BLOG POSTS, Star Wars

Pre-Episode IX Thoughts on the Overall Star Wars Saga

I may have written reviews on A New Hope, Return of the Jedi, and The Last Jedi, which I recommend reading before the rest of this post, but I’d like to dive a little deeper into my complex feelings on the most iconic franchise ever, sans its spinoffs.

Why I care about Star Wars, even when I don’t like the direction it goes in, is not only because I grew up immersed in the franchise but also because it’s one of the only major movie franchises that’s not adapted from a novel or a comic book; it started at the cinema, so it stings more when it falters in quality than when a series based on a comic I haven’t read does. And because it is purely cinematic, I look at it more critically than any other movie franchise and also other childhood movies like Lord of the Rings and The Wizard of Oz.

A New Hope (which I really want to call just Star Wars [1977], but calling it its afterthought subtitle makes it easier to differentiate) and The Force Awakens (my new-found praise for which I surprise myself with considering my disparaging of it in my archive) are the most coherent, most swashbuckling, and downright funnest entries of the saga, though The Force Awakens has a cliffhanger ending that relies on the rest of its trilogy to resolve, and it does essentially retell the same story as A New Hope but with a few twists, one of which is that its hero and villain actually meet face-to-face, resulting in a lightsaber duel, which is still the coolest type of duel, even if it is contradictory to the Jedi way. I mean, why should the audience root for the Guardians of Peace to avoid battle when they carry the coolest fictional weapons ever? As a catholic, I admire that the series has a spiritual dimension to it, yet I also have problems with a lot of concepts about the Force.

One fundamental way I think the Original Trilogy leaves room for improvement is in its acting, even in The Empire Strikes Back, which is one of the better ones, yet I see campier elements in it that clash with its more serious tone. The reason why the hokier acting in A New Hope works for me is because the material doesn’t call for the dramatic heft of Empire, and Return of the Jedi oddly switches the Trilogy’s acting quality by making Harrison Ford and Carries Fisher the weak links and Mark Hamill the strong point. As such, while the Sequels do feature some typical campiness, I find their leads the most natural of any Star Wars movies.

Although much disappoints me about Return of the Jedi, it does give a powerful meaning to the whole saga up to that point: that the way to defeat evil is not with a weapon but with self-sacrificial love. Alas, the Sequels undermine this by establishing that Luke Skywalker had tried to train a new generation of Jedi in the traditional way and arguing towards the Jedis’ reformation due to Luke’s failure; Return of the Jedi is where the argument for reforming the Jedi should have begun. Luke was perhaps training these Jedi to battle Snoke, but, as established in Return of the Jedi, Luke could have found another way to end Snoke’s surgence.

I am able to accept the Sequel Trilogy more if I pretend that the Original Trilogy were episodes I, II, and III and that the Sequels were the first Star Wars trilogy made since then; the truth is that the Sequels wouldn’t be so derivative of the Originals and wouldn’t feature this still vaguely defined “Balance in the Force” idea if it weren’t for the laughable Prequel Trilogy, their “Balance in the Force” conceit of which, if it turns out Balance in the Force means something as relativistic as it could mean, is the thing I hate most about the Prequels.

At this point, I admire the story the Originals tell more than I enjoy how they tell it, so now, I don’t mind the Sequels retreading that same story in a different way. Though even if Episode IX makes up for the missteps of The Last Jedi, the Sequel Trilogy as a whole could replace neither A New Hope‘s place in my heart nor the memories I have growing up with the franchise. Plus, I was more forgiving towards Return of the Jedi‘s faults before the Sequels came out, especially The Last Jedi, so if Episode IX does stink, maybe Empire‘s and Return of the Jedi‘s magic will return for me. I wish I can still feel them the way many others still do.

(And since I didn’t review them, I’d give The Force Awakens and The Empire Strikes Back each a ★★★☆ and the Prequels as a whole a ★☆☆☆.)

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anniversary, BLOG POSTS

4th Anniversary

When I published back-to-back reviews of The Last Jedi and Ready Player One this morning, I didn’t even realize that it was my 4th anniversary as a movie blogger, and so I’d like to reflect on that.

Over the years, I’ve used various styles of writing and various blog addresses and even tried to include game reviews alongside movie reviews. My early writings, my first of which can be found in my archive, make me cringe; not only are they more naive, but I prefer not to go in-depth nowadays like I did then. I feel that I haven’t had enough movie viewing or life experience to write deeply about movies, nor, although I am Catholic, am I a theologist when it comes to spiritual themes, so I’m happy with the shorter format I’ve been using since the WALL·E review, and I’m also happy that I’ve recently changed the site’s titled from “T. Martin Types” to the much catchier “T.’s Take“. As for video games, my feelings on their medium flip and flop so much that I might as well leave them off this blog (except for video game movies).

