Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘Batman Begins’ (Week 2)

batman-begins-7After watching “The Lego Batman Movie” this past weekend, coincidentally enough the next film up on the Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon list is “Batman Begins,” the first movie in Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. Well, actually it’s not technically Nolan’s next film; “Insomnia” comes after “Memento,” but neither Netflix nor the local library had it available, so it’s on to “Batman Begins.” And thanks again to my husband, Aaron, for joining me on this joint blog-a-thon!

My thoughts

For some reason, I’d always thought of the Dark Knight trilogy as some of Nolan’s later films, but doing this blog-a-thon reminded me “Batman Begins” is actually just his third major release. It’s interesting DC Comics and Warner Bros. trusted Nolan with a superhero movie of this magnitude early in his career, but it’s a gamble that paid off very, very well.

The Batman franchise wasn’t exactly in great shape when Nolan inherited it (yes, I’m picking on you again, “Batman and Robin”). Although the franchise had headed in a rather silly, campy direction, Nolan breathed fresh life into Batman’s cinematic mythos with his grounded and gritty version of the character. His movies have become the gold standard DC Comics movies are now judged by.

While I’m definitely a Marvel fangirl, I also really love Nolan’s Batman films, and I think “Batman Begins” is a great origin story. It wipes the franchise’s slate clean and shows how Batman’s tragic past and ninja training shaped the vigilante he becomes.

Christian Bale’s portrayal of the caped crusader ranks as one of the best, and his brooding, morose Batman fits well with Nolan’s darker tone. (The Lego version of Batman also does a great job lovingly poking fun at this serious persona.) Michael Caine has become equally iconic as Batman’s butler, Alfred, and Liam Neeson makes for a great villain as the (spoiler alert!) leader of the League of Shadows.

I don’t really have any complaints about this movie. While we’ve seen a lot of superhero origin stories since this movie was released in 2005, Batman definitely needed a fresh start on the big screen, and Nolan’s distinctive film making style was a perfect fit for the franchise.

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Aaron’s thoughts

“Batman Begins,” the beginning of the greatest superhero series ever made. These movies are so widely regarded that, before its release, “Suicide Squad” apologists on the Internet argued that “Suicide Squad” and other DC movies shouldn’t be held to the Batman standard because they’re “too good.” (As a side note, these arguments make for hilarious reading. Who else would say “Orwellian blitzkrieg of Marvel bot-trolls” with a straight face?)

As a superhero origin story, “Batman Begins” is excellent. As a film viewed in a vacuum outside of its genre, it’s a good film, but does have a few kinks in it.

The first thing that I like, which I hadn’t thought of before, is how well “Batman Begins” integrates the “super villains” and “superheroes” into the story. A lot of these movies loudly cry out at the start THIS IS A SUPERHERO, SEE HOW HE’S DRESSED LIKE ONE? HERE’S THE SUPER VILLAIN, HE’S EVIL AND ALSO HAS A WEIRD COSTUME. THEY’RE GOING TO FIGHT NOW. In “Batman Begins,” there’s a good reason why he dresses like he does and looks like a stealthy, armored, ninja badass, not a weirdo in tights with underwear on the outside. On the other hand, the super villains are characters with motivations beyond “I want to kill the superhero because plot.” I also noticed that the villains in this movie are content to stay in the shadows and almost never seek to fight Batman. Compare this to the villain who wants to destroy New York City for the 50th time. The hero here takes the fight to evil instead of vice versa.

Beyond this, I just like the dark, realistic tone. I sort of covered this in the previous section, but I just love how real the whole thing feels. The Batmobile looks and sounds like a military vehicle. His armor looks practical. The streets look dark and desperate, but not comically so. Villains that wouldn’t be good at fisticuffs aren’t. The police station is always bustling with phones ringing and people running all over. The ninja training is difficult and punishing. It’s nice to see a hero earn his powers for once instead of being a Captain Spider Thor-Hulk, who is instantly granted it by the powers of “the plot requires it.” [Note from Ashley: I let Aaron make fun of my beloved Marvel movies, but someday I WILL get him to love these movies as much as I do.] 😉

So what do I not like as much? Well, it’s an origin story. And Batman’s parents are quickly catching up to Uncle Ben in terms of “death portrayed in media.” Having to work a full crime drama into an origin story always feels a bit rushed.

There also just seem to be some rookie mistakes in here that take you out of the moment and make you realize you’re watching a scripted movie with effects and not witnessing an unfolding drama. They may seem minor, but they are easily correctable and were missed. First, the tiny pile of boards that falls on and kills Ra’s Al Ghul. That stuff looks and sounds like it weighs 15 pounds at most. It is very unconvincing. Second, when the train is moving toward Wayne tower, the water technician has, as one site says, “perhaps the clunkiest and worst-written [lines] in the entire franchise.” Agreed. Not only are the lines bad, but they tell us what we’ve already been told, and they both end in the word “blow.”

