This Week on Netflix! Jurassic Park (1993)

JP posterJurassic Park, along with most of Steven Spielberg’s catalog at the time, was a staple of my childhood. It taught me what an adventure movie should be like in every measurable way. Some would blame Spielberg for ushering in the modern era of substance-devoid summer blockbusters, but that criticism seems unfair to me. He set the standard for character-driven action flicks, and despite what other filmmakers have done with the formula over the years, his legacy has held strong in both quality and quantity.

Spielberg’s movies, and Jurassic Park in particular, are adept at keeping not only the audience’s conscious gaze, but the tension-rich atmosphere from start to finish. An ominous note by the film’s composer, John Williams, sets the mood perfectly, as a ground crew works to safely introduce a velociraptor to its new enclosure. We’re also introduced to Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill) and Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), two archaeologists who are asked by their dig’s main source of funding, John Hammond, to visit his new dinosaur park. Of course, they’re not told what is at the park. In this case, seeing is believing.

Once at the park, they meet up with Dr. Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) and Donald “The Blood-sucking Lawyer” Gennaro (Martin Ferrero), and are asked to evaluate if it is safe for the general public. The sheer spectacle of living, breathing dinosaurs is short-lived, as the park soon loses power and its guests are left to fend for themselves. Velociraptor JPFear and survival instincts replace awe and wonderment, and the goal of everyone is to reunite and get off the island as soon as possible.

When you think of the Jurassic Park series, your brain might conjure up CG images of rampaging dinos, but in fact, a lot of the effects in the original movie are practical. Most of the velociraptors’ major scenes, for example, are just dudes in suits. There’s also a five-ton, fully anamatronic version of the T-Rex and a full-size triceratops puppet. Point being, you don’t see stuff like this anymore, and it’s incredible.

JP triceratopsAside from what Stan Winston’s team accomplished with the dinosaur puppets, there’s a constant theme of nature vs. technology, and it’s one that doesn’t get enough follow-through in the rest of the series (at least in my opinion). Once Jurassic World comes around, it’s pretty clear nobody cares about the dangers of playing God. I find that to be a flaw in the franchise, but you won’t find the same error in Jurassic Park. Ian Malcolm is a reminder that life will always “find a way,” and while I would think the scientists at the park would have realized the potential harm from dumping a bunch of foreign DNA into a jar and swishing it around, the “fool me once” idiom is in effect.

JP TrexGetting back to the atmosphere and tension, a lot of it is owed to the pacing of the film. There’s never a lull in suspense, which creates the kind of nervous nail-biting I’ve come to expect during a Spielberg story. Add to that several memorable characters, and the reasons for success become obvious. Imagine not having Jeff Goldblum’s brand of discomforting flirting with Dr. Sattler or Wayne Knight’s smarmy selfishness (perfected over the years with his Newman character on Seinfeld). Lots of the story beats wouldn’t work with lesser actors, and having quality in this department is something I also expect from Spielberg.

There are dinosaur movies, and then there is Jurassic Park. While not the first to feature the extinct giants on the big screen (neither is Caveman, but check it out anyway, it remains the definitive experience on the subject.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

 

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Netflix Nic: Part 2, Snake Eyes, Outcast, Left Behind

Netflix Nic 2In this, the second installment of my Netflix Nic series, where I watch some Nicolas Cage flicks on Netflix and report my findings, I bring to you a decent offering from the 90s; a surprising action/drama with Anakin Skywalker; and a movie in which the film stock should have been burned like at the end of Inglourious Basterds. Enjoy!

Snake Eyes

Snake Eyes 1Having just officially defeated the year 1997 with both Con-Air and Face/Off releasing in theaters, Cage’s next performance in Snake Eyes starts out as if he’s trying to do a Nicolas Cage impression after not sleeping for three days and taking a bottle of NoDoz. Unfortunately, that particular charm is thrown away fairly early on, but the movie stays interesting enough to not automatically warrant a full dismissal.

I guess it’s just hard to get behind a character in this situation when I can’t figure out his motivation. He’s clearly a lunatic, but also a corrupt one. Cage plays a cop who very obviously takes pleasure in doing whatever he can to skim from the top, and don’t let that throwaway line about never killing fool you. This guy would gladly look away from anything for a fat envelope in his pocket, and I refuse to buy his magical conscience growth.

The movie follows Cage’s character while he attends a big boxing event at a major sports arena. His good friend, played by Gary Sinise, is also there to head the security detail for some high-up politician in the seats. Cage, on the other hand, is there to do two things: place bets with literal blood money and watch some boxing. He doesn’t give a crap about the whodunit until some intangible line is crossed, at which point he remembers he’s a cop and becomes a moral agent with laser focus and a stubbornness not seen since the last time I refused to put down that half-pound bucket of cheese balls at Walgreens. It was delicious.

Once he’s on the case, his entertaining lunacy is replaced with the constant emotion of regret, which also comes with a near-permanent look of constipation and a tinge of worry. Even the fact he’s helping out the immaculate Carla Gugino doesn’t seem to really register until the last scene of the movie, where it forces them to kiss. Trust me, that’s a lame spoiler if there ever is one, and kissing Carla Gugino should never, ever seem forced.

