Category: Sci-Fi Adventure


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As a child, it’s possible that I was exposed more to Don Bluth films than I was to traditional Disney animation. I know for certain that I enjoyed movies like All Dogs Go to Heaven and An American Tail more than most of the Disney output of the 90s (The Lion King and Aladdin two massive exceptions). Even as a kid, I think I recognized the darker and more subversive undertones in Bluth films (though certainly his powerful storytelling and richly drawn characters had more to do with it then) compared to their Disney counterparts. An American Tail was a heartbreaking and terrifying tale of childhood abandonment mixed in the Russian Jewish immigrant experience in the United States in the 1910s. No company would try that today. 2000’s Titan A.E. was the last Bluth film to make it to theatres. It was a massive flop at the box office, and along with Treasure Planet, it sort of killed traditional hand-drawn Western animation. Thankfully, a cult audience has formed around this film in the last decade.

Although, in many ways, Titan A.E. isn’t as great as Bluth’s output of the late 80s and early 90s. I would go so far as to simply say it isn’t a great film, though it was a very good one. Part of the problem is that this was one of the rare Bluth films where Bluth wasn’t the sole director. It was also directed by Gary Goldman, who (with the exception of All Dogs Go to Heaven) was mostly involved in a lot of the less than stellar Bluth films of the 90s. The movie was in production for a long, long time and many writers were involved with the project, and a lack of a cohesive vision for the film is painfully apparent. The movie does have a lot going for it. The Titan A.E.-universe is very appealing, and thanks to Joss Whedon’s work on the script, the characters are great. It is also arguably one of the darkest and most violent children’s films I’ve ever seen. I just wish the story held together better and that there was a more unified vision for the film.

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Titan A.E. is the definition of a cult children’s film so I won’t be surprised if most of my reader’s haven’t seen it. In the 31st century, Cale (Good Will Hunting‘s Matt Damon) was orphaned as a child when an alien species made of pure energy, the Dredge, destroyed the planet Earth and his father escaped on the ship Titan with an undisclosed mission that could be the hope to save humanity. 15 years later, Cale is a brash young man with no human identity doing repair work on a remote mining station with only his alien mentor for company or friendship. That all changes when Captain Corso (Torchwood: Miracle Day‘s Bill Pullman) arrives informing Cale that he, not his father, is now humanity’s last hope. A ring given to Cale by his father right before the destruction of Earth is a map to the location of the Titan ship, and Cale must answer the call to find his destiny and save the human race.

And, thus, Cale is whisked away (not without a dramatic and violent escape from the mining station) by Corso to his ship where Cale meets Corso’s eccentric and border-line insane crew. The obligatory (and sort of terribly developed in terms of their romance) love interest is the human colonist Akima (Irreconcilable Differences‘ Drew Barrymore). You also have Preed (Nathan Lane), the lascivious dog alien with a less than subtle attraction to Akima (or any female it would appear). Grune (Romeo + Juliet‘s John Leguizamo) is the ship’s turtle/E.T. looking scientist with a strange, almost sexual reaction to the gadgetry and scientific mysteries of the film. And lastly, you have Stith (Reality Bites‘s Janeane Garofalo), the beleaguered ship’s weapon specialist, who mostly likes to complain about the fact that she has too many degrees to be doing the work on the ship she does.

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As you can tell, Titan A.E. has a refreshingly quirky cast that generally doesn’t fit into the “quirky” archetypes of your average kid’s movie. And with the notable exception of Drew Barrymore (because when has she ever given a good performance), the voice-acting is great across the board. Obviously, Matt Damon’s Cale isn’t as demanding a part as Good Will Hunting or The Departed but it’s a kid’s movie for fuck’s sake. The two best voice-over performances are Bill Pullman’s Corso as a wonderful gruff mentor figure who shows some remarkable range in his performance (that I can’t get too far into without spoiling a late game plot twist) and John Leguizamo’s Grune just for the sheer oddity of his takes on an almost literal mad scientist. Most of the laughs from the film (cause it’s mostly dramatic) come from Grune.

And, as I said, the universe of Titan A.E. is consistently welcoming. As I watched the film, I pretty much constantly wanted to know more about the world our heroes were exploring. Part of that can be attributed to the film’s wonderful art-style. There’s a section on a planet of bat-like aliens that is just stunningly gorgeous. But, and this is the film’s biggest problem, the story seems to run purely on getting from one crazy scrape to the next. And, the individual set-pieces are awesome and endlessly inventive, but the plotting of the film borders on patchwork at best and totally illogical at its worst. For example, at one point, the Dredge are holding Cale captive and he breaks out of their prison in the most insultingly simple way imaginable. Also, at one point, Cale and Corso survive being exposed to Outer Space in just their regular clothes by holding their breath. That…. is not how that works. They would have frozen to death. Of course, I know I’m putting too much thought into a sci-fi film where there is an alien species made of pure energy.