In case you forgot what they are:

“The pressure’s coming straight for the main hub under Wayne Tower, and if that pressure reaches us, the whole water supply, right across the city is gonna blow!”

“Evacuate the building. We’re right on top of the main hub, and it’s gonna blow!”

Someone needed to catch this.

Lastly, how on earth was the helicopter not able to follow the Batmobile to Bruce’s hideout? Car pileups and traffic have no effect on helicopters. That’s like, the point of helicopters. Again, these are minor but noticeable kinks which were thankfully learned from in the sequel, which would become the apotheosis of comic movie history.

As a final shout out, I’ll just say I really like Liam Neeson in this movie. I’ve been disappointed at his downfall from the majesty that was “Schindler’s List” into being cast just to say things like “release the Kraken!” or having to do “Taken 12: Let’s Murder the Lagos Underworld.” He does a good job here though and gets to showcase his actual acting talent along with having a good voice and build for action movies.

Overall, I like this movie. I don’t LOVE it. But it’s enjoyable and I can watch the whole thing without wanting to get up and do something else, which is rarer these days.

Movie review: ‘The Lego Batman Movie’ offers plenty of colorful, entertaining mayhem

lego-batman-main-0-0We’ve seen many incarnations of Batman since he first made the jump from the comic book page to the screen. He’s been both campy and gritty, animated and live action, and occasionally cringe-inducing (yes, I’m referring to you, “Batman and Robin”). He also ended up stealing the show in tiny brick form in 2014’s unexpected hit “The Lego Movie.” Will Arnett’s Lego caped crusader quickly emerged as a fan favorite from that movie, and he’s now been given his own standalone feature, out in theaters this past weekend. Although it can’t quite top the original “Lego Movie,” it’s a fun, colorful adventure with plenty to keep both adults and children entertained.

Lego Batman/Bruce Wayne starts off his solo outing living the good life…or so he thinks. Surrounded by his favorite things — darkness, solitude, and loud, angry music — he fights crime in Gotham and then crashes at his island mansion. His longsuffering butler Alfred thinks this isolation isn’t good for him and argues that he needs friends or at least some crime-fighting partners. Due to a crazy mix-up/misunderstanding, Batman accidentally adopts an orphan named Dick Grayson, who desperately wants to become Batman’s sidekick, Robin. Despite his frustration with Robin’s bubbly personality and overenthusiasm, Batman grudgingly admits having a sidekick isn’t such a bad thing, and his life actually might be better off with friends.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is very much in the same vein as “The Lego Movie.” There’s a lot of frenetic, wacky action in these films, and the screen is an explosion of color and moving parts. While all this stimulation can occasionally get a bit overwhelming, it’s tough not to fall under the spell of these delightfully silly movies.

Kids will enjoy watching Lego characters brought to life, but there’s plenty for adults to enjoy here too, including jokes about all of Batman’s past incarnations (expect to see some “Bam!” and “Pow!” word bubbles on the screen). There are also jabs about the Justice League, the Suicide Squad, and Marvel superheroes. As with “The Lego Movie,” you’ll see plenty of references to other films and TV shows, including “Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” and a certain British timelord’s archenemies.

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The voice acting is top-notch, with Arnett playing on Christian Bale’s signature growl in Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The film sends up Batman’s persona as a loner vigilante; Lego Batman may take himself too seriously, but the film certainly doesn’t. Arnett’s “Arrested Development” co-star Michael Cera is a good foil as the over-eager Robin, and Ralph Fiennes brings a dry wit to the long-suffering butler Alfred. I also enjoyed Zach Galifianakis’ take on the Joker, who’s desperate for Batman’s attention and deeply hurt when Batman won’t admit Joker is his greatest enemy.

“The Lego Batman Movie” is fast-paced and entertaining, though it is fair to say it ultimately isn’t quite as creative or inventive as the “The Lego Movie” was. By the end of the movie I was feeling a slight case of “too much of a good thing,” and the film’s message about the importance of family and friendship felt a little too heavy-handed.

Still, this is a clever, funny film that should be a hit with anyone who loved Batman in the original “Lego Movie,” and it’s actually the best DC Comics movie we’ve had in a while. Your move, “Justice League!”

Christopher Nolan blog-a-thon: ‘Memento’ (Week 1)

mementoAlthough I always have fun with blog-a-thons, it’s been a while since I’ve done one. The idea for this blog-a-thon actually came from my husband, Aaron. Although Aaron sadly does not love movies as much as I do 😉 (I’m still trying to convert him!), his favorite director is Christopher Nolan and we like to discuss those movies. We thought it would be fun to watch through his movies together, before the premiere of his new movie “Dunkirk” this summer. This week we’re starting off with Nolan’s first major release, “Memento” (2000).

