Ladies, gentlemen, humans, and non-humanoid gelatinous blob beings alike, what just happened? Marvel has spent the last 11 years constructing a complex, interconnected web of stories, and in the process, built an entire universe for us to enjoy. Now, they give us what is essentially their grand finale! 22 individual films have all led up to this moment. “Avengers: Infinity War”, which is essentially part 1 of this story, set the table. Metaphorically speaking, it is game 7 of the World Series, the bottom of the 9th inning and Marvel needs 4 runs to win it all. “Infinity War” just loaded the bases, and now it is time for “Endgame” to make history. But did it come through and be a hero like the plethora of colorful figures in its story, or like the mighty Casey before it, did it strike out in the biggest moment?
While I normally keep my reviews spoiler-free, that would not be appropriate with this film. To adequately discuss it, I need the freedom to dive into specifics of the plot. Considering all that went into making it, it is only fair that I am as thorough as possible. And, let’s be real here, I waited until Monday to write this. The film has already grossed $1.2 BILLION. It appears no one is still waiting to see this, and if you are waiting for some reason, I am willing to bet you are not all that invested in it anyway, so I do not respect you as a person. You lack conviction. But, to be fair…
*** SPOILER WARNING! ***
This movie is damn near perfect. There it is. I said it. It cannot be unsaid. It is a fact. Read the Bible losers.
Every time a friend or someone who thinks they are my friend but are really just a pretty good acquaintance asks me my thoughts on the film, I simply respond: “The status quo has changed”. I say that to be as cryptic as possible, thus avoiding being the one to spoil anything for someone while simultaneously being deep and edgy, but now I no longer carry that burden so let us discuss what I mean by that.
The plot of the film begins with the world and the team coming to grips with Thanos (Josh Brolin) wiping out half of all life in the universe. The team gathers to find Thanos and get the Infinity Stones from him to undo what he has done, but when they find him, he reveals he had destroyed the stones so that his plan could never be undone. In his words: “I am inevitable”. After five years passes and life moves on, Ant-Man (Paul Rudd) returns from the Quantum Realm, revealing there may be a way to go back in time and collect the Infinity Stones from the past to undo the decimation. So, the team organizes into several different groups to retrieve the stones from their various locations throughout the history of MCU, and thus create a story composed of Marvel’s Greatest Hits revisited.
Content-wise, Marvel will never be the same again. There is usually a changing dynamic of characters that come from one of their films, but “Endgame” turns that up to 11. The biggest and most important changes start with our core Avengers, who are (for those of you heathens who still do not know) Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), Captain America (Chris Evans), Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson), Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), Thor (Chris Hemsworth), and Hawkeye (Jeremy Renner). These six were the original team members and the ones who have anchored the franchise since the very beginning.
Black Widow deserved better than what she got. Not only has she yet to star in her own film, but she sacrifices herself on Vormir, despite Hawkeye’s best efforts to do it instead of her, in order for the team to retrieve the Soul Stone. It is a touching moment, where she connects with Hawkeye, her oldest and closest friend, one last time, but this moment happening as relatively early as it did means she was not there for the final battle. Not only that but because of the timing of her sacrifice, it feels as though there is not enough time to really appreciate what she did and the momentous act she committed to save everyone else.
Hawkeye, who was under house arrest and presumably retired during the events of “Infinity War”, returned for “Endgame”, and he is noticeably different. Hawkeye, also known as Clint Barton, lost his entire family to Thanos and went somewhat off the deep end. He became a vigilante named Ronin, who has no issue killing his victims with a sword. Clint is a character with nothing to lose anymore, which is a major change from the snarky sharpshooter we used to know.
Hulk learned to combined the brains of Bruce Banner and the body of the Hulk to create Professor Hulk, which appears to be a permanent change. This was a welcomed move and created many funny moments with the character, and signified the completion of a major character arc that had taken 3 films to complete.
Thor blames himself for letting Thanos complete his mission in the previous film, as most of the heroes do. He takes his failures to heart and becomes a fat drunk, which is funny at first, but after the first few scenes with it, you really wish he would take himself seriously again. Unfortunately, he never does, and even in the final fight when he has his game-face on, he is still chunky, which feels like a joke that ran its course but that one kid in class is still bringing it up every day because it was their proudest moment. Thor is a god. If he just snapped his fingers and became absolutely shredded again in a second, would anyone really call bullshit? We’ve seen a lot of crazy things, I am confident we, as an audience, can suspend our disbelief there if necessary. In fact, if he were to have done that, it would have visually signaled the emotional growth he undergoes in the film much better than it did. But, honestly, this is only a minor issue that takes away virtually nothing from the film.
Captain America, who was ironically an American Fugitive before everyone died in “Infinity War”, has some of the single most badass moments in film history in this movie. He is his usual optimistic leader for the first 2 and a half hours of the movie, which is cool and all, but he really shines when Thanos travels through time to attack Earth. Our heroes had just reversed the decimation with their own infinity gauntlet, but Thanos from an alternate timeline seeks it out to redo what was just undone. Prediabetic Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America take on Thanos 3 vs 1, and when it looks like Thanos is about to kill the porky Asgardian, Cap summons Mjolnir, Thor’s magical hammer that can only be lifted by those it deems as worthy. The theater erupted in cheers at this moment. People were jumping out of their seats, hugging each other, and even rolling on the floor in excitement (It was me. I rolled on the floor. I am disgusting). But that’s not all! Call now and you’ll even get a scene where every living hero in the MCU appears to fight Thanos’s army and Cap says the most subtle yet hardcore “Avengers…Assemble” our puny mortal minds could conceive of. When it is all said and done, Captain America is given a second chance to live the life he sacrificed in his debut movie, and thus ends the film a retired old man. I find this a fitting end to a character who had to sacrifice everything his entire life, that after the ultimate victory, he is given a happy ending.
But this film is Tony Stark’s film. Iron Man steals the show. Being undoubtedly the godfather of the MCU, without whom there would be no “Avengers: Endgame”, everyone knew that his role would be massive. While the entire film shows a considerable amount of growth for him, including the introduction of his daughter that he and his long-time love Pepper Pots give birth to during the 5 years after Thanos’s decimation, Tony’s story has always been about proving he would be the one willing to put it all on the line for others. And boy does he do that. When their backs are against the ropes, and Thanos has re-obtained the gathered Infinity Stones, Tony jumps in and steals them right back, sacrifices his life to destroy Thanos and his army, letting out one last triumphant “I am Iron Man” in the process. Tony may have died, while Cap got to live his life in the past, but Tony was the ultimate hero. His arc from an obnoxious egomaniacal billionaire, to a paranoid warrior, to ultimate hero, is the greatest in the franchise. It is only fitting that he was the one to deliver the knockout blow in Marvel’s Swan Song.
There is just so much content in this film, it would be impossible to cover everything in a succinct enough manner to keep your attention long enough, so here are my abridged character notes outside of the core players: Every character onscreen plays their roles perfectly. Karan Gillan as Thanos’s abused daughter, Nebula, was the surprising breakthrough star in the film. She has already been an entertaining, albeit relatively one-dimensional character in past films, but now she was a fleshed-out, versatile person with heart. I am very excited to see what she does with the Guardians of the Galaxy squad in the future.
Thanos feels different in this film compared to “Infinity War”. Whereas in the previous film, he was mildly sympathetic, portraying a man burdened with the responsibility to do terrible things for the greater good, he now seems more threatening because he seems to take joy from being the villain. Maybe it is because he already knew he succeeded or maybe it is because he was really frustrated that he was being met with as much resistance as he was, but Thanos’s eagerness to destroy makes him somehow even more imposing than in his previous outing.
I also feel like they used Captain Marvel just the right amount. She is present while not being dominating. She is powerful, but still gets smacked around by Thanos to bring her back down from unbeatable status. She does enough to make us believe she is part of the team without it feeling forced. These were all issues I worried about because it seemed like they were rushing her character in order to set up future movies quicker.
The final fight scene against Thanos’s army is possibly the greatest action scenes in movie history. Cap is already wielding Thor’s Hammer and every major hero joins the fight. It is a momentous scene that shows virtually every character working together to defeat the ultimate villain that they have all been opposing for almost a decade. Your heart will race so hard that it will make the heart palpitations that you were experiencing at the Darth Vader scene in “Rogue One” seem like the hiccups.
And while it can make your heart race, it will most certainly make your heart break. Tony Stark’s sacrifice was as tear-inducing as it was triumphant. Watching him give everything to save the universe was powerful but watching him say goodbye to Peter Parker and his wife, Pepper, tug at your heart strings so hard. Then to watch Tony’s young daughter talk with Happy Hogan about cheeseburgers will make even the most stoic cry. We all love Tony 3000! And that is perhaps the most amazing thing about a film with a scale as large as the entire universe; it is so intimate. There are so many small personal stories of growth and sacrifice that could easily have been overshadowed for something far more grandiose. But the film never forgets that we love it because of the characters.
