Tag Archives: Han Solo

“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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Top Ten Films of 2015

2015 was the year of change.

As I sit here, thinking about how this year ends and the next one begins, that’s the thought that keeps coming to my mind. I’ve changed this year. Not just me, but everyone else this year. People changed after terrorists attacked the city of Paris twice in both January and November, killing more than 140 people in total. People changed when business mogul Donald Trump announced his campaign for presidency in June, and as voters continued to debate the upcoming elections and how important it is to elect the right leader for the future of the U.S. People changed when war raged on in Syria, consuming over 200,000 lives as they died trying to escape their reality and come into Europe or the United States.

People all around the world changed as tragedy struck it again and again. It is years like these that remind me that we need the movies now more than ever. Not just to comment and bring exposure to the different realities we don’t know about, but also to escape from them when we need to.

It is times like these where I am overjoyed that the movies decide to change with us. To not only bring us stories that we don’t know about, but also to give us emotions of insight, joy, angst, tragedy, anger, sadness, and hope as we see these characters growing and changing, just like we are.

A few notes I want to point out before going into this year’s top 10 list. First of all, this is my top 10 list, meaning not every critically acclaimed movie from the year will be on this list. Movies such as Steve Jobs and The Martian, for instance, were highly regarded by critics and audiences everywhere. Neither of those are in my top 10. If you want to see movies like those in your top 10 list, go to RottenTomatoes or iMDB. Or better yet, make your own and comment below. Either case does not affect me. Top 10 lists are supposed to be celebrations of your most cherished movies of the year. Not everyone will share your views, and indeed, you might disagree with one or two entries on this list.

And as another disclaimer, I have not seen every movie released this year. The biggest I have missed, perhaps, is Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu’s The Revenant, which is NOT a 2015 release despite claiming it is on Wikipedia. It’s doesn’t get a wide release until Jan. 9, and as such, I will not be able to review it in time for this year, which sucks, but it’s Inarritu’s own fault. So sorry if a movie deserved to be on this list but couldn’t be. I’m only human.

Before we get into my top 10, I want to start by announcing my special prize for the year. For those of you that don’t know, the special prize is a honorary recognition I give to a limited-release film that was not heard about or seen by many moviegoers, but deserves just as much recognition, if not more so, than most of the movies on my list. Last year, that honor went to the Roger Ebert documentary Life Itself. This year, it goes to Bill Pohlad’s music biopic Love and Mercy, which tells the wonderful yet heartbreaking story about Beach Boy’s singer Brian Wilson, his battle with mental illness, and his overcoming of drug abuse and childhood trauma. Pohlad, who also served as a producer for The Tree of Life and 12 Years A Slave, debuts as a strong filmmaker all his own, not only understanding and implementing the visual art of storytelling, but also accurately appealing to the aesthetics of this complicated and personal biography. Actors Paul Dano and John Cusack are exemplary at portraying Wilson at different points of his life, and do well at showing how much this talented musician struggled with himself at any time period of his life. A small-budget summer release that squeaked by unnoticed by most, but is just as deserving to be seen as any wide-release blockbuster out there. Four stars.

10) Creed

Creed lives and exists in the shadows of its predecessors, but just like it’s main hero, it breaks away from the mold and builds a legacy all of its own. Adonis “Donnie” Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Rocky Balboa’s (Sylvester Stallone) rival, Apollo Creed. When he decides to step into the ring himself, he enlists in the help of the Italian stallion to train him and become a fighter all his own. Writer-director Ryan Coogler, who is most known for 2013’s Fruitvale Station, approached this not as a sequel to a popular franchise, but rather as an intimate, personal story about one fighter’s deep aspirations. Jordan and Stallone demonstrate great chemistry with each other, even challenging the dynamic between Rocky and Mick in the original film. A hot-blooded sports drama through and through, let alone one of the best Rocky films, if you can call it that. Three and a half stars.

