Ant-Man and the Wasp

Wow, I haven’t updated this site in an eon, have I?  Well, I figure that it’s best to get back into the habit of regular updates.  And I just saw the latest Marvel film yesterday, so that gives me something to talk about.

The film begins with Scott Lang (the titular Ant Man played by Paul Rudd) spending time with his daughter.  Being under house arrest for three years after the events of Captain America: Civil War has left him out of the superhero business and he’s spending more time with his family.

But this is a superhero film, so things don’t stay very domestic for long.  Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) and his daughter, Hope van Dyne (Evengline Lilly), have built a machine that can travel to the subatomic quantum realm.  There, they hope of rescue Hank’s wife and Hope’s mother, Janet van Dyne (Michelle Pfieffer)  after she was lost on the subatomic scale while performing a feat of heroism back during the Cold War.

And that’s the gist of the plot.  It’s one of the few superhero films that I can think of where the plot is wholly created by the protagonists instead of having the heroes react to something.  There’s no major metropolitan cities in danger and no villain hell-bent on conquering the world.  But this wouldn’t be much of a superhero film without something to hinder out heroes.

That’s where the villain Ghost comes in.  She almost feels shoehorned in because people assume that a superhero film has to have a villain.  Not to say that Ghost is a bad addition.  Like I said, no one is trying to conquer the world and Ghost’s motives are rather neutral and she is only considered a villain because her motives are at odds with those of the protagonists’.  She’s played by Hannah John-Kamen, who gives the character a gravitas that is almost at odds with the tone.  Her presence is the darkest thing in the film but still manages to fit.

And that’s the plot.  It’s not an ‘epic’ film but it is certainly the most personable of the Marvel films.  Definitely the most child-friendly of the bunch.  Don’t be afraid to take your kids to see this one.  If I have to compare this to another movie, it wouldn’t be another Marvel film or even another superhero film.  “Ant-Man and the Wasp” has more in common with sci-fi comedies like the “Back to the Future” films and “Honey, I Shrunk the Kids”.

Michael Peña and his buddies from the first film also make a comeback.  I admit, I wasn’t a fan of the sidekick trio from the first Ant-Man film.  I thought that they were tacked-on and that more screen-time should have been given to other characters like Hope Van Dyne.  In this film, their presence feels much more organic and natural.  Peña’s performance is a scene-stealer and I hope he comes back for Ant-Man 3.

Shrinking is a pretty silly superpower and the people who wrote this film know that and know how to use it to the fullest extent possible.  The film is very much an action-comedy in the guise of a superhero film.  The movie climaxes in a car chase that involves shrinking and growing in amazingly inventive ways.  The special effects are not the most polished, but that’s almost irrelevant because realism is not the point of this film.

A lot of folks complain about Marvel’s continuity and how difficult it is to keep track of.  There’s nothing to fear here.  Ant-Man and the Wasp is fairly standalone, even as a sequel.  There are references to previous Marvel movies but the script keeps the audience on track and up-to-date on everything they need to know.

If you’re looking for something sweeping and heavy, then you’ll be disappointed.  But if you like a lighter fun ride, then I heartily recommend Ant-Man and the Wasp.

So, yeah, I certainly recommend Ant-Man and the Wasp.

 

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Thoughts on Gundam, Iron-Blooded Orphans

Leave the Gundam, Take the Cannoli

Have I mentioned how much I’m really digging the new Gundam show? Because I am really digging the new Gundam show. Recent iterations of the franchise have tried to aim at a younger audience with mixed results. I enjoyed the silliness of Build Fighters and disparaged AGE and G-Reco. Iron-Blooded Orphans takes the franchise back to a harder and grittier scene. The result is a more mature show, which is exactly what the franchise needs.

The gist is fairly simple. The story begins on a terraformed Mars in the far future. The period is set some three hundred odd years after a huge future war ravaged the solar system. Earth is divided into four economic blocks and has colonies on Mars. A military organization called Gjallarhorn enforces the peace on both planets.

The main characters a group of child soldiers who work for a PMC (Private Military Contractor) run by abusive adults on Chryse, a Martian city. They manage to create their own PMC, named Tekkadan, and strike out on their own. They are contracted to escort an aristocratic lady from Mars to Earth for political reasons. The odds are not in their favor but they do have a Gundam on their side, so that helps.

The plot is a little bare at this point. Tekkadan leaves Mars to take a politician to Earth to lobby for Matian rights and they all have issues along the way. They clash with the aristocratic Gjallarhorn, ally with an interplanetary mafia, and fight punk space pirates.

The main character is a boy named Mikazuki Argus. (Or Mika for short.) Most Gundam protagonists fall into the archetype of being a technical genius that happens to fall into the cockpit of a giant mecha in the middle of a war. A few are trained pilots enlisted in a military. Mika is a child soldier from Mars. He was drafted into a private military contractor called CGS from a very young age and given risky surgery that gives him a port in his spine that allows him to connect directly by wire to mobile suits to operate them.

Mika has a rather stoic personality. Not exactly anything new, as previous Gundam protagonists like Hiro and Setsuna had similar demeanors. But whereas Setsuna had the charm of a brick and Hrio’s characterization was too inconsistent, Mika feels more natural. We see him take pleasure in things. He enjoys snacks, for instance. And we see him take interest in other people.

