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Interview: Rian Johnson talks evolution of ‘The Last Jedi’

Spoiler alert: This article highlights some key scenes in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

If the success of writer-director Rian Johnson’s worldwide blockbuster “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” proves anything, it shows that if you have the passion, a person who works hard enough can someday venture not only to the pinnacle of his craft, but in some instance, to a galaxy far, far away.

For Johnson, his work for four years on the eighth film in the Skywalker family saga was born of the wonder inspired by the first “Star Wars” trilogy when he was young. He shared that passion in an incredible gesture the night before the first “Last Jedi” panel at “Star Wars” Celebration in Orlando, Florida, in April. In an unprecedented move, Johnson made an unscheduled appearance where hundreds of fans were camping out overnight for a spot to see the panel and the first trailer for film, meeting with each fan there individually. As it turns out, those one-on-one meetings proved to be one of the pivotal moments of Johnson’s entire “Star Wars” adventure.

“There were two parts to this whole experience. There was making the actual film and then there’s putting the film out there to the world — and that second part at Celebration was such a highlight and almost like a turning point for me,” Johnson recalled in a phone conversation Tuesday from Los Angeles.

“Coming into Celebration I was a little nervous. I was scared to go up on stage and scared of judgment. I was scared about what people were going to say about this ‘new guy’ making this movie,” Johnson said.  “So, going out that night and just meeting fans face-to-face made me realize, ‘This is me. This is us. This what I’ve been since I was a kid. This isn’t some big, scary mass of folks, this is just the same type of ‘Star Wars’ fan as I have been since a kid.’ Everyone was so kind and so wonderful, that the next day when I got up on stage in front of all of them, I felt like I was standing in front of a huge group of friends.”

Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm

Of course, there were big differences between Johnson and the “Star Wars” faithful: He had the gargantuan task of making a film that would fit within the framework of the sprawling story writer-director George Lucas created 40 years ago. That’s not to say Johnson, 44, didn’t have his share of surreal moments on the set, like bossing Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, around.

Well, maybe “bossing Mark Hamill around” isn’t the right way to put it.

“To be fair, nobody ever bosses Mark Hamill around. Good luck with that,” Johnson said, laughing. “But I formed a great working relationship with Mark and collaborated with him on this part. But yes, on any single day of the past four years of my life, I can stick my finger down on the calendar and say, ‘On this day was a surreal experience.’ For someone who grew up as a kid on ‘Star Wars’ and it being their world, everything from getting to work with Mark and Carrie Fisher to getting to film on the Millennium Falcon set … You name it, there were just so many instances that it was hard not to have flashes of, ‘Oh, my God, this is really happening.’

“But then those flashes happen, and you get to work, and you get to start to tell a living, breathing story, which is ultimately the goal,” Johnson added. “The purpose of the film is not to showcase all this stuff from your youth, but to tell a story that’s alive right now with these characters and take each one of them seriously as characters.”

In the first film in the new “Star Wars” trilogy, director J.J. Abrams’ “The Force Awakens” dealt with the introduction of new characters and caught up with legacy characters like General Leia (Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The telling of Luke’s story, for the most part, rested on Johnson’s shoulders. Fans only briefly saw Luke in the last minute of “The Force Awakens.” Rey (Daisy Ridley) finally locates the legendary Jedi master on an island on the remote planet of Ahch-To, where she presents to him his old lightsaber.

But in a genius spin to show just how Luke’s story evolved in “The Last Jedi,” the grizzled Luke flips the hilt over his shoulder in a move that no one could have possibly seen coming. It was the first of many unexpected moments in the film, even though Johnson says his flip move, so to speak, makes complete sense in the context of the character’s overall storyline.