9) Avengers: Age of Ultron

A summer blockbuster that aims to outdo the original and misses it only by a hair, which is not a bad thing. The Avengers team up this time to take on the wickedly manipulative artificial intelligence Ultron (James Spader), who was created by Tony Stark, a.k.a. Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) to protect the Earth from super human threats. When Ultron goes rogue and become obsessed with human extinction, it’s up to the Avengers to stop him. Spader as Ultron is the best super villain performance I’ve seen in a Marvel movie to date. He doesn’t behave or talk like other androids. He is fluid and life-like, chaotic and radical in his thinking, acting more like a psychotic child rather than a logically driven A.I. Everything else in the movie lives up to the expectations you had from the first movie. The action is unique, visually complex, and eye-popping. The story is layered and intelligent, with characters bouncing witty and thought-provoking dialogue off of each other in perfect dynamics. The people over at Marvel continue to surprise me and make me believe in its cinematic universe. Let’s hope they can keep this up for the next 11 movies. Three and a half stars.

8) Concussion

A provocative sports drama that refuses everything we love about sports. Bennet Omalu (Will Smith) is a brilliant pathologist who, after performing an autopsy on a notable football player, discovers a lethal disease that is caused by repetitive physical trauma to the brain. Now teaming up with doctors and scientists to defend his findings, he prepares to take on the NFL and reveal the problems the league has been hiding for a long time. There are many people who will not want to see this movie due to their love and commitment for the sport. Yet, it is these same people that need to see this movie the most. Writer-director Peter Landesman, who was previously criticized for his 2013 political thriller Parkland, finds his niche here in a story that not many people knew about, or maybe didn’t want to know about. Smith is exemplary as Omalu, and from the movie’s most bravura scenes to its most tender, he hits every emotional note spot-on, all while not breaking his Nigerian accent. An unconventional, nail-biting thriller that demands to be seen and heard. Three and a half stars.

7) Mad Max: Fury Road

Never before has a movie broken so many many rules and get away with it. On a desolate and deprived planet Earth, former patrol officer Max Rockatansky (Tom Hardy) is on the run from the tyrannical warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne). When he gets caught up in a conflict involving Joe, road warrior Furiosa (Charlize Theron) and all of Joe’s wives, he needs to team up with them to escape the desert and free the women from Joe’s cruelty and control. There is no plot in this movie, only the resemblance of one. The plot, however, is not what matters. What matters is the spectacular, eye-popping action and explosions, and even a few moments of softly implied feminism in the picture. Hardy replaces Mel Gibson’s role well with hardened machismo and stiffness to his gesture and voice. Theron demonstrates great versatility, being firm and uncompromising in one moment, and emotionally exhausted and stricken in another. A film that’s politically driven and female empowering, all while being ridiculous and absurd in the most gleeful of ways. Three and a half stars. 

6) Paper Towns

The second of John Green’s novels to be adapted to film, with the first being last year’s The Fault In Our Stars. Quintin “Q” Jacobsen (Nat Wolff) is a regular high school student with regular friends, regular parents, regular life, and regular post-graduation plans. The one thing that isn’t regular in Q’s life is Margo Roth Spiegelman (Cara Delevingne), the girl on his block that he’s been in love with since they were kids. One day, after Margo completely vanishes, Q discovers clues Margo left behind for him to discover. Now convinced that Margo wants him to find her, Q starts piecing all of the clues together to find out where she has gone to convince her to come home.

It’s hard to look at this movie and not relate it to our own experiences in high school, in first love, in friendship, and in self-discovery. Wolff plays his role convincingly without overdoing it, portraying all of the joy, excitement, angst, ambition, and confusion a teenager has during his high school years. The supporting cast is just as essential in making John Green’s ordinary characters extraordinary. A genuine, funny, and passionate film that delves into both the truths and fantasies of growing up. Three and a half stars. 

5) Straight Outta Compton

One of the most compelling films I’ve seen this year. Straight Outta Compton follows the story of Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), Ice Cube (O’Shea Jackson Jr.), Eazy E (Jason Mitchell), MC Ren (Aldis Hodge) and DJ Yella (Neil Brown Jr.), and how these five men grew up in the streets and eventually formed the iconic hip-hop group N.W.A. The parallels this movie draws on is ingenious, and director F. Gary Gray is exemplary in realizing the African-American struggle in a poverty-stricken neighborhood. What’s most captivating is the fact that the movie isn’t pro-police or anti-police or pro-gangs or anti-gangs. It shows the ugliness of every side of Compton, whether it exists on a badge or on a bandana. A great film that sets out not to show who’s right or wrong, but simply what is. Four stars.

