Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker

I saw a Star War! And it was fine. Not great, but pretty good.

I loved The Force Awakens. From the moment that first trailer dropped, a chill went through my body; I’ve always been more of a Trek boy, but Star Wars has a special place in my heart, too. With that trailer way back in the innocent days of 2015, I felt like I was eight years old again, seeing something that resonated with me in a special way as if it were the first time. And the film itself didn’t disappoint! Then along came The Last Jedi, which was … fine. The discourse surrounding TLJ in the past two years has been exhausting, with a lot of hatred leveled at director Rian Johnson, containing a level of vitriol that should rightfully be reserved for—and aimed at—some of the real monsters currently haunting the venerated halls of our government. For me, I usually tend to forget about the elements of a work that I find boring and instead focus on the things that entertain me, but with TLJ, I don’t remember much about what I liked. In my mind, the whole pointless, infuriating side story about Finn and Rose going to the stupid casino planet seems to take up the entirety of the film’s run time in my recollection. I got into my general issues with the way slavery in the Star Wars universe is presented and my hatred of the stupid chihuahua horse escape sequence from TLJ in my Solo review, so I won’t beg your patience by revisiting it here, but suffice it to say that I’m not terribly invested in the fate of a bunch of CGI creatures when the end of the film shows that there are still enslaved children cleaning those stables. I hate that the body politic of the internet bullied Kelly Marie Tran until she basically quit social media because that’s idiotic on the part of her bullies (not to mention cruel); you have to be a child or an idiot to blame an actor for the poor choices that their character makes, but holy shit, Rose (as written) really was a horrible addition to this franchise. She didn’t have to be, but Christ almighty did that entire subplot drag the movie down.

But this isn’t a review of The Last Jedi; it’s a review of The Rise of Skywalker. When we last left our heroes, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo were dead, and Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford were alive. Leia was alive, but Carrie Fisher has, sadly, passed. Rey (Daisy Ridley), Finn (Jon Boyega), and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) were reunited with Chewie, R2-D2, and C3PO aboard the Millennium Falcon and lived to fight another day. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was throwing a tantrum about not being able to kill his uncle Luke and live up to the legacy of grandfather Darth Vader, and General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) was pretty tired of his shit. Caught up? Well, unlike TLJ, this movie doesn’t pick up right where the last installment left off; instead, we’ve catapulted some period of time into the future. Finn and Poe are off on one of those generic “gathering intelligence” missions, Rey is getting some Jedi training finally (from Leia), and Kylo Ren is micromanaging the shit out of the First Order, flying all over the place and singlehandedly attempting to wipe out any and all threats to his new position as Supreme Leader. And that’s all from the opening crawl!

Do you remember whenever Batman, as played by Adam West, would feed a bunch of information into his Batcomputer and then come to an utterly incoherent conclusion that was inexplicably correct, despite the fact that it shouldn’t have been? Half of the plot points in this film feel that way. You’ll spend the first half of this movie wanting to talk back to the screen, asking characters how they “know” that they have to go to this planet or that moon. One plot coupon leads to the next at a breakneck speed, and there’s no time for any revelations or new pieces of information to breathe before we’re off to get the next one. Some of this works, and there’s some real Indiana Jones stuff that happens with a dagger that turns out to be a compass, but even getting to the place where the dagger is found (almost by accident) takes up an inordinate amount of screen time. Information and vistas come at you so quickly that you barely have time to get your bearings before jumping to hyperspace.

Even at that pace, there’s still far too much that happens offscreen, or relies on the audience to grant meaning to information that hasn’t been pre-established. The best comparison I can make is to the later Harry Potter sequels. As someone who was just a tad bit too old for the books when they came out, I’m really only familiar with the first two of those novels from reading them as part of a college course for people who might one day teach young adult literature. The movies were fun, though, and I enjoyed them, up until around The Half-Blood Prince, where they started too become incomprehensible if you didn’t have knowledge that came from the book series alone; from what I understand from conversations with friends who read J.K. Rowling’s books and Dominic Noble’s “Lost in Adaptation” YouTube series, later films adapted plot points from the novels on which they were based, but which followed up on plot elements which had been dropped from the previous film adaptations of the source material. A notable example is that, when I finally saw The Deathly Hallows in grad school, there’s a moment where Ron has some kind of accident while apparating, and Hermione screams that he’s “splinched.” As someone who had only seen the films, I had no reference point for what that could possibly mean. There’s a lot that happens here in Rise of Skywalker that feels much the same, except that there’s not even a source material from which this is taken that might give more insight, and the film wallpapers over these narrative leaps by moving so fast that (hopefully) you won’t notice it.

I’m going to get into minor spoilers here, so skip to the last paragraph if that’s not your bag. I’m not really a fan of the term “retcon” when talking about media franchises because of the overwhelmingly negative connotations that surround that term, both within the fandom and from the outside looking in. Retcons aren’t always bad; my personal favorite comic book character, Jessica Jones, only exists because Brian Michael Bendis wasn’t allowed to use Jessica Drew (Spider-Woman) in his proposed noir private eye comic and had to invent a new character out of whole cloth, then retroactively slotted her into previously established Marvel Comics continuity. Even questionable retcons, like Star Trek: Discovery‘s insertion of a human foster sister into Spock’s backstory, have their fans (I don’t hate it). But there are things that happen in Rise of Skywalker that push the limits of what a narrative can expect its audience to go along with. The fact that Palpatine is still alive (or perhaps undead), despite the previous two films in this new trilogy even hinting that this might be the case, is a big one. That’s barely a spoiler, considering that this is literally the first thing that the audience learns in the opening crawl: “THE DEAD SPEAK!” is the text that immediately following the film’s title. The fact that Rey is, in fact, related to a previously established character despite Ren’s assertions to the contrary in the last film isn’t really a big deal in comparison to this horseshit. The fact that a major character that last appeared onscreen over a decade ago is actually not (quite) dead isn’t something that you establish offscreen. That’s just bad storytelling.

But even that doesn’t bother me as much as the moment where Rey is presented with a special gift: Leia’s lightsaber. It’s a moment that’s treated with such reverence that, as a viewer, you understand that you’re supposed to be awed by it, and by gum, I really wanted to be. I wanted to feel thrilled again; I wanted to feel the rush of childlike delight, but instead I felt the all-too-familiar sting of adulthood, the realization that you can’t go home again, a hollow dissatisfaction with the artifice that was constructed to play upon your nostalgia. It was like the first time that you realized that chocolate Easter bunnies are empty inside, and that now a little part of you will be, too, forever. There’s nothing magical about learning that Leia had a lightsaber, or even that she trained as a Jedi with Luke (who really wasn’t super qualified for that, all things considered, which would have been a much more interesting arc for him in these films). It’s just more bad retconning that, if you read the expanded universe novels and comics, may mean something to you, but which is lost on the rest of us.

