STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) – T.’s Take

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As surprising as it is to realize what a narrative mess the most iconic film franchise is, Star Wars would be half as interesting to discuss if it were all great. As much as I wish George Lucas let this saga chronologically begin with the Original Trilogy, Return of the Jedi ends on such a satisfying note that perhaps the best way to revisit the Star Wars galaxy in a way that called for a trilogy was to go to the past. Alas, the best part about the Prequels turned out to be their meme material. Had the Prequels never been promised but a sequel trilogy were still being released at this time, The Force Awakens may have ended up a more satisfying endeavor.

It’s clear that this movie is directed by someone who grew up loving the Originals, hated the Prequels, and wants to build goodwill with his generation. The problem is that this at times gives a big-budget fan film vibe; John Williams’s musical score even has a synthetic quality to it that sounds like it was produced in a computer program rather than an orchestra. There’s little-to-no creative ambition. Thirty years after Jedi, I’d rather see something more original than stormtroopers, and certainly not these slicker ones, and that’s not even getting to Starkiller Base; the recycling of the Death Star in Return of the Jedi was already pushing on laziness. Plus, the Jedi have once again been endangered into myths. These narrative rehashings disappointed me so much the first time around that I’ve rarely allowed myself to get hyped about movies since.

At the same time, the film wonderfully captures the emotional spirit of the Originals. The way protagonist Rey is established before she even says a word is some of the most brilliant storytelling in the whole saga. The banter between she and First Order defector Finn has a lot of heart and wit, and unlike Luke and Anakin, Rey’s never whiney; she is arguably too reliable though, especially when she uses a Force power there’s only a stretch of an explanation as to how she knew about it. Star Wars has influenced so much that I tend to forget that it launched Harrison Ford’s career, and he gives his best performance as Han Solo here. Not only does the practical production design give a sense of authenticity, but the use of CGI allows for familiar sites to be shown in new ways, such as the Millennium Falcon being flown both around and into a crashed ship.

Despite what makes it compelling, its lack of imagination grates on me; if it were me in charge, Luke’s Jedi order would be thriving, and the bad guys wouldn’t be the Empire 2.0. With that, the other problem is that Force is a cliffhanging first act that I won’t be able to judge fully until the rest of the trilogy is released. While The Last Jedi likely won’t make up for what started this trilogy on the wrong foot, I hope for it to at least be as charming.

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STAR TREK: FIRST CONTACT (1996) – T.’s Take

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When I started being able to appreciate Star Trek during my tween-to-teen years after I’d been growing up seeing the franchise as my older brother’s thing, I would have called First Contact my favorite movie of the series. These days, I question how good a Star Trek movie it actually is.

While First Contact has several similarities to Wrath of Khan, with it being the second and most highly praised film in its respective series with both a plot that ties back to its TV series and blatant Moby Dick parallels, it’s far more inconsequential than Khan. Khan launched a story arc that ran throughout the Original Series movies, yet outside of the inaugural Generations and the concluding Nemesis, the middle Next Generation movies have little-to-no impact carried over from movie to movie. Not only that, but they’re introduced in Generations as if the audience already knows them, which is a consequence of both their movies starting fresh off their TV run and their TV run having too many characters to properly flesh out in a movie, and First Contact continues this trend by throwing the audience straight into restrained but still icky body horror via a flashback to Captain Picard’s assimilation into the Borg Collective from the famous “Best of Both Worlds” two-parter.

Although First Contact was made to be a wide appeal popcorn movie starring the Next Generation crew, this opening doesn’t give newcomers an ideal first impression of Star Trek, nor does the PTSD-driven quest for revenge against the Borg that defines Picard throughout the movie give newcomers a well-rounded impression of Captain Picard. Perhaps had there been a prologue that introduces not only the audience to the crew but also the crew to the new Enterprise model they’re helming (again, Wrath of Khan gives everything a proper introduction before its own story gets started), I feel it would be a more rounded movie.

