The Swampflix Guide to the Oscars, 2016

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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.

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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”.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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)

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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)

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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

Swampflix’s Top Films of 2015

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1. It Follows – The only movie to make three of our lists is a throwback to 80s horror classics from past greats like John Carpenter. Featuring a killer soundtrack, the highest of high-concept premises, and a fascinating visual aesthetic, It Follows is more creepy than it is frightening, but easily stands as the best horror film of the year, if not the best film overall.

2. Crimson Peak – A love letter to the Gothic Horror genre, Guillermo del Toro’s latest is a traditional ghost story loaded with the genre’s classic tropes of isolation, bloody histories, unnatural relationships, menacing architecture, Victorians, obvious symbolism, endangered virgins, and things that gibber and chitter in the night. Crimson Peak is ripe with heavy-handed visual metaphor and beautiful overwrought acting to match.

3. Magic Mike XXL – An over-the-top road trip comedy where a gaggle of male strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, too-old-for-this-shit, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography. There aren’t many situations in which the sequel is better than the original, but we’re confident this one surpasses its deeply-somber predecessor. It’s pure genius!

4. Tangerine – This flick, which was filmed with an iPhone 5S, has been the talk of the town for months, and for a very good reason. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. It’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Queen of Earth –  Two lifelong friends inflict terrible manipulation and emotional violence upon each other in a tense story that spans two separate summer getaways, where past secrets, petty jealousies, and personal vendettas come to light while one of the women slowly  becomes more deranged. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what does & doesn’t transpire in Queen of Earth, but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

6. Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Easily the most over-complained about movie in 2015. The Force Awakens a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

7. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy has been derided by its detractors as “torture porn”, but its intense moments of horror are actually quite well shot and understated in their simplicity. Don’t be fooled by reviews that refer to this as a terrible movie, or an exploitative one; it’s a gorgeous film with style to spare.

8. Turbo Kid  – A cartoonish throwback to an ultraviolent kind of 1980s futurism that probably never even existed. Turbo Kid is a smorgasbord of eccentric ideas smashed together into one glorious and beautiful assault on the senses. Moreover, each of those ideas is realized in bloody practical effects magic. It’s difficult to believe that Turbo Kid didn’t previously exist as a video game or a comic book, given the weird specificity of its world & characters. It’s a deliriously fun, surprisingly violent practical effects showcase probably best described as the cinematic equivalent of eating an entire bag of Pop Rocks at once.

9. Krampus – Director Michel Dougherty’s first film, Trick ‘r Treat, was a comedic horror anthology devoutly faithful to the traditions of Halloween. His follow-up, Krampus,  thankfully kept the October vibes rolling into December traditions in a time where so many people do it the other way around, celebrating Christmas before Halloween even gets rolling, the heathens. All hail Krampus, a soul-stealing demon who acts as “St. Nicholas’ shadow”,  for bucking the trend. A new cult classic has been born!

10. The Final Girls – Although its main goal is undoubtedly a goofy, highly-stylized comedy, this film also reaches for eerie, otherworldly horror in its central conceit, an unlikely of mix ideas from Scream & The Last Action Hero. As a send­up of campsite slashers like Friday the 13th & Sleepaway Camp that focuses almost entirely on the relationships between female friends as well as a young woman & the woman who is not quite her mother, The Final Girls is a meta horror comedy well-deserving of your attention.

Read Boomer’s picks here.
Read Britnee’s picks here.
Read Brandon’s picks here & here.
Read Erin’s picks here.

-The Swampflix Crew

Brandon’s Top Films of 2015

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1. The Duke of BurgundyPossibly the least commercial movie about a lesbian couple in a BDSM relationship possible. Equal parts an intentionally-obfuscated art film & a tender drama about negotiating how to balance romantic & sexual needs in a healthy relationship, The Duke of Burgundy isn’t for everyone, but it is the most beautifully-shot film of the year and a surprisingly poignant portrait of a timeless romance. If you have the patience for its languid pacing & reliance on repetition, the rewards are rich & plentiful.

2. What We Do in the Shadows In a year when a surprisingly limited number of American comedies hit the mark, this gem from New Zealand geniuses Jemaine Clement & Taika Waititi was an easy pick for best comedy of the year, if not the decade. You’d think that a mockumentary about vampire roommates in modern times would be the last breath of a dying genre, but What We Do in the Shadows is readily-available proof that the stake hasn’t been driven into its heart quite yet. This is a hilarious film that only improves upon repeat viewings, with a wealth of quotes waiting to make their way into your daily vocabulary. Now leave me to do my dark bidding on the Internet.

