Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Annihilation

The directorial debut of writer Alex Garland, whose most famous novel is The Beach and whose screenplays include 28 Days Later (and its sequel, 28 Weeks Later), SunshineNever Let Me Go, and Dredd, was Ex Machina, three years ago. It was a bold yet subtly eerie look at AI; not quite dystopian, but bordering on it. In his follow-up, Garland has adopted the novel by Jeff VanderMeer called Annihilation. In this story, there again is a "not-good place", called "the Shimmer", a quarantined expanse where creatures mutate, and yet this film is grander and faces a lot more big swings. One of them is that Garland is not going to give a lot of answers, and while that may still work fifty years on with something like 2001: A Space Odyssey, it doesn't work here.

It's not as if Annihilation does not try. Speaking of Kubrick's famous film, it does often look like Annihilation takes inspiration from the avant-garde sci-fi flick (along with AlienJurassic Park, and a touch of Pan's Labyrinth), certainly in terms of visuals. But pretty images do not make up for a lack of story and character development, and they certainly don't, on their own, inspire viewers and excite viewers, or at the very least wake those who are bored out of their mind. Such is the problem with Annihilation.

The movie starts in an ominous way. A character named Lena sits answering questions, not sure of much, especially the whereabouts of her colleagues. She wears white medical clothing, quarantined, being questioned by a character played by Benedict Wong, and she seems totally dazed and confused, unable to recall anything of her nearly four months in the Shimmer. We can deduce that she is the sole survivor. Lena is a cancer professor and former soldier going through grief after the death of her partner, Kane (played by Oscar Isaac), a soldier who has died in a mission she knows little about.

This would certainly make Kane walking into her home even more surprising to her, but that he does. Still, something is certainly off about it. He doesn't feel well, and he is rushed to a hospital after alling into a seizure. Here, Lena meets Dr. Ventress (played by Jennifer Jason Leigh), who tells Lena about the Shimmer, how the scientists have "many theories, few facts" regarding the mysterious entity. Is it religious in nature? Extra-terrestrial? No one knows. Kane was part of team that tried to find out; they failed. He's in good company, as everyone and everything they have sent in to try and discover answers has never returned. Perhaps the environment kills them, or perhaps they go crazy and kill each other. Lena, determined to find an answer to what ails her lover, joins Ventress and other scientists: Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez), Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), and Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson). She pointedly does not tell them about her connection to Kane, fearing it would "complicate" things.     

It's a real, real shame that a film with such great female roles for great female actors has turned out so dull. In Ex Machina, women also had a majority of the roles, but it felt exploitative at times. Not so here. Thompson, though, is a real marvel in the movie. Her performance is so unlike her recent work in films like Creed and Thor: Ragnorok. She doesn't do a whole lot to transform into this character, a shy but clever individual, but the subtle choices she's made make her almost unrecognizable. I was a little more disappointed in the performances of Leigh and Rodriguez, who both overdo things, mostly in different ways. Portman is mostly fine, yet her being cast is another example of whitewashing in Hollywood, as the character in the original book series is described as Asian. (Additionally, Leigh's character is described as half-Native American.)

The Shimmer is like a macabre version of Neverland, a state park with a lush, green forest surrounded by a transparent layer that looks similar to oil mixing with water. Flowers have mutated into gorgeous new species. But almost immediately, the characters start to lose their memories. They've been there for days, and yet they can remember almost nothing. Adding to the Neverland quality is giant crocodiles, but these ones happen to have teeth similar to sharks.

Annihilation certainly requires a lot more patience than Ex Machine does. It's a lot sillier, too. The motivation of Lena's character to go on such a mission is too difficult to believe. Like Sam Neill or Jeff Goldblum before her, it is not plausible for her to accept. This movie is more Prometheus than Alien, and yet it thinks the reverse is true. The characters certainly seem like they're straight out of the former, as they don't feel they need protective masks when walking around the Shimmer. Garland and team try the whole less-is-more approach, and yet it often does not pay off. There are horror moments that are not frightening in the slightest, action scenes that aren't thrilling in the slightest, and the whole thing feels like it would work better as a spooky short story written by someone in middle school. Is Annihilation pretentious? Most likely. Boring? Definitely. Ultimately, there is not a single exciting or interesting moment throughout this film. Annihilation will challenge you to think, but who would be inspired to engage in such inquiry about a movie like this? 



Sunday, March 4, 2018

Stop, It's Oscar Time: The Best Movies of 2017

Hey there, cats and kittens.

After an awful year for Hollywood and the entertainment industry but a pretty darn good one for films, 2017 showed that Hollywood has continued to inch its way in the right direction in terms of more diversity in film, better visual effects, and terrific (albeit sometimes unoriginal) storytelling.

And so, here are the best films of 2017 (and, as usual, some overrated ones), just in time for the upcoming Academy Awards:


10. Get Out
Before I get started, I have to note that Get Out is basically tied with It, the coming-of-age Stranger Things-before-there-was-Stranger Things adaptation of Stephen King's famous novel about a killer clown. Both are horror films that weren't all that scary, both made a ton of money, and both will have long legacies. But I'm so opposed to ties on top-ten lists, that after some back and forth, I decided to put Get Out at number ten and have It as an honorable mention. Why is Get Out here and not It? While I'm impartial to coming-of-age films, I also liked the way Get Out seemed so fresh and original, while It is based on a popular book from the 80s that was made into a popular TV miniseries in the 90s that inspired a recent hit Netflix show and will now have a sequel.

I feel fortunate that I knew as little as possible about Get Out before watching it. You should, too (if you're one of five people who've never seen the movie.) So I won't go into the plot. All I'll add is that Get Out is the movie I'm rooting for for Best Picture (as well as Best Original Screenplay), mainly because it's a horror movie, and I think the last horror movie that won Best Picture was Silence of the Lambs in 1992. There are not many films quite this clever. I enjoyed most of the performances (especially Daniel Kaluuya, Bradley Whitford, and Catherine Keener), and I appreciated how writer-director Jordan Key Peale put a unique spin on the villains. This is a very intelligent and astute movie.

9. Battle of the Sexes
A biographical film about the most famous tennis match of the 20th century, Battle of the Sexes works on three different levels: it works as an exhilarating, though at times cliched, sports film; it works as a loud-and-proud movie about gender equality; and it works as a delicate and mature same-sex love story. I can't think of another movie that does all three so easily.

Like Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris' directorial debut (a little movie called Little Miss Sunshine), this undoubtedly is a crowd-pleaser. If that's not you're kind of movie, you might want to stay away. Beyond that, it's more than challenging to not see the Battle of the Sexes tennis match of 1973 as a parallel to a lot of what happened during the U.S. presidential election of 2016. If you're not interested in re-opening those wounds, you also might want to avoid this movie.

Not to say that there aren't any problems with the movie (like it's use of a "magic gay man"), but it's still one of the year's best. It's certainly one of Emma Stone's best performances, and if you can understand that Steve Carell is meant to be as obnoxious as possible, you'll love his performance as well. They're supported by a big cast that includes Sarah Silverman, Bill Pullman, Andrea Riseborough, Alan Cumming, Natalie Morales, Austin Stowell, and Tom Kenny.

8. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
First, the elephant in the room: I am aware of how problematic this movie is. While I am not sure I would agree that it is a racist movie, it is certainly a movie that is about as tone-deaf about race and racism in the United States as there can be. I can only conclude that writer-director Martin McDonagh, an Irishman, probably didn't think too carefully about how some situations and characters (and unnecessary character arcs) would be received in the US, especially among minority communities.

Some have defended him by calling the criticism "alarmist". I'm not sure if that's a fair word to use. The concerns about the movie are genuine, but there is a lot to like about the movie. Why do I like the movie? I loved Frances McDormand's performance; it may be even better than her iconic role in Fargo. In a year in which Wonder Women wasn't nominated for anything, we should celebrate tough, bad-ass women as much as the Academy will let us. (Yes, I didn't care for Wonder Women, but I recognize that everyone else on the planet did. And if a major blockbuster that made tons of money and was adored by fans are critics alike can't get nominations, I don't know what can.) I like the other actors in the cast as well, mainly Sam Rockwell and Woody Harrelson,

The backlash against Three Billboards is most likely justified. I liked this movie, and I really hope McDormand wins another Oscar; I just wish McDonagh had thought more carefully before making some of the choices he made.

