Superman For All Seasons

I’m not certain there’s a movie from the 2010s about which I have grappled so much more than Man of Steel. I’ve seen it about 5 times in the time since it premiered in the summer of 2013, almost all of which took place within those last two years of my time as a film school undergrad (2013-’14) for various social reasons. Which in some ways makes me grateful that I’ve waited so long to finally drop a review proper ’round these parts, which could have gone either way between mutedly negative or mutedly neutral throughout the years. I don’t know flicked a switch in me what about the rewatch of Zack Snyder’s Superman movies back in March in anticipation of HBOMax’s release of the long-murmured-about Snyder Cut for 2017’s Justice League, but something did the trick in this watch and I finally moved up to strong positivity.

It might have just been the retrospect of where popcorn cinema has gone in the past 5 years, particularly superhero blockbusters, being more and more muted in personality. In 2013, particularly in the wake of the ill-advised attempt at feminism that was Sucker Punch, a Zack Snyder picture was the most unappealing concept for me. A Zack Snyder Superman – especially in the wake of the massive misread of one of my favorite works of literature, comic book or otherwise, Watchmen – was especially an unappealing concept for me. And sure enough, the resultant picture is absolutely emblematic of all of Snyder’s indulgences as filtered by an interest to at least capture that same grounded atmosphere of the Christopher Nolan Dark Knight trilogy, sharing the weaker link of that trilogy’s writers room in David S. Goyer and Nolan, Emma Thomas, and Charles Roven in the producers’ slate with Snyder’s regular producing partner Deborah. Those indulgences being slow-motion, color timing to the point of draining it away, and generally a sense of sound and fury that rivals Michael Bay.

Well, frankly the last few years have made me more and more hungry for indulgent blockbusters, with that 800-lb gorilla that is Disney literally outlawing any semblance of personality in their output. And I do mean this review as a one of a trilogy of documents of my “come to Jesus” moment with Snyder’s Superman trilogy so in spite of all the mean things I just said above and certainly the grievances I do still have with Man of Steel as a picture, I come to praise the film and not bury it.

Starting with its best foot forward: the origin story of Superman begins literally with his birth on Krypton, portrayed as a pulp science fiction planet with flying Avatar dragons and floating Meteora-esque mountains above the clouds bronzed-up just well enough to feel like it comes from the mind of the director of 300 (thought thankfully cinematographer Amir Mokri doesn’t embalm the soaring visuals with that heavy color, especially in a very marine-color sequence during this prologue). Sober scientist Jor-El (Russell Crowe) is explaining to the High Council the environmental doom that Krypton is headed for, except that happens to conflict with the coup that militant General Zod (Michael Shannon) had scheduled on that same day, barging in to kill every council member in the room and insisting on Jor-El’s allegiance. Instead, Jor-El retrieve the genetic codex by which Kryptonian children are bred and hides it within the same escape pod through which he ejects his naturally birthed son, Kal-El, prior to Zod’s imprisonment after the coup has failed and Krypton’s inevitable destruction.

From here, we watch through impressively fractured chronology largely driven by the investigation of Lois Lane (Amy Adams) trying to find out who this mysterious man (Henry Cavill) who constantly shows up to perform feats of bravery and mercy all ’round North America through physical marvels like holding a collapsing oil tanker in hellish heat long enough for the workers to escape. We learn expectedly that this is the same Kal-El, found in the pod by farmers Jonathan (Kevin Costner) and Martha Kent (Diane Lane) in Smallville, Kansas and raised as Clark Kent. And I think it’s particularly in this Rockwellian vision of Midwest Americana that Snyder and Goyer particularly excel. As Clark (who is portrayed as a child by Cooper Timberline and a teenager by Dylan Sprayberry) comes to learn the hard way that he’s not like other kids and his superhuman abilities like x-ray vision and incredible strength and speed, director and writer go all the way in on communicating just how depressed and alone this kid may be while his parents do what they can to ground him back to these earthy roots.

‘Round the time of Man of Steel‘s initial release, a lot of the criticism was to the treatment of Superman as something to be wary of, distanced in his godhood rather a point to aspire to like he is at his most beloved Golden and Silver Age comic book incarnations (there is another major criticism that we will discuss later on). And while I get the criticism, I’ve always found it a bit too closed-off towards a new approach to the character. We have the bright and optimistic Superman of the comics in Richard Donner’s 1987 Superman, which lest we forget is both one of my favorite comic book performances and my absolute favorite live-action comic book movie. If you need THAT Superman, it’s available. Even when I was not a fan of Man of Steel, I certainly found its decision to wonder “how would it feel to discover you are not of this world?” and to engage it in sincere melancholy to be genuinely interesting, even if Mokri and Snyder go a bit overboard on the color correction. Despite that color timing, they constantly find ways to frame Timberline, Sprayberry, and Cavill in emptiness so that the shots can do double duty in making him larger-than-life but also profoundly isolated, amplifying that emotional uncertainty and discomfort that one could argue Cavill’s lack of footing as the titular man of steel actually feels more appropriate to the journey Snyder and Goyer set out for him.

Just as appealing to me is the way that Snyder and Mokri openly ape Terrence Malick just as much as Nolan in their loving shots of wheat fields within that Kent farm that Clark would call his home and with such warm visuals, we understand how that’d be the case too. Malick-inspired movies are about a dime a dozen these days and I’m normally not fond of them (heck, we literally awarded Best Picture and Director Oscars to a Malick rip-off last month), but somehow Snyder’s diving into such a mode with full-on worship that bows its head towards nature similarly to Days of Heaven is very much impressive. Meanwhile, the Kent parents providing Clark with a bit more conflicted and morally dubious suggestions on what would make their son safe rather than fulfill his destiny as a protector of humanity which Costner and Lane successfully deliver as “parents trying their best to help and failing” rather than “adults who would rather see kids die in a bus crash”. Crowe, for his part, shapes this further by playing Superman’s birth father as clearly someone proud and invested in his child’s future but approaches it with chilly scientific interest in stone-faced delivery, like a more matter-of-factly Atticus Finch, and it pushes us to prefer the Kents as figures without disliking Jor-El.

I have made it about 1100 words in spending most of my time on the arguably the first third of the movie, largely because in my eyes… the first third of the movie is perfect. It sets up that grandiosity, that vulnerability, that humanity that makes Man of Steel feel so much more personal and engaged as a story of one guy realizing exactly what he has to be marvelously. But I have no illusions about Man of Steel being perfect and there did come a point in my rewatch where I had to acknowledge “OK, yes, this is why I wasn’t a big fan at first”. It creeps in slowly as the primary external conflict – General Zod’s arrival to Earth seeking conquest, which to Goyer’s credit, ties in well to Clark’s journey to Superman – interrupts Superman’s internal conflict with menace and the threat of 2010s popcorn cinema’s biggest bane, CGI explosion extravaganzas that have not an ounce of the quiet intensity that the Smallville sequences had.

And of course, those sequences pop their ugly head in and take up more space until the climax of Man of Steel turns out to be a colorless gray battle in the ruins of a city that brought up that second famous criticism of the movie, its ostensible lack of concern for collateral damage and the well-being of others (which we will indulge Snyder’s infamous response to on my next review). It not only deals with effects work that hasn’t aged nearly as well as we hoped (though certainly a good amount still survives), but it demolishes the structure of the movie as somehow Goyer determined that Superman vs. Zod was a second feature’s worth of material and added unnecessary further acts and it becomes the obvious point where Warner Bros. as a studio truly mandated Man of Steel resemble as much as any other loud and addle-brained summer blockbuster, especially that there Avengers movie except make it the dark version.

But it is not all bad: we get to witness a morbid vision of Earth as preferred by Zod, ostensibly action movie moments like Lois and Superman escaping Zod’s ship or Superman engaging the World Engine that actually lend themselves to further play with the classic Superman imagery (even if it is still annoying that Zack Snyder had conflated it with Jesus Christ imagery), and the most controversial moment of Snyder’s Superman ever really is one that I think plays extremely well in this character arc.

Most of all, I’ve saved the best element for last and it’s really telling that the weaker the movie gets, the more bravura it is to carry Man of Steel to the finish line. I am speaking of course of Hans Zimmer’s score for the film, which had already done brilliant work in the first few acts subtly seeding itself within the comforts of Clark’s upbringing but once we see him in the red and blue suit for the very first time… Zimmer’s compositions function as practically an ignition to the movie’s best sequence and the climax to all that wonderful character work it was doing trying to get Superman to become THE Superman, his first flight across the globe at high-speeds where Zimmer’s strings and horns soar along with him and feel so eager and elevating in their stirring bombast that we are right there with Cavill, rising in the skies and excited by our potentials. I wouldn’t dare call it superior to John Williams’ iconic march but it is a lot closer of a race than it has any right to be, possibly Zimmer’s career-best work (barring The Thin Red Line) and certainly a miracle of making us believe a man can fly just as the 1987 picture did.

