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Critic v. Critic – Star Wars: The Last Jedi (with Christian Toto!)

Posted: January 1, 2018 at 10:59 am   /   by

I admit, dear readers, I was frankly shocked to find out that I was one of the few Conservative movie critics who actually liked and enjoyed Star Wars: The Last Jedi.  Now, as online critic John Campea often notes, “All Film Is Subjective”.  But there’s still something a bit unsettling about being of a minority opinion.

Still, I’m not the sort of fellow to go in with the crowd.  I wrote my review, and I stand by every word.  At the same time, however, I’m always eager to get down and dive into my disagreements with others, on film.  Especially among fellow Conservatives.

Christian Toto, of Hollywood In Toto, shares this eagerness.  For those of you who don’t know who he is…well, as far as Culture Warriors go, he’s Kind Of A Big Deal: One of the few openly Conservative movie critics officially counted on Rotten Tomatoes.  He’s certified.  He’s one of the big guns.  And he’s one of the few Conservatives who reviews films because that’s what he does.

As the great Andrew Klavan’s often noted, a far too common trend among Conservatives who do review movies is, well…they’re far too often political writers first, film critics second.  Their passion is in Politics, not Culture—and they approach film that way.  This, I strongly feel, leads to the sad trend of making mountains out of molehills—like assuming that Rogue One and Arrival MUST be feminist propaganda just for having women as the central leads.

Christian Toto doesn’t do that.  He reviews films as they should be reviewed: As films unto themselves.  If politics are part of the point of the film, he points it out and discusses it.  And as a Culture Warrior, he’s always sure to analyze the political trends in Hollywood.  But he won’t go overboard—he will never twist a narrative to throw red meat to the “BOYCOTT HOLLYWEIRD!!!” crowd.

Needless to say, I’m a fan.  And imagine my pleasant surprise when he opened a correspondence with yours truly, over social media.  Well, one thing led to another, and the next thing you know, he sounds a call to any Conservative film critic who liked Episode VIII, to take up his challenge to do a “Critic v. Critic” piece.  As, again, the vast majority of Conservative film critics didn’t care for the movie…I suppose this old nobody had to do.  I asked if the slot was still open, he said yes—and now, ladies and gentlemen…the result.

SPOILER ALERT, by the way.  If you haven’t seen the film, read my non-spoiler review here.  Then watch the film.  And then, read this monumental discussion…and let us know who’s side’s the more convincing.

And so, without further ado…the great Christian Toto:

 

TOTO: I’m a lifelong Star Wars fan who enjoyed both The Force Awakens and Rogue One.  So I was primed for The Last Jedi on both a professional and emotional level.  That was a mistake.  The new film serves up a few stellar sequences while reminding us Daisy Ridley is a worthy successor to the original trilogy’s heroes.  The rest?  What a letdown.  The story is a slog.  The dialogue is alternately regurgitated from past outings or just plain hokey.  The subplot involving the casino planet is a clunky bore.  In short, they handed the saga to the wrong auteur.  Sorry, Rian Johnson.

What elements did you find worthy of the saga?

 

BLAKE: Well, let’s start with something you brought up: “regurgitations from past outings.”  To me, the homages to the past actually point to the greatest strength of The Last Jedi: that we, as viewers, can assume nothing.  To invoke the old cliche, “It keeps you guessing”—especially when you’re absolutely sure you’ve seen this story beat before.

One of the big complaints people had about The Force Awakens was how it basically remade the storyline of the original Star Wars (AKA A New Hope).  While I didn’t have much of a problem with that, I admit Episode VII was kinda predictable (except for Han’s death scene–I felt a LOT of dread when Han stepped onto the bridge…).

Not so, here.  Constantly, events are set up to invoke The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi (to the point of Rey quoting Luke word-for-word, telling Kylo “I feel the conflict within you.”).  But then—and this is vitally important—just when you think you know the “rehash” is going to follow through…there’s a twist.  The rug’s pulled out from under your feet.

Down to the grand finale, it’s completely, 100% unpredictable—from Luke’s precise reaction to Rey handing him the lightsaber, down to the exact nature of his epic smackdown of Kylo Ren.  That’s number one.

Number two is how beautifully the movie uses failure: failures due to the fact that, arguably, each and every one of these characters makes mistakes—mistakes that have actual, real-world consequences that the characters have to acknowledge and live with.