Snake Eyes does do a decent amount of things right, such as having a cool atmosphere and some impressive camerawork. 1990s Gary Sinise could do no wrong, and De Palma knows a thing or two about thrillers. It’s still fun enough to watch the events unfold, even though it oddly gives up the ghost like halfway through. If it could only get a better handle on Cage’s character, I’d be able to recommend it without reservations. If you dig murder mysteries, have at it. Just remember you’re getting Cage turned up to 11 for two seconds before being dialed down to a two or three until the credits roll.

Outcast

Outcast 1I thought Outcast was going to be a Nicolas Cage movie, but as it turns out, he’s only in the first five minutes and the last thirty. You’d think he couldn’t tank a movie by himself with only half an hour to do it, but don’t bet against him in situations like this. His British accent alone would have lowered the bar too much to recover from if he was allowed to stick around the entire time.

Instead of Nicolas Cage, Outcast stars Hayden Christensen as an opium-filled, ex-Templar Knight on a journey to find his soul after murdering countless people in, what he thought was, the name of God. Cage plays his sort of older brother/mentor person who has no real purpose except to (I guess) give Christensen’s character some motivation and a place to hold down the fort when everything comes to a head. The story actually centers on a dynastic Eastern family, which I know, because the movie helpfully flashes “The Far East” across the screen one time. Sibling rivalry has brought about patricide and a forceful takeover of an imperial army, and Christensen unwittingly gets himself caught up in the drama after saving a princess and prince from capture and death. The fight itself is sweet, and I have to say, I think I would have liked the Star Wars prequels more if Hayden Christensen got peed on before every fight.

I’ll confess that I assumed this movie was going to be a big ol’ pile of cheese, but thanks to Cage only appearing in a small roll, the visual style and well-choreographed fights keep things moving along pretty well without distraction. When he does show up, though, he halts everything with his hellish accent and hairpiece. Why is a Templar Knight wearing (fake) hair like a samurai? Did they think the accent was too ridiculous without some kind of wardrobe to match? I’m not sure if they got that last question right or wrong, but I’m glad he’s absent from the entire middle section of Outcast, otherwise I’d still be laugh-crying at my monitor. There is absolutely no reason for Nicolas Cage to be in this movie. None whatsoever. Why does he scratch his beard with a snake that’s wrapped around his fist? I don’t know, but they might as well switch him out with Will Ferrell as Harry Caray and just let him loose. At least the accent would be better.

Outcast 4Hayden Christensen doesn’t sport an Academy-award-winning accent, either, but it’s more of a throwaway one as opposed to the worst thing my ears have ever heard (That’s Cage’s in case you’re wondering). I dig what he does with his character, though. He’s simply a man looking for any kind of redemption, and he finds it without anything feeling forced or silly. I thought the whole thing was going to be an exercise in being forced and silly, so if you thought the same after looking at Nicolas Cage with his second-worst haircut after Next and maybe that one about witches, take heart. It’s much better than it looks.

In fact, Outcast is a kick ass little movie if you can get around the bizarreness of Cage. You’ll have to suspend your disbelief when either Christensen or especially Cage take on dozens of men, but I’m used to that kind of thing by now. If it’s done well enough, it’s not a deal-breaker by any means, and Outcast does it well.

The story has been done before: White guy gets mixed up in craziness sometime during the 12th-19th century; is charged with protecting a pretty girl; kisses pretty girl while fighting a lot; saves the day in a foreign land; etc. But Outcast doesn’t overdo it and doesn’t overstay its welcome, either. At 98 minutes, Cage doesn’t get enough time to ruin everything, and I’d say to give this one a shot as long as you don’t actually want more of his character on-screen. If you do, you’re part of the world’s problems.

Left Behind

Left Behind 3If there was ever a movie that would benefit from a crazy Cage accent and getup, Left Behind is probably it. I think he read the scripts for both this and Outcast and mixed up how he wanted to play each character in his head, because he all but sleepwalks through the entire thing.

You might have heard of the Left Behind book series before, as it was quickly turned into a trifecta of terrible starring Kirk Cameron and the fakest Russian antichrist ever. But for all the things those movies get wrong (99% of everything), at least I understand what their message is. In the Cage remake, there’s no theology whatsoever, so you’re left with a mess of a story that never goes anywhere. The setup is bare-bones: Cage plays an airline pilot and family-ish man who has to come to terms with the fact that God has raptured all the true believers into heaven, while everyone else is left to fend for themselves in the aftermath.

That actually sounds way more exciting than what Left Behind delivers, so let’s calm down. What you end up getting the majority of the time is Cage sitting, blank-faced, in the cockpit while passengers bicker, fight, cry, and pray with each other in the cabin. Meanwhile, his daughter on the ground eventually realizes the same truth about the end of the world, and they race to reunite with each other.

Yawn.

At least the Kirk Cameron ones are about something. He globe-trots; he digs into conspiracies; he emotes(!). He doesn’t just sit in a chair with a mopey expression only to finally break down toward the end when it’s time to talk about God and stuff.

So, about God. Hilariously enough, Left Behind hardly seems to want the viewer to know anything about that. In a CliffNotes version of Biblical morals, the only tasty kernel the movie offers is by way of a repentant pastor, who says, “It’s not about what we do, it’s about asking for forgiveness…”. That’s all good, except it doesn’t explain why the Muslim guy wasn’t raptured away. He was all about praying to God and literally helping little old ladies, so what’s up with that? I’m pretty sure he’s the type to routinely ask for forgiveness, wouldn’t you think?