Note: While among the year’s best, it’s important to note that ‘Straight Outta Compton’ deserves every syllable of its R rating and then some. F-words fly out like bullets from an uzi. Nude and scantily-clad women flock to rappers in herds, and in some cases engage in explicit sexual acts in public. Police and gang members also equally engage in very violent confrontations. This is your warning. If you hate hip-hop, you will hate ‘Straight Outta Compton.’ 

4) Sicario

A permanent, chilling, and disturbing portrait that remains with you long after you’ve left the movie theater. FBI agent Kate Mercer (Emily Blunt) is recruited for a special op with CIA officer Matt Graver (Josh Brolin), who tells Kate they’re going to bring down the Mexican cartel. As Kate digs deeper into the pursuit of its leader, she soon discovers secrets darker than any drug lord or government official can hide from her. This is a nearly perfect film in which all of the elements form together into an excellent scope of filmmaking. The cast is brilliant and could catch your attention just by reading their lines. Director Dennis Villeneuve evokes a sense of hopelessness and desperation from its setting. The cinematography by Roger Deakins captures the aesthetic perfectly, while editor Joe Walker cuts skillfully in between angles and shots to help construct coherent ideas in the viewer’s minds. Sicario is Spanish for hitman. I don’t know what disturbs me more: knowing who the Sicario is, or who are the people that he’s hunting. Four stars.

3) Spotlight 

A necessary film that makes you think about the people that you don’t normally think about, the problems that you don’t think exist, and the secrets that you don’t think are being hidden behind prayers and confession booths. Based on the Boston Globe story on the 1990 Church abuse scandal, Spotlight follows the investigative reporting team that discovered that the Catholic church was covering up for priests that had sexually abused children at their parishes. When they find out how big the problem really is, they work to get to the bottom of the story and hold the people accountable for the grave sins they’ve committed. Featuring an all star cast including Michael Keaton, Mark Ruffalo, Rachel McAdams, Brian d’Arcy James, Liev Schrieber, John Slattery, and Stanley Tucci, Spotlight is a movie that uses its actors not as the foundation for its story, but as the catalysts to show how urgent this epidemic really is. Writer-director Tom McCarthy, who was raised Catholic, juggles this behind-the-scenes story with real people’s traumas and emotions in mind, resulting in a portrait that is genuine, astounding, mind-blowing, and heartbreaking all at once. Not the best film of the year, but easily the most important. Four stars.

2) Inside Out

Another colorful Pixar masterpiece that uses reality as its springboard for creation and fantasy. The emotions Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Fear (Bill Hader), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Anger (Lewis Black) make up 11-year-old Riley Anderson (Kaitlyn Dias), who just recently moved with her family from Minnesota to San Francisco. As Riley goes through the changes in her life, her emotions go through a roller coaster of an adventure to make Riley’s life a happy, sad, fearful, disgusted, and angry one. The animation reaches out to you in vivid detail through its vibrant colors and ambitious landscapes, creating a beautiful universe in Riley’s expansive mind. What’s most meaningful, however, is its story. Writer-director Pete Docter (Monsters Inc., Up) uses the human psyche as his narrative playground, telling a thoughtful story on the emotions we experience and how they all make up who were are. Like the wacky emotions in Riley’s curious little head, Inside Out is a uniquely original force to be reckoned with. Four stars.

1) Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Are you really that surprised? Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. Taking place 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows a new group of misfits as they suddenly get tangled into this intergalactic conflict involving heroes and villains both old and new. J.J. Abrams revitalizes George Lucas’ cherished sci-fi series for a new age, updating it with creative and interesting characters that makes this a strong story on its own, not just a strong Star Wars story. The cast is exemplary, with newcomer Daisy Ridley shining the most out of the whole group. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original. Four stars.