As far as Zimmer carries Man of Steel, it turns out it doesn’t need to carry the movie all the way to the finish line. The final beats of the movie collect itself from all the brainless colorless anti-spectacle quickly enough to tie off the places Snyder, Goyer, and company all brought their new vision of Superman to and earn a sense of optimism to its final dialogue exchange that feel consistent with what we have seen (in fact, that same dialogue exchange makes me grin like a lunatic every time in its obviousness). Which just goes to remind us of where Snyder’s Superman comes from: it’s no less a figure of hope than Christopher Reeve’s beloved Boy Scout, just one that finds itself working harder to get there. Sure, this is a sad Superman, a depressed Superman even, but he is not a miserable Superman as all the biggest critics of the movie seem to claim and it took me a long minute to recognize that while it is cautious about a man of tomorrow standing among the people of Earth with a sense of apprehension and disbelief and distrust about the character’s presence, it is still no less awestruck at the miracle of him and gives exactly the sort of grand scope that such a character demands, just from a different perspective than we expected. A perspective that felt like the first step in Snyder becoming a lot more agreeable as a storyteller.

Skrrt Skrrt in Reverse

There is a claim amongst those who have chosen to go to the cinema to see Christopher Nolan’s latest film Tenet* that it is way too confusing. I get where the attitude is coming from too, since Nolan’s script is basically filled with the continuous dumps of exposition that have made him a notorious storyteller but particularly the stuff focusing on its central conceit is delivered in labyrinthine convolutions that even our Protagonist (John David Washington) needs a minute to digest and calibrate to, something sadly prevented on account of Tenet‘s notoriously poor dialogue sound-mixing**. And speaking of our unnamed Protagonist, the manner in which character or story feels more thin and obligatory than anywhere else in Nolan’s career probably just made viewers feel like it wasn’t worth the work of sorting out that dense stuff.

But, also I don’t really care.

Which is not the same thing as saying that Nolan doesn’t care since I’d claim elements regarding the character of Kat (Elizabeth Debicki) and certain reveals come from a place that assumes we have more connection to the characters than I think it accomplishes. But I do think it’s clear that Nolan just wanted most of the story material to act as stakes or pretext to what he’s really trying to play with.

And what he’s ostensibly supposed to be playing with is time, but what I feel like Tenet is REALLY playing with… something that made it an absolute blast for me and an incredibly swift 2 1/2 hours in the theater… is momentum. Pure forward momentum, with editor Jennifer Lame throwing us right into the first action setpiece to heart-pounding bass rhythm of Ludwig Göransson’s phenemonal score – both replacing Nolan’s long-time collaborators Lee Smith and Hans Zimmer for the first time and making their mark from the first frame. The thrust of Tenet‘s pacing is a thing of which it shares with the best 21st Century action films***, but what I really think Tenet shares most of its M.O. with is The Terminator. That movie – possibly the best action movie of all time – finds a way to keep running forward with its characters while still consistently and regularly dropping new bits of information to deepen what originally began as just as an interminable chase.

Tenet isn’t a chase, though, it is a globe-trotting espionage tale. It is basically Nolan’s attempt at his own science-fiction James Bond picture with areas of luxury porn and villain lairs. Washington proves to be suave and relaxed enough to fill that sardonic secret agent type while still finding room to respond in emotionally plausible ways as he learns more about Kat or his partner Neil (Robert Pattinson, likewise relaxed in a proper sloppy way). It even gladly gives Kenneth Branagh the easiest opportunity to ham up a Russian accent for the sake of cartoonish Bond villain bombast.

And it’s probably here that I confess that my hesitance to sum up the plot is based on wanting to give as little of the twisty plot away as possible since the whiplash of those reveals is part of what launches us just be another of Tenet‘s a plentiful popcorn setpieces of varying scale. Suffice it to say that the Protagonist learns of an eponymous organization that deals with time travel and a potentially devastating future and the movie follows his investigation into the organization while learning firsthand of the method of time travel: objects are inverted in their entropy to a point that they experience the same linear time but in the opposite direction from us. So it looks to the eye (camera or otherwise) like the subject is moving backwards, whether falling up into a hand or being fired into a gun.

Essentially, the camera trick that this conceit recruits into being the star of the film is the oldest in the book: running film backwards (and while I doubt that they actually performed this manually as that is maniacal in the 21st Century, I expect that celluloid purist Nolan and cinematographer Hoyte van Hoytema felt further kindred to that trick by shooting in 70mm IMAX). Here is where it is most impressive that Nolan and Lame are able to make Tenet as a film feel like it’s driving down its path without stopping even in the moments where the sudden change to backwards movement should feel like a gear shift. Van Hoytema maintains the same sleekness with the reversed elements in any given shot as the forwarded elements and the cleanliness of combining the two is completely exciting to experience, particularly in action sequences where we are taken by surprise with what is reverted while Lame just clips each shot ever so slightly so that the abruptness of a cut makes us consistently feel disarmed without losing coordination with the pieces of a sequence.

That latter part is particularly most admirable of Lame’s involvement and one of the most underrated things I find about Tenet and probably the biggest reason I wasn’t bothered by the lack of clarity with regards to the why or how is its clarity regarding what’s happening in a moment-by-moment sense. For one thing, halfway through the film we are introduced to a color-coding with red and blue in a subtle moment regarding what state certain characters are in during a particular moment and this is later given an overt reminder with a specific lighting of an industrial set. For another, Göransson gladly utilises backmasking in moments where the Protagonist or Neil (and thereby we as an audience) are meant to be experiencing the inversion ourselves, giving us an aural experience that matches the visuals of a world moving the opposite way as us, while still maintaining a steady bass beat all throughout to keep us drawn in (I imagine that this comes particularly from Göransson’s background as a hip hop producer and man does it result in possibly the best score for a Nolan movie to date).

None of this negates how obstructive the dialogue mixing is, particularly when I mentioned above that consistent reveals feel just as much a part of the momentum as the action itself. But I definitely found myself catching up to each moment with enough focus. “Don’t try to understand it. Feel it.” is the button to one of our central exposition scenes and I have to say that that philosophy worked well for me watching Tenet. It is like most other Nolan pictures in that if you stop to give it too much thought and it will eventually fall apart (this is even true of his most-acclaimed picture, The Dark Knight). But if you are willing to just pay attention and get ahold of what’s going, you will have good time just swaying with every swing that it throws you on. If you’re not down with that, well then you may as well be playing the movie backwards.

*Which to those who have decided not to go to a movie theater, my due respect to you. I understand it is a theater-by-theater case regarding the measures taken while we’re still in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic but the theater I went to (which I will not name) did not feel as safe as I’d hoped and I don’t think there’s another release coming that I intend to go to a cinema to watch for the next several months. I had a great time as the review should indicate, but I am conflicted about my act and will not be recommending anyone to go to a movie theater as long as COVID is active in their area.
**Nolan has claimed that this is deliberate to add subterfuge and confusion. I honestly find that kind of shitty.
***Mad Max: Fury Road, Mission: Impossible – Fallout, and John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum are the ones that I think of when I say that, none of which Tenet is even close to the level of, I am sorry to say but not too sorry.

More notes on Raiders of the Lost Ark

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Getting the feel of writing again means I’m gonna have to figure out the triage on what to fit into the structure of my posts and what not to. But given that I am writing about some of my favorite movies of all time where I have a plethora of feelings and thoughts about, y’all should probably get used to the idea of me doing this for the next few months after each review:

