A disturbance in the Force: Decoding the fan response to ‘The Last Jedi’

tempt-trailer_1It’s now been about a month since “The Last Jedi” opened in theaters, and I feel like the dust is finally starting to settle a bit surrounding this surprisingly polarizing entry in the Star Wars franchise. By now everyone has probably decided how they feel about the film, one way or the other, and I don’t really want to stir up the controversy again. 😉 This article isn’t designed to be another discussion of the film itself; rather, I’d like to take a look at the overall fan reaction to this film, which has been absolutely fascinating to watch. In one camp you have some fans who loved it and have called it the best Star Wars film since “The Empire Strikes Back,” and others who hated it and think it’s worse than the prequels. The people who had reactions somewhere in between have found themselves in a sort-of No Man’s Land, trying to dodge the shots fired from both sides. While it is probably still too soon to analyze the legacy of “The Last Jedi,” I want to dive into some of the issues that are playing into this fan divide and what this means for the Star Wars franchise — and the state of fandoms as a whole.

Box office backlash?

Determining the overall public response to “The Last Jedi” is tricky, with the waters muddied by a variety of factors. There’s already been much discussion about the now 49 percent audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes — a rather stark contrast to the critics’ 90 percent score for this film. There are rumors of bots and angry fans artificially deflating the audience score — take that as you will. Personally, I have a hard time believing that 50 percent of the people who saw this movie hated it with a burning, fiery passion (although if you didn’t like it, that is 100 percent okay — no one should be forced to love a movie!) 😊 I also really don’t believe that Disney simply “paid off” critics to give this a positive review.

Online I’d say the split between fans who loved it/hated it feels like an even 50/50 (at least based on the chatter on Reddit and social media), though again, this type of online community is not necessarily a real-life sampling. Anecdotally, I’d say the split amongst my friends, family, bloggers I follow, and other acquaintances is somewhere between 70/30 and 80/20, with more people liking it or at least enjoying it than those who did not. But that’s just within my own personal bubble.

It does feel strange to have a genre film that is praised by critics but is generating a backlash from fans; more often, it seems to be the other way around, with fans loving a movie more than critics did. Perhaps the closest equivalent is “Iron Man 3,” a movie that was generally praised by critics but received some pushback from fans for its unconventional narrative choices, not unlike “The Last Jedi.”

“The Last Jedi” had an impressive opening weekend — to the tune of $220 million domestically — and so far has grossed about $600 million domestically and close to $1.3 billion globally. That’s a lot of money, and is easily the highest domestic grosser of 2017, beating Disney’s apparently less controversial flicks like “Beauty and the Beast” and the trio of Marvel films. Still, it’s not anywhere close to touching the massive $930 million domestic, $2 billion global gross for “The Force Awakens.” Now, is it fair to say “The Last Jedi” would have made more money if it was less divisive? That’s entirely possible. But how much more is difficult to determine.

“The Force Awakens” was a lightning-in-a-bottle moment that probably won’t happen again for a very long time (although it will be exciting to see just how big “Avengers: Infinity War” opens — I can see it breaking a lot of records). “The Force Awakens” was the first new Star Wars movie in a decade; the first Star Wars movie after the generally poorly received prequels; and the first Star Wars movie from new owner Disney, plus on top of that the return of the original trilogy cast. “The Last Jedi” also seemed to have more competition at the box office, with “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” turning out to be a surprisingly fun and entertaining family film that played very well with audiences over the holidays. I really don’t see how any movie that earns $1.3 billion is disappointing, especially since Star Wars still beat out a lot of superhero flicks, which tend to play better overseas than the Star Wars franchise. I think Episode IX will do just fine. 😉

However, another discussion for another time is my concern that Disney may eventually over-saturate the marketplace with Star Wars content. I think one Star Wars film every year (or even every two years) is a good amount and shouldn’t go higher. It’s a different type of film than the Marvel superhero flicks, which I think are sustainable at two to three a year, at least for now. Another question is if Hollywood’s blockbuster bubble will eventually burst — how sustainable are these billion-dollar movie expectations and how risky is it for studios to rely on these billion-dollar grosses to be profitable? But moving on…

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A house divided

So, just why was “The Last Jedi” so controversial? I haven’t really seen any obvious patterns in who liked this movie and who didn’t; it really does seem to be a mix based on personal preference.

In some ways, I think the backlash was unavoidable, and may be a holdover from “The Force Awakens.” Inevitably, the Star Wars sequels had to directly address the legacy of the original trilogy, in a way the prequels did not. Whether you enjoyed the prequels or not, they didn’t really have an impact on the legacy of the original trilogy, since in terms of the Star Wars timeline they happened in the past. Now, we have the sequel trilogy revisiting beloved characters like Han, Luke, and Leia, whom fans feel a very personal connection to and understandably have strong opinions about.

I’m of the opinion that Disney made the right call to retire the old Star Wars Expanded Universe. There’s some truly great stuff in there that is still very much a part of Star Wars for me (hint, hint: Timothy Zahn). 😉 However, there was some not-so-great stuff in there too (let’s all collectively agree to forget that time Luke fell in love with a computer) and some plot developments fans disagreed on, as is the case with any franchise. Even if Disney had decided to adapt Zahn’s well-received Thrawn trilogy, they would have had to cast younger actors as Han, Luke, and Leia, which I feel would have been too risky for their first Star Wars film. The return of Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill is a big selling point for this sequel series.

I admire Disney for being willing to take a risk with “The Last Jedi” and allowing director Rian Johnson to make some choices they probably knew would be a little controversial. “The Force Awakens” was a fun but relatively “safe” film, though I think after the prequels, that’s exactly what it needed to be. It needed to remind fans of what they loved about Star Wars and to assure them the franchise was in good hands. But in order to move forward in a meaningful way, Disney had to try something gutsier for the sequel, and inevitably, some fans would like whatever direction they chose, and some wouldn’t.

While to me “The Last Jedi” still feels very much like a Star Wars movie, it does feel different than what’s come before. In terms of cinematography, it’s probably the most beautifully shot Star Wars film, and it uses a little different narrative structure. One of the major themes is failure, and we see many of the main characters make plans that end up coming to nothing. I can respect that some did not like the way Luke Skywalker was portrayed; for me it was a bold choice that really paid off, but it is hard to see a childhood hero as a more broken, flawed person than we may have expected. I’d argue that this makes the film much more interesting and powerful than if we’d simply seen Luke as a wizened Obi-Wan type mentor figure, but I can see how others might have a different reaction.

“This is not going to go the way you think…”

Another topic I’ve seen debated is how “The Last Jedi” subverted expectations, and whether that was a good thing. Fans had a lot of theories about Snoke’s background and Rey’s parentage in particular. The movie revealed those were red herrings. I personally loved those twists, because sometimes a reveal that’s too hyped can ultimately feel like a bit of a letdown, even if it’s what you might have originally wanted. If Snoke hadn’t died and was the “big bad” in Episode IX after all, would he have felt too much like a Palpatine knockoff? To me, a power struggle between an unhinged Kylo Ren and a scheming General Hux (neither of whom is really ready to lead an empire) makes for a more interesting villain dynamic, but again, I can respect how others would disagree. I originally theorized Snoke was maybe Darth Plagueis returned to life, but now I wonder if that really would have been a cool reveal or if it ultimately would have felt too beholden to the past? It’s an interesting question to ponder. I also think the same thing could have happened with Rey’s parentage. The fact she’s a “nobody” feels more authentic and exciting to me now, even though originally I wanted her to be connected to the old Jedi Order.

