So how much will “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” earn on opening weekend?

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Will “The Last Jedi” open over $200 million this weekend? It’s the last blockbuster of the year, but will it bust the block? Box Office Guru figures $212 million, maybe $700 million during its entire US run.

Box  Office Mojo opines that $220 is within reach.

Reviews has been absurdly generous, a form of cheerleading for a movie audience that hasn’t made the year a banner one for ticket sales. Check out Metacritic.  Then go to Rotten Tomatoes.

Then ask yourself, “Did ‘It,’ ‘Logan,’ ‘Thor,’ ‘Alien Covenant,’ or ‘Wonder Woman’ make many — or any — Top Ten Lists?” They weren’t all that, and “Last Jedi” isn’t all that. And their reviews were just as over-the-top, swooning, you name it.

I’d call “Jedi” another case of “rating” inflation. The editor of  Variety thinks too many critics are scared to pan a Big Studio picture the public is dying to adore. I don’t disagree with that, either.

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But not mine. The general public starts seeing it right now. What’s everybody think? Am I just an outlier, or is this another Disney/Lucasfilm letdown?

Fox’s “Ferdinand” also opens this weekend. As the “Star Wars” movies have been trending younger (in the “Force Awakens” continuum, anyway), it’s not like the animated adaptation of the story of “Ferdinand the Bull” will be all alone as a new “kids” or “family” film this weekend. But it should do well. Everybody’s seen “Coco,” after all. And it’s not bad. Lost me for the middle acts (sloooow). But still…

Guru figures it’ll only manage $15 million (disastrous). Box Office Mojo is figuring $17 million. Also terrible news. The reviews for this one are pretty good, too. Surely it’ll clear $23-25.

 

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Zeitgeisty “Oceans 8” poster predicts 2018 as the REAL “Year of the Woman”

Oscar winners Bullock, Blanchett and Hathaway, with Rihanna, Mindy Kaling. Sarah Paulson, “Awkwafina” and…Helena Bonham Carter in the Elliott Gould role?

As the cast list includes Olivia Munn, Jatie Holmes, Dakota Fanning, Hailey Baldwin, Kylie Jenner, James Corden and Kim Kardashian…well, this could go either way. A few of those names only Tyler Perry would dare cast.

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The Worst Films of 2017

The conversation among movie lovers and fellow critics (Sometimes those do overlap, ahem.) at this time of year turns towards “best lists” and “Who or what will be nominated for an Oscar?”

And from there, the talk descends to that one overarching question, “What kind of movie year was it?”

The box office was in free fall for much of 2017, and just judging from online chatter,  debate and website traffic, there weren’t a lot of movies people were worked up over for more than a week or three — two weeks before release, then a week after.

It was the Year of the Over-Rated, with hyped hooey from “Alien Covenant” to “It” to “The Last Jedi” earning rapturous reviews, or at least high Tomatometer marks (if far more measured Metacritic scores). Shocking how many of those breathlessly endorsed “must see” and “event of the spring/summer/fall” pictures are simply forgotten now, out of the conversation for “year’s best.” Grade inflation at its worst, but more on that in another post.

And it was a year of abominations. 

But memory is fickle, and it’s only through browsing the hundreds of reviews I’ve filed this year that one gets a sense of the debacle unleashed on cinemas, Netflix, Youtube and Direct Cinema. What a shower of rhymes-with-fit.

So what follows is a compendium of the worst of 2017 at the movies. You have my pity if you wasted ticket money on more than a couple of those.

And full disclosure, here. I have not seen “Fathers Figures.” Yet.

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Cartoon Crap

Every studio wants a piece of that weekend parents-with-kids business. And while the cynical practice of converting every “toon” to 3D so as to gouge parents over ticket prices has faded, a lot of forgettable junk is still being shoved out in the name of “family entertainment.”

I attribute the sinking quality to a serious shortage of animation gag writers. Nobody knows how to do it anymore. Even “Coco,” the best kids’ cartoon of the year, is a little thin on the sight gags.

“The Emoji Movie” — A Roe vs. Wade cartoon, an absolute abortion, from conception to laugh-free execution.