Look, Rise of Skywalker is good. It’s not great like The Force Awakens or passable like The Last Jedi, but it’s also not that spectacular either. It doesn’t take the chances that TLJ took, and I was glad that the return of JJ Abrams meant that we went back to mostly practical FX for the aliens (those stupid chihuahua horses from TLJ will haunt me to my goddamned grave) even if the resultant film felt like he was trying to railroad the ending back to his original concepts after not liking how another director played with his toys. On the one hand, I wish the whole thing had ended with TFA so that we could just imagine our own endings, but on the other hand, no one’s stopping you from doing that anyway.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Wars Fans Don’t Love Star Wars, They Love to Complain

Although I’m not quite as enthusiastic of a fan of The Last Jedi at its most fervent defenders, I greatly respected that film’s willingness to burn the Star Wars franchise, one of the most historically lucrative intellectual properties around, to the ground and start anew. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon was a bomb meant to blow up age-old traditions from the inside. It states its intentions in blatant terms by literally burning sacred texts, portraying the franchise’s longest-established hero as a coward who wastes his days drinking grotesque alien goo, and spelling out its mission statement in dialogue like, “Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.” I was personally more emotionally invested in the earnest, nostalgic mythmaking of The Force Awakens than anything Johnson’s film accomplished, but I do resect the way his flippant blasphemy attempted to smash the reset button on Star Wars at large, making it more palatable to younger fans without prior attachment to the series. It’s understandable why old school Star Wars fans might feel alienated or even offended by that blasphemy; maybe that reaction was even part of the point. What’s less understandable is why they were also furious with the modern revision JJ Abrams gave A New Hope in The Force Awakens, which was extremely cautious in how it updated series lore (and, in my opinion, was an improvement on the source material). What’s absolutely maddening is their disregard for the latest entry in the canon, Solo: A Star Wars Story, which returns the series back to the sci-fi radio serial swashbuckling of the original trilogy, which should be exactly what old school fans want. Longtime Star Wars devotees have no idea what would actually make them happy, except the mundane activity of complaining on the internet.

I had very little interest in seeing Solo: A Star Wars Story after comedic pranksters Phil Lord & Chris Miller were booted from the project in favor of personality-free workman director Ron Howard. Reports that execs were especially frustrated with Alden Ehrenreich’s talents as an actor were especially alarming, considering that Ehrenreich gave one of the most complexly sweet, funny performances in recent memory in Hail, Caesar! just two years ago. It turned out, of course, that paying attention to this production history in real time, knowing things like the fact that Ehrenreich was given an acting coach and that new ideas from the Lord/Miller crew where being shot down in favor of those from series dinosaur Lawrence Kasdan, was only detrimental to Solo’s entertainment potential. I felt like I had been following complaints about Solo: A Star Wars Story on the internet for a full year before the final product actually hit theaters, to the point that I was too exhausted to really care whether it was a good movie or not. It’s a shame, to, because Solo is a really fun sci-fi adventure movie, even as a compromised finished product. As Boomer points out in his review, the first half-hour or so of the film is a little iffy in its handling of the burdens of telling an origin story for a character we already know. However, once Han Solo meets up with Chewbacca in a prison pit, the movie is all cheesy swashbuckling & space heists and I had way more fun with it than I expected to. The average, longtime Star Wars fan did not have fun, if they saw the film at all. They even relished Solo’s box office underperformance as if it were punishment for Disney’s sins against the brand, despite Solo delivering the exact old school Star Wars tone they supposedly wanted to begin with. The most fun Star Was fans had after Solo’s release was complaining online about how corny the movie was in cataloguing how Han Solo got his name, his ship, his buddies and so on. If you have been complaining about how corny Solo is, let me let you in on an open secret: Star Wars has always been corny. You were once too young to notice it; now you’re too cynical to get over yourself enough to enjoy it.

Of course, it’s worth addressing that at least some aversion to the modern Star Wars canon is born of racist & misogynist politics, not matters of taste. Just this week actor Kelly Marie Tran­­ was chased off her Instagram account by Star Wars “loving” trolls who have been relentlessly bullying her for months because they did not appreciate the perceived progressivism of her character arc as Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. Similar complaints have ben lobbed at Rey, Finn, Vice Admiral Holdo, and pretty much anyone who doesn’t resemble the legion of white men who used to command the spotlight in older entries. It’s grotesque behavior that should be called out for its bigotry, but I really do think that regressive politics is just one motivator for longtime Star Wars Complainers. The more widespread problem among (to use a cursed word) the fandom is that complaint culture is Star Wars culture. The (admittedly, objectively bad) prequels from the early 2000s arrived at a time when complaining on the internet was a fresh, novel activity that kept longtime fans busy whining for over a decade before the Disney era sequels arrived. Its presumable that many Star Wars fans out there were socially raised complaining about The Phantom Menace & its ilk on the internet; it’s part of their DNA. The problem extends even further back than that, however. Young fans who first saw A New Hope in 1977 had enough time to grow cynical in the six years until The Return of the Jedi was released in 1983, which gave them plenty to complain about in the adorable teddy bear space alien Ewoks. That’s not even including the two made-for-TV Ewok movies and the cursed Star Wars Holiday Special that gave “fans“ complaint fodder between proper franchise entries. If, in all these instances, the loudest complainers speak for the hegemony at large, The Old School Star Wars Fandom only enjoys two out of the ten movies in the Star Wars canon: A New Hope & The Empire Strikes Back. Not only is that a dismal percentage for a supposed devotee, but the practice of complaining about everything under the Star Wars umbrella has become such an ingrained routine that when something like Solo actually does recapture the old school sci-fi swashbuckling charm of those two pictures, they’re entirely unsure how to enjoy it without complaining about it.

Usually, intensely dedicated fandoms complain because they have too specific of an idea of what an entry into their pop culture obsession of choice should be, especially in adaptations of pre-existing material, instead of enjoying it for what it is. Star Wars “Fans” certainly suffer that pitfall to an extent, forming concrete *shudder* “headcannons” of what should happen in Star Wars movies based on pre-existing video games, novels, fan theories, and (most disgustingly) regressive race & gender politics. In a roundabout way, though, the recent films are giving them exactly what they want: a reason to complain on the internet. If Solo’s old school swashbuckling cheese isn’t faithful enough to the Star Wars originals’ tone to satisfying these serial complainers, it’s doubtful anything ever will be. I’m only respecting The Last Jedi’s flippant blasphemy more the further I get away from it. Star Wars Complainers deserve to see their sacred texts burn to make room for new, potentially appreciative fans who haven’t spent the last few decades exhaustively complaining about the thing they supposedly love most. New fans at least stand a chance of actually finding joy in what’s projected on the movie screen, instead of finding joy in bitterly abusing its stars & creators on the computer screen.

-Brandon Ledet

Solo: A Star Wars Story (2018)

Sometimes you find yourself in a dark, nearly empty theater screening the newest Star War on a Tuesday afternoon less than a week after its release and you find yourself asking Big Questions. Questions like: Will I never again pass through a calendar year without seeing one of these? Should I stop getting these giant blue raspberry slushes and a hot dog every time I come to the movies, knowing that I’ll spend the next 90-150 minutes regurgitating and swallowing that liquid and solid matter like a cow chewing cud? (I am a human garbage disposal, and like all disposals, sometimes things . . . splash around.) Was Thandie Newton paid as much for this film as Anthony Hopkins? Why aren’t there more people here? Would anyone have really noticed if I got nachos as well, or am I just being paranoid about people’s hatred of fat people like me? (See above, re: being a human garbage disposal.) How many hours long is this Venom trailer, anyway? Wait, there’s a new Jungle Book movie? Wasn’t there another one just, like, two years ago? (The answer to this one is easy: yes. There will be a mere 928 days between the respective premieres of Jon Favreau’s The Jungle Book and Andy Serkis’s Mowgli.) Is that the voice of Phoebe Waller-Bridge, of Crashing fame and the creator of the recent smash hit Killing Eve, which everyone should be watching? But most importantly: Why does this exist? And, hey is that Warwick Davis? (It is!)

I don’t think anyone in the world was clamoring for this movie to be made. No one asked for Solo: A Star Wars Story, but it’s here now, and we all have to live with that fact, so get used to it.