In short, some of the same reasons people loved “The Last Jedi” are the same reasons other people didn’t — and that’s okay. Some of the factors that may have been small issues for some fans were big issues for others. Not every fan will agree on every film, and I think it’s exciting to have a Star Wars movie that has provoked some genuine, meaningful debates and deep conversations. I honestly believe that “The Last Jedi” will hold up well over the long run, especially as we see how Episode IX turns out. I hope fans who didn’t like it the first time will wait several months, and then give it another chance. I re-watched “The Force Awakens” right after my second viewing of “The Last Jedi” and thought they flowed well together, despite some shifts in tone.

My one fear is that Disney will react to the backlash by trying too hard to make Episode IX “safe.” I don’t want them to retcon Rey’s parents and make them somebody significant to Star Wars lore. I think it’s really powerful that she’s a “nobody” who can become a hero. I don’t want Snoke to come back to life; I absolutely would love some flashbacks with him in Episode IX that include a little more on his backstory, but Kylo unexpectedly killing him and (temporarily) siding with Rey was, in my opinion, one of the best twists in the movie.

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We’re all in this together…

My closing thought is one that I’ve been trying to remind myself of as I get excited about upcoming films and such. As geeks, we get pretty passionate about our fandoms. It’s great to have discussions and debates, and we don’t all have to agree. At the end of the day, they are just movies. They’re meant to be fun, and if a franchise stops bringing you joy, it’s absolutely okay to peacefully walk away. I know some who have said the Disney Star Wars movies aren’t for them, and that’s okay too. I personally would argue that they’re missing out 😉 but there are plenty of great geek properties to be a fan of.

What’s discouraging is seeing fans put others down and posting hurtful things to each other. I’ve seen it happen not just in threads about Star Wars but in Marvel vs. DC debates, the new Star Trek movies and TV show, and too many other discussions; this seems to be occurring more and more as social media becomes a venting ground and people are maybe having less conversations face to face. I worry that some of the negativity generated by these fan vs. fan throwdowns will eventually drive the general public away from these fandoms and make them seem less welcoming. Especially since the general public is what helps turn these Star Wars and Marvel flicks into billion-dollar hits and thereby guaranteeing we get more. I will add that’s why I am increasingly turning to WordPress rather than social media or even Reddit for film discussions; you guys are awesome and supportive, and even when people disagree, it’s done respectfully. So kudos to all of you! You’re the best!

In closing, we fans shouldn’t let our passion for (or against!) something turn into anger that we then use as a weapon to pummel other fans, like Darth Vader in that famous “Rogue One” hallway scene. 😉 Criticizing and debating a film is definitely okay, and it’s always fascinating to hear another perspective. I’m a pretty passionate pro-“Last Jedi” crusader (as you’ve probably gathered), but have been reminding myself that it’s okay people thought differently. Let’s make sure that geekdom stays a fun, friendly place that is welcoming to all!

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My top five most anticipated movies of 2018

avengers-infinity-war-poster-comic-conjpegWith 2017 behind us, it’s time to start looking ahead to 2018! There will be plenty of movies to look forward to in theaters this year, including a certain little Marvel movie that will wrap up a decade of build-up. It might make a little money at the box office. 😉

Although it’s always hard to narrow my list down, here are the top five movies I’m most excited about this year!

1. Avengers: Infinity War (May 4), Black Panther (Feb. 16), and Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6)

I’m already cheating on my supposed “five movie limit” by combining these three into one entry, but otherwise I’d only have two slots left in my list. 😉 I’m super excited about all three of these. I’m also glad we only have to wait another month for “Black Panther.” Although I had a lot of fun watching “Thor: Ragnarok” last year, it will be nice to see a little more serious superhero movie like “Black Panther.” I loved his character in “Captain America: Civil War” and can’t wait to find out more about that world. I also think the original “Ant-Man” is sometimes a little underappreciated in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s actually one of my favorites. I’m looking forward to seeing an expanded role for the Wasp. Still, if I had to pick only one most anticipated movie of the year, it would have to be “Infinity War.” It’s hard to believe that this all started back in 2008 with “Iron Man” and has now grown into this expansive cinematic universe. I have a feeling the MCU is going to look a lot different after the fourth Avengers movie wraps up, but it’s been a great ride so far. Hopefully it will be the epic finale to this phase of the MCU that the characters deserve.

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2. Solo: A Star Wars Story (May 25)

I’m a huge Star Wars fan; pretty much everybody knows that. So despite my misgivings about a spinoff Han Solo film, I’m definitely willing to give it a chance. I would have much rather Disney given us an Obi-Wan or Boba Fett spinoff movie, but since this is what we’re getting, I’m hoping it will turn out well. I’ve loved all the Disney Star Wars flicks so far, and in an odd way, the director shakeup behind the scenes on the “Solo” set boosted my confidence a little. If Disney had doubts about the direction the film was taking, I’m glad they were willing to brave the negative PR and make a change. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is such an iconic performance and getting audiences to invest in a new actor playing the character is probably the biggest obstacle the film is facing. However, I’m super excited to see Donald Glover as Lando, and it will also be fun to see Woody Harrelson in a Star Wars movie. On another note, I wish they had pushed back the deadline and released this movie in December, rather than summertime so close to “Infinity War.” But it is kinda cool it’s being released on the 41st anniversary of “A New Hope.”

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3. Annihilation (Feb. 23)

“Annihilation” is my pick for best potential breakout movie. I don’t know a lot about the film, other than what I’ve seen in the mysterious, eerie trailers, and I’d like to keep it that way. I’m not even sure how to describe it, really, other than that Natalie Portman’s character is apparently going to investigate some sort of really weird scientific anomaly that is most definitely not benign (based on the title “Annihilation”). Although sometimes an early winter release date doesn’t speak of a lot of confidence from a film studio, sometimes it’s nice to get these movies outside the increasingly crowded summer season. “Black Panther” is going to do very well the weekend before, so I’m hoping this has a shot at being a surprise hit. Hopefully it will offer better sci-fi scares than last summer’s “Alien: Covenant.”

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4. Pacific Rim: Uprising (March 23)

The original “Pacific Rim” does not have a particularly deep plot, characters, or dialogue, but I absolutely love that movie. Where else can you see a giant robot pick up a cargo ship and use it to smash a giant monster? One could argue that the film doesn’t really need a sequel, especially since director Guillermo del Toro isn’t returning. However, I’m actually really excited to see John Boyega heading up a new sci-fi blockbuster. I really loved him as ex-stormtrooper Finn in the new Star Wars trilogy and I think he’s a good fit to play the son of the coolest character in the original movie, Idris Elba’s Stacker Pentecost. The film’s March release date also might be a good thing, giving it a chance to stand out before the onslaught of summer blockbusters.

