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Searching For Hope: The Last Jedi Answers

Questions answered and questions raised: That could be the subtitle of the latest in the Star Wars franchise hitting theaters this weekend. The Last Jedi picks up immediately after the events of The Force Awakens, with the resistance evacuating their base and Rey finding Luke Skywalker and Fynn in a coma. That first of the third trilogy left a lot of plot threads hanging and a lot of questions unanswered. The Last Jedi follows suit, but does so in a much better fashion, with much better writing.

The First Order has the republic on the ropes, with the remnants of the imperial rebellion now calling themselves the resistance and scattered to the outer rim planets while the command core is trying to escape the First Order’s dreadnaught. The future looks bleak for our heroes as they fight to hold onto that one thing that they hold most dear: Hope. For some, that hope is embodied in the last Jedi Master who has been missing for many years, Luke Skywalker. For others, hope is in the form of the new cadre of heroes like Poe Dameron and Fynn Rider. Everyone will begin to lose hope as the First Order closes in.

While both this film and The Force Awakens are produced by J.J. Abrams, this one was written and directed by Rian Johnson, with George Lucas sharing the writing credit. Perhaps it was the new writer, perhaps it was a fresh vision, but The Last Jedi stands taller as a standalone story and less of a retread like its predecessor. The Force Awakens had too many similar elements with A New Hope and felt too familiar and predictable. The Last Jedi dares the viewer to try to predict the outcome as it offers multiple threads that twist and interweave with each other. Some may try to draw similarities with The Empire Strikes Back, and, superficially, there may be. It is the second act in a three act story, and as such, certain things typically happen with regard to the hero’s struggle. They happened in The Empire Strikes Back and they happen in The Last Jedi. It is how they happen that sets this story apart.

The characters actually relate with each other better in this story and act within the established motivations that Johnson established for them. The newer characters of Rey, Fynn and Kylo are now much more fully realized and relatable, making a connection with the viewer that they lacked in The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi adds even more new characters, such as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and Kellie Marie Tran as Rose, and each of them makes a lasting connection to the story and the viewer.

There is one thing about Abrams that even the most dedicated opponent cannot deride and that is his artistic visuals. If there was one thing that could be considered problematic, it would be that he relies too much on the visuals at the expense of story—a problem that plagued Abrams’ Star Trek. The Last Jedi doesn’t suffer for its visuals, indeed, they accentuate the story by how appropriate to the mood and setting they are. The sacrifice of the heavy cruiser is one of the most arresting visuals in the entire Star Wars franchise and drew a collective gasp from the audience.

The Last Jedi tells a new chapter in the epic Star Wars story and picks up where The Force Awakens left off. Some of the questions left hanging at the end of Force Awakens do get answered such as what happened to Ben Solo and why did Luke go into hiding. The question of exactly who Snoke is and where he came from is rendered moot. There is even an answer given as to who Rey’s parents are, but the answer is, of course, in question as even more questions come to the fore. Those questions will drive the discussion boards for the next two years.

The Last Jedi will win the box office for its opening weekend, and the Christmas season and probably for the year. Once word of how much better the writing is gets out, it will be heralded as one of the best of the franchise. It is much better than The Force Awakens, better than all three prequels combined and at least as good as The Empire Strikes Back, even if it does leave the viewer asking more questions.

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Ghost Busted in the Shell

Science fiction is a large genre, so large, in fact, that there are sub genres within it. One such niche enjoys a nearly rabid fan base and those devotees refuse to brook any content not in keeping with a narrowly defined parameter for the niche, and that is cyberpunk. In the late 80’s and 90’s, cyberpunk was a growing segment of the Sci Fi phenomenon with its dystopian view of a future where people are fully integrated with technology so that entertainment is had by plugging one’s brain directly into the network. Many cyberpunk movies have enjoyed widespread appeal, such as the Matrix series, while others have fallen flat. One of the more eagerly awaited cinema treatments of a cyberpunk classic is The Ghost in the Shell, and the cyberpunk faithful have resoundingly decried the movie as a failure. Their beef with the film centers more around the casting of Scarlet Johansen as the protagonist, because Johansen is white and the story features an Asian in the role, rather than discussing the real problems with the film, and there are many.