7. The Post
While it's impossible not to watch Battle of the Sexes and think about the events of 2016, it is also impossible to watch The Post and not think of the events of 2017. This movie loudly trumpets the role of the media and cautious against a reactionary executive. Meryl Streep, in her first performance in a Steven Spielberg-directed film, is legendary Washington Post head Katherine Graham. Hanks reunites with Spielberg in his performance as editor Bill Bradlee. Hanks' performance is a bit too, well, Hanksy. (Do we really need him playing every kind of Jimmy Stewart-esque character there is? Apparently yes, because he's been cast as Mr. Rogers). Streep's performance, however, is exceptional, as always. How easy she continues to make this all look. Like other movies on this list, there is a great supporting cast: Sarah Paulson, Bob Odenkirk, Bradley Whitford, Bruce Greenwood, Matthew Rhys, Alison Brie, Jesse Plemons, David Cross, and Michael Stuhlbar.

Of the three most recent Steven Spielberg-directed somber historical motion pictures (the other two being Lincoln and Bridge of Spies), The Post is the best. While there is the uncomfortable controversy regarding the fact that this is The Post and not The Times, meaning the filmmakers probably exaggerated the role of the Washington Post in releasing the Pentagon Papers while not giving the New York Times enough credit, I was willing to overlook it, but it probably didn't help its Oscar chances. (For the record, I can't figure out why they didn't just make it The Times. Perhaps because Graham and Bradlee are such known figures.)

If you are concerned that Speilberg and frequent Trump critics Streep and Hanks are going in for an unabashedly pro-media, anti-fascist film, rest assured that this very much is a bipartisan critique on the U.S. presidents and their administrations that repeatedly lied to the American people about the situation in Vietnam; that list includes both Democrats and Republicans: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon (who is featured throughout the film through the use of those infamous tapes).

6. Coco
Pixar's first musical is a grand celebration of Mexican culture that is so magnificent, it has become the highest grossing film in Mexican history. Anthony Gonzalez plays 12-year-old Miguel, an aspiring musician in a family that has banned music. Miguel runs away, and through an accidental bit of magic, he finds himself in the Land of the Dead during Day of the Dead. Racing against time to avoid being permanently stuck there, Miguel finds his ancestors (who hate music as much as his living relatives), a helpless musician named Ernesto (voiced by Gael Garcia Bernal) longing to be remembered by the living, and one of the most famous singers in history named Ernesto de la Cruz (voiced by Benjamin Bratt).

Coco starts off with lots of spirit, and then sort of drags a bit in the second act. However, that's when the music starts, and man, does Gonzalez have an incredible singing voice. The third act is where most of the film's heart is, and it's one of the most pro-family messages in a while, even if it lays it on a bit thick. The images of the Land of the Dead (particularly that gorgeous bridge) are some of Pixar's most stunning, just as beautiful as the stuff seen in WALL-E, Up, and Inside Out. Aside from its lame title (you can read here the controversy behind why it was changed), this is an awesome film for movie-goers of all ages.

5. Star Wars: The Last Jedi
The most controversial, and yet one of the best, Star Wars films ever, The Last Jedi has proved that this franchise is here to stay for a while. To some, this is bad news. As David Chen of Slash Filmcast pointed out, there were three types of fans who were disappointed by the movie: the alt-right crowd angry at all the diversity in the newer films of this franchise, the hard-core fans who feel writer-director Rian Johnson is overstepping his bounds with his creativity, and film nerds who were picking apart the film's plot holes. (Nobody wants to be in the first group; everyone wants to be in the third.)

Whatever. I loved this film. I loved its meta quality. I loved the final performance of the late, far-above-great Carrie Fisher. I loved the cagey, alienated, disillusioned portrayal of Luke Skywalker by Mark Hamill. I adored a reunion scene that I won't elaborate on because I think it's too soon to spoil. I was so impressed by the acting of Daisey Ridley, who continues to inspire young girls around the world, and Adam Driver, whose portrayal of the malicious Kylo Ren continues to remind us of the limitations of Millenials. I was thrilled from start to finish (save for that lame casino scene), and I applauded the performances of Laura Dern, Oscar Isaac, and others. Johnson took some big swings and mostly hit it out of the park, regardless of what the three types of the agitated had to say.

As I wrote in my review, there will come a time when fans tire of this franchise. Star Wars is not Marvel, another Disney-owned studio, with enormous longevity. But for now, considering how wonderful the three most recent movies have been, why stop now?

4. Kedi
A cat in Hagia Sophia in Istanbul during my 2011 trip. They're everywhere.
Who would've thought that a Turkish documentary about the feral cats of Istanbul would be so entertaining? And yet, it is. It goes without saying that this is a must-see for cat lovers, but even if you hate cats, you'll probably like this movie. As one man in the documentary says, you can't really trust people who don't like cats.

This documentary takes us through the streets of Istanbul, one of the world's great cities. And while we meet lots of different common folks, the main focus is on Istanbul's cats. As someone who's traveled there, I can affirm to you that these creatures are indeed everywhere, and unlike most places, they really don't seem terrified of humans.

This documentary, directed by Ceyda Torun, will tug at your heart and make you impressed by the resourcefulness of these felines. Her camera takes a very active approach to following them around and telling their stories. This movie is the most surprising must-see of last year.

3. The Big Sick
The Big Sick is one of the very best romantic comedies in a long time. Based on the real-life love story of comedian Kumail Nanjiani and writer Emily V. Gordon, Nanjiani plays himself (which is kind of weird), and Gordon is wonderfully played by Zoe Kazan. Among the supporting cast are Holly Hunter and Ray Romano as the parents of Emily; Zenobia Shroff, Adeel Akhtar, and Anupam Kher playing Kumail's family members; and Bo Burnham and Aidy Bryant as his comedian friends. All are fantastic. The first over lunch Kumail has his Emily's parents at the hospital is probably the funniest scene of the year.

There's so much in this movie: comedians, love, family drama, interracial dating, and a health crisis to top it all off. I'm deeply disappointed that this movie didn't get more nominations, like for Best Picture, for example, though I am happy that Nanjiani and Gordon are nominated for Best Original Screenplay. In terms of acting, we've never really seen Nanjiani pull off stuff this dramatic, and Kazan is as charming and perfect as ever. You owe it to yourself to see this movie.

2. The Salesman
The second Best Foreign Language Film by Iranian director Asghar Farhadi (who did not attend last year's Oscar ceremony to protest Donald Trump's travel ban of Iranians entering the US), The Salesman is yet another fantastic marriage of subtle tenseness and acute observations of the unique difficulties ordinary people face. Set among the backdrop of a local production of the play Death of a Salesman, this movie has all the ingredients of a great Farhadi thriller: toxic masculinity, suspicion, paranoia, and false choices. Like he did with A SeparationAbout Elly, and Le Passe, Farhadi has made a tense movie without including any typical Hollywood cliches. I greatly await his next motion picture, which will be his first Spanish film.

1. The Florida Project
The Florida Project is a masterpiece. Like Tangerine before it, Sean Baker finds atypical stories so worth telling. To paraphrase the fine folks at Pop Culture Happy Hour, this movie might seem like it's going to "poverty porn" and overly didactic, but it isn't. I don't know how Baker and team managed to do a movie like that this way, but they did. Part of it may be due to the performances, which are perfect. With all due respect to Sam Rockwell's more ostentatious performance in Three Billboards, The Florida Project features probably Willem Dafoe's best performance yet, as the hotel manager and borderline babysitter for the hotel's kids and their parents. (I'm rooting for him to win the Oscar, though he's the underdog.) There are also so many other brilliant performances by unknown actors who for some reason have not been nominated for anything this awards season (especially Brooklynn Prince and Bria Vinaite as the daughter and mother, respectively, living in this low-rent hotel not far from Disney World). This movie is probably one of the best of the decade, and I cannot wait to see the next projects directed by Baker.