Also SPOILERS

  • I feel like I highly undermined George Lucas’ part in the creation of this film (especially since he conceived of the character himself and put together most of the production elements and oversaw the filming) so that I could have a thesis on what animated Spielberg’s directing style. Spielberg has long maintained that the Indiana Jones movies are work-for-hires for him and they’re pretty much Lucas’ baby. I’m hoping if I find time to ever write about the subsequent three movies, I can course correct and present Lucas as the central auteur of the series that he is. Certainly I’d have more to say about Lucas than Spielberg with Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.
  • “Besides you know what a cautious fellow I am”, Indy says as he fucking tosses a pistol across the room into an open suitcase. No firearm care or caution.
  • Also him saying he doesn’t believe in superstition kind of fails in the context of Temple of Doom being a prequel set before this movie.
  • Spielberg’s desire to make a straight on horror movie shows in the climax of the film with ghostly effects and the outrageous amount of grisly carnage happening in this adventure matinee. In fact, the imagery of the villains’ heads violently shrinking, melting, and exploding is the very first scene of the movie I ever saw and never realized it wasn’t a horror movie until I watched it in context years later (it was specifically playing on the screen of a Costco when I was a child and I assumed it was like… Creepshow or something).
  • Speaking of carnage, the bloodletting in the Nepal fight is pretty brutal as well and relatively jarring when alongside the moments of logs exploding on heads like cartoons. Still I absolutely love the moment with its “moment” by “moment” comic book strip style of framing and cutting, favoring background shadowplay in the light of fire and particularly the way that Indy escapes the flaming bar from immolating his face is where I learned to keep all elements of an action in each shot to creature sequence.
  • While we’re in Nepal, let’s talk about what a great one-shot that introduction of Marion is: functioning as gag (the drinking stamina game with a great physical punchline), tease (the focus on our characters’ hands and glasses), establishing shot (showing us the scope and space of the bar), character moment (Marion proving she can hold her own with the boys). If only the rest of the movie hadn’t fucked her over.
  • While we’re talking over flaws of the movie, which I feel are very few, I may as well address that Raiders of the Lost Ark is pretty damn Orientalist (among other things) and it’s probably my admiration of this film from an early age that got me already set on compartmentalizing problematic movies that still have my heart. Sucks that Spielberg and Lucas had, in their joy for 1930s adventure serials, also ended up taking up the ugly elements of them. Nevertheless, it’s nothing compared to the sort of shit that Indian people probably have to suffer with Temple of Doom from 3 years later (the only Indiana Jones movie that doesn’t actually have an issue with race I’d say is The Last Crusade and it’s still not… the best). In any case, if you want to hear a bunch of white men say the sort of shit you should have expected white men to say, read the transcript of Spielberg, Lucas, and Kasdan’s story conference.
  • Finding out that John Williams wrote “The Raiders March” to the rhythm of saying “To the rescue… Doctor Jones… to the rescue… Indiana Jones!” still warms me up inside. I’d like to find out the lyrics he wrote his other famous themes to possible one day.
  • Cutting from Indy saying “I don’t know, I’m making this up as I go along…” to him busting through on a white motherfucking horse to chase down the Nazi truck is one of my favorite cuts in all of cinema because I’m basic like that.
  • Much like Jurassic Park suddenly had a drop beyond the T-Rex gate, Raiders of the Lost Ark has a sudden cliff for a Nazi and his truck to fall off of once Indy fucks him up… and I honestly just don’t care because it’s still fun and cool and Nazi Punks Fuck Off.
  • I kind of feel bad for Pat Roach (even if he was in brownface during the scene in question) being unable to show off his swordfight choreography for that famous shootdown scene, but also y’know, not only is it a hilarious character moment in Indy… it’s also a great moment that shows how Spielberg – in his rush to get the movie made – cared for the well-being of his actors and crew and didn’t want to overwork them so boom! Sudden miracle of a gag!
  • That stunt where Indy goes under the truck is still one of my all-time favorite stunts. And I also kind of like the slapstick of the bystander being on the windshield of the chase and then flying off, then Indy and the driver share a laugh until Indy punches him in the face and kicks him out the car because Fuck You, Nazi.
  • Most importantly, that moment in the U-Boat where Indy hits a Nazi guy who fell below the frame and somehow that punch made the Nazi bitch’s cap fly up so Indy could put it on as a disguise is also a great gag.
  • People like to point out that if Indy had done nothing, Hitler would have been killed by the Ark probably. I respond to them with the words of the Dude: “You’re not wrong (well, you kind of are wrong since if Indy had done nothing, they would have never reached the Ark in the first place as they didn’t have the right location), you’re just a fucking asshole.”

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It’s Not the Years, Honey. It’s the Mileage…

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By the 1980s, Steven Spielberg had a reputation but not necessarily the one that you all are probably familiar with. Certainly, he had that one in a marginal way: he was already the golden boy young success story off of Jaws and Close Encounters of the Third Kind, utilizing his New Hollywood background to perfect the populist blockbuster he essentially created with his big-time shark movie. But within the industry itself, he had another reputation as somebody who couldn’t really keep a budget or schedule. While Jaws and Close Encounters had made enough money to put in the mouths of any producers who might have taken issue with their notoriously overinflated production expenses and on-set issues, 1979 saw the release of 1941 – Spielberg’s first commercial and critical flop. So when he and the other New Hollywood Populist Traitor George Lucas were on vacation conjuring up a character they’d like to bring to the screen as a response to that globe-trotting action hero James Bond, Spielberg set in mind an idea that he was going to get this film made as a producer’s dream: under budget, ahead of schedule, period. This is of course humorous to think back on in the modern era where Spielberg now constantly has several projects on pre-production and is often able to quickly prepare a movie well in-advance of its slated release*, but I digress.

The film that resulted is, by most accounts, Lucas’ baby as producer and co-writer facilitating Spielberg’s entry into the director’s seat. But to my mind, Spielberg’s dead-set deliberate efficiency is – to my mind –  the core of what makes Raiders of the Lost Ark, that very project that Spielberg and Lucas conceived of and released in the early summer of 1981, one of if not the best action movie of all time (or at the very least, my favorite). It is what informs Michael Kahn’s sharp cutting in between moments to get out of a scene exactly when the point is made and to keep any setpieces with a forward momentum that matches the sort of urgent running or riding that Raiders’ famous protagonist must go through. It is what informs Lucas and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay frontloading the majority of its exposition in an early college meeting so that we have pretty much all the information we need to get going, it is what informs that scene being preceded by a continuous setpiece seamlessly moving from the jungle to a temple back to the jungle without making us realize we were watching entirely separate sequences (again, credit to Kahn’s work). Hell, that very resolution was at the root of the famous scene where an epic swordfight is teased and shot down in a hilariously sardonic manner.

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If I may betray that momentum for a moment to backtrack regarding that exposition: Raiders of the Lost Ark was of course the movie that introduced us to that favorite of everyman action heroes Professor Henry “Indiana” Jones (Harrison Ford) but I’ll get back to him shortly as well. No, what I completely skipped over is the setting of the pieces of this story: As the FBI approaches Indy after a semi-failed expedition, he is recruited for his knowledge to retrieve the Biblical Ark of the Covenant – in which Moses carried the tablets containing the Ten Commandments – before the Nazis could do so and utilize whatever power lives inside the artifact to rule the world. Marion Ravenwood (Karen Allen), Indy’s former lover and daughter of his late mentor Abner Ravenwood, recruits herself from Nepal into Indy’s journey to Egypt as she proves to be invaluable in the absence of her dad. And in the meantime, Indy’s inscrutable rival René Belloq (Paul Freeman) is guiding the Nazis to finding the location of the Ark, though guided by his own personal obsession with witnessing a means to possibly contact God. All of this information given in fewer scenes than can count on your hand and 98% of it before the 30 minute mark.

That leaves more than enough space for Spielberg to indulge instead in the inherent sweep of an adventure yarn, inspired by the 1930s serials where some plucky hero roams to exotic lands from the leafy hills of Peru to the snowy exile of Nepal to the hot cooking sands of Cairo and beyond. Cinematographer Douglas Slocombe enhances the scope of these already exciting and distinct foreign lands with a smart usage of the immortal anamorphic frame as well as giving a horizontal read to all the action. Imagine that infamous swordfight joke working without the frame letting us read from Indy shooting the swordsman at the left and the swordsman falling to the right accentuating that the vast space is in the middle of them rather than above them. Or the car chase having nearly as much drive without such an aggressively directional frame. Not to ignore the sort of propulsion these setpieces get simply from the sounds: the characteristic comic book impact Ben Burtt gives to punches and whipcracks (for real, whipCRACKS!) and the famous peppy march to adventure that John Williams notches into his belt of iconic scores.

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On top of those tropes, we also have the beautiful ingénue in tow (although one also has to regret how Marion goes from an impressive heroine with a tough and funny introduction to a damsel in distress in a white dress before the halfway mark, despite the best efforts of Allen’s performance) and the artifact all the players seek dripping with mystique, taking full advantage of the advent of color and light to give the golden Ark all that shine and shimmer. But in any case, the seeking of that Ark is just as animated by that “need to get to the point” efficiency that drove Spielberg and spilled out into Kasdan and Kahn and Williams’ results: a movie that is constantly on the move. The same smooth segue that glides us from cutting through the jungle to cautiously traipsing past traps to escaping from a tumbling rock is what brings Raiders of the Lost Ark barrelling through its runtime from a dig to a trap to a brawl, occasionally allowing Spielberg and Kahn to wink at how ludicrously speedy we’ve gone out of the fire and into the frying pan.

