‘Solo’ takes flight: Disney’s ‘Solo: A Star Wars Story’ a surprisingly fun galactic heist movie

nullWhen I walked out of the theater after watching “Solo: A Star Wars Story” last night, I breathed a quiet sigh of relief. I was originally concerned about this film, considering it had such a bumpy ride to the box office. With behind-the-scenes drama that included fan backlash to casting choices, a director shake-up, and major reshoots, this movie could have easily turned into a cinematic dumpster fire.

Against the odds, “Solo: A Star Wars Story” turns out to be a very enjoyable movie — and it actually feels more like a heist film than an origin story (another positive, in my book). While it’s fair to say I enjoyed the other three Disney Star Wars flicks — “The Force Awakens,” “Rogue One,” and “The Last Jedi” more — don’t let the negative prerelease buzz scare you away. “Solo” is still well worth a trip to the theater.

We meet Han (Alden Ehrenreich) as a scrappy survivor on the streets of Corellia, where he’s hatching a plan to escape to a better life and become a pilot. He wants to take his childhood friend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) with him, but they’re separated when she’s captured and detained. Although he swears he’ll come back to free her, he signs up for the Imperial Navy and becomes, for all intents and purposes, a prisoner as well. Still, Han never stops scheming and hoping, and he eventually joins a group of criminals on a job that could earn him enough money to get back to Corellia. However, things naturally don’t go as well as he plans, and the Qi’ra he returns to may not be the same person he left.

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As mentioned before, “Solo” technically qualifies as an origin story but feels like a fun heist adventure. Like “Rogue One,” this movie has a grittier, grimier aesthetic than the main Star Wars saga, and for me, that really works. I felt like I was stepping into the Star Wars criminal underworld, and I enjoyed seeing a new side of that famous galaxy far, far away. There are some really cool action set pieces, including that train heist we caught glimpses of in the trailers, and the Millennium Falcon’s famous “Kessel Run.”

I feared the final film might be a little choppy, due to the behind-the-scenes drama, but it actually flows fairly smoothly. We’ll probably never know what the original “Solo” film was going to be like, before original directors Phil Lord and Chris Miller were fired. My gut feeling is that Lucasfilm made the right decision; supposedly, Lord and Miller were trying a lot of improvisation, and it just wasn’t working. “Thor: Ragnarok” also used a lot of improvisation, and it’s actually one of my least favorite Marvel films because of that (even though I still enjoyed watching it). That technique doesn’t work as well in these types of films, at least for me. Ron Howard did a good job salvaging the film (supposedly reshooting about 70 percent of it), and I REALLY hope this movie does well enough to get a sequel. I’d love to see what Howard could do with full creative control over a “Solo” film from the beginning of the process.

There was a lot of skepticism when Alden Ehrenreich was cast as Han Solo, and the fan concern was understandable. Harrison Ford as Han Solo is such an iconic performance, and you just can’t replicate that. However, I hope that skeptical fans are willing to give Ehrenreich a chance. Once you get used to the fact someone besides Ford is playing Han, Ehrenreich does a good job capturing the spirit of Han Solo while also making the role his own. The Han we meet in this film isn’t the same Han we meet in “A New Hope”; here he’s younger, cockier, and a little more idealistic. I can see how this Han becomes the more cynical, jaded Han in the Original Trilogy.

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I appreciated how this film emphasized just how important “family” is to Han, even if he doesn’t admit it. Han likes to pretend he’s a tough, “too cool for the room” outlaw, but he’ll risk everything to help the people he cares about. This character trait shines through the whole franchise, from Han going back to help Luke blow up the Death Star to finally facing his son, Kylo Ren, and giving him one last chance to turn back to the light.

As expected, Donald Glover steals every scene he’s in as Lando Calrissian. With a smooth charm and a killer sense of style, Glover’s Lando is just about perfect. It’s great to see Chewbacca get some action scenes, and it’s also fun to see Woody Harrelson in a Star Wars film. I also really liked Emilia Clarke as Qi’ra; I won’t give away any spoilers, but there are some interesting layers to this character that are revealed throughout the film.

This film has a lot of nostalgic fan moments; again, I don’t want to give away all of them, but there’s a fun play on Han’s famous “I love you — I know” moment, and Lando mispronounces “Han,” just as he does in “The Empire Strikes Back.” And fans also get some closure for the “Han shot first” debate.

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There are a few of these fan service moments that are a little too over-the-top, such the explanation of how Han got the last name “Solo” (we really didn’t need a backstory for that). And overall the film doesn’t feel as “epic” as Episodes VII and VIII, or “Rogue One.” Still, “Solo” is way better than a film with this much prerelease turmoil had any right to be. We may not have really needed a Han Solo origin film, but now that we have it, I’m really glad it’s part of the Star Wars universe.

