Category Archives: Movies

Doctor Strange – MOVIE REVIEW

Thanks to some extremely wonderful assistant instructors, I went home from the dojo early last night and got to eat dinner with my kids. We also sat together and watched Doctor Strange. My wife and I had seen it before in theaters, but the kids hadn’t. Strangely, I never actually left a review of the film. It seems a bit odd to do so this long after the film’s release. Yet I also felt it worth adding a few notes to the general consensus of the film.

Yes, the critics are generally right. Doctor Strange is, essentially, the first Iron Man film’s plot redressed. Doctor Stephen Strange is a rich, extremely intelligent, highly successful man. He’s also more than a bit of an asshole. Then, of course, the film takes him on his journey to finding real meaning, becoming a hero, etc.

Like many other films, the villain is not so much underwhelming (Dormamu is actually pretty cool) as underutilized. He’s just not in the film enough. This is also a fair criticism.

But the film still succeeds, and I think it’s due to three things.

First, the film is fun and generally well executed. As I’ve noted before, execution counts for far more than originality. A big part of this comes from the filmmakers willingness to fully embrace Steve Ditko’s 60s and 70s era trippy artwork. They turned modern CGI effects on that style and the result is amazing.

Second, the climax of the film is extremely well done. I’m talking about one effect in particular: when the sorcerers fight while Strange turns back time itself. I’ve read scenes like this in written fiction before. I’ve never seen anything like it in a visual medium. They executed it flawlessly, and the end result is super cool both visually and from a storytelling perspective.

Finally, the resolution is very clever. Strange manages to find the one weapon he can actually use against an infinite power. As a viewer, you get a sense that his solution would actually work – yet it’s also quite unconventional. Best of all, the script sets up the solution in a very clever bit of early, seemingly throw-away dialog.

On a side note, my children loved it. Even my four year old sat glued to his seat for almost the entire film. He rarely does that for live action movies – he didn’t even manage it for Homeward Bound, a film aimed at his demographic.

It’s not a perfect film, but it’s easily a four out of five stars.

Beauty and the Beast 2017 – MOVIE REVIEW

On Friday evening, Morgon and I got a rare date night. We dropped the kids off, grabbed a quick bite to eat, and then dashed off to the theater to catch the new live action Beauty and the Beast.

Now, I should start by noting that the 1991 animated film is a favorite of both myself and my wife. We’ve seen it many, many times. It’s enough of a favorite that on our honeymoon at Disney World, we shelled out for our own wedding gift to ourselves – a numbered, limited edition painting depicting the title characters. Not a print, mind you – hand painted, and priced accordingly. It’s one of the centerpieces of our living room, and has been for nearly ten years. Our kids are huge fans, also. Indeed, they’ve watched the animated film at least four times this last weekend.

There’s a bit of a personal connection, you see. My wife is an introverted bookworm, noted for being rather odd. And it only takes one look at my hairy self to recognize the connection to the Beast. Morgon has awaited the new film with breathless anticipation. I, however, have been less enthused. I loved what they did with Cinderella. But the trailers haven’t moved me. Part of it is because they made a conscious choice with the first trailer to mimic the original animated trailer – shot for shot.

In one sense, it’s pretty cool. But the trailers in general have left me fearful that the film would hew too close to the original, failing to stand on its own legs. That first teaser didn’t help.

Thankfully, the film we actually got doesn’t suffer from that problem. To be sure, it hews very closely to the original. And for the first thirty minutes or so, I still feared that it wouldn’t find its own voice. But that mostly stemmed from the one major problem the film does have: an extremely weak female lead.

Emma Watson is not an untalented actress. She is also, however, simply not one of her generation’s great acting talents. Furthermore, her singing… well, it actually is rather untalented. Even I could hear the autotuning in effect, and I’m usually the guy missing it when everyone complains about it. Her voice just doesn’t live up to the rest of the cast’s.

As if that wasn’t enough, they made too many subtle changes to the character. Belle in the animated film is unfailingly kind – even when she has every reason not to be. It’s a deep part of her character. This Belle, however, is downright rude. She isn’t merely withdrawn and odd, she stands aloof over the village peasants. I find it hard to sympathize with her because she treats them so poorly. No wonder they dislike her.

But the biggest issue is her interactions with Gaston. Now, I love this version of Gaston. They toned down the cartoon buffoonery – especially early in the film. He’s a far more likable character. In fact, one can easily see why the entire village loves him. Yes, he’s still a bit of an oaf. He’s still a bit hung up on himself. But in this version, he’s portrayed as a man trying to gather up his courage. He is, after all, about to propose to the most beautiful girl in the village. Even his famous pub song is portrayed more as his friends trying to put him back together again. It works wonderfully.