Left Behind 4I would, at any rate, and I also think I have more respect for the honesty of the originals, even if they’re much more bat-shit insane. The remake washes away any meaning behind its premise through the sin of omission, and believe me, the effects used late in the movie make me think it only sins because it wants to. Basically, it feels like a cash-grab by somebody. Who? I don’t know, but I’d be surprised if it was a hardcore Christian of any kind. These movies are typically made for less money, with less talent, and by people who know a hell of a lot more about reciting scripture than they do about making decent movies, and for good reason. The scripture is the important part. The movie simply functions as something to distract you while you’re fed your dose of the Holy Ghost, and the intended audience doesn’t really care. This version of Left Behind forgets the Holy Ghost and is content to offer you beer nuts and, like, a third of a Bible tract scribbled on a napkin instead.

And by upping the ante to the tune of four times the original’s budget (or $16 million), the intended audience has to grow proportionally, otherwise you’re asking for trouble. As it turns out, that $16 million budget only got them $19.6 million in revenue, along with a boring movie, so I’d like to take this opportunity to share this quote by one of the book series’ creators, Tim LaHaye:

My dream has always been to enter the movie theater with a first-class, high-quality movie that is grippingly interesting, but also is true to the biblical storyline—and that was diluted in the first attempt. But Lord willing, we are going to see this thing made into the movie that it should be, and that all the world sees it before the real Rapture comes.”

Lord willing.

If you can’t tell, I’m not impressed. I can’t even laugh along with the more Biblical stuff, because there isn’t any. Cage just woke up from a coma before fitting into his flight suit, and Lea Thompson is in two scenes before disappearing. Two scenes! It’s like when I saw Sigourney Weaver for half a second in Ridley Scott’s Exodus before she got edited into oblivion. Not cool.

Anyways, I sentence Left Behind to eternal damnation, where it will be shown on loop to those poor souls unlucky enough to have one of those personal hells that happen to deal with airports. I know, it’s specific and eccentric, but it’s still a valid and just punishment.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

Netflix Nick

pay the ghost by rafy-1402.cr2

I don’t think I’m capable of summing up this man’s character in a single paragraph, but we should all be on the same page here. Cage has been around forever, and though he’s been cranking out less-than-stellar stuff over the past decade or so, that doesn’t mean he’s incapable of making decent movies.

I’d forgive you for thinking my first post in this series will actually contain some of those decent movies. Well, the joke’s on you. Instead, I took to Netflix and lined up a couple of snoozers. So, without further adieu, I give you three (not so) great Nicolas Cage selections from Netflix: Pay the Ghost, Rage, and Next.

Pay the Ghost (2015)

Pay the GhostWell, I’m glad I didn’t pay a ghost or anyone else to see this one. The setup is simple, with Cage playing a father desperate to regain his missing son, whom he loses at a Halloween carnival. The run time is spent solving a decades-spanning mystery involving dozens of missing children, which ties directly into what happened to his own son.

The premise isn’t bad, and neither are the first two-thirds of the movie, Sarah Wayne Callies notwithstanding (Sorry, I’ve hated her ever since The Walking Dead. Ugh. Gag me.). The atmosphere is suitably creepy, and Cage does a fine enough job selling himself as a distraught father whose everyday life has become a distraction from thoughts of his son. I don’t know whose call it was, but I think somebody in the production really, really liked Insidious, though, and decided the end of Pay the Ghost should kinda be like that.

The problem, of course, is that Insidious already exists, and you’ll excuse me if it’s a bit late to ignore that fact. Actually, to get a more accurate picture of the final act of Pay the Ghost, you’ll need to throw in a healthy dose of Darkness Falls, Dead Silence, or any number of other horror movies that use vengeful ghosts as the villains. It just feels like they couldn’t come up with a reason for Cage’s son to disappear, so they went with formulas that have worked in more capable hands. If you’re going to introduce a dreamy hellscape where souls become stranded between worlds, you have to at least make the attempt to better the one everyone knows and (I’m assuming) loves. Pay the Ghost doesn’t do that, which means you’re left with a pretty forgettable experience that hardly justifies asking us to become invested in characters and experiences that are better served elsewhere. This movie is why Netflix was invented.

Rage (2014)

Rage

For a movie titled Rage and starring Nicolas Cage, you’d think it would be about some effectual, focused anger by a worthy main character, but don’t forget what you’re dealing with. For about the hundredth time (theatrically?), Nicolas Cage’s offspring has been taken from him, and he’s left to figure out what to do about it. Personally, my focus would be a bit off after about the fiftieth kidnapping, but I get distracted a lot with things like Facebook and cat videos set to Dr. Who music.

It’s been said that Rage is a ripoff of Mystic River, which sounds accurate enough for me. I haven’t seen Mystic River in a long time, and I’m not exactly in the mood for that much over-acting in one two-hour span again quite yet. But there’s definitely no shortage of underwhelming acting in Rage, which showcases at least one difference between the films.

Unlike Pay the Ghost, Rage pits Nicolas Cage versus his daughter’s kidnappers, and there aren’t any shitty ghost stories behind this one, although I might accept that over the tragedy that is everything about Rage.

