Thoughts on The Force Awakens

First things first: here there be spoilers.

With that out of the way, and having seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens twice now, here’s a rundown of what I thought about the movie (short version: I liked it, but wasn’t blown away, there’s some problems that needed to be addressed).

THE GOOD

1. It’s entertaining.

Screen Shot 2015-10-19 at 10.27.59 PM

Seems like an obvious thing to expect from a Star Wars movie, but it’s not. Not after all the prequels, especially Attack of the Clones. You actually have fun in the movie for a good portion of it.

2. The first act.

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I would say the first act of the movie, which comprises the introduction of our main characters in and around Jakku, it’s pretty much perfect. Up until the moment Rey and Finn escape in the Millenium Falcon, I was impressed. There’s nothing in this first act that I would change, except perhaps the stupid opening crawl, which sounded too childish and simplistic to me and bothered me right away (yes, I know it was done in the style of every Star Wars movie, but… more on that later).

3. The escape from Jakku.

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Speaking of the escape in the Millenium Falcon, I have to say this is one of the best sequences in any Star Wars movie, and certainly my favorite from The Force Awakens. Right from the start, when Rey initially dismisses the (yet to be revealed) Falcon for being “garbage” (cue OT reference), only to be forced into using it after her chosen ship was destroyed, to Rey and Finn’s celebration after finally escaping, it was a beautiful thing to behold.

4. Rey.

4. Random lady doing random things

Daisy Ridley was perfection as Rey, on par with Carrie Fisher’s OT Leia. In the prequels we had potential with Ewan McGregor as Obi Wan, but the scripts never allowed him to fully realise that potential. Rey soars high in this movie, and I would venture to say she had a better start than Luke Skywalker’s in A New Hope.

5. Finn.

1. Stormtrooper

John Boyega as Finn wasn’t quite on par with Ridley, but he was pretty damn good himself. First time I watched the movie I thought he was a tad too comical at times (even Han Solo asks him to turn it down a notch at one point), but on second viewing I’m fine with it. He is comic relief, but without sacrificing good characterisation or his own dignity. I do wonder what his role will be in the next two movies, though, as he seemed to be more of a plot device than an integral part of the trilogy’s overarching story.

6. Poe Dameron.

5. Discount Wedge Antilles

Probably the coolest, most likeable character in the movie. I’ll reserve the negatives for the next section.

7. John Williams’ score.

I placed it here because there won’t be a neutral section to this review, and this score wasn’t bad. It wasn’t memorable, however; the only new theme that stayed with me was Rey’s, and even that one wasn’t all that great. In A New Hope we had Luke’s theme, in Empire Strikes Back we had the Imperial March and Yoda’s theme, in Return of the Jedi we had Luke & Leia’s theme, in The Phantom Menace we had Duel of the Fates, in Attack of the Clones we had Across the Stars, and in Revenge of the Sith we had Battle of the Heroes. All of these themes were memorable. Rey’s was good, but on par with these? I don’t think so, but only time will tell. Besides that, the score itself didn’t have the operatic quality of the original trilogy. I think we will never get that back, Williams is too old at this point (83, the man is a machine!). The prequels also suffered from a less operatic, more standard set of scores.

8. Stormtroopers.

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It was about time that stormtroopers stopped being the butt of most Star Wars jokes and finally got some badassery bestowed upon them. Not only did we have Finn deserting their ranks (so an ex stormtrooper was one of our main characters), but overall they were more intimidating, what with flame throwing that village, slaughtering the people in it, Daniel Craig’s stormtrooper resisting Rey at first, that other stormtrooper who seemed to have a history with Finn and challenged him to a sword fight… I won’t speak of Captain Phasma because she doesn’t belong in this section. The rest of them, though, got thumbs up.

9. Kylo Ren.

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He wasn’t on the level of Darth Vader, but really nobody is. Heck, Rey told him point blank that his greatest fear was never reaching Vader’s level. Ren was, however, what Darth Maul should have been in the prequels, had Lucas given him a little bit more love. He was also interesting in how he wasn’t all badass like the other villains, but was still learning the ropes and we are just witnessing some of his potential. That he had an issue with falling to the light side was a very interesting twist, and like Luke before him his greatest test was facing his own father and killing him. By no means a perfect character, but I’m onboard with him.

10. BB8.

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Perfection. BB8 was to R2D2 what Rey was to Leia.

THE BAD

1. A New Hope Reloaded.

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Yeah, I get that these movies “rhyme” and are “poetry”, but I call bullshit on that. They don’t need to. The movie was as close as you can get to a remake of A New Hope without actually making it a straight up remake. It wasn’t just some stuff like Starkiller base being Death Star 3.0, Rey being Luke 2.0, etc., but a bunch of scenes and sequences like Maz Kanada’s place for Mos Eisley cantina, the escape from Jakku that included stormtroopers asking around for a droid, said droid containing important information to save the galaxy, Han being killed by Kylo as Kenobi was killed by Vader (after being the young one’s mentor), and even Rey hanging from a wall in Starkiller base like Obi Wan was when avoiding stormtroopers in the Death Star. There were many other callbacks, and it got to be too much. I would say that JJ Abrams was just playing it safe, if he hadn’t done the exact same thing with his two Star Trek movies. Since he was a Star Wars fan, I was banking on that to get something more original.

Nope.

