Tag Archives: Star Wars

“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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“ROGUE ONE” Review (✫✫✫)

With a sequel titled ‘A New Hope.’

If anyone ever tells you that making a prequel is lazy filmmaking, show them Rogue One as evidence to the contrary. This is an exciting, riveting, action-packed Star Wars prequel, filled to the brim with nostalgia and passionate love for the originals. With a few quick rewrites and some tighter editing on the action, this could’ve turned from a good prequel to a great one. Maybe even comparable to the originals.

Taking place directly before the events of Star Wars: A New Hope, Rogue One follows the rag-tag team of rebels who discover the Death Star plans and are committed to bringing them to the rebel army, henceforth setting up the events for the original trilogy. These rebels include newcomer Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), whose father had a direct hand in creating the Death Star, rebel Cassian (Diego Luna), defected empire pilot Bodhi (Riz Ahmed), heavy arms aficionado Baze (Jiang Wen), temple guardian Chirrut (Donnie Yen), and defected empire droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk).

This team of misfits are expected to go up against the empire, Darth Vader himself, and commander Orson Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn) to steal the Death Star plans and send them on a rendezvous mission to the rebel army. So. You know. No pressure.

Right off of the bat, I need to praise the film for its buildup. Since this is a prequel and we already know how the original Star Wars begins, we can safely assume that most of the characters don’t make it out alive by the end of the film. While Rogue One more or less follows the route that you expect it to take, what’s surprising is that we’re actively engaged and invested in the action while it’s happening on screen. That’s because these are fully fleshed out and realized characters, their personalities and motivations established early on and following through until the movie’s inevitable conclusion.

When you watched the original Star Wars movies, weren’t the characters the best part in every scene? Didn’t you fall in love with Luke’s sense of adventure, Han’s rebellious swagger, Obi-Wans quips of wisdom, Darth Vader’s foreboding presence, and C-3PO’s clunky awkwardness? Here we have a new lineup of characters to admire and appreciate, and while they may borrow some qualities from other characters, their appeal is their own and it stands strong alongside the rest of the Star Wars cast.

Jyn, for instance, is another strong heroine type, a go-getter kind of woman not unlike Rey from The Force Awakens. Chirrut is a character as quirky and wise as Yoda himself is, and even though he isn’t a jedi, his conversation regardless lends to the film’s more fun and thoughtful moments. My favorite character easily lies in the quippy and sardonic K-2SO, who can be seen as a more condescending version of C-3PO. His entire character can be summed up in one line that he utters: “I will fight with you. The captain said I had to.”

There are two things that stand out exceptionally in Rogue One: the visual effects, and the cameos. Any time my jaw dropped in the film, it was from one of those two things. We expect the visuals to be impressive in the action scenes alone, and rest assured, they don’t disappoint. The blaster fights, the AT-AT’s, and the space battles are as grand as they ever were, and they flash you back to the first time you saw the iconic Death Star battle in the original Star Wars movie.

But that’s not even the full display of this film’s visual effects. With certain cameos, CGI is layered over the actor’s faces to make older characters look younger. This has been done to many actors before, including Jeff Bridges in Tron: Legacy and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Terminator Salvation. Here though, the CGI is so detailed that it doesn’t even look like computer imagery. It looks like actors who are 60 years or older have suddenly reappeared as their younger selves, giving the same performance they gave 30 years ago. Try to imagine, for instance, if Han Solo were in this movie. We saw Harrison Ford’s 70-year old self in The Force Awakens last year. Imagine your surprise if he reappeared here 30 years younger, back to his original self at the start of the trilogy.

That is how impressive the visual effects are in this movie. If you don’t believe me, wait until this film’s last cameo near the end. Their appearance was so mind-blowing that I had to rub my eyes and be sure that I was seeing correctly. I was.

I like a lot of things about this movie. The characters, the action scenes, how the film intelligently relates itself to the original trilogy. There’s a lot to admire here both as a Star Wars fan and as a movie fan. In that regard, I was impressed.