Overall, this film will excite you and have you on the edge of your seat, but that is not consistent throughout the entire film. The first third of the movie is very somber, which makes sense because the world is living with the hopelessness of the decimation and no real ability to fix it. It is fitting for a realistic feeling, but compared to the rest of the film, the slow start exists in stark contrast. Fortunately, or unfortunately, the film is so goddamn long that by the time it ends, there will have been 2 hours of uninterrupted action and badassery that you will most likely not even remember if it was slow in the beginning. And that is not even saying the slow parts are bad, they are just slower than the action at the end.
So, the film is not perfect, but it is really, really close. It is the grand slam home run I used in my earlier analogy. Marvel came through and delivered a film that is more than anyone could have asked for. The untouchable legend for superhero films has been “The Dark Knight” since 2008, and I have been on record as saying that film would likely never be usurped as the champion, but has that changed? I have been asked this question too many times to count in the past few days (It’s like six or seven times) if this film is better than “The Dark Knight” and to that, I say “I do not know”.
But let us really revel in the fact that this is a question we are asking. To be put in the same category as a film that I ranked #2 on my All-Time Movie List is telling of the quality of the film we have before us now. “Avengers: Endgame”, more so than “The Dark Knight”, will likely never be replicated. Not only is this a film of immense quality, but it only exists because of the 11 years of supplementary films that built up to this. The emotional connections to these characters are as special as they are because we have grown with them and they represent real aspects of our lives. You cannot just make a film that connects to the viewers the way this one does. Whether that means it will age poorly as newer viewers watch it without the same investment is yet to be seen, but it does signify that the film is a unique creature.
Even if those same circumstances were to matched by a different film in the future, having the buildup is no guarantee of success. Just because the bases were loaded does not mean a home run was assured. I will be the first one to admit I openly did not have faith in Marvel Studios and Disney to create quality productions of “Infinity War” and “Endgame”. I believed there was just too many characters and stories that there would be no way a story could be compelling while balancing everything. And this film very easily could have been a mess. They took the most difficult science fiction plot device, time travel, and wrote a story that was simple enough to follow, yet complicated enough to appear smart. They took a CGI villain and made him seem like a real person. They took superhumans, gods, titans, and kings, and made a compelling story about all of them doing things that make them greater than the individual people they are. Everything they did had an obvious warning sign that they were taking a risk. And yet, they delivered on the biggest stage.
I will give “Avengers: Endgame” an unbelievable 9.8 out of 10
Directed by: Joe and Anthony Russo Starring: Robert Downey Jr., Chris Evans, Scarlett Johansson, Mark Ruffalo, Chris Hemsworth, Jeremy Renner, Karan Gillan, Don Cheadle, Paul Rudd, Brie Larson, Gwyneth Paltrow, Josh Brolin Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 3 Hours and 1 Minute
Apparently, I have been on a Natalie Portman movie binge this past couple of weeks. So, maybe 2 of her films in a row does not exactly make me the Joe DiMaggio of movie reviews, but she is the lead 3 of the last 5, which is certainly not too shabby. I am just a simple man trying to earn my stripes as everyone’s friendly neighborhood Natalie Portman expert. Do I sound creepy? Yes? Excellent.
“Léon” is Portman’s film debut at the young age of 11. She plays Matilda, the daughter of abusive parents that get killed in a botched drug deal. Léon (Jean Reno) is her neighbor, who also happens to be the most lethal and efficient hitman in New York. Léon takes Matilda in to protect her from imminent danger, and they form a sort of relationship that is both adorable and unsettling at times. They both use each other for companionship, an aspect of life that they both are desperately missing. But just as it can be cute, Léon also reluctantly teaches Matilda how to do what he does so she can use these skills to take avenge the death of her family. Meanwhile, Stansfield (Gary Oldman) is feverishly trying to hunt down the missing daughter and cover up his tracks, because not only is he the head of the drug dealers, but he is also a prominent figure at the Department of Justice (NO COLLUSION!).
The film’s main focal point is the relationship between Matilda and Léon. As I said before, their dynamic oscillates from sweet and sympathetic, to deranged and unstable quite frequently. Matilda quickly develops feelings for Léon that, as a viewer, you are naturally inclined to believe resemble that as a daughter loving the father she never had. But Matilda, coming from a home where she was abused, is unable to process her emotions properly and acts on it as if it were a sexual attraction. First, I am going to make a joke: Her mindset reminds me of a line from Roger from American Dad where he tells a contractor who was remodeling their kitchen “You are ugly, smelly, not fun, and just my type”. Now for the more serious analysis. It is an interesting and risky proposition to have your child female lead play a sexualized character. Léon, thankfully, never plays on her advances, and we assume it is because he knows better and looks at her like his daughter. However, the explanation he gives Matilda is that the last woman he loved was killed, which seems to be a way of not breaking Matilda’s heart by going down the classic “it’s not you, it’s me” route. I can read in between the lines but I am slightly fearful that other people could interpret that as him saying he would in another situation. But this is what is to be expected when juggling a taboo subject like this and I do believe the film so openly chooses the father-daughter relationship, that it would be a serious stretch to believe anything else.
Then, of course, we must discuss the moral implications of teaching a 12-year-old to become a murderer for hire. It’s bad. Next! What? You demand more? Oh, I’ll feed you, Seymour. In the real world, if you teach a child how to make money killing people, you deserve to be thrown into a cell. But if there is a camera nearby, and the child happens to be an actress the talent-level of Natalie Portman, then I think we could make an exception because it makes for very entertaining cinema. There is a beautifully composed scene where Léon teaches Matilda how to shoot a sniper rifle by aiming at random strangers jogging in the park. The audience is very fearful that she is just going to start picking off innocent civilians as a training exercise, but when it is revealed that she is firing paintballs, it actually feels heartwarming. Léon does not know much. He cannot read. He lives alone. He does not even watch over his own money and is likely being scammed by his friend. The only thing he knows is his job and he uses his knowledge to form the most meaningful connection he has ever had. Considering his best friend before Matilda is a house plant, it makes this unorthodox connection very impactful.
Reno plays Léon with an understated grace that makes him endearing despite his violent profession. He comes off as loveable and very sympathetic. He seems innocent yet intelligent at the same time. He is lonely and has nothing except his job and his aforementioned houseplant friend. It is clear that he did not choose his life because it offered him comfort at the expense of others, rather he was trapped in this line of work because it is his only marketable skill. He is a complex character that is easy for audiences to grow attached to.
Portman is different than Reno. Her character is charismatic and loud. She tries to hide her naivety, the same way she tries to hide the fact that she watches ‘Transformers’ cartoons. In both instances, she thinks she is doing a better job than she is. But she is tasked with carrying much of the film’s dialogue, all while dealing with very mature themes. This is an impressive feat for any actress, let alone one that was not even a teenager. Her best scenes are the ones she is emotionally connecting with Léon. The two of them have great chemistry within their pseudo-Oedipus-like odd couple team. It is uncomfortable to see such a young girl be sexualized the way she is, but I believe that to be the point. Portman burdens this task and does an exemplary job.
I do not know if I am part of the popular opinion when I say I did not love Gary Oldman’s portrayal of Stansfield. It is not that he is bad, because he certainly isn’t. He is very threatening and charismatic, which is really what everyone wants in an antagonist. Perhaps I am nitpicking, but I felt there were times he was so over-the-top, he did not feel real. I was left with the impression that Oldman read the script, thought his character was too normal and put everything he had to spice things up. He is entertaining for sure, and I do always say that is the primary goal of making a film like this, but if he were to dial it back just ever so slightly on two or three occasions, I feel that he would fit better within the reality the film created. It is honestly a small criticism and I can understand people not sharing this opinion with me.
I did like this movie. I recommend watching the extended cut, as I did just so you can see the film with the same vision the director had before they were forced to cut back for theatrical releases. I believe the balance between action and intimate storytelling makes this film appeal to most audiences.
I give “Léon: The Professional” a lethal 8.6 out of 10 Directed by: Luc Besson Starring: Jean Reno, Natalie Portman, Gary Oldman, Danny Aiello, Peter Appel Rated: R Runtime: 1 Hour and 50 Minutes
If I could describe “Annihilation” in six words it would be “The most beautiful nightmare ever created”. When I call it a nightmare, I do not refer to it in a negative sense, rather that of a mild psychedelic trance. The omnipresent sensation that something is off and the paranoia that comes with that are just small aspects of a truly thoughtful and suspenseful ride provided to the viewer by the filmmakers. Frankly, I struggle to find the appropriate words to totally encapsulate the feeling the film radiates so I have to settle with my original phrase and hope you simply understand.
“Annihilation” follows the story of Lena, a former soldier in the army and a current biologist. Her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), goes missing on a covert ops mission, and after a year, he returns mysteriously, with his memory incomplete and his health failing. Upon his return, the government quarantines Kane, explaining that they lost contact with his unit several months ago and he is the only one to return. Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), the leader of an expedition recruits Lena to explore the phenomenon that Kane was exploring on his mission, called the Shimmer. They are joined by, the paramedic, Anya (Gina Rodriguez), the physicist, Cass (Tuva Novotny), and the anthropologist, Josie (Tessa Thompson). The group then enters this anomaly that can only be described as a reality mysteriously adjacent to our own. It is part of our world but things are just slightly off enough to make everyone feel out of place. It is both dangerous and alluring.