While there’s more I can criticize First Contact for, from the ethics of murdering someone who’s beginning to turn into a Borg drone to James Cromwell’s at times over-the-top performance in a reluctant savior role that needed more nuance, there’s still stuff I can enjoy it for. Jonathan Frake’s direction effectively brings both eerie thrills—especially in a tense set piece on the Enterprise’s outer hull—and a sense of Trek-like wonder—especially in moments that turn said wonder to the site of Earth—, and the performances from the iconic crew are at their best. Jerry Goldsmith’s musical score here is one of my all-time favorites, and the script features plenty of lines I can quote along with. Wrath of Khan may have taken its place as my favorite Star Trek movie, but First Contact is still the Star Trek movie I have the fondest memories of.

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) – T.’s Take

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When Man of Steel was released in 2013, I saw it four times in theaters because it was such a dang cool spectacle with christological symbolism and pro-life themes. Later the following year, I realized that none of that stuff is enough if the characters aren’t interesting, with my last rewatch of Man of Steel revealing itself to be the bland destruction fest it is. I didn’t have expectations for Batman v. Superman or Suicide Squad, so I can’t say I was let down by those; however, as I’ve covered earlier on this blog, I was let down by the DC Extended Universe again when Wonder Woman fell apart on repeated viewings. So, all my expectations were set to expect nothing but disposable entertainment from Justice League.

Actually, my expectations for superhero movies period have been set at have-fun-watching-with-your-friends disposability since Age of Ultron turned out to be just alright after all the hype. Heck, Justice League is less of a DC movie than it is an Avengers movie with DC characters, though one closer to Age of Ultron than The Avengers in its occasionally forced humor. Gone is the admirable if failed ambition of the overly gloomy, too-much-too-soon Batman v. Superman; Justice League is generic, fluffy prevent-the-apocalypse stuff we’ve all seen before, complete with a CG cardboard cutout villain who looks like he stepped out of a PS3 game.

Nonetheless, I’ve known about the team members who haven’t gotten their cinematic due until now since I was a kid, so seeing The Flash—especially with the comic relief he brings here—, Cyborg, and Aquaman team up with Batman—who’s cooler here than he was in Batman v. Superman—and Wonder Woman team up is often a joy to watch; heck, I was having the most fun when their dynamics had me forgetting that this series’s mopey and cynical Superman was a thing. Unlike The Avengers, there’s no SHIELD-type organization bringing the League together; they’re on their own, and there’s only one instance of in-fighting, which has my favorite moment in the movie in the form of The Flash’s reaction to unexpectedly meeting his match.

So yeah, Justice League was beaten by The Avengers to what it’s trying to do, and it’s also trying to apologize for its predecessors’ mistakes while having to remind us of the wrong foot this DC universe started on. While I’m not entirely persuaded by the ending narration which means to promise this universe’s more hopeful future (a narration that ironically starts with the word “Darkness…” to which my friend and I both whispered “NO PARENTS“), I can call Justice League satisfyingly fun, if as forgettable as most superhero movies these days.

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS (2017) – T.’s Take

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I can enjoy a good murder mystery, so I was cautiously hopeful that I wouldn’t end up agreeing with the so-so critical consensus of this latest Murder on the Orient Express. I was prepared to be disappointed, but, considering this was my first experience with the story, I wasn’t expecting to be left angry on top of that.

What Kenneth Branagh’s direction here delivers best is his own onscreen performance as Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. The way he introduces Poirot’s intelligence, perfectionism, love of pastries, and epic mustache won me over, especially with how Poirot stops the escaping perpetrator of an opening sequence theft; even an animal dung gag on the way over ends up being clever. Alas, whence Poirot gets on the titular Orient Express, he ends up being the only character of substance in a cast that includes practically half of Hollywood; a couple of these performances are engaging, but most don’t rise above what little they have.

Even with the weak characterizations and rocky pacing, I can’t say that the plot wasn’t interesting enough to keep me guessing, especially regarding whether or not a Youtube comment I read that spoiled the mystery of the titular murder was going to turn out to be telling the truth. What ultimately left me cold was (vague spoilers) how the mystery’s confounding answer is dealt with, with an injustice being excused as compensation for an injustice. This was not an agreeable first ride on the Orient Express.

THOR: RAGNAROK (2017) – T.’s Take

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There isn’t much I can say about Thor: Ragnarok that I can’t say about most Marvel movies; it’s made for those who are still eating Marvel’s production line brand of action and humor, and Ragnarok delivers both in the expectedly digestible ways, even if a title as apocalyptic as “Ragnarok” doesn’t call for its own constant laughs, the biggest of which surrounds Stan Lee’s obligatory cameo, though one song choice during a climactic battle particularly undermines the drama.

