SKYSCRAPER: Duct Tape Will Solve All Your Problems

I’m a big Dwayne Johnson fan, but I’ll be the first to admit that it’s difficult to separate the man himself from the roles he plays. When I see Dwayne in a movie, I usually think of him as Dwayne instead of the name of the character he’s playing. I read a review of Dwayne’s latest movie that said Dwayne may not be much of an actor, but he’s one hell of a movie star.

I agree completely. Dwayne’s latest effort, the aptly-named SKYSCRAPER, is deeply derivative and doesn’t have an original bone in its body. It’s Die Hard meets The Towering Inferno, and the debt Skyscraper owes to both pictures is so obvious that the movie’s marketing team released posters that directly reference those films.

Universal/20th Century Fox

Loving homage or blatant rip-off? A strong case could be made for either one.

Regardless of Skyscraper’s obvious lack of originality, I still found quite a bit to enjoy here. Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, a former member of the FBI’s Hostage Rescue Team who lost a leg in a hostage-rescue mission that went wrong and is now a security consultant. He’s been hired by a rich businessman named Zhao to assess security for Zhao’s massive new building the Pearl, located in Hong Kong. The Pearl is 220 stories tall and is the largest structure ever built. As you can probably imagine, this leads to a lot of potential security problems.

These problems come to the forefront when Will becomes involved in an elaborate scheme by some nefarious individuals, who set part of the building on fire. The residential upper levels of the Pearl are not yet open to the public, so wouldn’t you know it, the only civilians in the building when the bad guys enact their plan are Will’s wife and kids, who are trapped above the fire line and are therefore unable to leave the building. When all of this starts to happen, Will is not in the building, so his number-one priority is to find a way to get into the building to save his family.

Getting into the building is more difficult than it sounds, because Will can’t just take the elevator. The 96th floor is on fire and his family is on the 98th floor. Will has to find a way to enter the building above the 96th floor. The way he does this is thoroughly implausible if not outright impossible, as is everything else that happens in the movie. But, as is his way, Dwayne can make the viewer believe that he is the only person on the planet capable of doing the things his character does.

Most of the things his character does are ridiculous. Will has a prosthetic leg and the movie finds creative ways of using it. There’s even a fight scene where a guy knocks Will’s prosthetic off and one-legged Will still wins the fight. It reminded me of that old joke about the one-legged guy in the ass-kicking contest. If that one-legged guy were Dwayne Johnson, he would still win the ass-kicking contest hands down, regardless of how many limbs he may or may not have.

At one point, Will ties a rope around his waist and duct tapes his hands and feet to help him shimmy down the side of the Pearl, which is ludicrous but still fun, and something that I kind of admire for its sheer audacity. The Burj Khalifa sequence from Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol is another obvious influence on Skyscraper, but hey, if you’re going to rip something off, at least rip off something good.

Universal

Adding to my enjoyment of the film was the fact that I liked Will’s family. His wife Sarah is played by Neve Campbell, best known for 90’s hits like Wild Things and the Scream franchise. Sarah is tough, smart, and resourceful, and since she’s also a veteran combat surgeon she can hold her own in a fight, and even helps save the day at a crucial moment. I don’t know the names of the actors who play Will’s kids Henry and Georgia but I liked both of them. They’re not irritatingly screechy like kids in movies tend to be and are both cute and likable. The family members who need to be saved are often stock characters in these kinds of movies, but I appreciated that Skyscraper at least tries to give them some personality.

There’s one more thing I want to talk about but be aware that this will contain spoilers. In an odd coincidence, I read the classic Sherlock Holmes story A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw Skyscraper, and the villain’s plot in Skyscraper is identical to something Sherlock Holmes does in that wonderful Conan Doyle story.

In the story, Irene Adler has a photograph that would be very damaging to the King of Bohemia were it to see the light of day. The King is desperate to retrieve it but doesn’t know where she’s hiding it and comes to Holmes for help. Holmes engineers a situation where he leads Irene to believe her house is on fire, and he watches as she goes straight to the thing she values most: the precious photograph. Holmes knows that in the event of an emergency a person will seek out the one thing that is most valuable to them and uses this knowledge to get Irene to unwittingly expose the photograph’s hiding place.

The villain in Skyscraper does the exact same thing. He sets the Pearl on fire knowing that Zhao, who has dirt on him that’s kept on a futuristic-looking hard drive, will go straight to the hard drive’s hiding place. It’s a clever motivation for a villain in a modern big-budget action movie, and one I might not have recognized had I not read A Scandal in Bohemia the day before I saw the movie. Holmes truly is timeless.

I liked this movie. It’s fun. There are a lot of fun, explosive action scenes and nonstop suspense, and I was never bored while watching it. It has the good sense to be less than two hours long and doesn’t overstay its welcome. Will Sawyer is no John McClane but he’s a likable fellow and I enjoyed spending time with him and was engaged in his quest to save his family. The two things that people seem to have an issue with about this film are its derivativeness and its implausibility. I don’t deny that these are present, but neither of them bothered me. I went into the theater expecting to be entertained, and I was. I left the theater satisfied. What’s not to like about that?

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Incredibles 2 is Sweet, Zippy Fun

One of the most amazing things about Pixar movies is that they never pander to kids. The people at Pixar don’t assume that little kids are dumb, and therefore kids’ movies can be dumb and it won’t matter. The people who make drivel like the Smurfs and Alvin and the Chipmunks movies (if such tripe can even be called “movies”) don’t understand this, but Pixar does.

And thank God for that. Pixar movies are funny, sweet, emotionally resonant, gorgeous to look at, and have uplifting messages about the importance of family and friendship. Pixar’s latest film, Incredibles 2, ticks all those boxes.

