoy and stuff that annoys me.  It kind of evens itself out.

Nothing But Star Wars Episode Six (Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, 1983)

Return_Of_theJedi_PosterIt took three agonizing years for the audience to get the answers to our questions.  Excitement built with the initial announcement of Revenge of the Jedi.  A bold and powerful title, it had fans eager. Before long, the title shifted to  Return of the Jedi.  Lucas noted that the Jedi do not deal in revenge.

And this seems a fair assessment for what little we really knew about the Jedi at this point. It did not matter though.  Return was a good enough title and certainly not something to dampen the fan excitement.

And so, here we go…as with the previous installments, we are going to spoil the heck out of this one.

 

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Picking up some time after Empire (weeks? Months?  It is not entirely clear) we are introduced to Darth Vader arriving at a…half built Death Star.  Did not work the first time, but the Empire does not give up so easily.

Meanwhile, C-3PO and R2-D2 arrive at Jabba’s palace.  3PO notes a sense of dread as he points out that Lando never returned from his visit.  Upon gaining their audience with the immense slug-like creature, R2 plays a message which understandably freaks 3PO out, as Luke bargains for Han Solo and offers the droids as good will gifts. Jabba laughs this off, keeps the droids and starts up a party, complete with singers and a dancer.  Half way through, he pulls the dancer towards him aggressively, as soon as she is close, he drops her down a pit.  We don’t see what is down there, but it sounds pretty terrible.

3PO is now his translator, and that is good, because a bounty hunter shows up to claim a bounty on Chewbacca. After a tense negotiation, the party goes on and Chewie is led away.  We discover later the Bounty Hunter is Leia in disguise.  She frees Han from the Carbonite only for them to get caught. Han is jailed away, while Leia suffers a creepier situation…

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Leia gets to be the sex object for a good chunk of the film.  While the films had not shied away from the notion that Leia is beautiful, this feels…a bit creepier.  The film implies some unsavory things for a film largely seen as a kids film. Granted, when I was eleven, all of it went over my head.  But still…anyways, Luke shows up and Jabba instantly tosses him into his death basement.  There, look has to outwit the Rancor, a large creature with a big appetite.  I suddenly find myself wondering just where Jabba got this thing.  Is it native to Tatooine?  Is it something Jabba imported? Like an exotic pet? Are there laws against importing Rancors?  Anyways, Luke kills it, angering Jabba, who decides to have Luke, Han and Chewbacca tossed into the Sarlaac Pit, where they will be digested for thousands of years.

No worries though, Luke has a plan. R2 has his lightsaber and shoots it to Luke from his barge. It turns out Lando is posing as a guard and Leia finally gets in on the action again and chokes Jabba with her chains.  This sequence has one of the original trilogy’s most infuriating moments for many fans.  Remember this guy?

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He is the bounty hunter who caught Han Solo because Darth Vader gave him Han encased in Carbonite.  And yet, somehow? The guy has a reputation as an intergalactic badass. Boba Fett does nothing on film to warrant this, but his rather embarrassing death (Han Solo accidentally sets off Fett’s jet pack, shooting him into the side of the barge and then on down the Sarlaac’s gullet.

This so bothered some people that in the comics being published at the time (by Marvel) had an issue that brought him back.  After laying waste to Jabba’s thugs, the heroes head off.

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Luke Makes a stop on Dagobah where he finds Yoda near death.  Yoda confirms that Vader is indeed his father. After Yoda passes away, Obi Wan’s ghost visits.

Old Ben explains that really, when he said that Darth Vader killed Luke’s father, it was true…in a way.  It all depends on how you look at it. Of course, a person being corrupted is not actually the same thing as another person killing them.  And frankly, this should have been a hint for us all that maybe the Jedi were a bit ridiculous. In Empire, there was a reference made to their being another in an exchange between Ben and Yoda as look sped off for Bespin.  This becomes clarified to explain that Luke had a Twin sister, who he realizes is Leia.

Luke shows up at the rebel fleet just in time to join Han and Leia as they lead a team to take down the shield protecting the new Death Star that is powered on the forest moon of Endor.  Lando will lead the fleet in the assault on the Death Star itself, taking the Falcon with Han’s blessing…and a promise to not get a scratch on the ol’ ship.