Honorable Mentions: The Disaster Artist, Thor: Ragnorok, The Lego Batman Movie, It, Call Me By Your Name

Overrateds of the Year: Wonder Woman, Spider-Man: Homecoming, God's Own Country, The Happiest Day in the Life of Olli Maki, Columbus, Professor Marston & The Wonder Women, Okja, Marjorie Prime, The Square


Fortunately, the films in my top ten shows a list of diversity: The Florida Project features a diverse cast set in economic situations American films rarely feel comfortable detailing; The Big Sick features an interracial love story, and much of the cast members are Pakistani or Pakistani-American; Kedi and The Salesman are both foreign films from countries with majority Muslim populations (Turkey and Iran, respectively); Coco celebrates Mexican culture and features a Latino cast and is co-directed by a Mexican-American; Star Wars: The Last Jedi is (controversially, for some stupid reason) probably the most diverse Star Wars movie ever; The Post certainly doesn't pass the Bechdel Test, but it does star Meryl Streep as Graham, a towering figure in American journalism; and finally, Battle of the Sexes features basically an all-white cast (except for Morales), but essentially half the cast is female (and of course, it's about one of the US's most celebrated gay athletes). Three Billboards has its controversies, but it is led by a strong woman playing a strong woman. And then of course, there's Get Out, which uniquely visualizes the US's problems with race.

I do hope Hollywood continues this trend.



Actor Who Was In Everything:

Caleb Landry Jones (Get Out; American Made; Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri; The Florida Project)

Runner Up: Domhnall Gleeson (Star Wars: The Last Jedi; Goodbye, Christopher RobinAmerican Mademother!Crash Pad)

Fireman of the Year: Christopher Plummer (All the Money In the World) (and special shout-out to Jack Matthews for giving Plummer that title)

Oscars:

Best Actress:
Who Will Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Who Should Win: Frances McDormand (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)

Best Actor:
Who Will Win: Gary Oldman (Darkest Hour)
Who Should Win: Timothee Chalomet (Call Me By Your Name)

Best Supporting Actress:
Who Will Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)
Who Should Win: Allison Janney (I, Tonya)

Best Supporting Actor:
Who Will (Probably) Win: Sam Rockwell (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri)
Who Should Win: Willem Dafoe (The Florida Project)

Saturday, February 24, 2018

Black Panther

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and drop out
You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip
Skip out for beer during commercials
Because the revolution will not be televised. 
-"The Revolution Will Not Be Televised", by Gil Scott-Heron

"You know, it was like having tea with a black panther."
-M.S. Handler's introduction of "The Autobiography of Malcolm X"

Wakanda is a country that presents itself to the world as a country very much like large parts of Africa: a developing nation struggling with few roads and high illiteracy, made up mainly of farmers with unique clothes. Wakanda and its people, though, have a bit of a secret: their undisclosed technology, with alien-like ships and potent armour, makes them the world's most advanced, and yet they fear the consequences if the world finds out about their equipment and knowledge. This is to say nothing of the fact that their king is Black Panther, a reluctant member of the Avengers.

Originally created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby (and recently appearing in comic books written by Ta-nehisi Cotes, who will team up with Ran Coogler and Michael B. Jordan on a new film), we last saw King T'challa (Chadwick Boseman, who aside from this is most famous for playing notable black American figures like Thurgood Marshall, Jackie Robinson, and James Brown) was in Captain America: Civil War, when his father was assassinated and the young king was pitted against Captain America and his allies. Hype for the character was, I think, rather low, as fans instead braced for the much-anticipated return of Spider-Man and a big fight between Captain American and Iron Man. Fortunately, however, Black Panther, and Boseman's performance, ended up being a highlight of the film. Here, in his own movie, he's given so much more to do, and he's got a lot of help along the way.

Just look at this cast assembled here in Black Panther: Boseman, Michael B. Jordan, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Andy Serkis. You're not likely to find a cast that awesome for some time. But the break-out star of the film is, without a doubt, Letitia Wright. As the younger sister of T'challa, she is also a brilliant scientist and the Q to T'challa's Bond. I'm a big proponent of humor in these kinds of movies (one of the reasons why I liked Thor: Ragnorak so much last year), and she provides some of the movie's funniest moment. Also providing some humor is Winston Duke as M'Baku, one of Wakanda's great warriors. I won't give away the biggest laugh he got, but damn, was it funny. Kaluuya, fresh off his Oscar nomination for last year's Get Out, does a fine job as W'Kabi, a second-in-command to T'Challa. But the performance besides those of Boseman, Nyong'o, and Wright that has stayed with me the longest is that of Michael B. Jordan. Jordan, who also worked with director Ryan Coogler on very different projects--the real-life tragedy depicted in Fruitvale Station and the Rocky spin-off Creed--occasionally doesn't quite get the menacing delivery of the typical villainous lines out quite right, but one certainly gets the sense that he developed his character's look with great attention; every glare and strut has been given the methodical analysis of a master actor, which Jordan became long ago.

Here, Jordan is Erik Killmonger (yes, that's his name), a resident of Oakland who has links to Wakanda. Killmonger lives up to his name; he was a war machine in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere, and he's decorated his body for every life he has taken. He's angry about the injustice towards black people around the world, and feels that Wakanda is not doing enough to stop it. It's a bit ironic that Killmonger is not the Black Panther himself, because his philosophy might make him welcome in the Black Panther Party. (He would certainly agree with party leader Huey P. Newton's argument that "an unarmed people are slaves or are subject to slavery at any given moment.") T'challa, though, takes a more cautious, isolationist approach, one that will likely have consequences for many and will set him up in opposition not simply to Killmonger but to other members of the Wakandan community.

Finally, it's also nice to see Freeman, as CIA agent Everett Ross, and Serkis, as villain Ulysses Klaue, together again, a duo the internet has brilliantly dubbed the "Tolkien white guys" of the movie. (The two were opposite each other in The Hobbit.) This is Serkis' third major blockbuster in a year (after War for the Planet of the Apes and Star Wars: The Last Jedi), and yet this is the movie in which he looks like he's having the most delicious, deserved fun. Nyong'o has also appeared in Star Wars, but she is given a much better part here.

Some moments in Black Panther don't work. The car chase through Busan, South Korea tries really hard and sometimes is successful while other times bland (though ending with a scene-stealing moment from Nyong'o). There are also battle rhinos, and I didn't need that, frankly. There are other banal moments that are beneath a director as talented as Coogler; its second act drags and is overly and overtly predictable. Still, it recovers.

I got to see it in West Africa at a cinema in which the energy the audience was giving off was beyond palpable. Applause took off as the credits rolled. I can't pretend that this is a movie directed towards inspiring people like me, but it's more than obvious that representation has not been Hollywood's strong suit since...ever. Hopefully, with movies like Wonder Woman and Black Panther, that will change. Black Panther shows that it's a good start.

Monday, December 25, 2017

The Santa Clause

Of course, Tim Allen plays a toymaker in a movie in which he is forced to become the new Santa. What other job could he have? Allen plays a toy creator named Scott Clavin, and this is one of the funniest of his performances. He has as much biting sarcasm as you would want from him, at a time when he was a king of comedy. His show Home Improvement was still on the air (and there are a few Home Improvement Easter Eggs spread throughout the movie), Toy Story was released the previous year, and the first sequel three years after that. He was the lead in the Star Trek spoof Galaxy Quest. Unfortunately, as soon as the new century came, he struggled a bit more, and perhaps not many things have demonstrated this better than the two less-than-successful sequels, none of which I have seen and likely never will.

In The Santa Clause, Scott is a divorced man who is going to spend Christmas Eve with his son, Charlie (Eric Lloyd). Scott frequently bickers with his ex-wife, Laura (Wendy Crewson), even if Charlie overhears it. (Like Mrs. Doubtfire the year before it, this movie handles divorced parents and their children mostly well.) Scott is also antagonistic towards his ex-wife's new partner, Neil (Judge Reinhold) and especially his job. "He's not a doctor," he angrily complains, "he's a psychiatrist." It's fair to say that he doesn't communicate with Charlie as well as Neil does, either, and perhaps he's jealous. Scott is not entirely prepared for Charlie's visit, as he burns the turkey so crispy, not even the Griswalds would eat it. Scott does the best he can, taking Charlie out to eat an Denny's ("an American institution"). He checks the other boxes (sort of) that are required -- he reads to Charlie The Night Before Christmas, tucks him in, and heads to bed, not before he has to answer a few more probing questions from his inquisitive son about the archaic language used in the famous story.

From here, things turn upside down for Scott and Charlie. Charlie hears a loud clatter, just as in the story, on their roof and is convinced it's Santa. Scott is more concerned that it's a burglar, and he rushes outside in only his jacket, boots, and underwear to find a man dressed as Santa on his roof. "Hey, you!"is all he can yell out before the mysterious figure slips and falls off his roof. It appears that Scott Calvin has killed Santa Claus. Charlie is not impressed. Cheer up, Charlie; there are actual reindeer on your roof.