3. Ex Machina – Just really solid, well-constructed sci-fi. I can’t think of a film from this year that got a bigger effect out of so few, subtle moving parts. A lot of what immediately stands out about Ex Machina is the incredible talent of its three lead actors, but the film also has an intense, well-curated visual language to it that can make your blood run ice cold with the most minimal of efforts.

4. Tangerine The movie from 2015 I’d most like to watch/discuss with (the greatest human being walking the Earth) John Waters. Tangerine is a raucously fun, poorly behaved whirlwind of an adventure through Los Angeles’ cab rides & sex trade. For a movie shot entirely on iPhones it’s got a surprisingly intense cinematic eye & despite leaning hard towards over-the-top excess there’s a very touching story at its heart about the value of friendship & makeshift family.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road – Probably the most intensely weird & go-for-broke action film of the past decade. George Miller may be in his 70s, but this is the work of a youthful spirit grinding the gas peddle hard to the floor, hands off the steering wheel. In a time where CGI is casting an insufferable blandness across most action properties, Fury Road is a practical effects masterwork that feels like a breath of fresh air, despite the chokehold it takes on your senses.

6. Magic Mike XXL – The first Magic Mike film is a somber, reflective drama that just happens to be centered on a gaggle of male strippers. XXL, on the other hand, is an over-the-top road trip comedy where said strippers act like an over-aged boy band: horny, sassy, and high on drugs. One of the most unashamedly fun movie-going experiences of the year, not to mention the lagniappe of its intense cinematography.

7. The Diary of a Teenage Girl – An incredibly uncomfortable coming-of-age drama about a young girl in 1970s San Fransisco exploring her sexuality in wildly dangerous ways. Its comic book art visual palette works like a major asset instead of a gimmick & relative newcomer Bel Powley delivers what might be the best lead performance of the year.

8. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Interstellar was the most hilariously over-complained about movie of 2014. The Force Awakens easily earned that distinction in 2015. It’s a genuinely fun, intricately detailed return to form for a franchise that hasn’t been nearly this satisfying since 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. If you need insight into just how much the movie bends over backwards to please its audience, just take a look at the beyond-adorable BB-8. What a little cutie.

9. Straight Outta Compton – As far as its historical accuracy as an N.W.A. biopic goes, Straight Outta Compton might be shooting about 20%. All of its self-congratulating indulgence aside, it’s a 100% awesome (or “dope”, if you will) late-80s/early-90s pastiche with a killer soundtrack and some stunning visual work from regular Aronofsky-collaborator Matthew Libatique.

10. Felt – A hazy, disconnected portrait of a visual artist coping with a past, vaguely-defined (but likely sexual) trauma. Felt is an unforgivingly intense gaze into a super-specific form of art therapy, even before its meandering pace crashes in a grandly violent display at the film’s conclusion.

11. White God – As most revenge movies tend to go, the endless parade of abuse in this film’s early storylines are not nearly as fun or as easy to watch as it is when shit hits the fan. It just so happens that in this case the revenge is carried about by a massive herd of stray dogs that have a very good list of reasons to tear down an entire city. It’s an incredible, one-of-a-kind spectacle.

12. Appropriate Behavior – Writer/director/actress Desiree Akhavan brings an impressive amount of authenticity to a genre that’s been a little too popular to feel truly distinct lately: the drama-comedy about the 20-something New York City woman who just can’t seem to figure her shit out. This a dark, but hilariously raunchy work & for my money its far more satisfying than its most (financially) successful comparison point from the same year – Trainwreck.

13. Spring – Part of what makes Spring so fun is that it’s such a difficult film to pin down. Is it a tender romance drama or a modern version of a natural horror? What’s more important: its central doomed-to-be-seasonal romance or the horrific nature of its shape-shifting sci-fi beast? Let’s just split the difference & call it the most interesting answer to Linklater’s Before Sunrise/Before Sunset series to date.

14. It Follows – In a lot of ways it feels like John Carpenter’s entire aesthetic is making a (much deserved) cultural comeback. Weirdo action films like The Guest & Drive have at least incorporated his distinct soundtrack work into their highly-stylized worlds, but It Follows takes the homage a step further and constructs more or less what a modern John Carpenter horror would look and sound like. It isn’t as successful as Carpenter’s masterworks like Halloween or The Thing, but its haunting sexually-transmitted-curse premise & killer synth soundtrack make for some remarkably weird & memorable moments.

