Rewatching Star Wars as Movies

(Author’s note: there are really minor spoilers of the original and prequel trilogy, but there are no spoilers for Rogue One in the blog post ahead)

I was a huge Star Wars as a kid. I first encountered it in 1st or 2nd grade when I checked out a Star Wars juvenile paperback from the library and subsequently mispronounced “Jedi” when raving about it to my mom. Ultimately, my mom was the gateway to my soon-to-be obsession when she borrowed the VHS tapes for the original trilogy from the library, and we watched them as a family. Other than being very scared of Darth Vader in The Empire Strikes Back and needing my parents to cover my eyes, I was fully engrossed in every moment.

Many years and extended universe (now known as “Legends”) novels later, my Star Wars fandom has waned. However, it was given that I would see Rogue One. We ended up seeing it with Julie’s parents, and overall, I enjoyed it. I thought it was better than The Force Awakens, though seeing the gritty side of the Rebellion made me somewhat uneasy. I also was weirdly confused with the Michael Giacchino soundtrack sounding just like Star Trek, but that’s a minor issue. Continue reading “Rewatching Star Wars as Movies”

“The Martian” Review

Last November, I saw Interstellar in theaters and was surprisingly pleased by the use of physics to drive the plot. It takes creativity to turn time dilation into an interesting part of human relationships, and it takes even more to make it meaningful and compelling on-screen. The Martian, based on the novel by Andy Weir, goes further in creating suspense with plausible, basic science and making space travel look really fun.

The Martian is set roughly in the present time with technology seemingly not so different from our own. Mark Watney (Matt Damon) is part of a 6 man crew on a manned mission to Mars when a storm hits. As the crew goes for an emergency takeoff, Watney is hit by debris and presumed dead as Commander Lewis (Jessica Chastain) takes off without him. Watney comes to shortly afterwards and realizes that he’s stranded alone on Mars with limited rations and no way to communicate with Earth and needs to find a way to survive. Meanwhile, back on Earth, NASA (Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig, Jeff Daniels, and more) discover he is still alive and work to figure out how to bring him home.

The movie largely follows the plot of the book and retains both the commitment to science and the humor along the way. Early on, Watney needs to create water: he figures out that he can burn hydrazine from rocket fuel, but it of course blows up and leaves him singed in a typical mad scientist sort of way. Watney himself is a bit of a wise guy, and much of the humor comes through the characters and their reactions to their situation. Although the plot is obviously geeky, each step is explained clearly and visually to make it accessible to a wide audience. Perhaps experts in particular fields may be more critical, but general consensus seems to be that the science is pretty good, the solutions are plausible, and the dangers are real, which makes it all the more inspiring to watch.

I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at pictures from Curiosity or other Mars missions, and assuming that the graphics are roughly accurate, the movie provided striking landscapes of Mars. From a story perspective, they certainly emphasizes how isolated Watney is, but I enjoyed it just as a way for me to visualize what Mars is like. Most hard science fiction comes as books, and even with the best descriptions, it can be hard to imagine alien planets, spaceships, and Mars habitats.

I will be “that guy” who points out that the book was better: I think that largely comes from how similar the book is to the movie. In some ways, the plot almost reads like a series of mystery stories, where each survival problem needs to be solved using science of some sort. Knowing what those solutions are and how they’re going to turn out took away much of the suspense, but as I mentioned above, it was still very entertaining to see live.

I opened by comparing the movie to Interstellar, and I will close with the same. There are many similarities such as cast, timing, and genre, but the two movies definitely have distinct characteristics. Interstellar is set further ahead in the future and uses science to motivate the story about the characters and their relationships, and those relationships are the heart of the movie. The Martian is, at its core, about solving problems with science and engineering, and it actually really works.

My Top 5 Funniest Movie Scenes

I once read that lists are a cheap way to write blog posts. They are easy to write because instead of composing 1000 words that flow together, you just have to write, say, 5 200 word snippets that fit together.

From a writing perspective, this is true, but I have been thinking about this blog post for a very long time. I have laughed hard at many scenes in movies, but these are the most enduring ones in my mind. Without further ado (or unnecessary effort writing, here’s the list of my top 5 funniest movie scenes.