The Shimmer is the focal point of the film. What essentially looks a bubble of glittering scum that resembles that of oil in water or a thin sheet of dish soap, the Shimmer is a sort of wonderland where the rules of nature skew off into a logical but unknown direction. The filmmakers make great use of optical lens flares in order to create a more dreamlike sensation upon viewing. The landscapes are colorful and the environment seems like one with a rich bounty of untapped scientific discoveries, that if not for the ominous and ever-present danger, any person with even the slightest flicker of a free spirit within them would love to dive headfirst into and explore. Considering the suspenseful tone, the visual beauty of the setting creates a positive visceral reaction that makes the film appeal beyond the thrill of the script.
The lead role is essential to this story. Her competence as a scientist and soldier are necessary to make her actions believable, but that is only one aspect of her character. Natalie Portman does such an exceptional job portraying such ability all while simultaneously juggling the task of burying complex emotions. Perhaps one of the most remarkable aspects of her performance is not overselling any one emotion too much. At times, she may seem like she is being robotic, but in reality, she is playing someone who has so many feelings right beneath the surface. I often think Natalie is too smart for a lot of the roles she is cast in. It is not her fault she is genuinely as brilliant as she is, but there are occasions where you just feel like the material she works with is beneath her. But not in “Annihilation”. This film challenges her and you can tell she appreciates the challenge provided.
There are two other performances that are especially noteworthy. The first of which is Oscar Isaac’s portrayal of Kane. His role is relatively small, but he provides a mysterious introduction and point of reference for the effects of the Shimmer, as well as a necessary emotional connection for Lena to the consequences. And what little he does on screen is the kind of enticing that keeps your eyes focused, like a person whispering only to make you listen closer.
The second noteworthy supporting performance is attributed to Gina Rodriguez. Her role as the paranoid paramedic is what I consider to be the most realistic of any of those we see in the film. She displays the most apparent outward effects of the Shimmer, not physically but mentally. She wears her stress and distrust on her sleeves and in turn, becomes one of the two very specific dangers she herself warned about prior to entering the Shimmer.
The final scene, which takes place at the lighthouse in the center of the Shimmer is one of the most aesthetically pleasing scenes I have witnessed in any film. The dialogue is minimal and everything is communicated with a powerful score that hits like an emphatic punch from a heavyweight champion. The musical compositions used throughout the film are very understated until this moment. The sharp contrast makes this moment stand out all the more. The visuals are the result of some of the finest CGI and a minimalist approach to create the most haunting of climaxes. I believe it is an understatement to describe this moment as terrifyingly beautiful.
An aspect of this film that I believe could be underappreciated is the fact that there is no antagonist. Films that have such potential, such as this, can choke and give into easy tropes by providing the hero with a face of opposition. It is an easy method that creates simplicity but often dilutes the message the film was trying to build up because having an “us versus them” narrative is easier to create. “Annihilation” choosing to omit this adds to the power of the Shimmer. The dangers might not have a face, as audiences are used to, but the element of mystery is enhanced as a result.
This movie has elements of science fiction and adventure, genres have hackneyed tropes that can lay traps that force films to fall into mediocrity. Luckily, “Annihilation” takes a very intimate approach to the danger and to the characters. World-threatening stakes do not need computer-generated leviathans shooting lasers from the sky to translate danger. It does a beautiful job communicating consequences and danger by using a minimalist approach. It would be refreshing for more films to follow in its footsteps.
I would give “Annihilation” an ethereal 9.0 out of 10
Directed by: Alex Garland Starring: Natalie Portman, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Gina Rodriguez, Tessa Thompson, Oscar Isaac, Benedict Wong, Tuva Novotny Rated: R Runtime: 1 hour 55 Minutes
“Hellboy”? More like “HellbOy Vey”! *Insert 90s Sit-Com Laugh Track* I should probably end the review right there because nothing I say can top that. Similarly, nothing I saw in the movie could either.
I’ll be upfront, this movie is not for the casual movie-goer. Its plot is burgeoning with complex fairytale jargon at every moment, and the overall simplicity of the execution of events do nothing to warrant the excessive depth the film tries to hold up. If I explained what happens with the terminology the film uses, I have no doubts in my mind over 90% of readers would not understand what I was saying.
Simply put, Hellboy (David Harbour) is a devil, but he acts like a regular person. He cleans up the messes of other monsters but no one trusts him. There is a demon queen (Milla Jovovich) that is reawakened from the time of King Arthur and its Hellboy’s responsibility to stop her. Trust me, there is a lot more ’fluff’ I took out for your sakes.
The obvious big issue with this film is that it is just too weird. I am not one to underestimate audiences, and I often wished more filmmakers would push the envelope and try to give us something we weren’t expecting. That being said, this just hits too far onto the periphery to truly be appealing. I consider myself fairly nerdy and I was rolling my eyes too often at the myriad of the terminology used that would likely warrant a wedgy if used within 50 feet of a high school. So desperately does this film want to be edgy and cool but so often does it overplay its hand.
This is only exacerbated by the objectively bad special effects. You do not even need to look all that closely to see David Harbour standing in front of a green screen and wildly swinging the prosthetics of his costume at computer-generated abominations that litter the screen. And, so many times the film is trying to look creepy, but ends up looking silly or gross because the effects are of such low quality.
And possibly the most frustrating feature of the film is just how the events transpire. Here is a quick overview: Something violent happens, then David Harbour says something snarky. After, someone British will explain to everyone why that violent moment just happened. And then repeat that process until the credits roll. That is pretty much it. Nothing in the film is ever shown to be important. Instead, we are told after the fact why it was important by the nearest British person. And there is just an unhealthy amount of reactive exposition. It is like we were given a movie of someone reading the story to us. No, not the story itself; a movie about someone reading the story.
If you have a goal to scrape the barrel for a positive to take away, I have unfortunate news. In terms of redeeming qualities, there really is none to be found. The closest this film comes to being good is David Harbour, who over the past few years, has grown into America’s grizzled father-figure who has a heart of gold underneath a rough exterior. And he is okay in the film. It certainly is not his fault the film is as bad as it is. If it wasn’t for his sarcastic deadpan one-liners, I would say this film objectively has nothing going for it. Certainly, this film would be worse off, both critically and financially, if it did not have a name as big as his attached to it.
I wanted to like this film but sadly, that is not what happened. It tried to be silly, creepy, deep, and violent, but I would say that it does not succeed fully at any one of those. In the end, the film forgot the most important thing of all: to be entertaining. I would much rather have spent 2 hours watching a film about Lobster Johnson, the Nazi-wizard-murdering Superhero that appeared for about 20 seconds thirty minutes into the film.
I give “Hellboy” a generous 3.0 out of 10
Directed by: Neil Marshall Starring: David Harbour, Milla Jovovich, Ian McShane, Sasha Lane, Daniel Dae Kim Rated: R Runtime: 2 Hours
This past year and a half have not been an easy one for Star Wars fans. There is a volatile fault line that exists underneath our familiar bed of overopinionated fanatics. “The Last Jedi” has been so divisive amongst us that we can not even agree to feel excited about the upcoming conclusion to Disney’s Sequel Trilogy. To those who are excited, and have thoroughly enjoyed the films that Disney have produced, I am happy for you. I have spent too much of the past year or so being angry at Star Wars and I simply can’t go on doing that any longer. I envy you. To those who have moved on, I am happy for you. Living this disillusioned life is unsustainable. If leaving Star Wars is what you need to do, I wish you Godspeed. But I think we all know that a constant struggle between the love of Star Wars and the disdain for a Star Wars film is no way to live.
But what of the rest of us? Those of us who love Star Wars but are not ready to move on. I will tell you, there is no amount of whiskey in the world that can make me accept Leia Force-pulling herself through space after being incinerated by a missile. A man is only capable of so much.
How do we move on? I have spent many a night withdrawing into my old Star Wars novels. Those that tell tales of heroes Disney no longer acknowledges. In doing so, I have reconnected with my Star Wars. My kind is not welcomed anymore. We are labeled and cast out. In a way, I feel like a Jedi during the reign of the Empire. A recluse, hiding behind modern contraband. The world feels so desolate when you don’t feel welcomed by the community you called home. Being discarded onto the fringes, we watch from afar.
How does one reconnect with a lost love that has changed? Can we change too? Have we changed? Has the time apart turned us into bitter people with bile in our hearts? A wise woman named Kreia, whom Disney no longer recognizes, once said “It is such a quiet thing, to fall. But far more terrible is to admit it”.
Star Wars Celebration was hosted in Chicago this past weekend. I did not go. I have been to the past two Celebrations when they were in Orlando and they were the best moments of my life. I camped out to see “The Last Jedi” panel where we received the first teaser trailer for the film. I hyperventilated, cried, and needed my friend, Marissa, to hold my hand to make sure I would not run around screaming. I met Mark Hamill and rubbed beards with him then caught his cold. I was in the same room as George Lucas on two separate occasions. But all of that was a long time ago…
Times are different. This weekend, we were given both the title and trailer for the final film in the main Star Wars Saga: “The Rise of Skywalker”. I watched the trailer drop, not from a seat in the convention center, but from my laptop in my bedroom. The trailer was exciting. It brought me back to a happier time when I wasn’t harboring ill feelings towards Star Wars. I knew to not to put all of my stock into a trailer but I wanted to love it. It was a call to come home and a stark reminder just how much I’ve changed in just 2 years.