15. Driving While BlackPresented on the surface as a laid back stoner comedy, this film actually packs a surprisingly powerful (and unfortunately timely) political punch in its depiction of “the extra layer of bullshit on top of regular life” that black people have to face daily in modern America. Detailing the public harassment & personal violation of being constantly persecuted by the police on the receiving end of racial profiling, Driving While Black walks an impressive tightrope of feeling like an important movie, but never losing track of being consistently funny.

16. Creep/The Overnight – Writer/director Patrick Brice just had a pretty incredible year. His first two feature films, Creep & The Overnight, earned wide distribution withing months of one another and both stood as darkly funny, often hilarious reminders of how much of an impact a director can pull from a great script, a limited set, and just a handful of actors. Although one is a found footage horror (Creep) and the other is a twisted play on the traditional sex farce (The Overnight) they pair nicely in their lean towards minimalism & in their collective declaration of Brice as a talent to watch.

17. Queen of EarthThe two minute trailer for Queen of Earth might be the best short film of the year, but the movie itself is a lot more delicate & detached than the psychological horror that the ad promises. It’s difficult to pin down exactly what transpires in this film (I personally see it as a vicious, yet subtle tale of revenge through drawn out emotional torture), but the seething hatred mounting between its two leads is bound to bore a hole into your memory no matter where you land on its plot.

18. Predestination – Predestination is neither a wholly unique work nor an exercise in good taste. It is, however, an example of the virtue of sincere, traditional acting & storytelling and how those elements can elevate ludicrous material into something special. Although its major twists & reveals may occasionally be telegraphed, it’s fascinating to watch the film reach those conclusions in its own time and on its own terms. There’s a sci-fi tradition to its sincere, pulpy sense of tonal balance, but it’s a vintage tradition that’s unconcerned with the new territory that sci-fi cinema’s been exploring in recent years.

19. Goodnight Mommy – There’s a major twist at the core of Goodnight Mommy that most discerning folks will be able to catch onto within minutes of the film beginning, but that withheld reveal in no way cheapens the ugly brutality of its horror imagery or the delicate beauty of its art film surreality. Goodnight Mommy is not looking to outsmart you with its plot, but rather to tie you down & torture you with its relentless horror film intensity. As a bonus, it also functions like cinematic birth control the same way that great works like The Bad Seed, The Babadook, and We Need to Talk About Kevin have in the past. It’s a very specific genre that I’m always a sucker for.

20. Mistress America Noah Baumbach’s latest pulls an incredible trick of not only exposing the harrowing emptiness behind a know-it-all, creative-spirit Millenial’s Everything Is Perfect & So Am I facade, but also making you feel sort of bad for her when the illusion crumbles. Like the film’s protagonist who looks up to this human anomaly, we want to believe that someone so free & so in tune with The Ways of the Universe could actually exist, but by the end of the film you’re left with the feeling that the very idea of someone living that impossible lie on a daily basis is not only far from admirable, it’s also deeply sad.

H.M. Girlhood – Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz. Besides, its mid-film, impromptu music video for Rihanna’s “Diamonds” easily ranks among the year’s most uplifting moments in film.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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I can’t tell if J.J. Abrams’ current career status would be a nerd’s wildest dream or their worst nightmare. Both? Simultaneously tasked with commanding sci-fi nerdom’s two most beloved properties, Star Wars & Star Trek, I’m sure he’s giddy with the power of adapting two franchises he surely grew up loving. Nerds are a tough bunch to please, though, so there’s an absurd amount of external pressure to not muck up their sacred texts, a pressure even Star Wars creator George Lucas wasn’t protected from (after he admittedly mucked them up spectacularly). One of the most delightful things I have to report about Abrams’ first Star Wars feature (of presumably many to come), The Force Awakens, is simply that it is by no means a misstep or a failure. I’m in a nice sweet spot of expectation where I grew up loving the original Star Wars trilogy, but not to a rabid, detail-obsessed degree that would leave me nitpicking whatever Abrams delivered. Coming from that perspective, I can’t exactly speak on behalf of Star Wars fanatics, but as a movie lover it’s hard to imagine that they’d be anything but pleased by The Force Awakens as a finished product. A great balance of enthusiastic fan service & promising new ideas/story threads, the latest entry in the Star Wars universe is far from the muted, just-good-enough, tragedy-averted compromise of 2015’s The Peanuts Movie (or Abrams’ own Star Trek work, for that matter). It’s an actually-great, entirely successful new birth for the franchise, sometimes feeling like it could be in contention as being nearly just as good as Episodes IV or V. 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.