If you can believe that Santa exists, falls off a guy's roof, disappears into thin air, and gives his job to some schmuck who caused him to fall, you can surely believe that said schmuck will put on the suit and do his best to dutifully be the substitute Santa just to get his son to stop whining. So he puts on the suit and the reindeer and toy bag basically do most of the work for him. He squeezes down the chimneys and either has to escape security alarms and angry dogs or curious young children wondering why Santa is so thin and grouchy. Still, he does it. "Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!" he shouts, before adding, "When I wake up, I'm getting a CAT scan!"

But the reindeer don't take him home. Where do they take him? To the North Pole, of course, where a cantankerous head elf named Bernard, played by David Krumholtz, explains to him how the rest of his life will be devoted to being Santa Claus, because of the Santa Clause, the part of the contract that basically says if you kill the existing Santa, you yourself take over. Scott protests, but as the year goes on, he has no choice. Charlie tells all his friends and family about how his dad is Santa, and Scott starts to slowly (and then rather quickly) transform into the big, jolly man, with his hair turning white and his weight rising. At first he starts to look like Chuck Norris, and then he very much starts to resemble Santa Claus. Charlie believes every last detail, but it's easy to see how every other adult would be disturbed at what they're seeing from a father and his son. (It could even be a horror film.)

This was a Disney film that wasn't afraid to use adult language occasionally (Scott audibly complains that he's "freezing his nuts off" outside trying to deal with the dead Santa situation). In another scene, Scott says to Laura that Neil's number where they can be reached is 1-800-SPANK-ME. The problem, though, was that parents started complaining that their children would call the number and be directed to messages promoting "hot, wild fun" for $2.50-$4.99 a minute. The scene is not included on home video release or when it plays on the Disney Channel.

If there's one universal truth to being an American child, it's that it is a bit disillusioning when one realizes that there is no Santa. Many of the adult characters in The Santa Clause share their own personal anecdotes of when they realized that Santa wasn't real. For Neil, it was when he didn't receive his Oscar Mayer Wiener Whistle. (For me, it was when Santa didn't complete the crossword puzzle I made for him when I was about nine, or nineteen--I can't remember.) At any rate, The Santa Clause has aged surprisingly well (except for the part when Scott, as he's almost full-Santa, catcalls a woman walking down the street.) That awkward, awful moment aside, this movie, a movie in which there actually is a Santa Claus, is a delightful film. I think I liked it as much, or perhaps even more, watching it as an adult.

Saturday, December 23, 2017

All the Star Wars Movies Ranked

You probably have seen all or most of the major theatrically released Star Wars movies, but with an animated film, made-for-TV productions, who knows how many stand-alone films, and an infamous holiday special, there are many more out there than just the eight episodes. Some are good, some are bad, and some are uglier than Jabba himself. Below is my official ranking of all of the Star Wars films released so far:

14. The Star Wars Holiday Special
You have not lived until you've seen The Star Wars Holiday Special. I almost simply want to leave it at that. Why was there a desire to turn the hit 1977 blockbuster into a Christmas special one year later on TV? Money, I guess. Money, and the fact that people often like movies that are so bad, they're good. This "holiday special" opens with Han and Chewie being chased by a Star Destroyer, some mumbo-jumbo about a Christmas-like holiday called Life Day, and then a bizarre introduction of the cast. The regulars are all there--how they were convinced to do a TV holiday special, we'll never know--but we also have Bea Arthur, Art Carney, and Harvey Korman. And an animated portion. And it's a musical. And Carrie Fisher was high. And George Lucas has famously said that if he could destroy ever boot-legged copy, he would. Watch this mess of a movie, and then watch Harrison Ford's reaction to it.

13. Caravan of Courage: An Ewok Adventure
Released a year after Return of the Jedi, which (love it or hate it) featured lots of furry little teddy bear-like Ewoks who stage guerrilla warfare to help take down the Empire, Lucasfilm's TV movie Caravan of Courage took the Ewoks from cute to ugly and annoying. Instead of wanting to cook and eat the humans of Return of the Jedi, the Ewoks (including Wicket, played by Warwick Davis) find two young kids abandoned in the forests of Endor and take them in, even learning a bit of English along the way. (It takes place before Return of the Jedi, so why don't the Ewoks want to eat the humans?)

"We...help...you," one of them says. The little girl is sick, but of course the Ewoks have all-natural herbal miracles to save the day--hurrah! Star Wars isn't exactly known for its Olivier-esque acting and Shakespearean dialogue, but it's quite embarrassing here. We get a lot of Ewoks talking to each other and Burl Ives (of all people) doing his best to narrate our way to some sort of meaning. Despite what should have been a hefty budget, the production features cheesy-looking puppetry and animatronics. It's all tremendously boring as well, with a lame villain (the Gorax monster) and dull, flat action sequences.

Why was this movie made? If you couldn't stand some of the prequels, just watch this, and it will make any scene involving Gungas feel like Citizen Kane.

12. Ewoks: The Battle for Endor
The sequel to Caravan of Courage, this one is an improvement, but only slightly. In it, the adorable Aubree Miller returns as Cindel, whose father, mother, and brother are immediately killed by marauders during an attack on the Ewok village. She and Wicket (Warwick Davis) escape and meet a grouchy hermit named Noa, played by Walter Brimley.

One of the improvements is that the villains, while being essentially something out of Power Rangers, are for more enjoyable than any Gorax monster, and the Ewoks, as annoying as they were in the previous made-for-TV movie, are reduced to just Wicket. Brimley is surprisingly enjoyable to watch as well; he provides an ounce of humor and humanity in a movie that for the most part lacks it. This movie is still by no means good, with visual effects looking more like something out of The Giant Claw than something out of Star Wars, and this movie feels more like Willow or Labyrinth, which, depending on whom you ask, is a good or bad quality.

11. The Clone Wars
The animated film from 2008 that spawned the equally difficult-to-watch animated show, this is one of the most pointless films in the entire franchise. With lame animation and boring sequences, this is an entry that should undoubtedly be skipped. The powerful voice of Christopher Lee could not save this movie from clunky action and cringe-worthy stereotypes that make Jar Jar Binks seem politically correct.

10. Attack of the Clones
I remember initially being excited in 2002 at how much (I thought) this movie was an improvement over the previous episode, The Phantom Menace. I've since watched it again (and again) and saw just how wrong I was. Truth be told, there's not much of a difference between Episode I and Episode II. There's less Jar Jar Binks here, so that's a good start. And Christopher Lee adds a great deal of respectability here as the villain. We see Samuel L. Jackson fight with his BAMF purple lightsaber, and there's an epic climactic battle that's part Gladiator, part Braveheart. And who can forget that MTV Best Fight-winning duel between Yoda and Count Dooku? I haven't even mentioned Ewan McGregor's hair.

Still, this movie is bad, plain and simple. Lucas' dialogue for a very horny Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is among his worst. The chemistry between Christensen and Natalie Portman is forced and awkward. (Portman is an Oscar-winning actress and among the best there is, and even she couldn't effectively deliver the dreadful dialogue in a believable way.) There are far fewer sets here; instead there's the ubiquitous green screen. Attack of the Clones is probably the worst of the major Star Wars releases.

9. The Phantom Menace 
Episode I, the most anticipated film of the 20th century, was also one of cinema's great disappointments. Much ink has already been spilled about what did not work with this movie: Jake Lloyd's performance as a young Anakin Skywalker, Jar Jar Binks, and a whole host of issues. Fans over the years have tried to "fix" the mistakes in this movie, with the first being cleverly called "The Phantom Edit," but even those are bad.

That being said, this movie is at least better than Attack of the Clones, regardless of what most people say. Why? For one, there's the climactic duel between the Sith lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and the two Jedi, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and Qui-Gon Jin (Liam Neeson), set the tune of John Williams' perfect "Duel of Fates" theme. Yoda is still a puppet (until he was changed in later Blu-Ray editions for some reason to CGI). There are sets, too, and you'd be surprised at how much that matters.

Fans morphed into bullies when they treated Lloyd, then a young boy, as if he had utterly ruined their lives. The Daily Beast's article on Jake Lloyd's fall is one of the most depressing articles on Hollywood and fame I have ever read.