2. Starkiller base.

I mentioned it already, but it bears mentioning again because of how stupid it was. So all that Star Wars can manage is to have a big, bad base as the destination for our heroes last desperate attack before facing destruction? And how did the First Order finance it? The Empire controlled the galaxy, so they could afford it, but the First Order is the remnant of the Empire, and Starkiller was far greater than the Death Star. And on a related note, how did people in the Hosnian (?) System able to witness the destruction of the Republic’s bases, as if they were planets in the same system? Should we expect a second Starkiller in Episode IX?

3. The First Order.

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Not that the First Order per se was a bad thing, far from it, but to expand on my comment about Starkiller base, how did they finance it when they are supposed to be what’s left of the Empire? Shouldn’t they be in the position the Rebel Alliance was in in the OT, and the Republic hunting them down? It seemed, at best, an even match, except that the Republic fleet was mostly concentrated on one system, a la Pearl Harbor, which means they aren’t as spread out throughout the galaxy as one would think after overthrowing the Emperor and taking over a fractured Empire. That attack on Starkiller was so dismal they could only muster a few X Wings, when even in the first Star Wars the fleet that flew to the defense of the Yavin 4 base was composed of at least two different classes of fighters (Y Wings, I believe, being the other). The Republic can’t afford a Death Star, and I’m sure they would build something similar if they could, so how can the First Order do it?

4. Captain Phasma.

CaptainPhasmaTrailer

Such a great buildup for nothing. Phasma was barely in the movie, but what’s worse is how her biggest participation was getting captured by Finn and company, and then complying with their demands. I was expecting her (since they didn’t know how to deactive the shields) to use some sort of computer trickery to get the guards on them, but no…

5. Opening crawl.

“Luke Skywalker has vanished! Blah blah blah!” Ok, so? I get that he was an important part of the Alliance, but to rest on Luke’s shoulders the fate of the galaxy, to assume that if he’s gone the First Order will simply take over again, is ridiculous. The plot for this movie was too simple and stupid; in A New Hope R2’s plans were crucial because the Death Star was such a terrible weapon, but here what’s so important in possession of BB8 is an incomplete map to the whereabouts of Luke. Who made that map? Was it Max Von Sydow’s character, who lasted all of five minutes in the movie? If it was him, why not simply tell Poe Dameron? How did he, or whomever made the map, find out where Luke was? If the rumor was that Luke was trying to find the first Jedi Temple, why not raid the old Empire archives for its location, something that Kylo Ren mentions is under First Order control? Wouldn’t that make for a better quest? Let’s infiltrate the archives, which are in so and so planet (Coruscant? Moved elsewhere?), and that’s the final mission, but the horror! the First Order has also uncovered the location of the Resistance’s secret base, and are moving an all out assault that will result in a big space fight, yadda yadda yadda. This way we get rid of the stupid Starkiller McGuffin base as well.

6. The final battle.

My complaint with it is that it didn’t feel epic. The final battles of both Episodes IV and VI were grand in scale, and you felt there was a lot at stake. Not so here, even though the Resistance was at risk. It felt more like the meaningless battle at the end of The Phantom Menace.

7. The epilogue.

It just felt rushed. Like, yay we destroyed the third Death Star, but *sad face* Han is dead… but whatever, and oh R2 woke up from his coma just in time, like this was some sort of Carmen San Diego game where beating the final boss unlocks the map to find her, so let’s get this completely new girl Rey to join Chewie in searching for Luke like Chewie and Lando did for Han at the end of Empire Strikes Back, except that they actually find Luke in this movie, and very quickly, and then Rey climbs the mountain and finds Luke peeing or maybe just meditating, and offers him his old lightsaber but he’s like “nah, I’m not doing that anymore” and leaves her there awkwardly hanging with her hand extended, roll credits.

It didn’t have the force (no pun intended) of the endings of…well, any of the previous Star Wars movies. Except Episode III, that ending was rushed as hell too.

8. Not enough character development.

There was very little more that I knew about our new main characters at the end than at the beginning. I know Finn was raised to be a stormtrooper, but why did he have an attack of conscience if he was raised that way? And this was his first offense (the desertion), so during all that time he didn’t show any signs of not going along with the program. With Rey we got like five more questions for every answer about her character. With Poe Dameron we don’t know anything about him beyond being the best pilot in perhaps the galaxy, and a very likeable guy. He was the most underutilised of the three, by far. The only character that we truly understand much better at the end is Kylo Ren.

THE UGLY

Image courtesy of some spoiler loving asshole.

Image courtesy of some spoiler loving asshole.

There’s only one ugly thing, and it’s Han Solo’s death.

Not that his death was wrong. No, I’m fine with him dying, and I was actually expecting it to happen even before all those damn spoilers in the first few days of the movie’s release. My problem was with how he was treated like some disposable character, to be killed and tossed away, mourned a little, and then move on.

This is Han freaking Solo. He is the Batman of the Star Wars Trinity (Luke being Superman and Leia being Wonder Woman). He is a legend both in our real world and in the Star Wars universe. He deserved to be retrieved by Chewie (no fall into the pit), and given a proper funeral. I wanted to see Chewie go completely berserk and attack Kylo Ren in such a way that he had to retreat; Chewie could have had his own great moment right there. I wanted Leia to mourn her love at the funeral, say some powerful eulogy, and shed some silent tears for him while doing so. No complete emotional breakdown, of course, but something that went beyond a sad face. He deserved a death like Spock’s, not like Kirk’s. It would have been the antithesis of the Throne Room finale from A New Hope.