Except for the fact that Belle is exceptionally rude to him, when this version of Gaston hasn’t quite earned it. Yes, perhaps, she’s right to actually turn him down. Certainly she’s within her rights to. But she doesn’t just turn him down, she beats him down, hard. Her reaction is over the top. The film relies on our recollection of the annoying Gaston from the animated film to make us dislike him. It’s a shame, because they improved his character arc in every way.

What’s most interesting is that this almost works in completely the opposite way as intended. It gives the character of Belle a bit of a character arc that’s missing in the animated film. Yet because of its accidental nature, it never quite seals the deal.

Still, everything else about this film is top notch. Have I mentioned Gaston yet? He steals the show. The Beast himself puts on a good act, too, however. Everything you’ve heard about La Fou’s gay character changes? It’s actually good. It’s funny. Riotously funny. The backstory of Belle’s parents is a nice touch, as are several other subtle additions: the perpetual winter surrounding the castle, the forgetful nature of the spell, Maurice’s imprisonment being due to theft rather than mere anger. The touches of period setting, costumes, and props added back in – such as Gaston’s crossbow becoming a pistol – are wonderful.

This could have been a five star film. It should have been a five star film. In the end, however, Emma Watson’s Belle hurts. The best I can give this film is four stars.


I couldn’t muster much excitement for Rogue One. I tried – I really wanted to. In my younger years, I was a massive Star Wars fan. I was known for it. I camped out overnight at the theater for The Phantom Menace. Heck, I was the fourth person in line at our local theater. I camped out again for both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith – mainly because despite the disappointing films, the experience itself was an absolute blast.

But by the time The Force Awakens came out last year, I’d already lost much of my excitement. Everyone knows the prequels were disappointing films – I don’t need to go into detail on that here. And the initial trailers for TFA just didn’t do it for me. In fact, I maintain that the first TFA teaser wouldn’t have excited anybody if it hadn’t had Star Wars theme music to go with it. It was a bad trailer, period. The film itself left a decidedly mixed taste in my mouth.

On the other hand, I’d read a lot of opinions on Rogue One before I saw it – and even the doubters conceded that it was generally a decent film. So I went in with rather moderate expectations. With that context, the film managed to exceed those expectations. The other reviewers have it basically right – it’s a moderately good film, but far from perfect.

The good

Unlike The Force Awakens, this film has its own plot. In fact, this is probably the most unique plot in a Star Wars film since Empire. That gives the franchise a bit of much needed fresh air.

The characters are much better this time around. Jyn Erso is not the Mary Sue that Rey was, and that helps. The secondary characters are far better than they were in TFA. The reprogrammed military droid steals the show. He’s definitely the best character, but Donnie Yen’s Force monk pulled a close second. The rest of the misfit crew of rebels fleshes out the film nicely, however, and each character has a good moment to shine in the story.

The film absolutely nails the look and feel of A New Hope, and it’s really fun to return to that universe. That’s the one thing that both the prequels and TFA completely failed to deliver. Rogue One brings it.

But the film also borrows heavily (without directly using any characters) from the Extended Universe – especially the games. Cirsova has already gone into great depth about how much is borrowed from the Star Wars tabletop game:

In fact, it dawned on me when the blind Force Monk showed up: Rogue One is “Some Guy’s Star Wars d6 RPG Campaign: The Movie”, and I mean that in the best way possible.

He’s very correct. The film also heavily borrows from the Knights of the Old Republic video games (which themselves are based on the D6 tabletop game). This clearly intentional choice pays off, and the film benefits.

This felt more like a Star Wars film than TFA did, and that really helps.

Darth Vader is awesome. ‘Nuff said there.

The Bad

Jyn Erso is not a Mary Sue… but she’s one of the weaker parts of the film. Her character arc from hating the rebellion for bringing her nothing but pain to suddenly giving the inspiring speeches and being the only one who holds true… they didn’t sell it to me. Her motivation doesn’t feel quite strong enough. I went with it because the rest of the film was good, but it detracted from the film.

Still, Cassian the pilot saves her from a harsh fate as the weak link of the film. I liked his character. Still, he felt strongly underdeveloped – especially given how much screen time he has.

The biggest issue, however, is a core story issue. If this film existed in its own universe without the strong attachment to previously existing films, it wouldn’t satisfy me. It works – but it only works because of the context that A New Hope gives it. Don’t get me wrong – the plot would hold up fine. It just wouldn’t hold much interest or pack much punch. It relies heavily on prior work.

Now, in and of itself that doesn’t hurt the film – not for me, anyway. Empire wouldn’t work as a stand alone film, either. Worse, Empire kind of requires both A New Hope and Return of the Jedi for its satisfactory payoff. Rogue One only requires the former film.