The story centers around a cyborg referred to as “Major” who works for the ministry of security, section 9 in an unnamed future metropolis that looks like a concatenation of Hong Kong, San Francisco,Beijing, New York and any number of other large cities. Major is hot on the trail of a cyber terrorist whom she believes is responsible for the death of her parents and her current condition as a cyborg. During the course of the story, she uncovers a conspiracy that shakes the foundation of her understanding of her identity.

The contrived plot is not a new one and it has been depicted in TV shows and other films several times. The characters are flat and unworthy of empathy and the cinematography is a cacophony of color and light that hurts the eyes and disorients the viewer. The action seems disconnected from the plot and is used just to distract from the otherwise boring and uninspired story.

The one redeeming aspect of this film is Scarlett Johansson, but not for her performance. Johansson’s characterization of Major doesn’t let the viewer into her personal struggle, despite scenes written just for that purpose. She coasts through those scenes, looking confused and detached where one would expect a sharp focus. Her performance was less “Natalia Romanov” and more “Lucy,” with a lot of jumping, running and shooting. The only thing about her performance, and the film in general, that could be construed as positive is the skin tight body suit she wear during combat scenes. The effects of peeling her artificial skin, or detaching her face are interesting, but they’ve been done before. Her nearly perfect physical form, however, is unique and is the only reason to sit through this dismal failure of story telling.

Major’s partner in the film, Batou played by Pilou Asbæk, is the only character that creates a connection with the viewer, but the writers don’t give him enough story. For those who follow the Marvel Cinematic Universe, he could be excellent casting for Cable in any upcoming X-Men film.

If you are a fan of Scarlett, see it at the matinee, otherwise, wait for cable. It is not worth full admission price at a mainstream theater.

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Going Rogue One

One of the most heated debates raging in Science Fiction fandom is the Star Wars canon, and what is actually included in it. When George Lucas first released Star Wars in 1977, not he, nor the studios anticipated the popularity of the film and no one could have anticipated its longevity and wide ranging appeal. It has spawned three sequels, numerous books, a couple of cartoon series, several video games and three prequels. Each of these additions tells a different story based in the same universe, sometimes using the same characters. The debate rages over which of these additional stories is “real,” and which is entirely outside the main story. Some say that only the movies are canon, while others say everything is. This weekend sees the first cinematic “additional story” to add to the Star Wars Universe and it is going to add fuel to the fire of this debate.

Rogue One tells a story set between the end of Star Wars episode three, “Revenge of the Sith” and before the events of episode four, “A New Hope,” wherein a young girl, the daughter of the man who designed the dreaded Death Star, joins the rebellion to help the alliance get the plans that are the crux of episode four. I need not worry about spoilers inasmuch as everyone who has seen the original Star Wars knows that the rebels do indeed get the plans and destroy the Death Star. Having said that, one might ask why bother to see this movie. Two reasons: Felicity Jones and Darth Vader.

Jones plays Jyn Erso, a loner who saw her mother killed and father enslaved by the empire and grew up under the care of one of the more radical elements of the rebellion, Saw Gerrera played by Forest Whitaker. A reluctant rebel at first, she manages to motivate the rebels into attacking the empire to try to get the plans for the death star to exploit the weakness her father built into it. This is where the debate is going to rage. According to episode four, the alliance didn’t know if there was such a weakness. Leia even mentioned it to Han Solo by saying “I only hope a weakness can be found.” According to the events in Rogue One, they knew there was a weakness.

Jones does a great job of playing the reluctant hero, and she brings the viewer into Jyn’s tortured world and allows us to understand her motivations. We cheer at her victories and weep for her sorrows and we can’t help but think of her as the little sister who we know is in over her head. This is facilitated by the fact that she looks just like a younger Sara Michelle Gellar.

Vader is a bit of a surprise here, because he actually fights better here than he did in Empire Strikes Back. James Earl Jones reprises the role of Vader’s voice while three actors have credit for his actions. He doesn’t have a lot of screen time, but enough especially at the end when he is pursuing the stolen plans that will eventually lead him to Tatooine.