My thoughts

“Memento” is a fascinating and decidedly trippy film about a man with a terrifying problem: the inability to form new memories. Guy Pearce stars as Leonard, who is struggling to cope with his illness while also trying to find (and get revenge on) the man who killed his wife. He devises an elaborate system of organization, notes, and tattoos to help him keep track of the clues he finds. He does receive some help along the way from several people who claim to be his friends…but how much can he really trust them, since he can’t hold his memories for more than five minutes?

“Memento” would have been an interesting film even if the story had been told conventionally, but Christopher Nolan takes a risky gamble and forces the viewer to experience things from Leonard’s perspective. How does he do this? He tells the story backwards. We get approximately 5-10 minute chunks of Leonard’s story, starting at the end of the narrative and concluding at the beginning. This really keeps the viewer off balance — like Leonard himself — and we feel his same sense of panicky uncertainty. Do we know what’s actually real? Or is our version of the truth impacted by the limited facts we do know…or think we know?

This is one of my favorite Nolan films, and it’s actually pretty interesting to re-watch, even if you already know the surprise twist. It really makes you think about your own perception of reality and how our view of the world is impacted by the assumptions we make about others (whether they’re true or not).

Aaron’s thoughts

How do you make a movie about someone who can’t remember anything? It’s an intriguing question and a joy to watch in practice. A movie focused on someone who can’t remember anything for more than a few minutes would be very difficult to make in the traditional format. The audience would soon get exasperated with the shtick of the character having to say he can’t remember anything constantly and characters having to constantly explain what we just watched him do. So what do you do?

In traditional film, the future is in doubt and the past is known. Ideally we’d have both in doubt for a person who has no short-term memory, but film is bound in time and we have to see something before we see something else, so we have to see one.

So to help us sympathize and share the plight of a person with memory loss, Christopher Nolan gives us a movie where we share the main character’s condition. We don’t know how we got where we are. Though you think that seeing what ultimately happens would help us ground what’s happening, it actually doesn’t, and can even be deceptive. “Memento” does a brilliant job of showing that explanatory power lies in the cause, not the effect.

This is my third or fourth (depending on the day) favorite movie of all time. Number one is coming up later in this series, number two and three/four are “Donnie Darko” and “The Game.” If the idea of this movie intrigues you, I’d highly recommend “The Game” as it and “Memento” share many similar qualities. But I digress.

The first thing I think that “Memento” does brilliantly is to muddle timelines. It’s presented in two sections. The first is the parts that are shot in color. This is the backwards working action where we simply learn piece by piece how Leonard got where he was in the last scene. Each of these scenes begins with a quip or piece of memorable action and ends with the quip or action that began the last scene.

The second section of the movie is shot in black and white. These scenes are of Leonard alone in a hotel room explaining his system and history. Sometimes he’s talking on the phone, sometimes he’s talking to the audience as we watch him go about his business. These scenes are, more or less, shot in forward moving action. These scenes versus the backwards moving color scenes give good contrast and keep the audience on their feet as the two move from one to the other. Not until the very end of the movie is it made clear how and if these two sections are related. Are they happening simultaneously? Is one before the other? Are they related at all? You’re kept constantly guessing.

Another contributing factor to the timeline muddiness is that at the start of each new backwards moving section, you have no idea how far in front of the previous section it is. Nolan does a good job moving the scene location each time so that it’s incredibly difficult to guess where exactly the scene is moving even though you know how it ultimately ends.

The second quality I admire in “Memento” is the atmosphere of doubt and loneliness. The movie is plagued with doubt, despite Leonard being constantly sure of himself. His self-assurance is the only assurance the whole movie has. Characters’ motives shift. Lies are uncovered. Past events are left unexplained. Leonard is self-assured because if he wasn’t he’d be a helpless, nervous wreck. There are multiple core facts that are intentionally left wholly unexplained. Unlike the famous ending to “Inception,” there’s not even a hint in the entire movie regarding some of big important questions we have (would say what they are but spoilers.) This is coupled with an atmosphere of loneliness. Because of the backward moving nature of the movie, we have a cold relationship with the other people in the movie. We know that they’re involved with Leonard, but we don’t know why. Leonard’s relationship with them is cordial but in the way he’s cordial to strangers. On top of this is a soundtrack which is either hauntingly airy or subtly dissonant, depending on the scene.

I love “Memento.” It’s unapologetic. It doesn’t spoon feed you anything and doesn’t try to make you feel better about things at the end. It doesn’t answer your questions no matter how badly you want it to. It doesn’t gift wrap a happy ending that ties everything together nicely. It tries to be great and it is.