Cage is a reformed gangster, and his daughter’s disappearance ends up being blamed on the Russian mob, which I guess is fair enough. I think they’re usually the guys who do whatever bad thing to whatever action hero, right? Even if it isn’t them, just blame them anyways. Rage makes it clear that there are plenty of them to go around in Mobile, Alabama, so shoot away.

Not to ruin the party before it gets started, but Rage has one of the most disappointing, horseshit endings a movie like this could possibly have. Any meaning, growth, or acceptance on Cage’s character’s part is tossed away like trash out of a taxi cab window in favor of, I don’t know, something a third grader mentioned to the screenwriter during Career Day one year. A spoiler-free thing I can mention is Danny Glover’s character. He’s a police chief (or lieutenant, or…something) who has some sort of history with Cage, which apparently means a former mobster can get away scot-free after a car chase that ends with a police cruiser being literally exploded as he causes accidents left and right. Nothing Cage could do during his Rage-filled quest is over the line for Danny Glover, because he gets it. He understands. Just like the mayor will most likely understand when Glover has to explain how an ex-con going on a murder spree is cool, man. Like, just don’t worry about it. He’s grieving.

I so badly want to explain about everything that is wrong with this movie, but I’d have to get too specific. Maybe time can heal this wound; maybe not. Maybe having more people watch it only to feel exactly the way I do is the singular way the curse of Nicolas Cage’s DTV flicks will end. Like Ringu, I guess. As it stands, there’s only one solid Cage freakout moment, which is more than I can say for Pay the Ghost. But one solid Cage-ism does not a good movie make, so for all I care, Rage can take its impotent self back to whatever pissed-off, unholy typewriter it came from and stay there until it gets a little less pissed and brick-stupid.

Next (2007)

Next is one of those kinds of movies that puts an obviously CG water tower in the middle of a scene for the sole purpose of using it an hour later in an action sequence. That may not sound so bad on paper, but with effects barely above some Syfi productions, couldn’t they find someone to build them a cheap water tower? Or maybe not use a water tower?

Whiff-2But Next’s most damning attribute is its basic premise, which is – I shit you not – about the FBI tracking down a psychic magician in order to see into the future and stop a nuclear attack on American soil. Did the writer/s of Jurassic World have something to do with this? They should have transported Cage around on raptors. I’m reasonably sure this requires no more discussion or explanation, so if you don’t bring it up again, I won’t either.

Moving on, I can’t help thinking Nicolas Cage gives the worst portrayal of somebody who can constantly see into the near future. The way he describes it in the movie, he can see two minutes into the future, but only his direct future. Once he looks at the future, it changes because he looked at it. Rinse, repeat. At least that’s what would have to be happening: He would be receiving visual barrages of billions of ways all actions pertaining to him play out. Nonstop. He never mentions anything about being able to tune them out, so it sounds to me like a psychic nightmare. I’d have killed myself in my teens if I were him.

Anyways, Jessica Biel is in this. Exciting, right? For some reason, her presence allows Cage to see farther into the future than ever before, which in turn gives him a better chance of stopping the bomb. This schtick gets old quick, though, because the movie is fond of letting events add up for a while only to show you that – ah, ha! – it was only one of his psychic future possibilities. Imagine putting up with that after half an hour’s worth of stuff happens.

Next 2Tell me, what diners offer martinis? Why is Peter Falk in this movie for one scene? Does Cage really not understand that his “gift” means he’ll never have a genuine interaction with another human being that isn’t based on him seeing every possibility and picking the “best” option? It’s creepy manipulation, especially when you realize that’s how he forms his relationship with Biel. Well, it’s just plain manipulation, but the way he stares her down when she first walks in the diner is the creepy part. There’s no way he’s picking me up with that confused, lonely, soul-piercing gaze. He’s like one of those paintings that’s always looking at you, only he’s actually sitting next to you and just doesn’t care if you’re aware of it.

All of this is to say I don’t understand Next. Any of it. Julianne Moore must have had a long weekend available or something, and Nicolas Cage just plays weird, ol’ Nicolas Cage. I think this was made around the time his decision-making capabilities started catching up with him, so maybe having to deal with selling Scottish castles and whatnot distracted him from noticing Next for the giant piece of shit that it is. Unless we get the documentary nobody is asking for, I guess we’ll never know.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

Okay, Now Keep Me Awake – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Force AwakensEver since moping out of the theater in 2005, I’ve been waiting for a great Star Wars movie. For rabid fans, there has always been the Extended Universe and all the related fiction to keep them satisfied. But for people like me, who, up to this point, have only seen the live-action movies, ten years is a long time to keep the prequel taste in your mouth (it’s not like chicken). In fact, I’m not even holding out for a great experience anymore. I’m hoping for one that has more good than bad. In that respect, The Force Awakens hits the mark, though it does so by relying on Episode VIII to fix or lessen some of its problems.

The Force Awakens is, at its most basic, a search for Luke Skywalker. The Jedi master has been missing in action for years, and nobody knows where or how to find him. That is, until a piece of a map surfaces, which contains part of the breadcrumb trail leading to Luke. Both the rebels and the First Order (the Empire with a new-ish attitude) are doing everything possible to locate the map, and this chase sets the gears in motion.

