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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.

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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.

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Young Indiana Jones 2.4 – Paris, 1916

The episode where Indy has a brief romance with Mata Hari was one of my favorites from the show’s original run. ABC originally screened it in July of 1993, one of the eight they burned off that summer after canceling the program. The hour was written by Carrie Fisher and directed by Nicholas Roeg, and guest stars the unbelievably beautiful Italian actress Domiziana Giordano as Mata Hari.

Our son was largely indifferent to the episode, when he wasn’t hiding his eyes from all the smooching. Indy handles this affair very, very badly, which is not unexpected. A seventeen year-old boy isn’t going to have his first physical relationship with a woman who is twenty-three years his senior and it end well. So we found some amusing common ground in discussing how Indy’s jealousy and envy led him to act stupidly and rashly. Not that Mata treats him all that well. After all, she’s romancing various old politicians and generals when she’s not with him.

Somewhat lost in the main story is the interesting casting of the Levis, old friends of Indy’s father, who pull strings and arrange Indy and Remy’s leave. I wouldn’t say that I’m really a fan of either Ian McDiarmid or Jacqueline Pearce, but it is kind of neat to have Senator Palpatine and Supreme Commander Servalan at the same table. (Perhaps even more interesting, there’s an episode of The Zoo Gang where Pearce’s husband is played by Peter Cushing. I guess she likes the Empire…)

And also overshadowed is the interesting note that Indy’s father has sent, suggesting that he will abandon his insistence that Indy study at Princeton if he’ll just come home. This is a little quandary. There’s absolutely nothing keeping Indy from going AWOL. “Corporal Henri Defense” doesn’t exist. As soon as he takes off the uniform and the dogtags, he could just be the American Henry Jones Jr. again and catch the next steamship for New York. But he doesn’t. He has a duty and an obligation. Home is still a long way away.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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RIP Carrie Fisher, 1956-2016

Like everybody else today, we’re very sorry to read that the actress and writer Carrie Fisher has died. She was a hugely inspirational figure and genuinely iconic in the role of Princess Leia. We’re looking forward to introducing our son to the Star Wars series next year. Our condolences and best wishes to her family and friends.

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