Category Archives: Reviews

“SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Ron shot first.

There are two key problems with Solo: A Star Wars Story. First, nobody asked for nor wanted a Han Solo movie. Second, this isn’t a Han Solo movie. If it were, it would have the real Han Solo in it with Harrison Ford, or at the very least, somebody who looked like him. As it stands, all we have is the kid from Hail, Caesar! wearing a Han Solo costume playing pretend on a film set. A more accurate title for this film would have been Star Wars Cosplay: The Movie.

The plot follows a younger Han Solo (ish) played by Alden Ehrenreich, growing into the smuggler that we know of before the events of the original Star Wars. The film shows us everything that has made Han Solo (ish) become Han Solo, from how he got his name, to meeting Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), to where he got his signature blaster, to getting the Millennium Falcon. Because, you know, all of those were glaring questions we had from the first eight movies.

There are several things wrong with Solo: A Star Wars Story, but let’s start with its execution. Reportedly the biggest point of contention between producer Kathleen Kennedy and previous directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Solo was previously going to be handled in a loose, improvisational style similar to Thor: Ragnarok. After Kennedy got fed up with Lord and Miller’s direction and fired them, she brought on Academy Award-winner Ron Howard (A Beautiful Mind, Rush) to finish production, sticking closer to the script and deviating less from what was on the page.

That’s a problem for Solo, because the script is monotonous at its best and insipid at its worst. Written by veteran Star Wars scribe Lawrence Kasdan and his son Jonathan, Solo is a muddled, incoherent mess, forcing an explanation for every small, insignificant detail that never came into our minds. Some scenes were done well, like when Han met Chewie for the first time after the Wookies were forced out of Kashyyyk in Revenge of the Sith. Other scenes, however, are downright pompous and silly. For instance, were you ever curious how the Millennium Falcon got its iconic shape (besides being simply designed that way)? Did you know that a giant squid was chasing the Falcon during the Kessel Run, as if it wasn’t impressive enough that it ran it in 12 parasecs? And what about the biggest shocker: how Han Solo got his name? Hint: his parents didn’t give it to him.

All of this leads to the core issue here: who, in their right science-fiction fanboy mind, wanted a Han Solo prequel? I would think that out of all of the Star Wars characters, Solo is the least you would need backstory on next to the Skywalkers. What was the point of all of this? Was a prequel so desperately necessary that we needed an explanation for every single mundane detail surrounding Han Solo? Did this story really need to be told? Did Harrison Ford’s legacy really need to be brought back from the grave just so it could be tarnished at the box office?

Speaking of Harrison Ford, Ehrenreich is downright cringeworthy as the younger Han Solo. And to be fair, it isn’t his fault. Hell, it was damn near impossible from the get-go making a Han Solo movie without Harrison Ford. But it wasn’t completely hopeless. Australian actor Anthony Ingruber gave a great Han Solo impression way back in 2008, and he even impeccably mimicked Harrison Ford’s mannerisms in 2015’s Age of Adaline. So a movie portraying a younger Han Solo wasn’t completely out of the question; only far-reaching at Galaxy length.

So what went wrong with Ehrenreich’s portrayal? Besides looking nothing like Harrison Ford, his mannerisms are completely wrong. When you look at the smooth, coy, inherently self-centered smugness of Ford’s Solo in the original trilogy and compare it side-by-side with this kid, you see a guy tripping over his blaster pretending to be a character he isn’t. Ford was cool and confident. Ehrenreich was clumsy and clueless. Ford was sharp and smooth. Ehrenreich was awkward and out of place. Ford has personality and attitude. Ehrenreich had no personality and wishes he had attitude.

Admittedly, not everything in Solo was terrible. The visual effects are impressive as always, and the action is fast, thrilling, and exciting to watch. The small Easter Eggs scattered are about as fun as they always are, with one cameo from the prequel trilogy in particular surprising me quite a bit. And the performances outside of Ehrenreich’s are mostly reliable, with Donald Glover shining in particular as he channels Billy Dee Williams into a younger, spunkier Lando Calrissian (although he had a romance with a droid character that felt, for a lack of a better word, artificial).

All of this just further reinforces how unnecessary Solo: A Star Wars Story was. Again, why was this movie made? A fan of the franchise could not give you an answer that would make any sense. Walt Disney Studios, meanwhile, could give you several reasons relating to the box office. Pray that the studio doesn’t decide to milk the franchise any further to the point where we’re getting a Jabba the Hutt movie. And before Kathleen Kennedy asks, no that was not an actual recommendation.

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“DEADPOOL 2” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: 20th Century Fox

Really? Three stars AGAIN?!

SCREW David Dunn. First, he has the balls to give Logan half a star higher than my first movie after it rode MY R-rating (Yeah that’s right, you’re a freeloader Hugh Jackman), but then his balls grew to tumor-size to give my second movie the same rating?!?! WHY DO YOU KEEP DOING THIS TO ME, DD???

First, don’t compare my initials to a bra size. Second, since you basically did the same thing twice, so am I (hence why we’re also having this conversation a second time).

Oh, shut up. I have Josh Brolin and a metal arm! Doesn’t that count for something?!

Not particularly, since the Marvel Cinematic Universe also has both of those things. What’s he doing in your movie again?

He time-traveled from a dystopian future to kill a kid and save his timeline.

So… he’s the Terminator?

Pretty much, yeah.

Gotcha. So, run the whole thing by me again. How exactly is Deadpool 2 different from the rest of the superhero genre?

I’m glad you asked! First, [INSERT SPOILER ALERT] dies at the beginning of my movie! Second–

That’s already happened.

I beg your pardon?

[INSERT SPOILER ALERT] dying at the beginning. That’s literally happened in every superhero movie like… ever.

Baloney sandwich. Name ten.

Superman, Blade, Spider-Man, Batman Begins, X-Men Origins: Wolverine, Guardians of the Galaxy, Batman V. Superman, Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther, and Avengers: Infinity War. The last two, by the way, were also released this year and are better than both of your movies.

Curses. Outdone by Disney again.

Not for much longer, I suspect.

Okay, but what about everything else in the movie? The action? The drama? The jokes? The Easter Eggs? The cameos? I mean, you HAD to enjoy all that?!

Actually, I did, and I suspect your fans will enjoy it just as much as well. Profane, loud-mouthed, and obnoxious as you are Wade, the one thing you keep proving is that you’re consistently funny. And man, did you have me rolling on the ground laughing. I really liked the opening sequence where you spoofed the James Bond credits, and how you parodied team-up movies like The Avengers and X-Men by bringing together the X-Force. And don’t even get me started on how you commented on the financial stinginess of 20th Century Fox.