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5. Ready Player One (March 30)

The novel “Ready Player One” has been on my “to be read” list for a long time so at this point I’ll probably end up watching the movie first. The story takes place in the dystopian future, where people find solace in a virtual reality world known as OASIS. Teenager Wade Watts enjoys the escape the OASIS provides…until dangerous real-world problems start bleeding into the virtual one. One of the things I’m most excited about in this movie is all the pop culture references that will supposedly be in the film, including “The Iron Giant,” “Back to the Future,” “The Lord of the Rings,” and more. The first Lego movie is the only other film I can think of with this many cool characters mashed together. Plus, this movie was directed by one of my all-time favorite directors — Steven Spielberg — so that’s always a plus!

So, what’s on your “must-see” list for 2018? What will be the biggest hit, or the biggest flop?

Movie review: ‘Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle’ a surprisingly fun action comedy

jumanji-welcome-to-the-jungle-review_szhfAs a kid, I remember watching the original “Jumanji” for the first time at a friend’s slumber party. I was awed (and a bit terrified) of this tale about a cursed board game that comes to life and causes dangerous events to happen in the real world — like carnivorous plants and stampeding animals.

It’s probably been about 15+ years since I last watched this movie, so I can’t really comment on how well it has held up over time, but I do have fond memories of it. Initially I didn’t think releasing a sequel more than 20 years later (wow, I feel old now) was that great of an idea, especially since the sequel updates the original “Jumanji” board game to a video game.

However, the trailers for the sequel, “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” always made me laugh when I saw them in the theater before watching other films, so when this movie scored 77 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, I thought “why not?” I went to see it on a cold, lazy afternoon and ended up really enjoying myself. “Welcome to the Jungle” turns out to be a surprisingly fun action comedy with some entertaining performances and genuine laughs.

As I mentioned before, turning the “Jumanji” board game into a video game originally seemed like a gimmick but actually works quite well in the film. Instead of the board game leaking into the real world, four kids are transported into the world of “Jumanji” via a video game. Not only does this prevent the movie from feeling like a rehash of the original, it provides some great comedy moments as four adult actors — Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, and Karen Gillan — play video game avatars of four teenagers. They all have to learn how to cooperate and beat the game together in order to get back to the real world, or they’ll be stuck in “Jumanji” forever…or worse.

Watching Johnson, Black, Hart, and Gillan pretend to be teenagers pretending to be characters in the video game was my favorite part of the film. I thought Johnson and Black did particularly well. The impossibly buff Johnson ends up being the avatar for gamer Spencer Gilpin, who overcomes his insecurities and gains confidence in real life after the game is over. And Black was really hilarious as the avatar of a spoiled, self-absorbed girl who thinks more about her next Instagram post than other people.

I would tag this as a spoiler, but you already know going in that the characters will all end up bonding with each other (despite not getting along that well initially) and they learn a lesson about appreciating each other and their differences. Yes, it might be a little cliché, but in a world where bullying and unfairly ostracizing people into groups is a real problem, I liked this film’s message that every person deserves to be valued, and everybody has strengths that are worthy of respect. For me, the message was a welcome one and didn’t feel too heavy-handed.

I actually don’t have a whole lot else to say about this film. The action sequences were good, and I laughed plenty of times throughout, thanks to the great chemistry amongst the cast. To be fair, it’s not a ground-breaking film and didn’t knock any films off my “best of 2017” list. Will people still be talking about it at this time next year? Maybe, maybe not. However, it was a lot of fun and is definitely worth catching as a matinee. It cheered up my post-holiday “blahs,” and I’m planning to watch it again on DVD.

2017 in review: My five favorite movies of the year

star-wars-the-last-jedi-vanity-fair-photo-shoot-by-annie-leibovitz-hi-res-hd-images-luke-and-reyAnother year is winding down at the box office, which means it’s time to take a look back and see what movies hit (or missed) the mark! Like always, there were some surprises and disappointments, with some films that lived up to the hype and some that fell short of their potential. Disney continues to rule the box office, with several mega-hits that included Marvel movies, a live-action “Beauty and the Beast,” and the latest chapter in the Star Wars franchise — although its Pirates of the Caribbean series appears to be losing steam.

All in all, I thought it was a pretty good year at the movies. For me, two of my most disappointing movies were unfortunately some that I was really looking forward to. Much has already been written about “Justice League,” and I won’t belabor the point. However, while the characters and acting/casting were great, the story just didn’t do these epic superheroes justice. And the more time that passes, the more I’ve simply forgotten about this film (similar to “Suicide Squad”). Which is just such a shame, because these characters all deserve another shot, even though the DC Cinematic Universe is on somewhat shaky ground now. My other disappointment was the Kingsman sequel, “The Golden Circle.” Although I did have fun watching it, it too has faded from my mind since I saw it. The first was such a wonderful, lovingly over-the-top delight, and it’s too bad the sequel couldn’t capture the same magic.

Still, there were plenty of movies that I loved this year, so without further ado, here are my top five films from 2017. It’s not necessarily what I think are the five *best* movies, but rather the ones that I most enjoyed. There are two notable absences: I still haven’t gotten a chance to see “The Disaster Artist” or “The Shape of Water” (which either haven’t come to my theater yet or came and went too quickly). I’ve heard great things about these two films, and they might end up earning a spot on my revised top five once I get a chance to see them.

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Honorable mention: Dunkirk

Watching Christopher Nolan’s World War II thriller “Dunkirk” was probably the most visceral experience I’ve had in a movie theater this year. Perhaps Nolan’s tensest, tightest film, “Dunkirk” tells the true story of the risky evacuation of 300,000 Allied soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk, France, as the Nazi army presses in around them. Interestingly, Nolan chooses to tell the story mostly through visuals, with minimal dialogue and separate, alternating timelines. That’s maybe why this ends up as an “honorable mention” rather than in the top five itself. It’s an excellent, powerful film, but it’s not a movie that I will watch over and over again. I feel this is a movie that’s best experienced once, on a screen as large as possible, so you feel like you are living the events as they happen.

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5. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

I had to think long and hard about what movie to put in this spot. I knew it would be a Marvel film, but I wasn’t sure which one. While “Thor: Ragnarok” was a blast, it ultimately ranks in the lower half of Marvel movies for me; the humor undercuts several big moments and lessens their emotional impact by not taking them seriously enough. And even though I really loved “Spider-Man: Homecoming” and can’t wait to see Tom Holland as a continuing part of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, “Guardians Vol. 2” just barely has an advantage here. It is fair to say that yes, “Vol. 2” wasn’t as good as “Vol. 1.” Some of the surprise factor is gone, and the humor doesn’t feel *quite* as natural. The film also does split up the Guardians for a large portion of the film. Still, Kurt Russell makes for a great villain, and the Guardians franchise continues to do a good job of balancing the laughs with genuine emotional moments. Yondu emerges as the surprise breakout star of the movie, and his moments with Rocket were the highlight of the film for me.