Honorable mentions go to the smirkingly funny and genuine Trainwreck, the thought-provoking sci-fi drama Ex Machina, the intelligent and maddening The Big Short, and the disgusting yet wickedly genius western The Hateful Eight. All of those deserved a placement on this list, but unfortunately, did not deserve it as much as others. They are still among the year’s best.

Thank you to my readers for experiencing 2015 for me. I look forward to the changes we will go through in 2016, as I do with the movies.

– David Dunn

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“STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

J.J. Abrams: the spiritual successor to George Lucas.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a sheer blast of nostalgia, meaningful and joyous from it’s opening scroll credits to when John William’s score crescendos in the last shot. We’ve seen an updated Star Wars for a modern audience before, and that was in the lopsided and disappointing prequel trilogy. Now we have The Force Awakens, and it’s so good that it’s eligible to compete with the original.

It’s 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi. A new sith named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) has arisen and is bent on taking over the galaxy. His pursuits lead him towards a troup of misfits who have become acquainted almost by sheer chance. A scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) lived on the desolate planet of Jakku before she got entangled into this conflict. Finn (John Boyega) was a Stormtrooper who defected for reasons unbeknown to us. BB-8 is a spherical droid who wants to get away from Kylo Ren for reasons also unknown. What is known is that these three figures have something that Kylo Ren wants, and he won’t stop at nothing until he has fulfilled his destiny.

It’s hard to talk about this movie without giving away any spoilers. One thing I will say without giving too much away is that the story is exemplary, and is reminiscent of the adventure and intrigue that made Star Wars iconic in the first place. The screenplay, written by Toy Story 3 scribe Michael Ardnt and polished up by Star Trek director J.J. Abrams and The Empire Strikes Back writer Lawrence Kasdan, is an active synergy of the old and new, incorporating elements that we are familiar with while at the same time introducing original content all their own. This is not just a strong Star Wars story. It’s a strong story, period.

For me, that was my biggest concern going into the theater, and the biggest relief coming out of it. This was the first Star Wars movie where its key subjects would not be featured. Yes, we have references to the older films, but we don’t have Darth Vader. We don’t have Yoda. We don’t have Obi-Wan. We don’t have any of the key figures that linked the whole series together, minus R2 and C-3PO. How would the movie hold up on its own?

Very well, as it turns out, and the new cast members do a great job servicing their roles and making them memorable on their own. Driver is menacing and malicious as Kylo Ren, an egotistical and maniacal presence that reflects both the chilling imposition of Darth Vader and the deepening paranoia of Episode III’s Anakin Skywalker. Boyega is both humorous and likable as Finn, a reformed spirit who is just trying to find new meaning and purpose in his life. Out of the entire cast, however, I am most impressed with newcomer Daisy Ridley. This is the first time she has acted in a feature film, but you wouldn’t have been able to tell that based off of her performance. She is both heartbreaking and intriguing as Rey, equal parts fascinating, sympathetic, and compelling as this character whom is a complete mystery to us. Even by the end of the film, we still don’t understand everything about her, and that’s the point. We’re not supposed to understand her history; we’re supposed to understand her. Ridley did an amazing job at bringing this character to life, and out of anyone else from the cast, she made me most excited for her journey in the future installments.

Do I need to go into the film’s visual and sound effects? They were the groundbreaking features of the very first movies, and they’re stronger than ever in this motion picture. Part of that is because Abrams takes a note out of George Lucas’ old playbook, reverting to practical effects and detailed costuming to bring authenticity to this universe. He still uses CGI, but he doesn’t rely on it. He only uses it when he absolutely has to, when X-wings are firing at TIE Fighters or when lightsabers are clashing against each other. Everything else is created through elaborate art direction and set design, while the CGI is used to compliment the visuals rather than serve as them. The result is the most visually authentic out of any of the films yet.

I have one gripe, and one gripe alone, and that is that there are plot elements that eerily mimic the storyline of one of the original films. I won’t spoil it by saying which one. I will say that even in the face of that criticism, The Force Awakens still manages to make itself unique and special in a series that is already unique and special by itself. We said goodbye to this universe a long time ago. Rejoice as we are once again reunited with the galaxy from far, far away.

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

Balance to the force, there is at last.

