Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) movie poster

director Rian Johnson
viewed: 01/07/2018 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

For maybe the first time, I sat in a theater seat when the Star Wars theme cranks up and the scroll starts that I didn’t have the brief flutter in my pulse. This has less to do with Star Wars: The Last Jedi than perhaps just me and where I’ve gotten to in my relationship with the film series. I mean, it had been out for three weeks before I finally saw it. I don’t think you could have explained that to my 10 year old self.

I wonder how anyone has a personal relationship with Star Wars anymore. It’s so globalized and ubiquitous.

I won’t try to add to the myriad litany of discourse here other than to say that, yes, I liked The Last Jedi. I liked the new characters, I liked the development of Luke and Leia and definitely did indeed feel that flutter at seeing Mark Hamill’s (and all of our) goodbye to Carrie Fisher. Kudos to Rian Johnson on taking the series into new spheres. I hope that they continue to do so.

It was most definitely too long of a movie.

Alien: Covenant (2017)

Alien: Covenant (2017) movie poster

director Ridley Scott
viewed: 05/28/2017 at Alamo Drafthouse Cinema – New Mission, SF, CA

For my money, Alien: Covenant is entertaining enough. Michael Fassbender is by far the best thing in the film. But this Prometheus sequel by any other name is indeed a step toward explaining things that don’t really need explaining and building a world that was more interesting to just imagine.

Now, I liked Prometheus. Five years ago writers Jon Spaihts and Damon Lindelof were at the time criticized for opening up all these unanswered questions and ideas in that film. Director Ridley Scott seems to have come back with a mind to answer all of those questions, though only in part in this film. Rumors say he has two other Alien films in his hopper, awaiting future creation and release.

Visually polished, Alien: Covenant is nice-looking. But it’s got other holes in logic and issues of preordainment (is that a word?) Frankly, it’s frustrating to take more seriously and yet it refuses to just be a horror film. It really wants to think big thoughts.

I look at it this way: we’ll always have Alien. And we’ll even have Aliens. But we may never have anything that begins to have the vitality of those movies in our over-franchised movie world. No matter who makes them.

Rogue One (2016)

Rogue One (2016) movie poster

director Gareth Edwards
viewed: 12/17/2016 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

Rogue One is the first of a wave of an endless barrage of Star Wars movies, “anthology”, “one-off”, “outside of the main canon.”  And for the most part, it lands solidly on the beachhead.  It’s got a good idea for a story, how the Death Star plans were stolen prior to the original 1977 film.  And it features a multi-ethnic cast of interesting characters, interesting at least in an ensemble picture, played affably by several appealing actors.

For those of whom found The Force Awakens (2015) to be trading too heavily on the original films without really innovating…is this more of the same?  Or a relatively fresh breath of air?

For all the positive, the script and dialogue are often painfully bad.  It’s one thing if George Lucas is cramming stupid words in actors’ mouths.  The committees and hordes of writers on this film should have been able to do better.  Ben Child of The Guardian makes a good case that the film may have gone through some rather extreme re-direction, which could account for some of the writing foibles.  I’ll leave that speculation and quibbling to others.

I was personally very off-put by the CGi reincarnation of Peter Cushing.  His sallow, lank, dead-eyed appearance was really disturbing.  It lacked the nuance and character that Cushing brought in real life and seems another glaring warning from the future that you could be resurrected digitally at any time and besmirch your legacy through no fault of your own.

My kids both liked it.  My daughter more so than my son (as is quite typical these days).

I found the ending interesting, if eventually inevitable.  That (spoiler alert) all of the new characters are dead at the end, yet still tying it decidedly to the original film was a moderately bold move.

Still, I have to say that for all of its short-comings, Lucas’s original films were original films, his vision, a unique and fresh creation.  These new films are corporate products first, playing with ideas and styles and a universe that maybe no longer belongs to Lucas, but will never, ever resultingly be truly fresh or original.  Maybe quite entertaining.  Maybe even good.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) movie poster

director J.J. Abrams
viewed: 12/19/2015 at CineArts @ the Empire Theater, SF, CA

I don’t know what I have to add to the overall universe of discussion and commentary on Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but here are my two bits nonetheless.

First and foremost, it’s quite good.  A lot of fun, promising, nostalgic, and successful.

With his work in the Star Trek universe, director/co-writer J.J. Abrams rebooted that franchise by reinhabiting its original cast by hiring actors to play versions of its original crew, rejiggering its universe with alternate timelines, and hitting the notes of nostalgia while laying the groundwork for an entertaining group of actors in the roles of the original gang.  Whatever you think of either Star Trek (2009) or Star Trek Into Darkness (2013), it’s hard to argue with the casting of the newbies.