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4. Logan

2017 was a year of big budget blockbusters taking genuine risks, including the unconventional storytelling techniques in Christopher Nolan’s already-mentioned “Dunkirk” and the surprisingly polarizing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” The X-Men franchise also deserves praise for taking a risk with “Logan,” a film that, despite being about Wolverine, feels more like a Western than a superhero flick. This violent, gritty, R-rated take on Hugh Jackman’s iconic character provided a powerful yet poignant closing chapter for the superhero. The Academy Awards don’t usually single out superhero films for the bigger awards categories, but Jackman — and Patrick Stewart as a failing Professor Charles Xavier — deserve consideration for their performances. This isn’t a film that I’m going to end up watching dozens and dozens of times, just because it is so violent and bleak, but I’m very glad that it was made. Hopefully it opens the door for more superhero films like it in the future.

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3. Blade Runner 2049

Every year, it seems like there’s always one film that comes out of nowhere to surprise me. This year, that film was “Blade Runner 2049.” I wasn’t particularly hyped about it but thought the trailers looked cool. However, I walked out of the theater completely blown away, and it was worth every penny I spent to see it in IMAX. It’s a gorgeously shot, sci-fi noir with thought-provoking themes that will linger with you long after you’ve watched it. Although the film is oftentimes bleak, it’s never hopeless. It reflects on what it means to be human, and how sometimes that humanity can be both inspiring and, in other cases, cruel. From what I understand, the film was a bit of a flop, at least domestically, and in retrospect I’m shocked that the studio greenlit a budget of $150 million. Still, none of that budget is wasted in this moving, lovingly-crafted film.

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2. Wonder Woman

The merits of the DC Cinematic Universe so far (and its future) is an issue fans will continue to debate. However, most fans agreed on this summer’s “Wonder Woman,” the DCCU’s best movie so far and also one of my new favorite superhero movies overall. “Wonder Woman” was funny and exciting, with a star-making performance from Gal Gadot (who had already stolen all the scenes she appeared in during “Batman vs. Superman”). Told through the lens of World War I, the film took time to cover some deeper themes amidst the action sequences. Chris Pine also made a great sidekick as Steve Trevor. Ultimately, I might have structured the ending a little differently, but for me at least it didn’t take away from the power of the film. And one of my favorite scenes from a movie this year is still that moment Wonder Woman climbs up out of the trench into No Man’s Land — an act of courage, compassion, and strength that still gives me goosebumps every time I watch it.

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1. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

I didn’t think picking a Star Wars movie as my favorite movie of the year would be a controversial choice, yet here we are. 😉 People have very strong feelings about “The Last Jedi”; I’ve heard some call it the best Star Wars movie since “The Empire Strikes Back” and others say it’s worse than the prequels. For me, it was a bold, exciting, risky film that wasn’t content to coast on nostalgia and pushed the franchise in an unexpected new direction. It touched on some deep themes for a sci-fi blockbuster — namely failure and letting go of the past — and gave us some satisfying character development that built on what we’d seen in “The Force Awakens” (a movie I absolutely love but admit was fairly “safe”). It looks at one of fans’ childhood legends — Luke Skywalker — in a challenging but meaningful way, arguably Mark Hamill’s best performance as the character. It also has two of my favorite moments that I’ve ever seen in a Star Wars movie (warning: spoilers incoming!) — first, when Kylo unexpectedly offs the supposed big-bad, Supreme Leader Snoke, and allies with Rey; that fight in the red throne room is an exhilarating payoff to the tension building earlier in the film. And second, when Luke rises above his pain and failure and becomes the legend we all knew him to be, facing down the First Order and his nephew and displaying a jaw-dropping new Force power. At the end of the film he stares into a twin sunset and becomes one with the Force, an emotional yet fitting end for a beloved character. Even though “The Last Jedi” divided some fans, I loved it. There are a few small things I would have changed, but overall I thought it was amazing. I can’t wait to see how Disney will (hopefully!) surprise us again with Episode IX.

So, what were your top five movies of the year? I’d love to hear them!

Movie review: ‘The Last Jedi’ pushes Star Wars saga in bold new direction

star-wars-the-last-jedi“This is not going to go the way you think” — Luke Skywalker offers this warning in the trailer for “The Last Jedi,” and it’s one fans would do well to keep in mind as they watch the latest chapter in the Star Wars franchise. It’s been two years since “The Force Awakens,” and fans have had all that time to speculate and theorize about what may or may not happen in the new film. Director Rian Johnson definitely offers some surprising twists and turns — and takes some creative risks — in “The Last Jedi,” and the final film has proven to be surprisingly divisive amongst the Star Wars fan base.

Some fans seem to REALLY love it, and some fans seem to REALLY hate it. Earlier today I was scrolling through Facebook comments on a “Last Jedi” article and came across these two responses just a scroll away from each other — “best [Star Wars] since ‘Empire Strikes Back’” and “huge disappointment.” Personally, I think it’s exciting that the Star Wars franchise has given us a film that’s producing such strong responses and spirited debates.

Full disclosure — I’m in the “love it” camp, and I’m planning to dive into why it may have worked so well for me (and the other fans who loved it), and why some may not agree. Although normally I try to stick to (mostly) spoiler free reviews, there are waaay too many spoiler-y things I want to talk about, so fair warning. If you haven’t seen the film yet, definitely go see it. A lot of passionate opinions are flying around the interest, and I encourage you to go and see for yourself what you think. For those who have seen the film and want to discuss it, full speed ahead!

Final warning: Many spoilers, there are!!!

One of the most divisive things about this film is the portrayal of legendary Jedi Luke Skywalker. Luke ended “The Return of the Jedi” on a bittersweet but triumphant note, becoming a powerful Jedi Knight and redeeming his father from the darkness. The Luke we meet in “The Last Jedi” is a very different — and very broken — man. When Rey visits the island where Luke has retreated in self-imposed exile, she finds a grumpy, bitter hermit who refuses to train her in the ways of the Force.

Some have disagreed with this portrayal of Luke, and admittedly, it does take a bit to adjust to. Luke was one of the most idealistic and optimistic characters in the original trilogy, and it’s jarring to see a much darker version of the character. Personally, though, this is exactly what I wanted to see from Luke, and it gives Mark Hamill a chance to turn in an incredibly powerful performance. I thought it was fascinating to see how Luke dealt with the aftermath of his choices and — yes, his failure. We learn that his own moment of fear and flirtation with a dark path pushed his nephew, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren, away from the light.

Failure is actually one of the primary themes in this movie, and Luke isn’t the only character to experience it. In a lot of films we’re used to seeing the good characters succeed, so it was a nice change of pace to watch the heroes have to adjust their plans when things didn’t go quite right.

Yet this broken Luke sets up one of my favorite moments in the movie, where he rises above the past and displays a breathtaking new Force power — the ability to project himself across space. Again, some have said they would have preferred he actually show up to duel his nephew in person on the salt planet, but I loved how they handled the final scene, allowing Luke to win a victory for the light side on his own terms — a twist that leaves Kylo absolutely broken. I’m glad to see that at the end, Luke finally found peace and became one with the Force, wrapping up the film with a beautiful moment where he stares into a twin sunset.