The rest of the character roster is appropriately fleshed-out. The deuteragonist is another teen soldier named Orga Itsuki, who becomes the leader of the PMC and is the one to rename it Tekkadan (Iron Flower). If Mika is the muscle, then Orga is definitely the brains of the outfit. The two’s relationship is a little deeper than that, though. They grew up and fought together in the same company. Orga feels pressured by Mika to be a capable leader and to be inventive with their battle plans, (even though Mika does not appear to be aware that Orga feels this way). Mika also seems a little too compliant with carrying out Orga’s sometimes insane plans, including killing people in cold blood.

I’m interested in seeing how their relationship will change over the series. Is Orga going to abuse Mika’s trust? Is Mika going to gain more awareness?

I wish more could be done with the third main character, Kudelia. She is the lady to commissions Tekkadan to take her to Earth. She appears to be a very politically charged person but she has little to do with moving the plot along. She is not a fighter or a tactician but I thought that she could at least do something like negotiate with the mobsters they run into or be involved in some kind of decision making. Here’s hoping that she’ll have more importance in the future.

The rest of the cast is fleshed out with quirky sidekicks, shifty allies, aggressive yet honorable antagonists, and a few outright psycho antagonists. (I never feel right using the word ‘villian’ for a Gundam character.) And, of course, there are plenty of characters with ridiculous names. It would not be a Gundam show, otherwise. So far, we have names like Naze Turbine, Biscuit Griffon, and McGillis Fareed. Yes, McGillis is a personal name in this strange future world. I imagine that these sound foreign and exotic to a native Japanese speaker, but they are a little silly to an American English speaker like me.

Of course, every protagonist in a Gundam show needs a Gundam. This one is called Barbatos. It is one of seventy two unique Gundam frames that were produced in a war that takes place three hundred some odd years ago before the start of this series. The design is fairly typical for a Gundam. It has a primarily white and blue color scheme with smaller red and yellow parts. Barbatos is designed around a skeletal frame with armor plates over it. Its primary weapon is a huge honking mace / spear thing that is just brutal to see in action.

The other mobile suits are a little more varied than the standard Zaku-style mono-eye grunts that keep getting recycled. The Gjallarhorn mooks have a very boxy and angular design to them that is a little dull. The pirate mooks are bulky and almost turtle-esque. None of the designs are bad but none of them stand out, either. All are painstakingly hand-drawn as opposed to rendered with 3D models. And it looks great.

Interestingly, there are no glowing beam sabers or plasma cannons or anything of the sort to be seen in IBO. All of the fighting between the giant mecha is done with guns that fire solid bullets and melee weapons with solid blades. This adds to the grittier feel of the whole show.

Despite the bare plot, IBO is richer with themes. There is a strong children versus adults theme that permeates the story and character actions. The teen soldiers of Tekkadan were abused by the adults in their lives and forced to fight in adult’s wars. This is a theme that appears is some of the older Tomino-made Gundam shows but it is more fleshed-out here. Aside from children being pressured and forced to fight wars on Mars, we also see that the aristocracy on Earth practices arranged marriages with girls being assigned husbands as early as ten years old, although it appears that they wait until they are older to actually marry. A lot of this show looks to be about trying to grow up in a harsh world and trying not to become a sociopath along the way.

Thirteen episodes have aired as of this writing with twenty six scheduled. Already, I am hoping for a sequel.

A lot of the previous Gundam shows in the last decade and a half seem like they were made by a committee that was too focused on trying to figure out what would make the most money. SEED and 00 were retreads of previous series and had modest success. Gundam AGE was specifically designed to appeal to new and younger fans. When that failed, they tried to aim for older fans with G Reconguista, which was made to appear retro. And after that failed, we now have Iron-Blooded Orphans.

It’s clear that Sunrise really does not want to give up on Gundam. After some critical failures they’ve decided to hand the reins over to people who look like they actually want to do something interesting with the show. Mari Okada is the show runner and she has a rather diverse list of shows that she has worked on. She is probably best known for Lupin III: The Woman named Fujiko Mine.

The show has been critically lauded so far. At least it is on this side of the Pacific. I don’t know how it’s doing in Japan, either critic-wise or ratings-wise. I hope it’s doing well because I really want this show to succeed.

Ratings alone have never been enough to sustain a Gundam show. The franchise has always relied on merchandise to bring in the real money. Animation is expensive, after all. Of course, a merchandisable show does not always equate a show of quality and vice versa. And IBO does not appear to be the most merchandisable show. Sure, there are model kits on sale along with other merchandise, but I am not seeing a plethora of it like with most Gundam shows.

In any case, I cannot wait for the next episode.

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Movie Review: The Force Awakens

Was the Force dozing off in between films? Why does it need to awaken?

Like many, I was initially excited when I heard that Disney acquired the Star Wars franchise. I saw what they did with Marvel’s properties and enjoyed those well enough. Then my expectations fell when J.J. Abrams was set to be the director. I have seen what Abrams has done and I got a big, “Meh,” from it. My expectations were lowered when I saw Star Trek Into Darkness.

In some ways, my concerns were realized. The film, on a technical aspect, is not bad. It is not great, though. I’d call it serviceable. The writing is solid, the direction is competent, and the effects… are actually pretty damn good. There is a distinct lack of imagination, though.

There are people with huge hate-ons for the prequel trilogy. I imagine that the people who hate the prequel trilogy will enjoy The Force Awakens for not falling into the same pitfalls. It is certainly not the embarrassment that the prequels were.