Several familiar characters enjoy appearances in this film. Of course, Darth Vader has a role, but so does Grand Moff Tarkin played by Peter Cushing’s face digitally stitched onto another actor. Also, princess Leia has a cameo with Carrie Fisher’s younger face digitally stitched onto another actress. The ruffian who roughed up Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes an appearance as does C3P0 and Artoo.

There is another droid in this film, a reprogrammed imperial service droid is the partner of Jyn’s pilot Cassian Andor. The droid, K-2S0 is voice by Alan Tudyk who gives the droid a quick wit and a bit more humanity than even C3P0, if that is at all possible. As I watched the character’s interaction, I kept saying to myself, ‘that violates the laws of robotics.” But maybe that’s the point.

The film’s weakness is its beginning. Too many scene changes and too many plot threads make it difficult to follow along at first and it threatens to throw the viewer out of the story out of frustration. This is necessary to familiarize the viewer with all the moving parts of this story, since, unlike every other Star Wars movie, there is no text crawl at the beginning to set the stage. Fortunately it does pick up when the main story arc becomes clear.

While this is by far not the best Star Wars film, It isn’t the worst one either. There’s no Jar Jar Binks in this one. While it definitely won’t win an academy award (though it may get a technical nod), Rogue One is an entertaining escapist film. It will defiantly be water cooler discussion fodder for weeks as fan boys debate whether or not or even how it fits in the established Star Wars lore.

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Doctor Strange Casts a Powerful Spell

I never was a big fan of Doctor Strange, until now. Marvel is well into its “Phase 3” of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and fans have almost universally loved every one. Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant Man were long shots that surpassed everyone’s expectations, including mine. This week’s Doctor Strange follows suit.

Benedict Cumberpatch of Star Trek Into Darkness and Sherlock fame plays one of the country’s leading surgeons, Dr. Steven Strange, who through negligence born of his own ego, crashes his car and ruins his hands. Despite several cutting edge medical procedures, he cannot regain the full use of his hands and his career looks like it’s over. Never one to accept failure, he travels to Nepal to seek out a rumored alternative treatment, only to find out it involves mysticism, something his rational mind cannot grasp. Enter Tilda Swinton’s The Ancient One, a guru who shows Strange the limits of his mind. He begs to be trained and quickly learns the art and could become one of its masters, if he can only let go of his own demons before he has to combat other worldly ones.

While I have only read a little of the comic title from which this movie is drawn, Cumberpatch is the perfect casting both physically and stylistically for the character. He is clearly one of the best actors of his age and he delivers a flawless performance as the nascent sorcerer, destined to save the world. As Dr. Strange learns to accept his injuries and work around them, the viewer gets a real sense of the loss and acceptance through Cumberpatch’s portrayal. And as he learns more of the art, his confidence grows and becomes more obvious in each interaction (read fight) with the bad guys.

Rachel McAdams plays Christine, Strange’s erstwhile love interest who serves to keep the sorcerer grounded while he deals with the astral plane. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Mordo, a sorcerer who helps Strange learn the arts and combat the bad guys and Mads Mikkelsen plays Kaecilius, the evil sorcerer bent on destroying the world.

The action is not overdone and just enough to keep the viewers riveted in their seats while the outstanding cast develops a fine plot with enough drama to emote and the occasional gut wrenching laugh Marvel is famous for.

The special effects in this film are gut wrenching, in that as the characters alter reality, they change the orientation of the world to suit their needs. Vertigo is a real risk here, especially if one sees the 3-D version, which I fully recommend. No film since Avatar is as good in 3-D as this one.

I put Doctor Strange into the top three of MCU titles, alongside Guardians of the Galaxy and Captain America: Civil War. This is a must see even if it wasn’t critical to setting up next year’s Avengers: Infinity War (which it is, by the way). Go see it and not only that, spring for the 3-D, and that is a recommendation I have never given.

