On the Star Wars movie that taught me what all the hype was about

Star Wars…is a cultural phenomenon, to say the least. It’s a franchise whose vision and image has proved pivotal to the current pop-cultural landscape and the state of the mainstream Hollywood blockbuster. It’s wild, imaginative, thrilling and, perhaps most importantly, a film brought about by one man’s vision for blockbuster genre cinema. Or, at least, that’s what it’s supposed to be. Star Wars, that reverential, sacred series of films, talked about in careful, tender tones by any self-respecting human being on the internet. As a consequence of this artistic zeitgeist, back before The Force Awakens was about to come out, I became a self-proclaimed Star Wars fan, and tasked myself with rewatching the original films, which I’d only seen sporadic bits and pieces of while growing up. I saw A New Hope, and, to my disappointment, didn’t get what all the hype was about. The story was weirdly paced, the performances seemed sort of wooden, and Darth Vader was no where near as powerfully intimidating a presence as the fanbase had made him out to be.

“Well, this is disappointing,” I thought. “This is Star Wars?”

Well, these are the old ones,” my reflection continued, “Maybe the new ones are the good ones,”

The new ones were not the good ones.

So I was slightly dismayed. It seems I had not taken to Star Wars as much as the rest of the world had. Oh well.

When I saw The Force Awakens, my faith was partially restored. I came out of the theater really happy that I’d finally enjoyed a Star Wars movie. But as time passed and I saw the film again on TV, I realized Episode VII was a just-okay movie with a great ending. In fact, the story leading up to Rey and Kylo Ren’s climactic battle was really quite boring.

Oh well,” I thought. “There’s always the next one.”

So when Rogue One came out, I was excited. Gareth Edwards was a pretty cool director. Rogue One  looked like a war film. It was going to be good.

I found Rogue One to be terrible. It started with a horribly paced selection of scenes that played out like an expensive power point presentation and ended with a melodramatic sacrifice that held no weight. I was utterly disappointed, and began to agree with my family-members who said that Star Wars was now a corporate controlled machine designed to churn out fan servicing movies with no merit to them whatsoever.

In the build up to The Last Jedi, I kept my anticipation in check, even though I was intrigued by the prospect of seeing this movie directed by the guy who made Looper, which was a very, very cool film. I knew I was going to see it in the cinema, but I had come to the decision that if this one disappointed me too, I wouldn’t buy a ticket for the next one (though who am I kidding, I’d probably have planned to see Episode IX anyway).

I saw the movie.

And it blew me away. The character, the set pieces, the energy, the surprise factor of the film all contributed to what was a breath-taking experience for me. Halfway through it, I was holding back, expecting the ending to comply to conventions. The set up had been promising, but could still be wasted.

The ending was one of the most thrilling filmic affairs I’d witnessed all year.

*SPOILER ZONE. GO NO FURTHER IF YOU HAVEN’T SEEN THE MOVIE. I MEAN IT.*

The moment Kylo Ren cut Snoke in half, my body ceased all respirational functions. The line, the line of convention, had been crossed, and it felt like literally anything could happen after that point. I was genuinely worried if Rey and Kylo would survive the fight. It was awe inspiring, revelatory. Adam Driver instantly became one of my favorite actors working today. I had my heart in my throat the entire time.

If TFA was an okay movie with a great ending, TLJ was a great movie with a brilliant beginning to it’s final third. The killing of Snoke, the hype around Rey’s parentage, and all expectations that came with the movie in one swift stroke was brutal and absolutely a necessary shot in the arm for the story.