Of course, because the film is so fresh & so highly anticipated, there’s an intense fear over the possibility of spoilers among some viewers, so I’ll try to tread lightly in this review. Even a simple roll call feels like a small betrayal, but it’s a somewhat necessary one. On the fan service end of Abrams’ well-calculated formula, the film could’ve just as easily been titled Star Wars Episode VII: The Gang’s All Here. Luke Skywalker’s importance to the universe has escalated to mythical proportions as he’s reported to be “the last Jedi.” His sister Leia has graduated from princess to general, establishing herself as the figurehead of The Resistance. Speaking of which, The Resistance is an obvious stand-in/update for The Rebel Alliance of the original trilogy, just as its The First Order big bad is a stand-in/update for the older films’ Galactic Empire. The only figure that seems to not have changed a lick is swashbuckling smuggler Han Solo, who remains as steadfast in his personality as a droid would, just as unable to evolve in his demeanour as the same-as-ever C-3PO. The characters are far from the only elements re-purposed from the franchise’s origins, though. A quest to locate Luke & the wisdom of Jedi knowledge is very much reminiscent of Luke’s quest to train with Yoda. There’s also some major theme callbacks like struggling with identity in the context of parentage and, of course, the eternal struggle of Good vs. Evil (in the succinctly-framed balance of The Force) mixed among much smaller tips of the hat to details like space chess & the infamous Cantina scene. I also had a lot of fun with the way it indulged in recreations of the older films’ exact screen wipes & Force-manipulation battles (which are essentially 100% sound cues & intense trembling). The greatest trick The Force Awakens pulls off, though, is when it finds a metaphor for its own existence in the callbacks. For instance, an almost exact replica of The Death Star is represented here, except that it’s 20 times larger, much like Abrams’ budget vs. what Lucas was originally working with. And then, of course, there’s the BB-8 “ball droid”, which is essentially a cuter, more technically impressive, surprisingly versatile version of R2-D2. It’s a modern update to a classic model, much like the film itself.

Speaking of BB-8, that little bugger has got to be the most exciting new addition to the Star Wars canon right? It’s at least the film’s breakout star, a kind of acknowledgement to the merchandising end of the franchise (in that it’s super cute & palatable for children), but also a ruthless, shrewd, determined, even dangerous character in its own right (possibly in a conscious effort to distance its cuteness from the heavily debated, somewhat purposeless existence of Ewoks). For the full year of advertising we all survived in order to get to this point, all I could think about in relation to this film was BB-8. Comedian Paul F. Tompkins’ four second delivery of “I’m Ball Droid. I gotta roll on out of here,” got me more hyped on watching The Force Awakens more than any particular ad did (and, of course, that clip continuously played through my head once I actually got to watch it). There are a lot of of other great, new characters introduced to the Star Wars universe in The Force Awakens, including a new possible future for the Jedi tradition, a rage-filled Sith-in-training prone to on-brand temper tantrums, and a Storm Trooper With a Heart of Gold, but in a lot of ways they feel like echoes of characters we’ve seen in the past films (well, except maybe for that Storm Trooper dude). There’s just something really special about the BB-8, whether or not it’s taking up the baton from a still-beloved R2-D2. It’s a pretty remarkable achievement in character design as well as exploitation of body language & subtle vocal manipulation. For new viewers entering the Star Wars universe for the first time with The Force Awakens (and they do exist) a lot of old, well-established familial ties & big concepts like The Force are going to be somewhat off-putting, since the film is not going to be able to hold their hands through the catch-up process, but BB-8 is such a great encapsulation of what makes the franchise work for so many people that it might not be a problem. It’s the perfect little tour guide for a space-set soap opera that’s only going to get more tangled & complex as these films continue to be produced (which will probably be for eternity, considering how much money this one will make at the box office). It’s instantly loveable & accessible.