However, the filmmakers compounded this issue with two wrong choices. I say “wrong” and not “bad” on purpose. I totally understand why they made the choice they did, and I understand their thinking. But at the end of the day, it turns out that they chose incorrectly.

First, the film barely uses any pre-existing Star Wars themes in the score. The composer sprinkled small touches throughout the film, but no more. The score we get doesn’t suck. And given how much of the Star Wars scores are character themes, the original scores shouldn’t have been over used. But they went too far. Especially the opening and closing music should have kept to the series theme.

Second, they’ve eliminated the opening crawl. The film simply jumps right into the story.

The filmmakers made these choices consciously, in an attempt to separate these “anthology” films from the “main” films of the series. I get that. In another context it might have been the right choice. But given how much this film relies on those “main” films, this turns out to have been the wrong choice. Rather, they should have gone the opposite direction and tied it into those films as concretely as they possibly could.

None of these issues brings the film down, however, and its still quite enjoyable. It’s easily the strongest film overall since the original trilogy. I give it four strong stars out of five.

Batman v Superman – MOVIE REVIEW

BatmanVSupermanI finally watched Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice this weekend. If it seems unusual that I would wait so long to see a superhero movie – especially one about Batman and Superman – well, that’s because it is unusual. I was slightly wary of this film. None of the trailers save the last one excited me at all. Even that one only left me somewhat interested. I wasn’t overly fond of its predecessor, either. Man of Steel had some great moments but overall it was a weak film that didn’t understand its own protagonist. Trips to the movie theater are rough when you have four small children in the house, and this didn’t feel like the film to make the trip for.

I did want to see it, though. I am a big fan of both of the title characters, particularly of Batman. But a $4.99 movie rental after we’ve put the kids to bed is far easier than a $9 a piece trip to the movie theater where we have to coordinate a babysitter. Still, the film came out on video some time ago. So why the delay?

I’ve been busy. Morgon’s been busy – and she wanted to see the film, too. So we had to wait until we were both available to watch it. That turned out to be last night.

I’m glad we didn’t rush. It wasn’t a particularly terrible film, although many have made it out to be that. But it also wasn’t a particularly good film. It had good elements in it, but overall the film is quite weak. The beginning is very slow. The contrived plot will leave you groaning in many spots. In the programming world, we have a term called “happy path coding.” Everything works as long as the user follows exactly the expected series of operations. Any deviation from that and the program crashes. This movie had a “happy path plot.” The story only works if each character follows exactly the path laid out for him. And yet in many cases the viewer is left scratching his head. Why does that character follow that path? There are smarter options available – more in character options available.

And that’s the film’s biggest weakness. Zach Snyder still doesn’t understand Superman. They never should have entrusted the franchise to him. To be fair, this film makes it pretty clear that he wanted to make a Batman film. The studio let him have Batman. They wouldn’t let him have the Joker. So he turned Lex Luthor into the Joker. I didn’t mind them playing with the character. I thought casting Jessie Eisenberg was an interesting choice. The actor is fine. He clearly did what they asked him to do. But it doesn’t work at all.

So what is good about the film? Wonder Woman is hot, and a lot of fun in her short screen time. Zach Snyder has the keenest sense of visual film making this side of George Lucas. There are some amazing shots in the film. Batfleck is actually not bad. I actually want to watch his next outing – particularly since Snyder will not helm this one. The scene where Batman rescues [redacted] is perhaps the best Batman fight I’ve ever seen on film. It was like someone filmed a few minutes of playing the “Arkham Asylum” games, but with a ridiculously high budget. If you’ve played those games then you know that’s a huge compliment. Jeremy Irons as Alfred was great (although not quite Michael Caine great). And did I mention that Wonder Woman is hot?

She’s also barely in the film. And as great as she is, her part could have – and should have – been cut. It added nothing to the story. The fight scenes are too short. The plot struggled  (and many will argue failed) to stay coherent. I followed it fine. My wife didn’t. The two main characters spend virtually no time together on screen. Batman’s “It’s ok, I’m a friend of [Clark’s]!” line makes no sense at all given that he was literally trying to kill Clark less than ten minutes earlier – in movie world time, not real time.

This film is three stars out of five, and that might be a tad generous. Don’t rush.

Hail Caesar! – MOVIE REVIEW

Hail Caesar!
Hail Caesar!

I promise I won’t let this blog turn into a review blog. This will be the last one for the week. Not only have I gotten a lot of reading done lately, I’ve also gotten the chance to watch a few things.