Image: Disney/Pixar

Incredibles 2 was written and directed by Brad Bird, making his return to animation after a pair of live-action films, one of which (2011’s Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol) was a hit, the other (2015’s Tomorrowland) was an expensive flop. Before those films, Bird made The Iron Giant, Ratatouille, and the first Incredibles movie, all three of which are wonderful animated films. Incredibles 2 is a triumphant return to form for Bird and is absolute tons of fun.

It’s hard to believe that the first Incredibles movie came out all the way back in 2004, and the new movie picks up right where that one left off, with the Parr family in hot pursuit of the Underminer, a mole-like villain. The Underminer isn’t the movie’s main antagonist, but his appearance starts the movie off with a zippy action sequence that immediately puts the viewer right back into the movie’s world. Even after all these years, it’s amazing how easy it is to slip into such a fun setting.

All the voice actors from the original movie return for the sequel, including Craig T. Nelson as Bob Parr, aka Mr. Incredible, Holly Hunter as wife Helen, aka Elastigirl, and Samuel L. Jackson as Bob’s best friend Lucius, aka Frozone (who I now can’t help but think looks exactly like Kevin Durant). Sarah Vowell and Huck Milner also return as Bob and Helen’s kids Violet and Dash, who despite being fourteen years older now than they were when they voiced the characters in the first movie, have no trouble making Violet and Dash sound exactly the same as you remember. Also returning is writer/director Brad Bird as Edna Mode, the brilliant and eccentric maker of the Parr family’s super-suits. Edna has to make a new suit for baby Jack-Jack, the youngest member of the Parr family, who is manifesting several strange and unpredictable powers, which he has no control over because he’s, you know, a baby.

I love the idea of a baby with unpredictable superpowers, and Bob’s attempts to take care of Jack-Jack while his powers are going crazy are some of the funniest scenes in the film. My favorite scene in the movie is when Jack-Jack spots a raccoon outside their house and gets into an epic battle with it that tears through the entire backyard. I also loved Bob’s reaction to this, which is not horror but joy at discovering his youngest child also has superpowers.

Bob’s adventures in solo parenting come about as a result of Helen’s new job. She is chosen by rich industrialists Winston Deavor (voiced by Bob Odenkirk) and his sister Evelyn (voiced by Catherine Keener) to be the face of a new campaign to legalize superheroes again, after they were made illegal in the first film. Their efforts are complicated by the arrival of a new villain calling himself the Screenslaver, a cunning hypnotist who uses TV and phone screens to hypnotize his victims to do his bidding, after which they have no memory of their actions while under his control. Its eerie how poignant that is. Still, the Screenslaver is one of the film’s weaker elements, since it’s not very hard to figure out who he really is.
While his wife is off doing superheroic stuff, Bob is at home with the kids. Bob loves his kids, but he longs to be out there with his wife being a superhero and saving the day. The film’s message is that being a parent and a loving friend and family member is also a heroic act, and that even though he may not be out there saving the day with his wife, Bob is still a hero to his kids. This message is touching and sweet, and like other Pixar films, it never bashes the viewer over the head with it. Nothing ruins an otherwise uplifting and welcome message like having it shoved down your throat, but Pixar movies never do this.

As he demonstrated with his Mission: Impossible movie and the first Incredibles, Bird is a very talented director of kinetic action scenes. Action is a crucial element to any superhero story, and Incredibles 2 delivers enough action for any summer blockbuster. Highlights include Elastigirl’s attempts to stop a high-speed elevated train which suddenly starts going very quickly in the wrong direction, and of course Jack-Jack’s epic showdown with that diabolical raccoon (side note: all raccoons are evil). There are many other fun and exciting action sequences, but to describe them would be to give away too much of the plot. All of them are great, and will keep the eyes of both kids and adults glued to the screen.

Everyone knows by now that Pixar movies always look great, but Incredibles 2 is nothing less than a technological masterpiece. The colors are bright and vivid, the animation smooth and fluid. The details on the characters are equally impressive. Their facial expressions and body language are expressive and every bit as distinct as flesh and blood characters. It’s surprising that there aren’t more animated superhero movies, since animation allows filmmakers to create action sequences that would be difficult if not impossible to achieve in live action.

In my opinion, Incredibles 2 isn’t quite as good as its predecessor, since the plot isn’t as strong and the mystery of the villain’s identity isn’t hard to figure out. There are also some other superheroes that show up that, while it is fun to see their various powers and costumes, don’t really register as actual characters. But the Parr family remains as likable, heroic, and easy to root for as ever, and the film is a ton of fun that will appeal to children and adults alike.

Avengers Infinity War: The End of the Beginning

The screen cut to black, and the credits started to roll. And everyone in the theater sat in stunned silence.

I suspect this was the case in theaters across the globe last weekend at the conclusion of Marvel’s epic Avengers: Infinity War, in many ways one of the biggest movies ever made. It’s a damn good movie, one with such a devastating ending that I simply must talk about it. I try to avoid spoilers for new releases, but in this case it can’t be helped so be aware that this post will include spoilers.

There’s a lot to talk about, so let’s get started.

First off: there are a LOT of characters in the movie. Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, Spider-Man, Doctor Strange, Black Panther, Scarlet Witch, Vision, War Machine, Falcon, Winter Soldier, Star-Lord, Groot, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, Mantis, Nebula, Wong, Loki, Heimdall, Shuri, Okoye, and the Mad Titan himself, THANOS.

Images: Marvel/Disney
Whew. One of the movie’s many pleasures is seeing combinations of characters that haven’t met before. I particularly enjoyed Thor’s scenes with the Guardians of the Galaxy, and Spider-Man and Star-Lord bonding over 80’s pop culture references. Infinity War is frequently a very funny movie, and many of the funniest lines and moments come as a result of these characters being thrust together in unexpected ways. The only characters that aren’t in the movie are Hawkeye and Ant-Man, and Ant-Man will be in theaters again later this summer in his own sequel, Ant-Man and The Wasp. Don’t know about Hawkeye though, maybe we’ll see him in Infinity War Part Two.