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Deadpool rides again: The Merc with a Mouth returns for another fun, irreverent adventure

704543f2b2b42ad055fd2edb7daf012a.jpgAlthough I had a blast watching Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool (a role he was absolutely born to play), I didn’t love the first Deadpool movie as much as I was hoping to. Once you got past the novelty of seeing a Marvel superhero movie with R-rated humor, the movie wasn’t actually as clever or edgy as it wanted to be. Or at least that’s the way I felt after watching it. The humor was in line with what I’d seen from R-rated comedies before, and I hoped the sequel would have more zany, off-the-wall jokes.

Overall, I had a lot more fun — and got a lot more laughs — out of “Deadpool 2.” Packed with plenty of meta humor and lots of “what just happened?” moments, “Deadpool 2” was exactly the silly, entertaining film I was hoping for.

The film kicks off with Deadpool (a.k.a. Wade Wilson, definitely not a play on the DC Comics Deathstroke/Slade Wilson character) struggling to find his purpose after experiencing a tragedy. This isn’t the way you’d normally expect a wacky comedy to begin, but Deadpool doesn’t really care about cinematic conventions. He tries to help an angry young mutant named Firefist (whose powers are pretty much what you’d expect). Needless to say, it goes badly. Time-traveling soldier Cable arrives from the future to try to solve the problem of Firefist, while Deadpool is still intent on redeeming him. Deadpool puts together a team he lovingly refers to as the “X-Force,” and, as expected, things do not go well.

There are a boatload of laughs in “Deadpool 2”; not all of the jokes land, of course, but the majority of them did, at least for me. I loved Deadpool’s wisecracks about the Marvel Cinematic Universe (including references to the Winter Soldier and the Hulk/Black Widow romance — but to say more would spoil the fun). There are also some hilarious jokes about the larger X-Men franchise, which Deadpool resents not being a part of. There is a hilarious cameo from some unexpected faces but again, to say more would ruin the surprise. Deadpool trying to recruit and subsequently interview potential X-Force members is also hilarious. Their first deployment as a team is…well…let’s just say it’s something you’d never see in an Avengers movie.

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Still, aside from all the laughs, I thought the story was pretty solid. The first Deadpool movie felt like a somewhat standard origin story (albeit with some unexpected humor), so I was glad that the sequel got to forge a new path. Ryan Reynolds is great, once again, as Deadpool, and you can tell he just has a great time making these films. Zazie Beetz as Domino made for a great partner in crime, and I enjoyed her unique superpower, which is literally being unbelievably lucky. I also thought Josh Brolin was awesome as Cable. He serves as a nice straight man to Reynolds’ wacky superhero, and I’d love to see the characters team up again.

The only drawbacks of the film for me were a couple moments where the violence felt too gory and over-the-top, and I had to glance away from the screen to avoid feeling queasy. I also thought the film’s theme was a little too heavy-handed at times. I think the message is a good one — that being part of a family is important, whether it’s a biological one or a family that’s made up of unrelated people who support and care about each other. However, I felt they could have been more subtle with it, considering what type of movie this is.

Still, I really enjoyed “Deadpool 2” and would definitely be game for another one. I am curious to hear what other fans thought, especially those who liked the first one more than I did. Did the second one live up to the hype for you?

Some assembly required: What’s next for the Avengers after ‘Infinity War’

nullThanos didn’t exactly leave the Avengers in the best condition at the end of “Infinity War.” (Warning: This blog is full of spoilers about the plot of “Infinity War”!) Similar to the ending of “The Empire Strikes Back,” our heroes have been beaten down and scattered across the universe, unsure how to move forward. (Last chance — major spoilers incoming!) Thanos has wiped out half of all life with a mere snap of his fingers, and for the first time, the Avengers weren’t strong enough to save the Earth or even each other.

While I really liked the ending of “Infinity War” and thought the characters fading into dust was shot and acted very well, I’m 100 percent positive most of the Avengers/Guardians who disappeared are coming back. I know we haven’t seen the last of Spider-Man, Black Panther, Groot, or Doctor Strange. Still, if they’re not gone forever, where are they now and how are they coming back?

I’m hesitant to do too much theorizing, because I don’t want to weigh down my viewing experience of the still-untitled Avengers 4 next year with too many expectations. I walked into “Infinity War” with no real idea what was going to happen, and I think the film impacted me more because of that. Yet it’s hard not to speculate at least a little bit what’s coming in the next film.

One possibility is that the characters who faded into dust are actually dead, but if the Avengers can get control of the Infinity Gauntlet, they can somehow reverse time or alter reality to bring everyone back. The Gauntlet really is like nothing we’ve seen before, and it’s obviously incredibly powerful. Maybe it really can just “snap” everything back into existence.

An alternate theory I’ve heard is that the people who faded *aren’t* dead after all, but instead are trapped inside the Soul Stone or have been sent to some other alternate reality. Maybe even Thanos doesn’t understand the full capabilities of the Infinity Gauntlet or how the snap is supposed to work. Again, if the Avengers gain control of the Gauntlet, maybe they can release all the characters trapped in the Soul Stone or in the alternate dimension.