“Cars 3” — When Disney/Pixar announced John Lasseter was being sent to the woodshed, I was sure it was over his obscene insistence on sequeling this bad idea for a movie, great pitch for selling toys. Oh. It was just for sexual harassment.

“The Nut Job 2: Nutty by Nature” — Not a cute idea or a laugh in it.

“Rock Dog” — How do you say, “There’s a sucker born every minute” in Chinese? Because a lot of bad movies were produced by hustlers suckering Chinese investors into “a sure thing.” This is just the worst of them.

“Smurfs: The Lost Village” — At least nobody showed up for it.

“The My Little Pony Movie” — Yeah, “Bronies,” I’m coming for you.

The Horror, the Horror

“Aaron’s Blood” — We’re still doing the vampire thing?

“Friend Request” — Social media will kill you. Again.

“The Belko Experiment” — The most unpleasant “Ten Little Indians” (stick a crowd in a confined space, kill them off) variation in years. Ugh.

“Rings” — Ah, let it go already. Once you’ve seen one hairy girl crawl across the ceiling…

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Big Budget, and Bad

“The Dark Tower” — This is what happens when you let fanboys convince you that this collection of Stephen King titles simply MUST be made into a movie. Years and different studios, different directors and a different cast, and this is what they got out of it. Stephen King’s “Moment,” when this movie came out, the remake of “It” followed it (a smash) and “Mr. Mercedes” hit TV, seems spent.

“The Great Wall” — Chinese agitprop, unleashed by Universal. At least Matt Damon and U got paid for this mess, a ludicrous period piece packed with “The Chinese Way”  propaganda. Again, nothing Hollywood likes better than gullible, new money coming to town. This time it’s Chinese cash.

“The Space Between Us” — Sappiest young love weeper of the year.

Make It Stop

“Kingsman: The Golden Circle” — They took a bloody-minded, tone-deaf spy spoof and made it worse. Golden “Circle” was it? Golden “something” going down the drain.

“Transformers: The Last Night”“Transformers: The Last Night” — Mark Wahlberg is burning through his brand faster than you can say, “What’s Will Ferrell doing next month?”

“Fifty Shades Darker” — Fortunately, the acting is so bad and the sex so dull and sterile that none of the little old ladies who flock to these fiascoes are attempting the bondage, S & M games, etc. depicted here. Or are they?

No Seriously, Stop

“Resident Evil: The Final Chapter” — Action Lady Needs One More Easy Paycheck, but let’s move these bombs to January and forget them.

“Underworld:  Blood Wars” — Ditto.

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Indie Awfulness

“Mike Boy” –– If you think “The Room” was the worst, most delusional I-financed-this-myself movie ever, Netflix or Youtube this. I dare you. And yes, this is it, the WORST film of 2017.

“A Family Man” — If this hadn’t been terrible, it could have rescued Gerard Butler from a life of “Outhouse Down” and “Geostorm” sequels.

“Alina” — What was this one again? Oh, right. Russian immigrant drama, “trite” and “melodramatic” and “badly-acted” are putting it mildly.

“Song to Song” — You can blame recent years of crummy Terence Malick “art” mopes on critics, who endorsed that POS “Tree of Life” and let him think his POS didn’t stink. His head’s so far up his arse these days he might actually be smelling a clue.

“Birth of the Dragon” — If you don’t have the money for a vigorous re-write, a decent cast and a better director, leave Bruce Lee in his damned grave.

“Liza Liza, Skies are Grey” — Coming of age in the ’60s was never this dull.

“Battle Scars” — A lot of hucksters and con-artists play the “It’s for the VETERANS” card. Some get elected president. Others make bad movies about PTSD.

“Black Rose” — Absolutely awful “Red Heat” riff. Some of the worst acting of the year is in this one. You’d never know a Russian (Stanlisvsky) invented “The Method.”

“Diamond Cartel” — I’m relieved and forever grateful the Academy gave Peter O’Toole an honorary Oscar while he was still living. It’d be a shame if he was remembered for this, his last and worst film. If only they’d done it for, say, Peter Sellers, too.

“Pray For Rain” — A right wing oil tycoon financed this torpid drama, in which environmentalists are the cynical, nasty villains responsible for California’s drought and water shortage. And not big polluter oil tycoons. Skip the movie, boycott Lucas Oil.