Solo, naturally, follows the story of lovable (YMMV) rogue Han “I ain’t in this for your revolution” Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) as he escapes the hellhole slums of his homeworld, becoming separated from his childhood love Qi’ra (the Khaleesi herself Emilia Clarke) in the process by the cruel vicissitudes of fate, swearing he’ll return to save her one day. After a brief stint in the Imperial Forces, he joins a ragtag team of thieving scoundrels led by Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), meets up with his future bromance partner Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo), and has his first fateful meeting with galactic playboy Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and Lando’s assistant/common law wife/sidekick L3-37 (Waller-Bridge). Along the way, he runs afoul of a gang of outlaws led by Enfys Nest, and is opposed by sophisticated crime boss Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, taking over for Michael K. Williams). It’s got everything you ever wanted in a sequel that shouldn’t exist: battles atop trains that traverse icy wildernesses, betrayals, giant tentacled space monsters, sacrifices, Wookiees rarrarr-ing at each other, holograms, monochromatic 2-D displays, hover cars with impractical and impossible physics (when banking left, shouldn’t the vehicle tilt left instead of right, as if it had thrusters and not wheels?), and Paul Bettany somehow simultaneously phoning it in and chewing the scenery. Truly, he is one of the great living actors of our time. Also, hey look everybody, Clint Howard’s here!

It takes 45 minutes (aka “not quite enough time to sober up”) by bus to get from the bar nearest my office to the Galaxy Highland theater, but those 45 minutes were much better spent than the first three quarters of an hour of this movie. There are jokes in this movie that land and others that don’t, while some do nothing but induce pure cringe. The cringe-inducing ones are peppered throughout, but the bulk of them (the most notable–although not the worst–being how Han gets his surname) appear in these early scenes; there are terrible jokes that come later, of course, but by then they’re spread out enough that you don’t seem to mind. I joked about this on my Facebook, but Solo may be the only movie I’ve ever seen that got better as my sobriety increased, but I was coherent enough throughout to be able to tell that this was because the movie improved over time. After you get through the joyless opening chase scene, the melodramatic and treacly faux-Casablanca separation at the spaceport, and the out-of-place D-Day-esque battle wherein Han meets Beckett for the first time, Han and Chewbacca have their meet-cute and escape together and it’s all pretty fun from there, even if Donald Glover’s performance feels more like Troy Barnes is doing a (very funny) Lando impression than Glover is playing the character outright.

To sidetrack for a minute and revisit Star Wars history, lets talk about Phantom Menace. My issues with the film (and the guy who wrote “As for your issues with the prequels in general, I will let someone else address those because honestly, I don’t know where to begin” – I still think about you and want to know who hurt you, other than George Lucas while grooming you to accept shovelfuls of shit and call it ice cream) aside, there’s a moment in the 1999 film that I thought about a lot while watching The Last Jedi back in December. And no, it wasn’t Anakin’s “Now this is podracing!” line while Finn and Rose rode those stupid CGI chihuahua horses to freedom, although I also couldn’t stop thinking about that. No, it’s this scene, that comes at about hour 14 of Phantom Menace, right around the time you’ve stopped wishing you were dead and started to accept that you already are and that this is hell.

ANAKIN. I had a dream I was a Jedi. I came back here and freed all the slaves… have you come to free us?

QUI-GON : No, I’m afraid not.

And . . . that’s that.The scene moves on quickly to Qui-Gon blah-blah-blahing about Coruscant and trade agreements and then Jar Jar says “Wit no-nutten mula to trade” (no, really, see for yourself, in case you forgot–or are too blinded by the warmth of your childhood nostalgia to realize–that this movie is a crime against humanity). This is something that’s always been a problem with the Star Wars universe: no one really gives a damn about the existence of slavery. First of all, leaving aside the debatable sentience/sapience of droids and thus whether their servitude could be considered “slavery,” (which comes up in Solo and which I’ll get to later), the idea that anyone would be using organic life forms for manual labor when mechanical alternatives are so omnipresent, widespread, and affordable (even Luke’s aunt and uncle can afford one) is absurd. On the other hand, as long as there are backwater planets with little resources and abstinence-only sex education–as I assume Tattooine must, given that Shmi has a virgin birth and doesn’t seem awed by that fact at all (again, from the PM script: SHMI : There was no father, that I know of…I carried him, I gave him birth…I can’t explain what happened.)–there will always be mouths to feed, bills to pay, and Dickensian childhoods that can only be escaped by becoming a Storm Trooper.

Now, I know what you’re thinking: “But the Rebellion/Resistance is fighting for freedom for all from the Empire/First Order!” you yell at your phone reading this on the toilet at work, frightening an accountant and generating a solid afternoon of work for poor, sweet-faced Devan in HR. Yeah, sure, but slavery was a fact of life on non-Senate worlds during the prequel trilogy, and we never hear bleeding heart Amidala or cartoon rabbit minstrel show Jar Jar arguing for the Senate to intervene on worlds like the one where Anakin was born, not with the carrot or stick, with neither olive branch or lightsaber. In the Orig Trig, perfectly constructed straightforward sci-fantasy that it is, none of that is important. But come The Last Jedi, the audience is expected to be thrilled that our heroes liberated a bunch of racing animals while also leaving behind a not-insignificant number of children, still in the “employ” of slave masters. This would be so easy to do.

ROSE: It’s a pity that our roles in the Resistance and the need to return to the fleet means we have to leave these children behind.

FINN: Every life is important. As soon as we get back to the ship, we’ll tell General Organa about this place, and we’ll rend the shackles from every child in this place.

(They could even disagree, with Rose noting that they have to get back to the ship while Finn, with his background of having been a child soldier, would be more resistant to the idea of leaving the kids behind. It would make for a stronger emotional beat than “That’s how we’re going to win. Not fighting what we hate, but saving what we love” anyway. Nobody in the Resistance ever even pays lip service to the idea that they have a moral responsibility to fight back against the First Order because slaves need to be liberated. But I digress.)

Solo finally does . . . something with this problem, even if it makes no real definitive statements or even takes a clear moral stance. Although I have no doubt that there will be many who disagree with me and take offense to everything that she says, L3-37 is one of the best characters that this franchise has produced, and she was the highlight of the film for me. We meet L3 for the first time in a wretched hive of scum and villainy (’cause it’s Star Wars) as she pleads with a couple of droids duking it out in a ring, Battle Bots style, to not let themselves be reduced to fighting like dogs for the entertainment of organic onlookers. In a later heist scene on Kessel, she helps create chaos by attempting to instigate a droid rebellion in the film’s best sequence. Waller-Bridge is one of the funniest people on Earth, and her timing and inflection are comedy gold; there’s one scene where she climbs into the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon and complains of the equivalent of joint pain and tells Lando he’ll “have to do that thing later” while Glover makes the perfect expression, and it’s simply fantastic. Often for better and at times for worse, this is a franchise that has encompassed some truly uncanny inhumanity (whether it be due to bad CGI, weird puppetry, or just wooden acting), and this earnestly human and relatable moment was the point where I thought, “Hey, this movie’s actually all right.” And that’s not even getting into the fact that someone finally remembered to give a shit about ethics with regards to forced servitude here, although I’m never quite sure if the text is mocking L3 just as much as it is agreeing with her.

Alden Ehrenreich, despite all bad press to the contrary, does a good job here. From the first moment I saw him in Hail, Caesar (other than in the Supernatural episode “Wendigo,” but that was a dark period in my life of which I dare not speak), I thought “This guy looks like a movie star.” And here he is, defying the odds (insert “never tell me the odds” joke here) to pull off one of the most well-known characters in the history of Western cinema. Opting to simply play “charming rogue” instead of aping Harrison Ford was a wise choice, which was counterbalanced by Glover’s more self-aware acting choices. Harrelson could have sleepwalked through this role given that it’s not very original, but he showed up, which is more than can be said of most people’s erstwhile father figures in the crime business.