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Star Trek: Beyond Reason

Well, JJ Abrams has done it again, but not in a good way. Star Trek Beyond is Abrams’ latest foray into the Star Trek Universe he rebooted six years ago with a younger cast assuming the roles made famous in the 1960’s TV series. His cinematic vision was heralded as an artistic explosion, a veritable feast for the eyes of computer generated effects and fantastic alien landscapes all thrown into a blender of non-stop action. This description was understood to be a compliment, which is a mistake. I have considered it to be the franchise’s downfall from the first Star Trek to the sequel Into Darkness culminating in this weekend’s Beyond—an energetic rush into mass destruction on a galactic scale. The title makes no sense whatsoever. They never really establish what “beyond” means in context of the story. Perhaps Abrams is trying to take Star Trek beyond the limits of the original, but only manages to go beyond reason.


                                     Courtesy Paramount

The reboot has some high points. Zachary Quinto makes an excellent Spock. His performance calls to mind Leonard   Nimoy’s characterization from the original series. Karl Urban shows his acting chops by recreating Dr. McCoy with great accuracy and maybe even more authenticity for the role. Chris Pine as Captain Kirk, on the other hand, always makes me reach to accept him in the role. Shatner made Kirk almost superhuman and nearly infallible. Pine’s Kirk looks like he has no clue what he’s doing and every time he succeeds, it is with more than a little luck. This bothers me.

The story held promise. Three years into the five-year mission charting unexplored space, Kirk and his crew are dealing with the doldrums of boredom and the lack of contact with friends and family. Kirk even questions his decision to join Star Fleet. During a reprovisioning stop at the newest and biggest starbase ever that looks like something out of an Escher painting (one that defies logic and makes no structural sense whatsoever other than to look cool), a damaged ship almost crashes into the base, sending the Enterprise on a rescue mission into a nearby nebula. Dark secrets from generations past await them inside and threaten not only the ship and crew, but the entire Federation as well. A good—if tired—premise that doesn’t quite succeed.

Where this film fails is where the two previous films failed as well: too much bang and not enough buck. Abrams has a signature visual style and it is ever present and in your face throughout the film. He also likes to take viewers on a rollercoaster of non-stop action. If there is any exposition, Abrams treats it like the plague and only subjects his viewers to the smallest amount needed to tell the story. Beyond has some moments. Uhura and Spock’s relationship has issues. Spock gets some disturbing news that makes him question his purpose. Kirk questions his choices. The most notable, though, is the development of Bones’ and Spock’s relationship. The interplay between these two characters was arguably the best aspect of the film. Sadly, there is not enough story to flesh out these subplots to any satisfaction, since Abrams insists of giving the viewer an explosion or crash or chase every two minutes. Many of which made me think “yeah, right. Like THAT would happen.”

With all the action, explosions, and crashes, it is a wonder the crew ever survives. Abrams has had the ship smash into several things and there is never an explosive decompression, a matter-antimatter explosion, a warp core breech…none of the things that Trek lore has assured us would happen in a moment of crisis. Abrams decides to ignore the laws of physics to ensure we get the cool visuals he sees in his mind’s eye. I knew this was what we would be getting when the studio released the first trailer last year. It featured absolutely no story clues at all, offering only the visuals and explosions.

So, to summarize, Star Trek Beyond goes beyond connecting the viewers with the characters. It goes beyond unrelenting action and explosions, it goes beyond the limits of that which is physically possible and ends up going beyond reason. But it is interesting to look at.

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Who Ya Gonna Call? Not This Movie

I just wasted two hours of my life giving Melissa McCarthy and Kristen Wiig the benefit of the doubt and finding out the doubts are well-founded. Ghostbusters is a retool of the 1984 hit of the same name originally staring Bill Murray, Dan Aykroid, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson and which, despite mediocre reviews, was well-received by the public and enjoyed a huge box office. The new film starring McCarthy, Wiig, Kate McKinnon, and Leslie Jones garnered mixed reviews and had a solid opening weekend, but didn’t win the box office. The tepid response is justified as Ghostbusters was a painful two-hour torture session.