Mark Hamill in 'Star Wars The Last Jedi' (photo - Disney Lucasfilm)

“For me, it doesn’t start with wanting to do something unexpected or surprising. It’s always a nice thing when you can get that, but for me, that moment with Luke was inevitable,” Johnson said. “It’s wonderful that it plays like a surprise, but given where he’s at in ‘The Force Awakens,’ even though he’s exiled on this island, even though he’s taken himself out of the fight, you realize there must be a reason he’s doing this. I started out by figuring out where the character had to be at in this movie, and it all added up to him being in a place where it would have made no sense at all if we had gotten exactly what we all wanted — which was him firing up the lightsaber and saying, ‘Let’s go kill the bad guys.’ So, the surprise for me is always best when it’s a bi-product of really trying to honestly find he most interesting place to take these characters.”

To date, “The Last Jedi” has made more than $1.2 billion in theaters worldwide and is quickly honing on a place in the top 10 highest-grossing films, globally, of all time. And while “The Last Jedi” is extremely popular, it hasn’t stopped some fans from being vocal with their criticism of the film, including how Johnson dealt with Luke’s fate.

Since Johnson is such a huge fan of “Star Wars,” it does cause him moments of introspection, but ultimately, he said, the best course to take as a filmmaker is to stay true to his vision to see the story evolve — especially since he’ll be involved in the “Star Wars” universe again as the writer and director of the first film in a brand-new trilogy.

“Having been on the internet, I can say the vast majority of feedback I’ve gotten from fans has been ecstatic and on the same level of the critics,” Johnson said. “There are fans who don’t like it and there are fans who absolutely love it. That’s because it’s a ‘Star Wars’ movie. Having been a ‘Star Wars’ fan myself for the past 40 years, (the discussion about the film) is something I’m acutely aware of. If you make a ‘Star Wars’ movie and put some soul into it and give it some life, that means you’re going to have to make choices that inevitably are going to please some fans and not please others.”

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Having grown up in the fan base, Johnson said, he knows that not being able to please everybody is always going to be the case.

“What you need to do as a filmmaker, and this is what Lucas did and all the filmmaker approaching these new movies need to do, is to tell a personal story,” Johnson said. “You have to tell it the way it feels right to you (within the ‘Star Wars’ universe). You have to tap into what that is and you have to trust that. The moment you start second-guessing that, you’re dead in the water, and you’re going to make something that is guarded, dishonest and manipulative, and all the wrong things.

“So, I love hearing the discussion among the fans. I love hearing how the movie connected with people and it’s interesting to hear people’s complaints about it,” Johnson added. “It all adds into the big soup that is the reaction fans have to any new piece of anything that is ‘Star Wars.'”

Tim Lammers reviews movies weekly for The KQ92 Morning Show,” “KARE 11 News at 11” (NBC), “The Tom Barnard Podcast” and “The BS Show” with Bob Sansevere.

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Review: Rian Johnson brings balance to The Force with ‘The Last Jedi’


AUDIO: Tim reviews “The Last Jedi” on the “KQ Morning Show” with Tom Barnard. Segment beings 7 minutes in.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” (PG-13)

Writer-director Rian Johnson expertly creates the unexpected in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the eighth chapter in the Skywalker family space saga conceived by George Lucas 40 years ago. Naturally, after seven “Star Wars” films (eight, if you include last year’s spinoff, “Rogue One”), the environment is going to feel familiar at the outset of “The Last Jedi,” but the minute that Rey (Daisy Ridley) completes the stirring scene that started at the conclusion of “The Force Awakens” and hands the long-exiled Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) his lightsaber, the unexpected takes hold and all bets are off.

Although virtually no time has passed between the end of “The Force Awakens” and beginning of “The Last Jedi,” the celebration of the Resistance after blowing up the First Order’s Death Star-like Starkiller Base is short-lived. The base, while massive, is only one component of the First Order’s cache of weapons, and its stranglehold on the Resistance has reached a critical point.

With virtually nowhere else to turn, Rey must convince Luke to come out of hiding to help the Resistance before its too late, but Luke’s more fearful of Rey’s Jedi powers and that they may lead her down the same dark path as his former student and nephew, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – the former Ben Solo and son of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher). Meanwhile, Kylo’s powers are growing as he’s continued his training under the vengeful alien Supreme Leader Snoke (motion capture by Andy Serkis), and their resolve to capture Luke is drawing closer to a reality until Rey marches forth to thwart their plans.