And yet, the core of all of Raiders‘ charms beyond being an impeccably-crafted piece of nostalgic cinema is Ford, whose modern rough attitude feels like more clownish than downer. From the way he whines about having to go through “snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?” to the exhausted way he shoots down swordsmen to the way his body crumbles to the ground like bricks as Pat Roach hits him, Jones is just as important an ingredient to having somebody fun to go on an adventure with as Raiders focuses on being an adventure fun to go on. Surrounded by lively stock types embodied by character actors, Ford’s bitter sarcasm and complaining (particularly the complaining – Indy’s indulgence in remarking about every goddamn thing that’s happening to him as a severe inconvenience) grounds the adventure as exhausting in its sweep before he wows us with leaping to his survival or bursting on a white horse. It was highly impressionable to me as a child and probably impelled a desire for real adventure, a disappointment at how hard that is, and a hatred for Nazis (informing me that “Nazi” equals “punching bag” more than that viral video of Richard Spencer getting socked).

It’s funny how a movie inspired by nostalgia for an classical way of storytelling ended up embodying a new idea of “classical” storytelling despite its DNA being seen in much of modern popcorn cinema. Like how no shark movie post-Jaws can avoid being seen as a “Jaws rip-off”, I can’t think of a single post-Raiders adventure film that doesn’t owe every element of its existence to Raiders. Perfection just bears imitators and it is a fruitless task to capture lightning in a bottle more than once (including this film’s sequels, though I have no small love for the entire franchise). Maybe they’re just digging in the wrong place.

*I’m thinking specifically of the minute amount of time in which The Post went from script to Oscar campaign smack in between filming and post-production of Ready Player One these past few years. This also mirrors the production cycle of Jurassic Park and Schindler’s Listas well as The Lost World: Jurassic Park and Amistad, as well as War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin. And I’m probably forgetting other movies.

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Credibility for its Incredibility

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It’s petulant of me to be so hung up on the reception of Incredibles 2, which as of this writing has a 94% on Rotten Tomatoes and an 80 on Metacritic, as being insufficient to what the movie accomplishes. I have yet to encounter a person who thinks the movie is bad and the worst that I’ve heard is “it’s fine but not as good as the original”. But I do have an inclination of what kind of person is more reserved for their praise for Brad Bird’s sequel to the 2004 animated superhero film The Incredibles and what they look for in movies is frankly different than what I look for.

This is not necessarily to state that the very existent flaws in Incredibles 2 are not to be taken seriously. After all, cinema is to many a storytelling medium first and the sloppiness of Bird’s screenplay in terms of thematic drive and character arc is not nothing. There’s even an explanation for what might have caused such a lapse in narrative delivery: the unofficial story regarding Incredibles 2 taking 14 years to exist is that Bird did not really want to make the movie*. There’s more to the unofficial story, such as the slightly suspicious suggestion that Bird was forced to make the film due to Tomorrowland‘s underperformance (though the screenplay was announced as started a month BEFORE Tomorrowland‘s 2015 premiere). There’s also the official story that Bird was under the impression that he would have one year more of production than he actually got and when Toy Story 4 was pushed back from a release date of 15 June 2018, Incredibles 2 was placed into the empty slot and fast-tracked (Bird has since suggested that he has enough unused material from this motion to make a potential third film, though I doubt he’s in a rush).

So what was Bird able to come up with in that short amount of time? Returning back to the exact spot The Incredibles ended on where the Parr family prepares to face-off against the underground drill driver The Underminer (John Ratzenberger). Strongman patriarch Bob aka Mr. Incredible (Craig T. Nelson) is able to cause enough collateral damage during the fight to remind us just why superhero activity was still illegal at the end of the last film, which is just the perfect arena for the telecommunications magnate Deaver siblings to enter – super enthusiast pitch man Winston (Bob Odenkirk) and lackadaisical tech genius Evelyn (Catherine Keener) – and suggest a campaign be done to convince the government legalize superheroics again, picking Bob’s stretch wife Helen aka Elastigirl (Holly Hunter) as its face.

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This takes a definite blow to Bob’s ego as he’s left to the domestic demands of raising three children with their own issues: invisible teenager Violet (Sarah Vowell), speedy Dash (Huck Milner), and baby Jack-Jack (Eli Fucile) who is quickly discovered to have a revolving door of powers from flame manipulation to multiplying to laser eyes to dimension hopping to shapeshifting and on and on. It’s apparent Bob does not prove to be as flexible towards house-husband life as Helen did and the presence of a mind-controlling supervillain known as the mysterious Screenslaver taking up most of Helen’s attention means it’s a new world Bob has to traverse alone.

The places Bird’s script goes with this are not very revelatory, including the Screenslaver as an antagonist playing by the recent Walt Disney Animation Studios handbook. There’s a messier handle on communicating whatever themes Incredibles 2 wants to carry, with a lot less incisive commentary on domestic life or its characters (Violet has her own larger conflict that’s part of Bob’s arc, Dash doesn’t really have one except “bad at math”). But it does introduce to us a large amount of superheroes and a bigger world of ramifications than the effective interiority of the first film, effectively scaling upwards in an unwieldy fashion, so the somewhat sloppy manner doesn’t really bother me nearly as much as it should.

Plus, I think the movie is across the board funnier, even when it’s clearly padding the running time with jokes: every scene with Jack-Jack’s now increased role is an absolute delight whether his screen partner is costumer Edna Mode (Bird himself voicing her) or a wily raccoon. There’s a sequence in the middle of the film that’s an obviously bad move on Bob’s part but gives us plenty of cringe humor for Violet. The next generation of superheroes are made up of a variety of gag-ready powers and personalities (including a beautiful exchange regarding the concept of “uncrushing”). Not to say that The Incredibles wasn’t an enjoyable chuckler, but its humor is of a drier sort. This got a whole lot of chesty laughs from yours truly.

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Anyway, if Bird’s disinterest in Incredibles 2 as a project clearly affects the story, it does not affect the actual craft of the film and that’s where the real excitement comes in for yours truly. Pixar, much like any other household animation studio (possibly moreso), has made a name out of slowly improving the technical aspects of their animation. The Incredibles, being an aesthetic particularly based on rejecting photorealism for simple cartoonish character designs and an aesthetic based on 60s pop culture flatness, are a challenge to that ideology and yet Incredibles 2 expands on every single aspect a Pixar film can expand upon: a variety of shot scales, lighting, and image depth explored without losing one inch of the caricaturization of its worlds inhabitants. And it’s certainly not style for style’s sake: a city-sweeping montage set against the Screenslaver’s distorted monologuing earns a gothic noir tone specifically for how the cynicism in its voice plays well with the metropolitan shadows.

A moment followed by the infamous strobe sequence fight scene, which is the unfortunate source of pain for photosensitive viewers but also the moment the film is proudest about Erik Smitt’s lighting, blasting images of dizzying monochrome swirls against silhouettes of action poses, so intensely that it’s hard to imagine it not distressing the viewer in a visceral way, whether or not they suffer from epilepsy. And it’s only one of the many creative action setpieces Bird takes a joy out of constructing. The most popular one: a race to stop a rogue train that brings out all the possible stops for a speeding Elastigirl, looking for new ways to force her contortions and obstacles to make a viewer catch their breath with the speed in which she zips and bends and twists in fluid sweeping wide shots that editor Stephen Schaffer can hardly look away from. It’s a heart-stopping sequence that certainly explains Bob’s egotistical jealousy of his spouse’s capabilities as a superhero, while also establishing that Elastigirl is just so much more fun to watch. My personal favorite is Jack-Jack’s mini Looney Tunes showdown against a raccoon, a kneeslapper distracting us from the primary story arc for a moment yet bouncing as many powers out of a hat as possible for Jack-Jack to get the Raccoon’s eyes wider and wider. Hell, the supporting cast of next-generation superheroes transparently exist to give the Parrs a new source of challenges, particularly Voyd (Sophia Bush) who creates portals that make for interesting antithetical combat to Violet’s force-field defenses.

In general, I think the complaints of those who walked away disappointed and the accolades of others like me who were fascinated with the film come from the same modus operandi: if Bird was going to have to make this movie, he was going to try to make it big. The reason The Incredibles worked so brilliantly as a story was its ability to intimately alternate between its function as superhero tale and domestic drama and Incredibles 2 tries to do that and admittedly fumbles a lot. It can’t accomplish this as smoothly because Bird is interested implying a larger world now: more focus on the worldview of superheroes than how its affects the Parrs, more focus on establishing a gallery of supers rather than giving them the same depth as the Parrs or even family friend Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson). But it succeeds at making the world seem wider and promising the potentials of visualizing every single nook and cranie of that world with its craft, filling it with style and bombast. Even Michael Giacchino has found ways to turn his already iconic score into a brand-new snappy soundtrack for the picture (there’s a snare-kick early on during the Underminer bank robbery that got me ready for anything). So if The Incredibles surpasses as a construction of fiction, I still think the choice is clear which movie functions better as popcorn cinema overall and I frankly might go as far to call Incredibles 2 the best Pixar film since Inside Out. Sometimes, more IS more.