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On Endor, the rebels get help from the natives, little teddy bear creatures called Ewoks. They help Leia and Han make an assault on the base powering the shield.  Luke has gone to meet Darth Vader and is brought before the Emperor.  The hope of the Emperor is to win Luke over to the Dark Side.  He taunts Luke repeatedly trying to drive Luke into trying to kill him in anger.

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Luke and the rebels are shocked to discover that the Death Star is fully operational, and Luke gives into his anger.  Vader protects the Emperor and they two duel. After near defeat, the rebels on Endor take out the shield and Lando’s forces are able to set off the chain reaction necessary to destroy the Death Star.

Before it reaches critical mass, Luke has almost defeated Vader, only to find himself halted seeing Vader’s mechanical hand, and looking to his own mechanical hand.

“MARTHA!”

Just kidding. This is actually a good call back moment.  Luke sees that he is in some ways now like his father, and is shaken back to reality.  He tosses aside his lightsaber.  The Emperor uses his force lightning to kill Luke…as he is dying, Luke calls out to his father…And Vader picks up the Emperor and throws him down a shaft.

With his dying breathes, he asks Luke to remove that dark visage and allow him to look upon Luke with his own eyes. He asks Luke to let Leia know that Luke was right…that there had been some good in him after all.

On the moon of Endor there is celebration with a song containing the lyric Yub Yub.  Luke stands with his friends and then looks off and sees Anakin, Ben and Yoda smiling at him and the credits roll!

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Jedi has always taken a lot of crap for the Ewoks.  It turns out they were originally supposed to be Wookies, but Lucas felt that Chewbacca had established that they were to technically minded. This does not make sense.  Chewbacca merely proves Wookies are adaptable and intelligent.  But while the Ewoks are a bit to cutesy at times, their inspirations are kind of interesting. Lucas had a fascination with how effective the Viet Cong was, in spite of their technological inferiority.  They knew their land and turned it into their strategy.

Return of the Jedi really cemented the myth that Lucas had this all planned out.  That he had this big screen play that he chopped into three parts. And it only got bigger from there.  Supposedly, this was actually a nine part series. But by the early 90’s Star Wars was mainly kept alive through the expanded universe of comics and novels. Every now and then there would be a story about Lucas and his massive epic…but it seemed pretty clear that we were never going to see more movies.

This allowed people to ignore those little leaks where people would point out that when they started filming Empire nobody knew Vader would be Luke’s father. Or that while the line about “there is another” did indeed refer to a sister for Luke, it was not Leia…they had no idea who or where the sister was.

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Harrison Ford did return for Jedi, but he really felt that Han Solo should have died.  I kind of agree.  It would have been a tough pill to swallow, but it would have hit home that they were at war.  Not everyone gets that happy ending. But the film really does act like the story is over.  The Rebels win, Vader is redeemed and Jabba is a grease spot on the desert floor.

There have been rumblings of late from folks who feel the later films present the Jedi in a disparaging light, but I disagree.  This was always there.  We just wanted to ignore it for the legend.  Ben Kenobi deceives Luke throughout the series.  He does not want Luke to redeem Vader, he hides the  information thinking it will be easier for Luke to kill Vader. Empire and Jedi both call Ben’s wisdom into question, heavily.

With the impending prequel films, the Special Edition of Return of the Jedi was, again, largely cosmetic in it’s changes.  Some were more extreme than others.  For example, the Sarlaac Pit was not just a pit with tentacles.  Now it had an extendable beak or mouth or something.  But the largest change was in two sequences.  One was Jabba’s palace.  The musical number that proceeds the death of a slave girl was a pretty small affair.  Now there is a space rock number with dancers and a really articulate digital band. The song is…well, not really terrible, but certainly not going to find it in many folks digital playlists.

And then there is the final scene.  Instead of just showing us the celebration with the ewoks, we see various planets celebrating the end of the Empire.  And this:

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This was before Attack of the Clones had cast it’s grown up Anakin. By the time the movies were released on blu-ray, we got this revision:

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Anakin sure is looking creepy there.  This change creates un-necessary questions.  Why are Ben and Yoda Old? Why is Anakin looking younger? I suppose the argument is based on the idea that this was the last time from before he turned to the Dark Side…but that is kind of a silly and arbitrary choice.