Honorable Mention: Hot Tub Time Machine – “Crispin Glover’s arm”

This was one of the best running jokes I have seen in a movie, but sadly, a running joke doesn’t count because it isn’t a single scene. Even so, I find it worthy because it integrates suspense really well: after the first time, you never quite know how any scene is going to turn out.

5. Kung Pow – “Radio Shack”

Kung Pow is a dumb movie. The jokes are absurd, but at least the concept of redubbing and working into an old movie with green scene is executed well enough. Some of the movie is too much for me, but some jokes just really stand out. This scene is a one-liner that I find really funny for no particular reason

4. Dodgeball – “The Bar Scene”

There are 2 jokes in this scene that I like a lot: the player introduction at the beginning and Ben Stiller’s comebacks at the end. Sadly, they are split over 2 videos on YouTube. Oddly, I don’t think the jokes play off each other, and independently, they wouldn’t make it into my top 5. It doesn’t really make sense in my mind why they should work together, but they do.

3. Mystery Men – Superhero Training

Just before this scene is the training montage with “All Star” playing over it, and I like that scene, too. Mystery Men is just a strange, strange movie that feels like the 90s, and I really enjoy the self-aware, ridiculous humor in it. Although Ben Stiller usually plays the joker, he happens to be the straight man in this scene, and he pulls it off really well. Humor usually depends a lot on unpredictably, but the over-predictability of this scene build an awkwardness that brings the humor through for me.

2. The Big Lebowski – “We? I!”

Another quick hit of a joke. The feeling of a poor cover-up is very relatable. Overall, I’m only so-so on The Big Lebowski, but there are a few jokes that really work for me, and this is the winner.

1. Men in Black – “Written Exam”

I enjoy physical humor. I enjoy awkward humor. The pacing of this scene just feels right once the written exam starts.

Hopefully you guys enjoy these clips as well. I would be curious to hear what the favorites in the crowd are as well.

“Interstellar” Review

Christopher Nolan has directed and written a lot of enjoyable movies: Memento, The Prestige, Inception, and all of the new Batman movies. If you have loved his previous movies but are skeptical about him making a space movie, I can assure you that Interstellar has that same Nolan touch should you know and love it.

Interstellar is set in the not so far future where the “Blight” has destroyed many crops on Earth, and it seems that the planet can no longer support human life. Matthew McConaughey is a former pilot and farmer who comes across an opportunity to explore other planets for a new home for humanity. Michael Caine and Anne Hathaway are in supporting roles (along with a few robots offering some levity in an otherwise serious film), and Mackenzie Foy and Jessica Chastain play the young and older versions of McConaughey’s daughter. Sorry, I can’t offer more details: I’m not sure what might count as a spoiler because I knew close to nothing going in.

Although we’re seeing a second wind of geeky genres with superhero movies, more Planet of the Apes, and Star Trek, I think they have relied heavily on action, whereas Interstellar is some hard science fiction. They are a few strange moments when the script is obviously explaining topics to the audience, but the physics involved are about as good as fiction gets, and they’re used effectively in the story. Particularly, time dilation is a major plot device: due to the influence of gravity, time can move at different speeds for different people, and the characters have to both reason given this fact and react to its effects.

The effects are the most interesting in a personal realm because the story hinges on the relationship between McConaughey and his daughter and love overall. Although it may seem hokey, the story effectively uses the physics and action as a vehicle for exploring human relationships, which gets quite intense. Despite the sometimes far-flung premises for science fiction, much of the best work manages to tie the themes back to something more visceral for us mundane viewers.

Overall, I thought the cast performed quite well. I can’t say I’m that critical, both McConaughey and Hathaway bring a lot of emotion to their roles, and I didn’t have any issues fitting them into their respective roles (despite the fact that I can’t remember any characters names). Visually, Nolan used both great special effects as well as actual locations to make everything believable. From sandy cornfields to outer space to exotic planets, there was a good mix of environments, which he certainly provides time to enjoy. The soundtrack included epic music appropriate for the moment, with an organ adding depth and suspense at the right moments.

My critiques are few but should also be familiar for a Nolan movie. The movie is long at almost 3 hours, and when you fact in my earlier point about a shift from action sci-fi to hard sci-fi, you can imagine how that might feel. And although I enjoyed the music, the dialogue was a bit difficult to make out at times, though I think better than Bane’s from The Dark Knight Rises.