John Boyega (Attack the Block) plays Finn, a former Stormtrooper who grows a conscience. Don’t worry, this happens in the first minute or two, so you’re not getting anything spoiled. Finn’s defection eventually leads him to meet Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman living on a desert planet who’s barely making ends meet. There are some story beats that will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s seen A New Hope, but I don’t mind it at all. In fact, I welcome it.

For two reasons, I dig the callbacks to the original. First, they’re kind of a necessity. You’re still dealing with the same family from the original and prequel trilogies, which means that familiar feeling will happen no matter what. These days, it’s not a foregone conclusion that everyone knows the characters of Han Solo, Leia, Chewbacca, etc., so they have to be shown and set up. What else are you going to do with a story centered around such iconic people who did amazing things? Secondly, J.J. Abrams did a better job this time around. He last pulled the digging-into-canon trick with Star Trek: Into Darkness, but where that travesty is ham-fisted and way too on the nose, The Force Awakens feels fresh despite the nostalgia trip.

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John Boyega, Daisy Ridley

Speaking of fresh, I don’t know where they found Daisy Ridley, but that casting person deserves a raise, or a bonus, or something. Ridley plays Rey, one of the most bad-ass female protagonists I’ve seen in a flick like this in quite some time. Right from the get-go, it’s clear she doesn’t need any handholding, even though she’s obviously in over her head. Ridley plays her as a confident woman who isn’t afraid to step out into the unknown, but she’s never snobbish or nasty about it. She feels like a Star Wars character, and one I can’t wait to see more adventures from.

Along the way, Rey and Finn meet up with Han Solo and begin looking for Luke together. Han’s introduction could have been handled better, but once he’s there, it’s like he never left. To be more accurate, it’s like he was never frozen in carbonite. I never liked him in Return of the Jedi, and I’m extremely happy to report that Harrison Ford does not phone it in this time. He is awesome, end of discussion, and you should thank your lucky stars the powers-that-be were able to coax words out of his mouth that were not part of a mumbled, half-asleep narration.

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Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford

What about the villain? Well, he’s kind of a mixed bag depending on how much you buy into his backstory. Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, a dark Force user who is hunting Luke Skywalker, and, by extension, Finn, Rey, and Han. I think reactions to this character are far from unified, but I, for one, love what was done with him. All I can say is that he’s a psychotic bastard, and I don’t mean that in some colloquial meaning of “psychotic.” He’s out of his mind, which I like on its own, but he’s also young. He’s certainly no Darth Vader, though he could be, given enough time.

Whether or not you buy into Kylo and the darkness inside of him depends on how much you’re willing to just roll with a character as-is. If you’re like me, you’ll find his development lacking but not totally dead on arrival. I can see Episode VIII alleviating a lot of this through flashbacks or some other storytelling device, but it will have to deliver in order for me to get fully behind Kylo as a scenery-chewing baddie. Where he is at the beginning of The Force Awakens is comparable to a character at about the mid-point in their arc, so there’s still a lot of ground to cover.

force awakens DRegardless of who is swinging a lightsaber or choking the life out of stuffy British military types, The Force Awakens’ depiction of the Force is, no lie, exactly how I always pictured it in my head. It’s called the “Force” for a reason, and its effects are immediate and intense. Lightsaber duels fare equally well, as they actually feel like true swordfights. The saber hilts are large, awkward devices that require extreme care, or, you know, you’ll lose that eye your mother always said you would. Gone are the whirling dervishes of the prequels, who clash weapons at light speed while balancing on floating pieces of debris amid a river of lava. What’s on display in The Force Awakens can be favorably mentioned alongside the Luke/Vader duel in Empire, and that’s not praise to be taken lightly. It’s stunning to watch.

So, do I like the movie? Yes. It’s definitely Star Wars, and it’s far, far removed from the prequels. It misses an opportunity to flesh out the plot, and instead hopes the audience gets enough of Kylo Ren’s history through osmosis and lots of shrugging of shoulders, I guess. The visuals and sound are everything you could hope for and more, and though some people are currently complaining about it being too much like the original movie, I think we’re in a pretty good place when the most damning criticism is that it needs to be less like the best in the series. I feel like this review is incomplete, since the story issues can be ironed out in the next movie, but I have to have an opinion of some kind. It’s a good movie, and for me to become more polarized one way or the other, I’ll have to see it again. For the first time in a decade, I’m more than happy to oblige.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

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The Death Star Redux – Star Wars: The Return of the Jedi

ReturnOfTheJediPoster1983Watching Return of the Jedi is a bipolar experience. As the third entry in a trilogy, it should supply a satisfying conclusion to everything that has come before. In reality, a large chunk is spent wasting time and giving characters we all know and love nothing to do except run around with live-action, Star Wars-themed versions of my daughter’s plush bedtime toy.

Jedi opens at the palace of Jabba the Hutt, a ruthless and all-around disgusting gangster with a base of operations on Tatooine, Luke’s home planet. After being frozen in carbonite in Empire, Han Solo was transported to Jabba’s palace to serve as a sort of decoration for Jabba to admire and gloat over. Not one to take his friends being frozen and used as a coffee table book sitting down, Luke devises a rescue attempt involving both R2-D2 and C-3PO, Leia, Chewbacca, and Lando Calrissian, and Jedi’s opening sees the two droids enacting the first part of Luke’s rescue plan. That seems like a reasonable place to start the story this time around, right? Right.