Courtesy Columbia Pictures

 

When it was announced that Ivan Reitman was producing a re-boot of his 1984 Ghostbusters blockbuster only this time with an all-female principle cast, I was skeptical. I do not like the trend of rebooting established film classics as all of the retreads I have seen have not only failed miserably, but have tarnished the memory of the original. I also see no reason for the gender reversal. There was nothing misogynistic about an all-male team of paranormal investigators, but to have an all-female team seems to be in keeping of a trend to re-gender the pop culture of America. I would have preferred to see an integrated team. Anyway, I had no intention of watching the new Ghostbusters because of this and because the previews were less than enticing. When a dustup hit Twitter causing the service to ban one blogger from its service, I had to investigate the reasons. It turns out that the blogger had given a less than flattering review of Ghostbusters and somehow Twitter connected this review to a deluge of hateful messages directed at one of the film’s actors, Leslie Jones.

Now, I do not know what was tweeted to that actress, but I can say that her performance was just one of many weak points in the film. The worst of those is the script. The plot is diffuse and doesn’t really follow a logical progression of plot development. The film runs more like a series of similarly themed skits one might see on Saturday Night Live loosely tied together with a derivative soundtrack. The dialogue reads like a 15-year old’s joke book, filled with nonsensical blatherings that seem funny in the moment, but don’t work when retold. This kind of joke is becoming all too common in modern comedy films that have to try to be funny when the kinds of sophisticated humor that has been around for decades is suddenly considered offensive to the politically-correct sensibilities of the pansy generation. Every scene that could be significant for either plot or character development is peppered with these distracting attempts at humor that fall flat and only serve to pull the viewer out of the moment and lose interest in the scene.

McCarthy and Wiig both have several films to their credit that have earned solid praise for their portrayals. Unfortunately, one only has to see these fine actresses on screen for five minutes to see that they didn’t consider this a serious role to begin with. They approached their respective roles like a couple of film students spending a weekend playing around with a video camera. Throw in Saturday Night Live alum Kate McKinnon and the party becomes even more evident. She played so over-the-top silly that it was virtually impossible to believe her to be the genius mechanical engineer that builds the nuclear powered proton packs and the Ghostbuster mobile. Jones rounds out the cast as a former MTA worker who forces her way into the “club” after seeing a ghost in the subway so she can kick some ectoplasmic butt. Her big comic moment, when a ghost is perched on her shoulders in a nightclub and one of the patrons takes a selfie with her, gets lost in a scene where she breaks character and turns chicken. While her performance was not a great one, it was not the worst one either. In fact that honor goes to token boy toy Chris Hemsworth, who—to complete the entire gender role reversal—plays the Ghostbusters’ receptionist. I never bought into his character and his performance was not funny at all. In fact, his character could have been left out entirely and no one would notice. One positive thing, though, is that every main character from the original had a cameo in the reboot, except for Rick Moranis and the late Harold Ramis.

Ghostbusters is a poorly made reboot that ranks even worse than the sequel to the original. The only redeeming point is that I caught the matinee and only had to waste four-and-a-half bucks to find out that which I already knew. Ghostbusters is bad.

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Apocalypse Brings X-Men Back to the Beginning

The X-Men was one of the first comic book franchises to really break big in terms of public popularity. Oh, sure, Superman and Batman had their followings in the 70’s and the 90’s, but that was largely the fan-boy response and not indicative of the general movie-going public. But with Marvel selling the rights to Spider-man and the X-men, the comic book movie really came into its own. The X-men has been so hugely successful as a franchise that despite a lack of continuity between the titles and different actors being cast in the same roles across titles, people still follow it. It was even parodied in the Spring’s big hero surprise hit Deadpool, who commented on James McAvoy and Patrick Stewart both playing Professor X.

Courtesy 20th Century Fox

This weekend’s X-Men Apocalypse is the best of the X-Men series thus far. Brian Singer brings the best of all the previous X-Men titles together for what amounts to a reboot of the franchise; bringing the characters from the first movie and the first class while setting up for a continuation of the story beyond this title. The only actor that remains the same from the first X-Men movie is Hugh Jackman as Wolverine, who really has only a cameo in this movie. The characters of Jean Grey and Scott Summers, Phoenix and Cyclops, are recast as younger versions of themselves with Sophie Turner (Sansa Stark from Game of Thrones) as Jean and Tye Sheridan as Scott. Nightcrawler, Jubilee, Storm, and Angel are back with new actors while Charles, Magneto, Beast, Havoc, Mystique, and Quicksilver all make reappearances. One new mutant to the party is Psy-lock, played by Olivia Munn, one of the older mutants in the story.