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I’m going to draw this review to a close. I wound up sleeping like 15 hours last night which means I probably haven’t eaten in like 19 hours. And I am huuuuungry. I also want to watch Twin Peaks even though this season seems to have more twists per episode than most shows have over the course of an entire season. Season 2 of Twin Peaks is crazy y’all. I may not have fallen in love with Titan A.E. as much as I did The Land Before Time or Bluth’s other best works, but it was an enjoyable ride for the 90 minutes it lasted. The only other substantive complaint one could make about this film is that it is in no way, shape, or form suitable for children. It is violent. And, not in some surface way. It is just super violent. A character gets his neck snapped, one character is shot and explodes into green goo, blood is seemingly omni-present. It’s just violent. But, if you’re older and have fond memories of Bluth, this is a fun way to pass an evening.

Final Score: B+

 

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I am a sucker for imaginative storytelling and engrossing world building. From a classical storytelling perspective, the Russell T. Davies years of Doctor Who or the early seasons of Star Trek: The Next Generation aren’t bastions of great characters or “important” insights into the human condition, but as someone who loves fantastical new worlds, they scratch that need. Ever since I was little and I was introduced to The Hobbit, I’ve had a constant desire to see new things and explore worlds I’ve never encountered before. 1984’s The Last Starfighter has a wonderful premise and a compelling mythology, but the film suffers in its execution with a story that ultimately feels woefully deficient and underdeveloped.

Perhaps it’s the screenwriter in me (long time readers should know that I’ve written two unpublished screenplays and I’m hard at work on a third one right now), but I found myself nitpicking every step of the way little areas where I felt The Last Starfighter missed a storytelling opportunity or had major characters seem embarrassingly thinly drawn. In fact, if I had to sum up my reaction to this film in one quick sentence, it’s that The Last Starfighter rests on the laurels of an ahead of it’s time basic plot but then fails to properly capitalize with compelling villains, good acting, or proper pacing. Though these thoughts didn’t keep me from enjoying the film, I kept getting pulled out of the experience after one cheesy interlude after another.

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Alex Rogan (Lance Guest) is your average teenage boy living his last summer before the beginning of college. Alex lives in a trailer park with his mother and little brother as well as his girlfriend, Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), and he dreams of nothing more than going to a nice college and getting out of the Starlite Starbrite trailer park once and for all. And the only thing that Alex seems to enjoy in life any more besides the company of his girlfriend is the Starfighter arcade box up at the general store near the trailer park. One night Alex finally beats the Starfighter game and finds his life changed forever.

It turns out that the Starfighter video game was a secret test left on Earth by the alien Centauri (Robert Preston) to find new recruits for the Starfighter defense program defending the galactic frontier. Centauri shows up on Earth and whisks Alex away to an alien-filled space station to convince Alex to help defend the galaxy, but when it becomes clear that Alex’s life is in danger, Alex wants to go home. But, it isn’t long before he’s back on Earth and realizes that everyone he loves and holds dear will be in danger if he doesn’t fight. And Alex is forced to take up the call and become the titular last starfighter.

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None of the performances in the film are anything to write home about and pretty much all of the aliens are invariably over the top. Lance Guest is appropriately sensitive and lost as the hero and Catherine Mary Stewart also gels as his girlfriend, but it’s also clear that both were cast more for their good looks than for any acting talent. Robert Preston hams it up in every single second he’s on screen as the Merlin-esque Centauri to the point of distraction, and I’m not entirely sure what was up with the weird little laugh Alex’s alien navigator Grig had to do every time he thought something was funny.

Surprisingly, the special effects of the film both look like a product of the mid 1980s, but they also don’t distract from the overall experience of the film by coming off as too cheesy (except for maybe the absurd encephalitis that the primary alien species seems to suffer from). In fact, the 1980s video game look of some of the space ships and the space battles actually adds some perhaps unintentional charm to the film as it captures the arcade aesthetic that propelled Alex into space in the first place.

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If you are a fan of cheesy science fiction (particularly of the 1980s variety), by all means check The Last Starfighter out if you’ve never gotten around to it. It will be a pleasant diversion, and it will harken back to a day of more innocent film-making. It’s not perfect, and I wish I could have had a crack at writing the script for this film’s story, but it’s fun. If you don’t enjoy this particular brand of science fiction, you likely won’t see the point of this movie and may even think it’s quite stupid. That’s fair, but I enjoyed the hour and forty minutes I spent with this film.

Final Score: B

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The 2013 summer blockbuster season is finally upon us. It likely began with the release of Iron Man 3 earlier in the month (which had one of the highest grossing opening weekends of all time), and now for the next few months, we should see a steady stream of high-budget, action extravaganzas plowing their way into movie theaters near you. And if the initial reviews surrounding Iron Man 3 (which I should be seeing sometime soon with my sister) and the newest Star Trek film are any indication, we should be in for a hell of a summer. Star Trek Into Darkness may come just shy of the high bar set by the 2009 Star Trek reboot, but it comes damn close.

I left the theater yesterday when the final credits rolled on the latest entry in J.J. Abrams’s re-imagining of the Star Trek franchise with a panoply of conflicting emotions. On the one hand, J.J. Abrams upped the “spectacle” portion of the Star Trek equation to new heights. As a science fiction action film, Into Darkness is a heart-pounding success, and the script also further cements the truly wonderful group dynamics at the core of these new films with some genuine emotional resonance. On the other hand, there’s one aspect of the plot that I can’t spoil but it left me finding the film’s climax to be riddled with one massive cop-out.