8. Spark of Rebellion
The 2014 44-minute animated television movie was the start of the animated series called Rebels. With its opening line ("The Jedi knights are all but destroyed..."), it starts with the pessimism of Revenge of the Sith but quickly shifts to the adventurous and optimistic feeling of A New Hope. And who says that opening line? None other than Darth Vader, and the audience is lucky enough to be able to hear James Earl Jones' voice again in his most famous role. He warns a nefarious-looking individual identified as the Inquisitor about the "children of the Force," and that if they do not join the Empire, they are to be destroyed. It's not the best cameo ever, but it is nevertheless fantastic to hear his voice again.

Speaking of voices, from here, much of the villains are predictably voiced by Brits, lecturing subjects of the "Em-piyah" and ordering them about. With animation, this goofy dialogue and exaggerated physical movement is more tolerable than in the live-action films. We meet a young boy named Ezra (voiced by Taylor Gray) who is meant to be sort of a hybrid of Luke and Han, an orphan strong with the Force but also an arrogant "street rat" and unfortunately one of the most annoying, bland characters in the series.

The characteristics are enough to remind audiences that the franchise often likes to recycle, as is also the case here with speed race chases, TIE Fighter fights, and mumbo-jumbo about light speed. Spark of Rebellion has its humorous moments, but at times is just as implausible as any other Star Wars movie, with a villain who cheats death way too often, Stormtroopers who can't shoot straight, and heroes who are way too lucky. Still, the animation is impressive, and it's nice to see other elements of the Expanded Universe. Starting a series that would also feature voice performances from Freddie Prinze, Jr., Jason Isaacs, David Oyelowo, and Star Wars alumni Frank Oz, Billy Dee Williams, and Anthony Daniels, it's a recommendable and fun short film.

7. Revenge of the Sith
In my original review of The Force Awakens, I wrote that Revenge of the Sith was the superior of the two. I was wrong. Revenge of the Sith, the darkest of the films, was a step in the right direction after two missteps, utilizing a necessary bleakness to a set of stories that often are overly happy. This also features the best acting of the prequel trilogy. Hayden Christensen is not exactly Marlon Brando, but he improved enough in time. Portman also gives her best performance of the three movies, even if her dialogue is atrocious. Ian McDiarmid as Palpatine gives a tremendous (if not over-the-top) performance, seducing young Anakin to the Dark Side. Jackson gives a good send-off, and McGregor is fantastic as always.

But especially compared to The Force Awakens, Revenge of the Sith often is a CGI mess, covered with awful humor that falls flat. Many times it's boring, much more boring than the following films. The villains (aside from Palpatine) are also disappointing. Christopher Lee's Count Dooku is killed off early in the film. General Grieveous is probably the dullest of all the bad guys. And instead of seeing Darth Vader as we know him for much of the movie, he doesn't appear until the end in one of cinema's most disappointing cameos.

Still, this is one of the most powerful, disturbing of the franchise. The scenes of Anakin and the clones' betrayal of the Jedi is masterfully captured by Lucas and crew. Anakin's murder of younglings is especially heartbreaking, as it is reminiscent of the Sandy Hook massacre.

Dark, yes, but this was surely the best of the prequel trilogy.

6. The Force Awakens
Yes, there are legitimate complaints against this film: there are numerous plot holes, it's another example of Hollywood's nostalgia problem, it's phobia of the political allegories of the prequel trilogy resulted in no explanation of the historical and geopolitical allegories of the Republic and the Resistance, its probably the only boring Andy Serkis motion-capture performance (as Snoke), and it is almost painfully unoriginal. I think I actually enjoyed watching the three trailers more than this much-anticipated film. The characters are awesome, but here too there are problems: It's nice that there is a tough-as-nails female protagonist, but J.J. Abrams et al made her too flawless--she not only is an exceptional pilot, but can also defeat a Jedi trained not only by Luke Skywalker but also Snoke.

But The Force Awakens also reignited in me my childhood fascination with this franchise and made me want to revisit all the novels, video games, and comic books of my youth. John Williams' score, particularly Rey's theme, is his best in years. There is also a bit of thought behind it: the depressing reality of getting up right after the events of Return of the Jedi to fight a permanent war, or that Kylo Ren represents the bigotry prevalent still in many Millennials for example. Smart stuff, actually.

The Force Awakens was given a pass by many critics and fans who were thrilled that it wasn't a repeat of some of the prequel movies. But ultimately, it was still a very enjoyable film.

5. Rogue One
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story is the Star Wars movie that could. The first in the series' anthology stories, this was the tale nobody cared about, and yet was much better than the highly hyped Force Awakens. The special effects are spectacular, the tension is real, and this is practically the only Star Wars movie that recognizes that the second word in the franchise's title has important weight to it. There's true delight in not only seeing familiar faces from the original trilogy (like Vader and, somewhat controversially, Grand Moff Tarkin), but also the prequel trilogy (like Jimmy Smitts as Bail Organa). Its most notable flaw, however, is the lack of character development. While Ben Mendelsohn as the villainous Director Krennic hits just about every note right, and Alan Tudyk as K2SO provides plentiful comic relief, there is not much depth to many of the other characters. Perhaps there didn't need to be, as this was only a standalone film with no planned sequel.

4. The Last Jedi
Screw the fans! This is the best one Lucasfilm has made in a long time. This movie, as many have said, doesn't care about your Snoke theory, or your brilliant ideas about who Rey's parents are. It does it's own thing. There is respect for what has come before it, but there's also a sense of urgency in trying to avoid letting the series become stale. Rian Johnson, who will direct a new Star Wars trilogy that will likely feature entirely new characters, has been taking a beating for writing and directing what apparently is one of the most controversial in the series. Why? I still don't quite know. Maybe, as some have speculated, it's because people (by people I mean racist, sexist people) are opposed to how these newer films are more diverse. Maybe it's because people have thought Johnson deviated too much from the established canon and precedents. Maybe it's because they really hate porgs. I don't know.

Like The Force Awakens before it, there are problems: Some things are tied up too quickly, there's too much dues ex machina, and some segments drag on too long and are too unnecessary. Nothing is perfect. Luke Skywalker has come full circle and is now the Obi-Wan character, and Mark Hamill is great to watch. Carrie Fisher gives a fantastic final performance. Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, and Kylo Ren are terrific, Kylo in particular. Here's how Alison Willmore at Buzzfeed describes the character: "Vader was an epic villain. Kylo was a kid who started idolizing his infamous grandfather because his parents were too busy to pay him enough attention, and even as a man he holds onto to Vader's burnt-out helmet like a teenage outcast hoarding Axis memorabilia left behind by the generation no one talks about at family reunions." Like The Force Awakens, there often is a lot of intelligent symbolism here.

So I will repeat: this is the best Star Wars movie in a long time.

3. Return of the Jedi
What can I say? I like Ewoks (at least the ones that appear here and not on television). Like The Empire Strikes Back before it, while it has a boring second act, this entry, the final in the original trilogy, introduces us to iconic characters (e.g. Jabba the Hutt, Emperor Palpatine) while adding depth to the characters we've fallen in love with. In Darth Vader, audiences witness the final stage in a six-part story arc that offered the best example of a tragic hero's rise and downfall (and redemption). Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine is (as with Revenge of the Sith) occasionally over the top but a terrifying presence. And Denis Lawson finally gets to use his own voice as Wedge Antilles, one of fans' favorite minor characters. (Lawson also is the uncle of Ewan McGregor, who played the younger Obi-Wan Kenobi.)

This is about as good a conclusion to a trilogy as there has been, though my only advice is to do yourself a favor and find a copy of the original 1983 ending, not the nauseating changed edition from the late 90s.


2. The Empire Strikes Back
This is the film that famously elevated the franchise away from simply a hugely entertaining blockbuster and into some serious stuff. Whether it's the introduction of Yoda, the powerful brass of John Williams' "Imperial March" theme, or that immortal twist, this film is a classic. It's not, however, as perfect as everyone says it is. Of the original three, it arguably moves at the slowest pace, and in a post-Harvey Weinstein, #MeToo world, watching Han basically sexually assault Leia and then Lando's creepy advances toward her and really awful to watch. And Leia kisses her Luke...only for us to find out in Return of the Jedi that they're siblings.

If you can get past all that, you'll love The Empire Strikes Back. There's an exciting battle in snow in the first act, a daring chase through an asteroid field, Boba Fett (everyone's favorite secondary character), possibly the best lightsaber duel, and iconic lines throughout. I don't blame people for saying this is the one they like the most, I just don't agree with them. For I think the best Star Wars movie is...