I want to love Star Wars again. I should be more excited for the conclusion of the Star Wars Saga than I am for “Avengers: Endgame”. I do not have to like “The Last Jedi”, so I won’t. But I love Star Wars and I will not lose that again. But can sins really be forgiven…?
*Fade to Black and Insert Palpatine Laughing Here*
As the legendary Matthew McConaughey once said in such poetic fashion: “Alright, alright, alright”. Ladies and gentlemen, we have hope again.
Before you mindlessly hand over more of your legal tender to Disney, please do us all a favor and rip it up first. Hell, you can burn it or even make some fine origami. Or better yet, keep the money. But please stop paying for Disney to remake their own movies. Disney is remaking “Dumbo, “The Lion King” and “Aladdin” this year because all of you people gave them literal billions of dollars to see them remake “The Jungle Book” and “Beauty and the Beast”. Do you guys want to hear something incredible? I am sure you do, so here it is: THOSE MOVIES ALREADY EXIST. I bet you weren’t aware of that. You must not have been considering you all seem so eager to pay money to see them.
But here we are. It’s 2019 and there are hordes of movie-goers who are actively looking forward to these films as if they won’t have the exact same story that everyone already knows. The only difference is an update in appearance, a change in actors, and maybe the removal of a lot of the casual racism that our childhoods were blessed with. Disney will absolutely not stray away from what we know because that is what they are selling you. YOU ARE BUYING A PRODUCT YOU ALREADY HAVE.
And before you jump on my case and claim that it is your own terrible decision to make and that it is a victimless crime, let me just stop you right there. Your ignorance knows no bounds and it sickens me. We live in a society. Your masochistic ways put everything else in jeopardy. Every dollar you give to Disney to make redundant products is validation for their actions and will encourage them to do it again in the future. Instead of getting potentially new stories for the next generation to grow up on, they will get the George Lucas Special Edition Treatment for your movies. Resources that could be allocated to creating something new will go into remaking the same damn story we already own on VHS, DVD, Blu-Ray, 4k, digital stream, smoke signal, puppet show, and a stick figure hand-drawn sticky note flip book you made in grade school.
Look, I am a reasonable human being 30 percent of the time. I get it, the world is scary. Your taxes are due, you probably don’t have many friends if any at all, and chances are you smell bad. You just want something comfortable to ease your mind. The soothing embrace upon the bosom of Disney movies is a familiar and safe place to shield yourself from the unforgiving outside world. But now it is time for you to be brave. You deserve better than this. Disney is a predator, smelling your insecurities and teasing you with bait that lures you in effortlessly. They have got you trapped in a cage, running on a wheel like a 2nd-grade class pet that goes home with a different student each week. You are only a wallet to Disney, and as long as you keep opening it up to Disney, they have complete control.
Allow me to transport you to the wondrous time that is last Sunday afternoon. The sun, it was shining. The birds, they were chirping. And as for me, I was just finishing up a bagel and going to see “SHAZAM!” with two of my friends. Our cups overrunneth with the rich bounty of hopeful optimism a day like that could provide impressionable young lads, such as ourselves. And it was good.
But in a sudden reversal of fortune, one of my friends recklessly blurts out a creeping anxiety of his that would put a truly horrendous damper on my otherwise campy and positive disposition for at least a few minutes. His words, etched into my cerebellum, echo through the corridors of my naïve mind. Perhaps I will never truly work through the crisis that my fellow movie-going associate imposed upon me with his careless spewing of casual conversation. “What did he say?”, you may be asking yourselves right now. Or, far more likely, you reached down deep into the abyss and pulled out your first-grade reading comprehension skills that you may not have used in some time and used context clues from the title to get your answer. If you chose the latter, mazel tov. You should be a detective.
My friend does, indeed, turn to me and my other friend and say “After this, all we have is ‘Endgame’, and then what?”. It was at that moment that I truly felt mortal. I had invested so much time, energy, brainpower, and dare I say, love on the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sure, ‘Endgame’ is not the actual end of the franchise, but things will change forever. And we knew that. The stories, the cast, they were more than just elements of film. They were fundamental aspects of our lives. These characters, would accomplish super-human feats to be heroes. Superheroes we’d call them. Those were such good times. And only just now does it occur to me that I would have to rationalize my existence after the de-facto conclusion to the decade-long epic that quelled such an immense void in my life.
What do I do? Where do I go? Who am I? I had no answer. No guidance. No purpose.
And then, it came to me… And I suppose to everyone else in the theater too, because it was projected on the screen. The “Detective Pikachu” trailer graced our eyes and ears with exactly the soothing song of the sirens we desperately needed at that moment. Ryan Reynold’s voice. Realistic Pokémon. Mentions of a caffeine addiction. It was like staring into the face of God and becoming one with eternity.
There are no words to describe the beauty of the moment. I had found my reason to continue. I had purpose again. There is no longer a need to fear the unknown as we have a guiding light to save us from our impending reckoning. We have found our savior. Perhaps not the one we deserve, but the one we need right now.
DC Comics and Warner Bros. at one time sat alone atop the throne of the superhero film genre. But that was many a moon ago. Since Christopher Nolan’s “Dark Knight Trilogy” ended in 2012, DC has had a noticeable lack of direction, especially in comparison to the wallet-consuming unquenchable black hole that is the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After releasing hot garbage like “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” (which is objectively a stupid title), “Suicide Squad” and “Justice League”, DC looked to be stalling in a cesspool of sub-mediocrity. But despite Zack Snyder’s best efforts, it wouldn’t be all doom-and-gloom forever. DC started to get their act together with a solid B+ effort in “Wonder Woman” and the passable “Aquaman”. And now we have “SHAZAM!”. While it is not enough to overthrow Marvel, it is a sign of positive change for DC.
“SHAZAM!” is a fun movie, which, for the moment, is still a relatively unexpected feat coming from DC. The film focuses on a 14-year-old Billy Batson (Asher Angel), a foster child abandoned by his teenage mother when he was a young child. Billy is in search of his birth mother and frequently runs away from his foster homes. He is very much out for himself, but one day a Wizard named SHAZAM (Djimon Hounsou) bestows his magic to Billy out of desperation in order to defeat the manifestations of the Seven Deadly Sins. Now Billy can transform into an adult male (Zachary Levi) who can shoot lighting from his bodily appendages. It sounds really weird but the film is very true to the source material.
As Billy learns to use his powers, he and his foster brother Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer) get into a bunch of different shenanigans that range from helpful, such as charging everyone’s iPhones in the mall, to negligent, such as accidentally jumping through a window while trying to fly, to actually criminal, when they short-circuit an ATM and basically rob a bank. They aren’t exactly altruists. The comic books that the film is based on are the ultimate childhood fantasy. Kids who are forgotten by society are given gifts that make them have societal value. How would you act like a child if you were suddenly given superpowers that could equal Superman? You might want to do good, but chances are you would spend a lot of time showing off and having fun. It is the most realistic response to the most unrealistic circumstances.
My most immediate and most pressing reaction to “SHAZAM!” was just how great the dialogue was for the entirety of the film. The characters seem to know just how absurd and ridiculous their situations seem to be and humor that comes from this is a driving force for the entire movie. When compared to the goofy, underwater political nonsense that was saturated throughout “Aquaman”, it was refreshing to see DC bring the characters closer to reality again.
There is an issue with the film that I was very disappointed to see arise: the villain. Perhaps the most worn-out trope of the superhero genre is the villain being a mirror image of the hero. They are normally a surface-level antithesis of the title hero and are defeated in a one-off battle. Well, guess what we have here?
Dr. Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) is the villain for Billy to defeat and he is serviceable. Strong is one of those actors you recognize by face but not name. He is obviously the bad guy. He knows it. Billy knows it. Billy’s little foster sister knows it. The audience knows it. He dresses in an outfit that only a supervillain would wear. He is bald and everyone else has a thick head of hair. He is clearly a British actor trying to speak with an American accent. His sole motivation for being bad is that he was the second favorite child growing up and he wants to be evil because of it. I am also pretty sure he is mildly pissed off about being named Thad. I had thought we as a society had moved past generic motivations for antagonists in film, but sadly, we have not. It is not like Mark Strong gave a bad performance, it is just that the role is so cliché that you cannot help but feel let down by yet another villain that wants power and just likes being evil.
Thankfully, the film is not reliant on its central conflict to get its message of family and love across. If I am, to be honest with you, sappy morals about finding one’s place in the world are usually so played out that it is hard to feel like an individual story has a different or necessary viewpoint to share with the audience. “SHAZAM!” defies my cynical expectations and actually does create a real tale about a different type of family. Perhaps the most impactful scene in the entire film is when teenage Billy meets his birth mother. It is at this moment that Billy learns what it means to belong and what it means to truly appreciate those who care about you. It is a rare dramatic moment in an otherwise lighthearted action comedy, and it is my hope that anyone who views this film truly appreciates humanity at that moment.