Editor’s note: There are spoilers to ‘Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back’ in this review. You have been warned.

This is it, the moment that everything has been building up to: the conclusion of George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy. Just like the last few movies, Return of the Jedi is a strong sci-fi feature that focuses on its character’s development just as much as it does on its mythology and visual effects. I’ve grown fond of Star Wars and its sequel The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi is no different. The only disappointment is that it has to end.

Taking place after The Empire Strikes Back when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is frozen in carbonite and Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) reveals he is Luke’s (Mark Hamill) father, Return of the Jedi sees our heroes as the Galactic Rebellion comes to its most crucial moment. As the Empire works to rebuild its infamous Death Star and the rebellion works to counterattack the Empire, both sides mount up their efforts as they have one last chance to defeat their enemies, either freeing or enslaving the galaxy for all eternity.

Out of any of the other Star Wars movies, Return of the Jedi is the most exhilarating, an exciting action romp that contains rebels and stormtroopers shooting at each other, chase sequences through forests, and lightsaber duels that are arguably the best out of the series. We’ve witnessed over and over again how visually ambitious the Star Wars saga is. Here is another demonstration of how groundbreaking the Star Wars movies really are.

Take the film’s climax as an example. As the film gains momentum, we switch around to multiple scenes at once and the stakes that characters are faced with in the heat of the moment. We switch to an epic space battle where rebellion cruisers and imperial spacecrafts are firing and flying at each other all at once. We switch to a ground scene where rebels are breaking into an imperial base before they are suddenly captured and fired upon. We switch to a dark room, where two jedi are staring tensely at each other, waiting for the other to make the first move against them.

This is something all of the Star Wars movies handle well, which is perspective. We have our main conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, certainly, but they’re not the only ones in the scope here. We also have Han and Leia’s romance, 3PO’s humorous cowardice, R2’s curious sense of adventure, and Chewbacca’s loyalty and brutishness. We have a comprehensive understanding of all of these characters, their motivations and aspirations, and we sympathize with them when they’re in the midst of tragedy. It’s rare to have this much character diversity and not have it fleet in its focus, but Return of the Jedi succeeds in being emotionally balanced and meaningful. If The Empire Strikes Back is the buildup, Return of the Jedi is the payoff.

There are a few elements that don’t work as well with this picture. The beginning sequence, for instance, ran a little longer than it should have, and could have been edited down to about ten minutes as opposed to the 25 minutes it took up. On the opposite end, the final battle, while thrilling and climactic, was equally too long and took up the better half of the picture. The introduction of some teddy bear-sized aliens called Ewoks definitely did not help the picture either. These squatty little freaks speak in such incomprehensible and annoying sounds that they make Chewbacca look like he speaks English. The fact that these midget-sized creatures had a fight scene was almost laughable to me.

But the film’s flaws are miniscule compared to it’s sheer and massive successes. Yes, the runtime was too long, but it at least kept me interested throughout most of it. The action was engaging, the chemistry of the cast was genuine, and George Lucas ultimately gave a fitting conclusion to one of cinema’s most cherished trilogies. We can forgive him for the Ewoks.

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“STAR WARS: THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The Galactic rebellion intensifies.

How do you improve upon perfection? The second installment in the Star Wars series, The Empire Strikes Back, answers this question with profound confidence, wiping away any doubt with the swift of a lightsaber and the influence of the force. It’s hard to imagine that at one point, creator George Lucas doubted the impact his series would hold. And now here stands The Empire Strikes Back, not only every bit as strong as its predecessor, but also cementing its influence on cinema forever.

Taking place a few years after the events of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back follows its core characters as they continue the intensified conflict against the empire. Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) is viciously in pursuit after Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) has a debt he desperately needs to pay off from a criminal overlord. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has a war she’s still trying to fight. And while all of this is going on, Luke receives a message from his long-deceased friend, Ben Kenobi (Alec Guinness), telling him to go to the Dagobah system to train with the only Jedi master left in existence. Now all on separate paths towards their destinies, these rebels and friends must complete their own journeys as they continue to fight the empire and save the galaxy from its evil clutches.