The opening scroll explains that Luke Skywalker has vanished. In his absence, the Empire’s remnants have become the First Order. There is a new Republic with a senate in place. Oh, and for some reason, there is a Resistance that fights against the First Order. The Resistance seems to be somehow related to the Republic but the exact nature is not explained.

From there, the plot closely mirrors that of A New Hope. A roguish resistance member obtains critical information that needs to get to the good guys. He leaves the intel with a cute marketable droid and sends him away while enemy Stormtroopers led by a tall guy in a black cape arrive to steal the intel. The droid rolls across a desert planet and finds a Force-sensitive protagonist. They then get into space to try and get the intel to the Resistance. The mentor to the new characters dies to the guy in black. Oh, and the bad guys have a huge honking superweapons that destroys planets. Only this one destroys more planets. And the good guys find a way to blow it up.

The names are different. The droid is BB-8. The Death Star is Starkiller Base. Darth Vader is Kylo Ren. Tatooine is Jakku. But the plot is essentially the same. There is not a lot of new creativity in this film. This must be why the promotional trailers avoided giving away the plot. They were afraid that the audience would criticize it. And for good reason.

That is not to say that the film is terrible. There are a lot of things in this movie that I really like. I really enjoy the first twenty minutes or so that establishes Rey. We see a number of scenes with very little dialogue that establishes how she lives. We see her scavenge scrap from a wrecked Star Destroyer and trade her findings for meager meals. Seeing another desert planet is kind of tiring after seeing Tatooine so many times but that is a minor nitpick.

Oscar Isaac plays Poe Dameron, who is a roguish pilot with a good sense of humor. I liked his performance on screen but they get rid of him some twenty minutes into the film. It initially seems like he dies but then they bring him back later for some reason. Apparently so they could show off his black and orange X-wing.

John Boyega plays Finn, a Stormtrooper who switches sides to the Resistance because killing innocent civilians does not sit well with him. Finn’s role in the film is not as defined as the other people’s roles. He initially seems like the new main focus character. We see him wield Luke’s old lightsaber and so we think that he is going to be the new Jedi for the film. But then Rey takes up the lightsaber and it is established that she will be the new Jedi. I guess that Finn will be an official Resistance member in the next film.

Kylo Ren is one of the more interesting characters in this film. It is established early that he is Han and Leia’s son and was one of Luke’s pupils. But for unexplained reasons, he turned to the dark side and killed a bunch of people. Luke bugged off to brood about his failure, hence why he is missing. Kylo Ren joined the first order and is like a whiney and more emotional Darth Vader. There is certainly a reason for him to be emotional but I wish I understood his motivation better.

Harrison Ford still has it as Han. …A pity that he will not be around for more. I expected that if anyone were going to mentor the new blood, it would be Luke. I’m certain that Skywalker will turn up in Episode VIII.

Gwendolyn Christie and Andy Serkis are underused. Their characters to little that is important and I imagine that they will be around in Episodes VIII and IX where they will have bigger roles.

The effects are noteworthy. There is less reliance on CGI and more emphasis on puppetry and people in suits. This makes it look more in line with the original trilogy. However, there are no wipes that transition from scene to scene like in the other six movies. I know that is a minor thing but it makes Episode VII feel less like a Star Wars film.

The Force Awakens also has good comedic moments. In fact, I say that this film has the best comedic timing out of any Star Wars film. Most of this comes from BB-8. The way the little soccer ball gives a thumbs up is one of the cutest things in the world. Finn and Rey also have excellent chemistry between each other.

Aside from the good performances and excellent effects, there is a lot that is lacking from the film. As mentioned, there is little that is inventive. That should have been obvious after seeing what Abrams did with Star Trek. Did he want to expand upon Star Trek’s lore and mythology to create something new and interesting? No, he just retreaded material and characters that have already been explored for decades, now. It’s like he is really envious of other people’s toys and wants to play with them instead of making his own thing.

There are very few new spaceship designs. We still have X-wings and TIE fighters. Granted, the X-wings and TIEs look a little different but only upon scrutiny. The Millennium Falcon is still kicking around. One of the things that I liked about the prequels were that they showed us something new. There were new aliens, new spaceships, and new worlds.

One odd thought is that I felt very little emotional investment in this film. Maybe that is because of the score. John Williams turned out a lame performance this time. There should have been really intense and moving music during the lightsaber duel at the end and when Starkiller Base is destroyed. There should also be some concern for the people that were slain when Starkiller destroyed those planets but there is barely any reaction to it.

The environment and worlds are not as interesting to look at. We are introduced to yet another sandy desert planet, only this one does not have the interesting rock formations that Tatooine had. The surface of the Starkiller Base looks interesting. It has a snowy forest, which has not been done in Star Wars before, but there is little time to appreciate it or expand it. The same goes for a natural rock formation at the very end.

There are a lot of niggling questions that need answers and the film does not provide them. For instance:

1. Where did the First Order come from?
2. What is the relationship between the Republic and the Resistance? Is the Resistance the Republic’s military?
3. Why did the Starkiller Base destroy those planets in particular? What was the point?
4. What were Kylo Ren’s daddy issues with Han? Did Han not take is son to enough ball games or something?
5. Why is Rey on Jakku? It is hinted that she was abandoned there but for what reason?
6. Where does Rey’s unnatural affiliation with the Force come from?
7. Why did R2-D2 activate then at the end to provide the missing piece of the map?
8. And if R2-D2 had the map then why did the Resistance not obtain it before?