Speaking of old mutants, what could very well be the first mutant in existence makes his appearance as the film’s titular character: Apocalypse, played by Oscar Isaac. Inadvertently awakened from a multi-millennial sleep by the overzealous CIA agent Moira McTaggart, Apocalypse sets about reclaiming his rightful place as the world’s ruler by finding the four most powerful mutants and augmenting their powers to help him enslave humanity. He finds Storm, Angel, Psylock and Magneto as his four horsemen. When Mystique learns of his existence and Magneto’s involvement, she enlists the X-Men to help foil the plan. The problem is that there are no X-Men. Charles has avoided training mutants to use their powers for combat ever since the assassination attempt on the President in “Days of Future Past.” Now Charles and Mystique must gather a bunch of young mutants with tenuous control over their abilities, and defeat five of the most powerful beings on the planet.

The film follows the industry trend of being precipitously long. As with the other superhero movies this year, it clocks in at two and a half hours long. It also tries to cram several sub plots in among the three main plots, and it can get confusing for the uninitiated. With so many characters interacting and integral to the plot, it is a challenge to weave a story that is not too complicated to follow. Fortunately, Singer manages the feat, if only just barely. There are one or two scenes where the viewer might be left wondering, “why did she do that?”

Game of Thrones alum Sophie Turner, better known as Sansa Stark, was cast as the younger Jean Grey. While many fan boys may think that Famke Janssen will always be THE Jean grey, Turner turns in a respectable performance, though she struggled with losing her English accent in a few scenes. While Jennifer Lawrence is probably the strong female hero in this story, Turner holds her own all through the film culminating the final conflict. She offers a different take on the character making Jean the pretty girl next door mutant, rather than Janssen’s exotically beautiful and worldly mutant.

Of all of the sub plots, one that has stuck around since “First Class” is Magneto’s flip flopping good and bad guy. In First Class, he is one of the first team of mutants to work with Charles, in fact it is the foundation of their lifelong relationship. His anger at the disparity in the treatment of mutants at the hands of humans always gets in the way of him doing the right thing. This film is no exception. After suffering a tragedy, Magneto is all about making humans pay, despite the pleas from Mystique and Charles. In this, Magneto is following his comic book origins of fighting against the X-Men as often as he fights alongside them.

We also finally get to see Professor Xavier bald again. It was looking for a while that only Patrick Stewart’s Xavier was going to be follicularly challenged as James McAvoy has a full head of think hair. McAvoy’s Xavier has always been more emotional and reactive than Stewart’s more mature Xavier, but now we see the effect of years of fighting and learning beginning to show up as McAvoy’s Xavier grows into the Xavier we know from Stewart. In the final scenes, it could be either actor playing the role as the more mature Xavier is finally realized.

One of the aspects of movie versions of comic book is that film designers tend to avoid the costumes depicted in the print comics. This could be for many reasons, not the least of which is that comic artists tend to draw over-sexualized costumes, particularly for the female heroes, also, spandex looks cheesy in real life and it is difficult to picture anyone taking a hero seriously while wearing skin-tight spandex in day-glo colors. Most of the comic stars have had their costumes re-imagined in a tactical ballistic nylon or Kevlar mesh and sporting darker colors. In many cases, they have no costume at all, they just wear street clothes. In this film, however, we get a nod to the comic costumes. In the final scene, the new team of X-Men enters the “danger room” to train and finally wear costumes that more closely reflect the comic book.

While this is no “Captain America: Civil War”—the best comic book movie yet—this is easily the best X-men movie thus far and while I would love to see it integrated into the Marvel Cinematic Universe alongside the Avengers and Spiderman, it seems that 20th Century Fox is finally getting the X-Men right.

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