Unfortunately, during this scene in Return of the Jedi is where the wheels start to come off of the Star Wars wagon. Something about the entire rescue seems off, and if it weren’t for the way Mark Hamill plays Luke, I would hate this entire portion of the movie.

Basically, it makes no sense. Luke sends in 3PO and R2 to ask for Han’s release, and when that fails, he sends in Leia disguised as a bounty hunter, with Chewie “captured” by her side. For reasons that are over my head, this part of the plan fails, as well, and Luke is left with having to go into Jabba’s lair himself to free Han. Why he didn’t do that to begin with is a mystery that both the Bermuda Triangle and the Loch Ness Monster have nothing on. At some point before the rescue operation begins, Luke stashes his lightsaber inside R2. Fast-forward to when the shit hits the fan, and you’d imagine Luke would want that lightsaber, but your imagination would be severely lacking. Instead, he goes for a blaster and gets immediately swarmed as he stands directly on top of a trap door in the floor. Keep in mind, for God-knows how long, Lando Calrissian has been spying on Jabba’s operation under the guise of a palace guard or something, but it doesn’t matter, since he does literally nothing to help Luke when he makes his move. All he had to do was not let him fall into the rancor pit as R2 shot the lightsaber into Luke’s hands, but that makes too much sense. The way it unfolds would make much more sense if Luke was ambushed instead of the orchestrating the rescue mission, but it allows for the sarlacc debacle, where Luke is supposed to literally walk the plank. Making the hero walk the plank is the worst possible idea, one hundred percent of the time, regardless of who you are or what you’re trying to accomplish. Just don’t do it.

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Mark Hamill

But Jabba does it, and Luke uses the ineptitude (and the plank itself) as a springboard to fly through the air, with his lightsaber never far away when he needs it. Seeing Luke transform into a Jedi before my eyes is a treat, and as I mentioned, Mark Hamill nails it. He has an air about him that is almost creepy, and his facial expressions betray only that he knows something and won’t tell anyone what it is. It feels like he’s enjoying using his newfound power and Force insight, which will come back into play as the story progresses.

One thing that never progresses, however, is Han Solo’s character, and I don’t really care if it’s due to Harrison Ford being over the whole Star Wars thing by the time his two-picture contract was up. Whatever the reason, Han Solo is a useless sack of meat who does nothing in Return of the Jedi, and any time a scene calls for him to do what Han used to do best, it’s done in a slapstick, deleted scene kind of way that’s not believable in the slightest. Though he’s not a buffoon, he’s portrayed as one, and that will never sit well with me.

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Harrison Ford

The issues with Han mainly come about as by-products of Jedi’s major problem, which is everything that happens on Endor’s moon. If you’ve seen the movie, you know what’s coming: Ewoks. Those walking product placements make all of the rebel’s activities nigh unwatchable for me. Their introduction is fifteen minutes of almost unbroken awfulness that only lets up when Luke’s part of the tale is put back in focus. I don’t know how many total minutes they’re on-screen, but those minutes could have been much better spent doing just about anything else. I’d rather see more from Lando while he attacks the Death Star, for example. He’s hardly in the movie at all, and giving him more battles to win would at least make him useful.

The worst Ewok offense, for me, is that fifteen minute stretch where C-3PO is mistaken by the Ewoks as some kind of a golden god. Absolutely nothing gets accomplished by anyone during this span, which leads me to conclude that the only reason it was shot was so children would have more toys to buy after the fact. That’s a nice sentiment, isn’t it? It totally doesn’t remind you of the prequels or anything.

Jedi FI’m well aware of the differences between the making of Return of the Jedi and the previous entry in the series, The Empire Strikes Back. Irvin Kershner, the director of Empire, was able to put his foot down and make the movie he wanted to make, which in turn caused George Lucas to hire an inexperienced film director to helm Jedi. Lucas was basically a co-director and signed off on every important decision that needed to be made. In short, it was his movie, not the actual director’s, and everything makes sense to me after that. The stories of Lucas behind the scenes are well-documented, so I won’t belabor the point or attempt an in-depth recollection. I’ll just say that, in my opinion, Return of the Jedi is where you begin to see the merchandising and marketing scheme become more important than the quality of the base product.

It’s supremely frustrating, then, to realize that when the Ewoks are nowhere to be seen, Return of the Jedi becomes the worthy successor it was supposed to be. The way Luke behaves is exactly how Anakin Skywalker should have behaved in Revenge of the Sith, which was supposed to depict a man torn between the light and the dark side. While not torn, Luke still exhibits influences of both sides while never allowing one to overtake the other. His father lacked the strength to balance himself with the Force, and, in turn, he was able to be controlled by his master, Darth Sidious.

The final confrontation between Luke, Darth Vader, and Darth Sidious is almost as exciting and harrowing as Luke and Vader’s duel in Empire, but with more of a true ending to the movie itself. If only Lucas could have allowed his creations to take shape and evolve in the hands of other (read: better) talents, the trilogy could have ended on a total high note. What’s there isn’t trash through-and-through, but the Ewok nonsense threatens to unravel everything built up by Luke’s story arc.