Hahaha, hell yeah. Thanks Double-D, I’ll take that fourth star now.

Sorry Wade, but no can do. That’s only reserved for movies that I feel really deserve it.

WHAT THE ****, YOU ************** *** ** * *** ***** *******, WHY DOESN’T DEADPOOL 2 DESERVE IT?!?!

Wade, it’s the same movie. It’s the same freaking movie. Deadpool 1 IS Deadpool 2. You even bring in the same roided-out Russian at the end to solve all of your biggest problems.

Ah, yes. Just like Donald Trump.

Please keep the politics to a minimum, Wade.

Alright, so give it to me straight. What do I have to do to make you give me four stars and an MTV Movie Award?

Wade, I don’t think it’s about a star rating. You found your niche. You’ve made not one, but two fantastic movies that deliver a hilariously violent spoof of the superhero genre. Yeah, it’s not quote-unquote “outstanding.” So what? Maybe the fact that you aren’t some profound, emotional, culturally relevant blockbuster isn’t your weakness: it’s your strength. Maybe you don’t need to be like Captain America, or Spider-Man, or Iron Man, or Wolverine. Maybe you just need to be yourself.

… it’s because I’m white, isn’t it?

Wade.

It’s because I’m white.

I’m very uncomfortable talking about this.

Is that why you gave Black Panther four stars?

I’m done with this conversation. Hit me up when you release X-Force. And a four-star movie.

Oh, you piece of—

I’m sorry, I couldn’t help myself.

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“AVENGERS: INFINITY WAR” Review (✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

The beginning of the end.

We live in an age of gargantuan expectations. That’s why we’re able to accept a movie with 30 superheroes fighting in it when six years ago, it felt a bit much to have just six superheroes together on one screen. Well, if Marvel achieved nothing else with Avengers: Infinity War, they achieved the impossible. They made a superhero movie with a larger cast than any of the 18 films that came before it, and they pulled it off magnificently.

A sequel to (*takes deep breath*) Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Spider-Man: Homecoming, Thor: Ragnarok, and Black Panther, (*breathes again*), Avengers: Infinity War follows the mad titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) on a quest to find the six Infinity Stones, magical gems imbued with supernatural power. The Avengers know the location of a few of the Infinity Stones. The Power Stone, for instance, was stored away on the planet Xandar in the first Guardians of the Galaxy movie, while the Space Stone is housed in the Tesseract, which was on Asgard when it was destroyed in Thor: Ragnarok. The Collector (Benecio Del Toro) has ownership of the Aether, a.k.a. the Reality Stone on Knowhere, while Doctor Strange (Benedict Cumberbatch) and Vision (Paul Bettany) have the Time and Mind Stones respectively. If Thanos finds all six of the Infinity Stones first, he will use them to wipe out half of all life in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Scattered and displaced, the Avengers must team up with the Guardians of the Galaxy to find the Infinity Stones before Thanos does and put a stop to his madness.

The sheer size of Avengers: Infinity War is both its greatest strength and its greatest weakness: a double-edged sword to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. When this franchise started 10 years ago with the release of Iron Man, its world was relatively focused and self-contained, keeping it small with just a handful of names featured in each individual movie. Now, they’ve straight-up exploded into pure comic-book madness. Previous MCU movies typically did not have a billed cast that went significantly beyond 10 actors. Even Captain America: Civil War, the biggest MCU film before Infinity War, was pushing it at a 18-member cast. Infinity War blows that away with 35 actors.

With that large of a cast, there’s plenty of action to show off, and there’s plenty of spotlight to share amongst all of the stars here. Whether Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Spider-Man (Tom Holland), and Doctor Strange are fighting Thanos’ minions in New York, or an elderly Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) is rescuing an injured Vision, or Thor (Chris Hemsworth) is meeting the Guardians of the Galaxy for the first time, there’s plenty of memorable moments to pick out from the film to make you grin from ear-to-ear. It’s almost like a cinematic wheel-of-fortune for the movie theater: spin the wheel, and see what special prize you win at random.

This both works and backfires for the film’s available cast. On one hand, the fact that there’s so many amazing moments to pick from really brings a plethora of joy and thrills into the movie theater, making for some outstanding blockbuster entertainment. But with this large of a cast and this ambitious of a scope, that also brings in a key problem: it’s too easily distracted. Since the movie is basically one overstuffed comic-book Easter Egg lined up one after the other, there’s no real room for anyone to have their individual moment to shine, and as this is the case, our heroes are forced to share the frame with everyone else packed into the screen with them. With the original Avengers, you could pinpoint one key moment where each Avenger outshined the rest, whether Tony was threatening Loki (Tom Hiddleston) in his penthouse, Captain America was issuing out orders to the team, or Hulk was smashing Puny God’s brains in. You could not pinpoint one such moment in Infinity War, because there are no individual moments. Everyone is fighting everyone for everyone, and it’s very easy to get lost with all of the spectacle going on at once.

I did enjoy Josh Brolin quite a bit as Thanos. In a franchise where the villains have consistently been the weaker aspect of these superhero movies, Marvel has finally pushed out not one, but two fantastic villains in the same year: Erik Killmonger in Black Panther and Thanos in Infinity War. They’re very interesting for very similar reasons. One, their performances are on-point, and the actors fully commit themselves to the complexities and absurdities of their roles. Two, they are given very compelling reasons for their villainy, and you sympathize with them not because of their moral compass, but because of their life experiences that drove them to make the decisions that they did.

Killmonger, for instance, wanted to start a race war to compensate for years of suffering the African-American people have had to endure at the hands of the white majority. Thanos, while not race-driven, has an equally motivated reason for seeking universal genocide: he’s trying to save the universe. In one particular scene, he explains his violent reasoning to a hesitant listener, and he makes his position clear. This universe’s space is finite, its resources finite. And its population is growing too big to sustain itself. Comparing it to one memory where he wiped out half of one planet’s population, he pointed out that the children were starving and dying on that planet before he came. Now, their bellies are full and they are healthy and happy. In the perspective of population control and prolonging extinction, Thanos makes the hard decision to cut down on what he sees as the fat to extend life in the universe. His commitment to his mission makes him a very compelling villain to watch, even though you don’t enjoy the cruelty and violence that he brings with him.

