Category Archives: star wars

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Even before Rogue One reached its amazing final half-hour, it had become my favorite film in this series. The sense of dirt and desperation and real, terrible danger is just so engrossing that I was as captivated as could be. I started worrying, pretty early on, that nobody was getting out of this one alive. When Forest Whitaker’s character becomes collateral damage to the Death Star’s first test, I was riveted in a way that Star Wars movies, no matter how entertaining they’ve often been, rarely demand of their audience.

A second pass revealed one or two dents in this movie’s armor. I didn’t like the “no, I have to stay in this exploding base cradling dead Mads Mikkelsen while someone shouts ‘we have to leave him!’ at me” scene. They could have cut five minutes, easy, if they’d just had the Rebel Alliance agree to attack the planet Scarif, which they ended up doing anyway. But these are minor, and the film remains amazing.

I asked our son “So what’s the best Star Wars movie?” and he said “This one.” He’s right.

One of the most remarkable moments came when Donnie Yen’s character, a blind monk called Chirrut Îmwe, finally meets his end. Our son got upset with the death of a heroic character, for probably the first time since he saw the death of Jaime Sommers more than a year ago. He wasn’t bothered by the deaths of Han Solo or the Fourth Doctor, but when Chirrut dies, he was trembling and clutching his security blanket.

There’s so much to like in this movie already. I liked seeing Richard Franklin for about two seconds, and I thought the CGI Peter Cushing used to bring Governor/Grand Moff Tarkin was impressive and wonderful. Forest Whitaker’s character, an extremist so ruthless that he frightens the rest of the rebels, deserves a movie or two of his own, and there’s a droid called K-2SO, voiced by Alan Tudyk, who I like almost as much as I like R2-D2. Almost.

Then we get to the finale and when K-2 goes down and then Chirrut goes down… the lump in my throat got really big. The outer space stuff remains as exciting and wild as ever, and there’s a brief respite when one of the alien admirals (Raddus, possibly) orders a “hammerhead” ship to ram a Star Destroyer that’s lost power and plow it into another, which might just be the most wonderful and air-punching special effects moment in any of these movies.

But the cost of those plans… there’s a line in the first movie about how a lot of lives were lost getting those plans. Seeing it happen was beautifully heartbreaking. I loved Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso. I don’t need a pile of cartoon TV series or novels to expand her story. These two hours were all I needed. Erso is a very good character in a fantastic story. And the best stories have endings.

Speaking of which… as if this film wasn’t already my favorite, director Gareth Edwards waits until the last three damn minutes to calmly play his masterstroke. In the first three movies, Darth Vader was more evil and menacing by reputation than by action, unless you were a back-talking Imperial officer. Unless you’ve been reading the many comic books that have been published, you never got to see the character engage in the kind of brutal butchery he doles out at the very end of this movie. It’s remarkable.

Rogue One is a great film, and my favorite of the ten by some measure. I’m glad my kid agrees.

Advertisements

3 Comments

Filed under movies, star wars

The Force Awakens (2015)

Before we get started, I really, really encourage you all to read a criticism of The Force Awakens that my friend Matt Murray wrote. You can check it out here; it’s not a very long read. Matt’s a very good filmmaker. He’s been making independent movies of all shapes and lengths for decades. He understands cinema better than most people, and his criticism of TFA is absolutely correct. I can’t disagree with a single point that he makes there. And yet at the same time he’s completely wrong. TFA is indeed a tame and safe corporate-led rehash without an original idea in its skin and a desperate need to appeal to a diverse audience without doing anything to challenge either its characters or that audience.

But it’s fun. It’s actually fun. It’s the first time a Star Wars movie actually did anything to entertain me in more than thirty years. It was made by a director who doesn’t seem to have lost his sense of wonder, and the performances that he brings from his actors convince me that they’re genuinely people. The prequels created some nice environments that seemed extremely interesting, but even the heroes in those movies are so repellently wooden that I can’t envision what they’re doing when they’re not servicing the needs of the plot. Imagine having dinner with Finn or Poe. Now imagine having dinner with Amidala. You can’t even imagine Amidala eating.