When you make a movie that has as wild of a premise as “SHAZAM!”, it is important to have the characters as relatable as possible. The concepts are looney and viewers who do not partake in typical nerd fantasy stories all the time could get lost in the wackiness of the ideas of old wizards with lightning powers and CGI demons. The characters are the anchor to the real world that a casual viewer can grab onto and view the story through their eyes. It is because the characters of Billy and Freddy, as well as the characters all of their foster family, are played so well, that this film can become a fun viewing experience. Let us not act like this film was a sure-fire hit from the beginning. While the trailers made it look funny, there was a chance the story could have been too silly for mainstream viewers to appreciate. Ultimately, the filmmakers found a nice balance to create a fun experience for just about anyone who watches it.
As for what this means for DC Comics, we should be encouraged. While it is not a perfect film, “SHAZAM!” is a sign that they are reclaiming their form when it comes to making good movies. If there is a lesson to be learned, it is that DC works better when it is not trying to be the Pepsi to Marvel’s Coke. Marvel has already created perhaps the finest extended cinematic universe we will ever see and DC will likely never be able to do what they have done. Why keep on insisting on being the lesser copycat when you could just be different? “SHAZAM!” does not worry about fitting into a greater universe, and aside from a frustrating post-credit sequel setup, it only focuses on the movie that is on the screen at the moment. Enough trying to make every character fit into Zack Snyder’s edgy dull red vision, and just tell us good stories. I believe they have finally come around to this idea.
I give “SHAZAM!” a respectable 7.8 out of 10.
Directed by: David F. Sandberg Starring: Zachary Levi, Mark Strong, Asher Angel, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Faithe Herman, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand Rated: PG-13 Runtime: 2 Hours and 12 Minutes
I have very few marketable skills in this world. My existence is merely justified because of gratuitous sarcasm, and the fact that it isn’t all that cost effective to send me into space to live out my days so as not to disturb the peace of what remains of polite society. And so, while my presence is tolerated, my opinions remain unsolicited. But, if there is one topic that I truly fancy myself an expert on, it would be Star Wars.
Ahh, yes, Star Wars: The most elaborate toy commercial ever conceived by a man with a fabulous collection of flannel shirts and a turkey neck with its own gravitational pull. It really is so much more that that now, but that was the twinkle in the eye of billionaire sellout, George Lucas, praise be unto he, sometime in the early 70s.
If I haven’t made it clear yet, I would like to take this moment to reiterate that I am what the ancient Sumerians would call a “nerd”. I know this may be shocking and perhaps you need to take a few days to process this new information. But, if you took that breaking news on the chin like a champ, let me take you to the magical world of whimsy that is a Top 10 List; spewing from my brain like an overflowing sceptic tank.
Star Wars is a franchise that just happens to have 10 live-action films, which conveniently, is the same exact number I use to rank things. Oh, there is just so much magic in the world. I’m not counting the animated film “Star Wars: The Clone Wars” from 2008 or the abomination that is the “Star Wars Holiday Special” because those just complicate things. No one likes the number 12 anyway. But that means, as of now, every film gets a ranking! Hurray for participation medals! Take that, Baby Boomers!
I guess there could be spoilers ahead but who hasn’t seen these movies already? But just in case:
10. Episode VIII: The Last Jedi
I already wrote a 15-page dissertation on why this movie is objectively bad (you should check that out, by the way. I worked really hard on it), so I will not waste anyone’s time with all that. Just know that this film goes out of its way to drain everything of meaning and value. But for the moment, let’s just celebrate that this film is in the Top 10! All things are possible.
The plot is essentially a slow-speed chase, with a pointless side-mission for Rose and Finn to do something that has zero consequences, good or bad, and a three-way skype call with Luke, Kylo, and Rey. Oh yeah, Poe is there too and he is 100% irrational. But don’t you worry your pretty little faces because Vice Admiral Holdo is there to be irrational AND condescending too. Seriously, why does she refuse to tell anybody her escape plan until 2/3 of the fleet have already died? She was so bad that Poe, who has been publicly reprimanded for being impulsive and short-sighted, still managed to convince many of the commanding officers to stage a mutiny against her because EVERYONE WAS DYING IN FRONT OF THEM AND SHE WOULDN’T TELL ANYONE WHAT THE PLAN WAS.
I could rant about this for longer than anyone is willing to listen, as I have already proven, but just know that this film really doesn’t make sense. It is lazy and relies on shallow ideas of complexity to tell a story that burns everything to the ground just to replace it with a stick-figure version of itself. I was so disappointed with this film, I was depressed for two days following my first viewing. I did enjoy it a little more on subsequent viewings, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I simply knew where I was going to be let down and either braced myself or tuned them out.
To be fair, the film had some positives. I really enjoyed the dynamic between Kylo and Rey. Their Force visions of each other were a genuinely nice addition to the lure of what the Force could do in the universe and it offered great character development for the two leads. If only they didn’t make Kylo do a 180o once Rey rejected his offer. While I didn’t love the reasoning for Luke’s cynicism, I did enjoy his less optimistic take. A man who has seen the best and worst the universe has to offer is bound to change his perspective slightly over the course of 30 years. I have no issue with him being a recluse turned off by the ideas of the Jedi, I just wish they gave him a better reason that he felt Kylo having a bad dream and felt that attempted murder in cold blood was the natural solution.
The Leia scene is unforgivable though.
9. Episode II: Attack of the Clones
The biggest winner to come out of Disney’s multi-billion-dollar purchase of Star Wars from George Lucas is arguably “Attack of the Clones”. This film usually hides behind “The Phantom Menace” as a human shield for criticism, but if you really take the time to study the two films, that scholars, such as myself have done, you’ll see that Episode II is actually the low-point of the Prequel Trilogy. Yet Disney tossed it yet another bone when they made “The Last Jedi”, dethroning “Attack of the Clones” as the worst film in the series. Kudos all around.
Why does this film sit near the bottom of the list? First and foremost, this film suffers from a major pacing issue. You do not meet Count Dooku, the primary antagonist, until over an hour and 10 minutes into the film. In fact, he is only mentioned once in a boring political conference within the first 10 minutes and then is forgotten about. In the meantime, we see Anakin and Padme have a really awkward flirting montage, which brings me to my second big issue: acting.
I really don’t think Hayden Christensen is that bad of an actor, but sweet Jesus is he wooden in this film. He has absolutely no charisma or powerful inflection in his voice. Every word he says sounds like his own trachea isn’t sure of itself, which makes him seem like just an angsty teenager when he is trying to express genuine frustration. Nothing about his performance makes you believe that Anakin is special, and frankly, there is less than zero chemistry between him and Natalie Portman. But I blame George Lucas, who really seems to think human beings actually say things like “I am haunted by the kiss that you should have never given me”. Why don’t you ease up there, Shakespeare? Not all of us are reading at a 3rd grade level just yet. If I heard anybody say that in real life, I would immediately assume they were a cop.
And speaking of cops, why is everyone just ok with Anakin murdering an entire village? “To be angry is to be human” Padme tells him, as this prominent pacifist Senator justifies the admitted extermination of children as a reasonable reaction. I too would think that it is normal for your stalker of the past decade to kill misunderstood minorities in a blind fury. I think I would marry him too! Yoda just chalks it up to Anakin being in terrible pain. Do you know who can’t feel pain or anger anymore? All the Tuskin Raiders he slaughtered in their sleep! Wow, this Anakin fellow seems kind of like an unhinged psychopath. Good thing there are clearly visible signs for everyone to see so they can give him the help he needs before things get really out of hand. Oh, wait…
But, like “The Last Jedi”, Episode II has redeeming qualities. For starters, my nostalgia filter actually helps me look past it faults. That is not an objective quality but it is a fact and I thought I should mention it to be fair. More importantly, Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan is perfect. Yeah, he is very patronizing and a bad mentor in the film, but he is so charismatic and let’s face it, Anakin is not exactly the easiest person to deal with. His lack of patience is very understandable. Furthermore, this film does an outstanding job of expanding the universe with diverse worlds. A great deal is added to the lure of Star Wars with the inclusion of planets like Kamino and Geonosis, and their visual representations on screen are an experience we should not take for granted.
The Battle of Geonosis is also beautifully rendered. In a film that is often accused of being oversaturated with CGI, it is scenes like this one that show you why George Lucas chose to make his films the way he did. The bright blue and red laser blasts within the dust storms of crashing starships is one of the most iconic images of the Prequel Trilogy, and it is truly the most epic part of actual war show since the Battle of Hoth. Having hundreds of Jedi using lightsabers for the first time is just icing on the cake. If you really simplify your thinking and just watch this film as a slideshow of cool visuals, you’ll enjoy this film.
8. Solo: A Star Wars Story
I have relatively very little to say about “Solo: A Star Wars Story”. It is the epitome of nothingness. It doesn’t add anything to Star Wars and it really doesn’t take away anything from Star Wars. It exists but if it didn’t would you miss it? Would anything be significantly different in the Star Wars universe? Nope.
