In Theaters

Finding our place in the world. Tapping into our source of personal power. Learning how to balance strength and vulnerability, power and temperance, and when to charge and when to retreat. All are noble pursuits aimed at helping is get through life and its challenges, be it in everyday matters and more heroic ventures. And understanding what it means to be a master of these skills is a venture that both defines us and guides us in how we conduct our lives. Those are among the big questions tackled in the latest installment of one of  filmdom’s most storied franchises, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (web site, trailer).

Picking up where the seventh offering in this series left off, “The Last Jedi” follows the continuing exploits in this epic galactic drama, bringing viewers up to date on the adventures of characters from past episodes and introducing new players into the mix. The narrative consists of several story threads that run parallel with one another and eventually become intertwined for a blockbuster climax.

Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wrestles with whether or not to continue his mission in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth installment in this storied movie franchise. Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

To say the least, the picture’s plot is somewhat complicated, and detailing it would probably reveal too much. In a nutshell, however, the film follows the efforts of a ragtag group of rebel forces led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) waging war with the First Order, an oppressive dictatorship brutally ruled by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his chief protégé, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a ruthless villain who, ironically, is more than occasionally morally conflicted about carrying out his charge. As this battle plays out, one of the rebels’ chief warriors, Rey (Daisy Ridley), journeys to a remote planet to find an enigmatic peer, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), to learn the ways of the Jedi, a mystical corps of heroic combatants, in hopes that his teachings will help her and others in their conflict with the First Order. In addition, two other rebel fighters, Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), backed by comrade Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), go in search of a scurrilous code breaker (Benicio del Toro) to help them devise a plan for undermining First Order detection technology.

The missions of the characters in these respective scenarios bring them up against the issues raised above. How they respond depends on who they are as individuals and how they comport themselves when brought face to face with the Force, a potent, intangible well of power that binds all things and connects everyone in the Universe. The Force is theirs to wield, but what they do with it hinges on their intents and how they approach handling it. Each character is thus left to determine his or her own destiny, a profound introspective process that prompts each individual to examine what he or she hopes to achieve and how to go about doing so, a significant, soul-searching exercise for all concerned.

As one of the chief warriors in a contingent of rebel forces, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks to learn the ways of the Jedi in director Rian Johnson’s “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

In many regards, this installment in the franchise thus echoes many of the themes of “Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back” (1980), in which a young Skywalker is initiated into the ways of the Jedi for himself under the tutelage of supreme mentor, Master Yoda (Frank Oz). This film brings the story full circle, particularly where Luke is concerned, who now serves as the master instructing a new generation of potential followers. It gives the legendary warrior an opportunity to assess what he would like to do going forward, in large part based on what he had done in the past, a track record marked by mixed outcomes that give him a strong sense of the responsibility associated with his actions and the fallout that has come from them. It’s a conundrum that others struggle with as well, and their approaches to addressing it mimic those of the Jedi leader who must now decide whether he wants to rejoin a flight in which he’s unclear about what his role might be.

This latest installment of this storied franchise represents a vast improvement over the last two offerings in this series, providing some much-needed relief to a mythology that had been rapidly running out of gas and originality. With a well-crafted, insightful allegorical story line, fine performances by Hamill and Fisher (in one of her last screen appearances), excellent special effects and a restrained reliance on action sequences to carry the narrative, “The Last Jedi” gives viewers much to ponder while serving up an entertaining saga more in line with the original films in the “Star Wars” franchise. Admittedly it’s not perfect – a little overlong (especially in the pacing in the first 45 minutes), a little weak in its use of 3D effects and a tad too cutesy in its comic relief – but these shortcomings don’t significantly detract from the overall product. It’s truly satisfying to see things finally getting back on track.

