‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ falls short of sky-high hopes

If expectations for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” were inordinately (and perhaps unfairly) high, thank “The Force Awakens,” which had a huge donut hole in the shape of Luke Skywalker at its center. Yet even with Luke integrated into the story, the film feels like a significant letdown, one that does far less than its predecessor to stoke enthusiasm for the next leg in the trilogy.

Running more than 2 ½ hours, the eighth “Star Wars” movie built around the Skywalker clan is the longest under that banner and showcases an abundance of action. But despite the enormous scope and visual spectacle, too many key components of the film — including those that have kept die-hard fans guessing and debating — prove unsatisfying.

To be fair, writer-director Rian Johnson delivers some genuine surprises, and has dotted the movie with its share of pleasurable moments, from disarming humor to the first space battle to callbacks to earlier films — practically flashing a sign to ensure opening-night audiences will have opportunities to whoop and holler.

“The Last Jedi” also adds a number of new characters, most of whom feel pretty disposable with the exception of Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky rebel whose vulnerability seems well calibrated to connect with the fan base.

Still, the eagerly awaited arrival of Luke (Mark Hamill) — with his promised tutelage of Rey (Daisy Ridley), and past role in the dark descent of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) — doesn’t ignite as anticipated.

While “Force Awakens” did an admirable job of engineering a baton pass by establishing the new cast (the other key members being John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe), “Last Jedi” bogs down in the middle and, the cooler parts notwithstanding, doesn’t rally enough at the finish to offset that.

Granted, “Star Wars” has weathered past disappointments — including the clunkier qualities of George Lucas’ second trilogy — without damaging the franchise, and the emotional investment fans have in a property that’s passed from parents to their kids can’t be overstated.

Like those movies, though, which produced standout moments, “The Last Jedi” feels like less than the sum of its parts. And where “Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams nicely set the table for this sequel, this film leaves Abrams (who will reprise that role on Episode IX) with his work cut out for him. The flaws also invite second-guessing about Lucasfilm’s pre-release vote of confidence by anointing Johnson as the force behind a separate trilogy set in that far-away galaxy.

In crass commercial terms, no clairvoyance is necessary to predict that “The Last Jedi” will be a huge hit, blunting any criticism. Yet if “The Empire Strikes Back” stands as the defining chapter in the “Star Wars” saga, as second movies go, “Last Jedi” ranks closer to the “Attack of the Clones” end of the gene pool.

Carrie Fisher’s death last year serves as a somber footnote to the movie, and beyond her warming presence, there’s a lovely dedication to her in the closing credits.

What precedes that overall, alas, represents a creative step back, not a leap forward. Optimistically, “The Last Jedi” leaves plenty of intriguing possibilities for the climactic installment. But there’s also the kind of room for improvement that remind us when it comes to “Star Wars,” such hopes — new or otherwise — spring eternal.

“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” premieres Dec. 15 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.

‘Damnation’ mines bleak Depression-era class warfare

Bleak and nasty, “Damnation” brings a “Mr. Robot” vibe to the Depression era, wrapping class warfare and hostility toward wanton capitalism in a drab, dusty package. The result is a bracing look backward informed by present-day parallels, in another show that feels like an outlier for USA — one that should have critical admirers but might struggle to satisfy TV’s capitalist demands.

HBO’s “Carnivale” is among the dramas that have taken a stab at this period, and that was filtered through a supernatural prism. By contrast, “Damnation” is mired in realism, even if the motives and backgrounds of its characters remain purposefully opaque in the early going.

Set in Iowa in 1931, the story centers on Seth Davenport (Killian Scott), who is masquerading as a rabble-rousing preacher. His real objective, however, is to rally workers against the moneyed status quo, leading a farmers’ strike.

Those plans, however, are dealt a setback with the arrival of a paid strikebreaker, Creeley Turner (Logan Marshall-Green), hired by a wealthy industrialist to quell the dissent. The increasingly bloody jockeying also involves the local sheriff (Christopher Heyerdahl), whose true motives, like almost everyone else here, are suspect.

The ’30s provide a jarring backdrop to all of this discontent, a time when making reference to a “Bolshevik uprising” actually wasn’t all that long ago, and the action unfolds with a western vibe, where people are as apt to get around on horses as in cars.

The performances are fine across the board, with Marshall-Green possessing more layers than your average gun-toting enforcer and Scott having the looks of a potential star, bringing a kind of quiet intensity that recalls David Caruso back when “NYPD Blue” premiered.