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An indeterminate amount of time after Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) and the rest of the crew of the Enterprise saved Earth from the evil Romulan Nero at the end of the last film, the Enterprise is still helmed by Kirk as they perform science missions in Federation space. After Captain Kirk violates the Prime Directive (to not interfere in the affairs of an underdeveloped alien species) in an attempt to save Spock’s (Zachary Quinto) life, he is grounded by Admiral Pike (Bruce Greenwood) and demoted to First Officer. However, it’s not long before the terrorist machinations of superhuman genius John Harrison (Benedict Cumberbatch) threaten all of the Federation and call Kirk back into service.

Much like when Cloverfield was originally released and just discussing even the most basic elements of the plot could be considered a spoiler, I have the same fears about Star Trek Into Darkness. With the exception of one gratuitous “Chekhov’s Gun” (the playwright, not the ensign of the Enterprise) meets a “deus ex machina” at the film’s end, Star Trek Into Darkness is a tightly plotted and well-executed series of reveals, twists, revelations, and betrayals, and I imagine much of the fun (particularly for those who aren’t immersed in Trek lore) of the film will come from watching the many plot threads slowly start to converge.

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One of the great surprises of the film was just how much Chris Pine stepped up his acting game for this entry. Not to imply that he did a bad job in the 2009 film but perhaps because Into Darkness affords Pine’s Kirk the opportunity to do more than be an arrogant hothead, but the emotional journey and heroic path that Kirk charts in this film is its most rewarding pleasure. And Pine rises to the challenge of capturing the slow destruction of Kirk’s cocksure confidence with ease, and through his chemistry with Zachary Quinto, you really get an eve better feel for one of science fiction’s most legendary heroes than almost ever before. I can’t say much about Benedict Cumberbatch’s John Harrison other than to say he proves an excellent and efficient foil to the Enterprise crew.

I’m awake at 5:30 AM and I have to be at work at 8 AM for the new job that I start today. I actually went to bed at around 10:30 PM last night but I woke up at about 4:40 this morning. Thankfully, I’m only going to be at work for a couple of hours for training and then back much later in the evening for training again. The moral of this rambling is that I’m tired and I’ll draw this review to a close. Had Star Trek Into Darkness not done one thing at the end of the movie, I think it would have been even better than the 2009 film. It’s that good. But that one decision seemed so weak and cheap, that it lessens the whole experience just a little bit. But not nearly enough that I can’t wholeheartedly recommend Star Trek Into Darkness to every science fiction fan I know. Live long and prosper.

Final Score: B+

 

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Since last Sunday, I have watched 17 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation. The impetus for this sudden interest in Star Trek is likely tied to the fact that Star Trek: Into Darkness premiered this week, and I’ve been anticipating this film ever since J.J. Abrams first reboot of the Trek universe premiered in 2009. I had ordered Star Trek 2009 from Netflix to prep for the sequel, but the copy Netflix sent me was broken, and I had to get a new one. So, in the interim, I watched an unholy amount of Next Generation which I’ve enjoyed despite some of the silliness of Season 1. And, having watched so much original Star Trek: TNG lately, it creates an interesting perspective for this viewing of the reboot.

In the Star Trek television series, the emphasis is always on peaceful exploration and the collection of knowledge. The crews of the various versions of the Enterprise (or the USS Voyager or the people on the base in Deep Space Nine) may encounter hostile forces, but at least in season 1 of TNG, problems are solved through diplomacy and a lens of moral idealism. The whole point of Q seems to be a higher race that tests humanity’s willingness to support its own values even when its difficult. The 2009 Star Trek succeeds (highly) on its own merits and artistic vision, but its emphasis on action and combat seems at odds with the more cerebral nature of the TV series that spawned it.

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Serving as a reboot to the continuity of the original series (although with a conceit that I won’t spoil for any who haven’t seen the film), Star Trek becomes an origin story for how Captain James Tiberius Kirk (Smokin’ Aces‘ Chris Pine) captains the Starship Enterprise. After his father (The Avengers‘ Chris Hemsworth) dies saving his people (including Kirk’s pregnant mother) from a Romulan attack, Kirk grows up a troubled kid with no respect for authority until he’s recruited into Starfleet by Captain Pike of the USS Enterprise who knew his father. Determined to prove himself, Kirk joins the Federation not knowing what fate has in store for him.

After cheating on a Starfleet exam programmed by Commander Spock (Heroes‘ Zachary Quinto), Kirk’s punishment is delayed by an attack on the planet Vulcan. After being sneaked aboard the Enterprise by his best friend, Leonard “Bones” McCoy (Karl Urban), Kirk manages to help save the Enterprise from an attack from the same Romulans who killed his father 25 years earlier. With Vulcan destroyed, Captain Pike captured, and the Romulans’ sights set on Earth, it’s up to the crew of the Enterprise to save the day and for Kirk and Spock to learn to put aside their differences for the greater good.