Hail Caesar! is the latest movie from the Coen brothers. If you’re a fan of their work, that alone is probably enough to convince you to see it. If their typical off-beat quirkiness isn’t your thing, you won’t like this film, either. This movie is more than a little weird – but you expected that when I said “Coen brothers.” If you don’t get that particular style of weird, you just won’t get it.

It currently has a three star rating on Amazon. After watching it last night, I suspected bifurcated reviews: half four and five stars, half one stars. I was partially right. 36% of the reviews are one star reviews. The rest are nearly evenly distributed between two, three, four, and five stars.

This is pretty fair, actually. It represents the fact that this movie honestly isn’t quite as good as the typical Coen brothers film. Also, I’m convinced that it’s getting slightly lower than normal reviews because of the way it depicts communism. The film accurately shows its communists as idiots. It also accurately depicts the way that communists – with Russian sponsorship – really did infiltrate Hollywood in the 1950s. There are a lot of ideologues – and specifically some SJWs – out there who want to pretend that the Communist infiltration was all invented by Joseph McCarthy. They conveniently ignore the fact that KGB records released in the 1990s proved that McCarthy was right about Hollywood Communists.

But I digress. The film itself is fun. The film portrays life in a simpler age. I particularly enjoyed Hobie Doyle, the “aw, shucks” cowboy-turned-drama-actor. I’m a firm believer that “simple” is not the same thing as “stupid,” and I really enjoy it on the rare occasion that you see simple characters portrayed very well. The film is about life inside an old-school Hollywood studio, so Doyle is working on a new film. I especially liked the way they had to alter his scenes to accommodate his acting style – and the fact that it turned out to actually be far better for it.

As I said, though, this isn’t quite as good as some of the Coen brothers’ other films. O Brother, Where Art Thou? it is not. Still, I’d easily sit through it again. And I’d definitely recommend it if you’re just looking for some fun. I give it four out of five stars.


CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR hits you right where it hurts.
CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR hits you right where it hurts.

Anthony and Joe Russo have hit it out of the park again. Captain America: Civil War doesn’t quite manage to be the greatest superhero film of all time. But a very close second is no mean feat. Furthermore, they’ve managed to eclipse even their own previous entry, The Winter Soldier. Given how excellent that film was in its own right, this is no small feat. Brian Niemeier summed up my own thoughts best when he said that Civil War is “A two and a half hour master class on writing.” Can confirm. My immediate thought upon exiting the movie is that I hope someday to write something of my own that is that good.

The action and the special effects are absolutely top notch. But given the budget involved and the history of these films, you already knew that. Where this film really shines is in the story and the characters. You care what happens to these people. You care a lot. As others have noted, some of this is because we’ve had eight films to come to love them. This is true. Yet we must be careful to also note that the Russo brothers have built on top of that with masterful writing, without which this film wouldn’t hit the peaks that it does. And then, when you’re fully invested in these characters, the film hits you where it hurts – and hard. The climactic fight at the end is brutal – physically and emotionally.

But that’s not the only place this film succeeds. Avengers: Age of Ultron is a film about Tony Stark’s hubris. Ultimately, so is Civil War. But where that film, though ultimately enjoyable, is a bit clunky and forced, this film feels effortless and true. In many ways this film is a mirror image of that one, but it’s the stronger, better mirror image.

Most interestingly, however, this film succeeds in a way that so few modern works really do, although many attempt it. Each of these characters has an absolutely believable, absolutely understandable motivation, absolutely relatable motivation. Even though I am one thousand percent Team Cap, at no point did I think that Stark was evil or stupid. He was merely being Stark.

With that said… the film is not perfect. There’s one scene that, while wonderful in its own right, also really hurts the pacing of the film. The fight scenes are absolutely amazing, but I really wish they’d dial back the handheld camera work just a bit. It’s the rage these days, and I get why. But it’s also headache inducing, and it makes it hard to follow what’s going on. In many cases, directors use it because it makes it hard to follow the fight. This film absolutely didn’t need that, and it should have avoided the gimmick. Also, this film had so… much… falling. Seriously, there is so much falling in this film that both my wife and I independently were thinking it. Worse, we were thinking it during the movie, not afterward when we were mulling it over. But this last one is a pretty small quibble, given the film.

But two things, ultimately, keep it from dethroning The Dark Knight. First, the villain of the piece simply isn’t as iconic as Heath Ledger’s Joker. With that said, the core villain in this film is very interesting. He continues to demonstrate my thesis that there is nothing so dangerous as an ordinary man with nothing left to lose. But he will never be as remembered as the Joker. Second, this film simply isn’t quite as tight as Nolan’s masterpiece. Don’t believe me? Go watch The Dark Knight again. That film is tight. There isn’t a single frame of that film that doesn’t absolutely need to be there. Civil War is tight – but not that tight. This is partly due to the need to setup future Marvel films (Vision’s brief monologue about the soul gem on his forehead, for instance, clearly only exists to set up Infinity War). And it’s handled far better than some other Marvel films have done. Yet it’s still there.