For all that, “Damnation” feels like a very narrowly pitched offering, one more suited to the outer reaches of FX or premium cable/streaming. While USA has sought to broaden its profile, tepid tune-in for “Mr. Robot,” the accolades notwithstanding, suggests that strategy faces some hurdles. (Netflix, notably, will have distribution rights to the program outside the U.S.)

Created by Tony Tost (“Longmire”), “Damnation” definitely deserves credit for guts and grit, and the plot moves pretty briskly. Yet with the show’s ambitions comes an old-fashioned capitalist conundrum: when marketing a concept that looks and sounds like a tough sell, the devil’s in the details.

“Damnation” premieres Nov. 7 at 10 p.m. on USA network.

‘Thor: Ragnarok’ flexes its comedy muscles

Marking an ambitious detour into comedy, “Thor: Ragnarok” conjures sparks but doesn’t quite catch lightning in a bottle. Sporadically fun and visually impressive, this third film works a bit too hard at flexing its laugh muscles, while bogging down in a midsection built around the enticing prospect of Thor versus the Hulk.

Part of the problem, frankly, is that Marvel has done perhaps too good a job marketing the movie, to the extent most of the best lines and moments (like Thor seeing the Hulk and enthusiastically shouting, “He’s a friend from work!”) have played repeatedly in the trailer. Even Led Zeppelin’s “Immigrant Song” makes a slightly incongruous appearance.

To its credit, the movie makes the most out of an inordinately strong ensemble, surrounding Chris Hemsworth with reliable scene-stealer Tom Hiddleston as his brother Loki, Cate Blanchett as the villainous Hela and Tessa Thompson as Valkyrie, a fearsome warrior. Throw in a cameo by Benedict Cumberbatch as Dr. Strange and a meatier role for Idris Elba as the stoic sentry Heimdall, and there’s a lot of power on screen even before the CGI pyrotechnics kick in.

It all starts promisingly enough, with Thor — after what amounts to a James Bond-like pre-title sequence — returning home to Asgard, where a newly freed Hela, the Goddess of Death, is on her way to lay siege.

Failing to stop her, Thor is inadvertently cast onto a dystopian planet Sakaar, presided over by Grandmaster (Jeff Goldblum, in fully manic mode), who forces his prisoners to engage in gladiatorial combat. Determined to win his freedom and face Hela, Thor is pleasantly surprised to discover that the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) has landed there as well — at least, until the first punch lands.

Marvel has handed the keys to the kingdom to New Zealand director Taika Waititi, who with his trio of writers unearths plenty of amusing character riffs, capitalizing especially on Thor and Loki’s squabbling fraternal ties.

Still, there’s a serious threat that must be addressed, eventually, as Thor spends ample time seeking to extricate himself from bondage and assemble the support he’ll need to have a shot at defeating Hela.

“Ragnarok” (the title refers to the prophesied destruction of Asgard) is definitely a step up in class from earlier sequel “The Dark World.” For better and worse, even these individual adventures have now been sucked into the maelstrom of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, where promiscuous cross-pollination among heroes has become the norm.

Bulked up for the occasion, Hemsworth remains an enormously appealing lead, capable of pulling off funny lines and slapstick silliness while still inducing swoons when his shirt comes off. He is, in many respects, the most special effect “Thor” has to offer, setting aside the inevitable free-for-all that, it should be noted, inflicts a higher quotient of carnage than parents tempted to bring younger kids might deem appropriate.

In a sense, a movie like “Thor: Ragnarok” represents the apex of Marvel’s strategy — a giant spectacle that in many respects plays like a comic book come to life, while being liberated enough to experiment with light-hearted quirks and idiosyncrasies.

At a fundamental level, Marvel jams enough high-spirited entertainment into the movie to ensure that it’s worthy of the price of admission. It’s just that armed with such a potent and promising arsenal, “Thor: Ragnarok” manages to feel less mighty than the sum of its parts.

“Thor: Ragnarok” opens Nov. 3 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.

‘Dynasty’ revival seeks new bang for the bucks

After extensive dabbling in the world of superheroes, the CW plunges back into the super-rich and super-soapy with “Dynasty.” Seemingly determined to out-sleaze “Gossip Girl,” the catfight-heavy premiere largely delivers on that level, with the disclaimer that sustaining such serialized “Can you top that?” silliness is where the producers will have to earn their keep.

