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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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Movie review: ’10 Cloverfield Lane’

"10 Cloverfield Lane" (photo: Paramount)

By Tim Lammers

“10 Cloverfield Lane” (PG-13) 3 1/2 stars (out of four)

Producer J.J. Abrams has successfully pulled a fast one over moviegoers once again with the brilliantly-conceived and marketed “10 Cloverfield Lane,” another underground (quite literally, in this case), super-secret movie project that came out of nowhere with a mysterious trailer two months back. Coming out eight years after his equally brilliant found footage horror thriller “Cloverfield,” “10 Cloverfield Lane” could hardly be considered a sequel. There are some similarities, though, however, slight, that will have film sleuths mulling over the whether the films are distant cousins. Perhaps through more “Cloverfield” chapters, somehow we’ll find that they tie together when all is said and done.

John Goodman gives a career performance as Howard, an extreme survivalist in the Deep South who is convinced that the world has come under attack, but is not sure how. Before he locked himself into his airtight bunker underneath his barn, he rescued, or so he says, a distraught woman, Michelle (an excellent Mary Elizabeth Winstead) woman who crashed her car as she fled her apartment after breaking up with her boyfriend (Bradley Cooper supplies the voice of the beau in a phone call). Waking up, chained to a wall in one of the bunker’s cells, Michelle is apparently being held captive for her own good because if she escapes her confines, she faces certain death with the polluted air outside. Also trapped down below is Emmett (an impressive John Gallagher Jr.), who helped Howard build the bunker when he realized the attack was underway.

Questioning Howard’s sanity – his theories range from a chemical attack, invasion by Russians or maybe even Martians – Michelle and Emmett struggle with their seemingly few options. On one hand, the bunker is stocked with years of supplies and they could live comfortably, only worrying about Howard’s instability and clues of his lurid past; or they could tempt finding a way to escape, even though there’s evidence outside to back up Howard’s theories of an attack.

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There’s no question Abrams is a genius shepherding young filmmakers through these lower-budgeted projects, and for the second film in a row (Matt Reeves expertly directed the first “Cloverfield”), the filmmaker has found an extremely talented director in Dan Trachtenberg, who creates a claustrophobic atmosphere throughout.

Staged about 80 percent of the time in the bunker, Trachtenberg creates an indelible slow-burn with “10 Cloverfield Lane,” as the tension – only broken occasionally by Gallagher’s well-placed comic relief – ratchets up in an unnerving manner throughout the film. The film has no predictable outcome and leaves you guessing throughout. Is Howard suffering some sort of paranoid psychosis and holding his captives for something more sinister? Is the air really contaminated outside, and why? Are there monsters outside? Is Howard the monster, or merely is he someone who is slightly off-kilter? The possibilities are endless until the last act of the film reveals the truth, which for obvious reasons, can’t be explained her.

One of modern film’s best character actors, Goodman steals the show in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” going places he’s never gone to in his career with the explosively unpredictable Howard. Of course, we all knew he could be funny, and he’s certainly had a his fair share delivering in dramatic roles. But “10 Cloverfield Lane” displays Goodman in an entirely new light. It’s great to see an actor of his stature, especially at this point in his career, willing to take risks instead of doing the same, old stereotypical roles for a paycheck. H

e may not be the model citizen of “10 Cloverfield Lane,” but he’s perfect person to dwell in the unpredictable world of “Cloverfield.”

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At the movies: Top 10 in 2015

Photo: Walt Disney Pictures

By Tim Lammers

There surely will be some disagreements, but here are 10 of the films that made movie-going worthwhile in 2015.

10. “The Walk” – Robert Zemeckis’ direction is at its jaw-dropping best with this stunning recreation of French performer Phillipe Petit’s (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) “artistic coup” – a death-defying wire walk between the void of the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. The point-of-view shots on the wire were among the most, if not the most, intense scenes on the big screen this year.

9. “The Martian” – Director Ridley Scott returns to space once again – sans any alien life forms — with one of the most entertaining films of the year in this tale about an astronaut (Matt Damon) who was presumed dead after a vicious storm hits his team’s Mars expedition. True, it’s mostly a one-man show for Damon, but in between, the talented ensemble including Jeff Daniels, Jessica Chastain, Sebastian Stan, Michael Pena, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean help create an engaging rescue mission filled with as many laughs as there are thrills. It’s a real blast (off).