TV review: Looking back on ‘Downton Abbey’

downton_abbey_christmas_2013__131110163527I’ve been a bit at a loss of what to do on Sunday nights this January, because for the first time in a long time, there isn’t a new episode of “Downton Abbey” airing on PBS Masterpiece. The sixth and final season of the popular period drama aired a year ago, bringing an end to the always buzzworthy exploits of a wealthy British family and their servants.

“Downton Abbey” was a surprise hit and turned into an unusual cultural phenomenon. The series followed the Earl and Countess of Grantham, Robert and Cora Crawley, and their daughters, Mary, Edith and Sybil, who occupy an elaborate estate in England called Downton Abbey. People who wouldn’t normally watch period dramas tuned in every week to find out what would happen next to the characters, and the show drew a wide range of fans. I watched it, my mom watched it, and my grandma watched it. I had friends who watched it and co-workers who watched it. One of co-workers’ favorite things to do on Monday mornings would be to discuss what happened on Downton Abbey the night before. We’d gasp at the scandals and gossip about what love interest Lady Mary would pursue next.

It’s easy at first to dismiss “Downton Abbey” as a glorified soap opera, and even fans will admit that yes, sometimes the drama got a little soapy — kidnappings, upstairs/downstairs romances, health scares, and secret babies. However, the show was more than just a series of plot twists. It had one of the best ensemble casts I’ve ever seen on a TV show. Although it would take too long to name all the standout actors, one of the best was Michelle Dockery as Lady Mary. Lady Mary wasn’t always a nice person; in fact, sometimes she could be vindictive and downright nasty. Yet Dockery played her so well that she never became the villain, and I found her to be a complex, sympathetic character. And of course, no one will forget Maggie Smith as the Dowager Countess. The Dowager was a master of snarky one-liners and produced the show’s most-quotable bits of dialogue. Although she never passed up an opportunity to roast a fellow family member, the show also demonstrated just how much she cared for her family.

The show’s gorgeous sets and costumes always added a sense of elegance to the proceedings, and I still want to steal Lady Mary’s wardrobe. It was fun to watch how technology and fashion changed throughout the show as the characters entered a more modern era.

Perhaps what really made “Downton Abbey” resonate with fans, though, is the way it addressed social issues of the time — issues that are surprisingly still relevant today. While it was fun to watch the “upstairs” family and their posh lifestyle, this series also showed us the challenges and obstacles the “downstairs” servants experienced. Sadly, being born into a certain social class did restrict one’s future, although the modern era brought the promise of more opportunities. The show’s themes of discrimination, acceptance, and equality show that we’ve come a long way — but we still have a ways to go.

I’m not sure we’ll ever have a show again quite like “Downton Abbey,” although the series is certainly re-watchable (don’t ask me how many times I’ve re-watched my favorite episodes). While I’ll always wish we had one more season, I think it ended at a good place, and it avoided the trap that some shows fall into of outstaying their welcome. If you’ve never seen the show, I’d encourage you to give it a try, even if period dramas aren’t normally your thing. And for fans who are still going through withdrawals, let’s not forget those “Downton Abbey” movie rumors that are still going around!

TV review: So long, ‘Sherlock’? Thoughts on the fourth (and maybe final) season of the BBC show

nintchdbpict000284501699I’ve been a huge fan of “Sherlock” — and its star, Benedict Cumberbatch — since the beginning. I joke that it’s the only time in my life that I discovered something before it was cool. 😉 During my post-college graduation trip to the United Kingdom in 2010, my friends and I were staying at a hotel in London and were channel surfing when we stumbled across the very first episode of “Sherlock.” Something about it caught our attention, and we were hooked (and, of course, we had to come home and tell all our other American friends about it). It took a risky premise — updating Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes detective stories to modern-day London — and turning them into a thrilling, clever, and buzz-worthy show.

We’ve only gotten four seasons of the show in the past seven years, due to the hectic schedules and ever-increasing star power of its lead actors. Although the season four finale that aired Sunday isn’t the official final episode, a fifth season hasn’t been formally announced yet and the last episode has enough closure to serve as a series ender if more episodes can’t be filmed. So, is season four a fitting send-off for this iconic show?

Seasons one and two of “Sherlock” were generally well-received by fans and critics, sending consulting detective Sherlock Holmes (Benedict Cumberbatch) and his best friend, Dr. Watson (Martin Freeman), off to solve puzzling cases. Season three was a little more polarizing, and season four hasn’t quite won back the fans who were skeptical. I personally had mixed feelings about it. I’ll always enjoy seeing Cumberbatch and Freeman take on these characters, and the acting continues to be top-notch. However, I feel the show has strayed a bit farther than it should from its roots, which is Holmes’ impressive detective work and his friendship with Dr. Watson.