And so, with life and joie de vivre restored to the set of a Star Wars movie for the first time in a long time, I didn’t mind this being a cover band retread. It’s fun. The previous four installments were not. That’s all that matters. Certainly I’d prefer they have gone with something more original, but they did with the next movies. TFA is the back-to-basics restatement of principles. It’s the Beatles working simple with the Get Back/Let it Be sessions before they did Abbey Road. Each of the three films that followed TFA are superior, but all four movies are better and more entertaining than the four that preceded them. I like Let it Be and Abbey Road better than Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, and the white album too.

Our son is hardly a reliable critic, but he was also pretty impressed. We teased him afterward about whether he likes movies or he just likes explosions. But despite his oddball protest that the only thing he really liked was Starkiller Base blowing up, we certainly saw him bouncing with glee at the various chase scenes and gunfights. The death of Han Solo didn’t move him much. I honestly really loved that experience when the film was first released. Kind of appropriate that an actor who’s said variations on “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” as often as Harrison Ford has would get to bow out here in a scene that put a lump in my throat for about ten solid minutes before his inevitable end, feeling that bad feeling so strongly that I hoped against hope that I was wrong.

Rewatching it, sure, the missed opportunities stand out. Some of the concessions to “cinema” over reality grate. Wouldn’t this have been a more thrilling experience if the First Order was a zero-budget terrorist organization instead of yet another galaxy-striding, who-the-hell-is-funding-this super-army with yet another Big Gun? Having felt the horrible shift in the Force that came with Ben/Kylo’s final fall and Han’s death, why does Leia choose to ignore Chewbacca when they return so that she can embrace a complete stranger?

I could go on, because, sure, it’s a movie that gets a lot wrong. But it’s also a movie that gives Max von Sydow such an overdue chance to join this universe, and which introduces us to so many interesting characters and some really fine actors. As nice as it is to see Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher casually being extremely good, my interest is in Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. As I keep saying, we see very little contemporary film and television, but I’d be willing to see them in anything. I’m a little less sold on Adam Driver, but that’s arguably a credit to how horrible a person Kylo Ren is.

I dunno how episode nine is going to end. I really prefer not to speculate much. But I can’t help myself and I really do hope it isn’t Rey who finally kills this villain. I want Chewbacca to bring him down. I’m not going to place any money on it, mind.

1 Comment

Filed under movies, star wars

Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars is rarely far from my mind these days, in part because I have a seven year-old son who yammers about it constantly, and in part because people who call themselves fans can’t go nine straight days without doing something so silly or stupid that most people wish they’d never heard of Star Wars.

For posterity, the most recent attack on common sense has been a coterie of dingbats who scheme to remake The Last Jedi to some different set of specifications. A couple of weeks ago, it was the news that actress Kelly Marie Tran had deleted her Instagram posts after concentrated harassment from bigots and misogynists.

But it’s been that way for years, hasn’t it? At some point around the time that Revenge of the Sith was released, one of the Star Wars novelists rang up Lucasfilm to get a detail for one of her books. As I recall, she wanted to know how many clone troopers were involved in the siege of such-n-such. She was told that it was a million, and fourteen readers rioted because that was too few soldiers. The author was villified; people made little computer animations depicting her as a lizard-alien peddling false statistics.

And all I always think is, why do these movies make people so hateful? I don’t get it. Sometimes they’re stupid, and sometimes the acting is wretched, but if you get disappointed with a movie, as is pretty easy to do with the prequels, just tune it out and watch something different.

I tried working out a Star Wars timeline for my son to follow it. I figure it as about 67 years between The Phantom Menace and The Last Jedi. For him, it’s all one story, all to be explored as one, and he was delighted with it. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have any preconceived notions and he hasn’t formed a bigoted opinion about what skin color the heroes are meant to have. And I kind of enjoyed working it out, whether or not my sums are right.