There are, however, a few slip-ups that count against Rogue One’s achievement. For one thing, there’s the pacing. While Rogue One has a good buildup in its second and third acts, it takes too long to get there. The first act specifically drags on for too long and takes too much time to introduce these characters, feeling more like a setup than a story.

I understand that setup is needed to introduce these characters and understand their motivations for being there. Still, couldn’t you have cut corners in appropriate areas to make the story more concise? At the beginning of the film, only two of the Rogue One members are rebels. The rest are either recruited into the cause, or defect from the Empire into the rebellion. Wouldn’t it have been simpler if they all just started off as rebels, weary and exhausted from years of resisting the empire? It would have set the conflict up quicker, and we wouldn’t have to waste so much time on why each individual member joins the cause. The fact that most of the Rogue One members are new recruits slows the film down immensely, and the film never really picks up speed until much, much later than is necessary.

And the final battle sequence, while impressive, is also too long. Simply put, there’s too much going on in this scene. First, there’s Jyn and Cassian’s race against time to get the Death Star plans. Then there’s the beach battle on the ground against rebels and stormtroopers. Then there’s K-2SO’s firefight, then there’s Chirrut’s fight, then Baze’s fight, then Bodhi’s fight, then there’s what’s going on at rebel control, and blah blah blah blah blah. It’s too much. I understand there’s a lot building up to this point in the film, but you could have safely shaved off 15 minutes from this sequence and have a more exciting, and efficient, climax. This movie is two hours and 10 minutes long. With all of the added material in it, there’s no reason why it couldn’t be an hour and 50 minutes.

Still, Rogue One is a blast, and it adds plenty of mythology for the expanded universe and for the joy of any Star Wars fan out there. In the past, the word “prequel” made fans shudder at the thought of the earlier films, including The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. I think Star Wars fans can breathe easier knowing that Rogue One is out there.

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“STAR WARS EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES” Review (✫✫)

And more importantly, less Jar Jar.

What was it that Yoda said to Luke on the swampy lands of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back? “Do or do not, there is no try.” It seems to me like George Lucas still needs to learn this lesson and should have paid a visit to Yoda himself. Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones is not as much a trainwreck as its predecessor is, although the title certainly makes it sound like it. The mythos is sound, the visual effects amazing, and the pacing builds up well to what will eventually be the fall of Anakin Skywalker. That much is how Episode II improves upon the boring and fatally flawed Episode I. Lucas still can’t direct his actors worth a damn, though.

In this sequel to The Phantom Menace, Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), now senator of Naboo, was the target of an assassination attempt by Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), a bounty hunter hired to kill her for reasons unknown. Fearing for her life, the Jedi council assigns Jedi master Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his padawan Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) to protect senator Amidala from other attackers. As they continue their mission, they make a discovery that spurs on one of the darkest times in the Star Wars universe: the clone wars.

I’ll give Lucas this: he’s a great visual director. Everything visually based in this film is at it’s peak and prime, from the visionary locations to the epic battles. There’s no more butt-ugly, CGI-ridden aliens to look at like the God-awful Gungans from The Phantom Menace (Although Jar Jar still makes a cameo appearance, unbelievably). The visual scope of the picture is absolutely incredible, and if I had to pick my favorite moments from the movie, all of them involve the visuals in some way.

For instance, in the first act of the film, Anakin and Obi-Wan are engaged in a chase through Coruscant after an ally assassin of Jango Fett. The feats of the scene are something else to witness, as we’re seeing Anakin hot-wiring a vehicle, flying through the city, hovercrafts racing against each other while evading other vehicles, and eventually leading to Anakin leaping off of his hovercraft and actively fighting the assassin on her own ship.

I was thinking only one thing through this scene: “Man. Luke would probably already be dead if he had to pull this off in the original trilogy.”

The same standard of visual spectacle is kept up throughout the movie, and it was as exciting and enthralling to witness as the original movies were. The most climactic scene came from not when the clones appeared, or when Anakin and Obi-Wan fought a sith lord: it’s when the sith had to engage in a lightsaber duel with the jedi that we were least expecting to fight. (Hint: Strong with the force, he is.)