Jedi GI honestly don’t know whether Return of the Jedi is a mostly-awesome movie with a large hole punched through it or a terribly-executed end to a trilogy that still manages to bring a few excellent ideas to fruition. Either way, it’s a mixed bag and not what I want from the last leg in a long narrative. Something clearly changed from the time Empire released to when Jedi went into production, and whatever it was worsened the franchise. You can choose to look at this as ending on a low note, but with the amount of content available in the Extended Universe (books, games, shows, etc.), there should be enough to keep any fan sustained for a good while. Despite not being the ideal way to set up the Star Wars universe, Jedi’s fumbles have worked out for the best so far, and I’m hoping The Force Awakens, which is playing in theaters as we speak, will be able to raise the bar back up to where it’s supposed to be.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

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Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back – Carbonite Unclogs the Pores

Empire posterThe Empire Strikes Back is a movie near and dear to my heart. Growing up, I owned it on VHS (and still do) and watched it constantly, which is to say that I have no idea how many times I’ve actually seen it. It was that good to 8-year-old me, and thankfully, Empire remains a great experience some thirty-five years after its release.

Directly following the events of Episode IV: A New Hope, Empire opens with the rebels on the run from Darth Vader and his Imperial forces. Fighting with the rebels is Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who uses their defeat as an opportunity to search out an old Jedi master, Yoda, on the suggestion of the Force-spirit version of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). Having sacrificed himself for Luke’s benefit during A New Hope, Obi-Wan’s new form allows him to communicate with Luke from beyond the grave and give advice perhaps in a way that would be more persuasive than if it were offered while he was still alive. Luke takes that advice, which allows his journey alongside the Force to really begin.

Everything about Yoda, from his demeanor to the way he moves, is magical to watch. I’m reminded of other, equally great fantasy films that utilized puppetry and animatronics, such as Labyrinth and The Neverending Story. Just like the puppets in those films, Yoda doesn’t feel out of place or not capable of interacting with real actors. On top of that, his scenes are shot and edited so well that even if the puppet itself was kind of crappy, I doubt it would show through in the final product. As for the character, I hardly see a resemblance between the Yoda depicted in Empire and the head of the Jedi Council in the prequels. One is a walking dunce cap, while the other exudes wisdom and strength with every thought and action. I’ll let you guess which is which. And let’s not discount the way Yoda initiates contact with Luke by purposefully annoying the piss out of him and eating his dinner. While funny on its own, the main purpose of his deception is to test what he already highly suspects of Luke—he isn’t overly fond of being patient. Teaching basic, important lessons such as this before any training has actually started demonstrates this is a being who clearly takes no shit from anyone, which might have been born out of remembering for nineteen years how badly he screwed up in the Clone Wars. No, I will never let him live that one down. Do, or do not. There is no try.

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Harrison Ford (Han Solo)

While Luke is busy cutting his own head off in a cave, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Chewbacca, and Princess Leia (Carry Fisher) barely escape the Hoth system with their lives. They make their way to the Cloud City, where Han supposedly has an old friend, Lando Calrissian (Billy dee Williams), waiting to help them repair their ship. Long story short, once they get there, they’re almost immediately screwed over, and Vader ends up baiting Luke into coming to the city by torturing Han. Vader knows Luke can feel the disturbance in the Force, and sure enough, Luke heads right on over for what Vader hopes will be a nice carbonite shower.

 

The Force is with you, young Skywalker, but you are not a Jedi yet.

—Yoda

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Yoda (Frank Oz), Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker

Instead, of course, we’re treated to one of the best duels in cinematic history. You can quote me or curse me on that; I don’t mind either way. I’ve heard people say they much prefer the newer, flashier, and longer duels in the prequels, but for me, it doesn’t get any better than the slow, methodical, hate-filled display of Luke and Vader’s first meeting. It feels way more like two people actually jousting, though I’m aware of the fact Jedis and Sith have superhuman abilities. In a live-action setting, I guess I just don’t feel the need to see them constantly use their powers on that scale. The volcano fight between Obi-Wan and Anakin in Revenge of the Sith is a great example of overkill, as it looks totally ridiculous and takes like an hour to get it over with. In contrast, the Luke/Vader duel only takes a few minutes and doesn’t rely on terrible effects that resemble a late-’90s video game cutscene. Overall, the duel in Empire Strikes Back manages to pack an emotional punch not present in the volcano duel or in the prequel movies in general. If I had to sum it up in one sentence, it would be that I could watch father and son clash lightsabers indefinitely and be absolutely content.

Empire E fightI’m sure more enterprising fans could tell you what’s wrong with this movie, but if I’m being honest, it’s perfect in my eyes. Is it technically perfect? Of course not, but I can’t think of anything that detracts from my experience. That mileage will vary, but I can say at the very least that The Empire Strikes Back is the best of the two trilogies. Just like A New Hope, Empire finds a good balance between humor, drama, and action and is elevated further by Luke and Vader’s destinies coming closer together.

As far as I can tell, destiny is a malleable thing in the Star Wars universe, and I usually prefer a little surprise over knowing evil is evil is evil, and good is good is good, end of story. Empire allows doubt to remain as to whether or not Luke will eventually turn to the dark side, even though he politely declines to join Vader. The only thing I can say for certain is that The Empire Strikes Back deserves every bit of praise it’s been given over the years, and if anything, it’s only grown in stature.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable

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Star Wars (1977): Fewer Lightsabers, Same Great Force!