So, of the original trilogy, this is the weakest entry, but it still is a lot of fun.  It has plenty of humor and excitement and really is an enjoyable watch.

Nothing But Star Wars Episode Five (Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, 1980)

Empire_Strikes_Back_PosterStar Wars became a world wide phenomenon.  This meant that Lucas would get to build on his adventure.  Already there were comics from Marvel, novels inspired by the first film and toys galore.  How could they deny giving the audience more?!

And so, Lucas set forth to continue the story of intrepid rebels trying to take down the galactic Empire. This time he stepped back a bit from both writing and directing. Lawrence Kasdan stepped in as screen writer and Irvin Kershner as director.

Spoiling the Heck out of the Star Wars movies continues here!

 

 

 

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Picking up anywhere from a few months to maybe even a year or two after a New hope, Empire opens on a secret Rebel base on an icy planet called Hoth. Han is trying to get out back on the run from Jabba the Hutt, feeling it is no longer safe for him. Han and Leia argue over his leaving, Han believing it is because Leia having feelings about him, Leia apparently feeling he is an asset against the Empire.

Luke has had a vision of Ben Kenobi which advises him to go to a planet called Dagobah and find a Jedi Master named Yoda. When the Empire finds the hidden base they attack.  After getting the rebel fleet on it’s way, Han, Leia, Chewie, and C-3PO find themselves on the run in the Millenium Falcon. Luke and R2-D2 go off to find Yoda.

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Dagobah turns out to be a swamp planet with no technology. Yoda himself seems to be a confused little kook at first, but really is a character meant to challenge Luke’s pre-conceived notions of what a Jedi Warrior is.

Darth Vader is on the hunt for Luke Skywalker.  The motives for this are not entirely clearly during the film.  We learn that Vader is, in fact, the right hand man of the Emperor.

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The Emperor sanctions the search for Luke, for he sees the potential of a great new ally for the Empire.  To this end, Vader has gone as far as hiring bounty hunters.  I confess, one bounty hunter stood out to me above all the rest…

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No, not him…

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Yeah…Bossk.  But he did not become the legend that was Boba Fett.  Which is garbage.

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Meanwhile, Han and Leia try hiding out with an old friend and associate of Han’s named Lando Calrissian.  Lando is a reformed scoundrel turned legit businessman, running the sky based Bespin.  But Lando, trying to protect his city cuts a deal with Darth Vader.

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Vader torments Han and Leia enough to cause a disturbance within the force powerful enough to nudge Luke a few solar systems away (I am guessing, the fact is, the relationship of various planets to each other is never really clear in the world of Star Wars). Luke immediately seeks to rush off to help his friends, but Yoda and the Ghost of Obi Wan implore him to stay and focus on his training.

Vader has Han Solo frozen in Carbonite as a test to see if it will work for his plans to capture Luke.  As Lando starts to realize he is going to see Vader continue to change the rules, he helps Leia and Chewbacca escape.  Luke and R2-D2 arrive in Bespin, quickly becoming separated as Luke enters a confrontation with Vader.

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Leia, Lando, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2 fail to save Han, with Boba Fett managing to leave with the frozen body.  They make their way to the Falcon instead.  Luke and Vader’s confrontation ends with Luke losing his hand and lightsaber, and nearly his sanity.  In one of the most earth shattering moments of all cinema, Darth Vader reveals that Kenobi lied.  Vader did not kill Luke’s father…he was Luke’s father. Luke cannot accept this and appears to leap to his death.  He manages to catch some outcropping below the city and reaches out through the force, connecting to Leia.  She has Lando turn the Falcon around until they can rescue Luke.

Empire felt like a bit of a revelation for a franchise films.  It was not merely a retread of the the first film.  It felt like a natural extension.  Han and Leia’s relationship grows from a complicated adversarial friendship to a romantic one. Luke learns that the dark side is not merely an external force.  And the film ends on that heavy note of Luke discovering that Vader may be his father and Han has gone missing.  The Carbonite subplot with Han was actually something of a safety move.  It was uncertain if Harrison Ford would be willing to return for the third film, so it was a way to write Han Solo out if necessary.