 8. “Legend” – Tom Hardy flawlessly demonstrates why he’s one of the best actors today with a dual performance as twins Ron and Reggie Kray, a pair of brutal gangsters who ruled the East end of London in the 1960s. Nearly identical in appearance, Hardy immediately establishes the distinct personalities of the Krays, making you quickly forget that what you’re watching are essentially impressive camera tricks. Proceeded by his kick-ass turn in “Mad Max: Fury Road” and followed by his frightening turn in “The Revenant,” 2015 was the year of Tom Hardy.

 7. “The Big Short” – Four groups of Wall Street outsiders stick it to the big banks during the housing meltdown of 2008, which feels great until you realize that even after the financial Armageddon, nothing really changes. Director Adam McKay makes an impressive transition from comedy to satire and drama with a film so slickly executed that it hearkens the greatness of Martin Scorsese. Christian Bale is the best of the film’s winning ensemble cast.

 6. “Inside Out” – Pixar’s “Up” Oscar-winner Pete Docter is back with this ingenious tale of how five emotions become mixed when an 11-year-old girl struggles with her family’s relocation from Minnesota to San Francisco. Like “Toy Story 3,” “Inside Out” is as much an emotional roller coaster for adults as it is a visual wonder filled with laughs for kids.

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 5. “Steve Jobs” – Michael Fassbender gives a career performance as the complex, socially-inept co-founder of Apple Computers, ingeniously played out during three pivotal moments of his career. Director Danny Boyle realizes his vision more like a stage play through Aaron Sorkin’s whip smart dialogue, where Jobs’ embattled colleagues (expertly played by Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels, Michael Stuhlbarg and to a lesser degree, Seth Rogen) wrack their brains trying to figure the prickly computer pioneer out.

 4.”Cinderella” – Far and away the most beautiful piece of cinema in 2015, this Kenneth Branagh-directed gem is one of the few films this year to deliver on all levels. Sometimes emotional, sometimes funny, and always full of heart, “Cinderella” has everything from stunning performances, awe-inspiring sets, gorgeous costumes, an emotional score and the recalibration of a classic character to reflect the modern age without damaging the classic tale’s integrity. Most of all, the film’s important message, “Have courage and be kind,” is one that will resonate for ages.

3. “Spotlight” – The film’s subject matter is depressing as all hell, but this film

about The Boston Globe’s uncovering of the Boston Archdiocese’s priest sex abuse scandal in the early 2000s is so compelling that you can’t help but be gripped by it from beginning to end. The film not only recalls the greatness of “All the President’s Men,” but also serves as a reminder of today’s sad state of investigative journalism (if not journalism as a whole), which has been shot to hell by the Wild West Internet landscape where every media outlet has to have the story first, even if the facts aren’t completely right.

2. “Mad Max: Fury Road” – Writer-director George Miller finally gets the opportunity to make the “Mad Max” film he’s always wanted to make with this hyperkinetic road opus that can’t be described as anything but “batshit crazy.” Tom Hardy wipes the memory slate clean of Mel Gibson with his brooding performance as the title character, and Charlize Theron gives a furious performance of the aptly-titled character Furiosa.

 1. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” – Sure, it’s not perfect, but how often can a film match the tone of the original 37 years after its release, and the monstrous expectations that go with it? The Force is back in a big way thanks to the ever-burgeoning creativity of writer-director J.J. Abrams, and this seventh episode in the “Star Wars” saga serves as a big reminder why we love movies in the first place. “Episode VII” can’t come soon enough.

 10 honorable mentions: “Ex Machina,” “Black Mass,” “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” “The Revenant,” “Shaun the Sheep Movie,” “Ant-Man,” “Creed,” “The Good Dinosaur,” “Kingsman: The Secret Service” and “The Peanuts Movie.”

Worst film of 2015: “Sisters” – Tina Fey and Amy Poehler force an uncharacteristic brand of raunchy comedy down our throats that’s dreadfully unfunny and downright embarrassing. How this film got the greenlight to begin with, is one of the great mysteries of 2015. The “Saturday Night Live” alums must know where some bodies are buried.

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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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