What I can say is that my biggest problem with Spider-Man: Homecoming, the constant reminders that the story is part of a larger universe, is my biggest praise here. Tom Holland’s Spider-Man and his slice of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is really refreshing, but the tie-ins to Civil War and shades of Iron Man 4 prevent Homecoming from being the new definitive Spider-Man movie; Thor, however, is so boring on his own that he needs more colorful characters to play off of, even characters from other franchises, and there are a couple of fantastic newcomers mixed in with the returners, all of whom thankfully replace Thor’s previous sidekicks.

That doesn’t make Ragnarok much more substantial than the average MCU movie, but that does make it a lot more entertaining than the previous Thor movies (the first of which was oddly my favorite MCU movie for a while), as does its creative mixture of typical Thor-style fantasy and zany Guardians of the Galaxy-style space opera. It’s tempting to say that “Thor Trek” would have been just as fitting a title, especially considering how Chris Hemsworth was Captain Kirk’s (cameo of a) dad before he was Thor.

THE ROCKETEER (1991) – T.’s Take

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There’s an odd quality to The Rocketeer that prevents me from feeling consistently about the film from viewing to viewing; sometimes it hits the spot, and other times it’s underwhelming. Before Disney made billions by acquiring the rights to Marvel, they attempted this flick as the next big comic book adaptation in the early 90s despite its obscure source material, and it flopped. Whether or not it deserved to flop I’m still not sure about.

Unlike the somewhat underappreciated Captain America: The First Avenger, which wouldn’t have been directed by Joe Johnston if it weren’t for his work on The RocketeerThe Rocketeer is more of a World War II pulp adventure with superhero trappings than a superhero adventure with World War II pulp trappings, and perhaps that’s where the disconnect for me lies. My knowledge of classic pulp serials is limited, so The Rocketeer‘s nostalgic homage to those leaves me feeling like I’m missing something; not even Indiana Jones is my biggest cup of tea. With the plot revolving around a mysterious jetpack discovered by racing pilot Cliff Secord and sought after by feds hired by Howard Hughes and mobsters hired by a fictitious Hollywood movie star, the contrived script has a lot of characters and subplots but not much characterization, resulting in rocky pacing and an overall sense of silly fluff.

That’s not to say that there’s no charm. Bill Campbell in the lead shares his best moments with Jennifer Connelly as Cliff’s actress love interest and Alan Arkin as Cliff’s mechanic partner, and Timothy Dalton is pitch-perfect as the villain, even if his motivation is at times muddled; I wish there were more moments for Campbell and Connelly’s chemistry to shine since their onscreen relationship is put on rocky ground early by some inconsiderate decisions Cliff makes, and we unfortunately don’t get to see enough of Cliff at his smartest. More so than the attention to period detail, the biggest thing that sells the movie for me is James Horner’s musical score; the main theme is one of my all-time favorites, beautifully capturing the wonder of flight that Cliff would be feeling during the creative, literally high-flying action scenes.

Despite the story’s fluffiness, its feel-good denouement always manages to leave me smiling. An average Marvel movie would have a more substantial protagonist and would entertain me more as I’m watching it, but it would leave me feeling empty due to its need to tie into a larger universe; The Rocketeer is its own thing, not burdened by either setting up a sequel or being spun off from another superhero’s franchise. No matter its quality, it’s a movie I can rewatch.

STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN (1982) – T.’s Take

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I covered much of what I think of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in my take of Galaxy Quest, the most self-contained “Star Trek” movie, stating that even though Wrath of Khan is great, its complex backstory that’s rooted in the TV series may leave newcomers feeling like they’re missing something. The truth is that by jumping into the franchise with Wrath of Khan, they would be missing something, both an entire TV series and an entire first film.

Perhaps this is less of a problem than it seems; if there actually were no Star Trek before Wrath of Khan, or at least if the “II” were left out of the title to make the film feel more self-contained, it would still work solidly on its own, effectively conveying the history the U.S.S. Enterprise crew shares and building up James T. Kirk’s character, both how he is now as an aging admiral in a midlife crisis and how he was in the past as a captain who would make reckless decisions to get the job done and had a habit of womanizing, the consequences of both of which drive Wrath of Khan‘s plot.