I am certain that there is some explanation to these questions in expanded material. But I still call foul because none of them are answered in the film. The answers are not even inferred. If there had been some scene like in the Death Star’s meeting room then that would be appreciated. As strange as it sounds, I really want a special edition of this film in which there is more exposition to explain all of these discarded details. It seems like Abrams is too afraid to tell but cannot convey enough by showing.

If this were not a Star Wars film, I doubt that it would be remembered. It is, however, a Star Wars film and that means that it holds a place in geek pop culture. I am curious to see how this film will age along with the others. Will it be seen of as fondly?

I hate to say this, but I have to rank The Force Awakens below Phantom Menace and Revenge of the Sith in terms of memorability. It is objectively a better film but speaking personally, this one left me wanting. Yes, it is better made but sometimes, that is not enough.

…Still better than Attack of the Clones, though.

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Thoughts On: Return of the Jedi

Ah, Return of the Jedi, my last Star Wars write up before I go to see The Force Awakens. This is probably the film of the original trilogy that stands the least well on its own but it is still significant. I would not offer this one to anyone who has not seen the previously two films, though.

The film starts off tying up the loose threads from the last film. They rescue Han from Jabba the Hutt. The first half hour is dedicated to this plotline and, well, it’s not really that bad. Jabba is a gross and intimidating antagonist. He certainly has a memorable design. I like the different aliens in Jabba’s audience chamber. The rancor fight is memorable. And the fight over the sarlacc pit is fun.

The film then takes a quick detour back to Dagobah where Yoda lives just long enough for him to part ways with Luke. …And to leave him hanging with mention of another Skywalker. Fortunately, Obi-Wan’s ghost appears to fill in the necessary information. And to retcon a few things. “From a certain point of view,” my ass. Grumble, grumble…

Most of the rest of the film takes place on Endor. I understand that the Endor scenes were shot in a redwood forest somewhere in California. A forested area leads a unique look to the film to distinguish it from the settings of the other films.

The effects do not quite hold up as much as the other films’ effects do. There are a few instances, especially the speeder bike chase, where one can clearly tell that the actors are in front of a blue screen. But for the most part, the effects have that charmingly antiquated look to them.

The film meanders in the middle when we are introduced to the Ewoks. I heard that they were originally supposed to be Wookiees but Lucas wanted something more cuddly so he cut the Wookiees in half and we got a bunch of tribal care bears from them. Seriously, I can see why trooper armor may not protect against blaster bolts. Modern body armor can barely protect against bullets. But when your armor cannot fend off arrows? That’s a huge fail, there.

The climax combines a lightsaber fight, a huge space battle, and a shootout in the forest. The tone is a little disjointed between the intense space fight and seeing the cuddly Ewoks go wild on Stormtroopers. But the space battle and the scenes in the emperor’s throne room more than make up for it. The Battle of Endor has never made a space dogfight look so good. The idea of destroying another Death Star is a tired one at this point but the visual of seeing the Falcon and the fighters maneuver through the interior is striking. And seeing the Executor crash pointy-prow first into the Death Star is satisfying.

The lightsaber fight at the end is one of my favorite parts of the franchise. It probably ties with the lightsaber fight in Empire Strikes Back as my favorite fight scene. This one did not have as amazing choreography but it was much more emotional. Watching Vader tempt Luke with threatening his sister and then having Luke beat the snot out of Vader’s helmet while a whole choir moans is intense. I even like having Vader kill the emperor, as if the prophecy of him being the one to bring balance to the Force was finally fulfilled in a roundabout way.

And I would be remiss if I did not mention the scene at the end where Luke cremates his father’s body and looks upon the ghosts of his predecessors and they acknowledge each other. The entire trilogy has come to this point and it is such a poignant somber moment.

I remember liking this film well enough when I was a child and I would marathon the original trilogy endlessly. It has not quite held up since then, but it is still a good film. If I had to rate the films in quality, I would put A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back in a tie for first place. Return of the Jedi would follow. Then comes Phantom Menace and then Revenge of the Sith. Attack of the Clones drags behind.

I do not know how The Force Awakens will rate. Here’s hoping…

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Thoughts On: The Empire Strikes Back

The Empire Strikes Back has been considered the best Star Wars film of all time. It contends with A New Hope for that title. I sort of hold the two in equal standing but for different reasons. As for those reasons…

Unlike A New Hope, this one has more to inspect. The tone is certainly darker than the first film. It builds off of the first film like a good sequel should. But it introduces things that make it work as a movie in its own right.

The effects in this film have aged remarkably well. The Battle of Hoth still looks amazing. The stop-motion imperial walkers are intimidating. The asteroids look like they have weight and impact.

The actors have better performances this time around. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher have grown since the first movie and they are better actors. Billy Dee Williams conveys all of the necessary conflictions that his part requires.

You can tell that this is the film that Lucas had the least involvement in. It was written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan, both of whom are professional writers. It was directed by Irvin Kershner, which may explain the better performances from the actors.

The romance between Han and Leia is decently written thing in the world. It’s certainly not cringe-inducing like the dialogue between Anakin and Padme. I can believe that there is tension between two people who are generally authoritative and are not used to doing what the other says. I still feel like there were some exchanges between the two that led up to the tension between them.

The film is probably the most visually distinctive of all of the Star Wars films. When I think of Empire Strikes back, I think of the white snowy Hoth sets, the dark dank Dagobah swamps, the dynamic asteroid field, and the pristine Cloud City.

I like the training scenes on Dagobah. Yoda monologue about the connection between the Force and everything else is chilling and mystic. In a way, this movie is more religious than a lot of movies specifically made to be religious.