That’s the good, but the bad . . . is bad. On an older Simpsons commentary (I want to say it was “Bart Gets Famous” but don’t quote me on that), the writers joked that they would know they would have gone to the well of ideas until it was dry if they ever did an origin story for Bart’s red hat. The idea is laughable, but that’s also kind of what’s happening here. We get an origin story/explanation for Chewbacca’s nickname, Han’s blaster, how Han was able to make “the Kessel run in 12 parsecs” despite that being a unit of distance and not time, and even Han’s last name. It’s embarrassing and drags the movie to a halt every time the film has to wait for the hypothetical shameless applauders in the audience to sit down and stop providing their children with therapy fodder for decades to come. This dependency upon references to past material (and presumably planting seeds to be reaped in future Star Wars stories, every year from now until you’re dead, so just shut up and give Disney your money already you pathetic fleck of lint) drags this movie down. Although it’s occasionally buoyed back up by strong performances and jokes that actually land, and it somehow manages to stick the landing, there’s just so much here that you’ll want to forget. There’s almost a good film in here, but there’s also definitely a pretty bad one. If you happen to miss the first thirty minutes, you’ll likely have a much better time, but there’s no guarantee.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi (2017)

“Let the past die. Kill it if you have to. It’s the only way to become what you’re meant to be.”

In the opening scene to the critical & commercial bomb Waterworld, we’re introduced to Kevin Costner’s dystopia-navigating action hero by learning two unique facts about him: 1) he has gills that allow him to breathe underwater and 2) he drinks his own piss. This is such an off-putting introduction to someone who’s supposed to be coded as a heroic badass that the audience has very little wiggle room to ever get entirely past it; critic Nathan Rabin even refers to Costner’s protagonist as a “pee-drinking man-fish” for the entirety of his My Year of Flops review of the film. Rian Johnson’s entry into the Star Wars canon, The Last Jedi, is even more grotesque in the way it tears down Luke Skywalker in his own introduction, despite him being the de facto hero of the series going as far back as A New Hope four decades ago. An aged, surly Luke Skywalker drinks something much, much worse than his own piss in one of his earliest moments onscreen in The Last Jedi. When offered the lightsaber Rey extends to him in the final aerial shot of the film’s predecessor, The Force Awakens, Luke casually tosses the sacred thing over his shoulder and over the side of a cliff, flippantly disregarding the emotional payoff of the lore J.J. Abrams built up for Johnson to deliver on. The rest of the canon goes over the cliff with it, with pre-established dichotomies of Good & Evil, boundaries on the limits of the space-magic practice of The Force, and even basic questions of tone & intent being burnt to the ground so that new seeds can sprout from the ashes. Luke’s disgusting beverage of choice and general apathy for the history & lore of the Jedi is emblematic of The Last Jedi’s willingness to let traditional Star Wars themes & narrative threads die so the series can begin anew. It’s an often awkward, even outright goofy kind of blasphemy, but it’s a necessary evil for moving the franchise forward instead of merely echoing the past.

Ill-conceived holiday specials. made-for-TV Ewok movies, and near-universally loathed prequels aside, The Last Jedi is the first proper Star Wars film that’s not about stopping the construction or deployment of the planet-destroying spaceship The Death Star. You’d think that the same fans who blasted Abrams’s The Force Awakens for supposedly copycatting (or, in my opinion, improving through revision) the first film in the series, A New Hope, would appreciate that Rian Johnson has steered Star Wars away from telling that same tired story yet again. That has not been the case. There has been a wide gulf between critic & audience scores on aggregator sites like Rotten Tomatoes & Metacritic in how The Last Jedi is being received. Many disgruntled superfans of the series are stressing out over the way Johnson has jumbled & set aflame their *shudder* fan theories, which extend from speculation on everything from what the film’s title might mean to who Rey, the new hero of the franchise, might be sired by to what purpose Porgs, adorable toy-selling space-chickens, might serve in the larger scope of Star Wars lore. Johnson is not only dismissive of these extratextual extrapolations on where the series is going; he also completely dismisses the many far, faraway places the series has already been. It’s difficult to tell that from the film’s basic plot, though, even if it is Death Star-free. The Last Jedi is a fairly by-the-books Star Wars story bifurcated between Rey & Luke debating whether the practice of Jedi space-magic is worth reviving (much to Kylo Ren’s watching-from-afar chagrin) and The Resistance’s numbers dwindling in the meantime as they flee from the crushing space-Nazi fascism of the First Order (despite the efforts of familiar faces like Poe, Finn, Leia, BB-8, Laura Dern, etc.). I don’t believe most of The Last Jedi’s divisiveness is a response to the film’s narrative choices (though I wouldn’t put it past the series’ die-hard fans to complain about anything), but rather a question of tone & respect for series-spanning lore.

Star Wars has always had a jokey flippancy built into its DNA (just look to fan-favorite Han Solo for examples); its humor is a defense mechanism meant to forgive or ease its more off-putting sci-fi nerdery. The Last Jedi is an outlier in that dynamic only in the way it alters the series’ sense of humor for modern sensibilities. The jokes in George Lucas’s original trilogy were geared for the Baby Boomer generation, the same kids who would have grown up on the space opera radio serials (and subsequent televisions shows) Star Wars regenerated nostalgia for. It’s a comedy style that’s only grown corny with time, drifting further away from modern sensibilities with each new trilogy cycle. The Last Jedi ditches the Baby Boomer humor to appeal to Millennials who have grown up on Simpsons snark & Adult Swim anti-humor. The film opens with a prank call. Luke Skywalker dismissively refers to lightsabers as “laser swords.” The toy-selling cuteness of the space-chicken Porgs is a constant visual gag, with even a few of the critters being prepared as meals and generally treated as unwanted pests. The open secret, though, is that Star Wars has always been awkwardly goofy, full of absurdist creatures worthy of derisive laughter, and loose with consistent logic in its space-wizardry. It’s only become normalized over time through decades-long cultural exposure. As gross as Luke Skywalker’s beverage of choice is in this film, it’s no goofier or out of step with the series at large than a Frank Oz-voiced Yoda puppet or a space-tavern full of bipedal sea creatures playing jizz music. Rian Johnson’s film is being torn apart by life-long fans of Star Wars for making a series they’ve grown up mythologizing feel nerdily weird & awkward again: something it’s always been, but they were once too young to see. Old-timers are likely feeling alienated by the modern humor that shapes its tone, but I’m totally okay with abandoning past devotees of the franchise to make the environment more hospitable for new ones.

Brushing aside the more hateful, inflammatory complaints about women & PoC being afforded the blockbuster spotlight for once, most negative reactions to The Last Jedi are totally understandable. It’s not difficult to see how a film about literally burning sacred texts & starting from scratch could alienate some old-timers. Honestly, I’m not even sure the film’s absurdist Millennial humor & blasphemous revision of the Jedi as a religious practice/force for Good are 100% successful myself. I was much more emotionally moved by the sincere mythmaking & familiar, but consistent craft of The Force Awakens than I was impressed with the flippant absurdity of The Last Jedi. The Last Jedi may have been eccentric enough to alienate lore-serious Star Wars nerds, but it still doesn’t quite reach the over-the-top lunacy of something like Okja or Fury Road. There are moments when I could swear Brigsby Bear’s Kyle Mooney secretly directed the picture under a pseudonym, even though the evidence is stacked against me, but it’s ultimately too long & too well-behaved to satisfy as an absurdist masterpiece. Instead, the absurdism comes in flashes, just flavoring the original space opera recipe enough to establish a freshly goofy tone as a replacement for the staler goofy one it started with. Indignation over blasphemy to the lore of the Jedi and The Force is slightly more justified than resisting the film’s updated sense of humor, but when the now-established rules of space-wizardry were first introduced in the original franchise they likely seem just as absurd & arbitrary. In a way, dedicated fans deserve to be trolled for thinking that they’ve firmly grasped the rules & trajectory of the franchise enough that they can map out the exact stories of future installments based only on titles, advertisements, and interview clips.