Although I think that everyone who faded away is coming back, I’m less certain about all the characters who died before the snap. As much as I love Tom Hiddleston as Loki, I think Loki needs to stay dead. If no one ultimately dies in the fight against Thanos, that cheapens the storyline of “Infinity War” and guts the impact of Thanos’ character. Losing Gamora hurt even more, but I’m pretty sure she’s trapped inside the Soul Stone and will be released once the Gauntlet is destroyed (but more on that in a minute). It’s possible Vision could be “uploaded” again to a new form, if Shuri managed to download his information before Thanos killed him.

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If Gamora and Vision come back, then another major character does need to die in Avengers 4. It’s really hard to say that, because I love these characters and after 10 years of movies, they kinda feel like family. Yet again, Thanos is supposed to be the biggest, most impressive villain they’ve ever faced, and this story loses a lot of its impact if no sacrifices have to be made to defeat him.

It’s really going to hurt, but I think Captain America will die in the next movie. Based on some comments from the actor, Chris Evans, I think we’ll see Steve Rogers make some kind of sacrifice, saving the universe and his friends but dying in the process. Perhaps to destroy the Soul Stone and free the souls trapped inside, another sacrifice is required, and I can see the Cap stepping up to do that. It would be a really powerful and poignant way to end his story. He will likely pass his shield on to either Bucky or Falcon, allowing them to serve as the next Captain America (my money’s on him picking Bucky.)

The other major character who could die in Avengers 4 is Tony Stark, although I think it is a little less likely. After Avengers 4, I think we’ll see Tony retire and take on more of a mentor role, looking out for Peter Parker and showing up once in a while with new tech for the Avengers.

As for how all these events will come about, I’m trying not to speculate too much about that! The only person who knows is (presumably) Doctor Strange. I believe events are playing out exactly as he intended; he saw a future where the only way to win was to give Thanos the Time Stone and let him think he’s won instead. Doctor Strange is definitely playing the long game here, and I’m excited to see how it all works out.

Other than that, I’m curious to see how Tony and Nebula escape from Titan, and to see what plan the heroes come up with to fight Thanos. Plus, it’s going to be really awesome to see what happens when Captain Marvel responds to Nick Fury’s distress call!

So, what do you think? What are your theories about what will happen in Avengers 4? What are some things you hope to see?

Movie review: ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ a stunning game-changer for the Marvel Cinematic Universe

nullWhen I watch a geek movie on opening night, many times the audience will clap and cheer after the film is over, at least in the theaters near where I live. However, there was no applause after “Avengers: Infinity War” — simply because everyone was too stunned by what they’d just watched.

The word “epic” is thrown around a lot as a buzzword, but its use is absolutely appropriate here. “Avengers: Infinity War” is a genuinely epic event film, the stunning culmination of a 10-year build-up that is unlike anything we’ve seen on screen before. Believe the hype — “Infinity War” was worth the wait.

Like “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it’s really hard to talk about “Infinity War” without diving into heavy spoilers, but I’m going to try my best. Although I’ll get into spoilers later in this review, that section will be clearly marked. Absolutely do not let ANYONE spoil this movie for you or ruin any of the surprises!

After years of hints and foreshadowing, the ultimate Marvel villain is here — Thanos — and he’s just as powerful and terrifying as everyone feared. Our heroes are dealing with a whole different level of villain here, and the film lets you know right away that it isn’t messing around, with some shocking twists in just the first few minutes of the movie. The stakes are higher, and for the first time, our heroes might not be up to the challenge. It was fascinating and disturbing to see powerful heroes like Doctor Strange and Thor actually struggling to fight Thanos.

One of the things I was most worried about with “Infinity War” was how well the film would come together with so many characters — all the Avengers, the Guardians, etc. Would the final product end up being a choppy, overly-complicated mess? However, the Russo Brothers do a fantastic job juggling all the characters and details. The story never gets bogged down, and every character has a moment to shine. I particularly enjoyed the unexpected team-up with Thor, Rocket, and Groot, and the ego-driven, quip-fueled showdowns between Iron Man, Doctor Strange, and Star-Lord.

Of course, there’s plenty of trademark Marvel humor here, but the tone is surprisingly darker, particularly in the final act. There were just a handful of moments where I thought a joke undercut what should have been a completely serious moment, but overall the humor works well to balance out the heavier spots. There are some truly shocking — and heartbreaking — moments in this film. And as for the ending…well, there’s a reason everyone in the theater seemed so stunned as the credits started rolling. Kudos to Disney for allowing the Russo Brothers to end the film on a very somber note.

Well, I feel I’ve covered about all I can without diving into spoilers, so fair warning, if you haven’t seen “Infinity War” yet, stop reading now…

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SPOILER WARNING!

I feel like what separates good movies from great ones isn’t the action set pieces, or the big, shocking reveals — it’s the little moments. Snatches of dialogues between characters, small details that add up to equal something special. And “Infinity War” has a lot of these moments. There’s the conversation Rocket and Thor have about loss; Scarlet Witch and Vision realizing they can’t have a normal life together; and Tony still trying to be a father figure to Spider-Man.