Foreign Fiasco

“Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back”  — Bad enough to give you acid flashbacks if you duck into it say a half hour after the opening credits. As I did. And I never did acid. Sitting through it again didn’t make it any more sensible.

 

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Is Guillermo Del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” a ripoff of this award-winning student film?

This won’t be adjudicated here, unless the screenwriters want to fess up in the comments. Or make a blanket denial.

And it might not ever go before the Writers Guild of America or the courts. Even if it made that far, who’s to say that the striking similarities between two films, books, etc. aren’t just a coincidence? There are only so many ideas in fiction, and only so many variations on any given plot, and as few as seven (and as many as 36) basic plots.

Two films show up at Sundance, one about a TV news crew that goes missing, another about student filmmakers who disappear in the woods of the Blair Witch? It happens.

So unless you’ve caught Jim Jarmusch red-handed stealing your script for “Broken Flowers,” or you’re Art Buchwald, willing to go to court to sue Paramount and Eddie Murphy for “Coming to America,” well…

But with all the over-heated awards buzz for Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water,” the video below has been making the rounds. You don’t have to see “Water” to realize the startling similarities (just watch the trailer) to make the connection that at the very least, they’re movies operating from the same font of inspiration.

A romance spun off “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

“The Space Between Us” (nothing in common with the lame teen romance of last spring with that title) is a widely-circulated 2015 student film from The Netherlands. It was actually released in June of 2015, but had been festivaled, etc. before that.

Marc S. Nollkaemper‘s film is strikingly similar in look, story, themes, setting and tone.

“The Shape of Water” has had Oscar buzz since Toronto. Film festival/fanboy groupthink makes it another of those wildly over-rated effects-driven features on a par with “Logan,” “Wonder Woman,” “Alien Covenant,” “Colossal,” “Thor: Ragnorak” and “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

Only nobody is calling those popcorn pictures Oscar contenders.

Every single one of those movies earned effusive reviews upon release, but are mysteriously absent from top ten lists and awards season buzz. Call it pandering to the audience’s tastes or simple grade inflation from the new generation of critics, but a four star review doesn’t mean what it used.

I enjoyed but was underwhelmed by “The Shape of Water,” with its broad archetypes, obvious plotting, even more obvious casting, with unnecessary violence, superfluous scenes and characters speaking painfully phonetic “Russian” as part of its Cold War subplot.

The thought that this obviously not-the-most-original picture isn’t even as original as might first appear doesn’t help.

 

 

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Movie Review: “The Shape of Water”

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Guillermo del Toro’s “The Shape of Water” is a lovely but hard-edged romantic fantasy,  a thriller built on a sentimentalized science fiction fan’s memories of the Cold War, the Space Race and “The Creature from the Black Lagoon.”

The director of “Pan’s Labyrinth” and “The Devil’s Backbone” has turned some of his “Pacific Rim” clout and effects expertise loose on a 1960s parable of science, humanity and loneliness.

And while it doesn’t really work as a parable and suffers from an uneven, contrived script riddled with violent, jarringly bloody shifts in tone, it’s a great showcase for a quartet of the finest character actors in the movies and a vivid recreation of a time via the lens of the movies that era produced.

Sally Hawkins (“Happy-Go-Lucky”) is Eliza, a lonely mute living above a movie theater in Baltimore in the early 1960s. She boils her eggs, lives in her head and masturbates in the tub, her limited life revolving around looking in on her aged, laid-off illustrator neighbor, “the proverbial starving artist” (Richard Jenkins), a gay alcoholic with too many cats and a misplaced passion for pies.

By night she’s a custodian, listening to the amusing prattle of her pal Zelda (Octavia Spencer) as they clean a secret, baroque government lab where the scientists and government functionaries would never give them a second look, and they themselves would never think to ask questions about what goes on there.

And then “the asset” arrives, something aquatic, locked in a tank. And with him comes a cruel security chief (Michael Shannon) and curious, quiet and sensitive scientist (Michael Stuhlbarg) in charge of experiments.

Just in case the archetypes and symbolism aren’t clear to all, the uptight sadist is named Strickland, and he carries a bloodied “Alabama how-de-do,” a cattle prod. He’s not sentimental about the “asset,” and he doesn’t want the cleaning crew getting attached to a science experiment with manatee eyes.