Rian Johnson disrespectfully throws all fan theories in the trash, along with the consistency in lore that made them possible in the first place. It may sting the ego to discover you can no longer “figure out” the future of a franchise you’ve spent your whole life obsessively studying as if it were a riddle with a concrete answer, not a fluid work of art. However, by shaking up the rules & tones of what’s come before, Johnson has created so much more space for possibility in the future, for new & exciting things to take us by surprise instead of following the trajectory of set-in-stone texts. He’s made Star Wars freshly funny, unpredictable, and awkwardly nerdy again, when it was in clear danger of becoming repetitive, by-the-books blockbuster filmmaking routine instead. It’s an admirable feat, even if not an entirely successful one, and yes, even if it forced me to equate Luke Skywalker to a pee-drinking man-fish.

-Brandon Ledet

How the Star Wars Holiday Special (1978) Nearly Destroyed The World’s Most Popular Film Franchise in Its Infancy

EPSON MFP image

We’re living in a pretty incredible time to be a Star Wars nerd right now. In the past year, we’ve seen two of the franchise’s best entries, The Force Awakens & Rogue One, bring its battered ghost back to the heights of its Empire Strikes Back & New Hope pinnacle. Now that enough time has passed and most of the bitter taste has been washed away, we’re collectively forgetting the nightmare regime of young Anakin & Jar Jar stepping on the throat of the world’s most popular film franchise, threatening to exterminate Star Wars forever into a CG oblivion. Jar Jar & Hayden Christensen weren’t the first threat to Star Wars‘s legacy, though. Nor were they the worst. A year after the unfathomably popular premiere of the franchise in A New Hope and two years before its sole masterpiece in Empire Strikes Back, Star Wars sank far lower than any line readings of “Meesa people gonna die?” or CG Hayden Christensen force-ghosts ever brought it. The Star Wars Holiday Special is the darkest chapter in the Star Wars saga, a 90min eternity of embarrassment & shame for a series that might not have survived it in the age of internet chatrooms or, even more recently, turbulent Twitter storms. The Star Wars Holiday Special luckily flew under the radar, surviving only as a ghost on the world’s least-watched VHS cassettes instead of being consistently torn apart in a public forum. If released in a more modern era, it might’ve been a death blow.

A variety show holiday special in the vein of a Bing Crosby or a Pee-wee’s Playhouse seasonal broadcast, this fanboy nightmare centers on the inane & vaguely defined Wookie celebration of Life Day. Along with Bea Arthur, Art Carney, Jefferson Starship, and a few other stray celebrities most children wouldn’t give two shits about, not even in the late 70s, most of the original Star Wars crew makes an appearance here. Mark Hamill & Carrie Fisher get off light, appearing only in brief video conference scenes, never having to appear on set in their respective Skywalker roles. David Prowse & James Earl Jones escape even more responsibility for this crime against decency, as Darth Vader’s brief scenes are mere overdubs of clips from A New Hope. It’s truly Harrison Ford & Peter Mayhew who suffer the biggest loss of dignity here. The entire special’s narrative is structured around Han Solo helping Chewbacca avoid Imperial capture on his path home to his Wookie family in time for their all-important Life Day celebration. That’s right; Chewbacca has a non-canonical family created just for this prestigious holiday special. His father Itchy, his son Lumpy, and his wife Malla are no doubt the three most ill-conceived and poorly designed characters of a franchise that, again, was also responsible for Jar Jar Binks. Most of The Star Wars Holiday Special features Chewbacca’s ugly, shrill, unlikable family as they hang out in their mat painting treehouse condo, whining, roaring, and grumbling until their hirsute paterfamilias arrives. It’s borderline unwatchable, even with the occasional respite of a Han Solo line reading or a half-cooked comedy sketch from Mel Brooks collaborator Harvey Korman. It’s probably not fair to pick on the quality of 1970s children’s media from this decades-late hindsight, but this truly is one of the most unpleasant and, frankly, boring 90min stretches of sci-fi media I’ve ever endured. I’m honestly surprised Star Wars escaped it unscathed.

Not every moment in the special is agony. There’s a Heavy Metal-style animation sequence that’s an especially welcome moment of competence & effortless cool, one that serves as the first introduction of space mercenary Boba Fett as a character. Given my own nature as a gleeful garbage-gobbling goon, I also found some occasional touches of worthwhile camp hiding amidst the shrill Wookie whines. A bartending Bea Arthur sings a Kurt Weill number to a cantina full of unruly customers at closing time because she’s being shut down by the series’ de facto Space Nazis. Itchy, everyone’s favorite Wookie grandpa, has dirty video conference phone sex with Diahann Carroll in the same living room where his daughter in law is preparing a traditional Life Day meal. I also got the strange feeling that several characters were flirting with Chewbacca’s wife Malla and, although admittedly hideous, there’s something truly amusing about the look of his own son Lumpy. It’s better experienced in still images rather than in actually watching the special, but I’m just glad I how have something besides the Baby Grinch to post pictures of during my Yuletide shitposting.

maxresdefault tumblingandbumblinglumpy

However, nothing in The Star Wars Holiday Special is excitingly campy enough to make up for the fact that overall the film feels like watching human muppet Bruce Villach, one of the special’s credited writers, narrate a 90min YouTube supercut of goats screaming. The special manages to reach a rare kind of awful that’s both boring and abrasive. It offers so little reward for the great leaps of faith it requires to stomach it’s incessant Wookie whines & stale comedy routines that I’m honestly shocked the Star Wars franchise survived it intact. This was a time before the series’ home video availability, so besides story records & tie-in picture books, The Star Wars Holiday Special was the first way you could take George Lucas’s populist classic home with you. The Empire Strikes Back eventually destroyed any lingering resentment this television broadcast could’ve generated, but if something this awful were released in the same intense scrutiny era of Jar Jar Binks’s moment in the flamewar sun, it might not have bounced back so quickly. As you’re preparing to celebrate yet another Life Day with your family this year, consider taking some time out of your holiday to revisit the beloved institution of Star Wars‘s creative lowpoint, or at least as much of it as you can stand. It might bring you nothing but pain & regret, but it’ll at least make you more appreciative of the heights the series has returned to in its post-Disney buyout era. You might even learn to cut Jar Jar some slack now that he’s got Lumpy & Itchy to compete with as the franchise’s ultimate lowpoint in terms of taste & annoyance.

wookie

-Brandon Ledet

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

EPSON MFP image

fourstar

When I found out last year that there were going to be 6 new Star Wars films — not just the new trilogy, but three stand-alone films as well — I was skeptical. As excited as I was about the final trilogy, the in-between films sounded like nothing more than a money grab. But after seeing Rogue One, the second entry in the reboot, I’m pretty sold.