There are so many gut-punches in this film. Loki and Vision were two characters I had speculated might die in this movie, but it’s still hard to see them go. And I definitely didn’t see Gamora’s death coming. As sad as these deaths are, they give the film much-needed weight. Thanos is supposed to be THE BIG BAD of the MCU, and if he didn’t kill any major characters, he would have felt underpowered.

Which is another reason why I really appreciated the film’s darker ending. I figured Thanos wouldn’t die in this movie, but I wasn’t sure he’d be able to collect all the Infinity Stones and actually get to snap his fingers and wipe out half of the universe. You can tell that moment really shocked audiences — it’s one of the loudest collective gasps I’ve ever heard in a theater. And while I’m almost 100 percent positive the characters who faded away at the end won’t stay dead, it was still an emotionally impactful moment. Tony holding Peter Parker as he fades away really got to me (man, that “I don’t want to go” hit me almost as hard as David Tennant’s “I don’t want to go” in his final minutes as the Tenth Doctor).

END SPOILERS!

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I have no idea how the next Avengers film will wrap things up, and that’s incredibly exciting to me. The whole time I was in the theater during “Infinity War,” I had the feeling that I was watching something truly special. I feel like I need to see it again to decide where to place it in my ranking of MCU films, but it’s most likely going to be in my top 5 (at least). The film delivered everything I was hoping for, as well as some major surprises.

The only possible drawback of the film is that it’s definitely not a stand-alone story (if you haven’t seen all the individual Marvel movies, some parts probably won’t make sense). However, for me it was a thrilling and emotionally satisfying conclusion to what we’ve seen in the MCU so far. I’m already hyped for the still-untitled “Avengers 4” next year — and “Captain Marvel”!

Summer 2018 movie preview

jurassic_world_fallen_kingdom_2018_4k_8k-wideI can’t believe it’s already time to start getting ready for summer movie season. My 2018 has been rather hectic so far, and I was surprised when I looked at my calendar and realized “Infinity War” is THIS WEEK.

For whatever reason, I’m not feeling quite as hyped about this summer’s lineup as I sometimes am (although there’s a certain little superhero team-up film that I’m really excited for). 😉 Of all the films on my “must watch” list, the two Marvel movies are the ones I have the best feeling about and seem like the safest bets. However, that opens the door for some of these other movies to break out and surprise me.

Anyway, here’s the movies I’m most looking forward to this summer — what movies are you most excited about?

Avengers: Infinity War (April 27)

Not only is this my most anticipated movie of the summer, it’s my most anticipated movie of the year. I’ve tried to stay away from major hints and spoilers, and I’m pretty excited to walk into the theater not really knowing what’s going to happen. However, I am pretty sure that it’s going to be an absolute blast to see characters like Iron Man, Spider-Man, Rocket, and Groot all teaming up to save the galaxy from Thanos. The Marvel Cinematic Universe has been an amazing ride this past decade, and I think this is going to be an epic conclusion to what we’ve seen so far.

Deadpool 2 (May 18)

I actually liked the first Deadpool movie but didn’t LOVE it. I got a big kick out of watching Ryan Reynolds’ antics as Deadpool (a character he was born to play). Still, I felt like the story itself wasn’t as groundbreaking as it could have been. I also felt like some of the jokes and gags were things I had seen in R-rated comedies before, and overall the film wasn’t quite as edgy as it thought it was (at least in my opinion). That’s why I’m looking forward to the sequel, actually; now that the origin story is out of the way, I want them to really cut loose with the character and use some really wacky humor that we’ve never seen before.

Solo: A Star Wars Story (May 25)

There’s a lot of skepticism about this one, and I still have my concerns about “Solo.” While I’ve loved all three of the Disney Star Wars movies so far, this one is probably the riskiest. Still, I’ve (mostly) got a good feeling about it, and I’m looking forward to seeing another Star Wars adventure. As long as this movie has some fun banter and cool spaceships and characters, I think I’ll leave the theater feeling happy. Plus, I can’t wait to see Donald Glover as Lando!

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Incredibles 2 (June 15)

The first Incredibles movie premiered in 2004, and normally, I’d say that 14 years is a little too long to wait for a sequel. However, here’s why I’m still looking forward to this. Back in 2004, when the movie came out, the superhero genre was still developing. We hadn’t yet seen the start of the MCU, or even Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight trilogy. The superhero genre has really grown and evolved since then, and I think it will be interesting to see the Incredibles sequel (hopefully!) address this.

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom (June 22)

I thought 2015’s “Jurassic World” was a really fun film. Although the narrative wasn’t particularly groundbreaking, I enjoyed seeing a return to the classic feel of the franchise — and, of course, Chris Pratt with a gang of raptors! For whatever reason, I’m not as confident about this sequel. Still, I never complain about seeing dinosaurs on the big screen, and hopefully this will be another fun ride. Although by now, you’d think that after all these disasters, the people in these films would stop trying to market a theme park filled with dinosaurs. 😉

Ant-Man and the Wasp (July 6)

I feel like the original “Ant-Man” is one of the more underrated films in the MCU. It didn’t make as big a splash at the box office, but I really, really liked it (it’s actually one of my favorite Marvel films). I’m hoping the sequel is just as fun as the first one, and I’m super excited that Wasp gets to join the action as a superhero this time around.