“That thing in there is an affront!”

Strickland’s a racist thug given to explaining commonly used words — “affront” and “trivial” to the woman who doesn’t talk and her black colleague, when he isn’t telling threatening tales from the Bible.

But Eliza isn’t dissuaded. She connects with the creature, which Strickland tortures. And as she does, teaching him (actor Doug Jones wears the rubber suit) sign language, she resolves to do something about his inhumane situation.  Cold War intrigue and an old-fashioned, officious “What we don’t understand, we vivisect” ethos complicate that.

I love the world the film conjures up, all tail-fins, neon, oppression and cathode ray tubes. Melding a save-the-cute-critter caper — “Turtle Diary” or for that matter, “Free Willy” — to a romance is inspired, if not a wholly original idea. 

That “romance” has a certain “ick” factor. But then, this is del Toro, and he’s felt the need to show our heroine masturbating in the tub to an egg timer and our villain brutishly getting “satisfaction” from his obedient wife. No, this isn’t del Toro’s “Starman.” It’s alternately touching and off-putting.

The cast is very good, with Shannon throwing everything he has at his menacing Role Model for Old Fashioned White Male Privilege. He’s so good he throws the picture out of balance. Hawkins may be getting the Oscar buzz, but for what? Learning sign language? This is Shannon’s movie and he is so ferocious you almost forget about the plot implausibilities that keep putting this character in that spot at a particular time.

The casting overall is so unimaginatively on-the-nose as to muzzle the effect of seeing great character actors play so deep within their comfort zones.

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Oscar winner Octavia Spencer as a sassy maid? Michael Shannon as a scary-eyed brute?

Michael Stuhlbarg as the intense, sensitive scientist with a secret? Richard Jenkins as a lovelorn neighbor?

Even Sally Hawkins, a wonder in many a movie, seems no stretch at all as our lonely spinster who makes the leap to interspecies romance with no more thought than “That’s what the script perfunctorily calls for.” Watch her in the grim primitive artist bio-pic “Maudie.” No sign language, but there’s a performance that sticks with you.

Whatever its larger goals, remembering how myopic and hateful the culture was before “tolerance” became the norm, “The Shape of Water” is first and foremost a genre picture. And as that, it’s a loving homage to cinema from an age where movies couldn’t be as obvious about this forbidden subject or that unspoken sexuality. It’s a good film of its type, just not a great one.

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(Is “Shape of Water” borrowed from this student film?)

MPAA Rating: R for sexual content, graphic nudity, violence and language

Cast: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, Michael Stuhlbarg

Credits:Directed by Guillermo del Toro, script by Guillermo del Toro and Vanessa Taylor. A Fox Searchlight release.

Running time: 2:03

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Preview: “Annihilation” is what smart Creature Features Look Like

Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, “It” girl Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac and a mysterious alien “shimmer” that threatens humanity itself.

It’s from the people who gave us “Ex Machina.” Smart sci-fi, got to love it. Feb. 23.

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Movie Review: Aliens Continue their Depradations in “Beyond Skyline”

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You always cut a little slack for trash cinema that knows it’s trash.

So props to the folks who made the green screen monstrosity “Beyond Skyline,” a creature-feature sequel to the 2010 aliens-invade-LA thriller “Skyline.” Nobody involved took this fight aliens, kill aliens or die a noble death going out with a badass one-liner B-movie seriously. That’s why they filled the closing credits with funny outtakes, green-screen “So THAT’S how they did that” clips and such.

Aliens that look like Predators who fly ships that could have been parked in “District 9” on “Independence Day” attack LA, and we see this from fresh characters’ perspective with one holdover from the first film rather illogically connecting the two films.

Frank Grillo plays Mark, a hard-drinking cop trapped on the LA subway when the blue-light loving monsters from space attack.

That light, emanating from their ships, draws humans towards it like fundamentalists ready for the Rapture. They’re literally hauled skyward into the ships in a scene both chilling and Biblical.

Mark finds himself dragging assorted passengers — including the material Audrey (Bojana Novakovic) — around LA, dodging the aliens until the aliens nab them and tuck them into a hive, straight out of “Alien.”