I do think some of the material is too disturbing for some younger viewers. I myself even struggled to watch some of the movie’s harsher, more vindictive moments. Still, Avengers: Infinity War is ambitious and daring in its art, even if it is equally devastating in the same sentence. These movies used to represent something more lighthearted about superheroes; a greater ideology to be the bigger, better person and to help other people achieve the same thing. Now it’s about facing harsh conclusions and realities, and I’m not sure if I enjoy it quite as much.

When Thanos set out for his galactic conquest, he did so believing in one thing: that he could save the universe by wiping out half of it. We already know that his crusade is monstrous and horrifying. The scary part is not knowing whether he’s wrong.

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“READY PLAYER ONE” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Warner Bros. Pictures

Easter Egg: The Movie

Ready Player One is a celebration of entertainment, a pop-culture explosion jam-packed with all of your favorite characters, icons, and memorable moments from your childhood growing up. I couldn’t tell you how many times I grinned ear-to-ear while watching this film, or how many times I jumped up and down in my seat in excitement, or how many times I was overwhelmed from recognizing all of the cameos popping up on the screen at once. This film could have been retitled as Easter Egg: The Movie, because that’s exactly what it is: one giant, gorgeous, deliciously colorful Easter Egg, and man is it fantastic to look at.

Taking place in Columbus, Ohio in 2045, Ready Player One shows us a dystopian future devastated by the effects of climate change and economic inequality. The middle class no longer exists. People live in sheds and old trailer homes instead of houses. The education system is practically non-existent. And no matter where you turn, all signs point to old American life ceasing to exist.

Enter the Oasis, a virtual reality experience where just about anything is possible. The Oasis has become people’s new reality: their place of escape. And whether they’re racing in a re-creation of 1940’s New York City, dancing in an anti-gravity night club, or literally building their own “Minecraft” world, the Oasis is a national treasure that everyone shares together.

One day, the creator of the Oasis James Halliday (Mark Rylance) passes away, but before he does he records a message for all of his video-gaming fans everywhere. He says that he’s hidden an Easter Egg in the Oasis, an object which hands control of the Oasis over to whoever finds it first. Now determined to find the Easter Egg before business CEO and corporate shrill Nolan Sorrento (Ben Mendelsohn), Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) teams up with his friends to find the Easter Egg and save the Oasis.

The appeal in Ready Player One lies in its nostalgic value; in your ability to discern entertainment icons and characters and get excited at their unexpected appearance. This, of course, seems too simple to be taken seriously. However, Ready Player One is a simple film, and it never asked to be taken seriously. With these rules established, we’re ready to plow ahead and dive head-first into all of the pop-culture fun this movie delivers, and man does it deliver it.

How common are the Easter Eggs in Ready Player One? Very. They are so prominent in the film that they are as integral as the visual effects themselves are. Virtually every scene has at least one throwback to 80’s or 90’s culture. In one of the earliest shots, for instance, Wade can be seen driving around in the Delorean from the Back to the Future franchise. I’m telling you guys, after 28 years with its engine shut off, there’s no greater joy than seeing the Delorean revved up again and tearing the streets up, even if the Delorean and those streets are artificial.

That’s only one Easter Egg among hundreds. King Kong is back from the dead ripping buildings apart, the Iron Giant is reactivated after being shut off for several years, and there’s even a blood-soaked tribute to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining. My favorite cameo was one where the Chucky Doll was tossed into a crowd like a grenade, and he starts slicing through hoards of computer-generated enemies like a mincemeat grinder. Yes, a Chucky Doll will do that in this movie. It will do a lot of things.

The cameos, the Easter Eggs, the surprise appearances: they’re all so fun and exciting to watch, and it’s a pure joy to just glance at the screen at random moments and go “Oh look, it’s so-and-so! And also what’s-his-name!” But that’s not the core component of the movie. It’s an important one, yes, but what makes Ready Player One so cherishing is how much these characters mean to these kids playing as them. We’ve all been through those moments in our childhood where we grab our toys, trucks, and action figures and spit out silly noises as we scream and pretend like our toys are fighting each other. Ready Player One is the video-game equivalent of that. Yes, these kids and the villains they’re fighting are inhabiting a fictional world, but the love and passion they have for it is not. For them, it’s as real as any action figure, costume, and video-game controller ever could be. The Oasis is not based in reality, no. But it is their reality, and that’s the important part.

In that, Steven Spielberg finds the human part of this story; the part that turns this movie from merely an entertaining experience to an extraordinary one. When Steven Spielberg was filming the underwater scenes for his shark film Jaws, or had E.T. pointing to Elliot’s forehead, or had that magnificent T-Rex let out a loud, dominant roar in Jurassic Park, he didn’t make any of these scenes from the corporate, money-grabbing mindset of Nolan Sorrento. He created these moments like the kids in Ready Player One created theirs, thinking, dreaming, and playing like storytellers in their own worlds. In that, Spielberg speaks to something much more profound than the need to be entertained: he speaks to the much larger questions of creating ourselves.

Yes, Ready Player One’s message is a straightforward one. But then, it was meant to be straightforward. What we are given here is not an opportunity to critique, but an opportunity to place ourselves in the VR mindset of these kids, let loose, and have fun. And for all of the action, visual spectacle, humor, heart, and fun that this movie delivers, Ready Player One has only one flaw, and that is that the Super Mario Bros. didn’t make an appearance.

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“PACIFIC RIM: UPRISING” Review (✫1/2)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

More like downsizing.

The biggest flaw with the first Pacific Rim was its third act, where its runtime extended so long with so much content packed together that it really could have been cut out and edited into its own separate movie. This flaw, unfortunately, carries over into its sequel Pacific Rim: Uprising, which descends into a classic case of sequelitus with all of its ideas spent. It has a stupid plot, dull characters, boring dialogue, and humor so unfunny that Adam Sandler could have done a better job at writing it. The movie’s one saving grace is its visual effects. Gee, I wonder where else we’ve seen that before?

Taking place 10 years after Raleigh Beckett, Stacker Pentecost, and the other Jaegers closed the Kaiju portal at the end of the first movie, Pacific Rim: Uprising follows Stacker’s son, Jake (John Boyega) living the good life in a post-Kaiju world. He parties, drinks, trades on the black market, swindles dangerous mob bosses, and steals any Jaeger tech that he can find.

Well like clockwork, Jake’s criminal activities leads him into the jail cell, and this time he can’t simply just bail himself out. Now faced with a potential prison sentence, his sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi) gives him an ultimatum: come back to the Jaeger program and help train the new cadets, or rot in a cell for the next 30 years. Jake slightly prefers military service over prison. Slightly.