Interestingly, this whole season had a rather “Bond” feel to it, which isn’t in itself a bad thing but the tonal shift felt a bit jarring. The character of Sherlock actually felt more like James Bond than Sherlock Holmes at times, getting into fist fights in a finely tailored suit, escaping explosions, and visiting a top-secret island prison. It was thrilling to watch, but it didn’t quite feel like the “Sherlock” fans are used to.

Perhaps the problem with an event show like “Sherlock” is that the show runners feel an increasing pressure to up the ante; I think perhaps they introduced (and killed off) Moriarty too soon in season two. It’s tough to know exactly where to go after such a dynamic and intriguing villain who’s such a game changer for your main characters. Although there are some really big plot twists — and I mean, REALLY big plot twists — in season four, they were almost a bit too over-the-top.

I will say that while I had some issues with the plots in the first and third episodes of the fourth season, the second episode was to me one of the highlights of the whole show. Without giving too much away, this episode felt like a return to form for the series, with a truly terrifying villain and some nail-biting final moments. I don’t know how much I’ll rewatch this episode, just because it was so creepy, but the writing was excellent and Toby Jones was a great guest star.

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Regardless of how I felt about some of the storylines this season and the fact that at the end of it Dr. Watson felt a bit underused, this series has given us a really fascinating character arc for Sherlock Holmes. When we first meet him, he seems cold and analytical without the ability to form attachments, though we see hints of deeper feelings. By the final episode of season four, we’ve learned some of the reasons why he is the way he is and that he really does care — deeply — about the people around him, far more than he likes to let on. This season also managed to humanize Mycroft and featured some very nice moments between the brothers, particularly in the final episode.

So whether we get anymore episodes of “Sherlock” or not, I think it’s been a good ride. Part of me would like to see one more smaller-scale season with Holmes and Watson solving regular cases, but I’m also looking forward to seeing what other projects Cumberbatch and Freeman decide to take on, and, of course, their further appearances in the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

 

My top five most anticipated movies for 2017

rs-guardians-of-the-galaxy-vol-2-10e673f6-3a1a-4983-826a-e5235aa79986Happy New Year! It’s hard to believe 2016 is already behind us and it’s time to start looking ahead to 2017. It’s always fun to put together a list of “most anticipated” films for the coming year and then to look back and see how many of my most anticipated actually end up on my annual “best of the year” post. Four out of the five movies I said I was most looking forward to in 2016 ended up on my best of the year list, although only one movie from 2015’s most anticipated ranked in my top 5 for the year, so my average isn’t that great. 😉

It was tough to nail down my list for 2017 to just five films, but here goes!

5. Dunkirk (July 21)

Christopher Nolan has a distinctive and unique filmography, covering magicians bent on revenge, secret agents who control peoples’ dreams, astronauts who venture to the stars to save humanity, and, of course, a certain famous caped crusader. The announcement of Nolan’s newest film, a World War II action thriller called “Dunkirk,” surprised me a little because it didn’t seem like a topic he’d normally select. However, as a director I think Nolan is drawn to projects that challenge him and push him in a new direction, and I’m excited to see how he adapts this true story of a daring rescue of Allied troops trapped during a World War II battle.

4. Beauty and the Beast (March 17)

I loved Disney’s 2015 live action adaptation of “Cinderella” and I’m looking forward to watching them bring a live-action version of “Beauty and the Beast” to the big screen. “Beauty and the Beast” is one of my favorite animated Disney films and it will be interesting to see how they handle the story’s magical elements, like talking (and singing!) household objects. Plus, this film has a great cast, including Emma Watson, Ewan McGregor, Emma Thompson, and Ian McKellen.

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3. Wonder Woman (June 2)

Wonder Woman stole the show in last year’s “Batman v. Superman,” so it’s fitting that she (finally!) gets a solo film this summer. DC has struggled a bit with their new cinematic universe, trying to capture the feel of the Dark Knight trilogy while also borrowing a bit from Marvel’s playbook. That vision hasn’t fully coalesced, and it may be too late to fully save “Justice League” (Nov. 17). However, I have really, really high hopes for “Wonder Woman,” and the trailer shows a lot of promise.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (May 5)

The original “Guardians of the Galaxy” was a delightful late summer surprise in 2014, with its band of dysfunctional heroes, colorful visuals, and awesome soundtrack. While there may have been plenty of funny moments to laugh at, at the film’s heart was a surprisingly touching message about family and “losers” (i.e. people who have lost stuff) banding together when the rest of the galaxy rejected them. Even though sometimes it’s difficult to capture the same magic in a sequel, Marvel has had very few missteps in its cinematic universe and the trailers so far for “Vol. 2” have made me smile as much as the original movie did. I’m also looking forward to the other Marvel films in 2017: “Thor: Ragnarok” (Nov. 3), “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (July 7), and “Logan” (March 3).