In Star Wars though, this isn’t a reboot and he’s not hiring actors to imitate originals.  Instead, these are the children (literally and figuratively) of the original cast, and while the main characters are essentially all new, they are deeply imbued with echoes of the original trilogy.  My daughter kept asking me if Rey (Daisy Ridley) was going to turn out to be Princess Leia.  Because though her brown hair isn’t done up in anything like either Leia or Princess Amidala’s notable configurations, she’s a plucky brunette, sure to appeal to those who admired Carrie Fisher or Natalie Portman.

Likewise, it is easy to see R2-D2 in BB-8, our new model robot pal.  And villainous Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is actively looking to embody his grandfather, Darth Vader.  He doesn’t yet need the mask/helmet that disguises his voice and face, but he likes it and models his entire being on the Sith lord of yore, if not yet quite so impressively.

A lot has been made of the diversity of the cast of the new film: putting a female in the lead hero role and a black guy in a stormtrooper costume outraged idiots somewhere on the internet.  Diversity is good, but why it works is because this new cast, including John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are all well-cast and are deftly drawn as characters that an audience will want to see more of.  Worthy new additions to the galaxy of characters.  I will say that Driver’s Ren isn’t necessarily a home run, though he shows possibility.  And I will wonder aloud about casting the almost alien beauty of Lupita Nyong’o in a motion-capture character, utterly animated.  That seems like a missed opportunity in more than one way.

The real heft of the film’s nostalgia is the return to the screen of Leia, Luke (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca, C-3P0, R2, and of course, Han Solo (Harrison Ford).  While those entirely in costume haven’t aged a day, those human beings who haven’t reprised these roles in 32 years returning to screen as characters so near and dear to the hearts of so many is really the clincher.  Sure, Leonard Nimoy graced Star Trek in a weird young-meets-old segment, but The Force Awakens shows us our heroes who have aged right along with the rest of us, introducing us to the next generation of Star Wars characters, but significantly invested in them.

When Hamill, Fisher, and Ford first took on these roles, it wasn’t in a franchise yet.  The first trilogy virtually invented the modern franchise (I say virtually because there are certain precedents).  The Force Awakens IS launching a franchise.  I would argue that this is a significant difference.  The wait for the sequel is already known.  The opening date for the third film in the trilogy is already set for 2019, and Disney (now the parent of the franchise) promises a Star Wars film a year for as far away into the future as you could project.

My guess is this movie will make the money it needs to assure this without any doubt.  And my guess is that Abrams has delivered a film that will satisfy and excite enough that these future films are already eagerly awaited.

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)

Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) movie poster

director George Lucas
viewed: 01/02/2015

You know, though it’s probably the least bad of the prequel trilogy Star Wars movies, Revenge of the Sith is still not a very good flick.  By contrast with The Phantom Menace (1999) and Attack of the Clones (2002), it’s certainly a tad better.  The deepest weaknesses of those two movies, Jar-Jar Binks, Jake Lloyd, and the romance components are all more or less nullified.  But it’s still ham-fisted and truly shabby in others.

In the end, when Darth Vader learns of the death of Padme and his baby and cries out, “NOOOoooo!!!”, you have both immensely tired cliché and emoting from one of filmdom’s most stoic of villains.  And the sucker punch of lame right at the end.

For the most part, the film trades on unfolding a story that Star Wars fans had imagined or projected for years and years, the origins of Darth Vader, how he came to be, and the set-up for the original Star Wars trilogy, so loved and appreciated by so many.  So, good or bad throughout most of it, it holds one’s interest and distracts from itself through much of it.

But it’s still not very good.

This viewing of the trilogy was for Clara, who had never seen them, and works in some early preparation for the new Star Wars movies due out late this very selfsame year.  Good or bad or middling, it’s doubtful that they will suffer the pitfalls of the prequel trilogy, but it is certain that they will carry their own onuses and threats and promises.  If there is anything that one can be certain of regarding them, it’s simply that they bear the future of a very, very profitable franchise and are without a doubt merely the tip of the iceberg of things to come.

Clara enjoyed the series overall.  She was actually wanting to see the original film again — it’s been a couple years now.  So who knows?

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002)

Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones (2002) movie poster

director George Lucas
viewed: 12/31/2014

This run-through of the Star Wars prequel series has been for my 10 year old daughter Clara who had never seen the films.  We’d watched the original trilogy a while back and I had wanted those to sink in as “the real Star Wars” or something.  We’d just viewed Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) about a week earlier so it was all more fresh in my mind than any other viewing of this film.

Interestingly, I wrote about Attack of the Clones twice before here.  Once, on its initial release and again just before Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005) came out.  I do catch these films on television in bits and bobs enough that I’ve actually seen most of them again at several points over the years too (I only write about films when I sit through them from start to finish).