The problems with Pacific Rim: Uprising all starts with its writing, which is such a poorly-done retread of the first Pacific Rim that it feels more like fan fiction than it does a faithfully-produced sequel. The writer and director Steven S. DeKnight has had several television credits prior to his film debut in Uprising, including writing episodes for Warner Bros.’ “Smallville” and being the showrunner for series’ including “Spartacus” and “Daredevil”. Trust me, he’s definitively a talented storyteller. Unfortunately, all of his experience is wasted here in his first foray into film, and there is no evidence that any skill or talent exists behind his camera at all.

Case in point: the screenplay. It is essentially the exact same plot as the first Pacific Rim was, point by point. We start with a big, epic Jaeger fight, follow with an underdog hero who doesn’t believe in himself, suddenly recruited into a military operation, bonds with the girl in closest proximity to him at the base, a shocking revelation is made about the alien threat, and our heroes team up to disband of said threat.

That’s it. That’s the whole story in a nutshell, a preposterous copy-and-paste of the first Pacific Rim and adding Uprising at the end of the title. Granted, sequels don’t have to be original in every aspect of their storytelling. Shoot, even the most recent Star Wars movies are almost straight rip-offs from the original trilogy. The difference, however, lies in the extra details the filmmakers put into those movies to further their interest. Pacific Rim: Uprising’s mistake was thinking that the interest lied in its derivative plot, which of course, it doesn’t.

Look at the first Pacific Rim as evidence of this. It has the same plot, yes. Yet it succeeds so much more in being fun and entertaining to its audience. Why? It’s because Guillermo Del Toro knew which details to focus on and why. He knew that the size and scope of the Jaeger/Kaiju fights needed to be reflected in the buildings and environments around these monsters. He knew Charlie Hunnam and Idris Elba needed on-the-spot, quick-witted dialogue to make them more than the average one-dimensional movie heroes. And (most importantly), he understood the movie he was trying to make. He knew he wasn’t trying to make some seriously out-there, psuedo-dimensional experience like Inception or Gravity. He was trying to make the next explosive, Transformers-esque action fest that overjoyed the inner child in him. That was the movie he aimed for, and he succeeded spectacularly in making it.

Compare this to the desperately confused approach behind Pacific Rim: Uprising. It has no idea what it wants to be. It doesn’t know whether it wants to be a serious action movie, a silly Hollywood blockbuster, a complex science-fiction fantasy, or all three at once. All it knows for sure is that it wants to be like the first Pacific Rim, but it doesn’t know how to get there. That’s because the screenplay hasn’t earned the right to compare itself in its storytelling. The sad part is that it knows it too.

Yes, the fight scenes between the Jaegers and the Kaiju are cool. So what? The fight scenes were just as fantastic in the first Pacific Rim, and that was made over five years ago. The music’s electric jams sound fantastic, but again, there’s nothing there that you can’t find in the original already. The only thing to really set this movie apart from its predecessor is John Boyega, who brings such an oafish charm to the movie that he can make something as mundane as eating ice cream seem funny to us.

Even then though, his performance is plagued by the mediocre cast members surrounding him. Scott Eastwood fills out the generic stiff-necked soldier cliché to a “T”, and he demonstrates little personality outside of pure smugness. Newcomer Cailee Spaeny plays the movie’s second underdog, and she overacts so much that she fits better inside of a Disney Channel movie. And Charlie Day? God-awful. His character does such a forced 360 turn from his personality in the first movie that I couldn’t take him seriously or urgently. He felt more like a parody of a mad scientist than an actual mad scientist (and if you didn’t like him in the first movie to begin with, wait until you see him here).

All in all, Pacific Rim: Uprising is a haphazard, unnecessary sequel; one that would have added value to the franchise if it were never made at all. The first Pacific Rim was an epic love-letter to Japanese Anime and monster movies, a rock-em-sock-em creature feature that was loads of fun. Pacific Rim: Uprising is just clueless. At the end of the movie, the big baddie Kaiju monster grows three secondary brains to fight our movie’s heroes. Perhaps it would have helped if Steven DeKnight grew a few extra brains himself.

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“THREE BILLBOARDS OUTSIDE EBBING, MISSOURI” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

A lone woman trapped out in redneck country.

Here’s an uncomfortable question to ask: in the cases of rape and sexual assault, who suffers more? The victims, or their families? We often focus so much attention on the victims that go through these unforgivable tragedies, as we rightfully should. But do we ever think as much about the father who raised her? The mother who gave birth to her? The brother that grew up with her? What regrets are they experiencing? What battles are they facing outside of the courthouses and police stations? Not to mention that’s for the cases where the victims survived. What about those who didn’t?

I know that’s probably as uncomfortable reading for you as it is typing for me, but it needs to be said. Silence on these issues marginalizes these victims to the point of forgetting them, and the one thing that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri definitely isn’t is silent. Like its loudmouthed protagonist, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is fearless, outspoken, confrontational, aggressive, and uncompromising in its truth. It needs to be seen solely on the basis of understanding what a sixth of American families are going through right now.

In Three Billboards, one of those families belongs to Mildred Hayes (Frances McDormand), and her family is a broken one to say the least. Her son is estranged from her, while her abusive husband divorced her so he could be with some girl that is 30 years younger than him. Her daughter is also no longer with them, and without getting into the grisly details, she was sexually assaulted and killed over a year ago.

Frustrated by the local police’s lack of progress in the investigation, Mildred takes her own initiative and rents out three billboards saying “RAPED WHILE DYING. ONE YEAR, NO ARRESTS. HOW COME, CHIEF WILLOUGHBY?” Needless to say, Police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) and his loyal protégé Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell) are a little less than amused at her antics. This spurs them and the town to protest her signage displays, pitting one lone woman against an entire town of rednecks.

While watching the film, I was reminded of a small town in Athens, Texas where my family occasionally travels out to on a piece of property that we own. You will notice that most of the people there are more, shall we say, blunt than city folks are. They don’t beat around the bush. They speak their mind, and rarely do they stray from coarse, unfiltered honesty. Profanity is a second language to them. Drinking, chewing tobacco, and spitting to the side of the road is common practice. And calling someone a bastard is a sign of affection.

I paint this picture to show you that writer-director Martin McDonagh was inspired by these same experiences while writing Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and he uses these same people as a current to demonstrate serious institutionalized problems that go on within our justice system. Three Billboards hits on multiple issues all at once. Police brutality. Institutionalized racism. Homophobia. Free speech. And, of course, rape culture. You would think that the film would be overloaded talking about all of these topics at once, and would feel less like a story and more like a university studies lecture.