In addition to Hamill, “The Last Jedi” features an expanded role for Fisher, who sadly passed away last year after she completed her work on the film. Because of that, Johnson stayed the course and didn’t alter Leia’s storyline, yet given the circumstances, her dialogue in “The Last Jedi” takes on a deeper meaning and is all the more poignant.

Despite that dark cloud hanging over the film, “The Last Jedi” has a wide range of emotions, from euphoria to dread, with lots of moments of levity in-between. There’s a lot of welcome humor in the film, and a lot of times it comes from the characters you wouldn’t expect. That includes from the new cuddly creatures the Porgs, the inhabitants on Luke’s remote planet in a galaxy far, far away, who are destined to become favorites of fans of all ages.  In the end, “The Last Jedi” is a perfectly blended mix of action, intrigue, humor and emotion, easily making it the best film in the series since “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980.

It’s hard to say where the franchise will go from here with one episode in the Skywalker family saga left, but for the time being, there’s no question that Johnson has brought balance to The Force with “The Last Jedi.”

Lammometer: 9.5 (out of 10)

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Movie review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ is first-class ride

VIDEO: See Tim’s review of “Murder on the Orient Express” with Zachary Lashway on KARE-TV (NBC)

“Murder on the Orient Express” (PG-13)

Don’t hesitate to climb aboard “Murder on the Orient Express,” filmmaker Kenneth Branagh’s lavishly produced and expertly directed adaptation of legendary author Agatha Christie’s classic novel. Loaded with a brilliant ensemble cast, lush set pieces, inventive cinematography and gorgeous settings, “Murder on the Orient Express” is a welcome throwback to the classic whodunnit murder mysteries of yesteryear, told passionately though the Branagh’s lens.

Branagh does double duty by playing famed literary detective Hercule Poirot, one of world’s best investigators who thinks he’s in for a three-day break for on a train trip across 1930s Europe when the locomotive is waylaid on a mountainside by an avalanche. The train is occupied by people of all different backgrounds, including Edward Ratchett (Johnny Depp), a notorious mobster whose “occupation” as art dealer has made him a lot of enemies.

On the first night aboard the stranded train, Ratchett is violently murdered, and with no one else in the proximity of the crime scene for miles, Poirot quickly concludes that one of 13 passengers is responsible for Ratchett’s death. Through his meticulous investigation, Poirot tries to whittle down a suspect, leading to a stunning conclusion that people new to the story simply won’t see coming.

While many people are fond of Christie’s original novel or the 1974 adaptation directed by Sidney Lumet and starring Albert Finney as Poirot, perhaps the film fans who will enjoy “Murder on the Express” the most are the people who come into the film cold. Yes, there are slight character changes in the film, but there is virtually no wiggle room for the film’s meticulously-constructed narrative.

That’s a big plus for newbies, yet leaves potential room for disappointment for fans who already know how the story ends . Luckily, the film’s sprawling, fascinating narrative, stunning vistas and first-class performances by the likes of Branagh, Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Derek Jacobi, Daisy Ridley, Penelope Cruz, Olivia Colman, Leslie Odom Jr., Josh Gad and Willem Dafoe make the ride well-worthwhile.

Lammometer: 8 (out of 10)

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AUDIO: Hear Tim review “Murder on the Orient Express” with Tom Barnard on “The KQ Morning Show” (segments begins 9 minutes in).

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Movie review: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

Photo: Disney

By Tim Lammers

“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (PG-13) 4 stars (out of 4)

The Force is the strongest it’s been in 32 years with “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” the long-awaited seventh episode in the monolithic space opera. Maintaining the same vital tone, effervescent spirit, sense of wonder and fearlessness to go to dark places – the same elements that made the classic “Star Wars” trilogy such a joy – “The Force Awakens” feels like a skillful combination of the best things about “A New Hope” and “The Empire Strikes Back,” all while creating a classic film chapter of its own. Expertly directed by J.J. Abrams, “The Force Awakens” – erasing the harsh memories of creator George Lucas’ CGI-laden prequel trilogy – is everything the fans could have hoped for, if not more.