Though I’d long held that The Phantom Menace was the worst Star Wars film, I’m now kind of wondering if Attack of the Clones isn’t almost a tie.  I think that the combined dislike of Jar-Jar Binks and Jake Lloyd pushed the former to the top of my list of the worst pretty definitively, but you know, the love story sequences between Anakin and Padme are as bad as anything.  And the “adventure” scene in the droid factory is like a barely live-action version of the badly animated The Clone Wars television show.

Overall, it’s more enjoyable, I guess, especially the final 45 minutes or so or whatever.  But really, maybe I’ve been a little wrong all these years.  Maybe it’s not so much an improvement but a lateral shift in quality.

The dialogue in the love scenes is just so AAuugghh!

Clara enjoyed it overall.  Especially Yoda getting to fight Count Dooku.

The finale is pending.

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) movie poster

director George Lucas
viewed: 12/24/2014

This was for my 10 year old daughter who had never seen the Star Wars prequel trilogy.  Last year, we completed the first cycle of Star Wars movies and I had wanted to let that sink in.  The prequels tarnished the reputation of the original series, but it’s easy to imagine that someone of a more modern generation not fully grasping the difference right off the bat.  So, I figured we’d wait to see episodes I-III.

I don’t think it’s radical to state that Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace is the worst of the six movies.  Starting next year, with the release of Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015), the J.J. Abrams-directed first of the new Disney franchising of Star Wars, we are about to enter an all-new onslaught/glut of Star Wars as never before seen or conceived.  Who knows, they might be good, great, meh or terrible, but the only thing for certain is that the original films and even this second series will soon be diminished at least by volume in an ever-growing empire (haha) of franchise-ization looming far into the future

Hard to imagine The Phantom Menace as quaint, but I reckon it will be by comparison.

I recall vividly first seeing trailers for The Phantom Menace and being overwhelmed with excitement.  The John Williams score on top of the vivid visual images from the film tapped into a deep, deep part of me.  It looked great.  And frankly a lot of the movie still “looks” pretty good.  There is a lot of great design and costuming.

But it’s terrible, too.

George Lucas somehow managed to expose his greatest weaknesses in this film, like some confluence of his worst elements, which overshadow any qualities the film actually retains.  The Phantom Menace traded on immense goodwill.  People freaking love Star Wars.  They were ready to be awed and amazed.

Then there was Jar-Jar Binks.  Even if Binks wasn’t intended as racist a caricature as he appeared, he was massively annoying.  In 1999, fully digitally animated characters interacting with live-action actors was still moderately new and was far from perfected.  Jar-Jar is both a horribly conceived character and also weak from an overall execution standpoint.  Digital animation makes massive strides every year, and Jar-Jar, technically innovative at the time, does not read well visually.  It’s not surprising that Lucas suppressed him through the latter films of the series in large part due to critical and fan response.

Jake Lloyd, bless him, is also completely awful.  It’s hard to blame an 8 year old for his performance in such a critical role as the young Anakin Skywalker (and eventual Darth Vader), and so I don’t blame him at all.  He’s terrible and it’s entirely Lucas’s fault.  He wrote the lines Lloyd has to speak, selected the kid, directed the kid, and ultimately put him up on screen as wooden, awful, and pandering a presence as one could imagine.  At least he draws some attention away from Jar-Jar Binks.

You’ve got good actors like Ewan McGregor, Liam Neeson, Natalie Portman, and many others contending with Lucas’s dialogue.  It’s not hard to understand why a kid would come off the worst for the whole in comparison.

The racial stereotypes are also extremely hard to fathom.  It was 1999, not 1931, but yet you have the Stepin Fetchit-esque Binks and the Jamaican cum Creole Gungans, the insidious East Asian inflected Neimoidians, and Watto, a pawn dealer-like Jewish character seemingly from another era.  Lucas has of course denied such claims up and down but the reality is there onscreen.  It’s hard not to read them as racist stereotypes.

Reductive analysis of Lucas’s Star Wars universes typically can be insightful.  I had a film professor who equated Tatooine with Modesto, CA (Lucas’s home planet) and the more beautiful Yavin 4 as the Bay Area.  Maybe the Death Star is Los Angeles and Hollywood, I can’t recall.  But with planets of snow and planets of desert, it’s easy enough to read singular places and races as representative of individual groups or countries of our real world.

The film has a convoluted plot set-up that of course lines up the narrative for the other five films.  And oddly enough, if it wasn’t for all the really awful parts of the film, maybe there is a reasonable amount of good stuff too.  The bad stuff certainly distracts from the good.

Clara found Jar-Jar annoying and Jake Lloyd really awful but I think she enjoyed the movie otherwise.  I actually hadn’t seen it in full in some time myself.  I think it runs on regular television enough that I’ve managed to catch parts off and on to have almost seen the whole more than the one time I sat through it in the theater in somewhat shocked disappointment.