Before watching The Force Awakens last year, I kind of lost myself in fan theories and had fun with the idea of Jar Jar Binks coming back as the ultimate big baddy, but for Rogue One I went in blind. After all, chronologically it happens in between Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope. People who are even slightly familiar with Star Wars know how this plays out, but it turns out there were a few twists and turns I didn’t expect. Rogue One frames the rest of the series in a much darker light. It brings a revived urgency and anxiety to the franchise, which I hope was probably there when Star Wars was first released in 1977. It manages to make the Death Star not just an impractical super weapon and the Empire a floundering bureaucracy that can’t teach its Stormtroopers how to aim. No, the Empire is a real frightening threat. Despite Disney’s CEO insisting that this is not a political movie, there’s quite a bit of war imagery and themes that are being presented in a time when the threat of fascism seems to loom. I mean, the movie itself is about a rebellion. The notion that it’s not political is naive and out of touch. But I guess you should never count on a multimillion dollar mega corporation to stand by the radical media that they inadvertently release

Rogue One follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and Captain Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) of the Rebel Alliance. They form a group of misfit rebels with Andor’s brutally honest droid sidekick K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk), a blind force warrior Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), his big gun toting conterpart Baze Malbus (Wen Jiang), and a defecting Imperial shuttle pilot named Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Together they work against the Empire to smuggle the plans of the the Death Star to the Alliance. One big problem I had, though, was that the characters are not as developed as they should be. I keep hearing people say that it’s a lack of screen time, but in the case of Jyn I really think that they had ample opportunity to present her as more than just another brunette leading lady with good aim and an uncanny ability to scale vertical surfaces. I also thought that Cassian could have been a much more interesting character. As he is, I don’t really buy the vague romance that he and Jyn are supposed to have by the end of the movie. Though with Star Wars, it’s usually the minor roles that win hearts. Chirrut and Baze are a great pair, and K-2SO is a real pal. I’d like to have had more from Riz Ahmed’s character, instead of shoving him to the background and referring to him as “the shuttle pilot” half the movie, though.

What the movie gets right, it gets really right. The villains are scary. Somehow Rogue One was able to present a fresh introduction to Darth Vader, which is great because this is the first time we’re seeing Vader as Vader, really doing his thing, since Return of the Jedi thirty-three years ago. He is used sparingly and masterfully, and is truly terrifying and cruel. It’s so great to hear James Earl Jones’s voice coming out of that mask again. The gestures were spot on, right down to that iconic Vader finger wag. This is not the “NOOOOO!” moment of the prequels. This is true Vader. Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin also gets resurrected as a total computer recreation. Despite the general mixed response, I found to it be extremely impressive and convincing.

It’s also a pretty movie. It really captures the look and feel of a Star Wars movie. There’s hazy shots of star ships gliding across horizons at sunset and far off planets in the distance. One of the locations in particular really stands out. There’s a moon called Jedha, with a city and a temple that we’re to assume belonged at one point in time to the Jedi. There’s an aerial shot of the landscape featuring a giant, ancient Jedi statue on it’s side in the sand that, nerdily enough, reminded me of The Gates of Argonath, the great statues of kings on the river Anduin in Lord of the Rings. There’s some really cool costumes too: floor length bright red robes in the cities, Chirrut’s semi monk style clothing, and some retro helmets made a comeback.

In the day and age of reboots and series revivals Star Wars has taken the lead for quality. The two newest movies have proven that the old “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it” attitude works out and has even redeemed a franchise so nearly killed by its own creator. Rogue One was far from being the nostalgia fueled money grab I expected, and actually left me feeling some complex things.

-Alli Hobbs

The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2016

EPSON MFP image

Including short films, there are 57 movies nominated for the 2016 Oscars. We here at Swampflix have covered less than half of the films nominated (so far!), but we’re still happy to see so many movies we enjoyed listed among the nominees. The Academy rarely gets these things right (last year’s Birdman Best Picture win comes to mind in that regard), but as a list this isn’t too shabby in terms of representing what 2015 had to offer to cinema. Listed below are the 19 Oscar-Nominated films from 2015 that we reviewed for the site, ranked from best to . . . least-best (*cough* Fifty Shades *cough*) based on our star ratings. With each entry we’ve listed a blurb, a link to our corresponding review, and a mention of the awards the films were nominated for.

EPSON MFP image

1) Ex Machina, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Visual Effects

“There’s something about Ex Machina’s straight-forward, no nonsense approach to sci-fi storytelling that struck a real chord in me. It’s not likely to win over folks who are looking to be surprised by every single development in its plot, but for those willing to enjoy the movie on its own stripped-down terms there’s a lot of intense visual rewards & interesting thematic explorations of, among other things, masculine romantic possessiveness that can be deeply satisfying.”

EPSON MFP image

2) Mad Max: Fury Road, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (George Miller), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“In a time where a lot of movies, such as Zombeavers & WolfCop, intentionally aim for a cult film aesthetic, it’s refreshing when something as authentically bizarre as Fury Road comes along and earns its rabid, isolated fan base naturally. Although the movie is less than a month old, it’s already gathered a cult following so strong that I doubt that there’s any praise I can throw at it that hasn’t already been bested elsewhere. I loved the film. I thought it was fantastic, wonderfully distinct, up there with The Road Warrior, The Witches of Eastwick, and Pig in the City as one of the best things Miller has ever released onto the world. I still feel like that’s merely faint praise when compared to some of the more hyperbolic reactions out there.”

EPSON MFP image

3) Star Wars, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, nominated for Best Film Editing, Best Original Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“The overall feeling I got while watching The Force Awakens is “What more could you ask for?” Abrams has successfully walked the Star Wars tightrope & delivered something sure to please both newcomers & skeptics and, more importantly, something that’s deliriously fun to watch when divorced from the burden of expectation.”

EPSON MFP image

4) Straight Outta Compton, nominated for Best Original Screenplay

Straight Outta Compton is not a particularly great example of a historical document, but damn if it didn’t achieve an incredible Cinematic Aesthetic in every scene, somehow managing to squeeze out a great biopic with exactly zero deviations from the format (unlike more experimental films like Love & Mercy). The cinematography, provided by longtime Aronofsky collaborator Matthew Libatique, confidently supported the film’s surface pleasures (including an onslaught of still-great songs & pandering nostalgia) to the point where any & all faults were essentially irrelevant.”

EPSON MFP image

5) Anomalisa, nominated for Best Animated Feature

Anomalisa is a great film that draws you into its headspace with compelling imagery. While the plot may not be as much of a technical masterpiece as its cinematography, its potentially played-out story is sufficiently fleshed out (again, no pun intended) that it will likely remain culturally relevant long after the genre of paint-by-numbers privileged-white-guy-versus-ennui has receded back into the ether from which it came. If not a masterpiece, then the film is definitively a cinematic experience that demands to be seen.”

EPSON MFP image

6) Creed, nominated for Best Supporting Actor (Sylvester Stallone)

“The pugilist protagonist (played by an all-grown-up The Wire vet Michael B. Jordan) of Creed‘s narrative may go through the motions of successes & failures the audience sees coming from miles away, but the movie is visceral enough in its brutal in-the-ring action & tender enough in its out-the-ring romance & familial strife that only the most jaded of audiences are likely to get through its runtime without once pumping a fist or shedding a tear before the end credits.”

EPSON MFP image

7) Carol, nominated for Best Actress (Cate Blanchett), Best Supporting Actress (Rooney Mara), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Costume Design

Carol is a handsome, but muted drama about homosexual desire in a harsh environment where it can’t be expressed openly. The subtle glances & body language that make the film work as an epic romance are very delicate, sometimes barely perceptible. In fact, if you had no idea what the film’s about going in, it’s possible it’d take you a good 20min or so to piece it together. That kind of quiet grace is in no way detrimental to the film’s quality as a work of art. It’s just that the critical hype surrounding the picture puts an unnecessary amount of pressure of what should be experienced as a collection of small, deeply intimate moments shared between two star-crossed lovers.”

EPSON MFP image

8) Inside Out, nominated for Best Original Screenplay, Best Animated Feature

“The way Inside Out visualizes abstract thoughts like memories, angst, imagination, acceptance, and abstract thought itself is incredibly intricate & well considered. Its central message of the importance of sadness in well-rounded emotional growth is not only admirable, but downright necessary for kids to experience. Even if I downright hated the film’s visual aesthetic (I didn’t; it was just okay), I’d still have to concede that its intent & its world-building were top notch in the context of children’s media.”