*Indeed, this clear reluctance to make Incredibles 2 is a large part of why my expectations for it were pretty low.

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Les Incroyables!

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Out of the four animated pictures Brad Bird wrote and directed, The IncrediblesThe Incredibles is my least favorite. But of course, Brad Bird is of an incredible (pun not intended) animation case where every single film he directed could fit a favorite spot for anybody and not get a blink from me.* Although, one has to admit it took the world maybe a tiny while to recognize that, as his masterful directorial debut The Iron Giant was a massive box office as a suspected result of Warner Bros. Feature Animation failing to market the film after clashing with Bird and trying to force him to add more “marketability” to it. Clearly that experience embittered Bird enough to take his ball and go to Pixar Animation Studios – then already earning its brand recognition as the high water-mark for contemporary animated storytelling – where he already had a friend in co-founder John Lasseter from their education at CalArts.

That ball happened to be a pitch on a domestic drama between a family of superheroes developing personal anxieties, developed by Bird to eventually become the full concept of a post-superhero society outlawing the superpowered crime-fighters for their collateral damage and the family’s attempts to conform into a mundane suburban existance with their relocation and government-mandated identities. And that family is the Parrs: made up of cocky child speedster “Dash”iell (Spencer Fox), teenage invisibility-and-force-field-capable outsider Violet (Sarah Vowell), stretchable housewife worn thin Helen (Holly Hunter), strongman Bob (Craig T. Nelson) whose weakness is midlife crisis, and baby Jack-Jack to round it off. The character and family metaphor behind all of their powers is impossible to miss, but it’s certainly not 2-dimensional. Their home life is in fact the very core of the narrative and grants it thematic richness, especially in terms of Bob’s painful nostalgia for old times and Helen having to deal with it. Back in the day, Bob and Helen were among apparently beloved superheroes, the two of them known as Mr. Incredible and Elastigirl respectively. And we’re introduced to this and other facts in an opening sequence that’s a rolling Rube Goldberg machine of setpiece after setpiece (with subtle expositional setups) while Mr. Incredible keeps himself busy with non-stop crises just before a big night, just before Bird masterfully brings the momentum to a screeching halt as the government pulls its shutdown in comedic black-and-white newsreels slowing us down to see the dead-eyed Bob fifteen years later with the story proper.

When it first came out in 2004, we just at the very cusp of superheroes carving out their own reserved spot in the annual cinematic discussion. They had an increased presence in the wake of the X-Men and Spider-Man successes, but we weren’t yet at the post-2008 surge into a pop culture environment where superheroes have now become an overwhelmingly permanent fixture on mainstream cinema. Back then, The Incredibles had earned the immediate fanfare that Bird desired from audiences and critics, generally considering it to be just another knock-out in Pixar’s early run of masterworks, but that doesn’t acknowledge what’s most fascinating about The Incredibles as a project was how distinguishable it was from the rest of Pixar’s output at the time.

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Not least of which in the visual design of the film, with Bird already coming to the studio with a conceit of the movie taking place in a world reminiscent of the 1960s and having Lou Romano and Ralph Eggleston give us a world of sleek shape-based metropolises that embody the pop art of that long-gone era of the idealized nuclear family, right down to Tony Fucile and Teddy Newton’s character designs. In general, the ending credits of the incredibles have a bold “POW” to its aesthetic that works as a cheatsheet to what the movie was going for, but those are flat silhouettes against the brilliant dimension given to the solid-block-without-feeling-blocky human beings (thanks also to some wise lighting conceits like a whole lava dining room demanding fiery chiaroscuro close-ups and silhouette wide-shots).

They look like comic strip illustrations that are given definition simply by the fact that they are 3-dimensional, like Mr. Incredible’s linear jawline and exaggerated torso. It’s a precursor to the later Lasseter-era Walt Disney Animation Studios CG films of the 2010s and a boon to the animated format Bird indulges in for this movie considering how it dives headfirst into the idea of being a cartoon than anything else Pixar made to that point. Pixar’s preceding release for instance, Finding Nemo, came bragging (very deservedly) about the photorealism of its water animation even if (very textured) cartoon fish were inhabiting that ocean. There is no room for photorealism in The Incredibles, the aesthetic wants to simplify everything from the trees to the cars to the chairs (and yet still finding room to make a costume designer’s home extravagant). And it’s because of that simplicity, the way it looks dynamic without demanding much from the eye, that The Incredibles feels like it held up the best out of any of pre-2010s movies. It certainly has a few shots (mostly moving or involving background “extras”) that feel paper-thin but it mostly retains the same sort of power 14 years since its release.

It’s not just mood and tone that the craftsmanship of The Incredibles gives to itself, it’s also strong storytelling. Despite the bright red tights of the family zipping through the exotic volcano location with futuristic Bond villain lair for a good part of the second half of its efficient 115-minute runtime, most of the first 45 minutes mutes its colors to zombie greys and whites for his insurance office or unexciting browns and faded greens for the Parr household. The very difference in energy once Mr. Incredible sets off on an hired adventure that the rest of his family must confront/rescue him about is night and day, mirrored by the climax of the family’s tense relationships with each other before they find themselves working together.

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And it’s not just visually, Michael Giacchino’s feature breakout as a composer yielded one of the most beloved Pixar scores, a blasting fun John Barry homage (Barry originally being offered the part) informing the pulp attitudes of its adventures and the mysterious element of Bob’s early attempts to keep his superheroing secret from his family, but it’s not even present for much of the first half save for a perilous attempt at reliving the glory days with partner-in-crimefighting Lucius “Frozone” Best (Samuel L. Jackson), until the secretive Mirage (Elizabeth Peña) approaches him with an assignment and the music begins whispering dreams of valiance building until up to the full bombast of the rest of the score. And the Oscar-winning sound design like-wise just fills the florid island environment within which the Incredibles chase and battle with the expected bird calls and forest brushes and alarming gunshots, but the powers of the children in particular get this unreal quality of quick pitter-patter for Dash’s speed (met in one brilliant surpise with a xylophone cue that may be my favorite moment in Giacchino’s score) and Violet’s force-fields augment and distort the dialogue taking place within them with a flanged muffle.

My word, The Incredibles is such a fully-realized work of art that I find it impossible to find elements not to exhaust regarding it, barely having time to recognize the A-game of the entire voice cast with some playing to their expected strengths (Hunter, Peña, Jason Lee as a role I feel like describing in detail would be a spoiler even for a movie this old) and some filling side-lined characters with charisma (Jackson and Bird himself as the superhero’s tailor Edna Mode). Or unpacking the further observations it makes about government or society, including the film’s infamous skirting with Objectivism (though Bird claims it was unintentional, I find the reading valid though I can’t say I consider The Incredibles to be Randian). There are so many angles to look at The Incredibles for and almost all of them are ones that demand your admiration that when I call back to the opening of this review acknowledging it is my least favorite of Bird’s animated features, I hope my enthusiasm for it illustrates just how much further we have witnessed Bird ascend.

*Ideally from anybody, but it seems like Incredibles 2 is sadly getting a very muted dismissal as “good but not as good”. Watch this space later for me to get back to that. And the general consensus appears to be that all four animated projects are superior to Bird’s two live-action films, the phenomenal Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol and the forgettable Tomorrowland.

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Hokey Religions and Ancient Weapons Are No Match for a Good Blaster at Your Side, Kid.

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I don’t think I would be wrong in identifying Solo: A Star Wars Story as the safest picture the franchise has ever seen, but it’s still a bizarre statement to make in the face of its remarkably disappointing financial run on top of other matters. Namely, it is very easy for one to ask the question “who is this for?” regarding Solo, not necessarily because we don’t know who the target audience for this four-quadrant blockbuster is. It’s because frankly nobody asked for it and the response to its announcement has always been very muted reluctance at most. That it’s doing dire work at the box office is more a shock simply because you don’t normally expect “bomb” to appear in the same sentence as “Star Wars” rather than because excitement was in the air.

Anyway, I called Solo safe and I’m sticking by it. After all, it is directed – after much internal strife – by Ron Howard, a director especially known for his lack of a characteristic style unless you call being unable to smooth out an episodic narrative structure a style. And Howard reliably performs that dysfunction here, though he’s not helped by any means with father-and-son team Lawrence and Jon Kasdan’s screenplay. It’s a script that was clearly built off of “well, we have several checkpoints we will have to arbitrarily connect the dots to” in regards to the early life of breakout Star Wars character, the cynical smuggler Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich): his meeting of hairy Wookie co-pilot Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and slick gambler Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover), the famous Kessel Run performed in 12 parsecs, the acquisition of his famous ship Millennium Falcon, and a hell of a lot of time devoted to the shiny die that you may or may not have noticed the hanging on the Falcon’s dashboard in the original trilogy.