This time through, I still found it awful and annoying in the aforementioned ways, but I enjoyed aspects of it as well.  Clara has an understanding of the whole from pop culture and video games and other things, so though Felix claimed to have watched The Phantom Menace six to ten times, we’ll be sitting down before too long to take in the final films of the series.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/15/2013

I was already a little burned out on The Lord of the Rings before we began watching The Return of the King.  And it turned out that the kids were as well.  Not that they entirely realized it.

Peter Jackson’s Academy Award-winning finale is the longest of his trilogy and arguably actually the weakest.  It’s not just fatigue with the story and general tiresomeness of sitting through so many hours, but it’s not as compelling, it seems either.  His winning the Oscar for Best Picture for the film was more of a tip of the hat for the overall accomplishment of such a massive epic rendering relayed through the three films.  That seemed clear even at the time.  Besides, Hollywood loves commercial success.

In revisiting the series for the first time in a decade, my main thoughts are that the casting and designs are the best qualities of the films.  Elijah Wood and Sean Astin are quite a good pair as Frodo and Sam and their hobbit bromance.  Ian McKellen is great as Gandalf and everyone else is pretty good as whoever else they are.  And the digitally-enhanced New Zealand is very impressive and awesome.  Heck, even the orcs are lovingly repulsive.

The digital effects have aged okay.  As I’ve noted, there are some digital “camera shots” that I think look more dated than other effects.  I still stand by the statement that digital effects overall seem to age badly.  Gollum still reads pretty well, but I think it’s more to do with the character development in this.  The digital Gollum was a breakthrough in its day, but actor Andy Sirkis brought a lot of that to life in ways that will perhaps keep the film fresh for years to come.

But the finale was all about fatigue.  I asked Felix which film he liked most and he said that he thought The Two Towers (2002) was his favorite.  He couldn’t really say why, but I think that the Gollum character is a key part of the trilogy’s arc (at least the film trilogy) and he has his best moments in The Two Towers.  Both Felix and Clara enjoyed the series overall but focused a lot less throughout this one.  I think we’re all glad it’s over.

It was still very amusing and very “meta” for me and them as they viewed it through the influence of LEGO The Lord of the Rings video gaming, which added familiarity at a removed level, something I encountered only vicariously through them.

Maybe one day, they’ll read the books.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 09/07/2013

The kids wanted to watch The Lord of the Rings, march right through the series.  I warned them that these movies are all loooong.  At three hours, though, The Two Towers is much shy of the finale in length.

I hadn’t revisited the films since seeing them in the theater a decade ago on their initial release.  They are epic enough once.

The films are largely wonderfully cast and designed.  The worlds of Middle Earth and the characters find beautiful rendering in Peter Jackson’s films.

But here in 2013, we are dealing with Jackson’s hubristic The Hobbit (2012) series, pumped up as long as the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy, while based on a much more slim volume.  So, some cynicism has arisen in my heart at Jackson, even in viewing this older films.

Not entirely fair.  But there you go.

The kids really enjoyed the film.  Gollum makes for an interesting and sympathetic hook.  Felix actually fell asleep for the last hour of the film and caught up watching it with Clara the next day.  She gladly sat through the ending again.  Still influenced by Felix’s playing of LEGO The Lord of the Rings.

We’re all ready to watch the finale next Saturday.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001) movie poster

director Peter Jackson
viewed: 08/31/2013

Inspired by his play on LEGO Lord of the Rings video game, Felix asked for us to queue up ye olde Peter Jackson trilogy, noting that Clara had never seen them.

The funny thing is that while neither child has read the books and Clara had indeed not seen the films, they frequently “recognized” scenes from the movie that were re-created for LEGO Lord of the Rings, scenes played out by LEGO versions of the cast in direct mimicry of the films.  Clara kept noting, “I remember this scene!”  Which, if you think about it, is truly bizarre.  But there you go.  It’s a weird mega-post-modern universe in which the generations of interpretation and reference transcend media like crazy in just this way.

Not that I have a problem with it.  I just think it’s kind of weird.

For me, I kind of tripped out that this film is from 2001 and thus 12 years old.  I’d written about it here before on its initial theatrical run, long before I would have watched it with Felix and before Clara was even a glimmer in my eye.

But the only real thing I felt this time around was annoyed again with some of the computerized camera shots, zooming around Mordor in fantastical flights that have no weight in reality and somehow nagged at me back in 2002 as it does now.  The effects don’t look as dated as they might except for the “camerawork” in those sequences (in my opinion).

Other than that, it’s freaking long (3 hours) and we’re queuing up the other films for coming weekends.  The kids enjoyed it.