We basically knew everything we needed to know about this film before we saw it from the brief conversation Ben and Luke had with Han in the Mos Eisley Cantina in the original Star Wars. We knew Han was cocky. We knew he loved Chewy. We knew he loved the Falcon. We knew he made the Kessel Run. We knew from “The Empire Strikes Back” that he won the ship from Lando and they may not have always been on good terms.
There were no questions that we needed answered, and in turn, the film answered no questions. It was simply a visual representation of what we already knew but had to use our imagination to see before. But now they cut out the fun stuff for us and we don’t even need to waste the effort trying to imagine it. All we got to see was what Woody Harrelson would look like if he had hair, a forced Darth Maul cameo, and for some reason, the third Disney Star Wars movie with a tentacle monster in it. I am actually pretty concerned with that last trend.
I have no real complaints about the film. You could watch it several times and you won’t find anything egregiously wrong with it like you do with other films in the series. It just doesn’t do much to justify its existence (something I find incredibly relatable). It is very ehhhh. Maybe you could enjoy it more if you watch it before you ever see the original Star Wars, but I would imagine that section of the fanbase is a bit thin.
7. Episode VII: The Force Awakens
This was Disney’s first Star Wars movie. It came out 10 years after the conclusion of the Prequel Trilogy and let’s just say fans were moderately excited. When I first saw this movie, I loved it. It was utterly flawless and everything I could have ever wanted in a film. But Father Time is undefeated, I guess, and as the sands of time began to flow and the excitement began to dwindle, I was able to see “The Force Awakens” for what it was.
If I could describe this movie with one word it would be “safe”. It takes very few risks with its story, following a suspiciously similar plot to the original Star Wars, even to the point where minor details that could have been changed with little consequence to the story, such as the climate of the planet the hero was from, were the same. Seriously, if it had to be a desert, why couldn’t Rey be from Tatooine? Or if it had to be a different planet, why does it need to be the knockoff Wal Mart brand Tatooine? The reuse of Stormtroopers, Tie Fighters, X-Wings, an Antagonist who wears all black and uses a voice modulator, and a planet-sized super weapon just made it feel like it was a high-quality fan film with enough changes to make it legally distinct from the original to avoid a lawsuit. But for whatever reason they had, Disney believed that Star Wars was a risk in itself, and that if they were to make a movie, maybe they wouldn’t have an audience unless it was familiar. I believe this to be a slight miscalculation on their part.
But other than it being painfully unoriginal, there really is nothing but good things to say about this film (Although, if you cheat on a test and get an A, maybe you don’t deserve praise). The characters are likeable and offer blank canvases to take Star Wars in many new directions after this introduction. The action set pieces are invigorating with some of the more impressive aerial dogfights we have seen in the franchise. The lightsaber battle at the end felt like a personal struggle, and while I didn’t understand Kylo allowing Rey the time to close her eyes and gather herself to defeat him, I was compelled the entire time. Kylo screaming “Traitor!” at Finn while he bangs his chest wound is my favorite line in the film. And when Rey force pulls the lightsaber and first accepts her role in the story, it gave everyone in the theater chills. There is a lot of positivity to draw from this film, and while it may not break the mold at all, it was simply the seeds for the new trilogy to grow out from.
6. Episode I: The Phantom Menace
For the longest time, “The Phantom Menace” was the low hanging fruit for Star Wars criticism. It was the first Prequel and the first film to try to do its own thing. You could ask a group of Star Wars fans, and the general consensus is that this one belongs near the bottom of the rankings. But, if you ask them all individually, without the pressure of groupthink, I bet you would find that opinions begin to get a little for favorable.
Since I like to get the negatives out of the way first, I should address the Gungan in the room: Jar Jar Binks. No one likes him unironically. He’s objectively annoying and kind of a racist stereotype of Caribbean people. If his role was just slightly reduced to where he wasn’t a main character, however, I feel like he would be tolerated far more than he is. Not everything that happens needs a broken-English one-liner from him. It’s ok if he isn’t onscreen for every scene, George. Everything in moderation. Maybe leave him on the ship when they go to Tatooine? Apparently, you thought it was a good idea to do that to Obi Wan and everyone likes him. Whatever. It’s just a thought. I’m not here.
There is also a considerable amount of downtime designated for talking in council meetings and senate hearings. I actually enjoy these aspects because they make the Universe feel like they consist of functioning bodies that do actually have thoughts behind their decisions. I also studied Political Science in college so I have a soft spot for how bureaucracy operates. Having said that, I can see why people lament this aspect of the films. It drags the film out and takes away from showing us how things are done by telling us via exposition. Again, anything in moderation can be good, but George might have gone a little overboard with it here.
But other than all that, “The Phantom Menace” is really enjoyable. Darth Maul, although very stoic and mostly silent, is a badass antagonist that is legitimately threatening. The lightsaber duel with him at the end is without question one of the finest in the entire series. It is brilliantly choreographed and capped off with an emotionally satisfying conclusion. Not to mention John Williams composed “Duel of the Fates” for this battle, which is a top musical composition for the franchise.
The lead Jedi of Qui-Gon and Obi Wan are very fun characters. Qui-Gon has a moral philosophy that makes him trust the Force more than he trusts the people around him, and Obi Wan is a kid who is by-the-book. They both have sharp wits and their natural charisma makes them the center of every conversation they are in. Their mentor-mentee dynamic brings most of the human drama and relatable feeling to the film.
The biggest addition though was that of Pod Racing, which was a risk because it cut away from the plot to add something new. I personally love the Pod Racing scenes. They are intense, visually stimulating, and something that stands out amongst the rest of the Star Wars lure. Having the fate of the heroes depend on Anakin’s victory was a smart way to introduce the concept in the film without it feeling so random and abrupt. The only issue is that because it takes so long, the sense of urgency with the original mission seems to be lost in the excitement.
5. Episode VI: Return of the Jedi
Guys, we made it to the Original Trilogy! We did it! It is telling that the worst of the originals is still in the top half of the entire franchise. Just maybe that is the reason Disney is so insistent on staying in this era for all their projects. They will run this into the ground if it is the last thing they do.
The conclusion to the Original Trilogy, “Return of the Jedi” for about 30 years served as the finale to the main saga and just the second time the protagonists kill millions of people in a terrorist attack. On a scientific note, no one would be dancing to “Yub Nub” on Endor after they destroyed the Death Star II, because the smoking wreckage of the space station would have crashed down on the moon and incinerated absolutely everything, especially the cuddly teddy bears with sticks. But don’t think about that.
I only have one real fault with this film and one minor issue. The major fault is that the first half of the movie and the second half are essentially two totally different films. Other than the characters themselves, nothing from the characters’ experiences at Jabba’s Palace or on his sail barge are mentioned ever again. They defeat Jabba, and nothing they do there leads into the actions or location of the final half. We are told there is a rebel fleet massing near Sullust, but only after they are already gathering. All the Rebels just know where to meet up and they forgot to tell the audience until they were already there. And from there, the goals of the protagonists are totally different and unrelated to their goals in the first half. I just think the transition from one mission to the other is needlessly clunky and could have been implemented with more finesse.
The minor issue is the Ewoks and how the rebels spend a lot of time bonding with them when we were told they were under time constraints. It’s not that the scenes with the Ewok tribe are bad, they just slow down the pace of this supposedly stressful race against the clock. However, once you get past that scene, the intensity cranks back up and you feel the stress of their mission yet again.
The best part of the film is definitely Luke’s final confrontation with Vader in the Emperor’s throne room. Luke has to overcome his anger and spare his father’s life after a heated duel where Vader threatens to bring his sister to the Dark Side instead of him. The Emperor is sitting there menacingly, mocking Luke and the ideology he clings to, until Luke stands up to him. Then he unleashes blue lightning from his hands and tortures Luke! That is a total game changer. The Emperor talks the talk and proves he can walk the walk too. I am not sure if I agree with the canonical explanation that Vader was redeemed by turning on the Emperor and saving Luke, seeing as though Vader committed genocide a few times, but it is a powerful moment of sacrifice nonetheless when he finally does come to his son’s aide.
4. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This is my favorite cinematic contribution by our vengeful Disney overlords to the Star Wars franchise. It is an exceptionally low bar, I know, but don’t let that sway you into believing this is just the best of a bad bunch. “Rogue One” has a lot of positives to offer. Similar to “Solo”, this movie is based off of something that is just briefly mentioned in the original Star Wars, but is actually a story worth telling. Because we weren’t given that many details about the mission to steal the Death Star plans, “Rogue One” was essentially able to create the story from the ground up, with only a vague understanding of the end result locked in.
Now, the movie is not flawless. It really does drag early on when the crew is first meeting each other, creating somewhat underwhelming motivations for characters that aren’t Jyn Erso. And every event only really loosely leads into one another until the first test of the Death Star on Jedha. You get enough to coherently understand what is happening and why most people are on the side of the conflict that they are on, but it is not very fleshed out.
Where the film really stands out is it’s 3rd act. The whole sequence with the Battle of Scarif and its coinciding espionage mission are some of the strongest moments of Star Wars. There are stakes and consequences associated with the success or failure of the actions of every character. It is brilliantly executed and adds so much to a story that, for the longest time, the franchise refused to acknowledge just how important and pivotal it actually is.