I hadn’t seen the Rotten Tomatoes score beforehand, and looking at it, I can see that it wasn’t as universally beloved as other Nolan movies. If you think you’re into the premise and director, however, don’t let the score dissuade you. Remember, it’s a measure of consensus, not absolute quality. Interstellar is entirely representative of both Nolan’s style and hard sci-fi with just the right personal touch to make it enjoyable on intellectual, dramatic, and emotional levels.

 

Beware: Spoilers Ahead as I share a few of my thoughts on the plot!

 

 

Can someone remind me why they leave Romilly and the Endurance outside of the influence of Gargantua on the tidal planet? When he had explicit instructions to stay for them, I think it would have made more sense for him to go in as well.

So for their time travel version, everything has already happened on a single timeline and can’t be changed. I think it’s interesting that they don’t explore the lack of free will that this model of free will entails. It probably would be a distraction given the real themes of the movie, but it felt lacking in retrospect.

At the end, was humanity headed towards Edmunds’s world? McConaughey is presumably headed there, but since he had to escape to do it, I’m not sure if that was the game plan for everyone else, too.

The speech that Anne Hathaway gives to Matthew McConaughey about the power of love to transcend everything seemed hokey to me. I can see how that comes back around in the movie, but I think the emotion and presentation (which was quite good) doesn’t really match the hedge I would like to give it from a scientific perspective. That part felt more new-agey to me than any other.

Well, I guess there was the whole thing about the power of connection over generations and something about how that was the only thing to persist past death. I’m not really sure I buy that either. As Matt Damon was talking through it, I didn’t have any counter-examples, but it felt like an argument that was driven by force of will rather than a reasonable opportunity to argue against it. I would have to watch it again to come up with something.

And does CASE or TARS stand for anything?

“X-Men: Days of Future Past” Review

Coming in at 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, I was excited to see X-Men: Days of Future Past. Although it’s not part of the Marvel Studios-owned Marvel Cinematic Universe, which I have become obsessed with through Marvel’s Agents of Shield, this storyline is particularly famous in comic book lore, where Kitty Pryde sends herself back in time from a dystopian future to prevent that future from ever happening.

As featured prominently in the marketing campaign, the movie features both generations of X-Men: Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellen play the older Professor X and Magneto, James McAvoy and Michael Fassbender the younger, and both have X-Men around them to form a large ensemble cast. The movie mixes time travel into the superhero formula to create the ultimate, contemporary sci-fi action movie. The movie is anchored by Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), who interacts with both timelines by being sent back from the future to the early 1970s to stop Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence) from murdering the man behind the Sentinels, robots that destroy mutants in the future.

The movie works largely within existing plot elements and tropes, such as Wolverine’s amusement at life in the 70s and a “student becomes the master” relationship between Wolverine and a young Professor X. The animosity between a young Professor X and Magneto brings a nice human element to a genre often maligned for its lack of depth in hiding behind special effects.

The special effects were, of course, quite impressive. The future shows off a mix of new and familiar mutants to the movies, including Bishop, who can absorb kinetic energy and fire it out of his gun, and Blink, who can create portals for impressive combat tricks. A highlight in the movie is an appearance by the speedy Peter Maximoff, who we first meet when playing ping pong against himself.

Despite involving the large, ensemble cast, the movie is mostly set in the past, and it feels as though a major opportunity to feature Stewart and McKellen is missed. Rather than risk the confusion of time travel communication and heavier interplay between past and future selves, the future is basically a framing device for the story in the past. The script dodges an opportunity to explore the question, “If you could go back in time 50 years, what would you tell yourself?”

The past is set just around the end of the Vietnam War, and the ensuing events are large, political issues. Since the first X-Men movie, there has been a “humans versus mutants” theme, and set in a different and more fatigued world, the writers had an opportunity to not only situate the story in major world events but also to draw greater, more poignant lessons. If there were in there, however, I think I must have missed them. Let me know if you catch any of them.

Overall, I enjoyed the movie, though the 91% rating overhyped it for me. Although it stays close to well-established movie tropes, it is executed well and should keep you engaged to the end.

And beyond, since there is an after-credits scene to wait.

“Pacific Rim” Review

Before yesterday, I had never seen any giant monster disaster movies. GodzillaKing Kong, and other Kaiju never quite seemed appealing to me, but Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim seemed like a proper summer epic to see. In the trailer, giant monsters and giant robots beat each other mercilessly, and if that alone is enough to get you excited, you should enjoy the movie. Otherwise, you should probably pass since it doesn’t have much else going for it.