EPSON MFP image

9) The Hateful Eight, nominated for Best Supporting Actress (Jennifer Jason Leigh), Best Cinematography, Best Original Score

“At one point in The Hateful Eight, Samuel L. Jackson’s balding, ex-military bounty hunter says, ‘Not so fast. Let’s slow it down. Let’s slow it way down.’ That seems to be the film’s M.O. in general. Tarantino is, of course, known to luxuriate in his own dialogue, but there is something particularly bare bones & talkative about The Hateful Eight. It’d say it’s his most patient & relaxed work yet, one that uses the Western format as a springboard for relying on limited locations & old-fashioned storytelling to propel the plot toward a blood-soaked finale.”

EPSON MFP image

10) Joy, nominated for Best Actress (Jennifer Lawrence)

“Expectation might be to blame for what turned a lot of audiences off from Joy. Based on the advertising, I know a lot of folks expected an organized crime flick about a mob wife, not the deranged biopic about the woman who invented the Miracle Mop that was delivered. Even more so, I believe that audiences expected a lighthearted drama from the guy who made Silver Linings Playbook. Instead, Joy finds Russell exploring the same weirdo impulses that lead him to making I ♥ Huckabees, an absurdist comedy that might be the very definition of “not for everyone”.”

EPSON MFP image

11) Sicario, nominated for Best Cinematography, Best Original Score, Best Sound Editing

“Much like how the recent Johnny Depp vehicle Black Mass gets by purely on the strength of its acting, Sicario might be a mostly predictable film in terms of narrative, but it creates such a violent, foreboding atmosphere that some scenes make you want to step out in the lobby for a breath of fresh air (or to puke, as the cops who discovered the early scenes’ in-the-wall corpses couldn’t help doing).”

12) Steve Jobs, nominated for Best Actor (Michael Fassbender), Supporting Actress (Kate Winslet)

“Between Sorkin & Fassbender’s work here, the myth of Steve Jobs is most certainly an arresting contrast between genius & emotional sadism. He’s a true to form Sorkin protagonist who’s better judged by his work than his persona. I’m not sure I left the film knowing any more about the real Steve Jobs than I did going in, but I’m also not sure that matters in terms of the film’s failure or success.”

EPSON MFP image

13) Room, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Lenny Abrahamson), Best Actress (Brie Larson), Best Adapted Screenplay

Room is not all broken spirits & grim yearnings. The film can at times be quite imaginative & uplifting, thanks to young Jack’s warped sense of reality & Jacob Tremblay’s wonderful performance. Room‘s strongest asset is how it adopts a child POV the way films like The Adventures of Baron Mucnchausen, The Fall, and Beasts of the Southern Wild have in the past. Because Jack has only known life inside Room (which he refers to as a proper noun, like a god or a planet), he has a fascinatingly unique/warped perception of how life works & how the universe is structured.”

EPSON MFP image

14) Amy, nominated for Best Documentary (Feature)

“By giving so much attention to a person who obviously did not want it, Winehouse’s unwitting fans made a market out of her gradual death. Again, it’s very similar to what slowly killed Kurt Cobain as well & I’m sure there are to be more examples in the future. A lot of what makes Amy interesting as a documentary is not necessarily the details of Winehouse’s personal life that it turns into a fairly straight-forward narrative, but rather the way it subtly makes you feel like a murderer for wanting those details in the first place.”

bear

15) The Revenant, nominated for Best Picture, Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Best Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio), Best Supporting Actor (Tom Hardy), Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Production Design, Best Costume Design, Best Makeup and Hairstyling, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“At times the film itself feels like DiCaprio’s broken protagonist, crawling & gurgling blood for days on end under the weight of an over-achieving runtime. Shave a good 40 minutes of The Revenant by tightening a few scenes & losing a shot here or there (as precious as Lubezki makes each image) & you might have a masterful man vs. nature (both human & otherwise) revenge pic. As is, there’s an overbearing sense of self-importance that sours the whole ordeal.”

EPSON MFP image

16) The Martian, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor (Matt Damon), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Production Design, Best Sound Mixing, Best Sound Editing, Best Visual Effects

“Despite facing almost certain death in The Martian’s first act, Watney logically explains the details of exactly how/why he’s fucked as well as the practical day-to-day details other films would usually skip over, such as the bathroom situation in a Martian space lab. Speaking of the scatological, there’s a surprising amount of poop in this film. You could even say that poop saves the day, which is certainly more interesting than whatever control room shenanigans solve the conflict in Apollo 13 or other similar fare.”

EPSON MFP image

17) Shaun the Sheep, nominated for Best Animated Feature

“As always, Aardman delivers fantastic stop-motion work here, but although their films are consistently entertaining, there’s something particularly special about Shaun the Sheep that makes it feel like their best feature at least since 2005’s Curse of the Were-Rabbit. Because the movie is largely a non-verbal affair, its success relies entirely on visual comedy that feels like a callback to the silent film era & it’s incredible just how much mileage it squeezes out of each individual gag.”

18) Brooklyn, nominated for Best Picture, Best Actress (Saoirse Ronan), Best Adapted Screenplay

“Outside Saoirse Ronan’s effective lead performance, I mostly found Brooklyn entertaining as a visual treat. Its costume & set design are wonderful, particularly in the detail of Eilis’ wardrobe – beach wear, summer dresses, cocktail attire, etc. That’s probably far from the kind of distinction the Brooklyn‘s looking for in terms of accolades, but there’s far worse things a film can be than a traditional, well-dressed romance.”

EPSON MFP image

19) Fifty Shades of Grey, nominated for Best Original Song (“Earned It,” performed by The Weeknd)

“The best-selling erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey recently made its long-awaited debut on the silver screen and, as a fan of the book series, I was very curious to see how this film could possibly be tame enough for movie theaters. What could have been one of the most iconic movies of the year turned out to be a total snoozefest. Literally. People in my theater were sleeping so hard they were snoring.”

-The Swampflix Crew

Attack the Block (2011)

EPSON MFP image

fourhalfstar

campstamp

Are we all pretty much done talking about Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens at this point? If so, please forgive me for the following preamble. One of the most exciting aspects of the film for me was the introduction of relative newcomers Daisy Ridley as the oddly-controversial Rey & John Boyega as the absurdly affable Finn. They both do an excellent job of holding down the protagonist end of the film in a remarkably deft tag team effort for two actors who aren’t too used to headlining multi-million dollar tentpole epics. More astute sci-fi fans might not have been as surprised as myself by Boyega’s part in that effort, though, given that he already had put in a rewarding lead performance in a deliriously fun action film a few years prior to The Force Awakens. Attack the Block finds John Boyega in a much quieter, more stoic leading role than he’s asked to play with Finn (who is often employed as comic relief), but even as a babyfaced teenager he was prepared to prove himself to be leading man material.

As stoic & as straight-faced as Boyega plays its protagonist, Moses, Attack the Block is anything but a grim horror picture. An urban sci-fi horror comedy about an alien invasion that targets the unlikely ground zero of a housing project in London, Attack the Block is a wildly fun creature feature with an exceptional knack for practical effects monster design & sleek music video aesthetic. Its ragtag group of barely-out-of-diapers youngsters that fend off the otherworldly invaders are an amusing gang of pothead ruffians (the kind that would inspire Liz Lemon to involuntarily shout “youths!”), mostly harmless in their overly-macho, self-aggrandizing indulgence in vulgarity & hip-hop swagger. Their accents border on being incomprehensible for an American outsider such as myself, but that foreign aspect can also be insanely charming, recalling the early 2000s raps of Dizzee Rascal & The Streets. Even more incomprehensible are the alien beasts that attack these kids. Kinda bearish, kinda canine in nature, these creatures are too dark to get a good look at, unless they’re baring their glow-in-the-dark fangs. The audience isn’t alone in not knowing what to make of the aliens. They’re described most accurately described in the film as “big alien gorilla wolf motherfuckers” & “Maybe there was a party at the zoo and a monkey fucked a fish?”. The difficult-to-pin-down creature design of the aliens pairs nicely with the highly specific cultural context of their victims & the film’s overall silly horror comedy tone to make for a remarkably memorable & unique picture.