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (July 27)

Mission: Impossible is one of those franchises that I really enjoy but kinda forget about sometimes. It’s also one of those rare franchises that actually keeps getting better and better as it goes. Although the fourth one — “Ghost Protocol” — is my favorite (that scene with Tom Cruise climbing up the outside of the Burj Khalifa is still a heart-stopper), I enjoyed the immediate follow-up, “Rogue Nation,” and “Fallout” looks cool too.

Avengers assemble! Celebrating 10 years of the Marvel Cinematic Universe

3372097-1It’s strange to think that 10 years ago, when the original Iron Man film premiered in theaters, the Marvel Cinematic Universe was by no means a “sure thing.” Although the franchise has earned billions and billions of dollars at this point and become a beloved part of pop culture, in the beginning it was a gamble. There had been popular superhero films before, of course, but the concept of this vast, interconnected cinematic universe was something truly groundbreaking.

Thankfully, the gamble worked, and Marvel’s strategy of introducing its heroes one at a time, in solo films, before teaming them up in “The Avengers” has certainly paid off. By now, the franchise has even eclipsed that first team-up in 2012, and in just a few weeks, we’ll be watching “Infinity War,” a movie that years ago fans — and Hollywood insiders — probably assumed would be impossible. A walking tree and a talking raccoon have become household names — with star power almost as impressive as marquee heroes like Batman and Superman.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe definitely holds a special place in my heart as a film fan. Although I haven’t read many of the original comics (that’s on my list of reading goals for the future), I discovered the franchise in college, right as I was really starting to get into film and geek culture. I didn’t get a chance to see “Iron Man” in theaters but I remember watching it on DVD and absolutely falling in love with it. It’s still my all-time favorite superhero film, and it made Robert Downey Jr. my all-time favorite actor.

I think the moment I realized just how big the MCU was going to be was when I went with a group of friends to see “The Avengers” back in 2012. I convinced them that we needed to get to the theater early, because I’d been hearing a lot of buzz and wanted to get good seats. We arrived there an hour ahead of time, and, to my disappointment, the outside of the theater looked pretty quiet. No lines, no crowd of fans. However, all that changed once we stepped inside. This time, the theater was letting people wait inside, and the line of fans — many of whom were in costume or wearing Marvel T-shirts — stretched all the way from the doors to the IMAX theater, past all the other screens to the very back of the building, and was actually looping around again. And this was with one full hour to go until showtime. I could feel the energy in that line — everyone was buzzing with excitement. Thankfully, the movie did not disappoint, and it’s still one of my favorite “going to see a movie in the theater” memories.

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What feels so unique about the MCU is that for a franchise with nearly 20 films, there have been relatively few missteps. Some have been better than others, sure, but they have all been entertaining in their own way. Even with my least favorite, “Age of Ultron,” I still own a copy of the DVD, though my husband does get tired of hearing me rant about how it was a missed opportunity. 😉 I can’t think of another franchise with this many consistent crowd-pleasers.

I feel like this is a franchise where you can tell that the directors and producers really do care about the characters. Of course they like making (lots of!) money, but it’s not *just* about the money for them. All of the roles of have been impeccably cast, and Marvel Studios has carefully and patiently built up their brand, to the point that people just trust the Marvel logo. They’ve been able to make hits out of movies starring unlikely heroes, like Ant-Man and the aforementioned Groot and Rocket. That brand loyalty is incredibly powerful and hard to come by — as many other studios have learned as they’ve tried unsuccessfully to copy the Marvel template.

It’s going to be interesting to see what happens to the MCU after “Infinity War.” The superhero genre is still going strong, but all trends fade at some point, and though it makes me sad, I’m sure the MCU will fade and/or end someday too. However, I don’t think that will be anytime soon, and what a ride it’s been so far. There’s no other franchise quite like the MCU in Hollywood, and it’s going to be an important chapter in film history that will be studied for years to come.

Book review: ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ tie-in novel expands the story

rey-lightsaber-star-wars-the-last-jedi-2022The latest Star Wars movie — “The Last Jedi” — certainly got fans talking; people are still debating all the plot twists and discussing the film’s implications for the franchise as a whole. It was also a somewhat divisive film, and if you weren’t a fan of the movie, the newly released tie-in novel, written by Jason Fry, probably won’t change your mind. However, if you’re like me and really enjoyed the movie, the book adds some interesting new details to the story.

Released in early March, the novel has been branded as an “expanded edition,” which is fitting because it really does read like an expanded version of the film. While most of the dialogue and story beats that you already know from the film are there, the book has additional scenes and interactions between the characters that flesh out the narrative.