If TNT’s “Dallas” revival built upon the original and its characters, “Dynasty” — overseen by the producers of “Gossip Girl” — has essentially borrowed the name of Aaron Spelling’s original the-rich-are-like-us-only-crazier drama and spruced it up for modern times.

At the show’s core there’s still Blake Carrington (Grant Show) and his massive energy company and estate, which his ambitious, scheming daughter Fallon (Elizabeth Gillies) assumes is eventually going to be hers.

Those plans, alas, are thrown for a loop when Blake reveals that he’s engaged to one of his employees, Cristal (Nathalie Kelley). Fallon dismisses her with a constant barrage of sniping, thus lending credence to Cristal’s complaint that Blake’s kids won’t see her as anything more than “the girl you’re banging.”

There’s a lot of banging and big bucks all around, naturally, with Fallon dallying with the family chauffeur (Robert Christopher Riley), and her brother Steven (James Mackay) — among network TV’s first gay characters on the original — allowed to be himself more openly, while his promotion of environmental causes has created a rift with Blake.

Somehow, the players also find the time to transact a lot of high-stakes business, with Fallon noting that her dad “made his fortune doing deals with old white guys in private clubs,” a situation she — and the show, with its more diverse group of characters — intends to remedy.

“Dynasty” works a little too hard at living up (or down) to its splashy billboards in the early going, with Gillies overplaying the femme fatale shtick. That includes a voiceover in which she discusses this being “an age of dynasties,” as pictures of the Trumps (a.k.a. “the president daddy voted for”) and Murdochs flash by.

The new “Dallas,” it’s worth noting, started well before gradually losing its appeal. Still, Show’s “Melrose Place” cred offers an intermediate bridge for fans of this TV genre, and the soapy twists should pair nicely with CW’s “Riverdale,” which offered its own juicy season-one doings and returns with a serial-killer plot to get the ball rolling.

Those who inhabit “Dynasty” clearly operate by the old slogan that you “can’t be too rich or too thin.” While the wealth part isn’t a problem, once the initial curiosity subsides, the question remains whether this revival can drape enough meat on its attractive bones to merit sticking around.

“Dynasty” premieres Oct. 11 at 9 p.m. on the CW.

Idris Elba, Kate Winslet lift ‘Mountain Between Us’

Ask people with whom they’d like to be stranded in the wilderness, and Idris Elba and Kate Winslet would likely rate pretty high on the list. That’s the main lure for “The Mountain Between Us,” an old-fashioned star vehicle that seeks to thaw frozen hearts with only fitful success.

Owing a debt to fact-based movies like “Alive” and the 1970s TV movie “Hey, I’m Alive,” the film — based on a novel by Charles Martin — dives (or crashes) right into its storyline, with two inordinately attractive people isolated in the mountains, facing the daunting task of finding a way down before they freeze or starve.

Faced with grounded flights due to a storm, Winslet’s Alex, desperate to make it home from Idaho to New York in time for her wedding, hatches the idea of commissioning a small plane to ferry her to Denver to catch a red-eye. She invites Ben (Elba) — a surgeon who has his own important date with performing a potentially life-saving operation — to join her.

What goes up, however, comes down quite abruptly, leaving the two — joined by the pilot’s Labrador retriever, who really is a good boy — with limited food, injuries and little hope that anyone will be able to find them. Ben’s medical skills come in handy, but they eventually realize that they have to brave the treacherous journey down the mountain to have any chance of surviving.

Along the way, the pair alternately bicker and bond, with Alex offering an open book into her life, and Ben shrouding his in secrecy.

Director Hany Abu-Assad (a Palestinian filmmaker, twice Oscar nominated for best foreign-language film) does what he can to sustain the suspense, striking a reasonable balance between prolonging and heightening their ordeal and finding quieter moments that allow Alex and Ben to get better acquainted — and the audience, in turn, to learn more about them.

To the marginal extent that it works, credit Elba and Winslet, who manage not only to convey determination, fear and bouts of resignation but also possess the sort of innate appeal that makes some of the thinner plot points more palatable.

Again, this has a genuine throwback feel to it, recalling the days when there were plenty of mid-sized studio movies that relied on star power, as opposed to today’s stark divide between comic-book blockbusters and art-house-oriented award bait.

If “The Mountain Between Us” can navigate that precipitous chasm, there won’t be any mystery as to which two people it will have to thank.

“The Mountain Between Us” premieres Oct. 6 in the U.S. It’s rated PG-13.