But besides these visual breaks, what else did the movie provide? The plot is still paper-thin and unfocused, and we sense that Lucas is more interested in building up the mythology of Anakin Skywalker instead of focusing on the current story. Obi-Wan is caught up in a whole mystery on where the clones came from, and goes through an uninteresting investigation as it leads him to a place we were all expecting. And then the romance builds between two characters, and…

Oh God. The romance.

I’m going to spoil something for you here, okay? If you don’t want a spoiler, skip to the last paragraph. You’ve been warned.

In the film, Anakin and Padme form a romantic love interest that is obviously forbidden, because as we are told, Jedi are not allowed to love. I find multiple issues with this. 1) Forbidding Jedi to love is as awful an idea as forbidding a priest to love. That didn’t work with the Catholic church. Why did you think it would work here? 2) Christensen and Portman are not meshing at all. They are not convincing. Their awkward stares, plastic kisses, and unbearably cheesy dialogue shows that this whole thing is staged. There is not an ounce of true passion or lust in these characters for each other.

But those aren’t even the biggest issues. 3) Wasn’t Anakin just a kid when he met an adult Padme in The Phantom Menace? And if he grew into an adult here, doesn’t that mean that she should have grown too, not stayed the same? Jake Lloyd was 10 years old when The Phantom Menace was released, and Portman was 18. That means these two lovers are eight years apart? Gross.

Granted, Lucas wrote the characters to be only five years apart in the original script, but the original script doesn’t matter. What matters is what we’re seeing on the screen, and on screen, Portman looks like she’s 20 and Lloyd looks like a child. Wondering how that transitions over into Episode II is just too complicated to think about, and it distracts from the badly-acted romance we’re already watching on screen. Either way, its poorly written and poorly executed, and there’s zero excuse for either.

Overall, I had more fun with Attack of the Clones than I did with The Phantom Menace, and we’re at least getting a better buildup to Anakin’s eventual fate that we all know is coming. But this movie did not learn from the mistakes of its predecessor. It’s still too much buildup and not enough payoff, with the script begrudgingly meandering on as we’re supposed to sit through this unexciting, uneventful story waiting to get to the next action sequence. I thought Star Wars used to recognize storytelling more over the action, not the other way around? Get to meditating, George. Looks like you’ve got a lot of it to do.

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“STAR WARS EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE” Review (✫)

Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.

Never again. Don’t ever let this happen to Star Wars ever again. When Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace was announced, George Lucas’ fan base exploded with excitement, preparing themselves to witness the beginning of Anakin Skywalker’s story before he became Darth Vader. Oh, are they going to be disappointed. This movie is every bit as stupid as the title sounds and then some.

Dating back 32 years before the events of the original Star Wars, The Phantom Menace finds the elder Ben Kenobi as the young padawan understudy Obi Wan (Ewan McGregor), serving under his master Qui Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson). They are assigned by the jedi order to defend Queen Amidala of Naboo (Natalie Portman) from the vicious Trade Federation, a group of long-necked, bulgy-eyed aliens that are so bloated and ugly that a Jim Henson puppet would be mortified.

The Jedi meet an assortment of characters along their journey. A younger, more polished R2-D2 sits aboard a Naboo space ship. A C-3PO without any outer plating (or as he likes to call it, being “naked”) wobbles around in a tiny Tatooine hut. A clumsy, idiotic gungan named Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) bumbles and falls everywhere like a ragdoll. And, of course, a young boy named Anakin Skywalker (Jake Lloyd) wanders around the dusty sands of Tatooine, illustrated here as a messiah-like figure to the force and the galaxy.

When I watched Star Wars many years ago as a small boy in Brownsville, TX, the thing I fell most in love with was its characters. The adventurous bounty hunters and princesses, the wise jedi, the noisy droids, the sinister sith, all of them enchanted me with their uniqueness and peculiarity. So many sci-fi epics rely too much on special effects to provide their spectacle. With Star Wars, the humans, aliens, and droids were the spectacle, and the groundbreaking visual effects complimented their presence without taking away focus from the story.