Vader has a much more menacing presence in this film. In the first one, he took a backseat to Tarkin. In this one, he is a lot more in charge. He kills officers for incompetence, gets into fights, and generally gets it done.

Are there any flaws in the film? A few. I am torn on the big reveal about Vader being Luke’s father. It contradicts what Obi-Wan said in the first film. There is also no reason for Luke to believe Vader in the first place. Yes, I know that it has partially ret-conned in Return of the Jedi but it still comes across as sloppy writing.

C-3PO’s moaning and complaining is a little annoying at times but he’s fine for most of the film. I do like the running gag of him running off statistics to people who do not care.

Aside from those very minor gripes, this is still an amazing film. It ties with A New Hope as the best film of the franchise. A New Hope works better as a narrative but Empire is heavier and deeper. Sadly, I do not think Star Wars will ever be this capable again.

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Thoughts On: A New Hope

I have just finished watching A New Hope. This also feels like a strange movie to talk about, seeing as how everyone in the industrialized world has seen this film. Everyone has an opinion on this movie. As such, I really don’t have much to talk about on this one. As for what I think of it?

I do not remember seeing this film for the first time. I really do not. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. The same goes for Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. I cannot say what my first reactions were to anything.

I like the blending of different genres and tropes in a way that has not really been replicated since. Does any other movies combine fantasy stories, westerns, mysticism, and WWII air combat scenes into a single film? It combines a lot of tropes that have been done before but in a fresh way. Disguising as enemy soldiers to infiltrate the enemy instillation? Check. Rescuing a princess? Check. Wise old wily mentor? Check. Seedy tavern in which to gather more members for the party? All of that is there.

There are so many ways in which this could have been too hokey or cheesy. There’s an earnestness to the whole thing that could have gone overboard but it is balanced by a few sardonic moments in just the right places.

The effects have aged well. They are certainly not up to the standards of today but they have a charmingly antiquated look to them. The puppetry is a little janky at times but it is not as bad as some of the CGI today.

The visuals are recognizable. The rocky and barren landscape of Tatooine is recognizable along with the militarized industrial look of the Death Star.

One of A New Hope’s strengths is that it works as a standalone film. It tells a complete story from start to finish. Anyone can watch this film and understand what is happening without any supplementary material.

Is it a perfect film? Well, no film is perfect. A New Hope has its flaws.

The dialogue is cheesy at times. Carrie Fish sounds like she cannot settle on an accent. She tries for British when she mentions Tarkin’s ‘foul stench’ and sound American for most of the rest of the film. Luke sounds a little too whiny. (I guess he gets it from his father.) Why do Chewie and the other surviving pilots not get medals at the end? The swordplay between Vader and Obi-Wan is wooden and does not hold up with the swordplay in the later films. Why was the Death Star built with huge gaping holes in which to fall into?

It seems that a lot of the flim’s notoriety simply comes from the fact that it is famous and popular. I do not know if this film would be as popular if it were released today as opposed to 1979. Maybe then, this would be the film that hipsters would say is the one that everyone should see.

Despite those minor nitpicks, the film really holds up. Yes, it is cheesy in parts. Yes, the effects are dated. But damn, if it isn’t a pile of fun.

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Thoughts On: Revenge of the Sith

Surprisingly enough, I actually enjoyed this film more than I thought I would. Revenge of the Sith is probably the least talked about of the Star Wars films. It does not get the sheer hate that Phantom Menace does. It does not get the more critical disparagement that Attack of the Clones does. By the time it came out, the hardcore fans had already dismissed the prequel trilogy. But I think there is a lot of bad to go with the good.

So, what is there to hate?

Well, the acting is a very mixed bag. Hayden Christensen turns in a better performance this time around. Maybe that is because he has less bad lines to work with. The best parts involve the characters being silent as they reflect on what his happening. Ewen McGregor has a terrible moment when he provides flat response to seeing Anakin kill children. Ian McDiarmid is great as Palpatine, though.

One of the hokiest parts of the film is when Vader gives his big, “NO!” at the end. Is there any more that I can say about that?

Aside from Anakin and Palpatine, the antagonists of this film are not given proper treatment. For whatever reason, Count Dooku is killed off in the first ten minutes of the film. What a waste. Did Christopher Lee offend someone? Grevious is killed half way through the film. He is such a disappointing villain after being built up so much. The Tartakovsky Clone Wars cartoon made him out to be a huge badass but he comes across as a throw away villain. Nute Gunray, who was in all three prequel films, barely gets any screen time in these last two flicks. And do we ever learn why the Sith want revenge in the first place?

The settings and environments lack memorability. We go back to Coruscant yet again, and it is still a boring planet. Utapau looks like it could be interesting but there is not much time to appreciate it. The same goes for Kashyyyk. (The Wookiee home planet.) The Jedi-killing montage show more interesting locations like a planet with giant flowers, a planet with a huge sea, and others. Mustafar, the volcanic planet at the end, is the only new location that looks memorable by having such a simple concept.

I despise the fact that Anakin became a wife beater and child killer at the end. No matter what angst he goes through, I cannot see him doing that. It is completely out of character and it leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

…At least Jar Jar kept his mouth shut throughout the whole film.

Aside from all of that, there is plenty to like in the film.