The way in which he died was a bit clumsy too. Han is a smuggler, and has been for many decades. This guy is a master of escaping ambushes, of smelling the bullshit from far away and taking the necessary measures. You could also tell, by the look on his face when Leia asks him to bring their son back, that he doesn’t believe it’s possible. He knows that Ben Solo is gone, that Kylo Ren is too powerful a presence now, and he only goes through with it because of Leia. So walking so carelessly towards Kylo Ren, without at least a hint of distrust (a distrust that Kylo Ren would have sensed, sending him to the brink of the darkside, away from the lightside forever) was just plain dumb.

Dying was fine. How he died, and the aftermath, was nothing short of insulting. I think that’s the worse important character death I have ever seen, especially in what was otherwise a very enjoyable movie (despite what this long rant appears to say).

An that’s it. Those are my thoughts on The Force Awakens. You are free to leave your own comments on the movie below, whether you agree or disagree with me and what your own thoughts are. Now let’s cross our fingers for Episode VIII: The First Order Strikes Back.

Movie Review: The Amazing Spiderman 2

I’ll make this review based on my Thoughts on the new Amazing Spiderman 2 trailer post from december 2013, so as to explore the answers to some of my questions and concerns from then.

WARNING: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS

1. Too much omg drama

KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!

KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!!!!

There was some, yes, but nothing like what the trailers lead you to believe. In fact, it had several lighthearted moments, and those were by far the best parts. The most dramatic scene (at the end, when Gwen dies) was very well done. Yes, here and there were parts where Peter moped so much about his lost parents that I was wondering when did Peter Parker switch places with Bruce Wayne, since in the comics as far as Peter is concerned Ben and May were his parents (he knew his biological parents were lost, but he wasn’t traumatized by it).

The only thing that really bothered me – and this is mostly all the trailers and promotional spots fault, since they carried the brunt of this – was how they kept foreshadowing Gwen’s death throughout the movie. It’s as if she was such a major character that Sony was afraid to cause too much of an emotional impact if they didn’t properly prepare the audience for her loss. Even with that there were several people in the audience whom I could hear commenting how they expected her to still be alive after that, right until the funeral scene.

2. The new Harry Osborn

Ugh.

Ugh.

Goddamnit.

I really thought that Dane DeHaan would be a great Harry Osborn, but he was an almost complete waste of talent. Harry was never developed properly (hello, point #5!), he literally came out of nowhere to suddenly be Peter’s old buddy old pal BFF. Not that there was much chemistry between them to make that believable, at least. To make matters worse, his Green Goblin “design” was as bad as the original Sam Raimi’s. This one was more organic, which is ridiculous to begin with, but then apparently they feared to go overboard with it, so they stopped with Harry still looking human but a little green and with a semi-punk rock haircut. Well, just take a look at that horrible picture; he looked so bad I couldn’t get any screen captures from the trailers (show that? hell no!), so I had to get a promo pic.

Awful.

3. What’s with the CGI?

Screenshot 2013-12-05 20.10.51

It was bad, but it wasn’t as terrible as it looked in the first trailer. Spiderman’s web-slinging scenes were great (just as good as the original trilogy’s), but whenever Electro showed up in turned into 1995 videogame vision.

4. (Potentially) interesting plot with OsCorp and the Sinister Six

Screenshot 2013-12-05 20.11.47

They just teased about it, especially at the end, but at least we get to see the potential origins of some of Spidey’s other enemies. Not much beside that.

5. Too. Many. Villains.

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To the film’s credit, they kept Rhino’s presence to about five minutes of movie, and they were some of the best five minutes of the movie; but there was no point to Electro being there aside from getting his origin out of the way for the future Sinister Six movie. It was supposed to be Harry’s movie, but as I said before, he was an almost complete waste. It wasn’t the travesty that Spiderman 3 was, but it wasn’t The Dark Knight either.

I should add that Electro was overpowered. In this version he somehow got his powers from getting electrocuted and then falling into a tank full of eels… whatever. His powers at first were kind of neat: just an electric version of Magneto, able to manipulate electricity around him at will, and with a compulsive need to consume electricity. But when Harry Osborn asks for his help, he suddenly becomes Dr. Manhattan and is able to manipulate his own atomic structure to the point he basically teleports using electricity. I do remember a villain like that in one of the old Spiderman cartoons, but as far as I know that villain wasn’t Electro and was made up for that series. Either way, Electro per se doesn’t have that power, and if he did he would be too much of a match for Spiderman.

 

Overall, I liked the movie. I know I’m in the minority here just as I was in the minority with liking the first Amazing movie. I recognize the film’s faults, and I know they could have done better – especially in the villains department – but I enjoyed the movie and am more than happy with Peter Parker/Spiderman, which this movie reinforced is played better by Andrew Garfield than Tobey Maguire.

(Funny note: seems like Sony realizes there’s no way in hell they can top J.K. Simmons’ portrayal of J.Jonah Jameson, so they don’t bother with showing him in the movie. Instead, he’s only casually mentioned. One point in favor of the original Raimi trilogy).

Oh, as for that X-Men scene at the end, it’s just a promotional clip for Days of Future Past because of a deal between Fox and Sony concerning NOT Spiderman or the X-Men but director Marc Webb. So yeah, don’t get too excited about that. Also, the editing was sort of weird, felt like watching a movie at Red Bull speed.

Movie Review: Captain America – The Winter Soldier

Warning: minor spoilers ahead.

I remember, several years ago when Marvel first unveiled their plans to make an Avengers movie – and, by extension, a Captain America movie – that I wondered how or even if it would be possible to make a Cap movie that wasn’t laughably ridiculous. Not only is Captain America even more of an out-of-date boy scout than Superman, but his colorful costume – while acceptable within the boundaries of comicbookdom – surely couldn’t survive the transition to film. How could Marvel ever make a Captain America that was cool enough to draw a big audience? I was never interested in the character to begin with, back from my comicbook collecting days; and a movie version? Thanks, but no thanks.

Pictured: an idiot in a costume. This is from an actual Captain America movie.

Pictured: an idiot in a costume. This is from an actual Captain America movie.

Boy, how have things changed.

The 1940's Cap costume from "The First Avenger" makes a triumphant return in "The Winter Soldier".

The 1940’s Cap costume from “The First Avenger” makes a triumphant return in “The Winter Soldier”.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is, in my opinion, the best movie yet to come out of Marvel Studios (yes, I’m including Marvel’s The Avengers in that list). While the first Cap movie was just meh, and Cap’s participation in The Avengers was no more than a measured improvement, he really comes into his own in The Winter Soldier. There are several reasons for that, which I will discuss below.

First, this is the first time we truly see Captain America as the legendary leader that he is from the comics. He was a rookie in The First Avenger, but he was supposed to have become legendary by the time he froze in the Arctic; however, I never got the feeling that he was anything more than a propaganda tool with superpowers. The Avengers had a slightly more mature version of Cap, but he still seemed reluctant to take over the team, being instead overshadowed by the overwhelming presence of Robert Downey’s Tony Stark, and thus reduced to being just one of the guys. He does take the mantle of leader during the Battle of New York, but that was more a product of everyone else deferring to him than of him assuming command to get the job done.

It isn’t until this movie (and it’s done right from the start) that we get to see Captain America the leader, as he was meant to be. We also get to see Captain America the badass, kicking butt with his moves, speed, strength, and complete mastery of his impossibly rebounding vibranium shield. Not only does he take on a dozen guys at the same time in the confines of an elevator, but he charges head on against a SHIELD fighter jet… and wins.

Because fuck you, he’s Captain America.

Badass mode on.

Badass mode on.

Fuck you.

Fuck you.

Then there’s Natasha Romanov (shouldn’t it be Romanova?) a.k.a. Black Widow, who proves to be a perfect sidekick. We have known since the dreadful Iron Man 2 that she kicks ass, so nothing she does in here is a surprise in physical terms; however, here she shows a more… noble side, if you will, of her character. Heroic, even. There’s an exchange between her and Steve Rogers in which she asks him if he would trust her with his life the way she trusts him with hers (this is after he saved her life from an incoming missile, because fuck you he’s Captain ‘Murica!). His response after having seen her loyalty tested? “I do now“. So I guess that was meant to humanize her a little bit, make her more relatable. Not sure how much that counts as character development, but she’s there to kick ass while looking hot, so whatever.

As for Nick Fury, I think this is the movie where we see the most of him. It’s definitely the movie where we finally see his memorable moment (like how in The Avengers every member of the team had his or her memorable moment), even if it ends with him and his super SHIELD SUV turned upside down and about to be fucked up by the Winter Soldier.

New character Sam Wilson, a.k.a. Falcon, wasn’t anything special, but he did his job and I don’t mind seeing more of him in the future, especially since he is supposed to become an Avenger soon. His was another character for whom I wondered how he could get done without those wings looking cheesy and stupid. And they didn’t.

Spread your wings and fly away...!

Spread your wings and fly away…!

Second, the plot is better. The First Avenger was the obligatory origin story with the obligatory “he’s got to fight a major bad guy” third act. The Avengers was fun, but it’s plot was reduced to a not so carefully planned alien invasion that, for some weird reason, chose New York as its first and only entry point. The Winter Soldier doesn’t rely only on the mystery of the actual Winter Soldier, but delves into spy movie territory combined with some very nice action sequences and special effects. I particularly liked Nick Fury’s chase sequence, as well as any time the Winter Soldier showed up to wreak havoc. HYDRA’s overtake of SHIELD gave them more credence – let’s face it, it’s far more interesting to have an evil organization that for several decades has been shaping up the world, instead of fading into oblivion as soon as Cap took care of their former leader the Red Skull; as Dr. Zola said, if you cut off one head, two will spring in its place, like the Hydra of myth. They were a real menace in this film. HYDRA’s twist was one of my favorite parts of the movie.

As a side note, I wonder how said twist will affect the Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. TV series. I mean, is there any SHIELD left by the end, still standing but full of corruption? Even Maria Hill jumped ship!

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HYDRA’s plan did stumble a little bit at the end…

 

Third is the Winter Soldier himself. There’s actually little of him throughout most of the movie, yet all this does is enhance the moments whenever he does show up… at the expense of character development, I admit. I would make the comparison to Darth Maul from Star Wars Episode I, but you do have some backstory with the Winter Soldier, not only from this movie but from the first one as well. His real identity is another cause for conflict, adding to the drama. The Winter Soldier is every bit the physical equal of Cap, being a Terminator-like presence and giving way to some awesome fight sequences between the two.