There were a few problems I felt were present, though they didn’t include the litany of plotholes everyone’s been talking about (give Rian Johnson a break guys). It felt like the film wrapped everything up too well, like Johnson had had his fun then put everything back in the box. It doesn’t feel like the second film in a trilogy, it feels like the end of a duology, which means it’s left a veritable blank slate for Episode IX. There are no more surprises left to look forward to; this movie addressed all of them. And as a result, it’s left my excitement for the next one on the down low (I thought they planned everything in advance, not that they developed the story on a movie-to-movie basis. It actually looks Rian Johnson got to write this one and then the next guys can do whatever they want)

When I walked out of the cinema, I was confounded by the fact that almost everyone who’d seen it with me hadn’t enjoyed it. When I got home, and saw the fanbase’s reaction to the film, I was even more stupefied. And that was because The Last Jedi was for me, the film that made me truly appreciate the phenomenon of Star Wars. It was my first ever true Star Wars  film, in a way. It made Star Wars for me what it already was for everyone else. A spectacular, big-budgeted extravaganza of visionary cinema. And for that reason, I’m indelibly grateful to have seen it.

 

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On some new video-games and some things I found particularly inspiring

Video-games are awesome. That’s probably not news to you, but after watching some stuff from this year’s e3, this fact struck me out of nowhere. There is so much incredible potential in the video-game format for having cool experiences that I can’t even. That’s right, I can’t even (I’m going to go hang myself two minutes after writing this very short article so don’t worry about my saying that too much). You’ve got the blockbusters with giant spectacle and massive marketing campaigns (see: The Last of Us, Uncharted 4, Batman: Arkham Knight, the upcoming Spiderman Game), the middle level stuff that’s not really indie, not really full on triple-A (see: Telltale Games, Psychonauts 2, Rayman Games) and the much smaller-scale, more experimental indie stuff (see: Oxenfree, Firewatch, Inside). Hell, even one person teams are making some very well received games (Undertale, The Binding of Isaac, Stardew Valley). It’s spectacular and very, very exciting. Interactive experiences are well on their way to overcoming film as the dominant story-telling medium. They are, of course, not there yet, and there’ll always be a special place for film, but as this technology gets more and more accessible for creators (and consumers), film will be to video-games what literature is to film. It’s good, excellent in a lot of cases, but it’s just a lesser experience, at least in the sensory aspect. The realm of interactive media has that potential, and the ways in which it can act as a very capable conduit for creativity is thrilling. This is all coming from someone who has absolutely zero experience in the realm of computers and everything related to their programming and high-level usage so please take this all with a mine of salt. However, if you too are fascinated by the capabilities of the medium and are excited by where it’s inevitably going to enable us to go, know that I’m a hundred percent with you in terms of enthusiasm.

Okay, now that that is over, I’d like to go over some things I’d like to recommend to you, if you’re as excited about this as I am. I’ve already recommended Broken Age and the The ‘Double Fine Adventure’ Documentary, the former of which is a fantastic, very beautiful, point-and-click style adventure game that’s super relaxing and filled with progressively difficult puzzles. Just try it. It’s on sale for $5 on gog.com (though I don’t know how long that’s going to last). The documentary is actually about the making of Broken Age by the developer Double Fine (you’re going to hear that name a lot). You can watch it for free on youtube and it’s a genuinely well directed run of twenty minute or so long episodes that you really have no excuse not to have watched already. Oxenfree and Inside are also both excellent, very different games. I highly recommend Telltale’s Tales From the Borderlands. Telltale is a developer that makes games that are basically video-game versions of those classic choose your own adventure books you’ve probably read at some point in your life. I recommend Firewatch, which is basically a character-study of a game with great dialogue and gorgeous art. The Last of Us is a zombie game that you can’t play without a Play Station 3 or 4 (the rest of these games are all playable on a slightly above average PC) but is totally worth it. If you want to see the extent to which you can be immersed into a video-game, play The Last of Us. It can sound cliche with the zombies and all but the story is amazing and it has one of, if not the, best thematically true ending to a story I’ve ever experienced. All of these games are just the tip of the iceberg and I hope you’ll slide down the rest of it eventually. Yes, I did just say that. I’m sure I’ll apologize later.