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I was  skeptical of his casting when the film was first announced, but Chris Pine was a worthy replacement for William Shatner to play Captain Kirk, and by all reasonable metrics, he’s a much better actor than the hammy Shatner. He perfectly captures the cockiness and drive that make Kirk one of science fiction’s most beloved heroes. Zachary Quinto (who bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Leonard Nimoy) was very well cast as Spock, and the film gives Quinto a chance to examine the conflict between Spock’s logical Vulcan side and his emotional human half. The pair craft an appropriately epic sci-fi “bromance.”

J.J. Abram’s direction is appropriately epic. Although Star Trek was overshadowed in 2009 by the even more massively-budgeted Avatar, it’s clear that when given a big budget, J.J. Abrams knows what to do with it. As much as I’ve enjoyed watching TNG this week, the effects are laughable at best and really awful at worst, and it’s cool seeing the Trek universe with modern effects. People mock Abrams’ love of lens flare, but from start to finish, Trek is a well-choreographed action blockbuster from beginning to end that finds a beating heart in between the away missions and explosive space battles.

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Even if you’ve never seen any of the television series or original movies (which I hadn’t before my initial viewing of this film upon its release), Star Trek is a rousing sci-fi adventure in an era where that doesn’t happen often enough on the big screen. Because Abrams takes the time to develop these characters and their backstories and their chemistry as a group, you can care about these heroes even without understanding the character archetypes they’re drawn from. And with a supporting crew including John Cho, Simon Pegg, and Zoe Saldana, you’re given plenty of characters to latch onto (though Cho and Pegg don’t have much screen time).

I’m very excited to watch Star Trek: Into Darkness. My family is probably going to go see it at some point in the next week or so. So, expect a review of it in the coming days. If you’re a fan of science fiction, there is no excuse for not watching J.J. Abrams’ reboot of one of the most beloved sci-fi franchises of all time (and it makes so excited to see where he takes the Star Wars films). And, although the film’s themes seem to diverge wildly from its own source material, if you are able to divest yourself from what you think Star Trek needs to be, it seems impossible to not enjoy this voyage where we go boldly where no man has gone before.

Final Score: A-

 

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What does it mean to be more than just another summer blockbuster? How do you separate yourself from the crowded marquee of countless other generic big-budget spectacles that invade our cinemas each year? If you’re Christopher Nolan, you turn The Dark Knight Rises into a political allegory that reshapes the possibility of myth-making in the ultimate American mythos, the superhero. If you’re Joss Whedon, you use The Avengers to set a new bar for witty dialogue and compelling group dynamics as well as incorporating arguably the greatest fight scene in all of superhero-dom. I did not think I would ever place Planet of the Apes reboot Rise of the Planet of the Apes in the same league as those two top-tier blockbusters. I was dumb for doubting it because this particular origin story has more heart, brains, and meaning than the rest of the franchise combined, and it holds its own with the very best of the summer blockbusters.

Set in the near future (man is going to Mars so it can’t be the present), Rise of the Planet of the Apes defies franchise expectations by focusing not on men who are tormented by their ape overlords, but on the apes who are punished and tortured until they finally rebel against their human oppressors. Caesar (Andy Serkis) is a very special chimpanzee. When his mother, a test subject for an experimental Alzheimer’s cure, is put down trying to protect her newly born son, geneticist Will Rodman (127 Hours‘ James Franco) takes Caesar home where he quickly learns that Caesar’s intelligence is far superior to that of a normal chimp. I don’t want to ruin the chain of events that lead to ape rebellion, but after raising Caesar as his own family for many years, humanity’s own dark side prods Caesar and the mistreatment of his fellow apes to finally fight back.

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Whereas most of the films in the franchise portrayed the apes as evil conquerors, Rise of the Planet Apes paints Caesar as a burgeoning freedom fighter whose constant exposure to injustice leads him down the path to revolution. I have more to say about Andy Serkis in a second, but it is exceptionally impressive that in this film, they were able to make me care more about Caesar and his comrades-in-arms than any of the flesh-and-blood people that populated the screen. Unable to talk for most of the film (don’t worry franchise purists. They’re voice boxes return), Rise of the Planet of the Apes still managed to turn Caesar into a sympathetic figure of the injustice and cruelty man inflicts on animals just through strong writing and superb animation. And also, the motion-capture work that Andy Serkis did, but, yet again, more on that in a second.

Twice now, I have cared more about an Andy Serkis creation in a movie than the actual actors he was playing across from. A lot of that is the writing, but if there wasn’t a talented actor bringing these intricately animated figures to life, they just wouldn’t click with audiences. Gollum isn’t actually one of the two characters I was referring to, but would his arc through the Lord of the Rings franchise had seemed so tragic and sympathetic if Andy Serkis hadn’t been behind his movements? I think not. But between Caesar and the titular ape in Peter Jackson’s King Kong, Andy Serkis managed to elicit such strong emotional reactions from me just by playing apes. In fact, I might go so far as to say that Caesar is the strongest of his performances thus far, and I hope (if the writing is good) that he gets to return to this role at some point in the future.