And that’s when things get really weird — aliens made from absorbed humans, one with conflicting loyalties, brawls within the ship, fights with alien robots of the “Pacific Rim” variety, and finally a crash landing in the Golden Triangle, not far from the shores of the Pacific Rim.

Because the investors wanted martial arts stars Iko Uwais and Yaan Ruhian (“The Raid”), actress Pamelyn Chee and the ruins of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat to figure in the proceedings. Somehow.

Hurling Angelinos and aliens into the middle of a drug war, where everybody’s armed with rocket-propelled grenades, claymore mines, flame-throwers and automatic weapons, certainly evens up the odds. At least in this silly movie.

“Tactical” nukes and Stealth bombers can only do so much. Such is the convention of the aliens-invade genre.

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Writer-director Liam O’Donnell must have given the cast license to concoct at least some of their pithy one-liners, most of the “F—–g aliens,” and “ISIS don’t have no f—–g space ships” and “Hijo de puta” variety.

The martial arts fights with the monsters are an interesting twist, the effects surprisingly good — the ships, hive, assorted alien incarnations and that “Rapture” scene are striking.

But it’s trash cinema, start to finish. Not smart, not particularly ambitious, sort of an exploitation film with aliens.

And Antonio Fargas. That’s right, America’s favorite pimp-snitch of the ’70s plays Sarge, a blind veteran who gets off a little testy trash talk.

Probably all you need to know about “Beyond Skyline” is packed into that last paragraph and that one funny bit of casting.

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MPAA Rating: R for sequences of bloody sci-fi violence, and language throughout.

Cast: Frank Grillo, Bojana Novakovic, Pamelyn Chee, Iko Uwais, Antonio Fargas

Credits: Written and directed by Liam O’Donnell. An XYZ release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review: “Ferdinand” takes a Knee over Bullfighting

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Truth be told, Fox’s beautifully-animated and whimsical take on the tale of Ferdinand the Bull lost me for a bit. OK, for almost an hour.

The new “Ferdinand” is still based on the classic Munro Leaf book, is still about a Spanish bull who’d rather sit and smell the flowers than fight Matadors, Banderilleros and Picadores. Yeah, he still sits on a bee — which makes him at least appear fierce — just for a moment.

Disney told that story in under eight minutes in a classic cartoon of the 1930s. “Ferdinand” may add a cute little girl who raises him from a calf, adorable hedgehogs, a funny (ish) goat pal, rival bulls and prancing/snarking Lippizaner stallions mit zilly Austrian accents. There’s still a lot of down time and comic dead weight in those middle acts.

But then the extraordinary third act arrives, and the movie finds its heart and its message. And darned if the bulls in this cartoon from the folks who made “Ice Age” don’t do something that a lot of NFL players would recognize.

Raised in the Casa del Toro farm, Ferdinand is taught from birth that he must live to fight.

“That’s what bulls do.”

His peers buy into that unquestioningly. So does his dad (voiced by Jeremy Sisto). It’s Dad’s dream to be brave and tough enough to be chosen by a matador to fight in Madrid. Little Ferdinand has just one question.

“Is it OK if it’s not MY dream?”

Ferdinand loves flowers and the serenity of sitting and sniffing them, which leads to the inevitable bullying by the other calves.

When Dad is “chosen,” events conspire to put Ferdinand to flight. He runs away and into the arms of a little girl (voiced by Lily Day) who raises him to be her best friend. But when he’s grown up, Ferdinand (John Cena) becomes too much to handle, and finds himself right back at Casa del Toro, huge but still “soft.”

“The soft ones always go down,” Valiente (Bobby Cannavale) says, echoing what his tough-guy dad always said. They’ve totally bought into a fate that Ferdinand doesn’t accept.

Kate McKinnon is the wacky “calming goat” sent to stay with Ferdinand to keep him mellow between fights, Gabriel Iglesias is one of the hedgehogs who have the run of the farm and Anthony Anderson, David Tennant (hilariously Scottish) and Peyton Manning voice Ferdinand’s fellow bulls.

The best gag among the supporting players is a trio of “Hans und Franz” impersonating stallions at the farm, mincing, sneering Austrians led by Boris Kodjoe.

“I’ve fallen und I kan’t GIDDY-up!”