Not so. The conversations and the concerns these characters share feel genuine and believable, as if they are real people talking to each other and not just actors reciting a screenplay for the camera. I think this is because McDonagh centralizes the conversations around one key topic: the three billboards. McDonagh once saw similar billboards over 15 years ago while traveling in between Georgia and Alabama. Taking that image in his mind and backtracking the narrative, he creates a dialogue about the nature of peaceful protesting, and whether those protests should be tolerated regardless of the communities’ reaction to them.

I was reminded of another recent protest while watching Three Billboards: the NFL kneeling controversy. In both cases, the issues are the same: X problem is going on within local law enforcement, so I’m going to do Y until the issue is addressed. Yet, in both of these cases, the protestor is the one that is being blamed for the issues, not the entity that person is protesting. Here’s a litmus test for you: are you more offended by a billboard calling out your best friend by name, or are you more offended by the dead teenager that was killed under his watch?

In that, McDonagh forms an important conversation that needs to be had: should the victims of these circumstances be silent in their suffering, or should their additional scrutiny be even more of a reason to speak out? Political commentators note all the time that in some sexual assault cases, victims were “asking for it” with what they were wearing or how they were acting. I’m pretty sure Mildred’s daughter Angela wasn’t asking to be killed. Just an educated guess on my part.

But the movie isn’t all doom-and-gloom with dread and weariness. There are brief moments of humanity and humor that shines through the bleak shades of the film, and most of that is thanks to Frances McDormand. She’s such a spitfire of a woman in this movie, a firecracker full of attitude that refuses to take any more B.S. that she doesn’t deserve. I’m telling you, this woman has been through the ringer. She’s faced the abuse and abandonment of her ex-husband, the frustration and anger of her son, and the violation and murder of her daughter. I don’t blame her one bit for being a little off the cuff, and that’s exactly what she is here: a loose cannon ready to throw hands with anyone who approaches her with hostility. She makes you outwardly laugh in moments where she spits deep-cutting jabs, while at other times your jaw drops saying out loud to yourself “I can’t believe she just did that.”

And yet, her character isn’t devoid of sympathy or understanding. She’s actually a very kind-hearted and considerate human being, who very understandably has a hard shell for the people who have abused her kindness in the past. She is not afraid to get confrontational, and she is especially not afraid to get physical. In one moment of the picture, she makes fun of a midget for wanting to sleep with her. In another, she kicks a teenager in the groin and punches another one in her genitals. Yet, in more surprising moments, she expresses genuine care and concern for people she was mocking mere moments ago, sympathetic to their pain in moments where they weren’t sympathetic towards hers.

In fact, describing Mildred Hayes best describes the rest of the movie: a thick skin with a soft heart.

I find no faults in Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, only actions and conversations that will make you uncomfortable at watching. They’re supposed to. There are people like Mildred and Angela Hayes all over the world today facing the same anger, sadness, frustration, disappointment, and lack of closure from what they’ve experienced. All they’re left with is the pain, and they’re given nothing to compensate for it. McDonagh had two choices in portraying that loss: either show it in its rawest, most honest form, or don’t show it at all. McDonagh chose the former. If you don’t want to experience that for yourself, that’s totally fair. You can always leave the movie theater. Mildred Hayes can’t leave her life.

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“BLACK PANTHER” Review (✫✫✫✫)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Long live the king.

Black Panther represents a watershed moment for African-American superheroes and Hollywood: a chance to really redefine what an action hero means to people and how they’re represented in mass media. It has all of the elements that makes any Marvel film a great one. It has passionate performances from its talented cast members. Smart character development that makes our heroes’ choices meaningful and consequential. Not to mention its spectacular action sequences that pretty much guarantees it an Oscar nomination year-in-and-year-out. But what makes Black Panther particularly special is the significance of its diversity; its emboldening of marginalized communities by giving them a platform to say what they’ve been trying to say all of these years. It’s one thing to be simply entertained by a superhero movie. It’s another thing entirely to be impacted by the experience and take it with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. Or in this case, Wakanda.

Taking place after the character’s debut in Captain America: Civil War, Black Panther now finds T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) as King of Wakanda, a hidden African nation housing the Earth’s largest deposit of a rare metal called Vibranium. After losing his father T’Chaka (John Kani) and sparing his killer at the end of Civil War, T’Challa believes that the worst is behind him and he can now focus solely on governing his people.

He is sorely mistaken.

For one thing, M’Baku (Winston Duke) and the Jabari tribe are in strong opposition to T’Challa’s rule, and he’s committed to challenging him for the throne at all costs. Weapons smuggler Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) rears his ugly head once again, as he has an violent history with Wakanda for constantly stealing plots of Vibranium from them. And a shady assassin who goes by “Killmonger” (Michael B. Jordan) has an eerie obsession with the Black Panther and a hidden agenda he has regarding Wakanda and its people.

Black Panther achieves so much on so many levels that it’s hard to pick where exactly to start. I’ll begin with the writer and director Ryan Coogler, who has achieved ground-breaking strides here both visually and aesthetically for this film. Coogler, who gained attention in his earlier years for helming the biographical picture Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spinoff Creed, creates a technically immaculate world in Wakanda, a highly-advanced society that feels removed and secluded from the rest of the world, but also possesses its own breath and heartbeat in the same sentence. The costumes and makeup evoke the feel and tribalism of the ancient Congo tribes from Africa, a culture which at least partially helped inspire the “Black Panther” comic books, while the production design evokes an Afro-futuristic setting that feels like its evolved years beyond any Western civilization could have in a hundred years. And the action? Spectacular. Whether Black Panther is fighting without his armor in a Wakandan waterfall, or pursuing Klaue through one speeding car to another, the action is fast-paced, enthralling, and engaging. I haven’t felt this excited in a superhero film since The Dark Knight in 2007. Yes, I am saying this with The Avengers and Captain America: Civil War in mind as well.

But it’s not just the production itself that’s so impressive: it’s also the story that Coogler crafts here, a humble fable about a king wanting to do the right thing, but is haunted by the sins of his ancestor’s past. One of my concerns going into this movie was how Coogler was going to handle the race element of the picture. Was he going to ignore it altogether and focus solely on the superhero aspect? Or was he going to put so heavy an emphasis on it that the movie became a social statement instead of an action blockbuster? The answer is neither. Like Iron Man, The Dark Knight, and Captain America: Civil War, there are heavy themes underlying the film’s subtext, but it is not what compels the film itself forward. What makes this film a great one is that it is a character drama first, and a social allegory second. The themes of institutional racism and prejudice is as a consequence of the character’s actions throughout the film. It is not the action itself. In making its point humbly, it allows the message to be seen at its most transparently, while at the same time not distracting from all of the superhero spectacle going on.