1. Star Wars (aka A New Hope)
I don't care what anyone says; nothing beats the original. A New Hope is better than The Empire Strikes Back. This one has far more wonder and magic than any after it. It's true that the dialogue is at its most wooden, with whiny lines about power converters and fast ships. But there's just something there that the others don't have. 

This is a motion picture unlike any before or since. Its mixture of mythology, science fiction, groundbreaking special effects, history, politics, that awesome musical score, and old-fashioned fun must have felt like a welcome breath of fresh air in the cynical late seventies. That opening scrawl, C-3PO and R2D2 lost in the desert, the introduction of the Jedi and the Force, Vader and that iconic voice by James Earl Jones (and thank goodness not the original), Han and Chewbacca, Peter Cushing as Tarkin, Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and all those unforgettable lines (like "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You're my only hope").

George Lucas literally nearly got himself killed making his passion project. After a more mature science fiction flick called THX-1138 and a successful nostalgia picture called American Graffiti, he could have played it safe and direct films more similar to those of his mentor, Francis Ford Coppola or his buddies Martin Scorsese and Brian De Palma, both of whom didn't understand the movie when he screened it for them. (But who did? Steven Spielberg, who predicted it would be the most successful movie of all time.) Exhausted, he fired his editors when the space battles weren't fast enough. He took chance after change about a story that featured basically a dog that walks on two legs and wizards with laser swords. 

And the final product has so much energy that it is not surprisingly in the slightest that the franchise has lasted forty years. Should it last for forty more? Probably not. Star Wars is not SNL, it's not Marvel. But for the time being, Lucasfilm can keep 'em coming.   







Friday, December 22, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth part of the nine episodes in the series, is as operatic as this fantastic franchise has ever been. In the hands of a new writer and director, Rian Johnson, this is a film that enjoys embracing the formulas that have made these films so endearing for so long, while also taking risks unlike any of its predecessors did. It is possibly one of the reasons why fans reportedly have been more turned off by this film than critics, even though the reverse is usually true for blockbusters. Despite this, listen to the critics. They're definitely right this time.

Why are they right? The movie looks fantastic, the actors are having fun, the dialogue ain't perfect but there is no crying about how coarse sand is. There are a variety of surprises throughout -- most good, some not. This is a franchise that has been around for forty years. It's about time they start spicing things up.

The Last Jedi starts immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, in which the First Order (the remnants of the Galactic Empire defeated in the original trilogy) took a few mighty strikes against the Resistance, a militarized offshoot of the Republic, which practically was destroyed in the last film. While the Resistance and the First Order engage in a fierce battle among the stars, Rey (Daisy Ridley) seeks out the assistance of Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who has forced himself into exile on a remote island far away from anyone. Even after having the stakes explained to him, Luke is not interested in the slightest. His guilt over training Ben Solo (Adam Driver), his nephew who turned to the Dark Side and became Kylo Ren, has led him to believe that the Jedi must end. Luke may no longer be a whiny teenager bellowing about power converters, but now he's an cagey old man complaining about kids on his property.

Rey will not give up in her pleading with him to help. Meanwhile, the First Order is chasing down the final ships of the Resistance, picking them off one by one. The sibling rivalry between General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Ren continues, and they have a tough father in the form of the Supreme Leader, Snoke, to please. Snoke is played in yet another motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis, whose voice is menacing. Hux and his fleet hunt down the Resistance while Kylo Ren searches for Rey and Skywalker.

These actors and the characters they play are as enjoyable to watch as they've ever been. Some have become more interesting, even if that also means they've become more problematic. Poe Dameron, for example, the hotshot pilot for the Resistance (played by Oscar Issac) is more three dimensional here than he was last time around, probably because in the last film's script he initially was meant to die, which is why he just sort of disappeared for the second act. Here, he's charming and adventurous, but also stupid. It's hard to like him while he does a lot of mansplaining to his superior, Admiral Holdo, played magnificently by Laura Dern. Only several years ago, a studio would have set up this dynamic to get the audience to sympathize with the male; now, it's impossible to do that, and for good reason. Holdo is a calm, reasonable, and brave presence on the ship as the First Order chases them, and yet Poe, a cowboy who demands action, is too short-sighted. Poe thinks he's Indiana Jones in space; Holdo knows that "bitches get things done." But often throughout their confrontations, Dern displays a persona that expresses a lifetime of having to listen to men push their way into battles and risk everything. There's a reason the Rebel Alliance, the Republic, and the Resistance are led by women like Mon Mothma, Holdo, and General Leia Organa.

The villains are all much more enthralling to watch this time around. If you were disappointed in the wasted opportunity in how little screen time Gwendolyn Christie got last time, well, you'll still be disappointed by her short time in this film, but not by what she does with it. Driver plays Kylo Ren as a sociopath, and yet like most sociopaths, he contains at least a tiny of drop of qualities that make him at least somewhat sympathetic. In this case it's his very apparent behavior, temper, and anger issues, and the fact that he's bullied by his teacher and leader Snoke doesn't help. (In the reverse, teachers disappointing their students is a common theme throughout.) Gleeson as General Hux double-hams it up with that ridiculously fake accent, which you'll either love or hate. Benicio Del Toro also joins the cast, and he looks like he's having as good a time as he did when he was in The Usual Suspects and Guardians of the Galaxy, though it's so similar to those performances that it might disappoint you. The addition of Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico helps make The Last Jedi feel like it's the most diverse Star Wars movie ever; even the First Order is more diverse. Tran, the daughter of refugee migrants from Vietnam, plays Rose as a tough fighter in the Resistance. The death of her sister only gives her further stamina and motivation to take them down.

Mark Hamill, returning as Luke Skywalker, his most famous character, is actually kind of funny here, as Harrison Ford's Han Solo was before him in The Force Awakens. But be warned, apparently fans are angry that there are a few laughs in this film. (People who do not like The Last Jedi do not like laughing.) And then there's Carrie Fisher. What else can be written about the acting legend that hasn't already? Her character, Leia, the princess who became a warrior, is war weary; she remembers how many they've lost, and that was basically how we felt upon learning that she was the latest celebrity in 2016 to pass away (and only a day before her mother, Debbie Reynolds, also died). In her long career, her final performance is one of her truly best, and it is awfully unfortunate that the world will not get one more performance by her as Leia, for Lucasfilm had planned on her having a larger role in the final part of the trilogy.

As a director, Johnson is amazingly talented at shooting fight scenes. The other well-known features in which he helms (Brick, Looper, and several episodes of Breaking Bad) do not have this kind of staccato action; indeed, these scenes here are filmed in a way different from those directed by George Lucas, J.J. Abrams, and others. In fact, the entire pacing of this movie is different. Whereas The Force Awakens started off quite strongly, it fizzled out as it got closer and closer to the end (a common problem in movies directed by Abrams). Here, there's a big bang in the beginning, but other than a far-fetched and dull sequence involving a casino, this movie never lets our interest wane. With few exceptions, The Last Jedi gets better with each passing minute. When The Last Jedi starts, it is evident that it will probably be a better ride than The Force Awakens, but half-way through it is more than obvious it will.

As a writer, Johnson is pretty good, too, and there are two or three scenes in The Last Jedi he and his team came up with that ideally would be worth writing about, but it's virtually impossible to do so without spoiling them. Spoil I shall not. At first, I thought I could simply use a noun to get the idea across, but even that would be revealing too much. Perhaps an adjective could be used instead, and the one used would simply be: wonderful. Still, another adjective that could be used for another scene would be "ridiculous"; it comes early in the film and involves floating (or flying, or something like that). It's stupidly written and while containing a certain meta quality, looks goofy. Additionally, Johnson includes a few shout-outs to the original three films, and many of these are unnecessary, but it doesn't seem as if the film is oozing with nostalgia like The Force Awakens did. Finally, to address one of the largest concerns fans had going into this movie, let me say that if you like the porgs, these adorable owl-penguin hybrids won't disappoint you. If you hate them, rest assured they're hardly in it.

Sure, this film is not without its problems. Isaac and Gleeson starred in a sci-fi movie two years ago called Ex Machina, and yet that old-fashioned devise is employed so liberally here that it feels like it would be a better title than The Last Jedi. This is the longest Star Wars movie, and while for the most part it doesn't seem too long, there are scenes that could have been scrapped (mainly the casino part). Needless to say, I feel happy after watching this movie that Johnson will write and direct a new Star Wars trilogy that apparently won't have anything to do with the previous movies Lucasfilm has made. Fans will run out of patience with this franchise eventually. Star Wars is not Marvel; it cannot last forever. But for the time being, after the immense success of The Force Awakens, Rogue One, and The Last Jedi, why stop now?