I should probably make a separate post about this but I’ve been particularly taken by this new game that was announced at e3. It’s called A Way Out and it’s a game that requires you to play split-screen co-op either yourself or with another player, each controlling a separate character. That’s right requires. You HAVE to play split-screen, either online or with someone else in the same room (which is apparently the ideal way to play) and the project has been led by the guy (Josef Fares) who directed another very well received, very much independent game called Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons (that I haven’t played so I can’t recommend but it looks like a VERY cool game). A Way Out is very ambitious and it’s a risk to make a game that you have to play with someone else, but this looks like a truly visionary experience that I can’t wait to connect my controller to. There promises to be insane amounts of variety embedded into the experience and I doubt we’ll be repeating any gameplay mechanic twice. That also makes me doubt the speculative early 2018 release date. But I’m still very much hyped. Besides the cool new always split-screen aspect, the enthusiasm of the director is so infectious that he, along with Tim Schafer (wait), drove me to write this article. The sheer amount of times this swedish (I think) guy has said “I live breath this game” in various different interviews has me pumped and very, very inspired. Tim Schafer is the head of Double Fine, my favorite development studio (which created Broken Age and is the subject of the aforementioned documentary) and an iconic game developer from the era of the Lucas Art Games of the late twentieth-century. I was listening to this conversation between these two creative powers (that you shouldn’t listen to before watching the double fine doc) when I became so inspired by what these companies are doing on their computers. Here’s the trailer for A Way Out:

Please be excited.

BONUS: this other game that is yet to release but looks gorgeous:

Yeah. Okay, that’s out of my system. This is a way longer video than it was supposed to be. I mean post. Ugh. I’m tired. Please feel free to type in “VIDEO GAMES SUCK YOUR CRAZY” into the comments just to be mean cause that would be very funny. Okay. Now to hang myself.

Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2 and how it came very close to being a near-perfect superhero ensemble movie

Guardians of the Galaxy 2 is a very a fun and consistently pretty movie which emotes really well, and it comes very close to being almost a perfect ensemble movie. It left me very impressed but I wasn’t going to write anything about it until I felt like someone should appreciate how close it comes to perfectly serving everyone in the titular team of superheroes with the story and its action and the music. Spoiler alert: it comes very close. I’m going to discuss it now. Don’t read past this  point if you haven’t seen it. I mean it.

Okay, so I was one of the very, very, very few people who thought that the first movie was NOT that great. I mean, it just didn’t hook me. I think I might have been overhyped for it and it just wasn’t as good as I was expecting. The majority of the jokes fell flat for me and I thought the music, while obviously very good, was used too fleetingly to be truly effective (which is something that happens a few times in this one as well). I also thought it was quite clear where the story was going to go and nothing really truly surprised me. I was honestly expecting more of the same in this movie but Vol.2 feels fresh and like its treading new ground almost constantly. The twist about Ego was also very cool and quite satisfying. The action incorporates humor, music and bombastic set-pieces really well. Baby Groot causes the audience to lapse into contented sighs when all the “AW”‘s are pulled out of them in the first 20 seconds of the movie. It looks great and hence better than any Marvel movie that has come before it. But what’s truly cool about it is that it manages to develop and incorporate into its story almost all of its characters, besides probably Drax, whose main purpose is just to provide comic relief by laughing uncontrollably and get beat around by all of the bad guys. He’s still great though!