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The Winter Soldier takes crap from no one.

The Winter Soldier takes crap from no one.

The movie felt almost like an Avengers movie, with the stakes being just as high. Because of the more interesting plot and the better action sequences, I prefer The Winter Soldier over The Avengers, but the biggest reason might be that this was the movie that made Captain America cool enough to draw in a big audience. This is the movie I never thought would happen.

Movie Review: “Her”, directed by Spike Jonze

I loved Her.

Watching Spike Jonze’s latest (and Academy award nominated) film was in itself almost like meeting a new person not knowing what to expect, then getting to know that person and realizing that you share many things in common, that you understand each other perfectly. That’s also, by the way, more or less the arc that Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore Twombly, goes through as the film progresses, except that instead of a person it is an Operating System. You know, like Windows. Or Linux. And the weirdest thing of all was that it wasn’t weird at all.

The film takes place in a non-determined future where Theo works as a writer for BeautifulHandwrittenLetters.com, essentially dictating to a computer letters requested by their clients to be sent to their loved ones, sort of like personalized greeting cards. He is going through a divorce and hasn’t gotten over his wife yet. It is during this time that he buys a new operating system called OS1, that boasts being the first operating system with artificial intelligence so advanced, it’s like a friend that understands your every need. The AI of “Samantha” (how the OS named itself when Theo asked for a name) evolves as time goes on, not only getting to know Theo’s every need better, but starting to really behave like a person, with feelings and sentience. Theo’s recent problems with his life are screwing up his social interactions, leading him ever closer to Samantha, eventually starting a relationship with her.

la_ca_1204_her_movie

Theo Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) in one of his attempts at human interaction with a very hot date (Olivia Wilde).

A relationship that, believe it or not, even turns sexual.

There are several things working for this movie, first one being a very realistic and practical vision of the future. The “look” is essentially the same that we have right now in 2014 (hey, we are kind of in the future, right?), except a little bit more polished, with technology that instead of calling attention to itself is already embedded into daily life so deeply, it is almost invisible. What we have nowadays as smartphones are by the movie’s timeframe nothing short of a personal assistant, and when Theo integrates his own smartphone-ish device to Samantha that personal assistant becomes less robotic and more… human. That is how I envisioned smartphones in the future when I got my first taste of Siri a couple of years ago.

The second major thing working for this movie is the love story. At first glance a romantic relationship between an operating system and a human seems completely insane; but if you stop to think about it (and trust me, as the movie went by I was thinking a lot about it), it makes perfect sense. Right now, we are living through something very similar; remember when the internet exploded back in the late 90’s? The new social interactions via chats, that took physical contact out of the equation, were criticized and branded as the end of civilization as we know it, and to an extent that’s true; the world is both much closer and much farther apart than ever before, and things will never be the same. But the point here is that feelings can very easily spark from a completely computerized relationship (I have experienced them firsthand). In other words, you do not need the physical interactions for a deep relationship to spring. And if Samantha is an AI so complex as to appear human, what is the difference, really?

HER

In fact, by the end of the movie, Samantha – as well as the other AI’s from the OS1 program – had evolved into something greater, a new species of sentient beings, if you will, a concept that brought to my mind the end of Ghost in the Shell. And that’s the last major thing that the movie had going for it: how it had plausibly, and unassumingly, told a story that started out as a romance and ended with a very SF touch in a very elegant way. Kuddos to Spike Jonze on making the best SF movie of 2013 (sorry, Gravity!), and one of my new favorites.

Movie Review: Star Trek Into Darkness, with some Star Wars sprinkled in

I’ll start by issuing a warning: HERE THERE BE SPOILERS.

I really won’t bother with holding back on them, so if you haven’t seen the movie (unless you happen to be one of those people that don’t give a fuck about being spoiled before a movie) stop now, go watch the movie, then come back.

With that out of the way, I’ll start by talking about my expectations of Into Darkness. As you all must know by now, JJ Abrams will direct Star Wars Episode VII. He has made no secret about being a fan of Star Wars, just as he has made no secret how he has never been a fan of Star Trek; when the 2009 Star Trek alternate universe movie came out, you could tell Abrams was projecting his Star Wars fantasies into it. Sure, you can argue that the franchise needed new life, and that in order to bring it into the 21st Century moneymaking business it had to be more action oriented. However, Abrams is no stranger to intelligent science fiction, as his series Fringe showed for five seasons (let’s not get into LOST, that ended in a clusterfuck), so it was always possible to get the best of both worlds, and have an intelligent Star Trek that was also heavy in action, a la Wrath of Khan.

Well, that didn’t happen.

While I enjoyed the 2009 Star Trek, the end result was anything but intelligent: the villain was so hellbent on vengeance he did not see he actually had the tool to save his planet (the destruction of which sparked his desire for vengeance in the first place); the “science” in the movie couldn’t even make the cut to pseudo-science (and I’m not talking about the time travel); and it never made any sense to put someone so green as cadet Kirk in charge of the best ship of the fleet, no matter his movie heroics. However, it worked as an action oriented movie, and the time travel was the perfect excuse to reboot the franchise with the original beloved characters, so I was sold… up to a certain point. My hope was that the next one would focus more on the exploration part of Star Trek and be more intelligent.

st2

No, we don’t have to go to Star Trek: The Motion Picture levels for an exploration story (as much as I liked it).