After the massive success of Star Wars, you’d wonder how on Earth George Lucas would be able to provide a follow up to his science-fiction saga. Yes, he had created these wonderful characters, but character appeal can only last for so long. You have to give them something to do to test the strength of their resolve and the changes that they go through. For the sequel to work, Lucas needed to not only reproduce his memorable heroes: he needed a story just as compelling to allow them to grow and evolve.

Thankfully, Lucas delivers just that alongside director Irvin Kershner and screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan. One improvement that The Empire Strikes Back has upon its predecessor is in the scope of its storytelling; in the stakes that it sets up and in the challenges it pits against its characters. That’s perhaps the most noticeable way in how this movie excels, is in its buildup and anticipation.

Take, for instance, the dynamic that pits Luke Skywalker against Darth Vader. As the movie builds, you quickly realize how similar Luke and Vader are to each other, and how dangerous of a path Luke is on if he isn’t careful. Luke is training to become a jedi. So was Vader, at one point. Luke is very strong in the force. So is Vader. Luke wants to get powerful fast so he can protect his friends. So did Vader, before he turned to the dark side. The parallels this movie draws on its protagonist and antagonist are very strong, and Kershner is effective in highlighting the conflict going on inside of Luke. It shows that if Luke isn’t careful, the greatest thing he will lose is not his friends, but his soul.

The other characters are just as great as they were the first time we became acquainted with them. Han Solo is still the smug, over-confident rebel, Leia is still the stubborn and headstrong leader that gives a good name to female protagonists. Darth Vader, however, is just as imposing and fearful as he was when we first met him. I would argue even more so, given more of the history we learn about him in this movie. When listening to him, I had forgotten how pivotal James Earl Jones was in his character conception, how his voice lends so much to his performance and his agony. It isn’t just the deepness of Jones’ voice that perfectly encapsulates Darth Vader: it’s in the sincerity of his words, how he says some lines with intensity and quietly utters others in softness. In the first movie, we got a great introduction to Darth Vader as a villain. Here, we’re beginning to understand him as a character, and Jones continues to be pivotal as that comprehension continues to be constructed.

What of the technical elements? Read my first review. You know what I think of its technical elements. The landscapes are vast and barren, contributing to a deep sense of loneliness and vulnerability. The action is exciting and suspenseful, teaming our heroes up against near impossible tasks, then having them find solutions in the most creative and dynamic ways possible. John Williams’ score doesn’t even need any elaboration. Can’t you remember the emotions you felt the first time you saw the words “Star Wars” on the screen and heard the horns blasting proudly in harmony?

This movie is just as strong as the first film was in its production value. Yet, production value means nothing without a strong arc for our characters to go through, and The Empire Strikes Back has that in spades. On the surface, it’s another sci-fi action blockbuster not too dissimilar to its first entry. In deeper insight, it’s a character conflict on how these heroes and villains react to stakes rising and how similar they are in their struggle and in their pain.

There are other characters and story elements that I would like to talk about, but doing so would cheat you of the experience and take away the enjoyment of seeing it for yourself. Star Wars was a masterpiece. The Empire Strikes Back, even more so.

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“STAR WARS” Review (✫✫✫✫)

The force is strong with George Lucas.

What is your favorite piece of science fiction of all time? Nine times out of ten, most people’s answer will be Star Wars. Not Star Trek. Not Terminator. Not Alien, or Blade Runner, or Metropolis, or 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s always Star Wars. Why is that?

I think it’s because, unlike Gene Roddenberry, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, Fritz Lang, and yes, even the great Stanley Kubrick, George Lucas succeeded in making characters that were not only believable, but loveable. We didn’t just accept them. We embraced them as we found a piece of ourselves in each of them. If I bring up the name David Bowman, many of you might ask “Who?” If I mention Nyota Uhura, most of you would stare at me in puzzlement. But if I mention the letters and numbers of C-3PO and R2-D2, your ears would most likely perk up in excitement as you realize I’m talking about Star Wars.