I’m not going to pretend that The Force Awakens is perfect. I was a little off-put by some of the CGI reliance, particularly when it came to intimate interactions with alien faces. A lot of the CGI is nicely restrained & deftly employed, but it gets tiresome to look at (and is guaranteed to age poorly) whenever it’s used on a green-screened character with more than a line or two of dialogue. I also felt that the action sequences could sometimes go a bit long in a way that softened their impact, but that’s a small quibble, especially considering just how visceral & vicious things get in the climactic lightsaber battle. For the most part, though, it’s a remarkably difficult film to complain about. Even with lines like the racially-tinged throwaway gag “Droid, please”, which should fall flat in a very uncomfortable way, the film somehow makes it work. It’s easy to tell that Abrams & his collaborators were huge fans of the franchise doing their best to deliver a film that most people could love. He finds an immensely satisfying balance here of recreating past successes from the original trilogy, but with entirely new purpose. Much like the universe it inhabits, The Force Awakens feels old, beat up, lived in, the exact kind of world-building last year’s The Guardians of the Galaxy strained to establish in just one film, but this time with an extensive back catalog of content for support. The film’s ragtag group of heroes more or less winging it in their quest to overthrow The First Order may be very reminiscent of a similar motley crew who tried to overthrow The Galactic Empire (for instance, a female lead most certainly not in need of constantly being saved shouts “Stop taking my hand!”, which could have very easily been an old-school Leia moment), but they’re more of a refreshing evolution than a shameless retread. Sure, The Force Awakens can rely on work already put in by past films for lines like “Without the Jedi there can be no balance in the Force” to actually mean something, but it also finds its own touching moments, like in the question of when is running from a threat a form courage & when is it a submission to fear or in finding the simple goodness of people in exchanges like “Why are you helping me?” “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Most importantly, it feels like all of the ground work of pleasing fans through callbacks & establishing its own competence as a unique property are now out of the way, which is in a lot of ways a burden lifted. When the film ends, you’re genuinely excited to see where the story goes next because the future of the franchise is promised to be less self-reflective, more open-ended, uncharted territory. I’m already getting amped about Episode VIII‘s release in Spring 2017 as I type this, which I guess is a sign that Abrams did something exactly right in The Force Awakens.

Bonus points: There are a lot of great new-to-the-scene actors in this film – Adam Driver, John Boyega, Lupita Nyong’o, etc. What really made me giddy, though, is that both Domhnall Gleeson & Oscar Isaac made the cast, which makes for just about the most unexpected Ex Machina reuninon I could possibly imagine. Those two films are so far from one another on the opposite ends of the sci-fi spectrum that it’s difficult to justify that they’re billed as being in the same genre at all.

-Brandon Ledet

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Re-Edit (2001)

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Science fiction fans are a notoriously easily-riled bunch. This year’s Hugo Awards–the speculative fiction equivalent of the Oscars–was an unequivocal debacle, as a contingent of MRAs and their acolytes, impotently infuriated by what they perceived to be a rise in “SJW issues” in their genre literature, attempted to rig the voting system to prevent any work with pro-women, pro-minority, or LGBTQIA issues from being awarded the prestigious award. Considering that SF is the genre that has always been at the forefront of exploring issues of oppression and intersectionality, this is completely absurd. The machinations of these ignorant folk, who can best be referred to as “fake geek guys,” resulted in five separate categories receiving “No Award” this year, including Best Short Story and both long and short form Best Editor categories. And this was just the contentious babblings of a vocal minority of cisgender, white, heterosexual males who apparently have no concept of sci-fi history.

Much less controversial was the near-universal hatred for the first of the Star Wars prequels, The Phantom Menace. Although that hatred has died down in the sixteen years since the film was released (in no small part due to the fact that anyone born after 1994 doesn’t remember a world where there were only three near-perfect Star Wars movies instead of a mixed bag of six), The Phantom Menace is still widely regarded as a failure on both an artistic and a fandom level. The complaints about the film are endless, and I could never hope to create as in-depth and exhaustive exploration of the film’s flaws as RedLetterMedia did, but here’s a short summation of issues that fans and mainstream film-goers despised:

  • (Most notoriously) the introduction of original character Jar Jar Binks, a person-sized CGI space rabbit that engaged in presumably child-pleasing comedy antics throughout the film.
  • The racist caricature of Jar Jar as an ignorant simpleton who spoke in a conglomeration of Jamaican slang and antebellum slave dialects, as well as the Jewish stereotypes applied to hook-nosed greedy slave owner Watto and the Asian stereotypes (largely embodied in an accent that confuses “l” and “r” sounds) represented by the Trade Federation.
  • The pacing of the film is terrible: characters spend seemingly endless time in needlessly complicated and redundant political debate; other than in action sequences, characters simply wander around aimlessly in a (vain) attempt to give dialogue scenes some sense of motion.
  • The revelation that the mystical Force that binds all life together was caused by germs known as midi-chlorians.