So the question is: did it succeed in that?

Well, yes and no.

Star Trek Into Darkness focused just as much on the action as the first one, and it did not cover any sort of exploration. It was, as many had guessed for a long time, a sort of remake of Wrath of Khan, except with the characters switched: now it was Kirk that made the ultimate sacrifice, and Spock the one that learned the lesson at the end of the day (also, it’s now Spock who furiously yells “KHAAAAAAAAAN!!!!” when it seems that Khan has won). It might have added a bit of Search for Spock by reviving Kirk so quickly, but it was mostly the Khan story. So, on the “more exploration and less explosions” side, it wasn’t a success.

On the other hand, the ending completely opened the window into that facet, bringing the beginning of the five year mission of exploration the original series covered and – since Abrams is no longer directing – the possibility to see a shift in the themes from character driven to science and/or social driven (we saw a tiny bit of that with the whole “prime directive” dilemma in the opening sequence). Abrams can still produce and get some writers with real science fiction blood in them to work on the story.

Or, maybe, they will shed the idea completely.

Now, just because the movie was pure action and nearly no science fiction doesn’t mean it wasn’t intelligently approached. I loved the way they mirrored Wrath of Khan so intensely without making an actual remake. No, this was a well thought out story that works well on its own, but for those who know their canon it brings the idea that, maybe, the universe is ruled by fate; things didn’t happen exactly like they happened in Wrath of Khan, but the sequence of events bring very similar results.

As for Khan himself… where to begin?

Khan TV khanintodarkness

We were all expecting this “John Harrison” character to be Khan all along. I actually went into the movie having almost gotten rid of that idea, though, just as I had almost shed the notion that Robin and Thalia Al Ghul would be in The Dark Knight Rises by the time I entered the theater. That helped, of course, when the time came for the revelation. For some reason, even after Kirk tried unsuccessfully to beat the hell out of Harrison, I wasn’t really thinking of Khan, the guy with the superhuman genes and intellect. All the ingredients were there, and yet I didn’t bother to put two and two together until it was already too painfully obvious, and that was because Benedict Cumberbatch was playing a different sort of Khan than the one I saw in Star Trek II. This was Khan before he was desperately looking to avenge himself to Kirk (sort of like what happened in 2009’s Star Trek with the villain), a Khan that was coldly calculating and biding his time to save his crew and screw Admiral Marcus. Cumberbatch did to Ricardo Montalbán with his take on Khan what Heath Ledger to Jack Nicholson’s Joker, and it was awesome to behold.

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Dr. Carol Marcus, 2013 and 1982 versions. Whomever made this, God bless you.

To complete the mirroring of Wrath of Khan was Dr. Carol Marcus. She’s still years away from building her Genesis device (if she’s ever going to build it in this timeline), but she’s already an amazing physicist that, uh, knows how to deactivate torpedoes and shit. I half expected her and Kirk to get it going at some point to plant the seed for the future David Marcus. Plant the seed, get it? Cuz… bah.

I should mention that Kirk’s death to save the Enterprise moved me as much as Spock’s did in Wrath of Khan. I was literally holding back tears at that point, and given how Spock at least stayed dead at the end of that movie, I thought Kirk might as well, since this was alternate Wrath of Khan and all. It didn’t happen, and although that bothered me from a dramatic standpoint, without him coming back the five year mission that I have been waiting for would never happen. For that reason only I can forgive the sleight of hand.

So yeah, it’s a great movie, enjoyable as a popcorn flick and as a Star Trek movie (though there are plenty of trekkers pissed off by it, can’t be helped). What bothers me about the whole situation is how Abrams – unwittingly, yes – was so disrespectful to the Star Trek franchise as a whole. What he made in both 2009 and 2013 were starwarised versions of Star Trek. To top that now he’s actually jumping ship to direct Star Wars. I know he didn’t mean any of it, but it feels very much like a rebuff. The Star Trek franchise has looked up to Star Wars at various points in its history, beginning with The Motion Picture, which was hyper budgeted and filled with unnecessary special effects as a reaction to 1977’s A New Hope. Even in the video below Star Wars ends up pwning Star Trek.

And now Abrams is spurning Star Trek in favor of its arch-nemesis. Star Trek should be better than that. It can be better than that. I just hope that whomever takes over the helm of the franchise treats it with the respect it deserves, and while I think that Abrams was disrespectful I hope he remains as a producer. The man can work his magic even when his heart is not 100% into it.

As for Star Wars, I’m sure he will work perfectly for Episode VII; he will be to Star Wars what Peter Jackson was to The Lord of the Rings: a fan who also happens to be a talented director working on his dream project.

So now, after all the explosions and screams and deaths and rebirths, can we finally, and boldly, go where no one has gone before?

Movie Review: War Horse & The Adventures of Tintin

“War Horse”, directed by Steven Spielberg

Christmas 2011 saw Steven Spielberg come back to his roots as the creative director with the heart of a child and the positive outlook on the world. Hergé’s classic character Tintin gave him the chance to tackle once again the adventure genre he loves so much, while War Horse felt like a throwback to the old Hollywood movies where, even against the horrible backdrop of a war, you can find decency and goodness in everyone, gritty realism be damned. Both are vintage Spielberg movies, for better or worse.