Best of all, there are no annoying Jar-Jar Binks-like characters, politically-infested trade federations or Midichlorians to be found.

To preserve the mystery of the plot co-written by Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan (after the original script was written by Michael Arndt), I won’t spoil any major plot points of the film (I went on a social media hiatus earlier this week myself to avoid happening upon any details spilled from the Los Angeles premiere), but will only say the film examines the notion of The Force and the Jedi – particularly Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) – being myths to new generations in the universe. With Skywalker at the forefront of people’s minds, it paves the way for a plausible plot to pull the old band – Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2D2 (Kenny Baker) – back together. The characters are no doubt in supporting roles, but are pivotal nonetheless to the story set 30 years after the end of “Return of the Jedi.”

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The great thing is, supporting players like Ford, Fisher and Mayhew slip comfortably back into their roles – especially Ford, who is clearly in his element as the scoundrel smuggler – yet perfectly mesh into the plot involving a new set of leads. From a scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley – the film’s greatest discovery, who has the look, enthusiasm and presence of a young Keira Knightley), and First Order Stormtrooper defector Finn (a charismatic John Boyega), to ace X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (a funny and fearless Oscar Isaac) and the nefarious, red lightsaber-wielding Kylo Ren (a fearsome Adam Driver), who has pledged to finish the intergalactic domination that Darth Vader started, the casting is perfect. The key is, the new kids on the block play their characters with the same enthusiasm and passion (and in Driver’s case, menace worthy of Darth Vader) as their predecessors. On the non-human character side, the lovable droid BB-8 easily joins the ranks of the iconic C3PO and R2D2; and an wise, old alien named Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) exudes the wisdom of Yoda.

There are several other things that make “The Force Awakens” a great film, which was shot on 35mm, no less. Out of the gate, thanks to Abrams’ brilliant decision to use practical effects over CGI as much as possible, “The Force Awakens” feels like it fits within the set of the original “Star Wars” films. From the multitude of different sets the action plays out on, the actors are clearly much more engaged than they would have been in front of a green screen, and their actions are palpable.

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Also, the story, which mirrors several plot points from the early films, is terrific because it furthers the expansive storyline of the saga instead of retreading familiar ground. Getting back into a tried and true, yet powerful, story of good vs. evil, Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy smartly tapped Kasdan to co-write the revised script; and anybody familiar with familiar knows he co-wrote the strongest film in the original trilogy with “The Empire Strikes Back.” Kasdan clearly has a knack for writing the classic characters, especially Han Solo, and he and Abrams wonderfully marry the classic sensibilities of the original tale with a set of fresh and exciting new characters. The younger actors introduced to the “Star Wars” universe clearly get the filmmakers’ intentions.

With so much hype going into this new “Star Wars” film, fans will inevitably be disappointed in some aspects of “The Force Awakens.” In this case, though, there’s a silver lining in this disappointment – basically for the fact that there isn’t more than what you see in the film’s brisk, 2 hour and 15 minute runtime. Yes, inevitably, with such of a large cast, some characters don’t have as much screen time as you hoped they would have, but thanks to the film’s wonderful cliffhanger, there’s a tremendous amount of promise on the road ahead. Overall, it’s hard for a film of this magnitude to meet expectations, but “The Force Awakens” does and effectively, defies the odds. Ultimately, “The Force Awakens” gives the audience everything they want and more, putting The Force back where it belongs – in the hands of the fans.

In brief …

“Sisters” (R) 1 star (out of four)

“Saturday Night Live” pals Tina Fey and Amy Poehler embarrass themselves in “Sisters,” a dreadfully unfunny comedy about a pair of immature, overgrown siblings who can’t handle their parents’ decision to sell the family home. Centered around the Fey and Pohler’s task of cleaning out their rooms so the parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) can close the deal with the home’s new buyers, “Sisters” quickly devolves into a  shameless rip-off of the very funny “Step Brothers” and multitude of tired, old comedies about a house party gone horribly wrong. It’s easily one of the worst movies of the year.

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