None of these were particularly things we needed to see and yet they’re spread out in the screenplay over the length of three years in the young man’s life. By which I mean that the first quarter happens where we see Han and his thief partner Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to escape the grasp of their shrimp gangster overseer Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt) but Qi’ra’s quick re-capture leads Han to try to join the Imperial armed forces in the hopes of earning enough to return to the industrial planet of Corellia and break Qi’ra away from its clutches followed by a big leap in with the title card “THREE YEARS LATER” and the rest of the movie just continues on from there in the form of clunky chapters – a train heist, a mine heist/droid revolt, and a good ol’ bunch of fourth act showdowns – sifted through without anything resembling structural elegance.

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But already Star Wars fans come to a brief roadblock on how to take Solo: A Star Wars Story – they’ve turned Han, previously an ambiguous mercenary archetype with little more to him than that, into a young romantic driven by lost love. For indeed, his desire to reunite with Qi’ra is the driving motivation behind every decision he makes for the rest of the film as he and Chewie tag along with a motley crew of thieves made up of wise quickshooter Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), his lover Val (Thandie Newton), and their four-armed alien pilot Rio (Jon Favreau). And that romanticism is a pretty bold shift in characterization to make for one of the most beloved characters in one of the most popular franchises, especially coming from Lawrence Kasdan who is a long-time resident of the Star Wars creative force since 1980. And I have to admit the likeliness that original directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller were intending to take this sincere earnestness a little more tongue-in-cheek than intended interests me much more than the predictable emotional beats Howard hops into with straight-faced director after Lord and Miller were unceremoniously fired*. But there is a bright side to this: for one thing, it makes it a lot easier to shed any previous associations with the icon and approach the story as its own thing which I’d assume is the best line of inquiry for any Star Wars fan that doesn’t just go to these movies for the unbearably winking fan service (which is present in Solo, including an overabundance of sequel hooks littered all throughout the final minutes. One surprise character cameo only pushes the Disney Star Wars productions into becoming a new Marvel Cinematic Universe).

It also relieves Alden Ehrenreich of any need to attempt mimicry of his famed predecessor Harrison Ford, instead of inputting his personal charm and effortless boyishness as he leads a pretty bubbly ensemble. Glover himself is attempting mimicry of Billy Dee Williams and is getting it right on target. Suotamo, in his second go-round in that fur suit, has already gotten a good hand at the body language Chewie demands while Harrelson is another stand-out in a nitty gritty reluctant mentor, Newton gives tension as an aggressive moll, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge brings excitement as a very vocally conscious droid. Honestly, the only weak links are the inert Clarke and the unbearable Favreau (who is saddled with the most unspeakable word sandwiches sold as “jokes”) and otherwise the cast is the biggest reason to bother with Solo: A Star Wars Story.

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I would say it is the world-building as well. For sure, there is a pretty wonderful amount of production design going about, like a giant luxury spaceship doubling as the den of bloodthirsty gangster Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany, replacing Michael K. Williams sadly) or the implication of Corellia’s involvement in the creation of the galaxy’s fleet of spaceships. And in some cases, that world-building has a full-on involvement in the spectacle: that train heist is easily the best moment in the whole film, where the bandits are on a mini-Snowpiercer unstoppable snow locomotive and stepping into it from different angles dealing with different obstacles, cut with utter frenzy by Pietro Scalia. And the Kessel Run sequence is no slouch either, utilizing the looming entity of the Empire as a fire under the ass of a chase sequence trying to use the freewheeling physicality of space for comic book pulp.

Again, I WOULD say it’s the world-building, except that Solo: A Star Wars Story heartbreakingly looks like hell as some idiot shot the film’s interiors with a murky lack of lighting obscuring characters and a sense of blocking that doesn’t seem aware of the objects in the frame and dared to slap Bradford Young’s name to this. Chewbacca’s entrance is the worst of these things, where the very “Hey it’s Chewie!” close-up where he roars into the camera and is “recognized” is botched by having not lighting on his face at all. It’s just watching undefined shadows and blotches on the screen occasionally*.

The concept of a space opera that just can’t bother looking good, especially with one of the best cinematographers working today in its arsenal, just feels offensive. It is the least a movie as forgettable as Solo could do and it nearly gets so well done with imaginative set, costume, creature, and CGI designs all around but none of that means much if you can barely see it. It doesn’t register a lot of confidence on its makers’ part. Somebody must have told them the odds.

*Between Lord/Miller getting booted for making a comedy and the burial of Star Wars: Detours, Lucasfilm is starting to feel like fan service gatekeepers.
*No less a reliable name than Bilge Ebiri swears it looked better in its Cannes premiere and it’s the theater projections that are messing up and I sincerely believe his experience except… y’know projectors don’t suddenly retroactively light sets and actors.

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Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

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Discussing the highest-grossing film of 2017 six months after its release hits that sweet spot where I can just about open up with a SPOILER WARNING without worrying much about that turning away readers that weren’t already going to be turned away, yet on the other hand… I also have to reckon that almost anything I have to say about Star Wars: The Last Jedi has already been addressed, usually by better writers than I (for that is a long list). And yet the extreme responses on both sides to the film make one feel like a man without a country.

I mean, I am not neutral on the film: after watching it twice, I’ve settled on “I didn’t like it”. So I’m not onboard with the critical adoration stating it’s the best Star Wars movie of all time or since The Empire Strikes Back. And yet there’s a significant amount of criticisms towards The Last Jedi that I frankly don’t align with, even ignoring the ones I refuse to dignify involving the term “Social Justice Warrior” or complaining about the inclusion of anti-war politics, people of color, and women in significant roles. At worst, I think it’s on the same middling-to-mediocre level that every Star Wars release since 1999’s The Phantom Menace, so it’s not like I find “worst Star Wars movie” to apply to it either.

But The Last Jedi does land a lot of superlatives in my book, with the most gnawing one being the clunkiest narrative of a franchise that’s never been an exemplar of thematic depth and structural competence. Honestly, many of the criticisms regarding director/writer Rian Johnson’s screenplay are not really unique to The Last Jedi. Its unwieldy lack of balance with plotlines (essentially three but they mesh throughout) is definitely something already messed up by 2002’s much worse Attack of the Clones and its snail-in-a-black-hole pacing that leads to nowhere for an entire hour is something shared by the first two entries of the prequel trilogy. And yet, here I am finding it a lot more bothersome on three factors: Johnson’s normally a phenomenal writer and this is uncharacteristically clumsy of him, the movie is the longest in the franchise at a whopping 152 minutes, and it stresses that length by having its best elements bookended and the fairly good moments in the middle interrupted by a large chunks of bad.

The film starts on a great note with an incredible war thriller mini-movie starring Veronica Ngo about her duties as a Resistance gunner while her allies escape a First Order ambush, led by the plucky fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). It’s cut right with outright urgency by Bob Ducsay as we witness slow bomber after slow bomber destroyed in the desperate hope of taking down a Dreadnought from the point of view of Ngo’s Paige, cramped and determined in an explosive setpiece. It’s a bit overreliant on turning Star Wars battles into World War II battles with complete disregard to space physics (I mean, these bombs are DROPPED into the vaccuum of space and Ngo stands next to the open door), but it’s bombastic exciting opening spectacle.

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We cut to the remote island planet of Ahch-To, where we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempting to appeal to self-exiled Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to teach of her developing Force powers. Luke, however, has grown bitter and resentful of the Force and the Jedi way of life in consideration of how his student Ben “Kylo Ren” Solo (Adam Driver) has gone off the deep end and demands to be left alone in his misanthropic state. And herein, the story boils very efficiently: eventually Rey – with the help with the familiar pair of ol’ Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo, officially taking over from Peter Mayhew) and chirpy astromech droid R2-D2 (Jimmy Vee) – is able to break Luke down to give reluctant and cynical lessons on how to focus her power. However, doubts fueled by Ren and desires in Rey’s heart to discover the truth behind her origins threaten to derail her journey inward and give her answers she won’t like. Which is why this happens to be the area in which the film is the richest in character drama and development.

It’s been a popular method of detractors to cite Mark Hamill’s resentment for developing Luke as a sullen old man, ignoring that he’s rolled back on his comments, but honestly I can’t pretend I agree. It makes a whole lot more narrative sense than anything else in The Last Jedi and Hamill takes that spot to facilitate a lot of growth Luke surprises himself with when Rey breaks into his life. And Rey remains the most dynamic character to emerge from the sequel trilogy, with Ridley herself having to drive Rey’s arcs and respond to some very empty, disappointing truths about herself before using them as a launchpad for an inspiring arc of self-realization. This happens to be the moment where all of the curveballs in Johnson’s script stick, like the revelation of Rey’s parentage and the usage of evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis in his MO mo-cap), but I’ll get to the criticism of the rest later.