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The darkness rises…

Speaking of Kylo Ren…this was another highlight of the film for me. I thought Adam Driver was great as the conflicted Kylo — the “Anakin” we deserved in the prequels but didn’t quite get. He did a great job showing the anger, the pain, and yes, even the loneliness that Kylo experiences as he sacrifices his family, his heritage, and pretty much everything he has for the First Order, only to be mocked and belittled by Supreme Leader Snoke. It’s telling that he was able to kill his father, Han Solo, in the last film, but can’t do the same for his mother, General Leia Organa.

This inner conflict leads to an unusual connection with Rey, who sees the light still flickering in him and wants to try to turn him from the darkness. I really enjoyed the film’s other new Force power — Kylo and Rey’s extended telepathic chats — and how this allowed their characters to play off each other.

…And light rises to meet it

Originally, I was hoping Disney would pull a surprise twist and send Kylo to the light and Rey to the dark, and they actually do tease us with this. My favorite moment in the film (and one that got big cheers from the audience at my theater on opening night) is when Kylo turns on Snoke, and he and Rey fight the red-armored Praetorian Guards back-to-back in Snoke’s throne room. It’s a thrilling scene that ranks up there with Darth Vader’s appearance at the end of last year’s “Rogue One” for me.

Rey and Kylo each think they’ve gained an ally…only to find that the other refuses to make the compromises they ask. Part of me still kinda thinks it would have been cool to see a “dark Rey” but I’m okay with how things were handled. I also don’t think Kylo’s internal struggles are entirely over, and his connection to Rey (that reaches beyond her potential use to him as a tool in his quest for power) may pull him back to the light. Anyway, there’s lots of interesting material to build on between these two characters in Episode IX, especially since Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley interact so well.

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A hero’s journey

Another criticism of “The Last Jedi” I have heard is that the side plots aren’t quite as compelling as the Luke/Rey/Kylo arcs. While those three characters are definitely the most exciting part of the film, I thought the other characters had good arcs as well. It was cool to see hotshot pilot Poe Dameron take on more of a leadership role, and I thought his mutiny was an interesting twist. It was also cool to see Finn fully invest in the Resistance by the end of the film. I didn’t really see his initial plan to desert as cowardly per se; he was more focused on wanting to help Rey and wasn’t sure if he wanted to sign up for a full-scale rebellion against the First Order.

It’s very bittersweet to see Carrie Fisher again, and it’s hard not to wonder what role General Leia would have played in Episode IX, were it not for Fisher’s tragic, unexpected passing. But it’s lovely to see the princess from the original trilogy grow into a wise, mature leader in this film, and she gets to share a brief but special moment with her brother, Luke Skywalker.

Letting go of the past

It is fair to say that the new characters introduced in Episode VIII aren’t *quite* as compelling as “The Force Awakens” alums Rey, Kylo, Poe, and Finn. We only really get to see a hint of Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo. And while Kelly Marie Tran’s mechanic Rose Tico adds a nice note of innocent idealism to the film, I didn’t find her as compelling as the main cast. I feel like a bad person for saying this, but I think having her die in the film’s final act (i.e. dying as she saved Finn, rather than just getting injured) would have been a more powerful and poignant way to handle her character.

Another complaint I’ve heard is that a lot of favorite characters — like Chewy, R2, and C-3PO get minimal screen time. However, I really don’t think this is an oversight or meant as a disservice to the fans. Another theme of the film is letting go of the past, and this film signals that a new era is coming. As much as we all love the characters from the original trilogy, it is time to tell a new story and pass the torch to new characters like Rey and Kylo. Some may disagree, but I feel the original characters have been treated respectfully in this new trilogy and have been able to pass their legacies on to a new generation of heroes in a really cool way.

A few minor complaints

The film does have a few humorous moments that feel out of place. Like at the beginning of the film, when Luke takes the lightsaber from Rey and tosses it over his shoulder; I wish he would have thrown it down or handed it back to her, or something more serious. I also thought Leia’s Force power moment (with her “flying” through space) stretched plausibility; I liked seeing her use the Force, considering her lineage, but I wish they’d done this scene a little differently. Also, I feel kinda sad that we still didn’t get much screen time for Captain Phasma. I think if they hadn’t hyped her character so much, fans would have been happier with what we got.

Questions still to answer

Supposedly we learn Rey’s parents in this movie — Kylo tells her that they were just ordinary people who abandoned her on Jakku. I’m still not sure I believe that. I don’t think Kylo was lying per se, but I think he may be misinformed. Rey’s mysterious vision in the dark side cave also hasn’t been fully explained, and I want Episode IX to circle back to this scene. I also think that even though Snoke is dead, we’ll learn more about him in Episode IX.

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Random closing thoughts

Anyway, I’ve spent about two hours and more than 2,000 words on this review, and I really need to wrap things up. 😉 Here are a few more random, closing thoughts:

• The cinematography on this film was absolutely gorgeous. From Luke’s isolated island to the salt planet to the sci-fi casino on Canto Bight, this is a breathtaking film to watch. Another jaw-dropper is when Vice Admiral Holdo rams into a First Order ship while accelerating to hyperspace. This scene is completely silent, and you can hear the gasps in the theater.

• The Porgs were super adorable. Yes, they pretty much exist to help Disney sell merchandise (I must confess, I already have two stuffed Porgs, so I guess their strategy is working). However, they don’t take over the film, and they don’t talk, so never fear, they aren’t the new Jar Jar Binks.

• It was a fun surprise to see Yoda again, and I’m really glad it was the eccentric original trilogy version. He helped Luke re-center himself and find balance within the Force again.

In short, I thought this was a great film that takes the Star Wars saga in an exciting new direction. It’s a powerful and emotional movie that lingered with me a long time after I left the theater (I saw it Thursday night, and I’m still buzzing). I know some fans had a negative reaction, but I’ve seen the film twice so far, and I loved it even more the second time. I actually saw the movie on two different days in two different cities, and the audiences clapped and cheered at the same moments.

And if you didn’t enjoy it? I encourage you to try watching “The Last Jedi” a second time. I had come up with so many theories and expectations for the film ahead of time that it was actually easier to watch it the second time, without all that baggage in the back of my mind. But even if you didn’t like it, that’s okay too! I’d love to discuss what did — and didn’t — work for you!

A Room with a view: The unlikely success story of ‘The Disaster Artist’

the-disaster-artist-f72066This weekend, I was planning to see and review “The Disaster Artist,” James Franco’s adaptation of the fascinating memoir that chronicles the making of the cult film “The Room.” However, to my great disappointment, I discovered my local theater wouldn’t be running “The Disaster Artist” (“You’re tearing me apart, AMC Theaters!!!”). Yet since “The Disaster Artist” is all about finding another path when Hollywood closes a door on you, I’m going to write about “The Room” and “The Disaster Artist” (book) anyway.

My husband and I’s obsession with “The Room” and “The Disaster Artist” began innocently enough — as wacky obsessions often do. He’d found this book called “The Disaster Artist” at our local library and brought it home because it looked like an interesting true-life story. He proceeded to read the first couple of pages to me and I laughed so hard I cried. I immediately had to stop him and beg him not to read anymore, because I had to read and experience this book for myself.