Another tremendous addition is the character of Galen Erso. Galen is the scientist responsible for designing the Death Star, but he is a reluctant participant, shamefully creating a device of immense destruction. His moral struggle to do what is right while also doing what is necessary is a struggle unlike any other we have seen in other Star Wars films. It just so happens that his presence also cleans up a major plot hole from the original Star Wars. Now it makes perfect sense why the largest economic investment in galactic history would have a convenient “One-hit KO” spot that the Empire would not know about but Luke could exploit. And what luck, the story is actually entertaining on top of it all. Isn’t that neat?
For what it’s worth, I love Ben Mendelssohn’s Director Krennic. Mendelssohn was born to play sleazy executives, but Krennic is so much fun to watch as he desperately tries to make himself important when no one really cares about him. He is a smartass and nothing can top his over-the-top delivery for the line “the POWER we are dealing with is immeasurable”. What is not to love about this character?
It would also be sacrilege to ignore the single most badass moment in all of cinema. Darth Vader. Rebel Soldiers. A small corridor. A crimson lightsaber. I had a heart attack when I saw this in theaters and I am beginning to go back into cardiac arrest as I write this. Just inject this scene directly into my veins forever.
3. Episode IV: A New Hope
This is where it all began. Please don’t pay attention to the fact that this ranked 4th on my All-Greatest Films list, yet it is only the 3rd best Star Wars movie. There are different criteria… you know what? I don’t need to justify myself to you. It is my world, my rules (I actually want you all to like me. I need friends). “A New Hope”, or better known as the Original “Star Wars” that I have often referred to in previous entries, is the trailblazer that is the reason we have an industry surrounding big budget blockbusters. Our lives would be even more meaningless without it.
“A New Hope” introduced so many of the iconic heroes and villains that have become mainstays in pop culture. Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Princess Leia, Chewbacca, Ben Kenobi, Darth Vader, and everyone’s favorite, Jek Porkins, all debut in this film. Talk about a powerhouse cast. Luke represents the innocent hero that we can all relate to. Leia is the take-charge leader that could kick all of our asses, but only after she saves them. Han and Chewie are adorably disinterested and sarcastic. Ben has been creepily stalking a child alone in the desert for 2 decades but its ok because he gives him a sword and takes him to a bar the first time they meet. Having an old man as a friend has its benefits, kids. Together, this band of misfits are going to kill millions of people by bombing a taxpayer-funded military base that houses our troops in white. High-Five for terrorism!
This film about all the good that space ISIS does is not all sunshine and rainbows though. There are some major pacing problems in the first half of the film. These issues have caused many of the fans who grew up in the prequel era, such as myself (although I am not one of the fans I am referring to), get bored when we watch R2 and C-3PO walk slowly through the desert for 20 minutes before we even meet Luke. Honestly, the whole film drags until Ben takes Luke to the Cantina to look for a pilot. Once the Millennium Falcon blasts its way out of the Mos Eisley Spaceport, the movie kicks into high gear. But that is really the only issue with the film. The story is a simple one but it may never be presented in a more appealing way, and since people have been ripping off the story for decades, I think we have our proof.
Considering the film came out in May of 1977, the special effects are tremendous. George Lucas might not be the most sophisticated writer in the world, but he is an ambitious storyteller. His willingness to try new methods is what makes him stand out. The effects pushed the boundaries of the time and still hold up relatively well today. They are clearly the ancestor of the CGI we have now but it certainly isn’t unwatchable like many other films of the time. And without this movie, perhaps we wouldn’t have our modern CGI now.
But this is the film that taught us about the Force. About doing what is right and how good beats evil and all that junk. How exciting was it to watch Luke’s trench run and race against the clock? How uplifting was it to see Han swoop in at the last minute to selflessly help Luke? How devastating was it to see Vader kill Ben right in front of Luke? These moments are etched into the halls of cinema legend. We cannot discount just how high this film set the bar for so long. This film is the seed that a behemoth of a franchise grew from. Even if there are stories that are better than this, its is because “A New Hope” walked that the rest could run. They all stand on the soldiers of this giant. And, it’s a fun ride in its own right.
2. Episode III: Revenge of the Sith
If I were to make this pick 10 years ago, I would be labeled a heathen and cast out among the lepers for my blasphemy. It would be unthinkable to put a Prequel film this high, but oh, the times, they are a’ changing. As us Prequel babies grow up and Original Trilogy-era babies begin to grow old and senile, our voices will drown out the hate. The Prequels are enjoyable. There, I said it. Fight me. They have their flaws, but they offer so much more than they detract. “Revenge of the Sith” was a worthy grand finale to the divisive trilogy.
“Revenge of the Sith” is everything you could ever want in a Star Wars film. It is full of action, personal emotions, grand space battles, intimate lightsaber fights, good versus evil, and enough moral ambiguity to actually make you question something. But like every Prequel film that was written by George Lucas, Episode III is weighed down heavily by ridiculous dialogue and wooden acting by Hayden Christensen. Again, I think he is a decent actor and he is probably doing the best he can with the material he was given, but every time he delivers a line, it is hard to believe he was the first choice for the role. He actually does a far better job acting when he is just using facial expressions and body language. He just talks too much.
But other than that one flaw, I challenge you to find anything wrong with this movie. The acting by everyone else is exemplary. Ian McDiarmid gives us the most in-depth look at the Emperor we have ever seen. What was once just a mysterious puppet-master character, became a central player in the events that transpire on screen. This was essentially the equivalent to Thanos coming out from all the post-credit scenes in the MCU to actually be the antagonist of a film. And his performance is delightfully twisted. His over-the-top cackling and crazy face just show how detached from humanity he is and that he is truly the embodiment of pure evil. As a child, the reveal of his identity was mind-blowing, but even now, the subtleties of his character in the previous films are more impactful because he stuck the landing in “Revenge of the Sith”.
The two most emotionally impactful scenes in this film are Order 66 and the lightsaber duel on Mustafar. John Williams once again scores these scenes perfectly, where you can feel the heartbreak of loosing your family with every note. (I often play the song “Battle of the Heroes”, which plays during the Mustafar fight, while I’m in the shower. It makes me feel powerful and I don’t need your judgment). Watching every Jedi be betrayed and slaughtered as they fight a war for the very enemy they were trying to defeat is bone-chilling, but nothing will top Obi Wan and Anakin dueling over the lava planes of Mustafar. Anakin, fully embracing the Dark Side, corrupted by Palpatine into believing the Jedi were plotting to overthrow everything he loves, turns on his former mentor and brother, Obi Wan, in a battle to the death. The choreography is the best it has ever been in the entire franchise, but the emotional weight of the stakes of the battle are what solidify it as the best fight scene in the entire franchise.
I believe “Revenge of the Sith” is often grouped in with the other Prequel films, in regards to similar criticisms, but it is a much stronger story than either of those. Perhaps if Episode I and Episode II were better executed, fans and critics would appreciate the payoff in Episode III more. It is incredible how large the scale of this film is, as far as world building goes, yet it does not feel discrediting to the big picture that the film focuses on the stories of individuals. For too long, this film has gone unappreciated in the fandom. The Prequels will rise again!
1. Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back
At last, we have arrived at our inevitable destination. What can be described as one of the greatest sequels ever put to film, Episode V is the epitome of Star Wars. A battle of good versus evil, light versus dark, and (30-YEAR-OLD SPOILER ALERT) father versus son. Where its predecessor relied on an easy story to appeal to every audience, “The Empire Strikes Back” simplifies the story elements in order to make a more intimate narrative that focuses on character development and world building. It took what came before it, and expanded on it without invalidating anything that came before it (unlike some other films I know).
Normally, I like to get the flaws out of the way first so I can end each entry on as positive of a note as I can muster. But “Empire” really doesn’t have any noticeable flaws really worth anybody’s time. Maybe the absence of a real space battle disappoints you, but the small chase scene through the asteroid field will have to hold you over. Sorry. I guess you’ll just have to live with a one film break in your displays of space terrorism.
“Empire” is widely considered the crowning jewel of the franchise, and for a good reason. It adds so much to the Star Wars lure, and takes itself seriously enough to understand the stakes of the events taking place. Luke is one kid who knows he is untrained, and is likely the only hope for the entire galaxy. He feels the weight of his situation and seeks help. Yoda introduces him and the audience to just how grand the Force is. (Fun Fact: this is the first film where we see the Force used as a form of telepathy. It was just a guiding presence in the original.) But Luke struggles. He struggles harnessing his abilities. He struggles doing what is necessary over doing what is right. He struggles to believe in himself. He is a very human character, and his emotional growth in this film changes him from a whiny protagonist who seemingly can’t do much wrong, to a hero fighting an uphill battle that he is losing. And when he goes off and acts impulsively, instead of overcoming the odds like every cliché trope would say he should, he loses. But this signals that he has so much more room to grow, that perhaps it takes more discipline than he exhibited to best his foe. This film acts as a transitional phase for Luke’s character. He was this prodigy full of potential, but now he sees that things won’t always be so easy, and he learns this lesson the hard way.