General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher in one of her last screen roles) leads a group of rebel forces against the authoritarian First Order in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

What it means to meet our destiny is a common theme in many films, especially those with heroic narratives like this. And, thankfully, this film provides viewers with much to think about, especially when it comes to discerning our role and realizing that matters aren’t always as clear cut or simplistic as we might like to think they are. It’s an ongoing process in which we engage in ways both great and small. But, no matter what endeavor we’re tasked with undertaking, let us always hope that, as we do so, the Force is always with us.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Rebel forces battle the fleet of the First Order in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” Photo courtesy of Lucasfilm Ltd.

Art In Spite of Itself

Most artists would agree that they seek to garner acclaim by producing quality work, creations applauded for their many noteworthy attributes. But sometimes artists achieve notoriety for their disastrous efforts, works that are so stunningly awful that they earn praise for their utter detestability. In the case of filmmakers, such efforts often lead to their productions becoming cult classics, movies that are loved for how relentlessly bad they are. And one such example provides the basis for the hilariously off-beat new fact-based offering, “The Disaster Artist” (web site, trailer).

When aspiring but supremely insecure actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco) befriends an enigmatic classmate from his San Francisco acting studio, he has no idea what he’s getting himself into. But, as someone seriously in need of bolstering his self-confidence, he’s highly impressed by the inventive though exceedingly unconventional work of fellow actor Tommy Wiseau (James Franco). Although most of Tommy’s observations consist of cryptic, nonsensical, stream of consciousness statements, Greg nevertheless believes that he can learn something from his eccentric peer. They begin spending a lot of time together – much of it devoted to Greg trying to figure out what Tommy’s often-incoherent ramblings mean – but the impressionable Mr. Sestero gets out of it what he wants (at least initially).

At the premiere of their film “The Room,” actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, left) and director Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, right) have different reactions to the audience response to their offering, as detailed in the off-beat new fact-based comedy, “The Disaster Artist.” Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24.

Interestingly, despite his ongoing inscrutability, Tommy actually has ample resources at his disposal. For instance, he appears to sit on a pile of cash, and he has residences in both the Bay Area and Los Angeles. Such circumstances eventually make it possible for Tommy to bankroll a relocation to Hollywood for himself and his new friend, an initiative that they believe will help them step up in their careers. However, even though Greg lands an agent (Sharon Stone) upon arriving in L.A., he fails to impress casting directors. And, for Tommy, things go even worse, mainly because no one can figure him out.

With their hopes dashed and careers flagging, Tommy comes up with the idea to write his own script for a movie starring Greg. Before long, he completes his screenplay for a domestic drama titled “The Room.” And, given his considerable finances, he soon hires a cast (Ari Graynor, Jacki Weaver, Zac Efron, Josh Hutcherson, Jason Mantzoukas, Andrew Santino) and crew (Seth Rogen, Paul Scheer, Charlyne Yi, Kelly Oxford) to make the film. With everything in place, the project seems all set to go. But, as quickly becomes apparent, the production is a disaster come to life:  the 40-day filming schedule is quickly exceeded; many scenes (primarily those involving Tommy) require numerous takes to shoot; most of Tommy’s direction makes little sense, alienating the actors and crew; and some of the director’s creative decisions are of questionable taste.

Aspiring actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, right) is thrilled, if a bit uncomfortable, at landing the services of an agent (Sharon Stone, left) upon his arrival in L.A. as documented in the off-beat new comedy, “The Disaster Artist.” Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24.

Before long, relations between Greg and Tommy become strained. Tommy resents Greg spending increasingly more time with his new girlfriend, Amber (Alison Brie). He also blocks Greg’s efforts at securing a bona fide acting job on an episode of the sitcom Malcolm in the Middle thanks to a chance meeting with actor Bryan Cranston (playing himself). The once-strong (though admittedly inexplicable) bond gets torn apart.

With the production coming to an end, it’s unclear what the future holds. For his part, Greg (like many of the crew members) wants to walk away, hoping that no one ever sees the movie. He returns to San Francisco to resume his acting career, achieving moderate success on stage. He seems happy and well-adjusted once again – until he learns of the big premiere Tommy has planned to launch the theatrical release of “The Room.”