For the uninitiated, “The Disaster Artist” book is co-written by Greg Sestero, one of the ill-fated actors who starred in “The Room.” “The Room” is basically about this guy named Johnny who has a great life, good job and caring friends, except wait, he doesn’t because all his friends end up betraying him. It’s sometimes lovingly referred to as the “Citizen Kane of bad movies” — it’s stunningly, spectacularly bad, with some of the worst dialogue, acting and plot lines you’ll ever see on film. Yet of course, it’s exactly this epic awfulness that makes the film so fascinating. That, and the mysterious figure behind it all: “The Room’s” writer, director, producer AND lead actor, Tommy Wiseau.

I truly believe there is no other person on this planet quite like Tommy Wiseau. When first meeting Wiseau, Sestero found him strange, eccentric and intriguing, with an endless list of quirks — including, but not limited to, a love for ordering hot water at restaurants and wearing two belts at one time. Wiseau was stubbornly cryptic about his past (although lately he’s begun to open up a little) and just as stubbornly dedicated to his dream of being an actor. When he couldn’t find success through traditional avenues in Hollywood, he decided to stick it to the system and finance his own film.

Despite having no idea how Wiseau got his money, Sestero agreed to be in the movie. Wiseau may have written the script, but he had a terrible time remembering his own lines, which often made little sense anyway. (Although the famous “You’re tearing me apart, Lisa!” is a cinematic gem.) The final product was truly terrible, and it should have quickly faded from the spotlight, like plenty of other Hollywood flops. However, something about “The Room’s” unique awfulness gained it a following as a cult film, and now we have James Franco releasing a critically-acclaimed adaptation of “The Disaster Artist.”

Initially I was a bit worried about Franco’s adaptation, fearing he’d go for a straight comedy. Don’t get me wrong — “The Disaster Artist” is one of the funniest books I’ve ever read, and I’d be disappointed if the film version didn’t have the same number of laughs. But there’s also some surprisingly darker threads running through the book that make it more of a poignant read than you might expect. The book shows how Wiseau could sometimes be a not-so-nice person, capable of being cruel and self-centered, even to his friends. Still, you get the feeling that in his shadowy past, this man has had some cruel and heartbreaking things done to him. And in the end, his unusual path to success is oddly inspiring.

The book is one that I think every film fan should read, because it allows us to see Hollywood from a new perspective. Every year many aspiring actors come to Hollywood and then many of them leave, never finding “their big break.” Even though Wiseau didn’t find traditional success, he’s arguably a well-known figure now for having created a film that’s so bad it’s iconic. And if you haven’t seen “The Room” yet, well, what are you waiting for? You’ll probably regret watching it and will want to bang your head against the TV…but then you’ll want to watch it again.

Countdown to ‘The Last Jedi’: Final theories, predictions and thoughts

Tempt-Trailer_1We’ve now got only a week to go before theaters begin their Thursday night previews of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” I’m already beyond hyped — I’ve got my tickets and my Rey cosplay ready to go, and I’ve begun my daily check of Rotten Tomatoes for advance reviews, hoping they’re good (though of course I’ll be seeing it regardless…but please, reviews be good!).

Just as “The Force Awakens” was an echo of “A New Hope,” I believe “The Last Jedi” will be an echo of “The Empire Strikes Back” — a darker twist on our favorite space opera, where everything our favorite characters believe and think they know will be turned upside down. Unlike in the prequels, which we knew would end with Anakin becoming Darth Vader, I have absolutely no idea what will happen in this movie, beyond the hints we’ve seen in the trailers. To me, that’s incredibly thrilling. I think we’re going to see some really big plot twists and secrets revealed in this film, and it will probably end on a cliffhanger (like “Empire”), giving us plenty of fodder for speculation before Episode IX shows up in 2019.

Here’s my final predictions and thoughts — I’d love to hear yours as well!

1. Someone is going to the dark side.

Maybe it’s Rey. Maybe it’s Luke. But I think at least one character (and possibly more) will toy with the darkness. I haven’t let go of my hope for a dark Rey, just because I think it would be a fascinating storytelling opportunity, the subversion of the famous “hero’s journey” arc (but handled, hopefully, in a better way than Anakin in the prequels). I don’t know if Disney would be willing to do this to a character who’s so significant to their marketing and merchandising. Yet even if she just goes sort-of dark in this one film and then turns back to the light in Episode IX, I think that would be a fantastic twist. Plus, Disney has already proven they’re willing to be at least a little gutsy (i.e. killing off all the heroes in “Rogue One”).

Then again, it could be Luke who ends up crossing over to the dark side in this film. Originally I didn’t want a dark Luke, because I thought it would take away from the poignant and powerful ending of “Return of the Jedi,” where Luke resists the darkness and helps draw his father back to the light. But I’ve changed my mind a bit on this, due to the interesting storytelling opportunities a “dark Luke” could offer. Despite all Luke’s struggles in the previous films, perhaps the Skywalker legacy proves unavoidable and in the end, like Darth Vader his father and Kylo Ren his nephew, he falls from the light.

What do you think? Will we have at least one fallen hero? Who will it be?

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2. And a dark sider will return to the light.

Maybe this prediction will be way off base, but I think Kylo Ren will come back to the light…or at least shift farther away from the Sith path (but more on that in prediction #3). “The Force Awakens” didn’t give us a lot of information on why Kylo originally left the Jedi Order, or what he may have disagreed with Luke about and why. We also don’t know what Supreme Leader Snoke may have tempted him with in order to entice him to the dark side. Needless to say, Kylo is obviously still struggling with the path he has chosen, and while he killed his father, I don’t think he’ll be able to kill Leia. He’s probably not going to go full light-side in “The Last Jedi,” but I believe in Episode IX we’ll see a redemption arc for this character. Maybe he’ll have to help Luke deal with the threat that Rey becomes…or maybe he and Rey will have to fight a dark or misguided Luke.

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3. We’ll see a broader exploration of the Force.

Up to this point (at least in the films), we’ve seen a very black and white portrayal of the Force. Jedi=good, Sith=bad (though the prequels showed us some of the destructive arrogance that had leaked into the Jedi Order). However, there are such things as Gray Jedi, who walk a path between light and dark, finding a balance between the two sides of the Force. Wookieepedia files the “Gray Jedi” entry under the now non-canon Star Wars Legends, but I think we’ll see this philosophy show up in “The Last Jedi,” even if it’s not labeled as such. Maybe Luke has been researching and meditating on a more balanced view of the Force during his time alone on the island. Maybe he does want the Jedi to end…but not the use of the Force itself. Maybe he’s trying to find a new path.

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4. Side characters also will have significant choices to make.

I’ve spent a lot of time analyzing what will happen to what I see as the three big players in “The Last Jedi” — Luke, Rey and Kylo. Yet I think there will be plenty of meaty material for the side characters too. The trailers have given us more hints than hard information, though really, that’s a good thing. I don’t know exactly what the structure of this story will be, which will heighten the suspense. Finn is working for the Resistance now, but he may not be completely thrilled about it. He formed an obvious connection with Rey and initially joined the Resistance to help her. Yet now she’s apparently off the grid, training with Luke, and I wonder how Finn feels about that. Maybe he resents Rey for inspiring him to join this crusade and then “leaving” him to follow her own quest. I’m also interested to see if his fight with Phasma in the trailers is him going undercover for the Resistance, or if it’s a more personal side mission to get revenge on the First Order.

I also think we’re going to be seeing Poe Dameron taking on more of a leadership role, possibly taking over the reins from General Leia in the next film. I am both excited and sad to see Carrie Fisher’s final performance as Leia, and I think we’ll continue to see her try to find a balance between her work as a general in the Resistance and her personal issues, like the death of Han and the actions of her son.

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5. Mysterious identities will be revealed.

Place your bets now! Who is Rey, and will her back story finally be revealed or will they make us wait till Episode IX (please don’t make us wait!). My old theory was that Rey is Luke’s daughter, but I no longer think that or even want that to be the case. However, I still believe her mysterious background is a VERY significant part of the story. Although I heard some criticism regarding “The Force Awakens” that her character was too powerful/too talented, I think her skills are more than just a plot device. There’s a reason she has so much raw power, and a reason why Luke is, I believe, afraid of her. I think she’ll have a recognizable Force lineage with ties to Star Wars lore. I’ve heard the “she’s a Kenobi” theories, but I’d lean more towards some kind of Qui-Gon Jinn lineage. Or maybe her parents were dark side Force users and Rey was hidden away from the galaxy not to protect her, but rather to protect the galaxy from her dangerous potential (this is my favorite theory now). Or it could be something completely different.

The other big question mark is just who Supreme Leader Snoke is and why he’s leading the First Order. I don’t think he’s a generic dictator, and I think he also has ties to Star Wars lore. I think it would be kinda cool if he was the return of Darth Plagueis, but who knows? We’ll have to wait till next week to find out!

Even stranger things: My spoiler-filled thoughts on Netflix’s ‘Stranger Things’ season 2

StrangerGhostBustersI was, admittedly, a little late to the party with the first season of Netflix’s buzzy sci-fi/horror adventure “Stranger Things.” I finally had to watch it to see what all the hype was about, and I was immediately hooked. For the uninitiated, “Stranger Things” is set in a small town in Indiana during the 1980s and is about a group of young friends — Mike, Dustin, Lucas and Will — who love to ride around on their bikes and play Dungeons and Dragons. Then, their ordinary lives are (quite literally!) turned upside down when Will mysteriously disappears in what is far from an ordinary kidnapping.

And that’s as far as I’ll go for now, because if you haven’t seen this show yet, A) don’t dare let anyone spoil it for you, and B) quit reading this review and go watch it right now! 😉 It’s hard to discuss the second season without delving into spoiler territory, so if you haven’t watched it, the good news is that you’re in for a treat and the second season is just as good as the first. And if you have seen the second season, read on — I’d love to discuss all the exciting twists and turns!

As with any sequel, I feared the second season of “Stranger Things” would fall short of its predecessor, which was a perfect blend of science fiction and ’80s nostalgia, with enough dashes of horror to make you regret watching episodes at home alone in the dark but not so scary that a horror movie wimp like me couldn’t watch it. Although the second season revisits the mystery of the first — the discovery of a dark dimension known as the “Upside Down” and the revelation of Eleven’s mind powers — it expands on that mystery in an exciting (and terrifying!) way. There are more secrets to uncover beneath the seemingly sleepy town of Hawkins, Indiana.

Now that we all know about the Upside Down, the show ups the stakes by bringing more of the Upside Down into the real world. Even though Will was rescued from the Upside Down last season, he’s not out of danger yet and is eventually possessed by a terrifying shadow monster.

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Although the thrills and scares make this a binge-worthy show, the best part is the characters, who each get some special moments to shine this season. I have to give a shout-out to all the young actors who do a fantastic job in this; they make their characters fun but also believable and authentic (they feel like “real” kids). Mike is grieving the loss of Eleven (or “El”) and struggles to find closure. Dustin and Lucas compete for the affections of a new girl in town, driving a wedge between their friendship. Will continues to be traumatized by his memories of the Upside Down and the new threats closing in around him.

I appreciated that each character had a moment of growth and developed further as a person. The same goes for the equally strong cast of adult characters. Winona Ryder as Joyce Byers did a lot of panicking last season when her son was missing (though understandably so). But it was cool to see her take charge in certain moments this season and help come up with the plan to defeat the shadow monster. Also, Chief Jim Hopper (David Harbour) has become one of my husband and I’s new favorite TV characters; I love how the chief doesn’t take nonsense from anybody and absolutely rises to the challenge of taking on freaky monsters from a shadow dimension. The show also sees him coming to grips with his past trauma and starting to form emotional connections with people again after the tragedies he’s experienced.

I also didn’t mind the love triangle between Steve, Nancy, and Jonathan, because they’re in high school, and angst and relationship drama go with the territory. 😉 Steve drove me crazy last season so it was cool to see him become a much better person and take on a protective role with Will’s friends. And Nancy also matures; there’s a really sweet moment at the very end of the show where she dances with Dustin at a school event so he won’t feel lonely. I don’t feel that’s something season 1, episode 1 Nancy would have done.

As for the new characters, I think my favorite was Bob, played by Sean Astin, best known as Sam from “Lord of the Rings.” Poor Bob. ☹ I thought this was a cool example of a seemingly ordinary character who turned out to be a really selfless, brave person and ended up sacrificing his life to save everyone else. You are a hero, Bob!

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The other two major characters are a stepbrother and sister who are new to town, Billy and Max. It took me a while to warm up to Max’s character, not necessarily due to the character herself, but because of how the writers used her to divide the friend group and particularly Lucas and Dustin. To me it felt like the old, “oh no look here’s a woman who’s going to divide a close-knit group of friends and create romantic drama!” So I was glad to see her fully join the adventure by the end, and she and El will probably be full-fledged “party members” in season 3. Max’s brother, Billy, comes across as really crazy and nasty but we could see a redemption arc for him in season 3, similar to Steve this season. I don’t think we’ve seen all of his story.

I’m not sure where they’ll take the story in season 3, but I’m already excited to find out! Overall this was a really strong season that successfully expanded on the story and made me care about the characters even more. I wasn’t a huge fan of the much-discussed seventh episode, just because I thought it made the primary narrative grind to a halt and didn’t fit tonally with the rest of the season. But everything else was so great that I’ll give it a pass.

So, “Stranger Things” fans, what did you think? What did you like or dislike? Who’s your favorite “Stranger Things” character?

Movie review: Great characters can’t quite save ‘Justice League’s’ messy story

img012This weekend, “Justice League” brought in $96 million at the box office. In most cases, that’s a perfectly respectable number, and one that many films would be envious of. However, for a marquee superhero event film, starring three of the most iconic superheroes of all time — Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman — that number is far less than “super.” Marvel’s own team-up film, “The Avengers,” brought in $207 million its opening weekend in 2012, and “Thor: Ragnarok” just pulled in $122 million a couple weeks ago — an impressive number for a superhero solo film three-quel. Even “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice” last year had a $166 million opening weekend.

Right or wrong, poor reviews and some negative audience sentiment after “Batman v. Superman” and “Suicide Squad” resulted in much less hype than an epic team-up like “Justice League” normally would have received. While the characters/casting are a bright spot in “Justice League,” the story is a choppy mess, and not what these iconic superheroes deserved.

