Tag Archives: Movie Reviews

My “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review: Hope, Inspiration, And Risk

How does anyone go about meeting impossible expectations for an iconic mythos with an insanely passionate fan base? Hollywood may be in the business of delivering fantasy on a scale that defies imagination, from talking animals to snakes on a plane, but even movie magic has its limits.

That brings me to “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” by far, the most anticipated movie of 2017. It’s predecessor, “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” kick-started a new trilogy on the foundation of the first one. Granted, it did so in a way that was very safe, very measured, and extremely low-risk. However, by all accounts, it worked.

With “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” that approach just isn’t viable. The story set up in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” as well as the inherent differences in the characters involved, requires that there be at least some degree of novelty in this movie. The key is not pushing it beyond the point where it loses the magic that makes “Star Wars” special.

Before I try to judge just how much or how little “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” stayed on target, to so speak, there’s one point I want to make before I go any further. It’s probably the most important point for anyone assessing this movie, especially in the context of its iconic predecessors.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is a GOOD movie.

I’m okay saying that with a straight face because by the standards of story, plot, spectacle, drama, heart, and emotional impact, this movie checks all the right boxes. It has so many powerful elements to go alongside its epic, sci-fi backdrop. There are memorable moments, iconic characters, and scenes that’ll brighten your day.

There are times when the movie gets your heart racing, regardless of whether this is your first “Star Wars” or you’ve watched “The Empire Strikes Back” a million times. There are also times when the movie drags, but with “Star Wars,” there’s a grading curve the size of 15 parsecs. Those high standards are bound to skew any review of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.”

While I’m willing to call this movie good, if not great, by those lofty standards, I still won’t put it in the same category as the original trilogy. I wouldn’t put it in the same category as the Jar Jar-fueled failure that was “The Phantom Menace,” either. This movie dares to be much more ambitious than “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” and that’s a good thing. Its ability to realize this ambition, however, is a very different story.

The movie hits the ground running. Like “The Empire Strikes Back,” this movie puts the Resistance led by Princess Leia in the same dire position we saw the Rebel Alliance in the original trilogy. Even though they scored a major victory at the end of “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” it didn’t stop the First Order from continuing their ascent.

For much of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the Resistance is on the ropes and on the brink of annihilation. Every moment counts from the moment the iconic screen crawl ends. There’s always a sense of action and tension. It makes clear from the beginning that this is the kind of movie where you’ll want to push your bladder capacity to the max.

This makes the movie exciting at every turn. It’s even exhausting, at times. However, it’s definitely a strength. When there are epic space battles, secret missions, and tense moments between characters, that strength only grows in terms of scope and scale. If you like adrenaline in your movies, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is basically made for you.

Usually, that kind of action comes at the cost of character development. Remarkably, this movie manages to avoid that. The respective stories of Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron each continue in their own unique way. They each carry with them a great deal of importance for the overall story and they all come off as characters who are easy to root for and love.

Some do far better than others. Poe Dameron definitely benefits most from having more face time in this movie. Unlike “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” he has much more influence over the direction of the plot. He stands in stark contrast to everyone around him, from Finn to Princess Leia. If there were a Poe Dameron fan club, then this movie would be their favorite, by default.

The other characters shine in their own ways, as well. Finn’s story is compelling in that it picks up where he left off. He’s still very much a reluctant participant in this conflict, much like Han Solo before him. He has his share of opportunities to run from or confront his past. His struggles in making those decisions help strengthen his character even more.

With Rey, though, it’s a bit more complicated. In fact, I would go so far as to say that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” made it much harder for her to establish herself as an icon within the “Star Wars” mythos. The mystery of where she came from, who her parents are, and why she’s so strong in the Force really fall flat. However, she still finds plenty of ways to be compelling.

This brings me to parts of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that I think fell flat. I won’t say they didn’t work completely, if only because nobody like Jar Jar showed up. However, there are flaws in this movie that keep it from achieving the kind of iconic status of its predecessors.

If this movie has a major flaw, it has to do with how it handles Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke. These two were set up in “Star Wars: the Force Awakens” to be the new version of Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. However, the way their story plays out is very different and not necessarily in a good way.

Part of what made Darth Vader such an iconic villain was how far he fell to the dark side and how he managed to fight back, despite Emperor Palpatine’s influence. It’s clear that Kylo Ren is on a similar dark path, but there’s never an explanation as to how Supreme Leader Snoke corrupted him. There’s not even a sense of who Snoke is and why he reached out to Kylo Ren in the first place.

That lack of context makes many of the events surrounding Kylo Ren seem somewhat empty. He makes clear that he’s on a dark path and he wants to pursue that path to the utmost. Rey, in her need to see the light, tries to connect with him. It helps make for some of the most dramatic moments in the entire movie. However, without a greater context, they don’t have the kind of impact that made “The Empire Strikes Back” so great.