 

And it isn’t like Revenge of the Sith (in my admittedly not-so-humble opinion, the worst movie of the franchise), where the heroes fail because—let’s be honest—they all act like idiots (as Luke actually points out to Rey, in this film).

Here, the mistakes are often things that any other movie would’ve applauded the characters for. For example, Poe Dameron’s hotheaded “maverick” antics, in any other film, would’ve been shown as courageous and necessary.  Here, they end up crippling the Resistance’s line of defense.

As for the dialogue, that’s interesting: Dialogue, understand, can make or break a movie, for me.  I’m kinda merciful to X-Men Origins: Wolverine, for all its faults, because of just how snappy and crackling the dialogue is in that flick.  For Last Jedi, I myself only had a problem with the constant sappy mush coming out of Rose’s mouth.

Maybe I’m just more “relieved” with the new films than anything else, dialogue-wise.  To be frank, we’d just suffered a whole prequel trilogy filled with the worst dialogue and direction this side of The Room.  After Anakin belching out “I HATE YOU!!!”…I suppose the only place left to go is up.

 

TOTO: I won’t defend the prequels on ANY level, although I think Revenge of the Sith is quite watchable and easily the best of that trilogy.  I understand the need to tie the franchise together, but for me the homage meter was plain too high.  Seeing Poe get dressed down felt like a “you go, girl” moment, and while I didn’t mind that alone I wanted to see him counter that with more heroism.  Just didn’t get that.

The film’s humor really didn’t connect with me.  I know the original Star Wars has lines that feel clunky today. That was then.  Now, having Poe do the old “it’s me, live, but I’m pretending to be an answering service” shtick is beyond tired.  This is “Star Wars.”  It’s better than that.  And for all the heat the Ewoks got at least they helped topple the Empire.  Why are the Porgs there again?

I agree on the recycled Force Awakens story, but that film had Han being Han, a great fusion of CGI and old-school effects and real love for the old-school characters.  Here, Chewbacca, R2D2, and C3PO are like window dressing.  And don’t get me started on General Leia’s miraculous space flight!

The movie ends with the remaining rebels confined to a single ship…and the scope of the First Order/Resistance battle not nearly as clear as one would hope.  Where do you think the saga goes from here…and are you surprised by the poor fan reaction on RottenTomatoes and the second-week b.o. drop?

 

BLAKE: I’m glad you brought up the “you go girl” issue. To be honest, this is where I’ve often clashed a bit with fellow Conservatives online, regarding a film’s politics.  Mind you: many times the general consensus from conservative film critics about that sort of thing is right on the money.  Many times, however…upon seeing the film for myself, I find myself thinking, “It isn’t quite that simple.”  This is one of those times.

In the case you mentioned, it illustrates my earlier point how everyone in the movie makes mistakes–mostly understandable ones.  Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo, however, commits her error for what appears to be no reason other than I Am In Charge And Don’t Need To Explain Myself.  She has a pride issue, and it would seemingly hurt her pride to lay out her plan–which is actually a good plan, as even Poe quickly admits…once he learns it.

But why didn’t Holdo just explain it?  There was no real reason to keep anything secret—and in fact, doing so causes a lot of unnecessary complications.  So contrary to the consensus, there’s nothing particularly feminazi or “SJW” about Holdo’s arc.  She’s every bit as fallible as Poe is—arguably more so, since she’s the one holding the reins.

There are other cases too—most notably the Finn/Rose subplot.  I sighed at the anti-rich Leftism spewed by Rose…but then, Benicio del Toro’s DJ shows Finn how these “evil” weapons dealers also supply ships and weapons to the Resistance—not just the First Order, as Rose so matter-of-factly proclaimed.

That’s the thing: Amid DJ’s well-made point that “The Rich” are every bit as complex and complicated as “The Poor”…Rose doesn’t seem to comprehend the meaning of the word “complex.”  She’s matter-of-fact and self-righteous about everything—a virtue-signaling type, who ultimately destroys Finn’s would-be heroic (and—considering how no one there knew Luke was going to come in save the day—necessary) act and puts the Resistance in mortal danger…because of “love.”  It’s almost a reverse Archie Bunker effect: Rose was clearly supposed to be a conscience of the movie…but instead, she came across as an eye-roll-inducing bleeding heart.

