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!

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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.

A ‘Marvel-ous’ list: An updated ranking of my favorite Marvel Cinematic Universe films (November 2017)

Here’s my updated Marvel Cinematic Universe ranking, with “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok” added in. This is getting to be a long list, and increasingly harder to decide which are my top favorites! 😉

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669681So many Marvel films, so hard to rank my favorites! 😉 Instead of continually creating new posts when new Marvel Cinematic Universe films come out, I’ve decided to just keep this master list and update it. The new films I’ve added this time around are “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2,” “Spider-Man: Homecoming,” and “Thor: Ragnarok.” Of course, some of the older movies keep shifting around too, so this list always feel like a work in progress. 😉

1. Iron Man (2008)

“Guardians of the Galaxy” is literally so close to taking over my No. 1 spot, but the original “Iron Man” just can’t be beat. This is the movie that made Iron Man my favorite superhero and Robert Downey Jr. my favorite actor.

2. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 1 (2014)

3. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

4. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

5. Doctor Strange (2016)

Although…

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It’s time to Ragna-rok and roll! Thor goes cosmic in latest MCU film

static1.squarespaceFor better or worse, the Marvel Cinematic Universe films always follow a certain template. They have a similar look and feel, and a similar style of humor. I happen to really like this formula, and I think it still leaves plenty of room for variety (i.e. the heist feel of “Ant-Man,” the trippy, psychedelic elements of “Doctor Strange,” etc.). While the latest, “Thor: Ragnarok” (out in theaters now), is still very much an MCU movie, it is the film that perhaps veers the farthest from the Marvel template that we’ve seen before (perhaps even farther than “Guardians”!) With a lot of improv from the actors and wackier humor/characters than we’ve seen in the past Thor films, “Thor: Ragnarok” just might be the “weirdest” Marvel movie yet.

Although Thor (Chris Hemsworth) was notably absent from the quasi-Avengers film “Captain America: Civil War,” he’s had plenty to keep him busy. Namely, trying to prevent “Ragnarok,” the apocalyptic destruction of his home world, Asgard. He’s also got Hela (Cate Blanchett), the vengeful goddess of death, to contend with. He has to put together his own super team (he humorously dubs them “the Revengers”): an exiled Hulk (Mark Ruffalo); his brother and sometimes-ally, sometimes-enemy Loki (Tom Hiddleston); and a lost Valkyrie warrior (Tessa Thompson). He also has to find a new source of strength after Hela smashes his seemingly indestructible hammer.

It’s interesting to see how the MCU has evolved over the past decade. We started with the relatively grounded “Iron Man” and have since gone full cosmic, in preparation for the “Infinity War” extravaganza. While the past Thor movies have had a definite fantasy feel, “Ragnarok” swings more toward space opera. It’s a wildly colorful movie with new creatures and a strange new planet, Sakaar, a dumping ground for objects — and sometimes people — without a home.

I’ve loved seeing the MCU get more colorful and wider in scope, and it’s exciting to see them trying new and riskier things. According to director Taika Waititi, about 80 percent of the dialogue was improvised, which gives the film distinctly different, much looser feel. Waititi fully embraces the film’s potential weirdness — I never thought I’d hear “Pure Imagination” from “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory” show up in a Thor movie! I got a kick out of seeing Jeff Goldblum be Jeff Goldblum in a Marvel film; he technically plays the Grandmaster, the ruler of Sakaar, but really, he’s playing Jeff Goldblum in space, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was nice to see Hulk and Thor teaming up, as well as the cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange. Valkyrie makes a great addition to the team, and I hope she gets to join the action in “Infinity War.” And Cate Blanchett is obviously having a blast embracing her dark side as Hela; it’s good to see a strong female villain in the MCU.

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While there are lots of other great, colorful characters I still haven’t mentioned, “Ragnarok” still is, at its heart, Thor’s (and to a certain extent, Loki’s) story. Thor has grown (and matured!) a lot since his first solo film, and I enjoyed seeing him fully discover his powers when he can no longer rely on his hammer (spoiler alert! I loved seeing him use his newfound lightning powers in the final face-off against Hela). It’s also good to see a director fully take advantage of Chris Hemsworth’s comedic abilities; note to Hollywood: we want more opportunities for Hemsworth to be funny! And I liked that the movie kept Loki’s dynamic, giving him a chance to be a hero but not fully abandoning his own agenda. Because Loki just isn’t Loki if he’d not trying to be a trickster.

The action scenes are all good — I loved the arena fight between Thor and Hulk (and despite poor Thor’s consternation at getting his hair cut, I’m digging the new gladiator look), and it was super cool seeing the Valkyrie flying in on winged horses, in all their glory.