And there are other kid-friendly critter hijinx, here and there.

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But it’s the film’s “Babe” turn in the third act that makes it watchable, Ferdinand’s grasp that “the game is fixed,” that bulls don’t come back from their triumphant “choice” to go to Madrid raises the stakes and gives the film weight.

And that gives its broader message, one echoed through decades of Pixar pictures and yes, “Ice Age” cartoons, a warmth and timely resonance that lift “Ferdinand” out of its dull middle acts. Whatever it says about the enduring barbarism of bull-fighting, this what “Ferdinand” is really about.

“If we don’t look out for each other, who will?”

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MPAA Rating:  PG for rude humor, action and some thematic elements

Cast: The voices of John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Anthony Anderson, Jeremy Sisto, Peyton Manning, Gabriel Iglesias, David Tennant

Credits:Directed by Carlos Saldanha , script by Robert L. Baird, Tim Federle and Brad Copeland, based on the children’s book by Munro Leaf illustrated by Robert Lawson A Fox/Blue Sky  release.

Running time: 1:46

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Movie Review — “Star Wars: The Last Jedi”

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The perfunctory predictability of “The Force Awakens” is mostly-abandoned for Rian Johnson’s venture into that “galaxy, far far away.”

His sentimental sequel, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” starts with laughs and finishes with a somewhat heartfelt flourish. He’s too smart to show us another Death Star. Thank the Maker. He’s clever enough to know which old favorites the fans want to see and panders accordingly.

“Change” and “kill the past” are the bywords of this middle film in the new trilogy. It’s filled with surprises, and I’ll try not to spoil those. He gives us a lot to process in his over two and a half hours of “Star Wars,” some of it recycled, some of it less than wholly satisfying dramatically.

The summarizing quote is what Luke Skywalker says to young Rey, who wants to learn at the feet of the last Jedi master and thus save the Rebellion.

“This is not going to go the way you think.”

Luke (Mark Hamill) is still on his Fortress Isle of Solitude. Leia (Carrie Fisher) is leading a dying rebellion, with every Imperial ambush reducing its ranks. Her son with Han Solo, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) remains a Vader-in-training beholden to monstrous First Order leader Snoke (motion-captured Andy Serkis) and competing with sneering General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in villainy.

Rey seeks Luke’s counsel. Poe (Oscar Isaac) and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) are all about the combat, plunging into battle, leading a lot of rebels to their deaths, which enrages Leia.

“Get your head outta your cockpit!”

C3PO (Anthony Daniels) is still at General Leia Organa’s side. BB-8 tries to keep Poe flying, and digitally nags him as she/he? does.

“Happy bleeps,” Poe demands. “Happy bleeps.”

There are new spacecraft on both sides as feasts to the eyes, spectacular space battles, more populous light saber fights, a “connected” ongoing argument between the galaxy’s Yin and Yang, the Dark Lord (ish) Kylo and the green but good Rey (Daisy Ridley).

Its brisk open and anti-climactic climax underscore that Johnson (“Brick,” “Looper”) is not a visionary director, but a competent one. He’s smart to let some disasters in space play out in silence, but struggles to make this unwieldy “middle installment” fly and flow. The contemporary dialogue mixed in with the arch, sci-fi serial speak Lucas channeled makes for jarring listening.

He put more effort into showing us the “new” — Dreadnoughts, not Death Stars, cuddly critters who aren’t Ewoks — and finding the laughs in putting our vernacular into a galaxy far far away.

“Hi, I’m holding for General Hux? Skinny guy? Kinda pasty?”

Where “A New Hope” had the Mos Eisely cantina scene, a saloon setting for a shoot-out, “Last Jedi” has Canto Bight, a high-end casino visited ostensibly to fetch a code-breaker (Benicio del Toro, a pointless detour with a pointless character), but really to deliver a lecture on the slavery it takes for the galaxy’s One Percent to live like moguls.

Enough already with the desert planets. Instead we get a version of The Ice Planet Hoth called Crait, a world covered by salt and featuring crystalline foxes. And of course, Luke is still laying low by the rocky seas of the Scottish-looking Ahch-To — fishing, brooding, keeping the faith (sort of) and resisting training Rey when she and Chewbacca show up for a visit. The puffin-penguin bird critters there (a stocking stuffer) are cute enough to make Chewy consider going vegan. That swamp cave where Luke met his destiny “Empire Strikes Back” destiny? It’s in a hollow tree, here.