That’s what happened to me in my small living room in Brownsville, Texas when I was just a little boy. When the opening credits and theme song for Star Wars opened up, my attention was immediately caught. When the vast imperial fighter boarded the small rebel ship and the tall figure of Darth Vader (James Earl Jones) entered the deck, I stared at the screen in bewilderment and amazement. But when those two geeky droids entered the frame, as R2 slid around beeping and 3PO clumsily blundered about, I knew I had found something special, as we all did when Star Wars hit the theaters in 1977.

The droids escape the rebel ship and soon land on the dusty planet of Tatooine, where they are soon captured and sold to a small plantation family outside of the city. It is here where we meet our hero Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and we watch as he grows from being a desert farmer to a jedi warrior.

After spending years apart from this picture, I wondered if its appeal would still hold up to today’s standards. Yes, I had grown up with the characters, but that was when I was a child. I had grown away from many things as I grew into adulthood. Would I grow away from Star Wars too?

The answer is no, I didn’t, and I don’t think anyone can grow away from Star Wars. Star Wars appeals to a very specific part of the moviegoing experience: imagination. Yes, plenty of science-fiction films existed prior to the release of Star Wars, but none left the impact on the genre that Star Wars did. And every time I view Star Wars, watching as the droids beep and the aliens groan and the stormtroopers march, I ask what was it that this movie had that all of the others didn’t? My answer is the same every time: George Lucas.

From the writing to the visual design, George Lucas was heavily involved with the film’s concept and creation. How could Lucas come up with such creative and dynamic characters? From the droids to the humans, every character is completely fascinating and appealing, reaching a deep part of our mind from when we were excited at those swashbuckling serials we read when we were kids. It’s almost childlike in its appeal, and its heroes and villains alike are people we learn to root for not because we are asked to as viewers, but because we want to as fans.

Luke is the well-intentioned hero of the story, the knight in shining armor so to speak that is looking for his own adventure out there, all while trying to help anyone he can along the way. 3PO and R2 are the Abbott and Costello of robots here, and provide some of the more comedic moments of the picture without trying too hard or seeming exaggerated. Then there’s Darth Vader, whose visual scope and deep, imposing voice sets a new standard of villainy altogether. James Earl Jones wasn’t a relatively popular actor before Star Wars’ release. Yet, when Star Wars hit the theater, Jones’ personification of the character summoned such a powerful sense of intimidation for Darth Vader that it emboldened his status as a movie villain forever.

In retrospect, these characters don’t do anything in Star Wars that other characters haven’t done in other movies before. A princess is captured, a dashing hero (or two) comes in to save her, a climactic duel builds between its two leads, and somewhere, in one place or another, an explosion happens.

Doesn’t that sound like something you’ve seen before? Indeed, in most classic westerns and swashbuckling pictures, this was the template for your typical motion picture. What places Star Wars above the standard is its characters, in their funny, witty remarks, their moments of lighthearted comedy, and their deepened sense of adventure that survives past the stars and beyond. Yes, the cast gets credit for servicing their characters well, but not as much credit as the man who created the characters.

The other technical elements of the motion picture are astounding and contribute to the overall vision of this science-fiction fantasy. The visual effects were groundbreaking for its time, its elaborate art direction, set design, costuming and make up creating this authentic and aged environment that makes it feel like an age long lost. The technology and the weapons they use make for some of the most exciting action sequences, with one light saber battle between two jedi in the movie serving as one of its high points. And the musical composition by John Williams is simply beautiful, with the horns and the strings switching from moments of ease and reflection to moments of excitement and anticipation. Williams demonstrated his mastery of handling different aesthetics from his Academy Award-winning score for Jaws. Here is another film where he arguably contributed just as much to the film as its creator did.

But a film can be technically well made and fail on the whole. What makes Lucas’ work stand out is, once again, his characters. We share the young farmer’s dreams as he wants to travel to different worlds and become a jedi. We share the droid’s frustration at each other as their situation quickly crumbles into shambles, and we share the rebel’s fear and gloom as the shadowy figure of Darth Vader approaches them. This is a film that is strong in both production and concept, as it makes us deeply care for the characters that exist from a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

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“THE LEGO MOVIE” Review (✫✫✫1/2)

Bricks, businessmen, and Batman.