It’s a fun little universe to think about and play with. It’s inspired at least one really entertaining video game (Shadows of the Empire for the N64) and one thunderously wonderful comic (Death, Lies, and Treachery by John Wagner and Cam Kennedy), plus sixty gajillion cartoons and books I haven’t seen. It’s Star Wars and it’s meant to be fun. Maybe if it stops being fun, its “fans” should go watch something else.

Revenge of the Sith, meanwhile, has the terrific scene where R2-D2 sets a couple of robots on fire. Our son was thrilled to meet General Grievous, and hated seeing Anikin turn to the Dark Side, and didn’t quite understand why there was “all that metal” on the lava planet. He loved it and wants to see the next one. I hope he never does anything so idiotic as harass an actress on Instagram.

2 Comments

Filed under movies, star wars

Attack of the Clones (2002)

My wife was saying that Attack of the Clones is the worst of all these movies. I said that’s nonsense. This one has Christopher Lee in it. That automatically makes it a hundred times better than The Phantom Menace. And it is.

It’s still not a very good movie, because it also has all of this nonsense in it:

Attack of the Clones was released in 2002, which was not a very good year for me. 1992 and 2012 were also pretty downright terrible, now that I think about it. I saw this film when it was released, didn’t enjoy it very much, and didn’t think about it much after that. Over the last sixteen years, I forgot pretty much everything about it, beyond it having Christopher Lee, an action scene in a factory, and Samuel L. Jackson getting a purple lightsaber.

Oh yes, and it also has just about the worst romance ever committed to camera, which not even a hundred and sixteen years could erase. Natalie Portman might be a good actress, and I’ve never seen Hayden Christensen outside these two movies so I don’t have a particularly strong opinion of him, but I can’t think of anybody who could make this idiocy shine when the lovestruck male has to deliver lines like “You are in my very soul, tormenting me.”

Every note of their courtship is tonally terrible. This is supposed to be the love that dooms Anikin into a life of pure evil and devotion to the Dark Side, so it’s not a love anybody’s supposed to cheer, but shouldn’t it have a feeling of, I dunno, seduction? Passion that’s forbidden because it’s morally wrong, and not just violating some rules of Coruscant senate protocol and an order of karate monks? Why does it play like flowering, sweet tenderness in a lush paradise between a practical woman and her teenage stalker? If this were the hero getting the girl to love him, it would be one kind of wretched. But this is the villain’s fall. Shouldn’t it have played out, you know, villainously?

Here’s the thing: nothing about The Phantom Menace worked, but if you hacked out all of Portman and Christensen making goo-goo eyes at each other, there’s a pretty good movie in here. I think that it’s by miles the most colorful Star Wars movie. It still looks lived-in, but it also looks like a world where people actually want to live. Coruscant actually looks like a pretty swell place to visit this time. The hidden rain planet of Kamino was especially interesting to me this morning, in part because I genuinely and sincerely forgot that subplot entirely. It’s still flawed, but all the other actors are good and the action scenes entertaining.

Our son was in heaven again. He loved meeting Jango Fett, and the action scenes were as wild as he’s ever seen. The mayhem on the conveyor belts in the factory had him so overstimulated that he was off the sofa and halfway up the staircase. R2-D2 and C-3PO were reliably ridiculous, and the movie had plenty of shocks and surprises.

He has received sets of Micro Machines and Lego Star Wars from relatives for Christmas and his birthday. He absolutely loves it when he spots a starfighter that he’s been using in bedroom floor battles for weeks.

Because the toys are part of the fabric of his life, I decided to rearrange the movie schedule so he can see them all and get them absorbed and, of course, rewatch them again and again sooner than I originally planned. So we’ll look at Sith next month instead of at the end of the summer, and probably watch the next three before the end of the year. He was pretty happy about that, and has been pestering his mom to come join him in the floor with Rose, Finn, BB-8, and some Lego contraption as soon as she’s free.

Leave a comment

Filed under movies, star wars

The Phantom Menace (1999)

You said it, Jar Jar.