I was more impressed (and surprised) with War Horse. Judging by the trailer I expected a movie filled with melodramatic fluffiness and a John Williams score swelling into emotional epicosity at just the right cues. I did get that, yet Spielberg – damn him to hell – managed to stir the child in me that used to love this sort of overtly optimistic storytelling. I was actually looking forward to the predictable and inevitable reunion between “Albert” (Jeremy Irvine) and his horse “Joey” (a bunch of stunt horses, I suppose). And not because I gave a crap about “Albert”; in fact, none of the human characters in the film are given enough depth for anyone to care. Nope, it’s the horse that’s developed, and very well developed he is. Fuck, Spielberg even managed to have the horse give a couple dramatic trailerish looks/poses (just check the trailer below), and those trailerish looks/poses had more dramatic weight than when someone like Brad Pitt or George Clooney do them. No, I’m not kidding, they did work well within the context of the film.

Before I forget, here’s a summary of the story: horse is born; “Albert” has nothing better to do than follow him around while he grows up, longing to make him his horse; Albert’s father foolishly buys the horse (they are poor and needed a plow horse to work the farm, not a thoroughbred); despite this display of stupidity “Joey” learns to plow the fields and nearly saves the farm; heavy rain ruins the crops; war erupts; father sells the horse to the military, while “Albert” cries; “Joey” changes hands (hah! horse racing pun… yeah, most of you won’t get it) several times during the war, going from the English to the Germans to the French and back again to the English via the Germans; “Albert” and “Joey” impossibly meet again (spoiler alert); there’s a last hurdle to jump (last horse pun, I promise) before they are finally together; end credits.

Takes a special kind of director to make a movie this sugary and full of flaws so damn good. He even convinced the good people at the Golden Globes awards.

“The Adventures of Tintin”, produced by Peter Jackson

Now let’s talk about The Adventures of Tintin. If you haven’t read the wikipedia link I, uh, linked to above, then suffice to know that “Tintin” is one of the most beloved fictional characters in Europe, virtually being their Indiana Jones way before Indiana Jones made his movie debut. Exchange archaeologist for the more realistically adventurous profession of reporter, add a sidekick dog called “Snowy” and you got “Tintin”. The Spielberg/Peter Jackson film is based on the story “The Secret of the Unicorn” (read the damn link, I won’t explain), and they did follow it very closely. It’s not that I have seen or read much of Tintin before the movie, but it felt like they managed to capture the essence of the characters and story. The problem was… it wasn’t that exciting. Yeah, there were some really nice sequences (especially in 3D), but it felt like a story that belonged in a Saturday morning cartoon and not a full fledged Hollywood movie. This sounds ironic when you consider that Indiana Jones himself was born as a homage to those serials of Lucas’ and Spielberg’s youth, but the films they ended up doing had all the epic quality of a blockbuster. This felt like a lot of work and money was put into something that wasn’t really that grandiose to begin with. I don’t know, maybe it’s all the hype around the movie and the character himself that’s blunting my sense of wonderment. I did enjoy the movie, mind you, I just wasn’t blown away by it.

Either way, both these movies make a nice addition to Spielberg’s resumé, and hopefully he will refocus on directing more, producing less. It is his imagination as a director that made Spielberg a household name, after all.

Next in line for him? A biopic of Abraham Lincoln. Sure will be interesting to see Spielberg’s take on that.

Movie Review: The Searchers

The opening shot in “The Searchers”

Once the beginning credits were over with and John Ford’s first shot of The Searchers came into full view, I went into “holy shit!” mode.

It was a simple shot, really. We begin inside a house and slowly move outside, following “Martha” as she goes out to greet the returning “Ethan Edwards” (John Wayne). It’s dark inside and what we initially see is a silhouette. Outside it’s bright enough, though, and as we go past the door Monument Valley, Arizona, is displayed in all its panoramic glory. It reminded me of the time earlier this year when I visited the Grand Canyon and was blown away by the 3D vistas (the depth of the canyon is so pronounced it felt like watching an IMAX movie in 3D). I had seen the Canyon lots of times in videos and pictures, but they didn’t do it justice, not by a long shot. It’s one of those places that you have to be there to truly appreciate it. That opening shot of The Searchers, however, came very close to that experience.

The storyline: it’s Texas, 1868. Ethan Edwards returns to his brother’s home after years of being away, first fighting in the Civil War (as a Confederate) and then… well, who the hell knows where he went those three other years, the thing is he’s back. The family is very happy to see him back, but he’s just like “meh”. Then tragedy strikes, as Comanche indians slaughter the entire family but for Edwards and “Martin Pawley” (Jeffrey Hunter), who were out searching for those Comanche, and “Debbie”, Ethan’s youngest niece who was kidnapped by the Indians (oh, shut it, I won’t be politically correct and write “Native Americans” every time). The rest of the movie is the search for Debbie, spanning several years until she’s 15. They eventually find her, of course, but what they find is not the Debbie they knew.

Martin Pawley (Jeffrey Hunter) and Ethan Edwards (John Wayne)

The Searchers is a classic, making basically all top ten Westerns lists, in some cases landing the #1 spot. I wasn’t impressed enough to make it my personal #1 Western, but it’s easily in my top ten, maybe top five. There are two reasons for that: John Wayne and John Ford.