While the Star Wars movie tie-ins have been a bit hit or miss, “The Last Jedi” ranks among the stronger ones. I still think the best is “Rogue One” by Alexander Freed, which added even more depth and emotion to the story and helped you get to know the characters better. Yet like I said before, if you enjoyed “The Last Jedi” and want an expanded version of the story, this is definitely worth a read.

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I won’t go into a lot of detail about the themes or the plot, because you probably already know all that from watching the movie. Fans were definitely quite vocal about their feelings for this film, one way or another. 😉 I will say that “The Last Jedi’s” themes of failure, responsibility, and letting go of the past particularly resonated with me, since big-budget blockbusters are often hesitant to let their characters experience this much self-doubt and create plans that go this spectacularly awry (and actually do more harm than good). However, the willingness to explore failure — and how we grow and learn from it — made the story more powerful, at least for me, and I liked seeing all that further developed in the book.

I know some fans did not like Rose’s character, or the entire Canto Bight subplot in the movie; if you didn’t like those parts, you might initially be tempted to start backing away slowly when I say that these two things get quite a bit of expanding in the book. 😉 I personally don’t get the hate for Rose; even though she wasn’t necessarily a standout character for me, poor Rose doesn’t deserve to be compared to Jar Jar Binks. If you liked “The Last Jedi” overall but weren’t as much a fan of Rose, I recommend you give her a second chance. The book delves a lot more into her relationship with her sister and her partnership/tentative friendship with Finn. It explains more about why she thinks and acts the way she does.

You also get more insight into Finn’s actions, and the book really drives home his development from reluctant Resistance supporter to proud Rebel fighter. The book emphasizes how he joined the Resistance just because he cares about/wants to help Rey. Wanting to help Rey is definitely not a bad thing, but at least at the beginning, he doesn’t really care about the broader cause (a fact that frustrates the more idealistic Rose). Yet through his experiences with Rose, Finn sees that the Resistance really is a cause worth fighting — and dying — for. I would have liked to see a longer confrontation between him and Phasma, both in the book and in the movie, but if you bought the Blu-ray (or should I say, Blu-Rey? Sorry, couldn’t help myself with that one), there’s a nice deleted scene between those two.

I enjoyed getting to read more about Poe and his tense relationship with Vice Admiral Holdo. You can empathize with Poe’s frustration, even though we watch him make wrong decisions that ultimately have very serious consequences. I know I said I wouldn’t dive too deep into the themes here, but l liked how the story reflects on leadership and maturity. Poe has potential as a leader but learns to take that responsibility more seriously, especially when lives are on the line. He’s an interesting contrast to General Hux, who also gets a lot more development in the novel. I thought it was really interesting how General Hux basically gets a position of power due to his father, and the older ex-Imperial officers quietly resent him and question his leadership.

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Overall, my favorite part of “The Last Jedi” film was seeing Luke’s journey and the unexpected connection between Rey and Kylo. I was kind of hoping the book would delve into that Rey/Kylo connection more than it ultimately did. I loved how the movie handled this, but the book didn’t necessarily add a whole lot more to what I’ve been referring to as their “Force Skype” sessions, for lack of a better term. 😉 I did really like how the book covered Kylo’s decision not to fire on the bridge of the Resistance ship where his mother was, and how the text jumps back and forth between Kylo and Leia’s perspectives in this part. I also liked how the book added more to the scene where Rey first arrives on Snoke’s flagship and then she and Kylo’s elevator ride up to Snoke’s throne room. You also get several pages from Snoke’s POV, fleshing out his backstory a little more.

I think the book is a nice companion to the movie, although I do have to mention that some of the scenes don’t transfer as well to print. Some examples are those Force Skype sessions I already referenced; Kylo and Rey’s falling out after killing Snoke; and Leia and Luke’s reunion in the bunker on Crait, in addition to a few others. For whatever reason, these moments just seem to work better visually. Part of it could be that when you read these scenes vs. watch them, you miss out on the actors’ expressions and tone of voice, which is often a big part of the impact. Maybe the author also tried a little too hard in a few places to stay true to the movie vs. doing something a little differently that would have worked better in print. In a few scenes it feels like Fry is simply transcribing events vs. reflecting on them.

Still, as I’ve mentioned many times before (perhaps too many?), 😉 I really loved “The Last Jedi” film and I’m glad I added the novel to my collection as well. I’m excited to see how the story wraps up in Episode IX!

Movie review: ‘Ready Player One’ offers imaginary world with nostalgic fun and real-world lessons

ready_player_oneIn the year 2045, life on Earth is rather bleak for many people. Living in rundown trailers stacked on top of each other and pressed too close together, people find their only escape is through the “OASIS,” a virtual reality world developed by tech visionary James Halliday. Inside the Oasis, you can be whoever — or whatever — you want to be. You can visit exotic places and buy possessions you’d never be able to afford in real life — all without leaving your room.

It’s the perfect escape for Wade Watts, a lonely teenager with a difficult home life who discovers excitement and adventure in the Oasis through his avatar, Parzival. That is, until suddenly the Oasis stops being an escape, and his problems in the virtual world start bleeding out into the real one.