The movie kicks off in one of the best ways possible. After the opening scroll, the camera plans down the star field to show a republic battleship against a planet. The audience hears rhythmic loud bangs that are somewhat dulled because they are in the distance. The camera focuses on a pair of small Starfighters the fly alongside the battleship and then the camera swings down to show a huge and epic space battle that was just out of frame. Good stuff.

Watching Anakin and Obi-Wan infiltrate the Invisible Hand is also enjoyable. I like the bickering interaction between Anakin and Obi-Wan. There is real tension when Anakin guides the broken ship down to the surface of the planet. Seeing Grevious for the first time is a bit of a letdown and Dooku was killed off way too early.

The scene where Anakin speaks with Palpatine in the theater is almost chilling. It is subtle and haunting and it gives Anakin a good motivation for wanting to turn to the dark side to save the one he loves.

The montage of the clones slaying the Jedi is really well done. Part of what makes that scene work is watching Yoda feeling the multiple deaths and clutching his little heart. After telling Anakin that he must let go of his passion and attachment, Yoda must be feeling like a hypocrite.

The final scenes that establish where everyone goes at the end is pretty darn emotional. Padme’s funeral is legitimately sad. Seeing Vader and the Emperor oversee the construction of the Death Star is foreboding. And after it sinks in that the Emperor has won that that the heroes’ shit has been thoroughly wrecked, we get a final glimmer of hope when Obi-Wan gives Luke to the Lars family and we see them silhouetted against the setting suns as a nod for the better things to come. And, dare I say it, I almost teared up during that final sunset.

John Williams turns in another great score after a rather lackluster score in Attack of the Clones. We get a much larger range of emotions. The music that plays during the climactic duel is right on the money. The music during the final ‘Where are they now?’ montage hits all of the right notes at the right times.

One of the complaints that I have heard from quite a few people is that the films focus too much on the Jedi. I never understood this complaint. I agree that the Jedi scenes were handled poorly. Is it really necessary to initiate children into a monastic order when they are that young? Considering that Obi-Wan says that the Jedi Knights were the guardians of peace in the Old Republic, I cannot see how they can be ignored. This is a franchise that has always focused on knights with glowing swords and magic powers in space.

I remember going to see Revenge of the Sith in the theater on opening day with reserved expectations. Attack of the Clones left a sour taste in my mouth and I did not want to be disappointed again. I came out of the theater not quite knowing what to think. I knew that I did not hate it as much as the previous film but I knew that I did not love it.

After watching it again, I really enjoy this film. I completely understand why people do not like it but I do not think that it deserves a lot of sheer hate. It is certainly watchable. I did not want to pull by eardrums from the bad acting like I wanted to when listening to Attack of the Clones.  But, I cannot call it a good film for all of its flaws.

After the bitter taste of the prequel trilogy, it is time to move onto the next film, which gives me a new hope. Ba-dum-tish!

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Thoughts On: Attack of the Clones

This is the one that I was dreading. Attack of the Clones is no doubt the worst of the Star Wars films. Much more so than Phantom Menace. This is the film where the inconsistencies with the original trilogy really begin to pile up.

R2-D2 has extendable rockets that allow him to fly. Where in the hell were those in the original trilogy?

If C-3PO was sold along with Shmi to the Lars family, then how could Owen and Beru not recognize C-3PO when they bought him again in Episode IV?

Why does Yoda tell Luke that the Force is used for knowledge and defense only if he went all spastic on Count Dooku?

And then there’s a whole bunch of non-canon related issues.

The acting continues to be bad in this film. Anakin and Padame have no chemistry between each other. Hayden Christensen turns in a poor performance and comes across as a whiny brat. Padame does not help by dressing suggestively when they are on Naboo. Their love for each other is completely unmotivated. I’m not going to say that Han and Leia had the best relationship but at least they had some fun moments between each other.

The environments and sets in the film are not as memorable as those in other films. When I think of A New Hope, I think of the barren and rugged landscapes of Tatooine and the military industrial look of the Death Star’s interior. Empire Strikes Back has the snow planet of Hoth, dark swampy Dagobah, and the pristine Cloud City. Return of the Jedi had the green forests of Endor along with recycled aesthetics for Tatooine and the new Death Star.

What does Attack of the Clones have? A lot of the film takes place on Coruscant. A planet-wide city could be made to look good, but I do not find the look memorable at all. The architecture does not stand out. There are more scenes on Naboo, which look fine but lack the scale of Phantom Menace. I feel that there is no opportunity to properly appreciate Geonosis. The planet is a desert one like Tatooine but has no real interesting look to it. The droid factory and the colosseum could have been made to look interesting but they fail in this regard.

The idea of Obi-Wan going to the cook of a slow food restaurant is… odd. It looks like a future version of a 1960’s diner. That seems a little out of place in a galaxy far far away. Everything else in the films takes inspiration from fantasy stories, ancient legends, and old film serials. I guess the idea of a Jedi going to advice in a slow food diner is supposed to be funny but it comes across as lame.

Christopher Lee is underused. He only shows up about half way through the film. We never really learn about his motivation for trying to start a war. Why should he be invested in Palpatine’s plan?

Jar Jar Binks is gratefully downplayed. Unfortunately, his comedic antics are transferred to C-3PO. Threepio’s bumbling subverts the tension in the latter half of the film and is just plain annoying.

The scene where Yoda fights Dooku is hilariously terrible. I know that this is fiction and that Yoda is an alien but I cannot believe that the short toad can do flips and spins in the air with a lightsaber. And when the fight is over, Yoda goes back to hobbling on his cane.

So, with all of that said, is there anything good about the film? Well, I do like the extended fight scene in the colosseum. The alien animals that were intended to execute the heroes all had memorable designs. Seeing a bunch of Jedi slice through an army of droids is satisfying.

There are a few good quotes and exchanges but not as many as in the original trilogy. Some notable ones include, “She is a politician and they are not to be trusted.” The ‘aggressive negotiations’ phrase is catchy. And I like the exchange between Obi-Wan and the death stick salesman. That was the funniest part of the film.

One of the better parts is when Anakin goes to Tatooine to look for his mother. I like the image of him on a speeder hell-bent on finding her. John Williams’s score is at its best here. It really drives home the intensity of the situation. Even Christensen’s acting here is not that bad. I really felt for Anakin. It gives the little runt a reason to turn to the dark side to try and cure death.

Sadly, I cannot say that the little that is good in this film outweighs the bad. I remember going to the theater to see this film and coming away underwhelmed in a way that I did not feel with the Phantom Menace. Unlike the original trilogy, I can probably count the number of times I have seen Attack of the Clones on a single hand. It is just not as memorable as the other films.

Now I dread watching Revenge of the Sith.

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Thoughts On: The Phantom Menace

Before I go to see The Force Awakens, I plan on watching all of the Star Wars films to freshen up. I started with The Phantom Menace.

I feel strange talking about this movie. It premiered over fifteen years ago and most people have seen it and opinions on it are not all that varied. Everyone agrees that they hate the film. And they all seem to hate it for pretty much the same reasons.

As for my personal opinion? I am probably one of those people who does not hate the film. That is not to say that it is a good film. It is not. But I cannot see it as the atrocity that most people think it is. (My vitriol is reserved for Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.) Now, to be sure, there is a lot of bad in the film.

Here’s a short list of issues that I have with it:

The senate chamber scene is dry and dull but at least it is not that long.

The first half hour or so feels very rushed with plot point moving to plot point without a lot of time left for the viewer to absorb it all.

C-3PO serves no narrative purpose. It is a huge contrivance for Anakin to be the one who built him. He only seems to be in the movie just for Lucas to give him and origin story.

It is really hokey for the elected head of state in a democracy to be titled a queen and to be a teenager.

I do not like the idea of the Jedi only accepting newcomers before a certain age. This point uncomfortably reminds me of real-world clergy abusing underage children. Is it even necessary for the Jedi to be hesitant in accepting him into the order? Why is that a plot point?

There is no need for Anakin to be so young. The film would have worked better if her were in his teenage years or older.

Darth Maul is criminally underused. He serves little narrative purpose other than as an obstacle for the Jedi and he has little personality.

The acting is a mixed bag. Jake Lloyd is mostly flat as Anakin. I like Ewen McGregor’s performance. Liam Neeson is fine but comes across as a little wooden in areas. Natalie Portman delivers her lines like she is reading them for the first time off of a cue card. You can tell that Lucas wanted her to go for some sort of stoic and authoritative regality in her speech but he does not know how to articulate that thought to the actress. I have to blame this on the direction more than the actors.

And, yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. We all know this so I will not dwell on it further.

Despite all of those flaws, there is a lot to like in this film.

The environments are visually memorable like in the original trilogy. I like the Greco-Roman look of Naboo’s capital. I like the rock formations on Tatooine during the pod race. The underwater Gungan city is pretty to look at.

I like the designs of the aliens and starships. The aquatic monsters in Naboo’s core are memorable. The Naboo Starfighter is a sleek and unique design for a spaceship.

I even kind of like the CGI in this film. It has aged rather interestingly. I think the battle droids look fine. They have a certain jankiness to their movements that makes them look as if they have some weight to them. A lot of the CGI creations, especially the Gungans and Jar Jar, have a sort of brightness / dullness that makes them look slightly out of the shot. Not surprising, seeing as how they are out of the shot. This is 1999 CGI, after all. I do not know if there is a filter over them or what, but I really do not mind it. It is akin to admiring a centuries-old oil painting. It is not the photo-realism that a lot of modern CGI tries to go for, but it has a charm of its own. There is quaintness to the way they interact with the live actors. There are many more CGI creations in modern films that try to be super real and look much worse.

The midichlorian idea is… not terrible. A lot of people see it as de-mystifying the concept of the Force but I see it another way. I always saw the midichlorians as a sort of link between living organisms and the Force. They are not the Force itself. The Force works through the midichlorians. It is not created by the midichlorians. Yes, I know that I am rationalizing this in my head-canon, but so what?

I do like the pod race. It is probably my favorite part of the film. There is a certain novelty to the whole concept that fits within the Star Wars universe. A lot of the ideas in the original trilogy come from taking concepts from fantasy literature like knights and mystic powers and putting them into a Space Opera setting. Instead of chariot racing with horses, they race with jet engines pulling a hovering pod. That is a really cool and neat idea.

The race itself is well shot. It looks exciting and it feels tense. It is simply a fun scene. Perhaps that is because the tension comes from how the vehicles are moving in relation to each other and there is minimal dialogue in the scene. I also like the two-headed announcer alien. He / they are fun character(s). On another note, I noticed additional shots in the film that were not in the original version. Most of these shots occur right before and during the race. I do not know when these shots were added to the film but they look fine. They do not clash with the film in the same way that the additional scenes in the extended editions of the original trilogy do.

As for the climax, I really do not have much of an issue with it. A lot of people complain about this part. Yes, I know that having four different plot threads confuses some people but I followed it fine. I’m weird like that. There is Anakin flying in space, the two Jedi fighting Darth Maul, the queen and her entourage storming the castle, and the fight on the plains between the Gungans and the droids. That last one is the only part that irritates me, mainly because of Jar Jar’s antics. The lame attempts at comedy subvert the drama of the other plotlines. If the Gungan vs. Droid battle had been cut or seriously downplayed, then I think it would have worked a lot better.

The lightsaber fight between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan and Maul is one of the best fights in the films second only to the showdown between Vader and Luke in Return of the Jedi.  It is well-choreographed and enjoyable.  John William’s score is remarkable for that entire sequence.  There is an almost chilling tension when the red force-field separate the combatants.  Qui-Gon turns off his saber and assumes a tranquil stance while Maul paces back and forth like a predator mere feet from him.  Suspenseful stuff.

Like a lot of modern fans, I saw this one in theaters when it came out. I really liked it when I saw it, Jar Jar aside. Maybe that was due to the hype. The trailer for the Phantom Menace is the only trailer that I have seen in theaters during which the audience applauded for. Yeah.

The thrill of the film wore off for me around the time that Attack of the Clones came out in 2002. The film’s flaws became a little more obvious to me. As of this writing in 2015, it has probably been a solid decade since I have seen The Phantom Menace. I oddly found myself enjoying the film upon my recent rewatch. Perhaps I have more of a tolerance for the films flaws.

So, yeah. The Phantom Menace: A watchable and enjoyable film.

…I dread rewatching Attack of the Clones, though.

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Move Review: Inside Out

I recently saw Inside Out at the dollar show. After all of the hype that this film received, I felt a little disappointed when the film ended. Not that it’s a bad film. Far from it. If you’re a Pixar fan, then you’ll definitely appreciate this one.

The gist is that the film takes place mostly inside of the head of an eleven year old girl named Riley. The main characters are her emotions, which are anthropomorphized as people, Joy, Sadness, Anger, Fear, and Disgust. All of the emotions are shown to have a purpose in Riley’s life. Joy keeps Riley happy. Fear keeps her safe and away from dangerous things. Disgust prevents her from eating anything poisonous. Anger helps get her what she wants. The only emotion that seems to have no useful purpose at first is Sadness, who the others try to marginalize.

Riley has so far lived a fun life and gets along with her family and her friends on her hockey team in Minnesota. This means that Joy has been the most influential emotion in Riley’s psyche. The family moves to San Francisco and Riley’s life is turned upside down. She is out of touch with her friends and has trouble adjusting to their new house. Sadness tries to become more assertive given the saddening stimuli but keeps getting suppressed by Joy. Joy tries her best to keep Riley happy despite everything happening but this only causes Sadness to build up to the point that every memory that she touches turns sad.

An incident involving repressed feelings causes Joy and Sadness to get sucked out of headquarters. They have to navigate through the vast mindscape to get back to the headquarters. This follow the standard Pixar formula of two characters who do not like each other having to learn to work together to get what they want. Fear, Anger, and Disgust are left in control and make a royal bungle of things. The lack of Joy and Sadness causes an emotional imbalance.

The way that the mind is represented is cute and imaginative, if not particularly clever. The five emotions run the show from a room called headquarters. There is a console in front of a Star Trek-style view screen that shows what Riley sees. Memories are represented as shiny orbs that are produced in headquarters. There are core memories that form the basis of Riley’s personality and are kept in headquarters. Other memories get sent down a tube to be stored in long-term memory.

The jokes are pretty clever. The region of the mind responsible for making dreams looks like a Hollywood studio. The characters go into a region responsible for abstract thought and they turn into Picasso paintings. And you know those times when you get a song stuck in your head? That’s caused by the workers in your long-term memory sending up useless junk as a joke.

There are a few inconsistencies… or perhaps things that could be better explained. Why are thoughts in the subconscious not stored as memories? Why are the personality islands important if the emotions control Riley’s actions at headquarters? How are things like imaginary friends made real in the mind? None of these issues really break the movie for me but they do kind of linger after seeing it.

The visuals are fairly standard for Pixar. The emotions are animated using a new technique in which they are made up of little bubbles clumped together. It’s a neat looking-effect with some novelty but it’s only noticeable during close-ups. The mindscape is very colorful and fun-looking but not particularly memorable. There’s nothing on the level of the flying house from Up or the dynamic movement in The Incredibles.

Bizarrely enough, I really don’t care about the characters. I know that this is not an entirely fair thing to say, but they’re too one-dimensional. Yes, I know that they are basic emotions and that’s the entire point of their existence. They’re supposed to add up to a complete psyche when they’re together. Their personalities are suitable for simple gags and slapstick. They can carry the film but just barely.

I’ve read reviews that love Joy and Sadness and how they’re adorable. Yeah, they really didn’t work for me. It’s not as if they’re annoying or that they drag the film down. It’s just that they’re not really interesting characters. Keeping in mind that I am comparing them to other Disney and Pixar relationships like the one between Merida and Elinor (from Brave) and Woody and Buzz (from Toy Story). If the focus had been more on Riley with the emotions as more supporting characters, then that might have been a better film.

Despite those gripes, I certainly enjoyed Inside Out. It’s not Pixar’s best but it is required viewing if you’re a Pixar fan. I know that this sounds like I’m damning it with faint praise but I’m trying not to. I will say that the moral at the end is one of the most poignant one in a children’s film and is probably worth the price of admission on its own.

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