SO, the team in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is made up of 7 characters, and the story of the movie manages to serve (almost) all of them with quite satisfying arcs. Each character has about 20 minutes (give or take) allocated for their screen time and very little time is wasted which makes the movie feel packed and keeps the pace of the plot satisfyingly fast. There is just too much going on in Vol.2 for the viewer to be able to get bored. There isn’t any time left in the movie for it to make the viewer feel like “When is this thing going to end I wonder?”. It helps that the settings of the movie are so diverse. In 30 minutes we go from a monster fight to a space battle to an encounter in a forest and it impressively doesn’t feel like you’re just going through a slideshow of exotic alien locales like the beginning of Rogue One did (I’m sorry for saying that I just don’t like Rogue One). The team is split into two parts for most of the movie too, with Peter, Gamora and Drax going with Ego and Rocket, Yondu and Groot having their own separate tussles. Oh, Nebula sort of does her own thing and moves between the two groups halfway though the movie. This splitting up of the team helps in keeping the plot going, as like, for example, while Gamora is just skulking around Ego’s planet with a sense of foreboding and cutting some alien weeds in anger, we cut to Rocket and Yondu having an awesome escape scene from an enemy ship. It works very well and about two-thirds of the film, I felt like I was having the time of my life. It was that good. Peter’s arc with his father and Gamora was strong and, ofcourse, very surprising. Gamora’s relationship with Nebula and her unaddressed thing with Star Lord gave her a prominent role in the movie. Rocket and Yondu working together and finding out they were not so different was very well done. Mantis’ bucked her fear of her master for her new friends and set up the plot twist a little. Baby Groot finally grew up a bit in the end (I mean, he did manage to press the right button) and Drax, well, I guess he cried a little bit in the middle didn’t he? Also, he did a lot of this too: (I got this GIF from We Minored in Film)

drax-laugh

And, the villains were certainly better in quality than a lot of other marvel villains. Ego and the twist that he had a really big, er, ego (I’M SORRY) was fantastic. The gold lady was fine (no, not in THAT way). I think the twist about Ego was, while very cool, just a little undercooked and this hurt the eventual ending of the film. I enjoyed the first two thirds so much that the ending disappointed me. Yes, it did.

The thing about Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2 is that it sort of feels in the end like everything that had come before didn’t really have any direction. For the majority of the film, there’s no main plotline driving everything. Peter Quill goes to learn about his father and Gamora and Drax join him. Rocket and Yondu meet and really getting back to the rest of the team isn’t really a priority for them until they see the golden people drones. They just try to escape from their prison and kill the evil ravagers. Nebula is after Gamora and that’s it. There’s no main plotline to the film. The side stuff is great and very strong but none of it yet feels like its what the movie is about. It’s only after the Ego twist that movie gets a sense of direction and we understand what the movie is really gearing towards: The guardians have to stop Ego the living planet from destroying the galaxy and have to try and get out alive. The side stuff is strong but its all geared too much towards individual characters. When you talk about Vol.2, you’re not going to say “Oh, that’s the one about Rocket and Yondu escaping from a prison”, or “Yeah Vol.2 was all about Gamora’s struggle with her sister and their issues”. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol.2 is the one where the guardians have to defeat a living planet and save the galaxy again but you don’t know that until about 3 quarters through the film. Now, like imagine if, for example, instead of Rocket and Groot staying behind of their own will, they are instead captured by the golden people, with the help of Nebula and Ego himself (but secretly). There they find out that the Ravagers have acted against Yondu and are working with the golden people. Suddenly, Ego shows up and says he can help the remaining Guardians get their friends back but only if they come with him. Oh, and he’s Star Lord’s dad. Then while in prison, Rocket and Yondu find out Ego is actually in cahoots with the golden people and assisted in their capture and know they have to escape to save their friends. While on the planet, Ego forgets about helping the rest of the guardians and shows interest only in Peter. This angers Gamora and would be a more suitable reason for her to suspect foul play than “Yeah, idk, Mantis was about to say something and I don’t feel good”. This kind of set up makes the golden people the main bad guys of the film and sets up a goal for the guardians: getting each other free. It also allows for almost all of the strong side stories but with more agency. The twist about Ego would also have been better set up. Aw man.

While thinking about Guardians of the Galaxy, I think about how it could have been the greatest superhero ensemble movie ever made. But it isn’t. It’s fun and occasionally poignant but it isn’t a masterpiece. But it had the potential to be so and I feel like it should be commended for it. It was a good movie, but it could have been great.