In the movie, Kaiju emerge from the sea to terrorize the world. In response, the world decides to build massive robots to fight back. These “Jaegers” require 2 people to join minds to control the robot together and beat down the Kaiju. Becket (Charlie Hunnam) is a Jaegar pilot who suffers a major loss early in the movie and is called back into service several years later by his commanding officer (Idris Elba) when the situation becomes more dire. Assisting them are 2 scientists (Charlie Day and Burn Gorman) who try to understand the Kaiju in their own wacky ways. Continue reading ““Pacific Rim” Review”

“Star Trek Into Darkness” Review

Just over 4 years ago, JJ Abrams rebooted the Star Trek series with Star Trek, a movie made for the modern moviegoer with a young, hip cast. Star Trek Into Darkness is the sequel and is again directed by JJ Abrams, who again takes the audience on another thrilling adventure with the crew of the Enterprise.

The film is centered around Captain James Kirk (Chris Pine) and his pursuit of John Harrison, a rogue Starfleet agent played by Benedict Cumberbatch (best known as Sherlock Holmes in the BBC series Sherlock). After committing a terrorist act on Earth, Harrison flees, and the Enterprise is responsible for dealing with the threat. Pitching in are first officer Spock (Zachary Quinto), communications officer Uhura (Zoe Saldana), medical officer Leonard McCoy (Karl Urban), and more. Continue reading ““Star Trek Into Darkness” Review”

“Skyfall” Review

On the car ride home, a few friends and I were discussing a few random memories and some Bond trivia, most of which I was able to place or answer. It turns out that spending most of a winter vacation in South Carolina watching the 007 Days of Christmas and another summer watching a Bond film every day turns one into quite a Bond aficionado. Over 20 movies and almost 50 years, the series has changed quite a bit, and the latest installment matches the grittier tone of the last 2 Bond movies.

In “Skyfall”, Daniel Craig’s James Bond comes back to duty in poor mental and physical shape when MI6, the British intelligence agency, is itself under attack. Instead of dealing with international crises, Bond pursues a mysterious villain (Javier Bardem, known for No Country for Old Men) along with the help of fellow agent Eve (Naomie Harris), Q (Ben Whishaw), and M (Judi Dench), leading him to trains, cars, subways, and more around the world.

The movie plays around with several different aspects of a traditional Bond movie, mostly for the best. Today, technology far outreaches our imagination 50 years ago, and the newer movies have done away with Bond gadgets in favor of technology itself. Q is portrayed as a geeky hacker who is more interested in decryption than new toys. This modernizing process fits well into the scheme of an intelligence agency, strange as it may be to see the pensive Bond breaking codes.

The story also engages Bond’s character more directly as his role as an agent is challenged. Just like our heroes, Bond ages, and his story brings up the usual questions about his ability to continue and his purpose in life. Despite knowing much about Bond’s personality and preferences in guns, vehicles, drinks, and other pleasures, we have rarely seen character development in him in the past. In line with the grittier feel, the past Craig-age Bond movies have emphasized his ruthless, tenacious, unquestioning personality, all of which we continue to see.

The violence continues as Bond mixes up with the usual henchmen with guns, fists, and more. The fights are brutal but an immense joy to watch, and the stunts show off much improved pursuit skills since Casino Royale. Expect the usual accents as well, with a few grim jokes and a bit more class from Bond.

Overall, Skyfall completes this trilogy of movies. Its action fits the currently popular grittiness best exemplified by the Bourne Identity, a similar set of movies. For the fans of the classic movies, you may continue to be disappointed with the new style, though you may appreciate the references sprinkled throughout. So choose to see it as you intended: whatever your expectations of it were, it delivers.

“The Dark Knight Rises” Review

Other than Pixar, I can ‘t think of anyone with as much pressure to deliver quality movies as Christopher Nolan. Since The Dark Knight was released 3 years ago, moviegoers everywhere have been anxious to hear how Batman would follow up the disaster he was left in.

Set 8 years after The Dark KnightThe Dark Knight Rises (DKR) finds Bruce Wayne (Christian Bale) as a shut-in, aged past his prime and unable to move beyond the events of his past. However, Bane (Tom Hardy), a physical and psychological monster, arrives in Gotham and forces Batman to come out of retirement. Along the way, Batman encounters Catwoman (Anne Hathaway) in several circumstances and receives some help from John Blake (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a police detective.