The plot for “Justice League” is actually fairly straightforward. After the death of Superman leaves Earth open to invasion, supervillain Steppenwolf arrives to unleash an army of Parademons and remake the planet in his image. Bruce Wayne is trying to put together a league of superheroes to stop him, filling the ranks of this super-team with Wonder Woman, Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg.

The problem with Steppenwolf as a villain is that the movie doesn’t do enough to introduce him to audiences (I had to Google “Steppenwolf” to get more background for this review). He’s not the worst superhero villain, but a few more flashbacks could have done a lot to flesh out this character and make him a more interesting adversary for the Justice League. Or previous DC Cinematic Universe films could have done more to hint about this coming threat. It all just felt a bit rushed and sudden.

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And speaking of previous DC films, I know some fans have raised complaints about the abundance of superhero origin films, but I personally really enjoy a good origin story. I want to get to know a superhero as an individual — what motivates them, what powers they have, what makes them unique — before I see them in a team-up. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has done an excellent job with this. I cared about the Avengers as individuals before I saw them team up to fight Loki. I think “Justice League” suffers because Warner Bros. tried to rush the team-up and introduce three major superheroes while also giving us an event film. I feel they should have released solo Flash, Aquaman and Cyborg films first. Or at least Aquaman and Cyborg movies, since audiences may be familiar with Flash from the TV show on the CW.

Still, my favorite part of “Justice League” really was the characters. The parts were cast well, which makes it frustrating the actors didn’t have a better script to work with. I’ve been a bit nervous to confess this, but I can’t lie — I was actually entertained by “Batman v. Superman,” and liked it more than “Justice League.” “Batman v. Superman” had some major flaws — choppy editing, a so-so Lex Luthor and a confusing plot. But I actually really loved Ben Affleck as a graying, more world-weary Batman. It was a different take on Batman than what I seen before from the live action films. Maybe it’s just me, but Affleck didn’t seem as engaged in “Justice League,” even though I still liked his character. I’ve heard rumors that Affleck wants out of the franchise, which is a shame because I DO want to see a solo Batman film starring him. I also think it should be given an R-rated treatment similar to “Logan,” but that’s a different topic for another time…

Just like in “Batman v. Superman,” Gal Gadot as Wonder Woman steals the show in “Justice League,” lighting up the screen in every scene she’s in. I also liked her interactions with Affleck’s Batman and wish there had been more of those. Another favorite character was Ezra Miller’s Flash; I appreciated the humor he brought to the film and loved seeing his superpowers in action. Ray Fisher was also good as Cyborg, a broken young man not quite at peace with the technology that gives him his powers and saved his life, yet also makes him feel less human. And Jason Momoa is having a blast as the badass Aquaman. His new look? I dig it. Yet again, I think solo Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman films would have helped general audiences connect with these characters more.

There’s one character I haven’t mentioned yet, because it’s kind of a spoiler but also not really, since you can’t really have a Justice League without you-know-who. (Yet still, spoiler warning!) Superman (Henry Cavill) does come back to life, and it’s awesome to see his full powers on display. It’s also good to see him smiling more, and having some fun interactions with the other heroes.

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Yet again, it’s frustrating that the story doesn’t do these great characters justice. Some of that may be due to the fact the film is a mash-up of the vision of two very different directors. Joss Whedon took over for Zack Snyder after he left due to a family tragedy. Although Whedon worked his magic in “The Avengers,” the final “Justice League” film is a bit of a Frankenstein’s monster — it can’t quite reconcile the darker, more brooding Snyder tone with Whedon’s lighter bits (still, Aquaman sitting on Wonder Woman’s lasso of truth was a hilarious highlight of the movie). The final film feels patched together instead of a seamless viewing experience.

Some other complaints I had were portions of dodgy CGI (I won’t get into Henry Cavill’s CGI mustache removal controversy, but it’s entertaining if you want to Google it).

In short, I feel that while “Justice League” is a mess story-wise, I hope this is finally the moment where Warner Bros. will stop and do some soul-searching. Trying to make “Justice League” lighter in tone and with a heightened sense of hope (closer to the tone of this year’s excellent “Wonder Woman”) was a good first step, even though they tried to fix it too late in the process. There’s still plenty of great DC material to mine, but they need to slow way down and develop a more cohesive vision. These characters deserve better.

Movie review: ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ a star-studded whodunit

Star studded cast MURDER IN THE ORIENT EXPRESSA group of strangers board the luxurious Orient Express for what appears to be an uneventful train ride to Istanbul. Then, a storm creates an avalanche that traps all these passengers in the mountains. In the middle of the night one of these passengers is murdered. With the train stuck in the snow and a killer on the loose, no one on board the train is safe.

This is just the sort of mystery for Hercule Poirot, novelist Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, played this time by Kenneth Branagh. The brilliant but eccentric detective must solve the case by the time the train is freed from the snow and arrives at the station, or an innocent may be accused of the crime while the real killer escapes.

“Murder on the Orient Express” (out in theaters now) is an adaptation of Christie’s novel of the same name and has been filmed several times before. I have not seen any of the previous versions, so I can’t comment on what new elements this film may have brought to the story. However, I was excited to see a period mystery with an all-star cast that includes Michelle Pfeiffer, Judi Dench, Willem Dafoe, and many more.

“Murder on the Orient Express” is what I would call a good “rainy afternoon movie.” If you are stuck inside the house on a lazy weekend afternoon, this would be the perfect movie to enjoy while curled up on the couch with a cup of tea or hot cocoa. It’s not a particularly ground-breaking or inventive film, and it won’t end up on my best of the year list. However, it’s a fun, old-fashioned whodunit that’s worth watching for the great cast.

Branagh’s Poirot is lovably eccentric, preferring to have things “just so.” He is often better at questioning suspects than making small talk, and he doesn’t apologize for his odd habits. However, he cares very deeply about finding justice for the innocent. He isn’t just concerned with the facts behind a case — he cares about the people as well.

There’s so many famous faces in “Murder on the Orient Express” that inevitably no one gets a huge amount of screen time, and I almost wish this could have been a TV mini-series so each character had more time to shine and the plot could have delved further into their motivations and backgrounds. For me, the standouts were Daisy Ridley as governess Mary Debenham and Josh Gad as Hector MacQueen, an assistant to a particularly nasty businessman. I’d only seen Daisy Ridley in “The Force Awakens” but I think she has a bright career ahead of her. (After seeing this I also think she’s more than capable of handling a “dark side Rey” twist, but that’s a different topic for a different time.) Although I previously knew Josh Gad more for his comedic acting and voicework, I enjoyed seeing him in a serious role that showed off his acting range.

A mystery is only as good as the final reveal where the case is solved, so definitely don’t let anyone spoil the ending for you. Keep track of all the little inconsistencies and coincidences as you’re watching the film; they’ll all make sense in the end. Does the final “unmasking” of the killer stretch credibility just a tad? Perhaps. However, I thought the ending was an interesting commentary on justice and how right and wrong aren’t always as black and white as they first appear. I think Poirot made the best possible decision regarding the complicated situation as he wrapped up the case.