Blogging isn’t actually the first way I’ve commented on pop culture; for years, I ran a Youtube channel called absurdlyawesome where I posted stop-motion animated spoofs of Transformers and other franchises, but mostly Transformers. Alas, while I am still proud to introduce people to these videos, I’m just not passionate about the things I was spoofing through that channel anymore, which is why I gave the channel’s fans a final Transformers series that combines a bunch of continuities through alternate universe portals; I’m disappointed by how I pulled off that series, but the fans love it, and they’re who I made it for.

Someday, I want to be able to tell my own original stories outside the occasional skit; I just haven’t figured out what those stories will be, nor will I have the confidence to put them to screen until I go to film school, which I am planning on for next year. Until then, I’m content with writing about movies rather than making them.

action, gamey, MOVIE REVIEWS, sci-fi

READY PLAYER ONE (2018) Movie Review

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After reviewing a few Star Wars movies after reviewing a couple of video game movies, it’s time for me to change things up with…another video game movie. Except Ready Player One, like Wreck-It Ralph, homages rather than directly adapts the medium (it directly adapts a novel though), with various other pop culture references to boot, and it’s helmed by Steven Spielberg, a founding father of popcorn filmmaking.

The downside is that the meandering first two acts feel like a video game that would be more engaging to play than it is to watch, with far too much exposition bogging down the happenings in both the virtual reality world known as the Oasis and the real world whose citizens in dystopian 2045 escape into the Oasis where they can go anywhere, meet anyone, and be whoever they want. This beginning portion isn’t without fun moments, but it is convoluted and lacks energy (plus, squeamish viewers might not appreciate a sequence referencing The Shining that devolves into some gruesome macabre imagery). That is until the blissfully geeky finale happens, where cameos from all walks of pop culture come together for a virtual battle royale (and the movie comes up with a good reason for it), including a showdown between two iconic giant robots I’m quite fond of, and my feelings finally went from “This is…okay,” to “Sold!”

The ironic part is that the film cautions against substituting reality with virtual fantasies and nostalgia while relying on the things it’s cautioning against, and such a reliance is not likely going to stand the test of time. Still, for a disposable crowd pleaser that runs Hollywood’s nostalgia craze to the ground, the fact that it’s a love letter from the most iconic modern filmmaker to the culture he helped shape makes it a little more special.

★★★☆

adventure, Disney, fantasy, MOVIE REVIEWS, sci-fi, space opera, Star Wars, war

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) Movie Review

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After the laughable Prequel Trilogy, Disney acquired the rights to Star Wars and set to redeem the franchise with the Sequel Trilogy, starting with The Force Awakens, a romp that is quite derivative of the Original Trilogy, is plotted with serious conveniences, introduces a new protagonist who’s a bit too self-reliant, and lets its heroes get away with crossing the line in their treatment of their enemies, yet it also offers a coherent balance of humor, drama, and action that makes for the most downright fun Star Wars movie since the original. Alas, my thoughts on followup The Last Jedi haven’t improved much from my now-archived previous thoughts on it.

The Last Jedi has two notable things about it: Luke Skywalker, the now robbed-of-hope protagonist of the Original Trilogy, and Kylo Ren, the villainous grandson of Darth Vader. The way Luke develops is both heartbreaking and triumphant, and Kylo’s unhinged yet conflicted nature remains fascinating. Alas, the thing that frustrates me about this film is its plot’s lack of logic; said plot is made way more complicated than it needs to be by one character’s inexplicable decision, leading to a side story with even more ridiculous creative decisions, and, most egregiously, protagonist Rey’s development feels even less natural here than in The Force Awakens, taking away the investment I had in her character. And yet, like Return of the Jedi, the creative missteps build up to a moving climax that almost redeems what builds up to it.

Despite The Last Jedi‘s problems, I’ll wait until the third one to judge whether this trilogy is totally ruined for me; I don’t think this trilogy is beyond saving, but only if its capper can turn things around ingeniously. I suppose I’d rather have the second one than the third one be bad in order for expectations for the third one to be low, whether it turns out to be even worse or a pleasant surprise (I’m really hoping for the latter).