Speaking of part two, it’s important to remember that Infinity War is the first part of a two-part story, and the two films were shot back-to-back. So as devastating as that ending was, keep in mind that this is NOT THE END. More on this later.

Infinity War is a movie that requires a level of patience from the viewer, although this is not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many characters and so many things going on that it can be an effort to keep up with it all. The movie follows one group of characters for a while, then switches to a different group, meaning that the viewer has to frequently reorient themselves.

This can be a bit difficult, but it’s not a complaint. Infinity War is a movie that requires the audience to engage with it. It’s not a mindless blockbuster. There’s a lot of intelligence and heart behind it, and it benefits from a decade’s worth of audience engagement with the previous movies. It doesn’t have to make the audience care about these characters because if you’ve been watching every movie for the last ten years then you already do care about them, which is another thing that makes the ending such a gut-punch.

There’s not a whole lot of room in the movie for individual character development, but there doesn’t need to be since we already know all the main characters. If I had to pick one character that I would describe as the most important character in the film, it would be Thanos, the greatest villain the Avengers have ever faced.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been teasing Thanos since the first Avengers movie in 2012, and carefully introducing the Infinity Stones in various movies. Infinity War is the movie where it all comes together, and it’s incredibly satisfying. Thanos is everything fans could want from the character. As soon as he appears onscreen, which happens in the movie’s first scene, no one is safe. The stakes feel very real. One thing about the various Avengers’ solo films is that there’s no doubt the protagonist will survive to the end, but in Infinity War, everyone’s lives are very much at stake.

Thanos could easily have been portrayed as a generic bad guy, but he isn’t, and it is to the credit of directors Joe and Anthony Russo, screenwriters Christopher Markus and Stephen McFeely, and actor Josh Brolin that Thanos is portrayed so well. The movie gives us some of Thanos’ backstory, and we learn that his home planet of Titan was overpopulated and everyone except him died. Since then, he has been trying to preserve life by conquering planets one by one and destroying half the population of each. This is a time-consuming process, and the powers of the Infinity Stones will give him the means to wipe out half the population in the universe with a snap of his fingers. Thanos doesn’t see himself as the villain. He sees his actions as being right, and is aware of the cost, but to him the preservation of life as a whole is worth the destruction of half of it.

Josh Brolin is excellent as Thanos, and his performance, the excellent writing and directing, and top-notch special effects make Thanos one of the greatest comic-book-movie villains of all time. I counted twenty-five characters in the list above, and all of their combined efforts are not enough to stop him.

Thanos wins.

Or does he?

It’s time, my friends, to talk about The Snap.

Despite all their efforts and the ferocious and thrilling battles that are waged along the way, the Avengers are ultimately unable to prevent Thanos from collecting all six Infinity Stones, and as Thanos and Thor grapple, Thanos extends a gauntleted hand…

…and snaps his fingers.

And people start to die.

It starts with Bucky Barnes, the Winter Soldier, Captain America’s best and oldest friend. He drops his rifle and disintegrates as Cap watches, helpless.

Others follow.

Falcon. Scarlet Witch. Black Panther. Doctor Strange. Star-Lord. Drax. Mantis. Groot.

And, finally, devastatingly, Spider-Man. Peter Parker. A high-school kid. “I don’t feel so good, Mr. Stark,” he says to Iron Man. He’s beginning to disintegrate. He collapses into Tony’s arms, sobbing. “I don’t want to go Mr. Stark, please, I don’t want to go…” he begs. Tony tries to comfort him, but it’s too late, Peter is gone, and Tony is left literally empty-handed, having just witnessed the death of a kid that he feels responsible for having dragged into this mess in the first place.

Oh.

My.

God.

I seriously didn’t get through writing that without tears.

Going into Infinity War, I was aware of the possibility of losing some of these characters that I love. But never did I think that there would be so many, or that their losses would be so devastating.

Especially Peter.

Batman will always be my favorite superhero, but Spider-Man is a very close second. I love the guy, and I love Tom Holland’s portrayal of him. Hearing the fear in his voice and the desperation in his eyes as he fades away tore my heart out and stomped on it, and Robert Downey Jr.’s performance in that crushing moment was also superb. Earlier in the film, Tony and Pepper Potts, his fiancée, had been talking about getting married and having a family, and later, a kid for whom he had become a surrogate father literally fades away in his arms.

I’m sorry, I’m crying again.

Judging from people’s reactions on the internet, I’m not the only person who was hit so hard by that.

But it is important to once again emphasize that THIS IS NOT THE END. Time for some theorizing and rampant speculation.

First of all, there is no way Marvel and Disney would kill that many franchises in one fell swoop. The Spider-Man: Homecoming sequel already has a release date for 2019, and there is already talk of a Black Panther sequel and more Guardians of the Galaxy movies, which logically would have to take place after the events of Infinity War. Also, Black Panther just made more than a billion dollars worldwide and became a cultural talking point, there’s no way Marvel and Disney would simply shrug their shoulders and say, “Sorry guys, no more Black Panther movies!”

I don’t doubt that some of these characters will be back. I also don’t doubt that some of them won’t be. We’ve probably seen the last of Loki and Heimdall, and it’s hard to see Gamora coming back after Thanos sacrifices her to obtain the Soul Stone. Another thing I do not doubt is that reclaiming what was lost will require further sacrifice. The survivors of The Snap are mostly original Avengers such as Thor, Cap, Iron Man, Hulk, Black Widow, and War Machine. Perhaps Infinity War Part Two will involve the efforts of the older Avengers to find out some way of bringing back the newer ones, even at the expense of their own lives.