Let’s start with Wayne. I’ll be the first to admit that, at this point in time, I haven’t seen that many John Wayne movies. I know him mostly by his reputation as the noble heroic cowboy that everyone looks forward to. His “Ethan Edwards” was anything but noble, though. He was a racist, mean motherfucker that couldn’t care less what you thought of him; for example, his nephew Martin was adopted (Martin was one eighth Cherokee), and Ethan never missed a chance to remind him both that they weren’t kin and that he had Indian blood. When Ethan’s driven – and the Comanche gave him plenty of drive – he wouldn’t stop until he got what he wanted. He had his own philosophy of life, one that wasn’t bound by incorruptible honor and gallantry, yet he does care, in his own fucked up way, about others. Wayne nailed this character through and through. I’m not surprised some consider this his finest performance, because it’s one of those that you cannot imagine being done in any other way by any other actor. Ironically, for such a great performance (and such a grand reputation for the movie as a Western and as a film in general), The Searchers received a grand total of zero Academy Award nominations.

Yeah, I guess the Oscars are overrated.

Then we have Ford. That opening shot alone made me understand why Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone (two of my favorite directors and two grand masters in their own right) had Ford in such high esteem and were so heavily influenced by him. What the film lacked in a strong plot more than made up for in direction, cinematography, and editing. Ford should have been nominated for an Oscar same as Wayne. The way he handled the shots made you feel like you were right there, galloping across the desert, surrounded by the Comanche, or attacking their tribe. It was brilliant, and made me wonder why most directors nowadays are so painfully… lazy. “Uncreative” would be another appropriate description, but that is mostly due to laziness and the obsessive attachment to formulaic shots and sequences. It’s like nowadays that majority of Hollywood directors are working on TV soap operas, while John Ford was working on actual Hollywood films. CGI is partly to blame, but not entirely; The Searchers looked much better than anything I have ever seen in the Western genre (Leone included), vastly – oh, oh so vastly – superior to George Lucas’ video game feel in Attack of the Clones, which had a similar red desert setting.

Speaking of George Lucas, there is a sequence in The Searchers that I’m pretty sure he… umm, borrowed for 1977’s Star Wars. As I briefly mentioned earlier, Ethan and Martin had joined a group of rangers to hunt down some Comanche that were known to be in the vicinities. Turns out the Comanche had lured the men out to attack their homes at will. They realize this and quickly return to their respective homes (well, except for Ethan, who was wise enough to allow his horse to rest before going back). What they come back to is a burnt house, and the burnt remains of the family. The sequence is very similar to the one where Luke meets Ben Kenobi and during their conversation realizes the stormtroopers would come looking for the droids at his home, where his uncle Owen and aunt Beru live. When he makes it back, all he finds are their burnt remains, with the house suffering a similar fate.

Not sure if Lucas meant that as a homage to John Ford or just decided to steal the fuck out of that sequence, but the fact that The Searchers is a major influence on so many filmmakers should come as no surprise. Ford and Wayne were at the top of their game here, and The Searchers is a movie that deserves to be seen, studied, and appreciated. It was only fitting – in fact, I was expecting it after that monumental opening – that the movie ended with a reverse shot of the first sequence, completing the circle as Ethan brings back Debbie, and then walks away.

Ethan Edwards walks away, and so does the movie.

Movie Review: Battle Los Angeles

The special effects star in Battle: Los Angeles

The special effects star in Battle: Los Angeles

Note: this review was originally published on March 20, 2011

If District 9 had cornered Black Hawk Down in a dark alley, raped it, and BHD – who does not believe in abortion – eventually has a child from that horrible experience, giving it up in adoption to Independence Day, and ID4 raises that child like its own without hiding from it its past, that child would grow up to be Battle Los Angeles. Which is not necessarily, or entirely, bad.Every movie has its place in cinema; not all can be Oscar contenders in the drama categories, so movies like Battle Los Angeles have to be judged differently from, say, The King’s Speech. One has to give it some leeway in terms of plot and character development, because it is clear movies like this sacrifice those things for the sake of spectacular action. And this movie has action from beginning to end, which is good to some people and overwhelming for others. I’m in that second group. Even though I like movies that begin with a bang and keep moving, if that action doesn’t take a breather now and then to allow the story to surface, my mind starts to drift as if activating a mental screensaver and I get lost in la la land. This is something purely personal and as I said it doesn’t bother lots of other people, and in the case of Battle Los Angeles it had to be that way since the main story takes place in the span of less than a day. There’s simply no time for character development and their interactions (which is pretty much the case for life in big cities like Los Angeles now that I come to think of it).

The “plot” is simple: a small platoon of marines must try to rescue a group of civilians stuck in Santa Monica and get out before the Air Force destroys the place to wipe out the alien invaders there. The next hour and a half consists of said marines trying to escape the chaos while Los Angeles is taken by the extraterrestrials (which, I must say, are the crappiest I have seen in a long time). In the end, of course, the marines go from defense to offense and this is where you can see the influence of Battle LA’s adoptive father, with an ending that will leave Starship Troopers with a strange sense of deja vu.

The movie never tries to be original. What’s more, it never tries to cover up its lack of originality. Its mission, like the marines, is simple: entertain. And just like the marines, it accomplishes its mission, but not without some casualties along the way.