It’s easy to see why Hollywood jumped at the chance to adapt the bestselling novel “Ready Player One” into a feature film. In addition to blending real world drama with a virtual reality adventure, the book is packed full of pop culture references. And they certainly picked the ideal director for this project — as soon as I finished the book, my first thought was, “I’m so glad they got Steven Spielberg to direct this, because he’s the perfect fit.” Especially since Spielberg’s work was almost certainly a major inspiration for Ernest Cline, the author of the original novel.

If you’re a fan of the novel, one of the first things you should know is that the film is actually quite different from the book. The basic plot points are the same: Wade is searching for an “Easter egg” left by Halliday inside the Oasis, which offers treasure beyond imagining as well as the key to controlling the Oasis itself, and a dubious organization known as IOI is trying to find this Easter egg first and is willing to commit acts of real world violence in order to seize it for themselves. However, the competitions/challenges Wade must compete in to earn the Easter egg are different, and some other events from the book are altered or left out altogether.

This actually didn’t end up bothering me too much, because I really enjoyed the movie. Still, it was a little surprising at first to see some MAJOR deviations from the book, and it’s good to know to expect that going in.

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I was really curious to see this movie because while I liked the book and had fun reading it, I didn’t LOVE it, and to me the story seemed like it would work better as a movie. Although the book dragged in a few places, at least for me, the movie clips along at a steadier pace. The pop culture references feel more natural on screen than in print, too. And there are plenty of pop culture references: Batman, Star Trek, King Kong, Alien, Back to the Future, just to name a few. I mean, watching the Iron Giant fight Mecha-Godzilla on the big screen is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face, right? (And also, coincidentally, was better than any of the robot vs. monster fights in “Pacific Rim Uprising.”)

I enjoyed how the movie jumped back and forth between the real world and the virtual world of the Oasis, letting us see the contrast between the characters’ real lives and their pretend ones. While we don’t get to dig too deeply into a lot of the characters, Wade Watts is a good “every-man” sort of guide on our adventure. The movie also has a lot of Spielberg’s signature flourishes and themes: a sense of fun, adventure, wonder, and hope.

If I had to name some spots for improvement, it might have been nice to add a few more layers to the main villain, Nolan Sorrento, the CEO of IOI. Ben Mendelsohn is a great actor, and I think he could have made the role a little more nuanced, if given the chance. And the film also could have spent just a *tad* more time in the “real world,” showing how and why reality in 2045 has become so bleak.

One of the things I liked best about this story, though, is its sense of balance: while it celebrates nostalgia and references to geek culture, it also gently reminds us not to let those things take over our lives to the point where we shut ourselves off from reality. I love movies and pop culture (as anyone who knows me knows), and my favorite fandoms — like Star Wars and superhero movies — have helped me get through some rough times and opened the door for me to meet new people who also love these fandoms. Yet in “Ready Player One,” the Oasis often causes people to ignore important, real-world problems, and that’s the point where the fantasy world becomes toxic. There’s nothing wrong with watching movies, video gaming, and escaping into these fantasy worlds. But it’s also healthy to switch off the TV or the computer sometimes, and step outside and make real-world connections. The virtual world can’t hide the real-life issues forever.

If you’re a fan of Spielberg or are simply looking for an entertaining afternoon at the movies, “Ready Player One” is well worth a ticket. I definitely want to go back and see it again to catch all the pop culture references I may have missed the first time!

Movie review: ‘Pacific Rim Uprising’ falls short of original, offers minimal monster mayhem

pacific_rim_2_uprising-wide.jpgThere’s a moment in the original “Pacific Rim” where one of the Jaegers (a giant, human-piloted robot fighter) picks up a cargo ship — an actual, full-size cargo ship — and uses it to take a swing at an attacking monster (a.k.a. Kaiju). This giant robot vs. giant monster battle is a moment of sheer, giddy delight — one that makes you feels like a kid again, no matter how old you are.

Sadly, the new sequel, “Pacific Rim Uprising,” doesn’t have a moment that captures this same level of magic. Overall, the sequel feels more like a half-hearted cash grab than a true follow up to Guillermo del Toro’s original film.

The first “Pacific Rim” wasn’t necessarily an instant blockbuster, at least here in the U.S. However, it got a decent score from critics (71 percent on Rotten Tomatoes) and has since become a favorite of many geeks. It doesn’t have the deepest plot (or characters, for that matter), but you can tell Del Toro had a blast making this movie, and it’s a heck of a lot of fun to watch. I love watching “Pacific Rim,” especially with friends, and it has a special place in my film collection.

Del Toro didn’t direct the sequel, and unfortunately, “Uprising” is missing the style and the weight of the original. There are too many competing ideas and story lines that never fully coalesce. In case you haven’t seen the first “Pacific Rim,” this new movie takes place after the humans have (presumably) defeated all the Kaiju that had invaded Earth from another dimension. John Boyega (best known as Finn from the new Star Wars trilogy) plays Jake Pentecost, the son of one of the original Jaeger pilots, General Stacker Pentecost, who sacrificed his life in the last film. Jake is called into service to train a new generation of Jaeger pilots — just in time, as it turns out, because the Kaiju are back, and more dangerous than ever.