★★☆☆

adventure, fantasy, MOVIE REVIEWS, sci-fi, space opera, Star Wars, war

STAR WARS: RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983) Movie Review

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As implied in my Star Wars (1977) review, The Empire Strikes Back is such a drastic shift from its precursor tonally and technically that my investment in it always depends on the mood I’m watching the Original Trilogy in. Alas, my feelings on the trilogy’s capper, Return of the Jedi, are more consistently let down, even though it was my favorite of the trilogy when I was a kid.

The film’s opening act is so padded out and bizzare that it would have been way more enjoyable if it started at the swashbuckling set piece it culminates in, kicking the film off with a bang, with the opening crawl filling in what leads up to it; while there would have been one particular emotional trade-off if that were the case, there also would have been less of a barrage of ugly creature designs and risque imagery, including one particularly infamous slave outfit that I think is tasteless to begin with. Harrison Ford’s and Carrie Fisher’s performances lack the passion needed to keep their characters engaging, and an obnoxious vehicle for cartoonish slapstick cutesiness is introduced that turns the film into what feels like a Star Wars parody. In my eyes, the one thing that really makes this film respectacle on a narrative level is the showdown between Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader, and the Emperor; not only are its scenes pulled off brilliantly on all fronts, but it’s thematically the most powerful way to tie up this conflict, giving a redemptive meaning to the whole saga.

Alas, its creative missteps, including the reuse of a main threat that’s basically an excuse to give any of the heroes who’s not Luke something to do, make me feel that Star Wars had already gone downhill by the release of the Prequels, which wouldn’t have made up for the saga ending on a mess like this even if they were good; while there is stuff I love about Return of the Jedi, it’s the Star Wars movie I’d revise the most (all of the Prequels are objectively worse, but Return of the Jedi‘s place in the saga is more important).

★★☆☆

adventure, fantasy, MOVIE REVIEWS, sci-fi, space opera, Star Wars, war

STAR WARS (1977) Movie Review

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As can be found in my archive, I recently intended a raving review of The Empire Strikes Back to sum up my official stance on the Star Wars franchise, but I found during this latest rewatch of the Original Trilogy that my investment in the trilogy as a whole fluctuates from viewing to viewing. Since I grew up with the franchise in multiple mediums, my official stance on it as of now is that the Star Wars universe itself will always have a special place in my heart, even if not all of its movies and video games will. But Episode IV – A New Hope, initially titled simply Star Wars before the Prequels were announced, still retains its magic for me.

Star Wars didn’t become an overnight phenomenon just for its cutting-edge special effects and spectacle; it built a mythic fantasy world with futuristic trappings and characters who play off each other with rollicking chemistry. The idea that all of this takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away even makes its hokier elements by today’s standards seem timeless, with John Williams’s musical score that’s fully orchestrated as opposed to the easily aged synthetic scores of the time rounding out its timelessness. But the biggest reason why this is the most rewatchable Star Wars movie is not only because of its standalone nature but also because the conflict between the Jedi and the Dark Side, while it is introduced, isn’t in the forefront, allowing for less of the deeper attempts at drama and spiritual resonance of subsequent Star Wars films and allowing for straight-up popcorn escapism, with the story evolving into one swashbuckling action scene after another.

I often wonder if after all these years of popcorn cinema it’s inspired that Star Wars still lives up to its hype. Yet, my experience has proven that it does, with the college-aged friends I’d shown it to for the first time all liking it, the infamously low-res 2006 DVD of the theatrical version at that.

★★★★

adventure, comedy, Disney, fantasy, gamey, MOVIE REVIEWS

WRECK-IT RALPH (2012) Movie Review

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Wreck-It Ralph goes to show that video games work best on film when they’re homaged, not adapted; how fitting is it that a movie that works ingeniously in that regard, about a medium that’s more fundamentally a product than any other (and I don’t mean to diminish the medium’s artistic potential by saying that), was developed– uh, produced by merchandise machine Disney?

Of course, video game adaptations are meant to introduce the stories of games to non-gamers whereas a movie like Wreck-It Ralph would resonate best for those like me who get its references, taking place in a world where arcade games are connected through a power strip hub through which the games’ characters live lives of their own when players aren’t around, and it’s filled with cameos from icons and jokes about game design; oddly though, when a literally sugar-coated racing game called “Sugar Rush” becomes the story’s main setting, the video game references get overshadowed by food puns.

The way the film glosses over how the in-game reason for the titular Wreck-It Ralph’s motivation as the villain of “Fix-It Felix, Jr.” is Felix’s support of the people who forced Ralph out of his home could either be seen as a commentary on how video games often gloss over the questionable things the heroes can do (i.e. Mario punching Yoshi to make him use the tongue attack, Link trapping fairies in bottles to replace his life force with theirs when he dies [I am critical of my favorite game series]…), or it could be intended to tie into the story’s theme that what one roleplays as doesn’t make them who they actually are, yet the whole point is that Felix is the celebrated “hero” whose praise sets the disparaged Ralph off on a quest to earn the respect of a hero.