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It wouldn’t be much of a summer blockbuster if it didn’t have the requisite action sequences and in that regard, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is fairly restrained, although part of me wants to say that it does so in a good way. A good three-quarters of the film is nothing but introducing us to the character of Caesar, the world he finds himself in, and then the path of abuse and punishment that leads to him rising up against his oppressors. I applaud the film’s decision to devote so much time to developing not just Caesar (though he gets the brunt of the development) but also Will, and Will’s Alzheimer-suffering father (John Lithgow). However, the film’s final sequence, where the apes finally rise up, seemed rushed, although that complaint is mitigated by the obvious sequel hooks that it’s ending left in place.

I’m going to keep this short because I want to work on my screenplay tonight (I’m 50 pages into my third screenplay since October. I’ve finished two others) although there’s a good chance that I’m just going to end up playing Tropico 4 or watch The Master which I have at home from Netflix. My roommates appear to be having some type of party down stairs so maybe I’ll join in. Although, they’re being a little raucous so it might be too much party for me and I’ll just stay in my attic. If you like smart, well-crafted science fiction and want a compelling lead, Rise of the Planet of the Apes is as good as any American summer blockbuster to come out in years. If you’ve put off watching it because of the travesty of the Tim Burton remake, get over that fear right now, and check this film out.

Final Score: A-

 

(Quick aside before my actual review. In my Song of the Day post for today, I promised to reveal why it was that my blogging had slowed down some this week even though I had only worked two days at the mall. It’s because I finally got around to starting on a screenplay. I know I’ve talked about that a lot of times on here, but I actually sat down and tried to write for the first time in a long while. And it’s going really well so far. I started Tuesday or Wednesday I guess. I’m not sure for sure, but I’ve written 30 pages since then. The average screenplay is either 90 or 120 minutes long so I’m either a third of the way there or a fourth for my first draft. I’m not going to share it with anyone until I’ve finished my first draft and done some proofreading/minor editing, but when it’s taken real shape, I will let all of my loyal readers know. Now, on to Star Wars!)

When this blog was in its infant stages, one of the first 50 films that I reviewed was Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. Nearly the entire saga is on my list (except for The Phantom Menace because I will never voluntarily subject myself to that film again), and it’s taken a year and a half for the random number gods determining which films I watch from my master list to provide me with another entry in the series. The Star Wars franchise is one of the most beloved film series of all time, and although I think that the Lord of the Rings trilogy is superior to the original Star Wars trilogy (it’s not even a competition about being better than the prequels), there’s still something magical about watching the original films. That magic is never greater than in Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back which remains the crowning achievement of the franchise.

After destroying the Death Star at the end of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back picks up three years later with the Rebel Alliance in hiding on the ice planet of Hoth. After Luke gets stranded over-night in the frozen wastes when his tauntaun (basically a reptile horse alien creature) is killed, he sees a vision from his old mentor Obi-Wan telling him to visit the planet of Dagobah to find the Jedi Master Yoda. Luke is rescued from Hoth by Han Solo only for the planet to be invaded the next day by the Empire. After holding off the Imperial forces, Luke heads to Dagobah (with R2-D2) while Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and C-3PO escape on the Millennium Falcon while evading constant pursuit from the Empire. As Luke is trained in the ways of the Jedi by the mysterious and tiny Yoda, his friends must stay one step ahead of the Empire if they want to avoid the clutches of Darth Vader.

Many of my thoughts about the original film remain relevant here. Outside of Han (and now Billy Dee William’s Lando Calrissian who appears in Empire), most of the film’s characters are more of an archetype than actually well defined characters in their own right. Luke is still your classical hero-in-training/messianic archetype (although actually, it’s hard to decide whether Luke or Anakin is actually the one who brought balance to the force and I don’t want to spark that nerd debate here). Leia is your rebellious princess. Darth Vader is the fallen hero (though you don’t find that out til the next film), and The Emperor is… the evil emperor. Only Han’s loveable rogue breaks the rules of mainstream storytelling, and it’s a testament to his character’s popularity that Han himself has become nearly a stock character type since the series began.

Similarly, the acting itself remains hit or miss. Harrison Ford is as charming and rakish as always, and the decision to play with the sexual chemistry between himself and Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia was wise. Let’s face it. Han telling Leia “I know” when she says that she loves him remains one of the most bad-ass moments in film history (rivaling any of the actual action sequences of the series). Carrie Fisher is appealingly tough as the Princess even if there isn’t much going on beneath the surface there. However, Mark Hamill, the center of the franchise as Luke, avoids being the worst leading actor in the series only because Hayden Christensen would show up later to ruin Anakin Skywalker forever. He’s wooden, weird inflections, and his angry face is more hilarious than dramatic. Thank god James Earl Jones is still around to add some gravitas to the interactions between Luke and Darth Vader.

What makes Empire Strikes Back my favorite entry in the franchise is the way that it expands the universe in consistently interesting ways without falling prey to any of the “cutesy” trappings that would mar Return of the Jedi (fucking Ewoks man) and straight up ruin the first two prequel films. A New Hope can basically be summed up as Tatooine, escaping the Death Star, destroying the Death Star. Empire Strikes Back is more willing to diversify the settings as well as the act structure. The film also introduces many of the most famous and beloved characters of the franchise. We see Boba Fett, the Emperor, Lando Calrissian, and Yoda all for the first time in Empire. If you really pay attention to the dialogue of the film, you will walk away knowing much more about the Star Wars universe than you did at the end of A New Hope.

The other (and pretty much primary) reason that I prefer The Empire Strikes Back to any other film in the franchise is that it’s easily the darkest entry in the series. Well, perhaps Revenge of the Sith is darker, but it also ultimately falls apart when it’s examined too closely (cause George Lucas did not write a compelling enough downfall for Anakin) so it’s disqualified from this race. Nearly every aspect of the final act of Empire Strikes Back is a downer. If you somehow haven’t seen the film stop reading now because you’re about to get some spoilers. Star Wars is the original blockbuster film series, and it’s decision to have its middle chapter end on the stark note of Luke losing his hand and finding out his father is his sworn enemy as well as Han Solo being captured and frozen in carbonite would ultimately shape the narrative structure of future series such as The Matrix.

I haven’t actually worked on my screenplay any today because I slept in til nearly 2 (even though I went to bed before 11 last night. I just slipped into a minor coma) so I’m going to keep this review short and try to write about 5 or so pages of my screenplay before I go to bed and get ready for class tomorrow. I’m sure at some point, I will review Return of the Jedi (I’ve now decided that even if my list has Revenge of the Sith or Attack of the Clones first, I’m just going to watch the films in the order they were released) although I don’t know when. I just hope that my earlier statement where I expressed my love for Lord of the Rings over Star Wars doesn’t inspire a Clerk 2-esque flame war in the comments section of this page. May the force be with you.

Final Score: A

2009’s (500) Days of Summer remains one of my favorite indie romances of the aughts. I’ve always thought of it as the modern update to Annie Hall (although obviously not quite as good). I watch it at least once a year. I actually watched it with my ex-girlfriend (well, she wasn’t my real girlfriend cause we were never official) and it proved to be an eerie presage to the fate of our relationship (i.e. I was far more involved with it than she was and she never really wanted to date but I did and shortly after we broke up she finally found a boyfriend). I bring up (500) Days of Summer because before this year, it was the sole feature film of director Marc Webb (besides a documentary about My Chemical Romance). He seems like an odd choice to helm the reboot of one of the most successful film franchises of all time, the Spider-Man series. He has one other movie under his belt, and it was an indie romance. Whoever made the gamble on his vision over at Columbia Pictures deserves a promotion then because Marc Webb defied my expectations over what I thought was an unnecessary film. Considering that the original Spider-Man movie is only ten years old, re-telling Peter Parker’s origin story doesn’t really seem all that necessary. However, Marc Webb did such a deft job of re-introducing us to the character (and adding his and Harry Potter screenwriter Steve Kloves’ own spin on the story which hews closer to the comics origin because of the Lizard and Gwen Stacy). For all superhero fans, The Amazing Spider-Man is one of the must see films of the summer.

Peter Parker’s origins are obviously well known at this point, but like I said, The Amazing Spider-Man takes a different (read: better) tack on it than the original Spider-Man. Peter Parker (The Social Network‘s Andrew Garfield) is a young, dorky high school student that loves to take pictures and like his (disappeared) parents, he’s a natural science whiz. Ever since his geneticist father and mother disappeared when he was a kid, Peter has lived with his Uncle Ben (Martin Sheen) and his Aunt Mae (Sally Field). He’s got a crush on the feisty and gorgeous Gwen Stacy (The Help‘s Emma Stone) who has a job as an intern at the pharmaceutical conglomerate Oscorp where she works for the disfigured (i.e. he’s missing an arm) scientist Curt Connors (Notting Hill‘s Rhys Ifans). One day, Peter visits the Oscorp labs to meet Curt Connors, who knew Peter’s father, when he’s bitten by a radioactive spider that was a part of an experiment Peter’s father was doing on cross-species genetics. The bite radically alters Peter Parker’s DNA and gives him the abilities of a spider including super strength, adhesive hands and feet, and super reflexes (however, true to the comics, he has to make his web himself). After Uncle Ben is murdered because Peter didn’t use his powers to stop a convenience store robbery, Peter vows to use his newfound powers for good and becomes the Spider-Man, fighting crime across New York City (even if it means garnering the ire of his new girlfriend Gwen’s father, a police captain [Dennis Leary]). He has to fight more than just common street thugs though when Curt Connors injects himself with a formula he thinks will help him regenerate his arm but instead transforms him into the murderous Lizard.