Okay, so we do have a few subscribers who might actually want more than five words about this berry berry bad movie, and it’s possible that one day our son might want to revisit this blog and see what we watched together. For posterity’s sake, then, this was one of the longest chores I’ve sat through. Somehow, though, when I was younger and more prone to want to see big movies on the big screen, I paid for this turkey three damn times.

One of those times was around early June, 1999. It was my oldest son’s first movie in a theater. He lasted thirty minutes, got bored, and walked to the exit. Admittedly he was really young – too young for a theater trip – but I’d been persuaded that he might enjoy the bragging rights to saying that a Star Wars movie was his first movie in a theater. Eh, it was only twenty bucks or so.

This kid, however, didn’t walk out, although the agonizing talk of trade negotiations, senate procedure, and votes of no confidence certainly left him almost as bored as the grown-ups. He really enjoyed the pod race, and the appearance of favorite characters from the original movie, and the big climactic space battle. The best scene of all was when Anakin fired “those two bullets to start everything blowing up.”

It is – I’m sure it must be – the thrill of something brand new, but our favorite six year-old critic says that enjoyed this film more than the other three, and he liked Jar Jar Binks a whole lot. But that’s always been the case. Kids have always liked Jar Jar, because he’s a character for children. (And incidentally, I was quite taken with actor Ahmed Best’s defense of his performance for Entertainment Weekly. It’s worth a read.)

And these are, as much as some snarling “adults” wish for them to be otherwise, movies for the whole family.

Binks is the reason for the subtitle in the picture up top. Our son enjoyed Binks, but he complained that he couldn’t understand what he was saying. So we watched the movie with subtitles, and I’m very pleased that he’s reading so well that it helped him follow it.

As for me, no, but it’s nice to look at. The costumes and landscapes are interesting. None of the actors do a particularly standout job, though I remember enjoying Ewan McGregor much more in the next two movies. Oliver Ford Davies, Samuel L. Jackson, Ian McDiarmid, Liam Neeson, Ray Park, Natalie Portman, Terence Stamp, and BRIAN BLESSED have all done better work in other films. At least I think Neeson has. Like Prentis Hancock, he’s one of those actors I just never enjoy. I guess in retrospect it’s kind of amusing that they cast Stamp, of all people, as a man without a backbone. That’s all I have. It’s a berry berry bad movie.

Leave a comment

Filed under movies, star wars

Return of the Jedi (1983)

There used to be a magazine that I enjoyed called Sci-Fi Universe. In 1997, they published a story called “Fifty Reasons Why We Hate Return of the Jedi.” Most of it was the sort of nitpicking that gives Star Wars such a splendid reputation, but it was all really funny, especially one key problem that I had with it when I was twelve: “It’s just a bunch of Muppets.”

And so, when I was twelve, I didn’t watch this movie. I’ve mentioned how insufferable I was as a twelve year-old before; basically, take my present levels of obnoxiousness and ramp them up to eleven. And twelve year-old me saw publicity photos of Jabba the Hutt and the Ewoks and the green pig guards and that piano-playing elephant and said “Nope, not for me.” I didn’t see this film until the early nineties. I didn’t buy a single trading card, and not one action figure. And it wasn’t like I had suddenly turned against kid-friendly sci-fi. I was addicted to DC Comics’ Legion of Superheroes in 1983, and was about eight months from discovering Doctor Who. I just had absolutely zero interest in Star Wars.

Not one frame of this boring movie has shown that I was wrong.

Regurgitating at length what I think is wrong with this movie would just be counter-productive. Overall, it just feels like a contractually-obligated hangover. I enjoy the scene where they go out to the Sarlacc, and nothing else. But this is supposed to be about evaluating or reevaluating movies with a six year-old and seeing what he sees, and he really enjoyed everything he saw.

All that physical comedy that seems like it was made for kids? It was, and it worked for him. He thought Jabba’s posse was full of frightening and menacing aliens, and the Rancor was scariness incarnate. The speeder bike chase amazed him, the space battle had him on the edge of his seat and furiously kicking his legs. I asked him to tell me more about what he thought.