It would be a crime if I did not mention the film’s outstanding cast. They are the best of any MCU movie so far, hands down. Everyone is so spectacular in their roles, so humane and believable in their interaction with each other that I could dedicate an entire article to talking about each performer individually. I would easily campaign for the film to receive a Screen Actor’s Guild Outstanding Cast nomination, if the SAG Awards didn’t play so much to their bases to begin with.

Boseman, of course, kills it as T’Challa. He was great in Civil War a few years ago, and he’s just as great as he is now. Yet interestingly enough, my favorite characters from the movie are its antagonists, which serve as a sort of remedy to the villain problem Marvel has been facing for a long time now. Duke, for instance, succeeds in playing a dryly charismatic bear in M’Baku, and he’s so boorish that I would love to just give the guy a big hug, were it not that he could crush me in one muscle reflex. Serkis is so wild and over-the-top as Klaue, yet that just makes him all the more fun and fascinating of a character to watch. We usually have the most fun in Marvel movies seeing the heroes and villains duke it out over highly-rendered green screen action sequences. I find it interesting that Serkis was just as fun to watch ranting in an interrogation room as much as he was firing his arm cannon at his enemies.

The best of these performers, however, is Michael B. Jordan as Killmonger. Part of what makes his performance so mesmerizing is that you don’t really expect a villainous performance out of the guy to begin with. He was one of the super-powered teenagers in Chronicle, Oscar Grant III in Fruitvale Station, and Apollo Creed’s son Adonis in Creed. He’s not really known for playing cruel or malicious characters. Yet, that’s exactly what makes his performance as Killmonger so compelling. It’s the fact that he’s coming from a very human place with it, and his motivations against the Panther make sense and are relatable on a personal level. He is easily one of my favorite villains in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. He would have been number one, if Tom Hiddleston’s Loki didn’t occupy my top spot.

Black Panther is a surprising masterpiece. It’s a stylish action movie, an important social commentary, and a theatrical character drama that hits all of the right notes that it needs to all at once. I’ve given four-star reviews for multiple MCU movies in the past, including Iron Man, The Avengers, Captain America: Civil War, Doctor Strange, and Thor: Ragnarok. I would recommend all of these movies solely based on how fun they were alone. Black Panther is the first to be truly profound outside of its Blockbuster value. It is the bridge where art meets entertainment.

No, Black Panther is not the first black superhero to be adapted to the big screen. That title belongs to Todd McFarlane’s Spawn in 1997. Like the Wakandan king himself, however, it seems destined to become the most significant from a long line of predecessors. And rightfully so.

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“FIFTY SHADES OF GREY” Review (✫)

SOURCE: Universal Pictures

“Mr. Grey will see you now.” “I’m actually leaving, thanks.”

My thoughts the night that I watched Fifty Shades of Grey:

6:05 p.m.: Took my girlfriend to Olive Garden before showtime. She tells me how excited she is to watch the movie. I’m thinking how badly I want to watch The Spongebob Movie instead.

7:11 p.m.: We drive up to the movie theater, pick up our tickets, and wait in line to enter the show. There are way too many couples here for comfort, especially dressed in black.

7:26 p.m.: Opening credits roll. We catch a slight glimpse of Jamie Dornan’s backside as Christian Grey. All of the women in the audience gasp, including the one right next to me.

7:28 p.m.: We meet Anastasia Steele, portrayed by Dakota Johnson, kissing her sick roommate goodbye before leaving for the day. One: I’ve never known any roommates of any kind to ever do this. Two: Did she seriously just kiss her SICK roommate goodbye? Is she not concerned about germs? Viruses? Cooties?

7:29 p.m.: As Ana parks her car, author E.L. James’ credit comes up for writing the book that this is based on. I suddenly remember that Fifty Shades of Grey was originally written as Twilight fan-fiction. God help me.

7:31 p.m.: Jamie Dornan turns around, and we get our first full-body glimpse of him as Christian Grey. The women gasp again. I’m assuming there’s some wet seats at this point.

7:33 p.m.: Okay, so let me walk through this. This girl’s roommate, who is an experienced college journalist, gets sick, so she asks her clueless roommate to conduct this very important interview with a multi-millionaire playboy for her? Why couldn’t she get one of her journalism friends to cover this story? I wouldn’t leave an interview that important to my inexperienced roommate, let alone one as inept and clumsy as Ana.

7:46 p.m.: Ana is working at her local department store when, EGADS! She meets Mr. Grey again. What a coincidence! I never saw that one coming!

7:48 p.m.: A few thoughts I’m having during this scene. One: Why is Christian shopping at a department store all by himself? Doesn’t he have people to do that for him? And if he went specifically into the store just to give Ana his number, again, why not have your people do it for you? Two: He’s buying, I kid you not, cable ties, masking tape, and rope. The women in the auditorium gasp again. Who on Earth gets aroused by this? These women are wondering what Christian would do to their bodies, while I’m wondering where he’s hiding the actual bodies. Ana even remarks that he’s now the complete serial killer. Honey. Lock up the store and call the police.

7:49 p.m.: The quality of this dialogue confirms that this is definitely based on Twilight fan-fiction. Johnson and Dornan’s chemistry is so wooden that they feel like those two motorized figures that pop out of a cuckoo clock. I’m hoping their acting gets better as the movie goes on.

8:03 p.m.: It does not get better.

8:18 p.m.: After meeting only a couple of times and playing Ellie Goulding over a helicopter ride to Christian Grey’s apartment, we finally approach our first sex scene, where Ana reveals that she’s a virgin. Christian grabs her whilst saying number 21 from the “Most Overused Dialogue” catalog: “Where have you been all my life???” Anastasia then quotes number 26: “Waiting for you.” Somebody please kill me.

8:30 p.m.: We’re an hour into this movie and I can’t tell you how badly I want to leave. I’ve heard way too many gasps and groans in the audience for my own comfort. The guys, I presume, are as miserable as I am right now. My girlfriend, meanwhile, is grinning from ear-to-ear through the whole screening. I’m starting to question this entire relationship.

8:42 p.m.: Ana is reading off Christian’s “contract” for him, which says what she is required to do if she is to become Christian’s “submissive” (BDSM term for friends with benefits). She firmly says “no anal,” and he winces. For the first and only time in this movie, I sympathized with Christian Grey.