The characters were the best thing to come out of the original Star Wars trilogy. They’re the worst thing here. Oh my God, are they the worst thing. These characters are so bland, dull, and uninteresting that they could have all been replaced by droids and we wouldn’t have noticed the difference.

Take Liam Neeson as one victim, err, example. Here we have a fine actor, demonstrating his finesse in performances for movies including Darkman, Michael Collins, and Schindler’s List, the last of which earned him an Oscar nomination. In all of those movies, he has demonstrated an ability to express fear, anger, disappointment, courage, heroism, and earnest in both big, showy scenes and small, personal ones. Yet here, his ability as an actor is almost completely erased, being asked to throw on robes and swing around a lightsaber in the place of a performance. We have nothing from his character to make us remember or even care about him. He has one, cold-hard emotion throughout the film, and that emotion is serious. There is nothing else about him to make him either fun or fascinating, not in comparison with the charisma and calmness we got from Alec Guinness in the original series.

But Neeson is not the worst part of the movie. Indeed, he is only one victim among an entire assembly line of failures. Portman is plastic and looks like she doesn’t know why she’s on the set. McGregor is functional, but doesn’t demonstrate much purpose beyond linking this movie together with the original. I’ll cut Jake Lloyd some slack since he’s only a child actor at 10 years old, but I will say he did nothing to service his role and make me believe he’s supposed to become the most feared force in the galaxy. That’s not as much his fault as it is others though. I’ll come back around to that in a bit.

The biggest catastrophe in this movie is Jar Jar Binks, and he’s so damaging to the picture that I have to dedicate two paragraphs to his stupidity. He’s supposed to serve as the comedic relief, but believe me when I say there’s nothing comedic about this cretin. He bumbles and trips everywhere like a drunken idiot, speaking in nonsensical English so distorted that it would make Yoda want to take grammar lessons. “Ooey mooey”, “mesa” and “yousa” are not beyond his flawed vocabulary, and his voice is so whiny and high-pitched that it makes me want to strangle him by his flappy ears.

Compare Jar Jar to 3PO, a successful attempt at comedic relief in the series. 3PO is funny because he tries to be serious and fails. Jar Jar tries to be funny and comes off as annoying. If 3PO tripped and fell on himself as often as Jar Jar did, he would dent up his entire body plating and probably damage his processing core. Maybe that’s what happened to Jar Jar: he fell on his head so many times that he forgot how to use it.

Despite my hatred of all of these characters, I don’t blame the actors for their representation. I blame writer-director-creator George Lucas, who arguably had the most involvement in this film as opposed to the previous ones. How could he have misfired with this film so badly? 20 years ago, he gave cinema some of its most cherished characters, and now, he’s given cinema some of its most hated. With the imagination and the ambition he’s committed to the sci-fi genre for years now, I cannot explain how badly he’s written and directed this cast except for sheer lapse of judgement. There’s no other reason to explain how dull and uninteresting these characters are, or how moronic and insipid Jar Jar is.

What of the visual effects? The cinematography? The editing? The score? Read my previous reviews. You know what I think of them. A potentially good movie can be produced poorly, but likewise, a bad movie can also be produced wonderfully. Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is some of the best-looking garbage you’ll ever see. To quote one of Jar Jar’s companions in the movie: “Yousa in big doo-doo dis time.” In English, that means you’re in deep… well, you know.

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May The LGBT With You

I’m Christian, I’m straight and I want more gay characters put on film.

After the horrible shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, a petition was recently created to put more gay characters on film in honor of those whose lives were lost. More specifically, they’re petitioning that gay characters be introduced in the upcoming sequel to the 2016 science-fiction epic Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

This idea might seem too radical or progressive for most of conservative America, especially when you look at the overwhelming majority of heterosexual protagonists in today’s films. Yet, I think now is the right time to introduce gay characters into mainstream film culture, and Star Wars is the perfect franchise to do it in.