MV5BMTU4NTczODkwM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMzEyMTIyMw@@._V1_SX640_SY720_It’s hard to believe the original Star Wars (1977) is almost forty years old. What’s not so hard to believe is how well it’s held up over the years, as it practically oozes its classic status through every scene and piece of dialogue. There’s something for movie-watchers of all ages and stripes to love, and whether it’s exciting duels, ship-to-ship battles, or a dramatic tale told with just the right amount of humor, Star Wars has it all.

That very humor is present throughout, as the movie opens with C-3PO and R2-D2 already getting into their shenanigans. Yes, that is still a word. A choice bit of dialogue includes, “Don’t you call me a mindless philosopher, you overweight glob of grease,” and it’s a blast watching 3PO begrudgingly follow R2 around as if he has any clue what’s happening. Then, there’s the scene where 3PO forgets he’s holding the communicator while Leia and her rescuers are about to be crushed inside a giant trash compactor, which ends with him mistaking their elation for becoming “a lot thinner,” as Han puts it. ”Listen to them, they’re dying, R2! Curse my metal body, I wasn’t fast enough! It’s all my fault,” 3PO says, while everyone rejoices on the other end of the communicator. Han and Chewy have their own fun, such as chasing a band of Stormtroopers down a hallway only to do a complete 180 when they run directly into a room full of them just waiting around to shoot back at them. There are quite a few like moments keeping the atmosphere from becoming too heavy, at least for the opening of a trilogy, and as a point of contrast, go ahead and think of all the genuinely funny parts in the entire prequel trilogy. I’ll wait.

Just kidding; we’ll be here forever. Moving on, if you’ve read my reviews for each entry in that prequel trilogy, you’d know a little something about the overall plot of the series. By the time episode IV (Star Wars) opens, evil has conquered the galaxy and there are just about no more Jedis left. It’s been nineteen years since the events of Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, and Anakin Skywalker is fully immersed in the dark side as Darth Vader. While trying to recover stolen plans for the Death Star, a space station capable of literally destroying planets, Vader comes across Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and Chewbacca, who are on a mission to rescue Leia Organa (Carry Fisher), the diplomat responsible for stealing the station’s plans. It becomes a race to defeat a weapon of mass destruction, and from there, lots of blasters are fired; Han calls Leia every version of “Your Worship” he can think of; Obi-Wan becomes one with the Force like a badass; and a Stormtrooper somewhere gets a free Jedi robe to sell on Inter-galactic eBay.

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Mark Hamill

Other than that, it’s a story about finding the hope to keep your dreams alive. Though we all know what he becomes, Luke begins the story as a 19-year-old farmer who’s never been off-planet. Han is an untrustworthy smuggler of semi-ill repute who eventually leaves that behavior behind in favor of loyalty, friendship, and doing what’s right. As for Chewy, just let the Wookiee win. Luke, on the other hand, is particularly relatable as a young man looking for more in life. The character is sold through Mark Hamill’s believable performance, which is my favorite of the film. It’s probably a combination of him being awesome in his own right while simply not sucking the life out of every scene like Hayden Christensen did as Anakin in the prequels. I would have liked to see some more emotion when Luke found his aunt and uncle burned to a crisp, but that smacks more of direction than acting ability. I promise that will be my last and only subtle Lucas dig in this review.

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Peter Mayhew, Harrison Ford

Everything I’ve mentioned so far is important to the success of Star Wars, but I’m not sure the movie would have taken off as much as it did without the music of John Williams. If you’re not familiar with him, he’s responsible for some of the most iconic film scores known to man. Next time you catch yourself whistling the themes to Superman, Indiana Jones, or Jurassic Park, silently thank Williams for his efforts. The rest of his body of work speaks for itself, so that’s all I have to say about that.

Something I’ve always liked about the original movie is that there are hardly any light sabers. For how popular and synonymous they are with Star Wars, it’s interesting that they’re only used three times and never for very long. The slow-burn in terms of revealing the Force and its uses is admirable and, in my opinion, the best course of action. At least in this case, it allows the full measure of things to seep inside my brain, which in turn keeps me coming back for more.

Star Wars isn’t perfect, of course, which means it’s time to talk about what’s wrong with it. As it turns out, there’s not a whole lot I can find serious fault with except for the reasoning behind hiding Luke with Anakin’s step-brother. It makes absolutely no sense. Nobody, including Anakin himself, bothered to check there just in case? Really? Remember, in Revenge of the Sith, it’s Yoda’s idea to split up Luke and Leia, and he also decides where they go. Fast-forwarding to Star Wars, the very fact Luke is on Tatooine is what leads the Empire straight to Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) in the first place, so I congratulate Yoda on failing the only job he had. To balance that out, I’m sure he has nightmares every night of all the younglings he couldn’t protect when the Sith took over, so that at least gives me some measure of satisfaction.

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Alec Guinness

It’s funny; my reviews tend to vary wildly in length, and the longer ones are usually in the service of bad movies. Thankfully, I guess, this one is on the shorter side. Having hardly anything to complain about is foreign territory for me these days, so it’s nice to be able to fully enjoy something again. If you’ve somehow never seen any Star Wars film, this is the one to start with. I don’t want to hear any grumbling about how old it is or how crappy it looks. Just watch it. You’ll thank me in the end.

—George Bell

Read more from George Bell at Knights of Mars Roundtable