Meanwhile, there’s the other plotlines, originally starting as just one: The First Order Dreadnought Supremacy is sadistically stalking the desperate evading Resistance forces, with the shocking capability to follow their main cruiser at light speed and make massive dents in Resistance defenses. It gets intense enough to incapacitate General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and command is now assumed by Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern). Holdo’s refusal to share her plans to the recently-demoted Poe leads to an extended hissy-fit-turned-mutiny that is a lot less self-aware than it receives credit for. There’s no nicer way of saying this: this plotline and the subsequent split it makes for a secret mission of ex-storm trooper Finn (John Boyega) and the Resistance technician sister to Ngo’s Paige named Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) dangerous regresses nearly every character involved into a complete buffoon. The characters make decisions that end up circling the whole narrative back to the same spot an hour of character action later, even well before their floundering leads to results Leia stressed they CANNOT afford but has little affect on Poe, Finn, or Rose’s development. Finn especially goes through the exact same motivational beats he already had gone through in The Force Awakens with extra stress on turning him into a physical clown of a deserter, but all of the heroes* cast here are doing the best they can with disastrous material and barely selling fuck-ups as the actions of believable human beings in distress (in general, I think Dern outdoes Hamill as the second-best performance in the film behind Ngo and Tran has been receiving a frankly mean-spirited amount of vitriol she wouldn’t deserve even if her performance wasn’t the singular source of dedicated humane energy that it is). It just doesn’t stop the frustrating lack of thrust in a story that has too much time not to fill it up.

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And that’s ignoring the inorganic way the movie halts to directly criticize war profiteering, a clunky but noble move often mistaken as deeming The Last Jedan anti-war film which fits it about as well as Iron Man, a film that only seems to be against the bad guys having weapons. Star Wars is a Manichean environment produced by a company pretty spooked at the idea of challenging narrative norms. Moral complexity is alien to it and it’s a miracle that Luke Skywalker as a character accomplishes this, but nothing else in The Last Jedi facilitates this. Poe is rewarded for decisions that lead to a massive amount of lives lost by being promoted at the very end of this movie with Holdo, the very woman who Poe held at gunpoint after trashing her bridge, happily declaring she likes him because he’s feisty. Y’know, because he’s the good guy so that he commit such indisputable travesties. Or how about the fact that shortly after all these bodies occurred, Rose nearly kills Finn and herself in the aborting of a suicidal attack against The First Order and responds to this by saying they will win this war by “Saving the ones we love”, punctuated by her kissing Finn** while a Hitchcockian laser explosion occurs that totally added to the body count. That’s a wild misfire for a movie that is deemed anti-war.

In Johnson’s writing, there ARE fundamentally daring and engaging narrative decisions where the common criticism from the public is that they happened, while my big problem is that they were rolled back. The most notorious instance of this happens to be the apparent death and subsequent resurrection of Leia, a move that feels sincere in the wake of Fisher’s shocking death but existed before her passing and indicates an unwillingness on the part of this new trilogy to move past the legacy of the original. Or the constant feints The Last Jedi makes to affiliations and allegiances being subverted, only to return by the end of the movie to a distinct line between good guys and bad guys. Johnson’s never indicated the remotest dissatisfaction with the development of The Last Jedi and I’m sure he’s happy to have a chance of shaking things up for the duration of the movie, but all the “fake out!” resets feel like the result of the powers-that-be at LucasFilm stating “well, you have to put it right back when the movie’s over” with an Marvel-esque fidelity to their plans for Star Wars Episode IX. It makes the film feel safer than it should.

Now, I’ve long upheld that Star Wars is not an event you go to for the writing and I maintain that in this instance. In fact, some of the other elements are why I can’t damn it as hard as so many detractors seem to.

For instance, it is the best-looking Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back. It’s evident that Johnson brought his love of anime into Steve Yedlin’s cinematography with a finger on instant iconography like a character standing off against a First Order grand armada like a splash page imagined by Ralph McQuarrie or a steaming gnarled wreck of a black helmet in a glowing elevator. This movie crazy inventive with red as both an sleight-of-hand replacement for viscera (one scene halfway through the movie uses a red costume’s tatters to replace the gore of the character’s evisceration, another uses the salt-coated red surface of a planet to imply a character’s eruption and later a post-slice blood splatter) as well as just an excitably pure backdrop for the passion of battle – particularly one of the greatest lightsaber battles of the whole franchise, so many combatants cutting through a dome of bright crimson burning down to reveal the abyss of space while dealing with the space version of the armor from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.

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And those reds aren’t even the main showcase of production designer Rick Heinrichs and costumer Michael Kaplan. It’s actually an element of the Finn/Rose mission: the Monaco-inspired casino planet Canto Bight is one of the better elements of world-building since The Phantom Menace, various in eye-catching colors and creature designs and shimmering in an off-puttingly perfect way making it easy to understand why Finn is so easily dazzled and giving a full gap to the class lines Rose remarks upon to give the sudden politics enough heft. Or the salt planet of Crait, inventively straddling the line between desert heat and winter whites to give a relentlessly wild atmosphere for The Last Jedi‘s climax.

There is a caveat to that “Best Looking” title and it’s a significant one that hampers one of the reasons I go to a Star Wars movie in the first place: The effects are at an all-time worst. Which leaves enough room for dazzling setpieces like the opening escape, the throne room battle, the Canto Bight scene, or a moment of rapid black-and-white impact where Johnson is so proud of the imagery that he shuts off the sound for 10 seconds (you could heard the whole crowd go “whoa!” at my IMAX). But then there’s also the reminder that Snoke is the worst motion-captured character Andy Serkis has ever done, an extended setpiece involving very cartoonish animals rampaging through a planet, and Leia’s revelation as a force-user swinging back to the ship and they’re mighty worse than either of Rogue One‘s grave-robbery, largely because these effects involving living tissue as well that’s always in movement (where Rogue One‘s Tarkin and Leia occasionally were not moving) and pulls the effects further into looking like video game cutscenes. The practical effects are all fine as they always are and Star Wars otherwise still remains as competent in their effects work as an given blockbuster, but man those particular instances stick in my craw.

As does the growing dissatisfaction with John Williams’ returning as a composer for this trilogy. His cues for The Last Jedi don’t hit the depths of The Force Awakens – indeed he seems a lot more awake here, especially on Canto Bight – but his music just doesn’t seem like much more than him doing an imitation of himself this time around. And this is probably the killing blow for me: I specifically go to Star Wars for Williams’ music above anything else. His motifs don’t salvage horrible movies (“Across the Stars” is among his best and that’s from Attack of the Clones), but if his music doesn’t seem to be having fun, I’m not gonna be having fun. And the music doesn’t sound like he’s been having fun since Revenge of the Sith.

My attitude is clear: there are elements I like in The Last Jedi, but I am dismayed by the packaging. There are ideas I admire in The Last Jedi, but I find ruined by the execution. The Last Jedis not a worthless film, in fact I think it’s quite interesting enough to understand why its supporters are so very devoted to the film. It’s a giant contradiction in a fascinating way that begs re-evaluation someday on my part, much as The Phantom Menace and Return of the Jedi found. But not any time soon, sadly – partly because the goliath amount of time wasted does not entice me to rewatch it soon***, partly because watching it a second time with the intent on focusing on the good has only led to me finding more bad and it felt even more like a missed opportunity. Ah well, not everything has to be black and white. I can sit right in the middle of my island and stay out of the fight that Star Wars: The Last Jedhas started.

*I’m specifying “heroes” because the villains are much much worse than they already were in The Force Awakens. Domnhall Gleeson as General Hux is doing a dumber version of Ben Mendehlson’s flustering functionary work in Rogue One, Driver is tethered to the most predictable storyline Kylo Ren could have been saddled with, and Serkis is still doing nothing. I don’t want to add more problems to this review and I kind of don’t care enough about the characters to even be appalled at their treatment like I am with Finn, Rose, Poe, and Holdo, so they get a footnote and not an actual place in the review.
**They ruined Poe/Finn! Goddammit! Of course that was never canon, but the possibility of the first explicit non-heteronormative relationship in a Star Wars, erased just like that!
***There’s legend of a “fan” cut removing the women from the film which is not only sexist as fuck but wildly misses that all the best parts are starring the women. My fan cut would not remove a single millimeter of Rey or Paige’s storyline, though it would be quite liberal with the rest.

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X-Farce

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Deadpool 2 is directed by David Leitch and, without identifying him until the closing credits (beyond a pretty funny “Directed by One of the Dicks who killed the Dog in John Wick” at the tail of a an amusing Bond credits gag complete with overqualified self-serious theme song by Celine Dion), you could instantly tell that this was a product of one of the best action filmmakers of the 21st Century.