It’s a more feminine film, with a lot of new female faces, on the bridge, in fighters and bombers, chief among them is the plucky plebe Rose, ineffectually played by Kelly Marie Tran. Yes, Laura Dern’s also in it, in purple hair and a leadership position.

Women fight and lead and weep and slap men and try to point out that standing and fighting kills people and is not always the best solution.

That feminizing fails to cure what has been the Achilles Heel of this franchise for the past 20 years, one rendered crystal clear with the superior prequel “Rogue One.”  A corporate decision to stray from the formula of classic Westerns, martial arts and combats films has all-but-outlawed that any hero in our ranks dies a sudden death (giving the films a needed shock) or a noble “death with purpose.” That lowers the stakes in these movies, robs them of emotion.

Compare “Rogue One’s” layers of heroic sacrifice to “Force Awakens” or “The Last Jedi.” It’s like comparing classic “Star Trek” to “Star Trek: Voyager.”

Isaac handles the action well and the comic vernacular with flair, and Gleeson takes to General Hux with a certain malign, old school British character actor glee.

But as mean and sullen as Driver can play, the pouty, slouch-shouldered mop-top seems out of place here, unthreatening as a villain, just sensitive enough to be the Wrong Guy for Rey to attempt to…you’ll see.

The late Carrie Fisher has the look of someone who botoxed the expressiveness out of her face during her “I’m a writer, not an actress” years. The novelty’s worn off of Boyega’s “Ex-Storm Trooper Who Cries.”

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Hamill’s Luke is expected to transform into a new Obi Wan in this series, the wizened elder statesman and soulful wizard. I think he’d be the first to say he’s no Alec Guiness, whose imprint over the original films was far larger than his small, serene, twinkling, performance.

And it does the hardcore fan’s heart no good at all to compare the pretty but impassive Ridley with the fierce, physical and emotional Felicity Jones of “Rogue One.”

Where’s the glint in the eyes, the bravado, the confidence that points towards a swashbuckling future?

There’s a lot to be said for making this universe less Anglo and more diverse, less butch even. But the whole storyline in the original “Star Wars” universe has become a Big Tent political party, compromised via a party platform that promises a little something for everybody. The films pander in the worst Harry Potter tradition.

That means nobody’s character is fully served by the script. Even at two and a half hours, there are jumps in logic/setting/action that don’t flow.

Given what I said about “The Force Awakens,” I really wanted to like this. It starts more promisingly, has its moments. Some innovations work, others make things worse.

Intentions and inspiration aside, “Last Jedi” doesn’t add up to an “Empire Strikes Back” for this trilogy. There’s no romance, little pathos and no real punch-in-the-gut moment. Its emotionally sterile tone was set with “The Force Awakens,” and that’s proven hard to shake, new innovations and plot twists aside.

“Last Jedi” is just another middling movie with a rabid fanbase, a Harry Potter-style placeholder picture for lump-in-the-throat moments to come. Or so we hope.

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MPAA Rating: PG-13 for sequences of sci-fi action and violence.

Cast: Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Domhnall Gleeson, Benicio del Toro

Credits: Written and directed by Rian Johnson, based on characters created by George Lucas. A Disney/Lucasfilm release.

Running time: 2:32

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Movie Preview: Spielberg’s tech Support Pulls Out all the Stops for “Ready Player One”

Yes, even billionaire moguls who usually just make Oscar bait like to get paid.

This is one dazzling bit of VR/inside the game “rebellion” movie eye candy from the guy who all but invented that term. “Ready Player One” is about a future where a VR game has become the most valuable piece of the global economy, and an Easter Egg planted in it is the prize the best players must pursue, a clever idea by the dead creator of the game (Mark Rylance, in long hair) but not at all appreciated by the Big Corporate Villain (Ben Mendelssohn).

To be honest, this looked pretty cool until the soundtrack shifted and made it feel lame and dated and trying too hard. Van Halen’s “Jump” must have tested well in marketing.

“Ready Player One” comes our may March 30.

 

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