After my nearly 2000 word rant about Magic Mike, I’ll try to keep this review brief. Andrew Garfield is a star. I thought he gave a wonderful performance in The Social Network (I was honestly just as impressed with him as I was Jesse Eisenberg), and he keeps up that momentum in The Amazing Spider-Man. What’s always made Spidey such a compelling super hero is that Peter Parker is as important (if not more important) to the storytelling as his masked alter-ego. It’s all about growing-up and using what gifts you were given even if the costs are high. I loved Tobey Maguire as Spidey last time around but he never really nailed the sarcasm and sense of humor that is key to the Spidey persona. Not only does Andrew Garfield nab all of the pubescent angst and growing up themes (even if he’s 28 in real life and looks in no way shape or form like a high school student), he’s able to bring a cockiness and wit to the part that Tobey couldn’t. Give it a year or so, and Andrew Garfield will be one of the biggest young stars in the biz. Emma Stone is good as well even if she isn’t really stretching herself as the thinking man’s love interest that she’s played for half a decade now. It was weird seeing Rhys Ifans (who bears a freakish resemblance to Buffy‘s Anthony Stewart Head these days) in an action film since I will eternally think of him as the weird roommate in Notting Hill. Special props must also be given to Martin Sheen who lent more weight to the pivotal role of Uncle Ben than was given in the other films.

The script takes its time spelling out Spider-Man’s origin story and I applaud the decision to do so. It allows the characters to breathe, and The Amazing Spider-Man is as much a romantic comedy as it is a special-effects ridden action movie. We actually find ourselves invested in the romance of Gwen and Peter (as opposed to how little I cared about Peter’s yearnings for Mary Jane [though I can at least blame part of that on Kirsten Dunst’s horrid acting] in the original trilogy), and it was one of the most enjoyable love stories of the last year. Garfield and Stone had fantastic on-screen chemistry. Similarly, Uncle Ben had a very prominent place in the film which meant his death actually registered an emotional impact and there’s a scene towards the end of the film where Peter listens to the last voice mail that Uncle Ben ever gave him (which he had initially ignored) that nearly made me cry. However, the script does have one major misstep. The Lizard is an awful villain. Whereas the first two-thirds of the film are genuinely compelling material as we get a darker look at Peter’s origins (as well as his motivations to be a hero and some interesting questions about whether his vigilantism is even “right”), the film’s final act falls apart because The Lizard is just not interesting. It’s not Rhys Ifans’ fault and he’s good as the scenes where he’s Curt Connor. However, unlike Doc Ock (Spider-Man 2 is still my favorite entry in the franchise and one of my favorite superhero films ever), the characters motivations and goals just aren’t compelling.

I’m going to draw this to a close because 3000 words in one day is enough (and now I can finally watch the movies I have at home from Netflix since I’m caught up with what I lost out on due to the power outage) especially considering I still have to do my Song of the Day post and I’ve been replaying Chrono Trigger. Some final thoughts. Much like (500) Days of Summer, this film has an awesome soundtrack and I kind of want to buy it. Andrew Garfield would make an excellent Yorick if they ever decide to adapt Y: The Last Man into a TV series or into a movie series (they can’t just do one movie. I’d kill somebody). There’s no way that Gwen Stacy survives the next movie (especially if Norman Osborn finally shows up as the bad guy). Also, now I don’t have to go see another movie in the theaters until the 20th when The Dark Knight Rises finally comes out. Even more than The Avengers, that’s the movie of the summer of 2012 that I want to see, and I’m really ready to see how Christopher Nolan brings his Dark Knight trilogy to a close.

Final Score: B+

 As some of you may know, this blog actually existed in an entirely different format around October/November of last year. I was reviewing films on a year-by-year basis (my goal was to finish watching all of the important films of a given year and then rank said films). I gave up on that. However, back in February, I actually restarted the blog with its current and more flexible format. Anyways, I’ve been doing this since February and up til now, I had never actually reviewed a film that I had for the original blog before. Well, I wish it was a different film that ended that streak, but as it is, I just finished re-watching the highest grossing film of all time, 2009’s Avatar, a visually breath-taking film with an entirely recycled and unoriginal plot.

Avatar is a science-fiction epic that chronicles the battle for control of the planet Pandora. It is the year 2154, and humanity has reached space and begun to mine on the planet Pandora because of its rich sources of a valuable mineral, unobtanium (I couldn’t make a dumber name up). However, Pandora has a native population of sentient beings named Na’vi that have a sacred relationship with nature and do not wish that humanity disturb their planet. Paraplegic former marine Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) arrives on Pandora to pilot an “avatar” which his an artificially created Na’vi which is synced with his consciousness. Jake’s mission is to gain intelligence on the Na’vi stronghold so the corporation can destroy them, but as Jake spends more and more time among the Na’vi, he must decide whether his loyalties lie with the evil company or with the peaceful natives.

I’ll start with my praise for the film. It’s easily the best looking film ever made. This movie is a technical achievement that should be praised to kingdom come. When I saw it in theaters for the first time, my jaw was on the floor the entire film. I’ve never seen such beautiful sights created by computers, and I hope that this film is an inspiration to future film-makers who may be concerned that their visions are too grand to make the screen. The actual universe and mythology of the film is also interesting, and I wish that all of the sights and characters and concepts of the film could have been placed in a movie with a more original story.

Now for the film’s myriad issues. The movie’s plot is basically what would happen if you took Pocahontas, Ferngully: The Last Rainforest, and Dances with Wolves and put them in a blender set to “space” mode. There really isn’t an original bone to the film’s main story. The only originality comes in universe building. Also, the film is nearly three hours long, and as entertaining and as fun as it can be, that’s just way too long for me to be sitting and vegetating to something that’s not making me think very much. James Cameron is no Peter Jackson when it comes to crafting engaging epics. Biggest problem is the fact that the movie is full of non-stop and seemingly never ending exposition. Characters constantly engage in “as you know” speeches that just sound unnatural and insult the audience’s ability to piece things together on their own.