The rest of the film is so excellent that none of this is enough to even take half a star away. This is a five star film, plain and simple. If you have ever enjoyed any of these Marvel films, get out and see this one. You won’t regret it.

Oh, and by the way – Brian is still wrong. Team Cap all the way. But explaining that requires spoilers. So with that, we’ll jump into the second part of this review.



Still here?

As I’ve already noted, this film – like Age of Ultron – is ultimately about Tony Stark’s hubris. The driving force behind the Sokovia Accords isn’t the incident in the beginning of this film. That’s a convenient political excuse. The fact of the matter is that governments all over the world – including ours – participate in military and police actions every year that produce more unintentional civilian casualties than that one incident. And the plain and simple truth is that they accomplished their goal – preventing the outbreak of a bioweapon. The collateral damage came from a simple mistake of the variety that simply happens in combat. No amount of oversight will ever prevent that kind of mistake from happening, not entirely.

The true driving force of the Sokovia Accords is clearly the incident in Age of Ultron. The very name of the accords bears this out, as Sokovia was the site not of Wanda’s mistake but of Stark’s. Of all the incidents in Secretary Ross’s montage, Sokovia is the only one where the Avengers were clearly out of line as opposed to merely making a mistake. And by “The Avengers” I mean Tony Stark. All of the other Avengers tried to stop him from creating Ultron – even Banner (though Banner ultimately helped him do it). Tony simply wouldn’t listen.

And therein lies the first major problem with the Sokovia Accords: they’re unenforceable. The only people in the MCU who have the power to enforce the Sokovia Accords are the Avengers themselves. And yet Age of Ultron clearly showed us that even they can’t do it. If Tony wanted to create another Ultron tomorrow, ultimately nothing in this universe could stop him.

The entirety of Civil War continues to demonstrate this point, over and over again. Nobody can stop Cap from saving his friend. Nobody can stop Iron Man from striking off on his own once he realizes that Cap has the truth on his side. And at the end, nobody can stop Cap from rescuing his friends. The Avengers are unaccountable not because nobody wants to hold them to account but because nobody can.

Indeed, this is so true that even in the enforcement of the accords themselves games are being played. Stark tells Rogers directly that the whole thing is a farce: “…sign. We can live the last 24 hours legit. Barnes gets transferred to an American psych center instead of a Wakanda prison.” Later, Ross says something similar to Stark. If approval comes ex post facto rather than before an action then it’s completely and utterly pointless.

Have I mentioned yet that the film is about Tony’s hubris? In the handful of days over which the story occurs, Stark himself violates the Accords he pushed his fellow Avengers to sign no less than three times.

The second problem with the Accords is one that my friend Brian has already mentioned, and it’s why even he agreed that in practice the Accords couldn’t work. The UN is the most corrupt organization on Earth. It’s a cesspool of corruption and scandal, and it has no business carrying out oversight of this kind. Furthermore, the fact that 117 nations agreed on the Accords does far more to convince me that it’s a terrible idea than that it’s a good one. How many of those nations have democratically elected governments? How many of them recognize basic human rights such as free speech, free association, free press, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, etc? None are perfect, including ours. Most of them don’t even pay lip service to those ideals.

Finally, we cannot forget that the entirety of Rogers’ previous outing was spent exposing the corruption of such bureaucracies. If SHIELD itself is corrupted through and through, than why on Earth should the Avengers even consider letting the body that controlled it control them?

Make no mistake about it. At the end of the day, the Sokovia Accords is about what such things are always about. It’s not about weapons control – it’s about people control. It’s about the people at the top maintaining their privilege and power no matter what, and it’s never about the people at the bottom. Oh, there are people involved who are well meaning. But this sort of thing never ends well.

Rogers sums it up best: “I believe in individuals, and mostly they haven’t let me down.” In our fallen world, that’s the best one can ever hope for.

Other notes:

  • The scene that hurts the pacing of the film is Tony Stark’s visit to Peter Parker’s house. I loved it, other than the fact that I’m still dealing with Aunt May being hot (that just ain’t right). But the transition to it was very jarring and the scene just felt out of place in the film.
  • The CGI of young Tony and old Howard was scary good.
  • When Cap destroyed the arc reactor and ended the fight, both my wife and I had momentarily forgotten that Tony had had the shrapnel removed from his chest in a previous movie. Thus my immediate reaction was, “Holy shit, Cap just killed Iron Man!” This may well have been unintentional on the filmmakers’ part, but it was absolutely brilliant. I got all of the emotional charge of that without them having to actually kill him and without the crazy, “Oh look, he’s back from the dead!” moment. Well played.
  • When Tony finds out that Bucky killed his parents, and that Steve covered for it… oh man, that just hurt.

Trump Wins Because San Dimas High School Football Rules

Every time I see a Donald Trump rally, speech, or debate I’m reminded of the following scene from the film Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure:

If you’ve never seen the film, or if you can’t watch the video for some reason, the context is that each student at San Dimas High School has to give a major presentation as their final exam in history class. The student in the clip above is one of the school jocks. His presentation is poor, his grasp of the history appears to actually be even poorer, and any sane teacher would give him an equally poor grade. A generous teacher might be able to squeeze him into a D.

BillTedBut when he finishes his presentation by belting out, “San Dimas high school football rules!” the crowd loves him, and they go nuts to show it.

This, in a nutshell, is why Donald Trump is winning the race for the GOP nomination. It’s why a Donald Trump type will always win in our current system, and it’s why he’ll win the general election in the fall. The vast majority of voters don’t care about the history lesson. It doesn’t matter who is giving the history lesson – they will always find it boring and tune it out, just as the audience did above.

Trump understands this. His entire campaign has been to cut out the history lesson and focus on the only part voters care about. To the typical voter, Rubio and Cruz and Hillary and even Bernie sound like the history lesson. Trump just wants everyone to know that San Dimas High School Football Rules!

There are only two ways to defeat Trump. The first is to out-Trump him, which might well be impossible. The second is to turn the history lesson into an epic multimedia entertainment spectacle. Unfortunately for those who want to stop Trump, Bill S. Preston, Esquire and Ted Theodore Logan are not among the 2016 crop of candidates.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

tfa_poster_wide_header-1536x864-959818851016The Force Awakens was a very surreal experience for me, and explaining my opinions on the film require a bit of a preface.

I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. I was born in 1978 – a little more than a year after the release of A New Hope. My earliest movie memory is watching The Empire Strikes Back in theaters. I barely remember it. I grew up watching the films on my parents’ old Betamax VCR. It’s a wonder I didn’t wear the tapes out from watching them so often. I certainly wore out my sister’s patience.

When the special editions were released in theaters in the late 90s, I was right there – lining up early for prime showings, huge crowds of friends with me. I had a Jedi costume that I’d put together a few years prior – a large group of my high school friends had done a Star Wars themed Halloween one year, and I picked Obi-Wan.

I wore that costume again when I camped out for the prequels. I was literally the second person in line at our local theater for The Phantom Menace. For a long time I had ticket stub #4 to prove it (the gentlemen with me bought three tickets). By morning, we had attracted rather a crowd – including a father and son who had flown in from Ireland so that they could catch the film on the US release date instead of the European release date.

Despite my disappointment with The Phantom Menace, I camped out for the other prequels as well. My not-yet-wife even joined me in line for Revenge of the Sith. And I have to say – watching all three of those movies was an absolute blast, despite all three being ultimately disappointing. It’s hard not to have fun when you’re with a crowd that enthusiastic.

This time around there was no camping. My wife and I have three young children. The oldest might have been old enough to take out with us for it, but it would’ve been a stretch. Camping would have required childcare. Also, forgive me here, but what’s the point? With online ticket purchasing, there’s no reason to camp out in line to get the first tickets anymore.

However, I did get to see it in a great group. My very awesome boss bought out an entire theater for our company. We had to wait until Saturday morning, but I also brought my two older children. The youngest stayed with Grandpa for the morning, which he loved.

So the actual experience of watching the film was a bit surreal. This was the first Star Wars since 1983 that I hadn’t camped out for, that I wasn’t at the absolute first showing for. And I was there with friends and coworkers – all very excited – but it still lacked the energy of those over-the-top fans.

And then, the movie itself. It’s true what they say – you can’t go home again. For me, the movie lacked both the freshness of the original (I never knew a world without Star Wars – but I’ve watched enough pre-1977 movies to know just how much Star Wars changed film) and the pent up anticipation of the prequels. Unlike The Phantom Menace, it hadn’t been 20 years since the last film in the series.

Also, it wasn’t George Lucas anymore. My final opinion is that this is both good and bad, but there was a very different feel to the films. Say what you want about the prequels, they definitely have a sense of feel that they share with the original films. To me, that was a bit jarring. This Star Wars is different.

So what do I think of the film? There’s a lot to like in it. It’s the Star Wars that a lot of fans wanted. But it’s also not a perfect film, and it’s not quite the Star Wars that I wanted. It took me all weekend to decide what I ultimately think of the film, and at the end of the day my verdict is still unsatisfying – because my opinion of this film ultimately depends on what they do with the rest of this new trilogy. Tentatively, I give it a thumbs up – a strong thumbs up. But this film leaves enough unresolved that the next two films could actually greatly ruin this one if they’re not handled properly.

A more spoilerific analysis is below the jump.

Spoilers Below

On Monday morning I finally nailed exactly what it was that bothered me about the film. When I say that, realize that I’d laid out a bunch of issues to my wife literally as soon as the drive home. But those things were small potatoes (more about them below), and I knew they weren’t really why the film didn’t quite settle right with me. They were all things that I could easily overlook.

What really bothered me about the film – and still does, to a degree – is the male leads. With the exception of Poe Dameron, the awesome fighter pilot (and he is awesome – one of the better characters in a movie that really nails characters), every single male lead in this film is running away from something. Not in a physical sense (although there is that, too) but in a moral sense. However, in each case there are mitigating circumstances, and this allows me to move past this and like the film – if and only if they handle the third one correctly in the next films.

First: Finn. His is the most excusable and the most honest, and he was the easiest character in the film for me to like. First he’s running from the First Order. He’s seen too much, he’s had enough, and he wants out. Then he’s running from the Resistance as well. He doesn’t want anything to do with that. He also, however, has the quickest and easiest redemption from this flaw. When Rey is in trouble, he turns around and heads right back into the fray.

Second: Han Solo. Everyone’s favorite rogue begins the movie after having run away from his son. I can see it with the character, but as a father it just doesn’t sit right with me. When your kids are in trouble, you don’t just run away from them. Mitigating this, however, is the consideration… what do you do when your son basically turns into Darth Vader? Especially if you’re really just this ordinary guy? What could he honestly have done? Also, at every point in the movie where people are in danger, Han runs into danger to help them – not away from it. This is a substantial character growth from the first trilogy. More importantly, Han gets the biggest redemption of all the male leads. Look at his face when he steps out on that bridge. He knows damn well what’s about to happen to him, yet he goes out there anyway.

Third: The elephant in the room, Luke Skywalker. The only living Jedi in the galaxy, with the responsibility to reform the order and continue it. This guy literally carries the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders – and as soon as the going gets tough, he sets it down. The movie strongly implies two different reasons why he disappeared. It’s stated at one point that he left after one of his students lost it and killed all the others – he simply couldn’t handle it anymore. It’s also stated, at another point, that he left to seek out answers from the first Jedi temple.

It’s possible that both reasons are correct. Indeed, real people rarely do anything for just one reason. We’re not that simple. But to me, everything for this film hinges on how they handle Skywalker in the rest of the trilogy. If they put the emphasis on that first reason – he just couldn’t handle it – then I’m done. I get it. It’s realistic. But it’s not heroic, and I’m not interested in having my childhood heroes further deconstructed. But if the put the emphasis on the second – that he’s searching for answers, trying to figure out how to fix everything… that I can buy. It’s not my favorite way of doing it, but I can live with it.

Once I understood that that was my main issue, I can give this movie a tentative thumbs up. Oh, it has other issues. The near carbon copy of A New Hope‘s story, the my-penis-is-bigger-than-yours bigger, badder “Death Star,” how do Rey and Finn manage to avoid cutting off their own limbs despite no training with a lightsaber?

But it also has some strong stuff in it. The original trilogy is about a son confronting his evil father, trying to bring him to redemption. The way they flipped that on its head and made it about a father confronting his evil son… that’s powerful. Unfortunately, it’s also criminally underused, and that is the reason I’m bothered that they killed Han Solo. That theme would’ve been better developed over the entire trilogy. On the other hand, Harrison Ford is old. So maybe they did what they needed to do. Also, it gave us the really bad-ass moment of Chewie going berserker, and that was epic.

Also, the one thing that this film absolutely did not do was repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The mistakes that it has are its own, and the filmmakers did learn.

Ultimately this is a film that I definitely want to see again, and it leaves me with hope for the rest of this trilogy. At the same time… I didn’t leave it with the same love that I have for the original trilogy.

But that’s probably something that no new Star Wars could ever recapture.

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

Star Wars FansStar Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. In Part 2, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. Yesterday, I talked about how much depth was added by the Extended Universe (EU).

But the richest source of the depth often attributed to Star Wars comes from an unexpected source: the collective imagination of the fans. If you look at the series – the films, the TV shows, the novels, the comics, and – heaven forbid – the Star Wars Christmas Special, if you really look at them, what you’ll eventually realize is that most of the depth we’ve attributed to it for decades isn’t really there at all. Aside from the occasional trip into real depth in the EU, there just isn’t much.

But in another sense, the depth is very real. To all of those who imagined our own stories set inside the Star Wars universe, to all of us who stayed up late into the night discussing frivolous technicalities of the world, the depth that we added was very nearly tangible. Our imaginations filled in the gaps, and we created a nearly infinite mythology.

The problem is, the depth that we created was never really there to begin with. And this is why there are so many people out there who never did – and never will – “get” the movies. For better or for worse, they lack the imagination to flesh it out in their own minds. In the early days, this was a rather large portion of society. Those of us who did “get it” were the outliers: nerds, geeks, and weirdos. Today geek culture reigns, and the majority of Americans seem to get it.

But how many of them truly got it on their own? How few were there all along, right in with the fun? Don’t get me wrong – I’m not out to label anyone as a “wrongfan.” I don’t care. It’s a movie, and if you didn’t enjoy it then but have learned to enjoy it since, I consider that an act of growth. It’s good for all of us to get outside of our comfort bubble. But I do have to admit that I laugh a little every time I see an old friend or acquaintance – the kind who resolutely made fun of those “Star Wars nerds” in the 80s – now profess that they’ve been “Star Wars nerds” all along.

This is also the reason the prequels were ultimately so disappointing. To be fair to George Lucas, nobody could have created a mythology that lived up to what we’d already collectively built. But putting the man who’d only ever created the genius accidentally back in charge of it was guaranteed to be the worst disappointment of all.

Beginning at midnight tonight, many of us will get to experience the next chapter in the Star Wars saga. Early reviews are positive, which is encouraging. But as someone who camped out for all three prequels – I was second in line for The Phantom Menace at my local theater – I’m approaching this new film in a much more sober manner. It will be good. Or it will be bad. Or it might be mediocre. But now matter how good it is, it will never live up to the mythology that exists in my own head after thirty seven years of daydreaming.

So enjoy the show, as best you can. I plan to take my children on Saturday morning. My very awesome boss rented out an entire theater for our small company, and no matter how good or bad the movie is, the experience itself will be a blast (just as camping for the prequels was, despite the poor films). May all of us enjoy some more accidental genius – this time with minimal involvement from Lucas himself.

And may the Force be with you.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4

The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3

Star_Wars_Episode_VII_42664Star Wars was a work of accidental genius. I mean both the original film that we now know as A New Hope and also the entire saga – although each is its own accident. George Lucas himself never understood the true reasons for their respective successes, and that’s why he wasn’t able to replicate it with the prequel trilogy.

99% of the philosophical depth of the Star Wars universe was added by people other than George Lucas. In Part 1 I noted that the original film is nothing more than a solid, fun adventure romp. The philosophical depth of it is minimal. Yesterday, I noted that the philosophy underlying everything else came from the second installment in the series, The Empire Strikes Back.

It’s important to understand that a large portion of the depth, however, came from entirely outside of the official “canon” of the series. I’m hardly the first person to note, for example, that certain non-canon entries – the so-called “Extended Universe” or EU – are vastly superior to some of the lesser films. Several of the EU novels – including the Thrawn Trilogy that kicked off the modern EU – are absolutely amazing, and add quite a bit of depth to the series. Even some of the video games are better than the prequels. Knights of the Old Republic was better than any of them, as was its sequel, despite being seriously hamstrung by Lucas Arts.

The backstories of both the Sith and the Clone Wars were handled better in a half dozen different EU settings – each. KOTOR in particular developed a massive world in the Old Republic, adding tons of history and giving a rich mythology to the Sith. The aforementioned Thrawn Trilogy hinted at a version of the Clone Wars that was far more interesting than anything we’ve seen on screen – but even the animated Cartoon Network series proved a more interesting take on this event than Attack of the Clones.

The brilliant thing that George Lucas did in his accidental genius was to create a framework that was solid and compelling yet vague enough to allow others to fill in the gaps in even more interesting ways. The Force can become philosophy, magic, or religion depending upon your interpretation. Jedi Knights are hinted at in a way that allows all of us to fill in the gap, conjuring up endless tales of excitement. The gigantic universe – only hinted at in the original trilogy – could hold any number of tales. And who doesn’t love space ships, blasters, aliens, princesses and laser swords?

A whole generation of talented authors and game designers filled in this void of vagueness with interesting ideas. They fleshed out the universe, adding depth far beyond what Lucas ever did. Yet when compared to the real drivers of the Star Wars mythos, even these extremely talented writers look amateurish.

Tomorrow: the real depth of the Star Wars franchise came from the imaginations of the fans.

  1. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 1
  2. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 2
  3. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 3
  4. The Accidental Genius of George Lucas Part 4