While there are moments of blissful awesomeness in the starship-on-starship cat-and-mouse game Kirk and his nemesis Khan Noonien Singh share without ever meeting in person, which makes for thrilling space battles and displays of both Kirk’s cleverness (the way he gets the Enterprise to escape its damaging first encounter with Khan’s ship is pure catharsis) and his savage tongue — whether Shatner’s performance in some of the emotional moments is up to par is up to debate — , what makes the story poignant is the thoughtful questions it raises, not just regarding how past mistakes can catch up to the present but regarding also the consequences of playing God and how seriously one should consider their own mortality.

Star Trek at its best uses space exploration to explore the human condition, and it took me years of exposure to the franchise to understand and appreciate that (that, and Catholic Skywalker said essentially the same thing in his own take on The Wrath of Khan). There have been hundreds of Star Trek stories told across a dozen-plus movies, including what is basically a post-9/11 retelling of this in Star Trek Into Darkness, and several TV series; perhaps The Wrath of Khan is the most essential out of all of them.

THE IRON GIANT (1999) – T.’s Take

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The unfortunate part about Warner Bros.’s The Iron Giant‘s initial release is that poor marketing didn’t persuade audiences in 1999 to witness this now rightfully lauded gem. The film wasn’t anything potentially revolutionary; it came at a time where even Disney was starting to abandon its own musical formula that permeated the 90s, and its premise surrounding a young boy raised by a single mom befriending a benevolent alien that’s sought after by the government is an ostensive retread of E.T. the Extra Terrestrial.

The Iron Giant, however, makes this premise its own by setting the story in 1950s rural Maine and making the alien a robot whose presence ties into the period’s Cold War paranoia. To protagonist Hogarth Hughes, meeting a giant robot from space is like one of the B-movies he watches on TV come to life.

But not only does this secret friendship—the mom’s ignorance of which here is actually more believable than that of the mom’s in E.T., which is one reason why I actually prefer this to Steven Spielberg’s most quintessentially Spielbergian film—make for shenanigans that are just as hysterically funny to me now as they were when I was a kid; it also raises the question of whether or not a rational robot has a soul. When the Cold War paranoia comes to fruition in the intense climax, the Giant is faced with choosing not a mere action but rather what type of person to become: a destructive villain or a selfless hero.

With the film’s refusal to sugar coat its subject matter for its child audience (unfortunately, that also means by including a gratuitous amount of profanity), it’s easy to see why Pixar would give director Brad Bird a couple of places in their pantheon of brilliance with The Incredibles and Ratatouille. For its both hilarious and poignant storytelling, The Iron Giant deserves to be remembered as one of the last great traditionally animated Hollywood films.

JURASSIC PARK (1993) – T.’s Take

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The first things I associate Steven Spielberg’s name with are sentimentality and wonder, so I, to my own bafflement, tend to forget about Spielberg’s eye for spectacle despite a good chunk of his movies being action movies, with Jaws being my favorite. Even after I’d grown up with movies like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and Jurassic Park, Jaws with its strong focus on character development amid its breathless thrills managed to change the way I look at movies when I first saw it, revealing the weaknesses of Spielberg’s other seminal monster movie to me as a consequence.

By no means is Jurassic Park a groundbreaker I can criticize to the extent of Terminator 2: Judgement Day. It has more of the sentimentality and wonder I associate Spielberg with than Jaws does, due in part to another legendary musical score by John Williams. The real weakness is that the story is simplistic and lightweight, from the treatment of its cautionary themes of playing God to its cast of characters. Whence the titular amusement park shuts down and the cloned dinosaurs run amok in the second half, the plot meanders from set piece to set piece with little sense of what’s at stake outside of the characters’ lives with no resolution outside of whether or not they’ll survive, leaving the sense that the film would work better if it were trimmed down to ninety minutes.

That’s not to take away from what still makes Jurassic Park fun. Even nearly twenty-five years after its release, its blend of CGI and animatronics and its suspenseful direction are still effective, and there’s enough subtlety through the writing and the acting to make the simplistic characters feel real enough. While I appreciate Terminator 2‘s existence merely for leading the way to Jurassic Park‘s revolutionary CGI, I appreciate Jurassic Park for what it is. Filmmaking revolution or not, it’s a fine monster thriller.