Monday, December 4, 2017

Jackie Brown

“AK-47, the very best there is. When you absolutely, positively got to kill every mother fucker in the room, except no substitutes.”

Jackie Brown was the third film Tarantino directed, serving as an interesting, albeit less memorable, conclusion to his 1990s quasi-trilogy that included Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction. Unlike his other movies, this is an adapted work from the novel Rum Punch by Elmer Leonard, and like his films before and after, he assembled a terrific cast, one of the finest of the 90s: Pam Grier, Samuel L. Jackson, Robert Forster, Bridget Fonda, Michael Keaton, and Robert De Niro, an ensemble weaker directors at worst would not think of and at best would would mishandle.

The McGuffin of the film is half a million dollars being smuggled into the country from Mexico by a flight attendant named Jackie Brown for an arms dealer played by Jackson. Jackie gets caught at the airport by an ATF officer named Ray Nicollete (played by Michael Keaton), who teams with a local cop played by Michael Bowen. Nicolette wants to take down Ordell, and he plans to use Jackie to achieve those aims. For his part, Ordell is can be cautious to the point where he believes Jackie needs to be warned, but Jackie puts up a fight. She plans on playing both Ray and Ordell, with an eye on the money herself.

Ordell sort of leads an unlikely trio – he's joined by his bank robbing accomplice Lois (De Niro) and Ordell's beach bunny girlfriend (Fonda), who fancies Lois. (The characters Ordell and Lois also appear in the 2014 Leonard adaptation Life of Crime. Miramax agreed to waive the fee for allowing Keaton to reprise his role in a cameo in Sony's adaptation of Leonard's Out of Sight in 1998.)

While it may be the least appreciated Tarantino-directed film, it is not devoid of problems, chief among them an aspect that also appeared in The Hateful Eight and to a lesser degree Reservoir Dogs: violence against women that, I think, is meant to be humerous. Mix in a lot of N-word dropping, and it of course constitutes a normally controversial film directed by Tarantino. But love him or hate him, the evidence suggests he's an actor's director. Many of these stars, particularly Grier, Fonda, and Forster, delivered some of their very best work. Forster in particular delivers one of the most natural performances captured on film. Fonda hits ever note perfectly, and Grier was simply robbed of an Oscar nomination.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Thor: Ragnorok

We come from the land of the ice and snow
From the midnight sun, where the hot springs flow
The hammer of the gods 
We'll drive our ships to new lands
To fight the horde, and sing and cry
Valhalla, I am coming!

I admit to being disapponited by this year's comic book films. (And yeah, I get that most viewers probably disagree with me.) I felt mostly let down by Wonder Woman, was bored by Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, thought Spider-Man: Homecoming was slightly more bad than good, and I liked but didn't love Logan. But at last, I have found a delightful comic book film from an unlikely director I have admired for some time, and it's the most fun I've had at the cinema all year.

Marvel is a franchise that occasionally is too full of itself, especially with movies like last year's Captain America: Civil War. The Marvel movies that were far better--the first Guardians movie, Ant-Man, the first Captain America film--were all superior to the convoluted litter that is some of their other motion pictures. That's not the case with Thor: Ragnorak, the third Thor film. This movie does complexity just as well as it does simplicity. Most importantly, it's funny, and how could it not be with the immensely talented Taika Waititi at the helm?


Our hero (Chris Hemsworth) is a bit tied up when we meet him again. He is the prisoner of the demonic Surtur (voiced by Clancy Brown), who is doing his best to frighten the god of thunder with a prophecy of destroying Thor's home of Asgard. The trouble is that Thor keeps spinning around slowly in his chains, forcing Surtur to pause from time to time, and so we're off to an amusing start. By now, Hemsworth has demonostrated several times just how comical he can be on screen, but this is the first time as his most famous character that he gets a chance to demonstrate that talent. Thor of course manages to escape, fight off Surtur, and return to his home, where his brother, Loki, has temporarily taken over from their father. This, however, is not what drivers the film. Instead, the movie is divided into two plots.

Thor and Loki meet their sister, Hela (Cate Blahowever), who has returned from whatever hell she was in and is taking things over. Her brothers are no match for her; they cannot defend their home from their sister, and eventually they get stuck in the domain of the Grandmaster, played by Jeff Goldblum. The Grandmaster (who apparently is the brother of the Collector, Beneicio Del Toro's character in Guardians of the Galaxy) is the host of epic gladiator games, and whether Thor likes it or not, he's a contender. Making matters worse is that his main opponent is none other than the Incredible Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), a "friend from work."

In addition to those already mentioned, Tessa Thompson delivers one of her very best performances as Valkyrie, the Asgardian bounty hunter who sometimes is a little too intoxicated to capture Thor. She's tough as nails, but maybe even she is no match for Hela, who decimated her fellow warriors. Blanchett has two Oscars and has appeared in gigantic films like The Lord of the Rings franchise, and yet this is one of her very best pieces of work. She has played villains before, but she has never looked like she was having this much fun.

Familiar alumni are here as well: Anthony Hopkins is back as Thor's father (he, too, gets a few moments of humor), as is Idris Elba as Heimdall, leading a quiet revolution against Hela. My favorite addition was possibly Karl Urban as a gun-loving Asgardian warrior (though there's an awkward joke in there about Texas and guns). There are a handful of other delightful cameos, and I won't reveal them, except to say that the standard Stan Lee cameo is as enjoyable as it has ever been. Also appearing are Tadanobu Asano, Rachel House, and Benedict Cumberbatch, reprising his role as Dr. Strange. And then of course there's Jeff Goldblum. There has been a lot of love for this icon as of late, and who can blame us? Goldblum by this point basically realizes that he is the new Christopher Walken, and he does not disappoint. Buzzfeed has declared him the internet's boyfriend, and one of the best tweets I've seen recently about him was that Jeff Goldblum as himself is the best part about Thor: Ragnorok. NPR's Linda Holmes had the brilliant observation that Goldblum in this movie is essentially a hybrid of Jabba the Hutt and Jean-Ralphio. I would add that he's not as creepy as Jabba and not as unfunny or annoying as Jean-Ralphio.

Thor: Ragnorok is not simply one of Marvel's funniest films (the most whimsical since the first Guardians of the Galaxy), but it is arguably Marvel's best looking movie ever. It's ILM visuals--led by Chad Wiebe--make it look more like last year's Dr. Strange than the utter mess that were The Avengers films. Its costume design by Mayes C. Rubeo is worthy of an Oscar nomination; particularly incredible is that of Hela's intense crown of antlers.

Waititi, who also appears as Korg, a pleasant gladiator made up of rocks who provides lots of the film's humor, deserves much of the praise for Thor: Ragnorok. I try to avoid auteur-theory rhetoric of assigning all of the success or failure of a film solely with the director, but this movie has Waititi written all of over it. If you had pleasant experiences viewing his other movies, than Thor: Ragnorak will be no different. Waititi's use of the Led Zepplin's "The Immigrant Song" is a delicious addition, augmenting the adrenaline of the action scenes (and it apparently works just as well when used in Star Wars). Like other really enjoyable films directed by Waititi (Boy, What We Do in the Shadows, and Hunt for the Wilderpeople), this is a movie that will stay with you and is well worth the price of admission.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Vote Against Mr. Trump and Governor Pence

I suppose 
Old Man Trump knows
Just how much
Racial Hate
he stirred up
In the bloodpot of human hearts.

The above lyrics are from discovered work by folk singer Woodie Guthrie, who more than half a century ago wrote of his contempt of Fred Trump, one of two Trumps sued by the Justice Department in the 1970s for racist housing practices. Guthrie signed a lease in an apartment complex in Brooklyn and observed Fred Trump stirring up racist hate and profiting from it. The other Trump involved in those profits was Donald J. Trump, the current occupant of the White House. The apple does not fall far from the tree.