8:43 p.m.: And finally, an hour into this movie, we get our first objectively well-done scene. In the dark hues of red and black in the negotiation room, Christian and Anastasia converse on what they would do to each other in the bedroom. The dialogue here is hot and heavy, and the sexual tension is bubbling just enough to where you can feel it simmering under the surface. The camera closes in slowly on both of the actor’s faces, while the editing cuts smoothly back and forth between their expressions while the music builds up. Fantastic. This is the kind of film technique this movie has been desperately needing 70 minutes ago.

8:54 p.m.: Back to the plastic sex scenes. Great. Just what I needed.

8:56 p.m.: Girls are squealing in the auditorium as if Justin Bieber walked in front of the screen. I see the depressed, defeated postures of the men surrounding me. One is burying his head into his hands. Another is leaning back in his seat, apparently trying to sleep through the torture. I think I heard one of them sobbing.

9:21 p.m.: We arrive at the, err, climax of the movie, where Ana discovers what truly arouses Christian Grey. It’s him whipping her back with a flogger. She’s crying tears to the equivalent of those Hallmark romantic comedies. “This gives you pleasure?” she exasperatingly asks. Well, duh. What did you think BDSM stood for? Big, Dull, Sour Moron? Not that it isn’t fitting for Mr. Grey, but I’m just saying, know your abbreviations sweetheart.

9:28 p.m.: Ana leaves through the elevator and says goodbye to Christian as it closes. They should have edited this shot into the beginning and saved us an hour and a half of agony.

9:50 p.m.: I drive my girlfriend home, and we discuss the movie over a glass of Pinot Noir. She asked me what I thought of the movie. I laughed hollowly. “This was my own BDSM experience with all of the torture and none of the pleasure,” I quipped. She seemed surprised. She tells me she actually really liked the movie and was looking forward to its sequels.

Anyhow, that’s the story of how me and my ex-girlfriend broke up.

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“THE SHAPE OF WATER” Review (✫✫)

SOURCE: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Sleeping with the fishes.

There is an audience out there that The Shape of Water was made for. I am emphatically not a part of it. It’s one of those arthouse films that spreads itself thin with period drama, satire, science-fiction, horror, romance, and fantasy, diluting all of those aesthetics down to the point of meaninglessness, losing whatever impact they might have originally had. There’s a good movie swimming around somewhere in The Shape of Water. Unfortunately, it’s so watered down that the previews before the movie seem more interesting than this.

Taking place in Baltimore, 1962 during the Cold War, The Shape of Water follows Elisa (Sally Hawkins), a mute janitor who communicates using sign language with her friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer). Elisa and Zelda work at an obscure government laboratory tucked away from the public eye, and the labs they clean hide some very peculiar secrets in them. One of these is an amphibious humanoid creature brought in by colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon), who captured the creature so that he could be studied and possibly dissected by the lab team.

The ladies are told that the creature is a deadly and vicious animal and are warned to stay away from it. However, Elisa’s interactions with the creature prove otherwise. The little guy is curious, shy, and friendly, interacting with Elisa like how a whipped dog would interact with a child. As the two become closer and more fond of each other, Elisa resolves to break the creature out of the laboratory and set him free.

You go into movies like The Shape of Water with a few expectations in mind. 1) That it’s going to be strange and unpredictable. 2) There’s some deep messages tied into this seemingly simple narrative. 3) There are going to be sex scenes, many of which you have no desire to see whatsoever. The first two expectations are not surprising for writer-director Guillermo Del Toro, whose career is filled with both visually spectacular blockbusters and intimate fables filled with double meanings. Hellboy, for instance, was an action-adventure thrill ride about a reluctant hero overcoming his literal demonic nature, while Pacific Rim was a science-fiction robot/monster romp of epic proportions. My favorite of his movies, Pan’s Labyrinth, is a childhood fairy tale trapped inside a nightmare, paralleling a little girl’s infatuation of a fantasy world with her loss of innocence in the adult world. Del Toro is no doubt an ambitious and creative storyteller, and his filmmaking trademarks are just as consistent in The Shape of Water as they are in his other pictures.

But there are creative decisions being made here that make very little sense, and even when they do, the general response to them is nausea, disgust, or both. Take for instance, the previously mentioned sex scenes. They are constant and jarring, as if a nymphomaniac watched the theatrical cut and told Del Toro he wouldn’t release it until he edited more nudity into it. Elisa, for instance, has multiple scenes where she is seen naked masturbating in her bathtub. Strickland has one graphic sex scene with his wife where he is disturbingly obsessed with her remaining silent while he finishes ejaculating. And the creature. Good God, the creature. His sex scenes with Elisa are just weird, disorienting, and disturbing, like a fish dry-humping a child on the beach.

I know, I know, this isn’t the first time an inter-species romance is prominently featured in a movie. From Avatar to Blade Runner 2049, humans have had sex with aliens, monsters, computers, holograms, and robots in the movies. Why not throw sea creatures into the mix? It’s certainly not the most awkward sexual encounter we’ve ever watched on-screen (see Joaquin Phoenix and Scarlett Johannsen’s sorta-sex scene in Her).

But even by cinema’s already creepy standards, The Shape of Water still manages to outdo its predecessors, mainly by the sheer brainlessness of its characters. For instance, in one scene the creature eats a cat’s head off, then flees the apartment when startled by one of the neighbors. Now I’m not a 1960’s American socialite, but if a monster just ate one of my neighbor’s cats and ran away, I would say good riddance and shut the door behind him. Yet Elisa is instead worried for the creature, and becomes further infatuated with him when she finds him later on with blood and cat fur all over his chin. I’m an animal lover, folks. Let me tell you, I’ve never had a stronger instinct to shoot at something on the movie screen in my entire life.

Other scenes make just as little sense as that one. After Elisa has sex with the creature, she gossips about it with Zelda in the laboratory, and instead of running away screaming in horror and insanity, Zelda just nods and mildly approves of this science-fiction bestiality. In another scene, Elisa floods her bathroom just to have underwater sex with the creature. Isn’t she concerned about the water bill? The weak wood foundation? The movie theater underneath her apartment that she can potentially flood? What if her landlord decided to evict her from all the property damage she caused? What if the floor caved in and she killed herself from the fall down? And since when did Del Toro think it was a good idea to randomly insert a musical number halfway through the picture?