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I’m a big fan of Boyega’s — I think he has a lot of talent and charisma, and he’s definitely capable of carrying his own franchise. Sadly, the script for “Uprising” doesn’t do him a lot of favors. The idea of Jake struggling with — and rebelling against — his father’s legacy is an intriguing one, and it’s a theme the film doesn’t fully explore. Instead, too much of the run time is taken up with other side plots. I would have loved to see this movie dig a lot deeper into who Jake is and why, and develop his tense friendship with fellow Jaeger pilot Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood).

While Jake training young cadets could have been an interesting plot point (tying back to his father’s legacy), I just wasn’t as invested in it. This isn’t the fault of the young actors, who did a good job with what they were given. However, the “unusually gifted teenager with an attitude problem” trope was never my favorite character archetype and, again, distracted from Jake’s story.

Without going into spoilers, there are a lot of other plot threads, some of which make more sense than others. There’s a (sort of? maybe?) romance; an evil corporation; a surprise villain twist; and name drops to people and events from the first film. Some of these callbacks feel authentic and some don’t.

I also don’t feel the Jaeger vs. Kaiju fights were at the same level of the first movie. As I mentioned before, maybe slightly deeper characters could have made the first “Pacific Rim” an even better movie. But the film definitely had plenty of heart, and you could tell it was a labor of love for the people who made it. I had a huge grin on my face throughout all the action scenes and couldn’t believe I was seeing something that cool on the big screen. “Uprising” doesn’t capture that same feeling, and takes too long to get to the final Jaeger vs. Kaiju showdown.

I remember one of the criticisms about the original movie was that most of the fights took place in the dark, so sometimes it was hard to pick out all the details. However, after watching “Uprising,” where most of the fights take place during the day, I think I actually prefer the night ones. I can’t quite describe why, other than a vague “I thought it looked cooler.” But it was cool to see the Jaegers fighting the glowing Kaiju amidst the backdrop of skyscrapers lit up at night. Overall, “Pacific Rim” had a more unique style, while “Uprising” feels a little too much like a Transformers spin-off.

I really don’t like having to write negative reviews, and it hurts to be a downer about a sequel to a movie that I really, really loved. But the first “Pacific Rim” felt like something special to me, while I probably won’t be watching “Uprising” again.

Movie review: ‘Tomb Raider’ reboot a fun action adventure

TR-TRL-101-1024x429As long as Hollywood is making movies, there will be reboots and remakes…even though many of these seem to flop or flounder at the box office. Working with an already recognized property always seems like a smaller risk, at least on paper, so we aren’t likely to see film makers stop recycling ideas anytime soon.

The latest reboot is “Tomb Raider,” a story previously told through the famous video game and the original film series starring Angelina Jolie. The reboot, out in theaters now, features a scrappier, slightly more realistic take on “tomb raider” Lara Croft.

In this version, Lara is not yet a confident explorer and doesn’t really have any desire to carry on the legacy of her wealthy father, whose mysterious disappearance years ago continues to haunt her. Yet when she finally decides to claim her inheritance to prevent her father’s estate from being sold off, she receives a message from her father with clues to his last mission — searching for the tomb of a mythical queen named Himiko with terrifying powers that allow her to unleash death and destruction across the globe. As Lara decides to try to retrace her father’s steps, she finds herself pulled into a dangerous adventure with possible world-ending consequences.

Although “Tomb Raider” is sitting right at 50 percent on Rotten Tomatoes with mixed reviews from critics, I enjoyed this film and thought it was a fun action adventure that was great to catch as a weekend matinee. The plot isn’t particularly groundbreaking, but the action sequences are good. There’s nothing wrong with following the Indiana Jones template of action, stunts, and a dash of the supernatural.

As a female action movie fan, it’s always nice to see a female protagonist who is just treated like a regular character (who happens to be a woman). This version of the character isn’t sexualized, and she is also allowed to be human — with plenty of bruises, scrapes, and scars from her adventures. I’d like to see more of Alicia Vikander as Lara Croft, especially since the film’s ending most definitely leaves room for a sequel.

As mentioned before, the film’s plot doesn’t deviate much from what you might expect, though there are some fun twists, such as the reappearance of a certain character and the revelation of the truth about the legend of Queen Himiko. The action and stunt work aren’t quite as over-the-top as they are in the Angelina Jolie films, making this movie feel more believable overall. Vikander’s Lara Croft is definitely the character who stands out the most overall, and some of the other characters probably could have used a few more layers. Though I did enjoy seeing Dominic West as Lord Richard Croft, Lara’s father.

This is one of those movies where I can see why critics gave it a certain score, but I still had a lot of fun watching it and will plan to rent it again when it comes to home video. Not every film needs to be “important” or “ground breaking,” and sometimes you just want a fun action movie that you can watch with a bucket of popcorn and escape for a few hours. “Tomb Raider” did that for me.