I wrote an article urging readers to vote for Barack Obama in October 2012, about a month before that election. My article praising Hillary Clinton and attacking Trump was written in the summer of 2016, still a few months away from judgment day, when Hillay beat him by 2,865,075 votes but he got to become president anyway. Then, I was alarmed by what I was seeing and thought (unlike virtually everyone I knew) that he had a real chance of getting to the White House. Now, it's only been one year since the 2016 election, and the vast majority of us in this country have Trump fatigue. I need to write this article now, not later. He needs to be impeached, but if that doesn't, then we better work like hell to get him out in 2020. Please, please vote against him and Governor Mike Pence of Indiana.

Never before have we had a someone quite like Trump. Before January, he was simply a man who stoked White Amercia's fear of black and brown people, made up claims about immigrants, had zero qualifications to be president, invited Russia to hack our election, and led the racist Birther movement, to say nothing of his claiming that a judge of Mexican heritage could not preside over his lawsuit because he would be biased against him, bragging about his genitals on stage during a GOP debate, and settling a multi-million-dollar lawsuit just before the inauguration. If Obama had five children from three different wives, bragged about supposedly knowing more about ISIS than the generals, announced that his genitals were not inadequate, and was caught bragging about sexually assaulting women and then sued by a dozen for sexual assault, how much racist garabage, explicit or not, would we be hearing from the right?

It wasn't supposed to be like this. For the second time in two decades, the Republican Party has received the ultimate participation trophy: the White House (due to the Electoral College). The Republicans have lost the popular vote in every election since 1992 except for 2004 (a year they barely won), yet because the founding slave owners created a bizarre rule that is beyond archaic and anti-democratic, and because of redistricting, ubiquitous money in politics, voter suppression, and apparent Russian hacking, the Republicans are able to hang on to power. When they did it in 1876 after Democrat Samuel Tilden was the clear winner, the resulting crisis led to the end of Reconstruction and the beginning of Jim Crow. When they did it in 2000 under almost equally nefarious circumstances, the result was illegal invasions and occupations of two foreign countries (one of which we are still in), a city flooded, and an economic meltdown. And when the Republicans and their buddies in the Russian government and Wikileaks did it yet again in 2016, the result has been whatever clusterfuck historians are going to call this. The U.S. is not a democracy, and if it continues to be like this, we will continue to have despots like Trump.

The list of the egregious aspects of this man and his vile soul are endless: the Muslim ban, the transgender ban, his disrespect of soldiers, his fetish for taking away people's healthcare, his inaction on gun violence, his forgetting which country he has bombed, and making us literally the only country in the world not involved in the Paris Climate Accord because Trump believes global warming is a hoax created by the Chinese to hurt American businesses. Since then, he's continued to show us that he is a man who takes great comfort criticizing people of color he perceives to be against him yet cowers when it is time to condemn Nazis all the while thinking that it might be cute to go to war again with North Korea. This nightmare cannot end soon enough.

Fortunately, this week showed us that people are capable of fighting back. Folks need to say enough is enough and channel their inner-this week and make his time in the White House last no more than four years. Defeat Trump, and work hard to continue to defeat Trumpism.

Friday, November 3, 2017

Star Wars Nostalgia


Star Wars percolates with nostalgia. In fact, the only essential problem with some of the most recent Star Wars films is that they are too nostalgic.

The original definition of nostalgia was as a form of melancholy. Indeed, the word itself is comprised from the Greek roots of “homecoming” and “pain.” Considering the mythological tropes Star Wars has employed, this is worthy of our understanding.

Fortunately, for Star Wars fans, nostalgic items lean more towards homecoming than pain, and luckily there are a plethora of books, games, toys, and other items for every Star Wars fan out there to think back on good times.

Though some of the following list aren't exactly equivalent to Orson Welles' Rosebud, they are, I think, treasure none the less (and some are quite expensive). As we patiently await the December release of the newest Star Wars flick from Lucasfilm, take a moment to think back on some of these items. Below are some nostalgia items for any Star Wars fan out there:

Kenner's Toy Millenium Falcon (1978)

Fans of Netflix's Stranger Things, a show seeped in 80s nostalgia, saw the character Eleven telepathically playing with one of these toys from Kenner. Kenner produced all of the Star Wars action toys since the first film's release in 1977, selling hundreds of millions of toys, including this one.

The many Generation X Star Wars fans out there most likely saw this 53-centimeter toy as youngsters, and there's likely a high number of them who played with it. The commercial alone is likely to take fans back to their childhood. “Nice landing, Han Solo!” one of the kids shouts. “Come on, Chewbacca,” the other replies. “Stormtroopers are coming!”

Toys like these could be worth loads of money these days.

Princess Leia Action Figure (1984)

Also from Kenner, this action figure features Leia dressed in her Endor forest outfit, complete with a removable helmet, poncho, and blaster. The action figure was re-released along with many others in the late 1990s as the Special Edition films were being released in cinemas.

Star Wars only recently embraced the idea that female characters can be just as tough, if not tougher, than the boys. Case in point being characters in last year's The Force Awakens: Daisy Ridley as the the lead, a lady Stormtrooper commander, and Carrie Fisher's Leia changing from a princess to a general were all featured. The lead in Rogue One is played by Felicity Jones. While Princess Leia was always a tough rebel, I thought she was more badass as a general. Leia in the original films ranged from a damsel in distress to a slave in a medal bikini, so she isn't exactly (at least through modern lens) a feminist icon. But in Return of the Jedi from 1983, she was a character of grit and leadership. This action figure embodies that. 

Vlix Toy (1988)

Are you a fan of getting a whopping $6,000? Are you one of the few people on the planet who have an unopened Vlix toy? Then you're in luck. Vlix was a character who appeared in the animated series Droids. And this toy, considered to be the Holy Grail of Star Wars memorabilia, was produced by a Brazilian company, so there are very few of them around these days.

Full disclosure: I've never seen the animated series Droids or Ewoks, though I have seen (and don't recommend) the two made-for-TV Ewoks specials. I therefore can't really comment much more on who Vlix is or how special this toy is meant to be. And since it likely didn't go far from Brazil, it might be challenging to truly classify this as a piece of “nostalgia.”

That being said, for die-hard fans of the series (and especially the rich ones who have a bit of Indiana Jones in their DNA), tracking down this item might well be worth the time and dime.

Heir to the Empire Novel (1991)

There have been dozens of Star Wars novels since the novelization of the original film all the way back in 1977, but none are as terrific as Timothy Zahn's Heir to the Empire, the first of his trilogy.

Taking place only a few years after the original trilogy concluded, this series reunites our characters in a fight against the diminishing Galactic Empire, taken control by the malevolent and blue-skinned Grand Admiral Thrawn, who teams up with a Dark Jedi named Joruus Cbaoth to try and resurrect the Empire.

The novel became a best seller, and can be recommended for fans of most ages. 

As a side note, the 1978 novel Splinter in the Mind's Eye was written by Alan Dean Foster and commissioned by Lucas to serve partly as a framework for a small-budget sequel if the first film wasn't a hit. The Los Angeles Times has called this book the most influential of the Expanded Universe. 

Shadows of the Empire Soundtrack (1996)

In 1996, Lucasfilm, in anticipation for the release of the Special Edition the following year and then the start of George Lucas' prequel trilogy, released a multimedia project titled Shadows of the Empire, a tale of Luke Skywalker et al tracking down the carbonite casing of Han Solo in between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

The project involved a novel by Steve Perry, comics by John Wagner, a Nintendo 64 and computer game, and a group of new toys. But the element of the project that was the most impressive was the score written by Joel McNeely to be used for the audio book and games.

An epic and old-fashioned juxtaposition of intense choral arrangements and even a waltz (a first and only for the franchise), McNeely did a phenomenal job of channeling Star Wars composer John Williams without copying him. This music might be the best piece of Star Wars that most fans have never heard of.

Knights of the Old Republic Game (2003)

Released by LucasArts, the now defunct media publisher of Lucasfilm, Knights of the Old Republic, the role-playing video game for Xbox, is still regarded as one of the greatest video games of all time. As a matter of fact, it ranked in the top 100 according to Time a few years ago.

Taking place several thousand years before the formation of the Galactic Empire, characters can even make decisions that will align them with the Dark Side or the Light Side of the Force. The game was followed by several sequels and won a host of awards.


Fortunately for us all, there are more Star Wars films in the making, and who knows how many more games, books, toys, etc. What will the nostalgia items of the future be? The Chewbacca mask made famous by a laughing mom in her car? The Death Star Christmas tree light? Little BB-8s?

Time will surely tell, but the Force is surely strong with many of them.