I won’t say that the film is technically incompetent, because that couldn’t be further from the truth. The scenery and the building designs expertly convey the feel and grandeur of the 1960’s, while the bleak, grey hues of Elisa’s laboratory evoke the tensions and paranoia of international espionage during the Cold War. The music by Alexandre Desplat is elegant and simplistic, beautifully romanticizing the creature’s relationship with Elise while at other times evoking the unease and hostility of the era. The makeup and costume work, as it is in all of Del Toro’s productions, is spot-on and mesmerizing. Actor Doug Jones is essentially erased into this role as a humanoid sea creature who’s just discovering the world around him, and the way he moves and acts gives no indication that it’s just a man acting inside of a costume.

The greatest of these elements, however, is Sally Hawkins. It’s not often that a film features a mute character. In fact, the last time I can recall any character even resembling Elise was Patty Duke’s portrayal of Helen Keller in 1962’s The Miracle Worker. And yet, Hawkins completely mesmerizes in the role, physically mimicking the characteristics of a mute while remaining emotionally sensitive to her plights. Most actors have the advantage of dialogue to demonstrate their skills in a performance, yet without her voice, Hawkins’ performance is handicapped right from the outset. The fact that she’s just as compelling in her silent role regardless makes her acting all the more impressive, as she does with her wrists and hands what her lips would normally do.

The Shape of Water is a film filled with great intentions, but intentions do not equal quality. And as far as its themes of prejudice, xenophobia, and miscegenation goes, there are far superior films from the year that elaborated on these same themes, yet illustrated them so much better. Get Out. Detroit. War for the Planet of the Apes. These films illustrate the same ideas, but finds a better way to integrate them into their narrative. The Shape of Water drowns in its own preachiness. And sex scenes.

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“STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

SOURCE: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Let the past die.

In Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) tells Rey (Daisy Ridley) that there are three Jedi lessons that she needs to learn, but he only teaches her two of them. I don’t believe that was a mistake, but rather an intentional omission. That’s because Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a film about our heroes letting us down, our expectations not being met, and our resolutions failing to be reached. Such is true because such is life. How else would you explain the untimely death of our beloved princess, Carrie Fisher?

The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, when Rey realizes she too possess the force and needs guidance from Skywalker on how to use it. Meanwhile, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Finn (John Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) are on the run with the rest of the resistance from the First Order, who is relentlessly hunting them after they blew up Starkiller base. While this is going on, Ben Solo a.k.a. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is in a power struggle with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) in between Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), who commands them both. A lot of moving pieces here, a lot of things happening all at once. Just like every Star Wars movie.

Here is a film that works better aesthetically than it does literally. Spring-boarding off of the momentum that The Force Awakens started years ago, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is used mostly as a platform for nostalgia, calling out to earlier iconic moments in the series and bringing them into the fold while simultaneously challenging our ideas of these characters. Like any Star Wars movie, there were a lot of things that I loved watching play out here. Other times, I found myself frustrated and confused by some of the creative decisions being made in this film. But let’s slow down and digest one thing at a time.

First of all, the visual effects and the action are nothing short of gorgeous, with the X-Wings, TIE Fighters, lightsabers, droids, and creatures across the galaxy reaching out to you and placing you vividly in the moment, whether it involves big spectacular CGI-heavy sequences or smaller, quieter moments where we simply appreciate the breathtaking scenery. No doubt this visual prowess has director Rian Johnson’s hand in it, who years earlier directed the gritty and grounded sci-fi thriller Looper. In The Last Jedi, he takes a play from creator George Lucas’ handbook and designed the film through practical methods as opposed to computer-generated ones. The film reportedly had 125 sets created for its visual scope, with designer Neal Scalan claiming that The Last Jedi uses more practical effects than any Star Wars film to date. I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if that were true. The vehicles, the costuming, the scenery, all of it evokes the sensationalism and world building that Star Wars is known for. On the visual front, The Last Jedi serves the Star Wars saga faithfully and beautifully.

And the cast, both old and new, are just as great in The Last Jedi as they’ve always been, with the best of these frontrunners being Daisy Ridley and Mark Hamill. Ridley once again brings the gravitas and the force (pun intended) that she first brought to us in The Force Awakens. Here she really comes into the forefront as a hero all her own, struggling with her own doubts and perceptions of not only what’s going on with her, but with who and what she really needs in her life for personal fulfillment.

Hamill is another story altogether. He doesn’t play the Luke that you remember from the original films; hopeful, adventurous, and believing in the best of everybody. Here he plays Luke with a grimmer façade, a depressing and frail old man filled with penance and regret for the things that he’s done. Like many other passionate fans out there, I didn’t know what to expect from Luke in The Last Jedi. I certainly wasn’t expecting this. Yet, even though he’s a different character, Hamill shows that he’s still got that Skywalker blood flowing in him that he embodied in the original trilogy. It’s a different portrayal of Luke for sure, but it isn’t a bad one. Not by a long shot.

As a whole, The Last Jedi delivers on the same sci-fi blockbuster fronts that all of the best Star Wars movies delivers on. The action, the heart, the humor; all of it evokes the same feelings you had when you watched the original Star Wars movies, and the nostalgic Easter Eggs only adds to the appeal. There was one cameo in the movie that had me just grinning from ear to ear, taking me back to when I was a kid watching Yoda training Luke for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back.

Yet, the story has made some dark, drastic changes to the Star Wars saga that severely impacts how the series is going to move forward. I’m not saying they’re bad changes. I’m saying they’re hard to adjust to. Like the prequel series, Star Wars: The Last Jedi turns the original trilogy on its head and challenges the way we perceive these characters and how they should act and behave. No, The Last Jedi is not as bad as The Phantom Menace. It does, however, challenge your identity as a Star Wars fan. I’ve seen the movie twice now, and there are still three or four scenes I’m still digesting on whether I liked them or not. I know most fans would just like to go into a Star Wars movie, turn off their brain, and let the experience wash over them ethereally. The Last Jedi makes you think a little harder about it, particularly with the scenes that surprised or shocked you the most.

Ultimately, I find myself conflicted with Star Wars: The Last Jedi. As a simple viewer, I know I enjoyed what I watched. As a critic, I know I was witnessing skillful filmmaking at work here. But as a fan, I couldn’t help but feel disappointed by some of the changes that were happening to some of my favorite cinematic heroes growing up. Perhaps that’s the point. Do these characters stay the same as the years pass them by, or do they change as time and tragedy slowly cripples them? Anakin Skywalker grew up to become Darth Vader, while his son Luke grew up to become the last Jedi. We can only imagine what will happen to Rey as she too faces the future.

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