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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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.

WONDER WOMAN (2017) – T.’s Take

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If DC has made any good movies since The Dark Knight, they’re movies that are good at making me think they’re good until repeated viewings reveal otherwise: The Dark Knight Rises, Man of Steel, and now Wonder WomanWonder Woman ended up being the DC Extended Universe’s first critical success by a long shot, and audiences loved it too, as did I. It was charming, moving, inspiring…things the superhero genre needs to be more of. Alas, that first viewing’s advantage of unpredictability is what invested me in the story enough to distract me from the film’s egregious flaws.

What makes Wonder Woman‘s clunkiness sting more than Man of Steel‘s or The Dark Knight Rises‘s is how much clear potential the film has at being great. Gal Gadot as the titular Amazon princess Diana and Chris Pine as Allied spy Steve Trevor are wonderful together, and both manage their emotional moments powerfully; even their stereotypical sidekicks are humanized. Diana’s naivety toward how the world works is both endearing in its innocence and frustrating in its arrogance, yet her compassion for humanity never wavers, even when her understanding of human nature changes.

Alas, while director Patty Jenkins nails the drama, she’s not prepared how to handle the adventure. The visuals are constantly in-your-face, especially in the action scenes which are filled with gratuitous slow-motion, and the artificiality of the CGI over-saturation doesn’t help, from obvious green screen shots to obvious CGI body doubles. The cartoony villains, particularly the evil German pair that mirrors Diana and Trevor (the idea there is neat though), also ramp up the camp factor to incoherent levels. If nothing else, its combination of parallels to Thor and the much better Captain America: The First Avenger add nothing new to the superhero genre.

I hate saying this not just because I really want this movie to be competent through-and-through but because this movie was Jenkins’s passion project. Sometimes, giving a small-time director a blockbuster really works; just look at Christopher Nolan and Batman Begins. Here, it works only in part. With its charming and aspirational hero and thoughtful commentaries on the human condition, the ingredients are there for this to be not only the DCEU’s first good movie but one of the greatest superhero movies ever; alas, its mediocre execution prevents it from being either of those movies.

GALAXY QUEST (1999) – T.’s Take

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As the popular opinion goes, the poignant, suspenseful, and quotable Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan is the best Star Trek movie, more worthy of being considered Star Trek‘s cinematic debut than the 2001-esque snoozefest that is Star Trek: The Motion[less] Picture. With that said, it’s a movie based on an episodic premise that can’t be defined by a singular story; it does a fine job at introducing newcomers to the iconic U.S.S. Enterprise crew, but the complex backstory regarding the feud with the titular villain who originated in the TV series leaves a feeling that newcomers would be missing something. While I still think The Wrath of Khan is a masterful Star Trek story, I think Galaxy Quest makes for a more accessible and cinematic Star Trek story.

Of course, Galaxy Quest is not actually Star Trek but a parody and satire of Star Trek and its fandom, centered around the washed out cast of a campy cult science-fiction show who, due to their characters being confused by an alien race for the real deal, are taken on an actual space adventure. The casting is brilliant, not limited to Tim Allen as the arrogant actor behind the captain, Sigourney Weaver as the exasperated actress behind the pointless eye candy, Alan Rickman as the resentful actor behind the alien officer, and Sam Rockwell as the one-time extra who circumstantially lives in fear of getting killed like he did on the show. The aliens in question, the Thermians, are hilarious in their attempts at mimicking humanity, though their silly antics can be so over the top that they take the film down from being genius to being merely clever.

Still, the laughs hit hard, and there’s some genuine heart to the story. Plus, it ends up becoming any fandom’s wish fulfillment fantasy where the knowledge gained from obsessing over a piece of fiction gets put to good use, not that the circumstances under which such unhealthy obsession is vindicated are realistic. It homages as much as it pokes fun, and it’s arguably a better cinematic Star Trek reboot than the actual cinematic Star Trek reboot. Of course, why it works cinematically is because it’s a standalone premise that doesn’t naturally call for a sequel. If it’s not the best “Star Trek” movie period, then it’s the one “Star Trek” movie that can be enjoyed by absolutely anyone, whether as a sendup of Star Trek or as its own sci-fi comedy.

TERMINATOR 2: JUDGEMENT DAY (1991) – T.’s Take

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Terminator 2: Judgement Day may be enjoying a 3D re-release at the moment, but I’m not as enthusiastic about the film than I am for how cool its title is (I mean, it’s like it was made to be proclaimed by that 90s movie trailer narrator). My affinity for The Terminator—a harrowing but gripping sci-fi horror—over T2 should be the other way around since the more action-oriented T2 is more my type of movie. Alas, I wish there weren’t a “but” to every praise I can give the so-called “greatest action movie ever made”.

Due to the life circumstances of Sarah Connor, the protagonist of The Terminator who was hunted by the titular cyborg, and her tween son John Connor, the predicted destroyer of the eventually domineering A.I. Skynet, it makes sense that they wouldn’t be acting like the most likable people, but part of said circumstances is that they’re surrounded by nasty people—the asylum workers who torment Sarah, John’s uptight foster parents…—who make the script’s humanistic sentiments less than persuasive.

The human element gets easier to root for as the story moves along, with a couple of effectively powerful moments, though it eventually gets drowned out by spectacle. It doesn’t help that the heartfelt relationship between the good Schwarzenegger terminator (as opposed to the evil liquid metal terminator) and John Connor is cynically made out to be some kind of father/son bond where it’s actually a high tech dog/owner bond.

T2 is certainly one of the most influential films of modern cinema, making way for superior Terminator homages like Star Trek: First Contact and X-Men: Days of Future Past; its blending of practical effects and groundbreaking CGI, which led the way for Jurassic Park, is still impressive to this day. Alas, all of this is more impressive on a technical level than it is engaging on a narrative level. If it’s not actually as mean spirited and overblown as it seems to me, it’s still unnecessary—a glorified rehash of its superior predecessor, which, despite its at times more gratuitous material, has a much more sympathetic human element to care for the whole way through.