The last thing I expected from anything titled The Lego Movie was anything good. How could I? The trailer had the reeking stench of an advertisement, barely differentiating itself from the Lego set commercials that air on children’s cartoon networks. Believe me, I went into this movie expecting an artificial, brainless experience looking only to profit itself from the name of it’s toy line. Boy, do I love it when I am proved wrong.

Based in a colorful world full of Lego bricks, buildings, and set pieces, The Lego Movie follows Emmett (Chris Pratt), an average, regular, 100% ordinary minifigure who loves coffee, people, Taco Tuesdays, cats, cars, work, television, and just about everything else under the orange Lego-bricked sun. If any of the characters in the film knew that they were in a movie, none of them would expect Emmett to be the main character: he has the personality and the appearance of a background character if anything.

One day, while working at his construction job, Emmett comes into contact with a strange red object called “The Piece of Resistance”, and passes out. When he wakes up, he is recruited by Wyldstyle (Elizabeth Banks), a punky and feisty master builder who tells Emmett that he is part of a prophecy that declares that a powerful being called “The Special” will find the Piece of Resistance and use it to overthrow Lord Business (Will Ferrell) and his plans to conquer the Lego-verse. As a result, Emmett gets catapulted into a decade-long conflict between wizards, robots, businessmen, DC superheroes, crazy cats, cyborg pirates, spacemen, and Batman.

Good God, where do I start with this? The Lego Movie is by every definition, a surprise; a fun and wacky little adventure that is just as original and audacious as it is clever and funny. Written and directed by Phil Lord and Chris Miller, the same guys who co-wrote and co-directed Cloudy With A Chance of Meatballs, these filmmakers worked to instill the same sense of energy, youth, and entertainment from that movie into this one. It’s surprising that the movie is not just good: it’s borderline great.

One of the things I love most about the movie is the animation. Like any great animated film, it reaches out to you in vivid, eye-catching detail, it’s beautiful colors and visuals striking out to you like a panel on a beautifully-crafted graphic novel. But it’s not just how the animation looks in itself: it’s also in how Lord and Miller achieved the effects they were going for. Nearly everything in the film was modeled from lego bricks and pieces, and I do mean everything. The buildings, the vehicles, the space stations: even seemingly trivial things such as the water, lava, and clouds are all made out of lego pieces, with explosions literally showing red-and-orange lego studs as they blow up. It would be so easy just to be cheap and give basic effects for the wind, the water, fire, sky, and everything else in the film, but Miller and Lord didn’t want to go that route. They wanted to make an authentic, accurate world jam-packed with lego pieces and objects. To put anything else in there would just cheapen the effects, and their persistence made for the best visual result that they could possibly have had.

Just as much though, I love the characters Lord and Miller wrote for this movie. Like the animation and lego bricks, they all have variety to them, and they all have colorful, unique personalities that make you want to relate to each character. You have Benny, a 1980’s space astronaut who is so obsessed with spaceships that he could build one from a pile of garbage bricks if you dared him to. You have UniKitty, a unicorn/kitten that has such a split sweet/violent personality that she would scare little children if they were locked in the same room with her. There’s Metal Beard, a pirate-turned-cyborg whose body literally blows up like a amalgam of lego bricks like a real lego mini figure. Also, Batman is in the movie.

The key character here, however, is Emmett, a sweet and charming little mini figure with intentions so pure, he at times can seem like a child with his quirky little antics. Emmett is the epitome of childhood in this movie: innocent, curious, creative, passionate, and at times a little too immature for his own good. His strengths and his flaws both make up for a very interesting character, a mini figure that we can all relate to because of his average nature and his desire to be greater than he already is. He may be made out of Lego pieces, but Emmett is more human than most of the live-action actors you’ve seen in motion pictures this year.

The movie does suffer from a slight drag in run time, and like it’s protagonist, the movie is at times too childish for it’s own good. That doesn’t change the fact that this movie is a clever, funny, original, and heartfelt take on childhood and what it means to be grown up, but always remain young at heart. The Lego Movie is much more than just a movie. It’s a celebration of creativity.

Post-script: Did I forget to mention that Batman is in the movie?

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