It’s also worth remembering that two of the Infinity Stones are the Soul Stone, which can bring people back to life, and the Time Stone, which gives its wielder the power of time manipulation (used to great effect by Doctor Strange in his solo movie, and used to much more nefarious effect by Thanos in Infinity War). It’s not hard to see how those could be used to resurrect some of the heroes we lost, but doing so will require the remaining Avengers to somehow get the Stones from Thanos, which will be even more difficult at half-strength.

If/when some of the departed heroes do return, their loss in this film will still resonate, and will still affect the survivors moving forward.

Who knows what will happen in the as-yet unnamed Infinity War sequel? All I know is that it’s due out on May 3, 2019, exactly one year from the day I am posting this.

And now the wait begins…

More Thoughts about The Last Jedi

When I started writing about The Last Jedi, I had a whole list of things to talk about. About 2200 words into writing about the movie, I figured it was time to wrap up the post, only to glance at my list and realize that I had only covered around half of the items on it. I decided to end the post anyway because I didn’t want it to become too long and cumbersome, and I figured I had hit the most important points.

Be that as it may, I have a lot more to say about The Last Jedi. So, I figured I would do something I have never done before and write about the same movie for two weeks in a row.

Let’s start by talking some more about good old Luke Skywalker. Specifically, there was one other big question regarding Luke that I have been pondering since I re-watched the movie.

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm

Namely, why does Luke die?

Think about it. He can’t be that old. The new trilogy is set thirty years after Return of the Jedi, and Mark Hamill was in his early 30’s when that movie was released. Assuming Luke was around the same age, he’d be in his sixties in the new films. That’s not old. So he couldn’t have died of old age. He also hadn’t sustained any fatal wounds, or any wounds at all for that matter since he wasn’t actually on the planet Crait when he had his final showdown with Kylo Ren and the First Order, having projected himself there from the planet he had exiled himself to (the name of said planet escapes me).

I think the sheer exertion of projecting himself across such a vast distance was too much strain for him. Force projection is not an ability we’ve seen utilized in any other Star Wars movie, so presumably it’s not used very often. Maybe that’s because it’s such a huge energy drain that use of it could prove fatal, especially since Luke is using it project himself across such a vast distance, from one planet to another. I like this idea because if that is indeed the case, it would mean that Luke knew using it might kill him. But he did it anyway, sacrificing himself so that the few remaining rebels could escape.

I like this explanation because it would provide redemption for Luke, and a way to help assuage his guilt over having screwed up with Han and Leia’s son and subsequently shutting himself off from the rest of the (metaphorical) world. The problem with this explanation is that it is all rampant speculation on my part. I have no idea if any of this is accurate with Star Wars lore, but it’s an explanation that makes sense to me so I’m going to go with it.

On the subject of rampant speculation, there’s another small moment at the very end of the film that’s worth mentioning. In it, one of the kids on the casino planet who helped Finn and Rose escape picks up a broom and stares hopefully at the sky. But if you pay close attention, you can clearly see that the broom moves into the kid’s hand before he touches it. Is the kid using the Force here? If so, is he even aware of it? I really don’t know what to make of this. Talking about the potential significance of a kid picking up a broom strikes me as ludicrous, but you never know.

I mentioned Rose in the previous paragraph, who is a new character I didn’t have time to talk about in my previous post. She’s an absolute sweetheart, but I wish she had a more interesting subplot than that casino planet nonsense. Rose is played by Kelly Marie Tran, who is also a sweetheart. There’s a really charming story on the internet about how she was in a pub and listened to people at a nearby table talk about the movie in minute detail for an hour, and then walked over and introduced herself. She is a cool person and I hope her breakout role in Star Wars leads to a lot more acting gigs for her, she stole the movie in my opinion. I also hope Rose gets more to do in Episode IX, and doesn’t get stuck with another extraneous subplot.

I talked about Snoke a lot in my previous post, but one thing I didn’t talk about was the actor who plays him. Snoke is played by Andy Serkis, a true chameleon of an actor. Serkis’ most famous role is probably Gollum from Lord of the Rings, but he also played Caesar the ape in the recent Planet of the Apes movies and King Kong in Peter Jackson’s 2005 remake. He’s played loads of other characters, and recently played a villain in Black Panther. On the Blu-Ray of The Last Jedi, one of the more interesting special features is a few of Snoke’s scenes from the film that are just Serkis wearing a motion-capture suit.

Snoke is a fully CGI character, and it’s amazing to see Serkis’ performance without the special effects. His facial movements and gestures and body language are so expressive. Even though he’s wearing a goofy-looking motion-capture suit and is covered with electrodes and cameras, he’s ACTING the absolute HELL out of that character, and I highly recommend anyone who bought the Blu-Ray to check out that feature.

Another thing about this movie that stands out to me is the color red. Blood red is all over the movie and is the dominant color in most of the posters. From Snoke’s red throne room and red Praetorian guards to the vivid red colors during the final battle sequence on Crait, red is all over the place. It’s an interesting color choice for a variety of reasons, one of them being that red is of course the color of the dark side, and every dark Jedi throughout the series wields a red lightsaber. It gives the movie a unique look that I really like and sets it apart visually from other entries in the series, and other sci-fi movies in general.

I also want to address one more thing that bothers me. This isn’t a criticism of the movie, but of the response to it, which has been frequently toxic. The movie was critically acclaimed but got a much more mixed reaction from fans, which is understandable. What is not understandable is how absolutely awful some people were about it. I read comments on the internet by arrogant idiots stating that if you like the movie, then you’re not a “true fan” of Star Wars.

Words cannot describe how much I loathe that appalling statement.