According to a 2015 Gallup survey, 63 percent of Americans think homosexuality is morally acceptable. 60 percent are also in favor of same-sex marriage. Both numbers are a massive increase from the respective 38 and 35 percent numbers in the 2002 survey.

In other words, not only is homosexuality growing in America: its support is growing just as fast.

This provides an opportunity for Hollywood, an opportunity that means much more than just cultural impact. Earlier this year, Star Wars: The Force Awakens grossed over two billion dollars, a rare achievement that it shares with Titanic and Avatar. That’s significant for more than just the number. Out of all of the films that grossed over a billion dollars, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is one of the few to have a female protagonist, and one of the even fewer to have a black protagonist. Finally, the Hollywood myth of the tall, muscular white protagonist selling more tickets is debunked through a female jedi and an African-American stormtrooper taking on the galaxy.

We’re moving in to a day and age where diversity is not only supported- it sells. For Hollywood to stop the train now while at the peak of its popularity is only selling itself short.

Why do I care about all this? I’m not an active supporter of gay rights, nor am I socially inclined towards the LGBTQA agenda. What stake do I have in the sexual orientation of our favorite movie characters?

Simply put, I want something different. For years, I’ve had to stomach the same images of a white, heterosexual actor running from explosions, driving cool sports cars, shooting firearms, kung-fu fighting bad guys and making out with hot supermodels. I’m sick of the pretentiousness. I’m sick of the same moldy, tired, regurgitated images, and I’m sick of seeing the same Tom Cruises, Mark Wahlbergs, Ben Afflecks, Bruce Willises, Matt Damons and Liam Neesons doing the same crap over and over again. 2015 was a diversity revelation not just with Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but also with Mad Max: Fury RoadStraight Outta ComptonThe Hunger Games and many others.

While I’m personally not a supporter of gay rights, I am a supporter of human rights. That means representing the human race in its entirety, with all of its diversity and uniqueness intact.

I love movies. I love Star Wars. But more important than either of these, I love period. So does the homosexual community. We love all of these things, regardless of our sexual orientation. Why can’t we share our love of these things together?

– 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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Boycotting #BoycottStarWarsVII

The dark side doesn’t refer to skin color.

A social media campaign was started yesterday to protest the highly anticipated science-fiction film Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The movement is called #BoycottStarWarsVII, and it’s campaigning against the film for being “anti-white” by casting a black actor in the film — British actor John Boyega.

They must have forgotten that Darth Vader was voiced by actor James Earl Jones in the original trilogy.

And that Billy Dee Williams portrayed Lando Calrissian in The Empire Strikes Back.

And that Samuel L. Jackson was a Jedi knight with his own awesome purple lightsaber in episodes one through three.

I cannot look at this campaign and honestly believe that this was a serious effort to start some controversy about Star Wars. The whole thing reeks of a conspiracy spawned from the Internet hell called 4Chan.

Regardless of its authenticity, #BoycottStarWarsVII is bringing up a serious ongoing issue in modern-day Hollywood: politicizing our entertainment.

In 2013, back when it was announced that director J.J. Abrams was on board for this project, he made it clear that he wanted a racially diverse cast for the film after attending a few Emmy awards television ceremonies and seeing they were completely whitewashed.

“It’s just unbelievably white,” Abrams said. “I just thought, ‘We’re casting this show, and we have an opportunity to do whatever we want. Why not cast the show with actors of color?’ ”

My question is this: Why should race even be a factor in the first place?

James Earl Jones wasn’t cast as the voice of Darth Vader because he was black. He was cast because he had a deep, imposing voice that perfectly fit the role. Williams wasn’t cast because he was black. He was cast because he had charisma that mixed well with Harrison Ford’s Han Solo. Jackson wasn’t cast because he was black. He was cast because he’s a certified badass.

None of these actors were put into their roles because of their race. They were put there because of their talent. Why should we put down Boyega by questioning him about either?

Movies are supposed to bring us together as a people, not tear us apart. Let’s boycott the stupidity of #BoycottStarWarsVII by going to the movie theater together Dec. 18.

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