However, my one complaint about the film is that perhaps the jokes fly a little too fast and furious. It’s good to see a Thor movie that’s so darn fun, but some of the heavier moments were treated a little too lightly, in my opinion. This movie does have some more serious plot twists (skip for spoilers!) — such as the death of Odin and the complete destruction of Asgard — but these moments are almost lost in the fast and crazy storyline. I thought the “Guardians” movies did a better job balancing their humor and serious moments; while there are plenty of laughs from Starlord and Co., those films do have genuine emotional weight (I really laugh AND I really cry). I wish “Thor: Ragnarok” had been just a touch more serious in those important moments, and maybe used a little less improv overall.

I had a blast watching “Thor: Ragnarok,” although it will probably just barely miss breaking into my top half of MCU films (I really need to update my MCU ranking post). That’s not really a criticism of “Ragnarok”; some of the other movies are just a little more my personal style. Still, I’m really glad Marvel is willing to try some new things and let directors have more freedom to do something really different. And I’m super pumped to see what they do with “Black Panther” next year!

Beyond a galaxy far, far away: My favorite new canon Star Wars novels

Lords_of_the_Sith_artAlthough I’m definitely known as “the movie gal” amongst my friends, I really love books too. And since one movie a year isn’t nearly enough Star Wars for me, 😉 it’s nice to have Star Wars novels to help tide me over.

A lot of the Star Wars books I’ve read in the past are now, unfortunately, non-canon; Disney retired the old Expanded Universe novels — with characters like Mara Jade, the Solo twins Jacen and Jaina, and Luke’s son, Ben Skywalker — when they decided to make more movies. While I was originally sad about this, I understand that Disney wanted to start with a clean slate. And even though the old EU had some great content, there was some pretty dicey stuff too (let’s all forget the time Luke fell in love with a sentient spaceship).

The new Star Wars canon novels have been a little hit or miss, but I think they’re getting better. Here are some of my favorites, if you’re looking to dive into the wonderful world of Star Wars companion novels. And unlike the old EU, you don’t really have to read these in order, and all that’s really needed is a knowledge of the movies and/or TV series.

Thrawn by Timothy Zahn

Timothy Zahn’s previous Star Wars novels are widely regarded as some of the best in the old EU. Although they’re now non-canon, Zahn has brought back one of his most beloved characters, the cunning and sophisticated Grand Admiral Thrawn (who has also been showing up on the animated “Rebels” TV show). It’s great to see Zahn back in the Star Wars canon, and I enjoyed seeing Thrawn in a new way. This is a great introduction for those who don’t know about this mysterious alien warrior who joins the Imperial military.

Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston

Confession time: When I first started “The Clones Wars” animated series, I wasn’t a huge fan of Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker’s apprentice. However, she really grew on me as the show went on, and her character’s gut-wrenching departure turned out to be one of the show’s most emotional moments. This novel takes place shortly after “Revenge of the Sith” and follows Ahsoka as she struggles to survive in a dangerous, post-Jedi world.

Rebel Rising by Beth Revis

This isn’t the only “Rogue One” prequel — I’ve also read “Catalyst” by James Luceno, which covers the development of the Death Star. Although Luceno was one of my favorite EU authors, I didn’t end up liking this book as much. I thought “Rebel Rising” — about Jyn Erso’s life before she’s recruited by the Rebellion — was a much stronger book. Reading it is a bittersweet experience; Jyn’s life is full of difficulties and danger, and we already know she doesn’t get a happy ending. Yet she’s a fascinating character, and the book contains some interesting meditations on how far is “too far” to go to defeat the Empire.

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Rogue One by Alexander Freed

Although some of the Star Wars movie tie-in novels are better than others, “Rogue One” is great. Actually, it’s one of my new favorite Star Wars novels, period. It delves more deeply into who the characters are and why they do what they do — but thankfully not too deeply, if that makes sense. Part of what made “Rogue One” so powerful is that Jyn and her band of rebels felt like ordinary people. They didn’t have a “touch of destiny” like the Skywalker clan the franchise has traditionally focused on. They’re complicated people who were confronted by a challenge and grew into heroes. This book is a gut-punch — it makes the movie’s tragic ending even sadder — but it’s a powerful read.

Lost Stars by Claudia Gray

This book gave me hope for the new Star Wars canon. It introduces two new characters: young Imperial Academy recruits Thane Kyrell and Ciena Ree. Without delving too far into spoiler territory, one of them becomes disillusioned with the Empire and decides to defect, driving a wedge between the two friends. Although the romance that develops between the characters is a significant plot point, I thought it was handled well within the larger context of events and didn’t seem forced.

Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

A buddy team-up adventure with Darth Vader and Palpatine! Well, not quite. 😉 Though everybody’s favorite Sith Lords do find themselves working together to escape as they are hunted by revolutionaries on the Twi’lek planet Ryloth. It was interesting to read a book from Darth Vader’s perspective, and I liked it because it reminded me of one of my favorite old EU novels, “Dark Lord: The Rise of Darth Vader” (which is still worth checking out).

Happy reading!

Not-so-freaky Friday: Movies to watch for the Halloween weekend that aren’t (too!) scary

harry-potter-philosophersI’m a real wimp when it comes to horror films. Just the trailer for the new “It” movie — which I had to see while watching a different movie this summer — was enough to make me cover my eyes and want to cower beneath my chair (scary clowns — just…no). However, I do love Halloween, and there are plenty of fun, not-too-scary films to watch for the holiday. Here are some of my favorites — and of course there’s also “Stranger Things” season 2 to binge this weekend!

Shaun of Dead

Director Edgar Wright and actors Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are, I think, a match made in Heaven. Their unofficial “Cornetto trilogy” — “Shaun of the Dead,” “Hot Fuzz” and “The World’s End” — would make for a great Halloween mini-marathon, but if you can only pick one, you can’t go wrong with the zombie-themed “Shaun of the Dead.” Wright finds a way to spin a zombie apocalypse into a witty, delightfully British romantic comedy about two not-so-bright friends who are clueless about the start of said apocalypse. Once they finally realize the people around them have started turning into the walking dead, they survive by taking refuge in their favorite pub. And if you’ve got time to check them out, “Hot Fuzz” (my all-time favorite comedy) follows a big city police officer who uncovers a dark secret in a small town, and “The World’s End” features a pub crawl that accidentally triggers the end of the world.

Ghostbusters

No Halloween movie list would be complete without “Ghostbusters,” right? This classic 1980s comedy is about a dysfunctional crew of paranormal exterminators, led by Bill Murray and Dan Aykroyd. After they are fired from the university where they work, they start their own paranormal investigation business and end up saving the world. Although some of the special effects are a bit dated now, this movie is still a lot of fun and there are plenty of memorable lines. And this might be something of a controversial thought, but I even enjoyed the 2016 “Ghostbusters” reboot. It wasn’t a groundbreaking film by any means and it technically wasn’t really necessary to reboot “Ghostbusters,” but I still found it entertaining. SNL star Kate McKinnon and the surprisingly funny Chris Hemsworth steal the show.

Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (or Philosopher’s Stone, depending on your region)

Any of the Harry Potter movies would be a good pick for Halloween, but “Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s/Philosopher’s Stone” gets a bonus for actually featuring a Halloween feast at Hogwarts. The first Harry Potter film isn’t my favorite in the series, but it’s a fun movie that kicks off Harry’s journey as a young wizard. It’s also more lighthearted than some of the later, heavier films. It always makes me wish I could spend Halloween at Hogwarts, with chocolate frogs, cauldron cakes, pumpkin pasties and of course butterbear!

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Monsters Inc.

“Monster’s Inc.” is my favorite Pixar movie, and the monsters in the movie are definitely more lovable than scary. Billy Crystal and John Goodman voice monsters Mike and Sulley, whose friendship is tested when Sulley accidentally lets a human girl escape into the monsters’ world. The world of “Monster’s Inc.” is colorful and fun, and Crystal and Goodman’s banter keeps adults entertained. While the follow-up “Monsters University” isn’t quite as good (it shows how Mike and Sulley became friends in college), it has some funny moments and is an entertaining follow-up for fans.

The Mummy

Although Tom Cruise’s Mummy reboot didn’t fare too well at theaters this summer, I’ve always been partial to the 1999 film. This film is both fun and funny, a sort of “Indiana Jones” spin on the classic 1930s horror flick. Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz are the charming leads in this movie, which follows a band of adventurers who decide to investigate an Egyptian burial site and accidentally awaken an ancient, undead priest (definitely not the best idea). “The Mummy” is an entertaining, swashbuckling adventure that offers plenty of thrills and (not-too-scary) scares.

Hocus Pocus

I actually watched this Halloween classic for the first time last year and thoroughly enjoyed it. Interestingly, this movie wasn’t really a critical or commercial success when it was released in 1993 but has since picked up a rather devoted cult following. “Hocus Pocus” stars Bette Midler, Kathy Najimy and Sarah Jessica Parker as the Sanderson Sisters, three witches from 1693 who resurrect in the modern day on the night before Halloween. That premise actually does sound a little scary, but never fear, this film is definitely more fun than frightful, as the witches don’t quite know how to adjust to the modern era.

What are your favorite not-so-scary (or even scary!) films to watch for Halloween?