If you liked the movie, that’s totally fine. You are still allowed to be a fan of Star Wars and are not beholden to some random jerk’s definition of what a “true fan” is supposed to be. This is emblematic of a lot of toxic fan culture these days. If your opinion is different then you “just don’t get it,” which is stupid and is a total cop-out. I could go on for a long time about this but I don’t want to because it makes me angry. I just wanted to say that if you like this movie that’s completely fine. You are still a good person.

After having had a chance to watch the movie again and put down my thoughts about it, I like the movie more now than I did after the first time I saw it. I still have a lot of issues with it but writing about it has helped me sort out my feelings about it. In many ways this has been one of the most difficult movies I’ve ever written about, so thank you for coming on this journey with me. Next week’s post is going to be about RAMPAGE, with Dwayne Johnson and a bunch of city-destroying monsters. See you then.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is as Frustrating as it is Exhilarating

Like many people, I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi when it was in theaters, and like many people, my feelings about it were mixed to say the least. Now that the movie is on Blu-ray and I’ve had the chance to watch it again, I figure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired and it’s time for an in-depth discussion. There’s a lot to talk about so let’s get started. There will be spoilers aplenty, so if by some bizarre circumstance you want to see it and haven’t yet, go see it. Love it or hate it (or both), it’s worth a watch just to see what all the fuss is about.

My thoughts on The Last Jedi are complicated, but can be boiled down to one basic summary: the movie is beautifully directed, but poorly written. The Last Jedi was written and directed by Rian Johnson, who is a very smart guy and a very talented writer/director, and his twisty 2012 time travel thriller Looper is one of my favorite movies. His Star Wars movie looks amazing and the action sequences are among the best of the entire franchise, and there were times watching the movie when I thought, this is why people got excited about Star Wars in the first place.

Images: Disney/Lucasfilm

Unfortunately, I also have a LOT of problems with the movie.

Let’s start with one of the big ones: Supreme Leader Snoke. Snoke was one of the biggest mysteries in The Force Awakens: who is this guy? How did he become the Supreme Leader of the First Order? How did he lure Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia and nephew of Luke Skywalker, away from the light side of the force and into the dark? In the leadup to the release of The Last Jedi, I was looking forward to getting some answers to these burning questions.

And then the movie came out, and did not answer a single one of these questions.

The movie does not address Snoke’s background at all. He’s as much a mystery at the end of Episode VIII as he was at the end of Episode VII.

Now, I get that there is a lot going on in The Last Jedi, and there is not time to provide a detailed backstory for every single character. But I don’t care that much about Snoke’s background, I care about how he was able to turn Ben Solo to the dark side and make him become Kylo Ren, and cause him to hate his parents and his uncle to the point of trying to kill all of them (and actually succeeding in the case of Han Solo in The Force Awakens).
The conflict between Kylo and Luke is arguably the most important plot point of the entire sequel series, since it provides the reason for Luke’s self-imposed exile and his abandonment of the Jedi Order, which presumably helped give rise to the First Order. Giving no indication whatsoever as to how this happened leaves a gaping hole in what should be the emotional core of the entire movie. All we’re told is that Luke could sense Ben being led to the dark side, and a misunderstanding between Luke and Ben, as well as a moment of weakness on Luke’s part, led to Ben destroying Luke’s new Jedi Order, Luke’s exile, and so on. That is simply not enough.

I also don’t buy that Luke would completely turn against the teachings of the Jedi Order as quickly as he does. The entire original trilogy sets up Luke as being the one to bring the Jedi back, and then he makes one mistake and just gives up? Says screw it, I’m done? What kind of way is that to treat one of the greatest and most influential sci-fi protagonists of all time? I like Rian Johnson, but what the hell, man???

This is my biggest problem with the movie. Snoke is just the tip of the iceberg, because his actions are key to the story and knowing nothing about him damn near kills a crucial plot point. And now he’s dead, and who the hell knows what will happen in Episode IX.

But we’re just getting started. My other biggest problem with the movie, and the best example of how sloppily written it is, is embodied in the character of Admiral Holdo. Holdo is played by Laura Dern, who I’m sure is a very nice lady but her character makes not one but two of the most bafflingly stupid decisions I’ve ever seen in a movie.

The viewer spends a large portion of the movie thinking she’s evil, or that she must at the very least be a First Order spy who is deliberately attempting to sabotage the rebellion’s escape attempts. Her behavior is so blatantly suspicious that it’s obvious to the viewer (and the other characters in the movie) that she’s bent.

And then she isn’t.

Yes, it turns out that Leia and Holdo had an escape plan all along, and Holdo was simply carrying out that plan. But here’s the problem: why the bloody hell would she not tell anyone that??? What is the freaking point of having everyone think you’re evil? Why would you not tell everyone what the plan was? Why would you not just say hey, here’s what we are going to do? Can’t you see you’re just causing more problems?

But Holdo’s inexplicable stupidity doesn’t end there. After the escape pods are loaded, Holdo stays behind on the mothership to lure the First Order away, only for the First Order to promptly begin blasting the escape pods to smithereens. And then Holdo just stands there watching and DOES NOTHING!!! WHAT ARE YOU DOING, WOMAN!?!?!?! YOUR FRIENDS ARE GETTING ANNIHILATED AND YOU’RE JUST STANDING THERE!!!

WTF?!?!?!

Whew. Sorry about all the capitalization and punctuation marks, but I needed to get that out of my system.

Holdo does eventually redeem herself, at least partly, by crashing the Rebel mothership into Snoke’s flagship at lightspeed, which cripples the First Order’s fleet and is one of the most spectacular special-effects sequences I’ve ever seen. When the First Order’s ships break apart and it’s all completely silent, you could feel everyone in the theater holding their breath.