I never really had much of a horse in that race; I was twelve the summer that the movie came out, and I thought it was mediocre at best then. I was always more of a Star Trek fan, and although I think the rivalry between the fandoms of those two franchises is exaggerated and instigated by the aforementioned Fake Geek Guys, I was young enough to be less discerning than others. I didn’t like Jar Jar, but I also didn’t think of Star Wars as an unimpeachable work of staggering genius the way that so many sad middle aged men with basements full of memorabilia do. I appreciate the franchise much more now than I did as a kid, although I pity people whose lives revolve around it. I mean, come on, the original trilogy is a lot of fun and has some really great ideas, but it’s still a fairy tale at its core: a farm boy meets a wizard who tells him he has a magical destiny, and he then teams with a pirate to rescue a princess from an evil wizard.

The problem of Jar Jar was expressed almost immediately, as was fan frustration regarding the Midi-chlorian concept, with complaints about the film’s pacing problems coming later. So it’s no surprise that fans of the era immediately set to work trying to “fix” it. The Phantom Edit, initially credited to “The Phantom Editor” who later revealed himself to be film editor Mike J. Nichols, was not the first fan edit of an established work, but it was one of the first to be noteworthy for its popularity in the mainstream, receiving coverage from news outlets as varied as Salon, NPR, PBS, and the BBC in 2000 and 2001. Notable changes to the source material included reduction and deletion of dialogue from the annoying battle droids, removal of the more immature dialogue from Anakin’s scenes, reduction of expository and political dialogue, and the severe trimming of Jar Jar’s appearances on screen, removing his slapstick elements. Also removed were all references to the midi-chlorians.

The Phantom Edit was later edited even further, into the more streamlined The Phantom Re-Edit, which also circulated as a bootleg tape or download; the earliest reference to it that I can find is a review released in June of 2001, meaning that it was created no later than May of that year. This edit also extensively alters other problematic features of Menace, most notably by getting rid of the English dialogue for Jar Jar and his people as well as the Trade Federation, and many conversations between characters on Tatooine are also altered to sound alien; this dialogue is then subtitled. To a large degree, this works strongly in the film’s favor. The Trade Federation are no longer as stereotypical and actually seem threatening in this version, the racist accents of Jar Jar and the other Gungans is also done away with, and the replacement subtitle dialogue presents them as being competent and politically savvy. Moreover, Jar Jar’s dialogue has been replaced completely, making him a character who is surprisingly wise and sage (although the cartoonish hand movements are still present in many scenes–can’t get around that).

So, is Star Wars: The Phantom Re-Edit a good movie? Well… not really. To use an apropos cliche, you can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. Menace was still full of stilted dialogue and wooden acting, and no amount of editing will magically turn those dreary performances into something more watchable. Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon still spend a lot of time expositing to each other over the phone in scenes that now remind me of all the times Don Draper called Betty and told her he would be late coming home. The scene in which Qui-Gon takes a blood sample from young Anakin is still present for no real reason, simply cutting away before the infamous midi-chlorian conversation. The edits are necessarily abrupt, but that doesn’t mean they’re not jarring and alienating. All told, it’s a better movie than Menace, but that’s not saying much. Hardcore fans who are still mad, fifteen years later, that George Lucas “ruined their childhood” might get some satisfaction from the re-edit, but that’s about it.

The Phantom Edit and The Phantom Re-Edit fail to address the larger problems of how the prequel trilogy relates to the franchise as a whole. In Star Wars (I’m not about that “A New Hope” nonsense), Ben Kenobi wears robes because he lives in a desert, not because that’s some kind of Jedi uniform like the prequel trilogy reinterprets it to be. Darth Vader is a lonely weirdo without much real clout; the members of the imperial military treat him with deference only because of his relationship with the Emperor, all while making fun of his religion behind his back and to his face. Vader even goes out and flies around in a tiny little fighter ship like all the cannon fodder pilots; he could have been killed pretty easily out there–which doesn’t make any sense if he was supposed to be some kind of prophesied Force savior. The glorification of his character in the prequel trilogy exists for one purpose: brand name recognition (and thus a higher profit margin).

I have no doubt that this is the reason that Vader’s corpse gets a cameo in the trailer for The Force Awakens, due out this Christmas. I have to confess my overwhelming excitement for the film, but I also hope there’s no nonsensical revisitation (or, Force forbid, a revitalization) of his character. I have my doubts; it’s been a decade and a half since we stood on the precipice of new Star Wars movies, and it remains to be seen whether or not Episode VII will also demand a fan edit. Here’s hoping the answer is “no,” but we’ll find out soon enough.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond