Review: ‘Last Jedi’ is an epic in the best and worst of ways

The “Star Wars” franchise, by its very nature, demands that high expectations be asked of it.

While writer-director Rian Johnson’s first offering to the world’s biggest entertainment vehicle is undoubtedly the popcorn flick of the year many have been looking forward to, it’s hard to shake the feeling that the episodic Skywalker saga is in danger of going into cruise control.

In terms of blockbuster action, it’s an oversaturated blast to witness. Narratively, though, it struggles to make the jump into lightspeed.

Johnson takes the reins from J.J. Abrams, cutting down on the nostalgia factor in the process. While Abrams’s story created new conflicts and heroes to root for, Johnson focuses on the introspective journeys of three in particular – Rey, Luke and Kylo Ren. Continue reading →

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Most Anticipated Movies of 2017

Picking out which films we are most excited for at this point in the year is an interesting task.

It’s an opportunity to guesstimate how a movie will turn out based on the footage and information we have up to this point, but by no means do I expect (at least right now) any of these movies to in the running for Best Picture at the 2018 Oscars.

The best films in any given year usually spring out of nowhere. At this point in 2016, most audiences and critics knew little – or nothing at all – about “Moonlight,” “Manchester By The Sea” or “La La Land.” At this point those are the frontrunners for the top prize at the Academy Awards. Some of this year’s critical darlings might not even have a distributor yet, though the season’s first big film festival, Sundance, begins in just a few weeks.

So there’s some optimism to be had knowing that the best films of 2017 won’t be listed here (although you could potentially make the case for one or two by year’s end). Instead, most of these are movies that we know have been in the works for a while, have built up some hype, and mostly fall into the category of “popcorn flick.”

This list provides a chance at sucking up to particular franchises and filmmakers as excitement levels are fairly high, before they hit the theaters and we get to see if they meet our expectations.

Check out the trailers, mark your calendars, and revel in the fact that this will easily be the most gushing I do about franchise sequels this year.


10. “The Emoji Movie” – August 4

Ha. Just kidding.


10. “The Belko Experiment” – March 17

Heavily influenced by the gleefully violent foreign flick “Battle Royale,” “The Belko Experiment” explores what would happen if a regular office full of 9-to-5 workers was suddenly forced to participate in a game of kill or be killed against their colleagues.

The film – written by James Gunn, who is always full of surprises – looks like sheer bloody, self-aware fun, in a way that we expected 2014’s “The Green Inferno” to be. If you’re going to hire a babysitter for any film on this list, “The Belko Experiment” would be the one.


9. “Coco” – November 22

coco

Though Pixar has yet to release any footage for its upcoming Día de los Muertos-themed flick, “Coco” will seemingly be the last original offering by the animation giant before a wave of anticipated sequels are released in the next few years. Following in the footsteps of “Moana,” “Coco” looks to explore another culture that is underrepresented on the big screen, that of Mexico.

Though there are little plot details at this point, early artwork for the film suggests a vibrant, engrossing, and totally Pixarian exploration at a holiday that is vastly misunderstood outside of Mexico.


8. “Dunkirk” – July 21

Christopher Nolan has spent the better part of the last 15 years reinventing the Batman story, taking us farther into the cosmos than we might have thought imaginable (“Interstellar”), and creating a legitimate sci-fi masterpiece in “Inception.”

Now he’s turning to history for inspiration, bringing to the big screen the untold story of nearly half a million Allied forces who were staring death in the eye during World War II on the beaches of France.

Harry Styles of One Direction fame joins Cillian Murphy and Tom Hardy in what is sure to be another Nolan offering that can only be truly appreciated in IMAX. “Dunkirk” also looks to continue the theme of emotional, ominous scores pervading the directors’ recent works.


7. “Logan” – March 3

Judging from its beautifully made trailer, “Logan” is trying  to single-handedly save the annual period of despair between Oscar season and the summer from being another cinematic landfill of Hollywood excrement.

Hugh Jackman returns in what is presumably (maybe? Maybe not?) the final turn of his iconic incarnation of “Wolverine,” while director James Mangold seems to be fully embracing the newfound potential of R-rated comic book movies in a post-“Deadpool” world. Expect Jackman to unleash a fury like we have yet to experience, balanced with the most vulnerable state we have ever seen Wolverine in.

But if you’re trying to figure out where this fits in the timeline of X-Men flicks, that’s a futile effort. Here’s hoping “Logan” doesn’t concern itself too much with saving it.


6. “Okja” – TBA

lily-collins-movie-set-okja-tom-lorenzo-site-1

If there is one foreign filmmaker that American audiences should turn to as providing the most accessible of unique and wholly original films, it’s South Korean director Joon-ho Bong.

After bringing us the criminally underrated “Snowpiercer” in 2013, Bong returns with what is sure to be another standout vision in “Okja,” in which a young girl tries to prevent a massive creature from being taken by a powerful company, presumably for experimentation. Think “E.T.” with more complex themes, a tonally all-encompassing screenplay, and some Jake Gyllenhaal for good measure.

The best part? “Okja” will be available on Netflix from the onset. So the vast majority of you don’t have an excuse to miss this one.


5. “War for the Planet of the Apes” – July 14

If the franchise reboot “Rise” was “Batman Begins,” 2014’s “Dawn” was its “The Dark Knight, improving on it in nearly every way to provide a thematically complex popcorn movie with memorable action sequences.

The third entry arrives this summer, one in which simian leader Caesar is grasping for whatever semblance of respect he has for the human race. Meanwhile, series newcomer Woody Harrelson’s military commander is hell-bent on annihilating the species in what can only be called a complete encapsulation of the film’s title.

Expect fantastic action, and another motion-capture performance by Andy Serkis that makes an Oscar category for CGI-ified actors all the more necessary.


4. “Alien: Covenant” – May 19

The next entry in the Alien saga, directed by franchise creator Ridley Scott, is the most “high-risk, high-reward” entry on this list. The legendary director has said that this film is going back to the series’ horror roots. It’s also officially a sequel to the polarizing “Prometheus” while taking us closer to the original story of the doomed Nostromo.

The initial trailer promises slimy, bloody mayhem – in other words, the fulfilled promise to the hard-R glory days of one of cinema’s most imaginative (and monstrous) creatures.

But the burden is also on Scott to provide us with answers teased in “Prometheus” so as to more fully flesh out the mythos at large. If all the right notes are hit, this could be the sleeper hit of the year, providing “Rogue One”-esque fan service while also being simply a bloody good time.

The film’s cast is certainly intriguing, as Michael Fassbender returns to join James Franco (?), Billy  Crudup (!), and Katherine Waterston in a role that seems like a throwback to everyone’s favorite Alien asskicker, Ripley.


3. “Blade Runner 2049” – October 6

When a sequel to the 35-year old sci-fi classic “Blade Runner” was first announced, I probably wasn’t the first one to break out in nervous sweating. An extremely long-gestating sequel to a movie that, by many accounts, probably shouldn’t have worked in the first place with its incredibly heavy themes and broody aesthetic? Good luck with that.

Then a director was announced for the job: Dennis Villeneuve, and pessimism turned to heavy-handed excitement.

Villeneuve has established himself as one of the premiere directors in Hollywood, having churned out incredible film after incredible film in recent years, the most recent being critical darling and Oscar contender “Arrival.” He’s shown a propensity for handling complex themes with grace and delicacy, which is precisely what is needed for “Blade Runner 2049,” a film that we can expect won’t connect automatically with a mainstream audience.

The cast of Ryan Gosling, Jared Leto, Robin Wright, and, yes, Harrison Ford’s return is also compelling.

At the very least, this could very well be the most technically proficient blockbuster of the year, especially with masterful cinematographer Roger Deakins lending his talents behind the camera.


2. “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” – May 5

The second entry in Marvel’s oddball franchise certainly has high expectations, but this is the film on this list I’m most optimistic about being a critical and commercial hit.

The first “Guardians,” brought to us by James Gunn, was entertaining and endearing to the point of total satisfaction. If Baby Groot isn’t enough to make us want to buy a ticket, there’s also the introduction of Kurt Russell to the MCU that we can look forward to, as well as how Gunn integrates classic rock hits into the spectacle and humor once again.


1. “Star Wars: Episode VIII” – December 15

star-wars

How many spots in the all-time top 10 grossing movies will be filled by a “Star Wars” flick when it’s all said and done? Hell, will the franchise ever reach a point that it’s truly “all said and done”?

It’s too soon to worry about that, but for now we can look forward to a probably much more mature second entry in this trilogy of movies.

Rian Johnson of “Looper” and fame takes the reins this time around, and he’s provided the most minimal of details for his vision: It will begin moments after the end of “The Force Awakens,” with Rey having found Luke, isolated and presumably in a dark place.

Knowing Johnson’s style, that may just be the start of how he intends to break away from “Star Wars” precedent. And, of course, fans will want to see the late Carrie Fisher as the iconic Leia one more time on the big screen.


Five movies we really don’t need this year…or any other year

Because Hollywood is Hollywood, and Hollywood wants money.

 

5.  “A Dog’s Purpose” – January 27

Don’t worry, I can hear you say it. “How dare you not be simply ecstatic about a movie about DOGS?!”

Because a movie that encourages you to mistake a ridiculous premise and (judging from the trailer) a screenplay devoid of substance for canine sympathy doesn’t deserve my attention, nor yours.


4. “The Mummy” – June 9

This one could beat my expectations, I’ll admit. But only because my expectations are for this to be nothing more than a cringeworthy, hypermasculine reboot of a franchise that once upon a time commanded respect.

Can’t wait to read about what stunts Tom Cruise insisted he take on this time, though.


3. “Halloween: The Night Evil Died” – June 23

The only thing more disappointing than this franchise’s willingness to continue chipping away at the legacy of the 1978 horror classic is that subtitle.


2 “Transformers: The Last Knight” – June 23

Why, Michael? Truly, why?


1. “Justice League” – November 17

Remember that one Thanksgiving where your uncles got in a politically-charged argument, ending with plates being thrown, people screaming, and you slipping in the vomit your baby cousin just deposited on the carpet?

Yeah, the DC cinematic universe is, right now, a bigger mess than even that. And the fact that Zack Snyder is still in charge of it all doesn’t create any hope for the future.

 

 

Thanks for reading. Here’s to 2017. 

Review: Rogue One, while immensely entertaining, will leave the uninitiated dazed and confused

If last year’s “The Force Awakens” was tasked with introducing “Star Wars,” Jedis, the Force, and its general outer space soap opera aesthetic for a new generation, Gareth Edwards’ mission with “Rogue One” was to bring the focus back to the franchise’s faithful.

Despite scattered references to the mystical Force, and the bare minimum of familiar faces a “Star Wars” film can offer, “Rogue One” still manages to fulfill a vital bit of fan service, essentially acting as a puzzle piece to one of the more critical story points in the entire mythos. In that regard, it’s a generally satisfying experience, and the best entry in the franchise this century.

The catch? It is all those things…for the aforementioned fanbase. For the uninitiated (who truly deserve some level of admiration for not having at least some knowledge of the “Star Wars” franchise up to this point), “Rogue One” – the first in a new branch of the franchise in the form of anthology/puzzle piece films – amounts to little more than an effects-driven, emotional sci-fi romp with a plot so straightforward you’d wonder what all the fuss is about.

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, a rebel among rebels who is compelled to assist in the mission against an evil galactic dictatorship that now has the capacity to destroy entire planets.

Whether that premise sounds about as straightforward as can be isn’t really the point. Slap the subtitle of “A Star Wars Story” after the film’s title, and you’ve got packed theater seats, a marketing campaign built on nostalgia, and, admittedly, an advantage in the form of bias from movie critics. That is, admiration for arguably the greatest and most important franchise in movie history.

rogue-one-jyn-ersa-geared-up

Edwards has directed a great film. Truly, he has. And a large part of what makes it so great, aside from containing more Easter eggs than you’ll find in any basket come spring, is that he pulls off creating a “Star Wars” film that is distinctive in an increasingly crowded cinematic universe.

Similar to Edwards’ breakout blockbuster, 2014’s “Godzilla,” “Rogue One” is gritty, with a seductive sense of scale that makes the film’s climactic space battle as intriguing as an earlier sequence that is much more grounded. Immense AT-AT walkers have never seemed so foreboding. The extremist side of the rebel faction is explored. I half expected “Ride of the Valkyries” to play as the Death Star rises ever so slowly over the horizon of Scarif.

This tonal shift, the fact that this – more than any other “Star Wars” flick – was made with adults in mind isn’t a gimmick. It’s pulled off remarkably. There’s real stakes, there’s loss, there’s a pervading sense of “against all odds” storytelling that makes you wonder how Obi-Wan, Luke, Han Solo and company survived so many of their adventures.

The problem is that Edwards’ chosen style can only really be appreciated when you stack “Rogue One” against the other seven entries in the franchise. If this is your first “Star Wars” watch, “A New Hope,” episode IV in the overarching narrative, is almost essential viewing. Because only then can you truly appreciate what Edwards has done.

The film even allows the audience to watch “A New Hope” in a different light, giving us much more respect for the Rebel Alliance’s unsung heroes that are at the forefront of “Rogue One.” It makes a classic film even greater.

Do you see the problem here? “Rogue One” should be appreciated for acting (ironically) as a truly stand-alone experience, telling a singular story from beginning to end with no worries about setting up for future installments. Because we already knows what happens next, and beyond.

But in that endeavor of standing apart, it still is frustratingly, achingly tethered to what comes immediately after. The few narrative points that it does try to make all its own, on the other hand, don’t hold up.

rogue-one-at-ats

The role of Erso’s father teases a twist, when really he only provides functionality – the McGuffin for Jyn to find her path to rebel hero. And it doesn’t even feel that organic; an inspiring speech to her crew seems completely out of left field…er…hyperspace. There’s something lacking in her development, like if Harry Potter had defeated Voldemort two hours after hearing his name for the first time.

Of course, there’s still the spectacle. A handful of memorable sequences sprinkled throughout are fantasies come true for seasoned fans, and wildly entertaining for newbies.

Much of the dialogue is forced, but Alan Tudyk’s  standout turn as the sarcastic, “says whatever comes into his circuits” droid K-2SO makes up for it. When’s the all-droid anthology film coming? Get on it, Disney.

The Force is strong with most of the supporting cast, particularly Riz Ahmed as an Imperial defector and Diego Luna as the rebel willing to pull out all the stops for his cause, but other characters contribute very little.

The music is great, but that’s because it’s influenced by the one of the most familiar scores of all time.

Even from a filmmaking standpoint, “Rogue One” serves to only gain more and more momentum with each act, with only a few moments that slow the pace.

And, of course, the callbacks – or perhaps we should call them call-forwards – to the rest of the franchise provides a treasure chest of references for seasoned fans.

“Rogue One” is as fresh as it is familiar. Of course this “feels like a Star Wars” movie. It’s uniqueness led to its initial ascension in the ‘70s. It’s an entertaining film made great only when viewed as a vital prologue to the Vader/Luke/Leia story.

But while that function as a bridge between trilogies will be appreciated by fanboys, by film’s end – even after Darth Vader has the audience standing and cheering – it’s hard to imagine newcomers doing much more than scratching their heads and saying “So what?”

 

 

“Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is rated PG-13 for extended sequences of sci-fi violence and action

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Alan Tudyk, Donnie Yen

Directed by Gareth Edwards

2016

The Force Awakens Review: A Star Wars for the old generation and the new

J.J. Abrams has a knack for this franchise-resurrecting thing.

That’s the first thing one with knowledge of Abrams’ resume will think once the credits for Star Wars: The Force Awakens rolls, after what feels like a slightly longer time in the theater than the running time suggests.

Rarely is that ever a good thing. It is here, for the most part. This is no trap; this is the rehabilitation of a franchise that is finally getting the modern treatment it deserves.

In regards to Abrams’ entries in the Mission: Impossible and Star Trek properties – which feel minuscule compared to the behemoth that is The Force Awakens – he certainly has learned from his past success, and puts it all together in the newest entry for one of the planet’s most universally recognizable entertainment properties.

Oh, yeah, Abrams knew what he was doing at the helm of this film. And it shows in nearly every facet, from the sense of adventure and heavy stakes and levity to enchanting characters old and new, and a universe you don’t have to be in IMAX or watch in 3D to feel like you are very much in it.

Finally, after the forgettable prequels, we know what our parents felt like watching Star Wars for the first time in 1977. It’s because Abrams directed The Force Awakens with a passion that was so painfully and obviously absent in Episodes I through III.

He simultaneously gives an ode to the original trilogy – sometimes in ways that are a little too obvious, like a love letter to moments and details now engrained in pop culture – while working intimately and delicately to set a new one. New characters Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron (just to name a few) are part of a cast that is so large it would have been easy to forget about some characters; except satisfying and appropriate story arcs and screen time is lent to most everyone.

How The Force Awakens handles Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher is both essential and very well done, for the sake of the plot as well as the audience. They never steal the spotlight, and the plot rarely hinges on them entirely; rather, their roles feel natural, as if the film didn’t need them, yet we welcome them back with open arms. They don’t need grand entrances. Why would they? We grew up with them.

Meanwhile, it cannot be understated how much fresh energy and life newcomers Daisy Ridley (Lifesaver, Scrawl), John Boyega (Attack the Block), Oscar Isaac (Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis) and Adam Driver (Girls, This Is Where I Leave You) lend to the flow and sheer power of the film. The chemistry between any pair of these actors is utterly believable. Ridley, in particular, is remarkable, exhibiting an incredibly broad range of emotion for a character that – OK, MILD SPOILER HERE – should only get more so in future installme…er…episodes.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor - whether droid or human - that is something to be admired.

Abrams gives a certain humanity to every actor – whether droid or human – that is something to be admired.

Driver, as well, is impeccable as Kylo Ren, a role that is ostensibly more complex than perhaps any Star Wars villain that has come before him. Indeed, his is a new, and potentially far more dangerous, iteration of sinister.

Not only does the script intelligently work with the vast cast at hand, but under Abrams’ direction, The Force Awakens – especially in its delightfully engrossing first hour alone – simply captures the essence of the franchise in a bottle. It starts fast and furious, wasting not much time for setup, before eventually meandering down into a (much) more slower paced middle act which hold mysteries that ultimately still make the wait very much worth it.

Much has been made about Abrams’ devotion to practical effects over CGI in the film, and it shows – you are thrust back in to the galaxy far, far away. The settings feel real, because they are. There are no green screens to be had. The practical aliens, environments, sounds, sights…it all is just so authentic, like lowering a needle on a vinyl record that you didn’t know you missed the sound of, and which is much more satisfying than the highly digitized, distorted sound of the modern age, leading to distorted results.

It’s something that is immediately apparent from the first sequence; a sense of authenticity that legitimately has the power to influence the way future movies create visual effects…just like A New Hope did.

Yes, The Force Awakens is different from most movies coming out these days – in terms of hype – for obvious reasons, but make no mistake: this is an entry that can stand entirely on its own, and it does. The classic Star Wars themes of interfamily drama and hope against seemingly insurmountable odds are there, as is the sense that this could be simply the most complete film in the franchise to date.

J.J. Abrams' flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

J.J. Abrams’ flair for the visually arresting is everywhere in The Force Awakens.

And while that is something the new generation of Star Wars fans are excited to hear, it does come with some fine print: the nostalgia factor. While part of The Force Awakens’ appeal is in its continuation of the saga – rather than dealing with events we knew would unfold, a la Anakin becoming Darth Vader – the more the film goes on, the more it feels like a reboot instead of such a sequel.

That is, some sequences, while they are breathtaking and gorgeous, thanks to incredible cinematography, feel more and more recycled. We don’t yet know if it’s a good or bad thing yet, as The Force Awakens ends on some notes that ring of plot tropes we’ve seen exhausted in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, for example. Not all questions are answered, and new ones arise upon the first viewing. 

But answering those questions is something to worry about at a later time. For now, we can relax and watch The Force Awakens knowing that it has righted so many wrongs of the prequels; from getting the more humorous and serious tones balanced just right, to placing very real and present weight and consequences on its characters, to being utterly unpredictable, no matter how many times we might think to ourselves we just saw something right out of Hope, Empire, or Return.

Because in reality, The Force Awakens is a testament to those three movies that captured the hearts and imaginations of millions almost 40 years ago…and Abrams has achieved the same feat. Under some of the heaviest pressure ever placed upon a filmmaker – weren’t we saying that when he helmed Star Trek’s return? – he has returned us gracefully and righteously to the universe we craved, free from political-based plots we don’t care about, meandering dialogue we can’t unhear for all wrong reasons, and spastic shifts in tone that make us wonder when George Lucas lost his touch.

A universe for the old generation, and the new.

In a Nutshell

Abrams has a Best Director Oscar nomination locked down for the work he has done on The Force Awakens. Although some sequences in the latter acts feel like a shinier version of what we’ve seen before, it’s nonetheless a universe we know we’ve wanted to return to, and we should be glad we did. May the Force be with directors of future installments. Set high, the bar is.

9.2 / 10

 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

2015