“I really liked the Death Star exploding and the big fight, yeah, I loved those. And I loved that blue elephant thing, because it’s blue, and I like blue, and I like elephants, he was funny. The scariest part was when the Emperor was shooting out like, electric out of his hands. I did not like that at all, it was too creepy. The old characters were my favorites, but I also liked those furry things that were in the big fight, those little ones? I really liked those because I like furry things! The furry things caught everybody in a net, and R2-D2 cut the net and they went falling out of it!”

I would absolutely rather watch Message From Space or Starcrash than this movie. I’d rather watch any of the other Star Wars installments, even the prequels, which also suffer from Ian McDiarmid stinking up the place with his awful line delivery. But that’s great that the kid loved it. I’m glad he got to see it before he got jaded.

Actually, I will tell you what might annoy me most of all. The end of this film was likely to be the last time that the major characters ever appeared. For six years, they were just about as popular and identifiable as any characters in the popular culture of the time, parodied and imitated in equal measure. Star Wars wasn’t just some thing for children or nerds, it was mass culture and deserved its success. You might could argue that the toxic elements of fandom, along with Jar Jar Binks, eventually turned that around. Most people don’t care who or what General Grievous is, but every adult in the western world could identify Darth Vader in 1983.

The characters deserved a sendoff. We should have been able to say goodbye to them and share their final conversation together, their last words.

But we can’t hear a thing they’re saying because George Lucas figured we needed to hear the Ewoks singing their jub-jub song instead. Damn, I hate this movie.

Leave a comment

Filed under movies, star wars

The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Our son told me “I can’t wait to watch the next Star Wars movie! It has Imperial Skywalkers in it!” I think he’s been getting peeks and hints from Angry Birds tie-in games. Forgetting, briefly, that they’re also called Imperial Walkers, I told him that they were AT-ATs and AT-STs. “Well, I want to call them Imperial Skywalkers.”

And speaking of things being called one thing and not another, I never realized that Boba Fett is never actually named in this movie. We all knew it in elementary school – we had the toy, we saw the Holiday Special – but here he’s just “the bounty hunter.” How odd.

But the anticipation buildup for this film was the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen from our son. There have been times where he’s not entirely gung-ho to watch what we’ve selected, but he’s been on pins and needles for two weeks. This morning, he appeared at the top of the steps and announced that he was too excited to brush his teeth and wanted to start the movie right now. He didn’t want breakfast. We insisted. You’ve never seen anybody resent peanut butter toast so much in your life.

Like all of us, I love this movie. I love how the cast is full of familiar faces like Julian Glover, John Hollis, Milton Johns, and Michael Sheard. Apparently John Ratzenberger is in it somewhere, too, but I never spot him. Our son agreed, full of energy and excitement and worry about the oddest things – he grumbled that he hoped that Luke brought an extra oil can for R2-D2 when they land on Dagobah – and he was scared out of his mind by Luke and Vader’s duel. I made a rare intervention as he hid his eyes under a pillow and said “You better watch.” There are certain moments you’d never forgive yourself for missing.

Spoilers are strange things. When we were kids, the news that Vader was Luke’s father spread like wildfire, and we all went “OhmyGodREALLY?!” I lost that desire or need such a long time ago. I can’t stand having anything spoiled. I was in a grocery store checkout line about three weeks before The Phantom Menace opened and flipped open a children’s tie-in book to see the artwork. The book landed on “Qui-Gon was dead, but his–” and I darn near threw the book across the store. Our son seems to be one of the few who didn’t learn that Vader is Anikin beforehand. It didn’t blow his mind, but it’s a good hook to talk about before we watch the next film in four months or so.

I did try and talk him out of it. I don’t actually like the next four films. The most recent two have been great fun, but I’d honestly rather watch many other movies before Return of the Jedi. I’ve been overruled, though. He insists on seeing Darth Vader defeated, which somebody somewhere seems to have told him happens in “the last movie,” even if nobody told him who Darth Vader actually was.