The cast should remind you much of Inception as Nolan relies on the same core of actors from film to film. Bale, Gary Oldman, and Michael Caine maintain the same traits from the previous movies, and Gordon-Levitt and Hardy fit in well, though Hardy has little to show with a mask over most of his face. Hathaway  shows some versatility in her performance as the clever and self-serving Catwoman. Most of the character development is Batman’s, who continues to struggle with his 2 identities and how they have affected his life. Although other characters make important revelations, these are relatively predictable.

Despite the solid acting, the movie feels long at 164 minutes. Although The Dark Knight was also long, it had a significant action sequence in the middle that broke the movie into multiple parts. DKR, however, moves fairly slowly through the middle as the plot unfolds without much of the punch you would expect from a superhero action movie. It isn’t always exhilarating, but it should keep you interested.

When the action does happen, it is impressive. Batman has new vehicles for chase scenes including motorcycles and tanks, with the complementary explosions. Batman’s main hallmark is his non-lethal, hand-to-hand combat, and there are some brutal fights in combat. In combat, Bane provides a type of mirror match for Batman. Unlike the Joker, whose insanity provides a perfect foil to Batman, Bane is quite similar to Batman in most respects and represents what Batman might have been if he hadn’t turned away from the extremism of the League of Shadows in Batman Begins.

The comparisons to The Dark Knight are unavoidable and simply, DKR is not as good as its predecessor. This point, however, is no criticism as The Dark Knight set a high bar for movies and the series. DKR remains a great movie in its own right and caps off a consistently high-quality trilogy.

“Tron: Legacy” Review

Although I first played the Tron game in high school, I didn’t watch the 1982 movie until arriving at college. At that point, the technology, both in the movie and the special effects, were dated, and my friend Jordan and I laughed at the 80s culture. Even so, the imaginative take on the inner world of a computer was well-classified as neat. The updated “Tron: Legacy” pulls in today’s special effects to build out an even more incredible world with special effects and artistic design that should impress everyone.

In the original movie, Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) attempts to hack the mainframe at ENCOM (perhaps best thought of today as Microsoft) and ends up being transported to the Grid, the inner world of the computer, with its primary residents as programs and has battles with light cycles and gladiator games using thrown discs. In this movie, his son Sam (Garrett Hedlund) goes into the Grid almost 30 years later to find his dad who disappeared mysteriously when he was young. There, he finds an equally oppressive world as the one that his dad has faced and tries to find a way back out with his dad. That said, the plot isn’t compelling. A son searching for his father is a classic, which isn’t inherently bad, but it doesn’t have any depth. The parallels between the Flynns are emphasized, and the steps are somewhat predictable.

The acting was solid. Hedlund as Sam had the right temperament to be placed in the Grid and avoids the confused awe of a Keanu Reeves Neo and the overdramatic enthusiasm of Shia LaBeouf in “Transformers.” Jeff Bridges reprises his role as Kevin Flynn well, mixing the expected wisdom of a fatherly figure with just a little cool you would expect from Bridges. Michael Sheen’s role as a program adds a little whimsy to change the pace, and Olivia Wilde fits into the movie as well.

As to be expected, it looks great. The visuals largely reflect the same style as the original movie, yet work far better with the updates to computer-generated graphics. Whether it’s the gruesome “derezzing” of a program shattering or a look across the landscape, the Grid and its inhabitants should thoroughly impress. Even though the digital world lacks the organic detail and richness of a Pandora, you should feel just as immersed into its foreignness. I saw it in 3-D (though not IMAX), which was subtle, like many other recent 3-D movies. Spring at it if you get a chance, though don’t worry about missing too much if you have to watch a regular showing of it.

The most notable fact about the movie is how seriously it takes itself. My moviegoing buddy, Trey, asked me before the movie if we might see references to any internet memes, and I knew that there wouldn’t be any. Just like the original, this movie throws out computer jargon and plot points without acknowledging what a stretch some of it is. At times, the dialogue comes out heavy-handed in trying to emphasize the significance of certain ideas, and even these are somewhat predictable. Overall, it’s worth watching if you think you’ll enjoy seeing the instantiation of the world of Tron. Otherwise, there’s not much to go for.