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1. Star Wars: Episode VIII (Dec. 15)

“Episode VII: The Force Awakens” hit all the right buttons for me. It felt like a return to classic Star Wars and brought back some beloved characters — Han, Leia, Luke, and Chewy — while also introducing some new ones. I loved it (as I’m sure you know from my way-too-many posts about it last year). 😉 Although “The Force Awakens” didn’t feel like a mere rehash of “A New Hope” to me, I do agree it was a fairly safe movie. With Episode VIII, I think the film makers will be able to veer in a new direction and take more chances with the story.

Who is Rey and where did she come from? I’m feeling less confident in my original theory that she’s Luke’s daughter. Is Kylo Ren going to be the series’ main bad guy after all? I’d love to see him as a complicated character who continues to be torn between the dark and the light. It would be even more fascinating if he turned to the light and Rey went dark (read some excellent pieces on this topic from blogger J.Q. Ronan). Who is Benicio Del Toro playing, and now apparently Tom Hardy is in the movie too? (I just noticed this on IMDB.) And I’m also curious to see what post-“Return of the Jedi” Luke has been up to and how he will train Rey. Regardless of what happens, Episode VIII will be bittersweet due to the recent loss of Carrie Fisher. I am glad we’ll get to see her one last time, but I’m saddened that she won’t be involved in the franchise going forward. 😦

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So, what do you think? What movies are you most excited for in 2017?

Year in review: My top movies of 2016

rogue-one-a-star-wars-story-2560x1600-poster-hd-27572016 was quite a year — good in some ways, rough in others. I was actually in the process of putting together my annual entertainment year in review post when I saw the news that Star Wars icon Carrie Fisher had passed away. Although there have been many (too many) notable celebrity deaths this year, hers hit me the hardest. While I’ll miss performers like her and Alan Rickman — another celebrity we lost too soon — I’m thankful we can still return to their bodies of work. Princess Leia and Snape will live on for many new generations of fans!

Here are the movies that meant the most to me in 2016; I’d love to hear which ones meant the most to you this year!

Honorable mention: Arrival

Although I love a big budget, action-packed space opera, I also enjoy seeing smaller-scale films in the sci-fi genre. “Arrival” is a surprisingly intimate, personal viewing experience despite being a film about a worldwide alien invasion. It centers on a linguist (Amy Adams) who tries to speak to the aliens and decipher their language so humanity can figure out whether the aliens are peaceful or threatening. She actually ends up learning a lesson about the power of communication and the importance of embracing life to the fullest, with all its moments of joy and heartbreak.

5. Kubo and the Two Strings

This movie wasn’t really on my radar at the beginning of 2016, and I certainly didn’t anticipate it would end up on my “best of the year” list. However, this beautifully animated tale about a boy and his magical Japanese instrument deeply moved me. While this movie didn’t make a huge splash at the box office, I’m glad I had a chance to see it on the big screen. It might have performed better with a less puzzling title, but after watching the movie, the title makes perfect sense. The ending is poignant and powerful, and it feels particularly timely after this year.

4. Doctor Strange

Marvel keeps pushing the boundaries of its cinematic universe, and it began to delve into the magical realm with “Doctor Strange.” Benedict Cumberbatch joins the MCU as Dr. Stephen Strange, who loses his career as a surgeon after a devastating car accident. When modern medicine fails him, he overcomes his skepticism and discovers a world of magic, where he learns to wield an ancient power beyond understanding. The film has some trippy, psychedelic visuals that take the “Inception” concept to a new level, and Strange will be a welcome addition to the Avengers lineup in future films.

3. Star Trek: Beyond

While not everyone loves the Star Trek reboot films, I have personally really enjoyed them. I think they’ve found a way to capture the magic of the Original Series while also saying something new. “Star Trek: Beyond” feels, in many ways, like a jumbo episode of the Original Series, stranding the crew on a hostile planet and forcing them to figure out how to escape and save the day. While there’s plenty of action, the film makers never forget that the heart of the story is the interactions between the characters. This may or may not be the final reboot film we get, and while I hope it’s not, at least the series will end on a very good note.

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2. Captain America: Civil War

Although this technically wasn’t an Avengers film, for all intents and purposes it was an Avengers film, and it’s actually the best one yet. “Civil War” finally turns the Avengers against each other, as they debate how and to what extent superheroes should be held accountable. Whether you ended up on #TeamStark or #TeamCap, this film took the MCU in an exciting new direction by delving into tricky ethical issues and resisting the temptation to give us a perfectly wrapped-up ending. It also introduced some fantastic characters to the MCU, including Black Panther and a new Spider-Man.

1. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

As you know, Star Wars is my all-time favorite film franchise, so of course the No. 1 slot was always “Rogue One’s” to lose. Thankfully, it lived up to the hopes I had for it. “Rogue One” is, at its heart, a war movie, and it shows us how hard the Rebellion had to struggle to defeat the oppressive Empire. It gave us a band of ordinary heroes without any special powers, and none of them were the “chosen one” destined to single-handedly save the galaxy. Yet without their sacrifice to steal the plans to the Death Star, there would be no Rebellion. “Rogue One” has the most thrilling (and emotional) final act I’ve seen on screen in a long time. After last year’s success with “The Force Awakens” and now “Rogue One,” the Force is indeed with Disney.

A legacy of hope: In memory of Carrie Fisher

24879e7b7b009dd621586a912b8dc98aI really didn’t want to have to write this post. When I heard late last week that actress and author Carrie Fisher, best known as Princess Leia from the Star Wars saga, went into cardiac arrest during a flight, I prayed she’d get better and that she wouldn’t join the list of the many icons who have passed away in 2016. I’d heard some reports she was in stable condition, but she must have taken a turn for the worse. She passed away today at the age of 60.

Princess Leia is one of the most iconic film characters of our time, and Fisher brought her to life with spunk, determination, and courage. As a young girl, it was exciting for me to see a princess who was no damsel in distress and didn’t need rescuing. She was a respected leader in the Rebellion and never backed down from a fight, even though the odds were stacked against her. Luke Skywalker may have been the main character of the original trilogy, but Princess Leia was just as important. Although the character has taken on a life of its own in countless spin-off novels, none of that would have been possible without Fisher’s original performance.

One of the details I appreciated most about “The Force Awakens” was how J.J. Abrams brought the original trilogy’s primary players — Fisher, Mark Hamill, and Harrison Ford — back to the saga. It was like reuniting with old friends, and it took us back to the franchise’s roots. Leia didn’t necessarily get her happily ever after: by the time we met up with her in the film, her relationship with Han had fallen apart and their son had been seduced by the dark side. But Leia was still leading, still fighting — she was unwilling to give up on the cause she had sacrificed so much for.

The real-life Carrie Fisher battled her fair share of demons, which she spoke publicly and frankly about. Years of substance abuse took their toll. Yet she was also a passionate advocate raising awareness about issues like addiction and mental illness and, like her character, she spread the message that there will always be hope.

That galaxy long, long ago and far, far away is a lot lonelier today, but Fisher’s legacy will live on as new generations of fans discover the films. She will always be Princess Leia, a beacon of hope to those whose backs are up against the wall but keep on fighting despite the odds.

May the Force be with you, Carrie.

The ‘Rogue’ rewatch: A more spoiler-filled discussion of ‘Rogue One’

rogue-one-movie-review-f947f0c3-1417-400e-b0a6-2525a3301f73I hope everyone had a merry Christmas! Over the holiday weekend, I had a chance to watch “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” for a second time. Since my initial review was spoiler-free, I thought it might be fun to go back and dive into more detail about the film. If you haven’t had a chance to see the movie yet, definitely don’t read any further! Here are some of the main points that stood out to me after a week to mull over the film and my second viewing:

The darker tone

I love the classical feeling of the main Star Wars saga (i.e. the “episodes”) and how it focuses on a more traditional battle between good and evil, where the lines between hero and villain are very clearly drawn. However, I would love for the standalone Star Wars “side stories” to follow “Rogue One’s” example and show us a less black and white version of the Star Wars universe. Although the Star Wars universe has gone dark places before — “Revenge of the Sith” — it’s never been as gritty as “Rogue One.” I love how it adds more nuance to the Rebellion and shows how everyone is not a spotless hero. The very first scene with Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor shows him killing an injured informant so he can’t be captured and reveal sensitive information. Agents like Cassian have to get their hands dirty so higher-ups like Bail Organa and Mon Mothma can lead the Rebellion from the moral high ground.

The villains

I realized I actually didn’t talk a lot about the villains of “Rogue One” in my initial review. I thought Ben Mendelsohn was great as Orson Krennic, the officer commanding the development of the Death Star, and I enjoyed his power struggle with Tarkin. I know some have already noted that you can tell Tarkin is a CGI recreation, since the original actor has passed away, but I thought they did a pretty good job and it would have been odd if this character hadn’t appeared in a film about the Death Star. I also appreciated that this film showed off the full might of the Empire and how ruthless their military machine was (plus, stormtroopers actually hit stuff!) And of course that Darth Vader cameo — the final scene where he tears through a corridor of Rebels was worth the price of admission and gives us a minute of pure horror. We see what a mysterious and terrifying threat Vader was in the eyes of the Rebels.

