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Film Reviews: The Last Jedi (Spoiler Free), Shape of Water and More

Hope Madden Hope Madden Film Reviews: The Last Jedi (Spoiler Free), Shape of Water and More
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Hey, is there anything new at the movies this week? Actually, the nutty thing is that a boatload of movies release this weekend, which is uncommon during a Star Wars release, but there you go. You should definitely see The Last Jedi, but The Shape of Water is even better.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Did The Force Awakens simply recycle our Star Wars memories and sell them back to us? It did, but not simply, damn near brilliantly.

Then we got the sneak attack from the surprisingly deep Rogue One, a highly effective prequel that only strengthened our bond with the original Star Wars trilogy, and our confidence in the filmmakers now at the helm of this historic franchise.

The Last Jedi makes any letdowns seem light years away. With a deft mix of character-driven emotion, high stakes action and mishievious fun, it waves a proud flag for the legacy of this cinematic universe while confidently taking big strides toward crafting a new one.

Visionary talent Rian Johnson (Looper, Brick) now has the con as both director and sole screenwriter. His affection for the franchise, coupled with an innovative sense of character arc and storyline, combine for a freshness that respects nostalgia even while priming you to move beyond it.

Like J.J. Abrams, Johnson revisits iconic images and bits from the predecessors, but even with much more screen time for Mark Hamill’s Luke, Last Jedi feels less indebted to the original trilogy than did Force Awakens. You’ll find more humor (an opening “on hold” bit is a riot), more action and more Kylo Ren.

As Rey, Leia (Carrie Fisher in a bittersweet appearance), Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Bodega) gather their scrappy troops to resist the First Order’s plan for pasty-faced, black-clad tyranny, the yin and yang of the film pits Adam Driver’s dark Ren against the spunky light of Daisy Ridley’s Rey.

Force Awakens gave Ridley plenty of opportunity to claim her spot at the center of the franchise, but Last Jedi allows Driver the chance to fully expand into the role of series villain. A true talent, Driver delivers a Ren who is emotionally manipulative and yet sincere (so emo!), needy and conflicted as he struggles to prove himself more than the “child in a mask” derided by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis – aided by improved CGI).

Last Jedi also completes the transition of Poe into the courageous, never-tell-me-the-odds “flyboy” we knew was his destiny since the fist moments of Force Awakens. Isaac never disappoints, and it’s a joy to see him buckle this swash so Han-dily (sorry).

While we meet some great new characters, too, there is little exposition and a near constant barrage of action which renders the extended running time meaningless. It might get a little too cute once or twice, but there’s enough social commentary here to be relevant, enough visual glory to look wondrous, and more than enough spirit to be confident in its vision.

Things happen to characters we care about and to others we just met, and nearly all of those things carry the emotional heft of torches being passed.

And The Last Jedi makes it feel not only right but necessary, and all the more satisfying.

Grade: A-

The Shape of Water

In its own way, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a tragic romance. But what if it weren’t? Tragic, I mean. What if beauty loved the beast?

It seems like a trend this year.

An unforgettable Sally Hawkins—an actor who has never hit a false note in her long and underappreciated career—gets her chance to lead a big, big show. She plays Elisa, a mute woman on the janitorial team for a research institute in Cold War era Baltimore.

Enter one night a malevolent man (Michael Shannon), and a mysterious container. Color Elisa intrigued.

Writer/director Guillermo del Toro is an overt romantic. So many of his films—Cronos, The Devil’s Backbone, Crimson Peak—swim in romance, but he’s never made as dreamily romantic or hypnotically sensual a film as The Shape of Water. And he hasn’t made a film this glorious since his 2006 masterpiece, Pan’s Labyrinth.

Del Toro favorite Doug Jones—Pan’s Pale Man and Hellboy’s Abe Sapien—gets back into a big, impressive suit, this time to play Amphibian Man. His presence is once again the perfect combination of the enigmatic and the familiar.

The supporting cast—Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins and Michael Stuhlbarg—are among the strongest character actors Hollywood has to offer and del Toro ensures that they have material worthy of their talent. Each character is afforded not only his or her own personality but peculiarity, which is what makes us all both human and unique—important themes in keeping with the story. With Hawkins and Jones, they populate a darkly whimsical, stylish and retro world.

Characteristic of del Toro’s work, Shape of Water looks amazing. Its color scheme of appropriate greens and blues also creates the impossible truth of sameness within otherness, or the familiar with the alien.

The aesthetic is echoed in Alexandre Desplat’s otherworldly score and mirrored by Dan Laustsen’s dancing camera.

The end result is a beautiful ode to outsiders, love and doing what you must.

Grade: A-

Wonder Wheel

The sheer number of films Woody Allen continues to churn out almost guarantees that some will hit (Midnight in Paris, Vicky Cristina Barcelona) and some will miss (Cassandra’s Dream, Magic in the Moonlight).

Wonder Wheel is more of a pop foul.

Allen’s latest (I think…what time is it?) is wrapped in nostalgia for 1950s Coney Island, lovingly photographed and peppered with characters that never quite become as interesting as Allen intends.

Ginny (Kate Winslet) works as a waitress in a Coney Island seafood joint, frazzled by the antics of her budding arsonist son and disenchanted by life with husband Humpty (Jim Belushi – surprisingly good), who runs the Wonder Wheel carousel. Lately, Ginny has begun a secret affair with Mickey (Justin Timberlake), a younger lifeguard whose fourth-wall narration is awkward and unnecessary.

The arrival of Humpty’s daughter Carolina (Juno Temple) only adds to Ginny’s frequent migraines. Not only is Carolina on the run from some mobsters (The Sopranos’ Tony Sirico and Stephen R. Schirripa – nice!) but she might be catching Mickey’s eye as well.

Winslet is sensational, tapping squarely into Ginny’s maniacal desperation for any shred of hope for the future. Initially, Allen seems intent on building the film from Winslet’s performance outward (much like he did with Cate Blanchett in the sublime Blue Jasmine), only to over-indulge with repetitious dialog and pointless diversions.

Though set in the heart of Coney Island’s summer sun, Wonder Wheel’s mind is never far from stage nor screen. Ginny had dreams of being an actress, while Mickey fancies himself a writer, and we’re often reminded that life is a series of parts being played by characters with a succession of fatal flaws.

Allen’s story arc may be aiming for grand tragedy, but it can never move past bittersweet melodrama. Well-acted throughout and often striking to look at, Wonder Wheel ends up as an aimless kid at the amusement park, running in too many directions at once.

Grade: C



Also opening in Columbus:

  • Ferdinand (PG)
  • Youth (R)

Reviews with help from George Wolf.

Read more from Hope at MADDWOLF, and listen to her podcasts FRIGHT CLUB and THE SCREENING ROOM.

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