It was amazing, but why the hell did Holdo not do this as soon as the Rebel escape pods left the mothership? I get that sacrificing yourself is not a decision to be made lightly, but the entire reason she stayed on the mothership in the first place was to lure the First Order away, which presumably would have ended with them killing her anyway. So as soon as it became apparent that that plan wasn’t going to work and the First Order begins blasting the Rebel ships into nothing, why does Holdo wait so long to do anything about it?

I have absolutely no idea.

I also have no idea what the point of the stupid casino planet subplot is. Finn, the reformed former stormtrooper from The Force Awakens, goes on a mission to a planet called Canto Bight to find a codebreaker who can get him onto Snoke’s flagship so he can disable it, but the entire subplot feels inconsequential. Why couldn’t the movie just have had Finn go directly to Snoke’s ship himself? What’s the point of the codebreaker character and subplot? Removing it would have made the story much more streamlined. The entire sequence set at the casino on Canto Bight feels like a waste of time.

What it really feels like to me is an attempt by Disney to generate more merchandise for the film. There are tons of weird creatures and whatnot at the casino, and the obvious effort put into designing and creating so many different characters is impressive, but that effort could have been better spent elsewhere. The entire subplot feels like filler in a movie that doesn’t need filler. Get rid of the filler and focus on the stuff that matters, like the Snoke/Kylo/Luke story. This is Star Wars, there shouldn’t be any filler. I just can’t help but feel like the Disney overlords told Rian Johnson to make the movie as merchandisable as possible, and he just shrugged his shoulders and said okay.

It also doesn’t help that I’m not that invested in Finn as a character. He’s fine I guess, but I care a lot more about Rey, who is more important to the overall story anyway, and I’m not just saying that because I have a crush on Daisy Ridley, who is really great in the role. One of the other biggest mysteries left over from The Force Awakens was the question of Rey’s parentage, and why they left her alone on a backwater planet in the middle of nowhere. Fan theories abounded, one of the most convincing being that Rey was the daughter of Han and Leia, and therefore Kylo Ren’s sister.

But, nope. The only scrap of information that we get from The Last Jedi is when Kylo tells Rey that her parents were nobodies. It’s hugely anticlimactic, and feels like another tease from the previous movie that the makers of this movie just didn’t care about. Also, how does Kylo know who Rey’s parents were? Did he use Space Google? There’s always the possibility that he’s lying and is just trying to manipulate her, but for now it feels like another big plot point that the movie doesn’t care about.

On the Blu-Ray of the movie there is featurette called Balance of the Force, in which Rian Johnson talks about how in the original trilogy, the revelation that Darth Vader is Luke’s father is the worst thing that could have happened to him, since it turns out that the evil he’s trying to fight is a part of him. Similarly, the revelation that Rey’s parents were nobodies is the worst thing that could have happened to her, because it denies her the answers she’s looking for.

One of the most compelling aspects of The Last Jedi is Rey’s search for answers about her role in everything that’s going on. For me, the most moving scene in the film is when she tells Luke, “I need someone to show me my place in all of this.” As someone who has yet to find his place in life, this resonates strongly with me. Johnson’s argument that her parents were nobodies is the worst thing that could have happened to her is compelling from this standpoint, since if she had turned out to be Luke’s daughter or Han and Leia’s daughter or something like that, it would have helped give her a sense of purpose and identity, and denying her that means she’ll have to keep looking.

I like this explanation, but it still feels like Johnson is pulling the rug out from under the viewer’s feet. The entire Balance of the Force featurette on the Blu-Ray strikes me as odd, since it’s mostly Johnson explaining some of the more controversial aspects of the story. It feels like an attempt on the behalf of the filmmakers to cover their butts and explain away some of the aspects of the story that understandably angered fans.

The movie is also tonally uneven. There are too many attempts at humor, many of which feel out of place and detract from the drama of the moment. This is best exemplified with porgs. Porgs are cute little creatures that are like a combination of a puffin and a guinea pig. They may be cute little buggers, but the movie relies on them too much for comic relief and cuts to them at odd moments. For example, during the final battle on the mineral planet Crait, when Rey and Chewbacca swoop in on the Millennium Falcon to provide some much-needed help to the Rebels, there’s a damn porg on the Falcon that keeps screeching. Seriously Chewie, just bite the damn thing’s head off already! Why Johnson is so obsessed with the bloody porgs is yet another mystery that the movie leaves unsolved.

Despite my laundry list of problems with the movie, I don’t hate it. It didn’t ruin Star Wars for me. There are sequences in the movie that are some of my favorites in the entire series. I love the opening space battle, Rey and Kylo’s epic fight against Snoke’s crimson-clad Praetorian guards, the fight between Finn and Captain Phasma on Snoke’s burning command ship, and the epic final battle on Crait (aside from the porg, anyway). The movie looks absolutely stunning and the acting is top-notch. Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher both give soulful performances in iconic roles, and Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley are both excellent as the two most important characters in the new series.

But the movie has crippling problems that I can’t ignore. There’s plenty of material I didn’t cover in this post, so there might be a follow-up at some point in the future, since I don’t want this post to become too long and unwieldy. But I’ve hit the most important points, and it feels good to do so, since all of this has been swirling frantically around in my head ever since I saw the movie. The Last Jedi was an extremely divisive movie, and it’s not hard to see why.

What will the future hold for Star Wars? Only time (and JJ Abrams) will tell.

The Shape of Water is a Fairy Tale Like No Other

As a shy and introverted person, I always respond strongly to movies in which the protagonist doesn’t say much. One of the many reasons Mad Max: Fury Road is one of my favorite movies of all time is that Max has maybe a dozen lines throughout the film.

Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water features not one but two protagonists who never say a word.

Well, not counting the hissing noises.