The heroes

I have heard some say the film could have used more character development, and I think more character development is always a good thing. However, I think that here “less is more” actually worked because this isn’t really a story about an individual or “chosen one.” It’s about a group of ordinary people who band together to do something heroic; all of them contribute to the cause but none of them could have done it on their own. While my favorite new characters from the film are still the droid K-2SO and the blind warrior, Chirrut Îmwe, this time it was Cassian Andor’s story arc that stood out to me. Although he’s not immediately a likable character, I’m glad they resisted the temptation to make him a charming, Han Solo type. He’s a hardened soldier who’s had to do a lot of bad things for a good cause, and he’s probably lost quite a bit of his soul along the way. The ending with him and Jyn embracing on the beach is incredibly sad, because these are two characters who haven’t really experienced any happiness in their lives and here they are dying without knowing 100 percent if their desperate gambit worked. Yet “A New Hope” never would have happened without their sacrifice.

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The music

This is the first Star Wars movie without a score by John Williams, and during my first viewing, I wasn’t completely blown away by the music. However, I did buy the soundtrack and as I’ve been listening to it I’ve found the music is actually rather moving, particularly the themes for Jyn and the Rebels. The music is sad and haunting, and makes my eyes a bit misty as I think back on the film and the sacrifices of the Rebels. The Imperials also have a cool new theme.

The reshoots

Fans were initially a little concerned when they heard reports about reshoots for “Rogue One.” I’ve heard various rumors about how much of the film was reshot and how significant the changes to the plot were. We may never know what the original cut of the film looked like, but having watched “Rogue One” a second time, I’m very pleased with what we got. The final mission on Scarif will go down as one of my all-time favorite movie endings — space battle! AT-ATs on a tropical beach! — and despite knowing how the film would ultimately end (i.e. with the events of “A New Hope”) I was on the edge of my seat the whole time. A happy ending just wouldn’t have worked for this movie, and kudos to Disney for fully committing to the tragic ending.

Final ranking

So where does “Rogue One” sit on my ranking of the Star Wars films? “The Empire Strikes Back” is my all-time favorite movie, period, so that one will always be hard to top. 😉 “Return of the Jedi” — with its poignant ending and the redemption of Darth Vader — has risen over the years and is now my second favorite Star Wars film. I’d put “Rogue One” at No. 3 on the list and “The Force Awakens” at No. 4; I feel both these movies have helped to bring the magic back to Star Wars, albeit in different ways. “A New Hope,” “Revenge of the Sith,” “The Phantom Menance,” and “Attack of the Clones” round out my current ranking. I’m very excited to see where Disney takes this franchise in the future!

Movie review: ‘Arrival’ offers thought-provoking, insightful sci-fi

arrival-movie-reviewsOne day without warning, 12 strangely-shaped alien ships appear on the Earth’s surface, landing at various sites around the globe. Humanity’s natural reaction to these vessels is to panic, especially since the aliens’ purpose remains unclear. Are they here to investigate or invade? Do they actually want to communicate with the humans or do they merely want to gather information to use later on in an attack?

The U.S. government recruits linguist Dr. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to help them attempt to communicate with the aliens. Although Louise has done difficult translation work before, this will be the greatest challenge of her career. The aliens speak in a series of unintelligible sounds no one can seem to understand. However, Louise has a breakthrough when she convinces the aliens to start writing down their language — although their version of “writing down” is actually squirting circular inky shapes into the air. As Louise begins to decipher their language and communicate in return, the aliens send her what could be a threatening message…or perhaps she’s just misinterpreting it. She’ll need to decipher it quickly before other countries around the world respond with violence to the mysterious aliens and perhaps trigger a doomsday event.

Although “Arrival” was actually released in theaters back in November, my plans to see it never managed to work out and then I got caught up in all the buzz about “Rogue One.” However, I’m glad I made the time to catch this film while it was still in theaters. Science fiction comes in many varieties, and “Arrival” is of the smaller scale, more intimate type. While I do love big space battles and action sequences, sometimes it’s also nice to dial things back a bit. Even though there’s not a lot of “action” in this film, “Arrival” is still very suspenseful as Louise and her team try to figure out the aliens’ purpose in coming to Earth.

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The music and special effects are sparse but used very effectively, serving to increase the sense of mystery. I won’t say much about the design of the aliens, because I think discovering what the aliens look like adds to the suspense, but I appreciated how eerie and otherworldly they looked (of course, the humans probably looked eerie and otherworldly to them). I loved the aliens’ method of communicating; I thought it was a creative departure from what we’ve seen from “alien languages” previously in films.

The film does have a major twist in the final act, sending the movie in a direction I didn’t suspect. I had some questions about the aliens that weren’t ultimately answered but I think the ambiguity was necessary, even though I really wanted to know more. While “Arrival” is a very different type of movie from “Rogue One,” both movies had the same central theme: hope. And it’s a theme that feels very relevant in a challenging year.

“Arrival” highlights the importance of working together for a common goal and the dangers of letting our differences divide us (many countries in the film are reluctant to share their alien intel even though everyone on Earth is facing the same threat). “Arrival” also contains an unexpected but moving reflection on the need to embrace life, with both its joy and its tragedy.