I appreciate the film’s attempt at a pro-environment, anti-rampant capitalism story, but it wasn’t really handled all that well. In 2009 alone, District 9 handled the “humans are bastards” theme so infinitely better than Avatar. I’ve always had such a huge problem where films that have the “noble savage” archetype feel the need to beat it over your head that they can only be saved by guilt-ridden white men. Whether or not that theme is true is besides the point. It’s a product of a very specific type of survivor guilt, and it’s intellectually condescending to native populations. I nearly forgot about the film’s ending which is predicated on a massive and literal deus ex machina. They’re literally saved from destruction by god. I thought this was science fiction.

I bitch and moan a lot about how over-rated this film is. It’s a travesty that it was nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars and WON Best Picture at the Golden Globes. However, this is a fun movie. I loved pretty much every second of it the first two times I watched it. Each subsequent viewing has robbed the film of much of its magic since it loses the initial awe of the beautiful visuals and I’m stuck with the realization that the story is paper-thin. This is a great popcorn film. If you are one of the weird few who still haven’t seen it, you should give it a go. Just don’t think it’s one of the best films ever made which I still don’t understand how the film has gained this repuation.

Final Score: B

A long time ago (about 30 years ago), in a galaxy not far away at all (our own), George Lucas dropped on the world a movie that would prove (if inflation is taken into account) to be the highest grossing film ever made and would go on to spawn 5 more films, a seemingly endless series of official novel tie-ins, a bunch of video games, and more licensed merchandise than I even want to begin to think about. That movie was, of course, Star Wars: Episode IV: A New Hope. With just one movie, George Lucas would change not just the face of science fiction in film forever but the very nature of blockbuster films for all of eternity. The first outing isn’t necessarily as perfect as history wants it to be, and I think The Empire Strikes Back is definitely the far better film, but this film’s place in cinema history is locked and guaranteed like few others.

I wish I could say that I literally don’t know a single person who has never seen the Star Wars films but that’s not true anymore, literally as of this watching, because my roommate’s girlfriend walked into the living room while I was watching this and told me she had never seen Star Wars before. I had to pause the movie so I could pick my jaw up off the floor and let that information sink in before I continued watching it. So, if you’re like my roommate’s girlfriend and have never seen a Star Wars picture, here’s a basic plot synopsis. Young farmer Luke Skywalker gets mixed up in an intergalactic battle between the evil Empire, headed by Emperor Palpatine (not named or even mentioned in this film) and Darth Vader against the Rebellion, led by Princess Leia. Luke is introduced to the concept of the Force, a mystical energy that flows through all life in the universe and gives us our strength and power, by an old Jedi knight named Obi-Wan Kenobi. With this new found power and a rag tag group of comrades like Han Solo, a mercenary, and his Wookie Chewbacca, along with robots R2-D2 and C3PO, Luke sets off on a journey to rescue the galaxy from the Empire.

If you thought the effects in this movie would age fairly poorly for something that’s over 30 years old, you’d be wrong, and I really am incapable of comprehending why George Lucas feels the need to go back and ruin his old classics by inserting digital upgrades and new scenes and computer graphics that weren’t in the original and feel completely out of place and forced. His effects and his genius still look great now and he really should just leave his own movies alone. South Park had it right when they devoted an entire episode to skewering this particularly sad trend of his. A shout out must be given to John Williams who gives perhaps one of the most iconic scores in film history in this movie. A lot of his scores have gained an iconic status, and there’s definitely a reason for this. He is simply one of the most talented scorers in the history of cinema.

The movie is not perfect despite what some people like to claim. Mark Hamill is an absolutely atrocious actor. It has its fair share of pacing problems. The character development is pretty bone dry and a lot of the characters are, in this movie and it’s fixed with the other two, caricatures of archetypal figures in fiction. However, there are a lot of great things working for it too. Despite being the most copied and mimicked movie ever made, its story and plot still hold up as genuinely entertaining despite all of the dopplegangers out there. Alec Guinness is spectacular in his Oscar-nominated role as Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Harrison Ford has never been cooler than when he’s Han Solo. C3PO and R2D2 are my favorite characters in the entire series despite the fact that R2D2 can literally only make indecipherable beeps and bloops. They just give the film the comic touch it definitely needs.

What is there left to say about Star Wars that hasn’t already been said. If these films (I’m referring to the original trilogy here, not the let’s just say less than fantastic new ones) weren’t as amazing as they truly are, the Star Wars franchise wouldn’t still be making more money in merchandise alone than whatever the biggest box office draw of the year makes in theaters. The Star Wars saga holds an absolutely special place in the hearts of countless people, and it’s really a shame that George Lucas hasn’t made a truly great film since The Empire Strikes Back. While A New Hope isn’t my favorite film in the series, it is still one of the finest science fiction epics ever made.

Final Score: A