That still doesn’t stop Kylo Ren from stealing the show in his own way. Towards the end, he ends up going much further than Darth Vader or any Sith ever dared. More than anything else, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” establishes Kylo Ren as the ultimate adversary for Rey, the Resistance, and the entire galaxy. There’s no redemption for him. There’s no chance he’ll come back to the light. Even Princess Leia acknowledged that.

It’s a huge departure and a very different direction that is somewhat new to the “Star Wars” mythos. Some fans may see that as a bad thing. Others may see it as a good thing. Personally, I think it’s good because it clearly sets this trilogy apart from the others. It makes clear that this trilogy is not going to follow the same patterns as the others. That’s exciting in some ways, but jarring in others.

Overall, I consider that approach a net positive for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi.” There are a few other minor flaws. Some of the newer characters, like Rose Tico, don’t really do much to endear themselves to the audience. They don’t pull a Jar Jar, though, and completely derail the story, either.

There’s a lot more that could be said about the flaws “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” but those flaws are petty in the sense that they stem from the simple truth that this movie is not “The Empire Strikes Back.” Those expecting it to be that way are setting themselves up for disappointment. Those expecting similar themes will be disappointed too.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi” doesn’t try to be “The Empire Strikes Back” and that’s a good thing. It tries to succeed in its own unique way and by most measures, it succeeds. The movie never drags. It never gets confusing or chaotic. Every story and sub-plot manages to come together in a fairly concise manner. It has polish and focus, as well as moments that are just pure fan service.

Again, this movie is not going to be as iconic as “The Empire Strikes Back” and that’s worth belaboring because, if some of the fan reactions to this movie are any indication, that’s what a lot of people were hoping for. Unlike “Star Wars: the Force Awakens,” this movie took chances and dared to do something different. In terms of expanding the breadth of the “Star Wars” mythos, those chances paid off.

More than anything else, though, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” establishes the importance of maintaining hope in the face of the most dire situations. So much of this movie is spent with the good guys on the brink of defeat. At times, it seems as though they’re just delaying the inevitable. That makes the hope they inspire that much more special.

That’s what makes “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” a great movie experience. It doesn’t just expand the story of an iconic mythos. It does it in a way that inspires hope. Given how fragile hope often is in the real world in the face of some pretty grim headlines, that kind of hope is more important than ever.

Leave a comment

Filed under Movie Reviews

The TomatoMeter: Is It Ruining Movies?

Let’s not lie to ourselves. We all have that one movie that we love, but everyone else, from our friends to professional critics, hate with a passion. I don’t deny I have my share. In fact, I have more than one. Some of my favorite guilty pleasure movies involve such critically panned classics like “Dude Where’s My Care?” and “Terminator Genisys.”

I don’t apologize for loving those movies, nor should anyone else apologize for liking the movies that they like. Everybody is entitled to their own tastes in movies, TV shows, comics, and porn. Granted, tastes in porn can be somewhat revealing about a person, but that’s another discussion for another article.

The discussion I’d like to have now has less to do with our ability to love critically panned movies and more to do with what’s happening with the movie industry, which has released more than it share of terrible movies. These are strange times for Hollywood and not just because it’s much harder to hide a sordid sex scandal.

Anyone who has watched at least one movie or been to the non-pornographic parts of the internet for at least ten minutes has probably heard of a site called Rotten Tomatoes. It is to movies what a rectal thermometer is to your health. Most people don’t like using it. Many try to ignore or avoid it. Sometimes, though, it tells us important things about our general health.

I’ll try to keep the rectal analogies to a minimum because there’s a growing issue with respect to Rotten Tomatoes and how it’s effecting the industry. More than one major producer has come out and bemoaned the site’s impact on the industry. Granted, one of those voices is Brett Ratner and his credibility has taken a huge hit lately. That doesn’t make that impact any less serious.

There was a time as recently as 2007 that a movie could get a lousy score on Rotten Tomatoes and still do well at the box office. Most recently, movies like “Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen” were the poster boy for this phenomenon. That movie earned a pitiful 19 percent on the Tomatometer, but it still managed to rake in over $836 million at the box office.

Personally, I really enjoyed that movie. I thought it was a lot of fun, despite Shia Lebouf’s goofy demeanor, at times. However, that movie might have been the last of its kind in that it failed so hard with critics, but still made plenty of money, both domestically and at the foreign box office. Later movies did much worse domestically and had to rely on international box office receipts to turn a profit.

Since then, a bat Tomatometer score can really hurt a movie’s profits. Most recently, the two movies that suffered this the most were “Fantastic Four” and “Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice.” Both of these movies didn’t just under-perform. In some cases, major studios singled them out as a reason for declining profits.

Even more recently, the “Justice League” movie took a major hit when its Tomatometer score tanked, even though the majority of audiences liked it. There’s already a lot of doomsaying going on that, due to the poor reception of the movie, it could end up losing a great deal of money for Warner Brothers.

Think about that for a moment. The critics hated that movie, but the audiences loved it. However, due to the poor Tomatometer score, a movie like “Justice League” is doomed to go down in history as a failure. Even if the point of the movie is to entertain the audience, which “Justice League” seemed to achieve, it’s going to fail because a handful of critics said so.

This is where the influence of Rotten Tomatoes gets kind of scary. There are a great many movies that audiences love, such as “Independence Day” and “Home Alone” that have lousy Tomatometer scores, but were still huge box office successes. They succeeded because they pleased audiences and not critics. They’re certainly not the only ones.

If those movies had come out today, then they wouldn’t have been as much a success. Today, it’s easier than ever to look up how acclaimed a movie is and judge its quality, based on its score. Some of the people who ended up loving movies “Home Alone” might never have seen it, just because of the Tomatometer.

On some levels, that’s understandable. People don’t want to pay to see a movie that sucks. We waste our money on enough crap these days. We don’t want to pay $15 to see a movie we don’t like. However, how do we even know we won’t like it until we see it? Are we really going to trust critics to do that kind of thinking for us?

Now, there will be some who never pay much attention to what critics say. Even if Rotten Tomatoes had been around years ago, I still would’ve seen “Dude Where’s My Care?” because that’s just the kind of guilty pleasure movie I love.

However, if too many studios are concerned about what the almighty Tomatometer says, then movies like that might not even get made in the first place. Sure, the world wouldn’t change much if a movie like “Dude Where’s My Care?” had never been made, but that’s not the point.

If an entire industry is going to obsess over what a handful of critics on Rotten Tomatoes say about their movie, then they’re going to focus on pleasing them instead of audiences. This has already caused some consternation among movie fans, some of which suspect that there’s something corrupt going on behind the scenes.

While I don’t usually subscribe to conspiracy theories, I don’t think this one would take a full-blown CIA operation to achieve. If a movie studio wants to spend a few extra million dollars bribing movie critics to prop up their Tomatometer score, then I can’t think of how anyone could stop them.

Sure, it’s unethical, but nobody is going to prison for that. Human nature tells us that if there’s a low-risk way to achieve high-risk returns with little chance of getting caught and only minor repercussions at best, then it probably will happen at some point. It’s not unreasonable to suspect that it has happened in the past, but those involved are smart enough not to get caught.

With the Rotten Tomatoes, though, that kind of corruption becomes even easier because the result is quantifiable. You can see it in the Tomatometer score of a movie. It’s hard to imagine such a powerful tool not getting corrupted at some point.

For now, I suspect this trend will continue with Rotten Tomatoes wielding greater and greater power over a movie’s success. That trend could easily change or reverse down the line. For now, though, I won’t go so far as to say that Rotten Tomatoes is actively ruining movies. I’ll just say that it’s setting a dangerous precedent.

1 Comment

Filed under Celebrities and Celebrity Culture, Current Events, Movie Reviews

How “Happy Death Day” (Surprisingly) Enriches Horror/Slasher Movies

When it comes to horror/slasher movies, it’s hard to break new ground these days. That’s because most still cling to the tried and true formula established by the likes of “Friday The 13th” and “Halloween.” That means there is usually going to be some crazed killer, some horny teenagers, and some sweet, yet sexy virgin who survives it all. You can practically set your watch to it, along with the standard jump scares.

It’s for that reason that slasher movies aren’t really as big a draw as they used to be. On top of that, they tend to be annoyingly sex negative and not in a subtle way either. If you’re a horny teenager in a slasher movie, then there’s a 99 percent chance you’ll be dead by the time the credits roll.

That’s why when a movie comes along to shake up that narrative, it’s worth noticing. That brings me to a recent horror movie that caught my intrigue and defied my expectations. It’s called “Happy Death Day” and, apart from the goofy title, it accomplishes something remarkable.

The first major accomplishment, for me personally, is that the trailer actually made me want to see the movie. In this era where every movie trailer follows a similar formula, we’ve all become fairly numb to their effects. We know what they’re trying to do and how they’re trying to do it. Unless you were already planning to see the movie, as is often the case with superhero movies, then a trailer probably won’t do much.

With “Happy Death Day,” the trailer struck a chord for me because it presented a different kind of slasher/horror movie. Moreover, it did so in a way where the concept was more appealing than the actual slashing/horror. Whereas most horror movies will try to build every promotional effort around that horror, “Happy Death Day” threw something else into the mix that proved enticing.

That concept may not seem radically new, on paper. “Happy Death Day” doesn’t radically reinvent the genre as much as it innovates with established concepts. It’s basically a combination of “Friday The 13th,” “Final Destination,” and “Groundhog Day.” It uses familiar themes like masked killers, time loops, and  exceedingly elaborate scenes. However, it’s the way in which they’re presented that makes the movie work.

It also helps that the presentation is done through a beautiful female protagonist named Teresa “Tree” Gelbman, who is played by a very emotive Jessica Rothe. Beyond being a pretty face, though, Tree embodies everything audiences love to hate about beautiful, sexually active women in horror movies.

She’s shallow, callous, self-centered, dismissive, and just plain mean. I won’t say she’s on the same level as Regina George from “Mean Girls,” but she’s in the same time zone. Essentially, she’s basically a female version of Phil Connors in “Groundhog Day” in the sense that she’s a fairly reprehensible person that we’re not supposed to like from the get-go.

When someone is nice to her, she just blows them off. When someone tries to wish her a happy birthday, she just rolls her eyes. On top of that, she’s openly promiscuous, hooking up with her friends’ boyfriends and having an affair with her married teacher. By every measure, this is a girl who should be at the top of Jason Voorhees’ kill list.

However, “Happy Death Day” actually digs a bit deeper than “Groundhog Day” in that, over the course of the movie, we learn why Tree is the way she is. She isn’t just bitchy for the sake of being bitchy. There’s a reason for it and as the movie goes on, it’s hard not to root for her as she struggles against her killer.

Speaking of her killer, that’s another part about “Happy Death Day” that stands out. Unlike Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees, there’s never a sense that this killer is someone to root for. In typical slasher movies, it’s easy to root for the killer because they have a certain personality or charisma to them. That’s not the case here. In a sense, the killer in this movie is less a person and more deadly obstacle for Tree to overcome.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the killer because that would be getting into spoiler territory. I enjoyed this movie enough to actually want people to go and see it or rent it. This movie definitely is worth seeing because it doesn’t play out entirely like a traditional slasher/horror movie. There are twists and turns that help it stand out.

That leads me to one of the most unique and intriguing elements of “Happy Death Day.” Unlike so many other slasher movies, this movie doesn’t implicitly penalize characters for being overly sexual. I won’t go so far as to say it’s sex positive, like the “Deadpool” movie. Essentially, it’s entirely sex neutral and for a horror movie, that’s still pretty remarkable.

What happens to Tree in “Happy Death Day” has nothing to do with the fact that she’s a beautiful young woman who enjoys having sex for the fun of it. If you take away the sex, but keep the rest of her personality traits intact, she’s still the same person. She would still be subject to the same horrors that unfold throughout the movie.

Her being trapped in an endless cycle of being killed and re-killed has little to do with her promiscuity and everything to do with what a rotten person she is. That’s the part of her that puts her in the crosshairs of a killer. Overcoming that rotten persona is every bit the struggle as the one that involves running from a psycho-killer.

Needless to say, it gets pretty chaotic and messy. Being a horror/slasher movie,  “Happy Death Day” has more than its share of gratuitous violence and bloodshed. That’s one horror element that this movie doesn’t try to subvert, but it doesn’t have to. It just makes it work in a whole new way.

Now, I enjoyed this movie thoroughly. I highly recommend others see it as well, either in theaters or on TV when it comes out. That’s not to say it’s flawless, though. There are some elements in “Happy Death Day” that left much to be desired.

For one, the movie is rated PG-13. While I understand the studio wanting to appeal to a wider audiences, I think that was a mistake for a horror/slasher movie. At times, the violence and nudity seem incredibly watered-down. Compared to a standard “Friday The 13th” sequel, it felt unbelievably tame.

On top of that, some of the supporting characters, namely the nice/generic love interest, Carter Davis, played by Israel Broussard, left a lot to be desired. Carter is likable and all, but he comes off as too flat. There’s never a sense that he and Tree should be together for any other reason beside the fact he’s nice. While it never feels outright forced, it lacks depth.

There’s also the somewhat tongue-in-cheek humor that the movie tries to squeeze in. It tries to be meta in that it acknowledges that elements of the story are similar to “Groundhog Day.” This effort falls somewhat flat and kind of takes away from the drama. I get why it’s there since the parallels are so obvious, but saying it out loud really undermines the mood.

Even with those shortcomings, “Happy Death Day” was still an incredibly enjoyable experience. I honestly can’t remember the last time I enjoyed seeing a horror/slasher movie in the theater. The concept, the story, and the characters involved all offered a unique appeal, one that dared to defy traditional horror formulas. For that, I give this movie two thumbs up and a special place on my list of horror movies.

 

Leave a comment

Filed under Movie Reviews, sex in media