But Luke is not the only character who goes on a journey of self-discovery. Leia and Han, upon fleeing for their lives and being trapped in an alien’s mouth, learn to let down their walls. They have feelings for each other, or at the very least sexual tension so thick you can cut it with a butter knife. It takes being stranded, desperate, and betrayed by the smooth criminal of Cloud City, Lando Calrissian, to force them to grow and realize that they both are kind of difficult to be around, and therefore are perfect for each other. Leia even tells Han she loves him, only for him to say “I know” and be frozen in carbonite, potentially never to be seen from again, immediately afterwards. Sounds like someone is afraid of commitment. Am I right? Right?… Guys?… Ok I’ll see myself out.
But before I go, I need to talk about Darth Vader. Not only do we see that he looks like moldy ice cream under his helmet, but we really see his human side in this film too. I mean, human in the same way that Joseph Stalin was human. The hard, cold, metal shell begins to peel away as we get the first glimpses as to who he is underneath. And shockingly (Unless you speak German) he was Luke’s father! But, with surprising subtlety, he actually does express his love for Luke in this film, by convincing the Emperor that he could be turned into an ally instead of being destroyed. It is a really soft touch, but enough that you see a father trying to save his son from death. To me, it is clear that Vader has a very skewed understanding of love, but in his own way he does love Luke. He is the last known connection he has to the man he used to be, before the dark times. Before the Empire. You know he does not want to kill Luke, and that when Luke rejected Vader’s offer to join him, somewhere deep down, Anakin was proud of his son.
Based off of the 1988 DC Comic series of the same name by the legendary Alan Moore and David Lloyd, “V for Vendetta” explores a dystopian London after a series of bioterrorist attacks allowed for the rise of an oppressive neo-fascist authoritarian regime, led by conservative extremist, Chancellor Adam Sutler (John Hurt). Evey Hammond (Natalie Portman) works for Britain’s primary news organization, albeit, in a minor role. She is aware of the government’s fabrication of events and the news’s compliance in distributing the fabricated truth to the public, although she really feels no push to do anything about it. V (Hugo Weaving) is a mysterious terrorist who wears all black, including a black hat and cape, and Guy Fawkes mask. V saves Evey from being raped one night and invites her to witness his musical display, which is really the fiery demolition of a prominent government building. After being seen with V, Evey is reluctantly tied to the actions of the terrorist, and Chief Inspector Finch (Stephen Rea) is tasked with finding her and stopping V before his promised attack on Parliament on November 5th of the following year. “Remember, remember, the 5th of November…”
The leads, played by Portman and Weaving, are stupendous. Portman’s Evey undergoes a brutal character arc of both understanding and physical beatings and she uses a convincing English accent, especially for an American actress. But it is ultimately her burden to bear to show the audience’s perspective, and it is a role in which she succeeds. Weaving plays V, which must’ve been a very difficult task because he wears a rigid metal mask the entire film, yet he portrays such humanity and feeling. He is a charismatic extremist who preaches his ideals with the fluidity of a poem and a sophistication of a scholar. He is hellbent on revenge, but that story is less compelling than his ideological crusade. He models his actions after real life freedom fighter, Guy Fawkes, who tried to assassinate King James I in 1605 by blowing up the House of Lords in the British Parliament. Rea is good in his role, although nothing exceptional to write about him, and John Hurt is also very enjoyable as the English Tyrant. Everyone plays a role well, but the two leads carry the film.
This film explores a great deal of themes that I find pertinent when discussing the world. When we are growing up and growing through the school system, we as students are not given full stories of historical events. Curriculums are just simply not designed to give that much depth to history. Instead, we are given abbreviated “cliff notes” on what transpire, in order to gain a vaster knowledge at the expense of said depth. As a result, when historical civilizations are taught, it is with the omission of just how the rise to power truly came to be. “V for Vendetta” paints the picture for us in a visual way we can understand.
We can often wonder just how people could be complacent with a government that does objectively evil things, but we say that from the comfort of an outside vantage point. What few of us in our society have lived through that can attest that civilians who may not have been evil go along with it because it is considered right. Evey begins the film knowing that the news is being faked but feels as though there may not be a real issue because everyone is going along with it too. She also fears what would happen to her if she dissents. Furthermore, the truth that the public knows is not the actual truth, which brings us to a major focal point of the film: propaganda.
To me, propaganda is fascinating. It is all around us every day and we do not even realize it. It is a side-effect of speech, be it free or controlled. Propaganda, like almost everything else in the universe, is not inherently good or evil, it is how it is used that matters. Propaganda could create positive change, such as promoting vaccinations or encouraging people to quit smoking. Likewise, propaganda can be negative, forcing compliance and weaponizing ideas. But did you notice anything in that contrast? Could someone believe that vaccinations are bad or that smoking could be good? Those people would be wrong, but in theory, they could exist, which would turn that positive propaganda into negative propaganda. The justification of its existence depends on the eye of the beholder.
In the film, the government-controlled news is propaganda. The workers at the news station justify their actions because they believe helping the government preserve order is important for the greater good. There are slogans such as “STRENGTH THROUGH UNITY UNITY THROUGH FAITH” that are meant used to encourage conformity and compliance, but can be perceived by the public as a call for security and religious faith, two things that are generally viewed in a positive light. Every action taken by the government can be justified in some way, by some logic. But that same way of thinking applies to V as well. He is viewed more favorably by the audience but as a terrorist by those in the film. His actions are seen through the lens of government news, but to us he is deemed as a freedom fighter. He is objectively a killer and very dangerous, so what changes our perception of his morality?
Propaganda is the primary tool the government uses in order to justify its actions of oppression. They scapegoat those who do not conform and deem them enemies to rally against. Chancellor Sutler uses this fear as a medium to seize power. Only he could offer a solution to the problem. People saw how chaotic life was before his reign and they lived in fear. Sutler tells one of his chiefs “I WANT EVERYONE TO REMEMBER WHY THEY NEED US” which is a revealing line, confirming that fear empowers his rule. But could his actions be justified? He wants to keep order and security and V is threatening Chaos. Do the goals of Sutler have merit even if the means are morally dubious?
But V is not an innocent man, at least not objectively. Perhaps his ideals of freedom are praiseworthy, but do his ends justify his violent means? That is only for you to decide. V could be a hero or a villain. He brutally tortured Evey for months to teach her not to be afraid. A good end but an awful means. I ask you this: If he existed in our world, would your perception of him change? My guess is that he would be viewed as a dangerous terrorist by the government and the media, just like he was in the film. I do not see it as a likely outcome that the public would support his actions, regardless of whether or not you deemed his goals admirable.
I would like to draw a comparison to a moment in American history that is universally praised: The American Revolution. We all know the story so I will not patronize you by reciting the details. But, could it be that perhaps the American Revolution was instigated by a group of radical extremists who fought an oppressive government through violent means? I know it runs against the grain by putting the Founding Fathers, the deities of our nation, in the bin of extreme terrorists, but I do not see how they were different. I am willing to bet that England might have seen the similarities. But next time an unfortunate act of violence happens, and you see Facebook and Twitter lighting up with posts saying “I don’t know how something like this could happen”, ask yourself if you really can’t understand. It was justifiable for us, perhaps it could be justifiable for someone else. Remember, our hero could be someone else’s villain, and in turn, our villain could be someone else’s hero. Having these thought experiments do not make you a bad person or sympathetic to terrorists, they allow you to lift the censors in your mind and think for yourself. I submit to you that perhaps allowing yourself to understand how someone could justify actions such as these could help prevent the genesis of new events in the same vain in the future.
The film does a great job explaining why all of this is. V says it so many times throughout the movie. Everything: propaganda; the Parliament building; V; they are all just things. By themselves, they are nothing more than a pile of bricks, or words, or a man in a mask. It is ideas that give everything strength. “Ideas are bulletproof”. It is why V couldn’t be stopped with bullets and why The War on Terror hasn’t stopped terrorism. You cannot bomb an idea. An understanding of the idea is the only way to combat the idea. V’s violent acts represented the idea of Freedom. Sutler’s repressive acts represented the idea of Security. Both are extremes but both were justifiable at some point, to some degree. And both only had power because the people gave those ideas power. The people wanted security, and as V’s Address in the beginning of the film said, it was the people’s fault for the rise of Sutler. When the people wore the Guy Fawkes masks and charged on the Parliament building, the masks were given meaning by the people.
The philosophical implications of the film could be dissected for weeks, and unfortunately, I will not be able to cover every base. Ultimately, “V for Vendetta” is about ideas. The actions portrayed in the plot are nothing more than people talking and killing without the ideas behind them. Every action has meaning because of ideas. It is a beautiful lesson in perspective and comprehensive thinking that can sometimes be sorely lacking in movies and in the realm of public discussions. The reason for this film’s impact is because of its ability to make you think and its layered real-world application. It is my hope that after you watch this film, you are not afraid to see the world just a little differently.
I give “V for Vendetta” a vigorously visceral 9.1 out of 10
Directed by: James McTeigue Written by: The Wachowskis Starring: Natalie Portman, Hugo Weaving, Stephen Rae, John Hurt, Stephen Fry, Tim Pigott-Smith, Rupert Graves Rating: R Runtime: 2 hours and 13 minutes