Logan

A movie with some of the most satisfyingly violent and pulse pounding action I’ve ever seen in a film, Logan carries the burden of spelling the end of the Hugh Jackman’s iconic, near 2 decade spanning turn as Logan/James Howlett/ The Wolverine (all names that are used for him in this one) and succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do. The story is weighty, the action is spectacular, and Logan cuts more limbs, severs more heads, drinks more alcohol and screams in rage more times than he’s ever cut/severed/drunk/screamed in a singe film before. He also says ‘fuck’ enough times to make up for all those times in previous movies when he was really angry and wanted to say fuck but had to settle for ‘shit’ or ‘asshole’ cause of that pesky PG-13 rating. Jokes aside, the freedom granted by the R-rating really works in Logan’s favour and to celebrate, we too will curse as much as we want in this review to make up for all those times in previous reviews when we wanted to say fuck but couldn’t because if Logan could contain himself, so could we. Not this time though. So let’s get this fucking review fucking over with.

Patrick Stewart too reprises his role as Professor X. His performance is unexpectedly different from the Professor X we’ve seen before and feels very fresh. His dynamic with Jackman is, of course, very well established, having been co-starring alongside the guy with the claws (that metaphor was proprietary) for about 9 and a half fucking movies. Dafne Keen is incredible as X-23. Granted she doesn’t speak much, but the young actress really manages to make the characters’ eyes express themselves, which is very impressive. Also, her introduction as a mutant is one of the most badass power reveals you’re ever going to see. X-23 gives Logan a run for his money in the badass department. Caliban, a character you didn’t know you’d seen before in X-men Apocalypse cause that movie was boring as all fuck, is played here by Stephen Merchant and Boyd Holbrook plays that guy with the robot hand. And that’s all the characters in Logan you’ll actually give two shits about so lets move on.

The movie starts with Wolverine driving along a limo, earning money by being a limo driver. Events occur that end up with him going on a road trip with a really fucking cranky Professor X and a psychotically violent, seemingly mute girl called X-23. I won’t spoil anything else but there a few cool surprises in the film that are fun and VERY intriguing. At a high point in the middle of the film, you can’t guess what in the hell is going to happen next and while that feeling unfortunately doesn’t last until the end, Logan is extremely successful in maintaining constant tension and anxiousness in the viewer about what turns the story is going to take. It achieves this by being extravagantly, gorgeously, viscerally violent. I found it to be thrilling and thought it gave real weight and consequence to the action scenes, but the people who saw it with me thought the violence was unnecessary. IT’S NOT FUCKING UNNECESSARY. All of the violence in Logan feels motivated. It gives something to the story or the scene or the emotion of the characters. It’s great.

The action scenes in Logan are filmic embodiment of the crazy things your brain comes up with when you think “R-rated Wolverine movie”. I was not expecting the action to be this good or this effective but it is and its magnificent. It really is. If you payed for the ticket and for some reason all you got was a video slideshow of the films action set pieces, I promise you you would not be disappointed. In fact, I was slightly disappointed by Logan’s ending. The story is great, but the set pieces outshine them. Terrifically directed and put together, they are the highlight of the movie. It’s action fine dining, and I felt it has a lot in it inspired by the amazing Mad Max: Fury Road.

Logan can be really morose and sullen at times but can also be quite funny in places. One point at which it unintentionally made me laugh was when Logan gets into a fight and one of his claws only comes out half way and he has to pull it out later. I thought that could’ve been comedy gold and has been probably been done in the past by some comedian or other. It was funny. The ending shot could actually have been pretty funny too if you hadn’t been c- uh, I’ll leave that alone. The film also takes some very interesting thematic and story turns in regard to the overall mythos of the Fox X-men universe but doesn’t dwell on them too much. Logan prefers to focus on Wolverine instead and the tremendous twists it pulls on the X-men movieverse go by pretty much unaddressed. It feels like a stand alone film. I doubt any other X-men movie is going to return to its world and in that regard too it feels very special.

I didn’t really have high hopes for Logan. The Wolverine didn’t really excite me that much and I saw it was basically the same team and my hopes dropped. I’ve been seeing Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine in X-men movies since I was a kid (I’m still a kid but I have a pseudo beard now so let me fucking say what I want) and wanted his last movie to be the best one he’s ever been in. And it is. It really fucking is.