While the way the film develops its themes isn’t entirely successful, it’s still not only a joy for those who know video games but also plain inventive storytelling, fun in an “I understood that reference” way (not that I appreciate all of the games that are referenced) and also surprisingly moving; not to mention, it features a climactic plot twist so epic that Disney has taken notes from it for all of their animated movies since.

★★★☆

action, adventure, gamey, MOVIE REVIEWS

TOMB RAIDER (2018) Movie Review

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I’ve known about the Tomb Raider games since I was young, with my biggest experiences with them actually happening in the last few years: watching through the thrilling but ghastily violent 2013 reboot being played and later playing through the brain-teasing and pulpy 1996 original, which was a pioneer in 3D graphics; the games are also infamous for protagonist Lara Croft’s cartoonishly sexualized appearance, which got played up as graphics improved until the more grounded reboot. I haven’t seen the early 00s Tomb Raider movies with Angelina Jolie, though video game movies are lucky to be “meh” at best; the last video game movie I saw, which was also adapted from a game I’m familiar with but can’t quite recommend, Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, was no exception to this rule, but I was still hoping for this latest Tomb Raider to be decent.

This film reboot is fittingly inspired by the game reboot, toning down the violence and subject matter for a PG-13 rating, so I enjoyed a lot of it in an “I understood that reference” way. There is at least one standout action set piece, involving a plane wreck careering over a waterfall, and Alicia Vikander is terrific in the lead; it’s refreshing to see a young British female protagonist be introduced in a fight she doesn’t win after the young British female protagonist of the latest Star Wars movies had been written with no vulnerability to relate to. But then there’s some later imagery that directly reminded me of The Last Jedi, and then, fittingly so given the games’ inspiration, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (a much superior film, to be clear), and then The (1999) Mummy, and then World War Z… Although early scenes introduce intrigue and show promise, it ends up being uninspired stuff. The finale does take an unexpected turn, though the result is in an anticlimax, especially compared to how exciting the game’s finale is, and the villain is offed in a gratuitously cruel way.

But what really left me feeling empty in the end was its setup for a sequel involving an organization pulling the strings here that, from what I know of the games, doesn’t give Catholicism a positive image. Potential anti-Catholicism or not, can’t a studio give audiences an action story and wait for them to show interest in a sequel, not ask them to pay for more before they have time to process the story they just watched? The most satisfying thing about seeing a movie as unsatisfying as this is the content it gives me to write for this blog.

★★☆☆

animated, Disney, drama, fantasy, MOVIE REVIEWS, Studio Ghibli

MY NEIGHBOR TOTORO (1988) Movie Review

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Like Star Wars, My Neighbor Totoro is one of those movies that I can’t remember a time where I didn’t know it, and the versions of both of which that I grew up with, the theatrical versions of the Original Star Wars and the 90s English dub of Totoro, are now hard to obtain; of course, that’s as far as I can compare the two. Totoro was not only the only Hayao Miyazaki movie I grew up with but also my first exposure to anime in general, and I remember my siblings and I making fun of its corny voice acting and strange-to-children-who-hadn’t-seen-any-other-anime animation more than genuinely appreciating it; the 00s Disney dub is, for the most part, better, even if it’s not the version that’s engraved into to my mind.

While I can take a step back from Star Wars and separate my childhood experience with it, I can’t do the same with Totoro, and partly because it’s a better-crafted film than Star Wars has ever been. I can appreciate Totoro as an adult in ways I couldn’t when I was a kid, especially in the realization that unlike many movies I grew up with that were designed to be viewed during childhood, Totoro is a movie about childhood, its celebration of which is represented by the titular forest spirit who can only be seen by children, in this case Satsuki and her younger sister Mei who’ve moved to a new home as they await their mother’s return from the hospital due to an unexplained illness. It’s not a coming of age story about how the girls grow up and have to leave Totoro behind but how they still need to embrace the wonder and innocence that Totoro represents.

I’ve seen more of Miyazaki’s filmography by now and really enjoyed his inventiveness, especially in his other 80s era films: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, Castle in the Sky, and Kiki’s Delivery Service, the last of which is the only one that comes close to the transcendent childlike quality of My Neighbor Totoro. Totoro is Miyazaki at some of his most gentle and accessible, and it should be a part of anybody’s childhood.

★★★★