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Yoda, a small green puppet with big ears came to amazing life, voiced by Frank Oz, who (as well as going on to be a noted director) was part of Henson’s Muppet troop and the voice of Miss Piggy.  Yoda was small, but as noted earlier, was meant to teach Luke very important lessons about his expectations.  He describes Yoda (not realizing he is talking to Yoda) as a great warrior.  Yoda just laughs and declares that “Wars do not make one great!” Luke Struggles with the force, moving small rocks and the like. Yoda can move Luke’s X-Wing without breaking a sweat.  Luke finds himself unable to deny his worry about his friends. He is easily given to fear.

And again, that reveal.  For the next three years, we argued about whether it was true.  I mean, surely, Darth Vader was a liar, right?  There is no way this could be true!

For the special edition of Empire Strikes Back, the work was largely cosmetic.  And for the most part, I approve.  There were some dialog changed (there is a redundant scene of Darth Vader telling his people to ready his ship so he can return to his star destroyer).  I really liked the changes like blending the snow speeders into the picture better. One of the issues when they made the film was compositing the speeder on a white background.  The lines around the ship were glaring.  So they faded the images just enough…which resulted in the ability to see through the snow speeders.  This was fixed for the special edition.

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The city of Bespin was now full of windows allowing sweeping cloud fill skylines.  And they expanded some of the stuff with the Wampa snow creature, allowing us to see more of the creature. But there was not anything I would call a “new scene” in the sense of that the Jabba scene was. But there was one change that made some folks genuinely mad.

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The original film features a hologram of the Emperor that is distinctly different from the version we see now.  This is because the actor playing the Emperor in  Empire is Marjorie Eaton.  The voice provided was Clive Revell. In Return of the Jedi, they cast Ian McDiarmid as the Emperor.  And so, for the special edition they more closely approximated the look of the Emperor for the hologram with McDiarmid.

The Empire Strikes Back is the high mark of the Star Wars franchise.  It is powerful, without losing the sense of fun and grandeur of the first film.

Last Laugh (Batman, 1989)

batman-poster1989 saw the release of the most controversial Batman casting until Batfleck.  Michael Keaton, known almost entirely for comedies such as Mr. Mom, Johnny Dangerously and Gung Ho was cast as Batman…oh the horror and oh the wailing.  A long tradition of freaking out over casting began right here.  People were a bit more open to Jack Nicholson playing the Joker.

As it turned out, Keaton was okay in the role.  His Batman was appropriately serious, while his take on Bruce Wayne was an interesting approach.  His Bruce Wayne seems to be constantly distracted.  After the 1960’s series, Batman’s comics had returned to a darker version of the character.  A dark soul, haunted by his parents’ deaths at the hands of a low level criminal.  People feared Keaton would make this more 60’s Batman, rather than the Dark Knight Returns.

With Tim Burton at the helm, the film was a dark and gothic affair filled with crime bosses and corrupt police officers.  And the fabled Batman haunting the city.  In a attempt to thwart a mob crime, Batman knocks aspiring Crime Boss Jack Napier into a vat of chemicals.  He emerges with a chalk white complexion and a new smile.  He goes off and takes over the Grissom (Carl Grissom, played by Jack Palance) criminal Empire.  This leads to an ongoing battle with Batman.

The film has a great cast, headlined by Keaton, Nicholson and Kim Basinger.  They are supported by a crew of character  actors and well known faces.  You have Billy Dee Williams as Harvey Dent, Pat Hingle as Commissioner Gordon and the glue that held the franchise together?  Michael Gough as Alfred Pennyworth, Batman’s trusted butler and aide.

While the visuals are grand, the Joker’s motives seem supremely mundane.  He wants to be a mobster.  And woo Vicki Vale.  He may be cruel and ruthless, but so are lots of mob bosses in the movies.  Take away the grin and face-paint? He would not stand out.  Batman’s greatest weakness is not Keaton, but the fact that he cannot even turn his head.  The costumes look good in still shots, but seem goofy when Keaton is having to turn his whole body to look around.

In addition, Commissioner Gordon and Harvey Dent feel more like set decorations than characters.  They are almost entirely inconsequential to the story.  They seem to be there because they have to…it is a Batman movie.  Gough is the bright spot in the film.  His Alfred is kind and wise.  He is not as involved in the day to day support of Batman, he is more there to support Bruce Wayne.

While 1989’s Batman is not terrible, it does not quite stand the test of time.  It is still enjoyable, but it does not live up to the character’s full potential.

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