Not surprisingly, the reaction to Tommy’s film is anything but what he expects. He’s mortified by the howls of laughter echoing throughout the theater. But, little does he realize, he’s on his way to a sleeper hit – even if it’s not the success in the way he envisioned.

On the set of his film “The Room,” writer-director Tommy Wiseau (James Franco, foreground) often rambles incoherently, confusing his cast and crew, as depicted in director James Franco’s “The Disaster Artist.” Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24.

As Tommy’s experience illustrates, sometimes life hands us some big surprises. But, even though success may not assume an anticipated form, it’s success nevertheless. The question for us then becomes, can we appreciate it for what it is, even if unexpected? This is one of those situations where we can view the glass as half full or half empty. What we choose, of course, is up to us, but, no matter which choice we make, we should decide carefully.

Despite a half-baked teaser trailer that makes this project look like an inside joke drummed up by frat boys between bong hits, this quirky fact-based comedy is surprisingly entertaining, if a bit dragged out in spots. A more fully fleshed out back story probably would have helped make the point of this offering something that viewers could more readily relate to as well. Nonetheless, the film delivers surprisingly well in the performance department, with fine turns by the Franco brothers and an array of colorful supporting cast members, a delightfully pleasant surprise from a release that, upon first glance, would seem to have little to offer.

Director James Franco’s latest offering is garnering considerable praise in awards competitions, having been named one of the National Board of Review’s Top 10 Films and capturing the organization’s award for best adapted screenplay. In addition, the picture earned two Golden Globe Award nominations for best comedy picture and best comedy actor, Screen Actors Guild and Independent Spirit Award nods for best lead actor, and four Critics Choice Award nominations, including best comedy, best actor, best actor in a comedy and best adapted screenplay. Expect the accolades to continue throughout awards season.

On the set of director Tommy Wiseau’s “The Room,” script supervisor Sandy Schklair (Seth Rogen, center) and actor Greg Sestero (Dave Franco, second from right) cringe whenever the filmmaker makes one of his unpredictable on-screen appearances in the off-beat new comedy, “The Disaster Artist.” Photo by Justina Mintz, courtesy of A24.

Being misunderstood may cause us considerable consternation. But misinterpretations of our intents just might pay unexpected dividends as well. We may be frustrated at what transpires, but we could also find ourselves laughing all the way to the bank. If you doubt that, just ask Tommy Wiseau.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

Rising to Our Own Greatness

Sometimes it takes having our backs against the wall to realize the greatness to which we’re truly capable. Getting there may seem like a dire process, and we may be ready to break down or give it all up if hope appears lost. Such dark night of the soul moments test us to the limit but also show us exactly what we’re made of, a scenario pointedly depicted in the new, fact-based historical drama, “Darkest Hour” (web site, trailer).

At the outset of World War II, the British government sought to minimize its involvement and the potential for bloodshed by practicing a policy of appeasement put forth by Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain (Ronald Pickup). By bending to the demands of German Chancellor Adolf Hitler, the U.K. hoped it could curtail the rising tide of warfare. However, when it became apparent the Fűhrer had no intention of honoring his agreements, the need for a new strategy – and a new British P.M. – became all too clear.

British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman) assumes the reins of power at one of the most critical junctures in the nation’s history as depicted in the new, fact-based historical drama, “Darkest Hour.” Photo by Jack English, courtesy of Focus Features.

However, British politics being what they were at the time, there was also a need to establish a coalition government, one that ultimately was headed by an unlikely leader – Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman), an aging statesman in whom many politicians and even the crown had little confidence. His track record of past failures haunted him, and many saw him as a buffoon and a catastrophe waiting to happen. Nevertheless, despite these issues, Churchill managed to rise to the top and was asked to form a government by King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn), albeit quite reluctantly.

Once Churchill assumed the reins, he was quickly faced by a severe wartime crisis – the surrounding of British forces by German troops at the French seaport of Dunkirk. With virtually the entire British military in serious peril and the Germans overrunning Europe with no opposition, Churchill faced the collapse of Allied forces and a potential massacre of its own trapped troops. He was thus thrust into devising a plan – any plan – to stave off these twin tragedies.