Attack the Block turns a small cast & a limited budget into something truly special, a trick that can only be pulled off by fans of the genre it works in. Indeed, the film even goes as far as to shout out properties like Gremlins, Ghostbusters, and Pokemon by name, not to mention the close involvement of Nick Frost & the producers of the cult favorite Shaun of the Dead. The budget might be somewhat limited, but the film pulls a remarkably unique visual language from such simple visual sources as fireworks, smoke, swords, and motor scooters. What’s more important, though, is that it nails the monster attacks aspect of its appeal, which are plentiful  without being overly gore-heavy (despite a stray decapitation or throat-tearing here or there). And the film gets major bonus points for achieving most of this mayhem with practical effects, a minimal amount of CGI seamlessly mixed in for bare bones support.

There are plenty of reasons for sci-fi & horror fans to give Attack the Block a solid chance. It’s a perfectly crafted little midnight monster movie, one with a charming cast of young’ns, a wicked sense of humor, and some top shelf creature feature mayhem. The film doesn’t need John Boyega’s teenage presence to be worthy of a retroactive recommendation & reappraisal, but that doesn’t hurt either. In just two films, Boyega has carved out a nice little name for himself in genre-cinema. If you enjoyed his turn as Finn in The Force Awakens, you should definitely check out his earlier work in Attack the Block. The truth is, though, that you should check out Attack the Block even if you hated The Force Awakens. It’s an undeniable crowdpleaser, a commendable entry in the horror comedy genre that will endure long after the novelty of seeing a babyfaced Boyega in action wears off.

-Brandon Ledet

Instinct Vs. Ability in Rey’s Use of the Force in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

EPSON MFP image

When I first reviewed Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, it had just opened for wide release. This was a magical time, just less than a month ago, when I couldn’t imagine what anyone could possibly have to complain about in J.J. Abrams’ fan-pleasing entry to one of pop culture’s most beloved franchises. After viewing the film three times in the theater (possibly the first time I’ve done that for a movie since 2004’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), my enthusiasm hasn’t wavered a bit. I’m proud that it ended up ranking on our Top Films of 2015 list & personally would place it behind only Empire Strikes Back as one of the best in the franchise. Boy, was I wrong about the complaints, though. From what I can tell, the world (or at least the world online) has forgotten how to have fun at the movies & has devolved mostly into whiny nitpicking & self-assigned superiority. Despite the critical response to The Force Awakens remaining largely positive, the volume & variety of complaints surrounding the film have become absolutely overwhelming. There are many common quibbles I disagree with (it too closely resembles A New Hope, its central villain is too “emo” to be threatening, etc.), but for the sake of brevity I’d like to address just one complaint against the film that I find dubious: the idea that its protagonist, Rey, gets “too good, too fast” in her use of the Force.

The last thing the world needs right now is another lengthy think piece about The Force Awakens so I’ll try to keep it brief here. It’d be possible to address the complaints against Rey’s Force abilities from the POV that a slowburner about a young space wizard spending hours of screen time learning to play laser swords might not be the most exciting plot for an action-packed space opera. It’s also possible that there’s a hint of sexism afoot in these complaints about Rey, since no one seemed super-miffed about how quickly Luke could block laser blasts blindfolded in A New Hope. I’d like to offer a much simpler explanation for Rey’s sudden talent with the ancient art of the Force besides streamlining the plot, however: her talent was a lot more gradual than most people realize. The scene most people seem to gripe with concerning Rey’s abilities is an interrogation room battle with Kylo Ren when she seemingly discovers her Force abilities, then immediately dominates her professionally-trained opponent in a mental tug of war. It’s my contention that Rey had already been “using the Force” long before she entered that interrogation room; she just didn’t have a name for something she had been doing by instinct.

For concrete evidence for Rey using the Force before the interrogation scene, just look to all of her instances of “luck” & “coincidence”. Rey is introduced as having a unique talent for scavenging for minuscule parts in gigantic ships, but is it a purely human talent that drives these needle-in-the-haystack searches? Perhaps not. Even more convincing is the scene where Rey first flies the Millennium Falcon. She is familiar with the individual parts of ships from her daily scavenging & can talk shop with the best of  them (most notably Han Solo), but knowing & doing are two separate endeavors. When Rey takes the controls of the Millennium Falcon (a ship she derides as some nameless junker) she flies it recklessly in a panic, repeating “I can do this, I can do this” to herself & barely getting by on rudimentary skills & “luck”. When she devises a plan on how to utilize Finn’s gun (which is locked in a downward position) by executing a flawless maneuver that positions the ship upside down, a switch seemingly flips in her head. She looks confident, determined, and the wild nature of piloting smooths out. Finn asks her, “How did you do that?” and she responds, “I don’t know. I’ve flown before, but . . .” in an exasperated tone. This is a line of questioning is repeated later in the film when she escapes Kylo Ren’s interrogation by using the Force (supposedly for the first time) and when asked to explain how, she responds, “I can’t explain it & you wouldn’t believe me.”

I believe there is a pattern there. Rey is instinctually using the Force in the Millennium Falcon scene without knowing what she’s doing exactly. It’s a pattern repeated when she first uses a laser blaster. She misses her first shot, looking frazzled, then throws on her determined Force Face (a great body language detail from actor Daisy Ridley) & never misses again, offing a storm trooper every time she pulls the trigger. It’s also echoed in the scene where she accidentally releases the alien beasts Han Solo is smuggling. She mistakenly opens the wrong blast doors on her first try, but when she has to save Finn from the wicked things’ tentacles she calmly executes the correct blast door at the exact correct time, joking “That was lucky.” I disagree with Rey (even though she was speaking in jest). It wasn’t lucky; it was the Force. I could kind of pinpoint a few more of Rey’s instant “talents” & lucky “coincidences” that could possibly be attributed to the Force (happening to run into Finn in the first place, innate understanding of obscure languages, the ability to fight off multiple men at once, moving a gigantic metal grate with her bare hands, etc.), but you’d have to squint at those examples the right way to make them work. I’m at the very least confident that the Falcon flight, the laser blaster, and the blast doors are concrete examples of Rey using the Force by instinct.

I don’t think that Rey’s Force abilities being introduced gradually instead of suddenly makes or breaks The Force Awakens as a good or a bad movie. There’s so much going on in the film that makes it a worthwhile slice of sci-fi fantasy entertainment otherwise. If nothing else, watching animatronic cutie patootie BB-8 roll & bleep its way through danger is alone worth the price of admission. I do, however, firmly believe that Rey’s gradual use of the Force through instinct was an intentional choice made by director J.J. Abrams & screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. Long before Rey Jedi mind tricks her way out of the interrogation room & even before she receives visions by touching the Skywalker family lightsaber, her unknowing use of the Force is referenced by none other than Supreme Leader Snoke himself. Snoke asks Kylo Ren, “There has been an Awakening. Can you feel it?” (For the record, Ren can.) If a fictional, spooky projection of an evil wizard can sense that Rey is using the Force sight unseen, why can’t the film’s detractors, who have the benefit of watching her every step? Sometimes it’s fun to complain, I guess, whether or not the film or the character deserves the scrutiny.

-Brandon Ledet