Images: Fox Searchlight Pictures

The Shape of Water is a tender love story about the oddly beautiful relationship between a mute woman and an amphibious fishman. The woman’s name is Elisa, played by Sally Hawkins. She works at a government facility of some kind (its purpose is never fully explained), where she works as a janitor with her friend Zelda, played by Octavia Spencer. Elisa’s only other friend is her neighbor Giles, played by Richard Jenkins, a kind soul who is a closeted gay man.

Elisa’s life follows a routine until something very strange arrives at the facility in which she works. That strange something is the aforementioned fishman, played by veteran creature actor Doug Jones. I say “creature actor” because although you might not recognize his name, chances are pretty good you’ve seen Doug Jones in a movie at some point, since his IMDb page lists 161 acting credits. He’s been in several of Guillermo del Toro’s other films, including the similar fishman Abe Sapien in the Hellboy movies, as well as playing two creatures in Pan’s Labyrinth. He played two characters in that one, including the titular faun and the terrifying Pale Man, aka that skinny guy with his eyeballs in his hands who scared the bejesus out of literally everyone who saw Pan’s Labyrinth.

Bottom line, Jones is a pro. What Andy Serkis is to motion capture, Doug Jones is to acting in full-body makeup and prosthetics. I watched some of the movie’s special features, and in them Guillermo talks about how the creature’s facial expressions and body language needed to be expressive and readable in order for the audience to sympathize with the creature, and Doug Jones does incredible work in that regard. I immediately felt empathy for the creature, and was invested in the unconventional relationship between Elisa and the creature right from the start.

But as with any love story worth its salt, there are those who want to keep the lovebirds apart. The main villain of the story is Strickland, the agent who captured the creature in South America, where the locals worshipped it as a god, and transported it to the facility in Baltimore, where the film takes place. Strickland is in charge of finding out what makes the creature tick, and his methods for doing so involve generous use of a cattle prod.

Strickland is played by Michael Shannon, an actor who is probably a perfectly nice, normal human being but who scares the hell out of me in just about every movie I see him in. The guy is intense, and every one of his characters has this ferocity that is incredibly intimidating. Strickland sees the creature as an abomination, an affront to humanity. “We are made in the image of God,” he tells Elisa and Zelda. “God looks like us, not like that thing.”

Strickland feels no empathy for the creature whatsoever and seems to delight in its torment. He clearly sees himself as the hero of this story, and if this film had been made by anyone other than Guillermo del Toro, he might be. But as it is, Strickland is the monster of this story, not the fishman, or “The Asset,” as Strickland and other government brass refer to it. I hadn’t seen The Shape of Water when I wrote my posts about the villains of 2017, but if I had Strickland would have more than earned his place.

The movie looks gorgeous. It takes place some time in the 1950’s or 60’s. Although the exact year is never specified, it’s in the middle of the Cold War, which is important to the plot since one of the scientists in the facility is secretly a Russian agent. The movie has a retro look that I just loved, some scenes, like the ones in Strickland’s house, look like they could have come straight out of a TV commercial from that era. The movie also reminded me quite a bit of the video game Bioshock, which is a series I’m a big fan of. If only Guillermo had gotten to make a Bioshock movie, that would have been awesome. Oh, well. Still, The Shape of Water is a beautiful movie not just in terms of the visuals, but also the themes, story and performances.

I wish Sally Hawkins had won the Oscar for Best Actress. Her wordless performance in this film is spellbinding. She does an incredible job capturing Elisa’s emotions, so that the viewer understands her personality and motivations even without any spoken dialogue. In the similarly-wordless fishman, she finds a soulmate. Their relationship is developed with care and minute attention to detail, and the film’s ending is deeply moving. It feels like a logical fulfillment of their central relationship. I won’t spoil it because I really want people who haven’t seen it to see this movie as soon as possible, but by the time the end credits rolled there were some tears in my eyes. And they weren’t tears of sadness.

I’m a shy and reserved person, so seeing movies about people who have trouble expressing themselves is very meaningful for me. Elisa is a person with a lot going on beneath her placid surface. Once she falls in love with the fishman, it’s hard for her to express her feelings for him. One of my favorite scenes in the movie is when she tells Giles via sign language what her relationship with the creature means to her, and he translates as she signs to him. “When he looks at me, the way he looks at me, he does not know what I lack, or how I am incomplete. He sees me for what I am, as I am. He’s happy to see me. Every time. Every day.” I’m not crying, you’re crying. The Shape of Water is a story about two people (technically, one person and one fishman, but you get the idea) who are perfect for each other, and I loved it for that.

Guillermo del Toro is one of my favorite directors, and I’m so happy The Shape of Water was such a success and won him all those Academy Awards. I fell in love with The Shape of Water, right from the opening scene. It’s a fairy tale for adults, made with love and care. I didn’t call it an adult fairy tale because that makes it sound like a porno, but seriously, this movie is not for kids. As with Guillermo’s other fairy tales like Pan’s Labyrinth and Crimson Peak, he doesn’t shy away from occasional bursts of graphic violence, and there are one or two scenes in The Shape of Water that had me squirming. But the film is ultimately a beautiful one, the kind of movie that stays with you long after it’s over. It feels like a movie that no one other than Guillermo could have made, and I can’t wait to see it again.

BLACK PANTHER: Wakanda Forever

Black Panther is so freaking cool.

Captain America: Civil War was one of my favorite movies of 2016, and one of my favorite things about it was Chadwick Boseman as T’Challa, aka Black Panther, making his big-screen debut. I had heard of the character but didn’t know much about him until I saw Civil War, and the movie’s portrayal of him was so good that I immediately wanted to learn more about him.