That leads me to a point I have to address about Rey.  Heroic as she is, and powerful as she is, I’m continuously baffled by the narrative that she’s a perfect, ever-capable “Mary Sue.”

In reality, our girl’s naivete continues to lead to errors in judgment (as Luke himself keeps warning her). In Force Awakens, we constantly saw her rejecting the call–leading to her capture.  And in Last Jedi, her major error stems from her innocent hubris that she can turn Kylo Ren, Return-of-the-Jedi-style.  Again, the rug’s pulled out from under her (and our) feet: She was being played by Snoke all along.

In both films, she does what no “Mary Sue” ever can do: she makes mistakes.  And in the end, it’s not Rey who saves the day, in this movie: It’s Luke—giving a delightfully clever and creative “(bleep) you” to Kylo Ren and the First Order, for good measure.

And that leads to how the film handles the classic characters: Keep in mind, this isn’t their story, anymore—not quite.  This sequel trilogy isn’t about Luke, Han, Leah, Chewy, R2, and 3PO…at least not primarily.  It’s about how the legacy they’re leaving behind affects Rey, Finn, Po, BB8 and Kylo Ren.

Those are the central characters of these new films—while in the meantime, we see the stories of the classic crew coming to an end, to pass the torch.  But R2 and Luke—and Yoda—have their vital importance to the plot, and I’m fully satisfied with all of them.

Would I have loved to see Luke “Ignite The Green,” pull down all the walkers in the climax, and take Ren and Hux to school?  Sure I would.  But what he does instead works within the context of showing the full mental and psychological scope of his power.  He’s invincible, and his powers reach across the stars.

As for the spaceflight, well…as there is no gravity in space, the tiniest of “Force-pushes” was all Leah would’ve needed to “fly.”  Myself, I would’ve been satisfied with her death here–especially how it would’ve worked both in the film’s context and in giving Carrie Fisher a powerful send-off.  But I’ll accept what we got.

Whither Episode IX?  Well, that’s another part of the beauty of Last Jedi.  Episodes VII and VIII got all the homages out of the system–we saw enough “twisted” Return of the Jedi here to make it clear: Whatever we’ll see next time will not be a rehash.

So once again, we can assume nothing.

I would like to see Kylo’s crew of rogue Jedi students—the Knights Of Ren—finally show up in the flesh, since he’s Supreme Leader now.  I want to see them wreck shop as Rey struggles to form a crew of her own.  I’d love to see that adorable first meeting between Po and Rey lead to something.  I want to see Ghost Luke inspiring Rey and resuming his troll of Kylo.

And most of all, I want Rey to find Luke’s green lightsaber, and either use it, or perhaps use the crystals from it and from Anakin’s now-broken saber to create her own–almost certainly using the metal from the ends of that staff of hers.  Two sabers?  One saber, double-bladed, blue and green?  Who knows?

All culminating in the most spectacular duel in the history of the franchise: Rey and Kylo settling the score, putting the best of the prequel fights to shame.

Finally: To be honest, I was much more astonished, and saddened, by the critical score and box office so unfairly slapped onto Justice League…but that’s for another time.  Here, no, I’m not surprised by the reactions.  Force Awakens played it safe and delivered the goods people expected.  I can’t fault director J.J. Abrams for that.  For The Last Jedi, Johnson took chances and risks, making a point to defy our expectations.  For some, it didn’t deliver.

But that’s the chance you take. If nothing else…we must give Johnson props for that.

 

And there you have it, folks!  Check out Christian Toto’s incomparable site, “Hollywood In Toto”.  And stay film-friendly, my friends.

 

Image Source: Wikimedia/Rakruithof
License: Public Domain

Eric Blake

Eric Blake

Team Writer at Western Free Press
Eric M. Blake is a recent graduate of the University of South Florida, with a Bachelor's in Political Science and a Master's in Film Studies.  As that implies, he is very passionate about political theory and filmmaking--and the connections between the two.  Inspired by Andrew Breitbart's axiom that "Politics is downstream from culture", he is deeply fascinated by the great influence that popular culture has on public opinion, and is a firm believer in the power of storytelling.  He proudly owns his second copy of Ben Shapiro's Primetime Propaganda...his first copy having been worn out though intense re-reading.

Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory.  He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests.  He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work.  Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.

Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com.  He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio.  In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.
Eric Blake

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Critic v. Critic - Star Wars: The Last Jedi (with Christian Toto!)