3 Comments

Filed under movies, star wars

Star Wars (1977)

Star Wars celebrated its 40th anniversary this week, so we sat down to watch it this afternoon. Our son just hopped and squeaked with excitement. “My first Star Wars movie!!!” he yelled. We told him at the playground that we’d decided to watch the movie this afternoon instead of Sunday morning. He and some seven year-old immediately started swordfighting with imaginary light sabers.

It’s fascinating to watch this through the eyes of a kid and see what they know already, since its impact on culture has been so great that elements of it are simply as ubiquitous as football and pop music. My opinion on marketing might not be worth a whole lot, but I’ll say on my death bed that the absolute stupidest thing that Lucas or Disney or whoever did to this property was make Darth Vader not scary anymore. How is anybody meant to be frightened of Darth Vader when they turned him into a Mr. Potato Head? Boy, that wasn’t the case when we were kids.

But if you remember – and we’ll come back to this next week – none of us really went into Star Wars blind. The movie was released, they say, on May 25 1977, but I certainly didn’t see it until January or February the following year, and I think that’s the case for many people my age. But we had trading cards and toys. I’ve kept few of my treasures from childhood, but I’ve still got a mostly complete set of Topps cards – missing one green border and six yellows – and my classmates, friends, and I breathlessly assembled our knowledge from little pieces of ancillary information. Heaven knows the movie itself keeps its secrets. You wouldn’t know from watching these 120 minutes that Biggs Darklighter and Wedge Antilles have lives outside the cockpits of their X-Wings.

My wife and I learned today that this continues. After R2-D2 gets zapped by the Jawas, he’s carried off to a vehicle that our son recognized. “A Sandcrawler!” he shouted. He knew exactly what that was. He watches videos on YouTube that teenage Lego fans make about their constructions and Sandcrawlers, of all things, are remarkably popular.

Of course, some of it he didn’t actually understand. In some places that might be because Baby Harrison Ford and Baby Mark Hamill had not quite learned how to act yet, and their line delivery is occasionally kind of rushed and unclear. Thanks to them, our son thought that the “Jumbo Lightspeed” was a remarkably cool special effect. But my favorite of his announcements came when the flight squadrons started getting together on Yavin’s moon and he recognized an X-Wing but didn’t know what it was called. “Hey! A Star Wars ship!”

Indeed, he loved this movie to pieces. He was jumping and cheering during the final battle and would have been riveted for another hour, easy. Me, I thought it was a little odd and, especially in light of the later films and their casts of billions and hundreds of planets, small. I haven’t actually sat down to watch it in such an incredibly long time that I’d forgotten just how much stuff happens on Tattooine before they get to Mos Eisley. It’s a wonderfully busy film, and I think that in lesser circumstances, Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing would have easily dominated everybody and everything.

Imagine this movie made just five or six years before, without the set design and creatures and visual effects that keep your attention so focused on the solid reality of this incredibly unreal place. Think about how strange those mile-deep maintenance shafts are, and how for some insane reason the architects decided to stick the tractor beam controls right in the middle of a fall-to-your-death chasm. Guinness and Cushing would have stolen the movie outright if this had been a 1972 Hammer/Seven Arts film, in much the same way Cushing had walked away with At the Earth’s Core the year before. (We’ll get to that movie in a few months!) But Star Wars so masterfully presents its place that even the isolated case of overacting – really only that “ultimate power in the universe” guy that Vader Force-chokes – doesn’t take audiences out of the picture very much.

I really don’t have anything more to say than that. Star Wars, like The Wizard of Oz which we watched recently, has been written about so much already that the other things I did feel like mentioning have been done to death. Chewbacca didn’t get a medal, you know. Yeah, they’ve addressed that in at least two comic books!

So anyway, happy birthday, Star Wars. Thanks for all the memories, and we won’t make your newest fan wait three years to see what happens next.

Leave a comment

Filed under movies, star wars