At the request (albeit reluctantly) of King George VI (Ben Mendelsohn, right), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, left) is invited to form a new government at the start of World War II, events outlined in the new historical drama, “Darkest Hour.” Photo by Jack English, courtesy of Focus Features.

At the same time, Churchill was being pressured by his own War Cabinet to enter into peace talks with the Germans, to be brokered by Hitler’s Italian allies. This option, advanced by Churchill’s political rivals, most notably Viscount Halifax (Stephen Dillane), would theoretically end the carnage but would essentially turn the U.K. into a fascist lap dog. Conversely, it was believed that rejection of this initiative would ensure British failure in dealing with the crisis on the French coast. And, the more this scenario was allowed to play out, the more Churchill was being railroaded into a position of being labeled a collaborator or an incompetent, either of which would provide grounds for his ouster.

Churchill didn’t always help his own case, either. He was known for his prolific, unabashed imbibing, and he frequently spoke his mind, even when candor wasn’t called for. He even shocked many would-be supporters with his famous (or some would say infamous) “V for Victory” hand gesture, which, in some segments of society, was taken to mean something entirely different (and not especially socially acceptable). However, this unrestrained, freewheeling approach to life also gave him a strong sense of self-confidence, one that would prove to be a saving grace.

With the support of his loving wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas, left), British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, right) assumes the reins of power during a difficult time in the nation’s history in director Joe Wright’s latest offering, “Darkest Hour.” Photo by Jack English, courtesy of Focus Features.

No matter what he was up against, Churchill staunchly believed that Britain had to remain firm in its resolve, convinced that the fate of Western civilization was at stake. However, given the pressures he faced, he was also on the verge of cracking. To be sure, he had devoted supporters in his corner, such as his beloved wife Clementine (Kristin Scott Thomas) and loyal secretary Elizabeth Layton (Lily James), but, in seeking solutions to his challenges, he was virtually alone. If he were to survive this crisis, he would have to get creative, both in coming up with plans of action and winning over supporters, which, in each case, would prove to be the people who would come to help him most – the British citizenry.

Churchill’s amazing saga at the start of World War II is a prime example of someone rising to his own greatness, exceeding his potential at a time when the odds were overwhelmingly stacked against him. This inspiring tale shows what we’re each capable of, even in the face of seemingly insurmountable challenges. It shows what it means to surpass everything we thought we could do – and thrive in the process.

Oldman’s stellar portrayal of the legendary leader is handily the greatest strength of this biopic, an effort that has earned him best actor nominations in the Golden Globe, Screen Actors Guild and Critics Choice Award competitions. However, despite the outstanding performance by the protagonist and several of the picture’s supporting players, the overall product is at times a little too talky and drawn out to captivate, given that it’s based on an epic story that truly should engross viewers. With a little too much emphasis on British domestic politics, the film sometimes becomes bogged down and, frankly, a bit boring. Still, despite this shortcoming, the picture has been well-received by critics, as evidenced by the three additional Critics Choice Award nominations that it has captured, including best feature.

Even in the face of opposition from his fellow legislators, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill (Gary Oldman, center) rallies support for his agenda in “Darkest Hour.” Photo by Jack English, courtesy of Focus Features.

Icons deservedly attain the status they achieve as a result of their Herculean efforts. And, based on what’s depicted here, it’s easy to see how Churchill earned such standing. His experience sets an example we can all follow when we find our own backs up against the wall.

A full review will appear in the near future by clicking here.

A Special Christmas Gift 

Here’s a little something just in time for the holidays! Beginning Christmas Day, December 25, join me and host Sara Troy for the next edition of Self Discovery Radio in which we’ll discuss conscious creation in the movies, particularly as covered in my new book, Third Real: Conscious Creation Goes Back to the Movies. The interview will be available as the featured podcast for a week and subsequently archived on the show’s web site. Tune in for some fun and lively movie chat.

Copyright © 2017, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.