I’ve since read some Black Panther comics and enjoyed them a lot, and like many people I had been eagerly anticipating Black Panther’s first solo movie. The hype leading up to the film’s release was huge, and it didn’t disappoint. Black Panther is one of the best films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

Images: Marvel/Disney

One of the biggest complaints I hear about films in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU for short) is that they tend to be formulaic. It’s hard to dispute this, since many superhero films do tend to share similar story elements. This doesn’t bother me because I love superhero movies, but I can see why some people call them formulaic.

Black Panther is one of the least formulaic films in the MCU, partly because it’s central character is the exact opposite of formulaic.
Black Panther made his first appearance in an issue of the Fantastic Four in 1966 and was the first African superhero in mainstream American comics. He is the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, which is the only source of the ultra-valuable metal vibranium. Vibranium has allowed Wakanda to create technology far more advanced than anything in the rest of the world. Wakanda is the most technologically-advanced country in the world in the Marvel universe, and I couldn’t wait to see it portrayed onscreen.

The new movie takes place after the events of Captain America: Civil War. Following the assassination of his father, King T’Chaka, T’Challa returns home to Wakanda to become the new king. The title of Black Panther is hereditary and passed down from generation to generation, and T’Challa is the current Black Panther, who serves as the protector of Wakanda. The Black Panther is entitled to use the sacred heart-shaped herbs, which give him superhuman strength and reflexes.

I love the way the movie portrays Wakanda. It looks amazing. The sets, special effects, and costumes are top-notch and make Wakanda feel vibrant and alive. It’s the kind of place you want to visit as soon as the movie is over. We meet T’Challa’s inner circle, most of which are badass women. These include Okoye (played by Danai Gurira of The Walking Dead fame), the leader of the Dora Milaje, the all-female Wakandan special forces (described by one character early in the film as “Grace Jones-looking chicks”). There’s also Nakia, played by Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, an undercover spy and former Dora Milaje member who also happens to be T’Challa’s ex-girlfriend. Then there’s T’Challa’s mother Ramonda (played by Angela Bassett) and his younger sister, teenage Shuri (played by Letitia Wright), who is the smartest person in Wakanda and keeps T’Challa supplied with cutting-edge vibranium tech.

All these characters are great, as are the actors who portray them. The cast also includes Forest Whitaker (another Oscar winner) and recent Oscar nominee Daniel Kaluuya. Shuri is my favorite character in the movie. She’s just great. She’s lively and smart and funny, and gets some of the movie’s best lines. The great thing about these characters is that they feel like a family. They don’t exist just to fill certain roles in the story, like love interest or comic relief or whatever. They love and support one another, and the actors have great chemistry. Martin Freeman is also very likable as a CIA agent who gets to be the fish-out-of-water in Wakanda.

And oh, yes. Of course, there has to be a bad guy. And this one is a doozy. He goes by the name Erik Killmonger, and with a name like that you know he’s serious. He’s played by Michael B. Jordan and is one of the MCU’s best and most well-rounded villains. The extraordinary thing about Killmonger is that you can understand his point of view. He’s the bad guy, but he’s the furthest thing from two-dimensional. Another common criticism of MCU movies is that the villains tend to be forgettable, although there are notable exceptions. Killmonger belongs firmly in the “exception” category.

Killmonger first appeared in 1973 in a seminal story arc called Panther’s Rage. The entire Panther’s Rage story is available in a single paperback, and if you want to get into Black Panther comics and are wondering where to start, Panther’s Rage is the perfect entry point. It’s not perfect, since writer Don McGregor’s captions and dialogue tend to be overstuffed and can be long-winded, but the artwork is fantastic and the stories and characters are socially and emotionally resonant. Also, the story of Panther’s Rage was very influential on the story of the film and the portrayal of the characters. There’s even a part in the book where Killmonger kicks T’Challa off a waterfall, which probably sounds familiar if you’ve seen the movie.

Seriously, read Panther’s Rage. I can’t recommend it highly enough. It tells a serious story that is still relevant today, while also delivering great moments of over-the-top comic book action. There’s a scene where T’Challa rides a pterodactyl and jumps off its back to kick a bad guy in the face while the bad guy is in the process of shooting an explosive arrow at him which then hits the pterodactyl, which then blows up. Panther’s Rage is a serious and contemplative story, but don’t think it gets too serious because it still features an exploding pterodactyl.

The movie is similar in the way it tells a serious and meaningful story while still delivering on the action, as well as goofy comic book elements. For example, Andy “Gollum” Serkis plays a character named Ulysses Klaue (simply called Klaw in the comics, in which he is a recurring Black Panther nemesis). Serkis previously played the character in 2015’s Avengers: Age of Ultron, in which he lost an arm. Klaue has since replaced that arm with a cybernetic attachment that turns into a laser cannon that can flip cars and blow holes in walls and that sort of thing. Serkis has fun hamming it up and speaking with an over-the-top South African accent, but Killmonger is the main villain, make no mistake.

And Michael B. Jordan plays him extremely well. He’s a badass who is T’Challa’s equal in terms of physical strength and mental cunning, which makes the two very evenly-matched. He’s also had a tough upbringing and a genuine beef with T’Challa. I won’t spoil the details, but Killmonger’s gripe with T’Challa and the nation of Wakanda makes a lot of sense. It makes so much sense in fact that it even leads T’Challa to question himself, and to wonder if maybe Killmonger does have a point. The central conflict of the film is much more nuanced than many other superhero movies, and the line between good guy and bad guy gets blurred in a way that is uncommon to big-budget blockbusters.

Director Ryan Coogler is only 31 years old, and Black Panther is only his third film. He’s clearly a talent to watch and his previous two films were also critically acclaimed (and Michael B. Jordan starred in both of them, so he and Coogler clearly have a well-established rapport). He has deftly crafted a blockbuster that is fun and entertaining, while also culturally relevant and thought-provoking. It’s a remarkable accomplishment and I’m super happy that the film is already a massive success. It deserves to be.