Almost immediately, we jump into a montage of complex and extravagant combat sequences involving our titular invulnerable red-jumpsuit-donning Merc with a Mouth’s (Ryan Reynolds) growing business as an assassin (apparently only for bad people like human traffickers and drug kingpins). Each in a very distinct color palette like the cold blue pool-surrounded spa and green reflective high-rise bars with frenetic energy that matches the character’s interminable speech, topped off by the very best setpiece in the whole film: a single shot following a man fleeing from the carnage in a beeline while we watch Deadpool wreak havoc and slaughter everybody in the background, jumping around, shooting and slicing indiscriminately, ignoring a man on fire, and stealing a chainsaw until the man escapes into a panic room.

Now, I am not joking when I say that’s the best sequence in Deadpool 2, which sounds unpromising considering it’s only the first five minutes of a two hour movie. And that’s why I am happy to say even then, Deadpool 2 is pretty entertaining and a significant upgrade from its mostly annoying predecessor. I mean sure, it still has the handicap of being a platform for Reynolds (credited as co-writer alongside the returning Rhett Reese & Paul Wernick and I wonder how much of that is the Spinal Tap rule of “he ad-libbed so much he may as well be credited”) to deliver unimpressive pop-culture-based quips, make heavy efforts at vulgarity, or call unsubtle attention to the superhero clichés being mocked, thereby dampening the hell out of any true bite in the attempted superhero parodying.

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It’s also a pretty dense movie considering the punchline is just “lol, don’t all superhero movies do this stuff?”. It kicks off with the attempt by Reynolds and company to explore Wade Wilson’s (Deadpool’s true identity) exploration of grief and emptiness (catalyzed by an already pretty infamous story decision) and this is constantly undercut by Reynolds’ dedication to playing class clown under the mask, which IS the point of the character but demands a balance Reynolds is barely capable of providing. It’s improved by the subject of Deadpool’s first “X-Men” mission provided by his persistent recruiter of steel Piotr “Colossus” Rasputin (Stefan Kapičić for voice and face capture with Andre Tricoteux standing in on set for the CG character), the young distrustful Russell “Firefist” Collins played with magnificent effect by Julian Dennison. Dennison’s approach to the character is not all that different from his already charming turn as the contentious delinquent Ricky Baker in Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a character that had a good amount of pent-up trauma informing his behavior and decisions.

Dennison turns that familiar territory into a sense of nervy hurt from the second we watch him surrounded by cops threatening desperately to kill anyone who approaches him, later on revealing a confused lonely desire for a friend that leads to unleashing one of the film’s surprise antagonists. It’s pretty hard to feel like there’s a more convincingly human performance in the whole movie, even while he’s calling Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand) “Justin Bieber” or joking about sneaking pens into the steely foreboding mutant prison The Icebox via his butt. It works because both his desire to appear hardened and his genuinely pain-fueled rage come from the exact same place.

So yes, Dennison is one of Deadpool 2‘s best secret weapons, but I haven’t even finished discussing yet another layer of this overglutted screenplay. For the unsmiling cyborg Cable (Josh Brolin) comes from the future with his own vendetta against Russell, intent on killing the boy before Russell can set aflame to the venal fundamentalist headmaster (Eddie Marsan) that abused him and thus be locked on the path that ends with Cable’s family being massacred*. So Looper except Deadpool and Cable are coming from wildly different tones. Deadpool’s depression and newfound deathwish leads him eventually towards an epiphany that he can save Russell’s soul and move him towards a better path, leading to him being right in the crosshairs of Cable’s artillery requiring the recruitment of a special team of fellow mutants named X-Force.

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So there is a lot going on and Leitch moves through that material like one runs on a shallow lake: trying to rush as fast as one can, but having to push really hard to move one’s feet. That said, a good amount of the character work is pretty well-earned even despite the sloppiness with which they’re set up thanks to an intelligent cast: I’d daresay that Brolin might not be inventing the wheel here, but he’s a lot more interesting than his other big superhero tentpole of the summer. Brolin sells contrivances with sobriety just on the line between outrageous and self-aware so that Cable’s decisions later in the film feel like an evolution that mirrors Russell’s without killing the fun. Morena Baccarin takes a thankless treatment of her character (apparently also self-aware, though certain criticisms of her writing have caused the writers to shamelessly play stupid in interviews – SPOILERS for that link by the way) and turns it into the moral center to Deadpool’s arc, probably doing much more to make me feel for Deadpool’s sadness than Reynolds himself. So Leitch and company’s labored flopping in these plot tangents aren’t for naught: there is a sense of emotional satisfaction at the third act that I can’t recall feeling in a comic book film for a long time and I wasn’t expecting that for a screenplay mostly making me go “oh man, another joke or introduced character”.

I must admit to its credit these jokes got me laughing more often than the first Deadpool, whether a frankly mean-spirited punchline to the X-Force team’s motley of cameos (both of X-Men characters and screen personalities like the always welcome Terry Crews) or a physical gag involving cocaine or really any moment in which Zazie Beetz as Domino has to defend the existence of her superpower, which is being continuously lucky. I feel there’s more misses than hits because Reynolds’ motormouth is firing on all cylinders and T.J. Miller is present, but every once in a while even Reynolds scores a chuckle (Miller never does).

And once again, these are pretty exciting action setpieces on various levels. Leitch brings with him his dream team from 87Eleven Action Design: cinematographer Jonathan Sela and editor Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir (the latter working with Dirk Westervelt and Craig Alpert though I assume they worked more on comedy or dramatic moments), all three of which know how to work together to give power to every piece of the constructed action and find room for cool money shots. In one scene, we get to watch Deadpool start with nothing but a brick and every face smash crunches on that soundtrack because Cable refuses to give him a gun, ending with the duo casually blasting the faces off their enemies with shotguns simultaneously. This is intercut with a fistfight of two CGI characters that gets momentum just by Sela’s camera movements, as if he’s being yanked around by those giants. Or even a slow-motion rube goldberg machine indicating the truth behind Domino’s abilities as she effortlessly action jumps her way through explosions and wrecks onto a moving van.

It’s certainly the messiest and least Leitch’s so-far three movies, but when you’re following up on Atomic Blonde, you have more than enough room to still deliver an enjoyable and charming enough piece of summer popcorn movie levity. That Deadpool 2 is able to accomplish that coming from such obnoxious material only proves my consistent faith in Leitch and his crew, Dennison, and Beetz. They were the reasons I rushed to the theater on opening night and the result was still a pleasant surprise.

*We do get to see Russell’s evil future self and I am very sorry to say that he is not played by Taika Waititi, which would immediately make this the best movie ever made.

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Rimshot

Film Title: Pacific Rim Uprising

John Boyega deserves better movies than the ones he’s been getting ever since his brilliant breakout in the fantastic Attack the Block. I mean, he’s certainly not suffering one bit as one of the stars of the Star Wars franchise and it’s very easy to see what interests anybody with the movies he’s been working on, so it’s not like he needs a new agent. But, I think just once he deserves a movie that matches his charismatic talents where they don’t need to be carrying the whole thing*.

Pacific Rim: Uprising is absolutely one such movie where the only joy in watching it as how Boyega takes the role of Jake Pentecost (son of Idris Elba’s character in the predecessor film), a young hotshot pilot with everything to prove in the face of the now-rebooted Kaiju monster attack on humanity. This is a hell of an upgrade from the block of wood that was Charlie Hunnam, to be honest. Boyega’s presence is the only thing that gives life to the most commonplace character traits a lead actor can be saddled with these days (though I also think it’s a stronger character for him to work with than Star Wars‘ Finn) and sells every inch of the scenario of Uprising‘s screenplay by Emily Carmichael, Kira Snyder, director Steven S. DeKnight, and… oh god, The Maze Runner‘s runner T.S. Nowlin back to haunt my soul with over-labored storytelling and diminishing return. Which means Boyega’s had his work cut out for him with this movie.

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Suffice it to say four different writers means at least four different tangents on which Uprising wants to latch itself onto and none of them with any elegance: the training of a brand-new team of heroes by Jake and Nate Lambert (Scott Eastwood), the re-introduction of a familiar face from the previous Pacific Rim as the new antagonist, the introduction of automated Jaeger drones as a possible replacement to the contingency, and the imminent return of the Kaiju threat long after Jake’s father Stacker and adopted sister Mako (Rinko Kikuchi getting treated dirty by this movie) thought they sealed that deal in the first movie. Actually, these are really subplots – many of them are supposed to feel like a thoroughline with one leading to the other and so on. DeKnight being a veteran of television with this being his feature film debut, he handles this with all the clumsiness of a television trying to pile on as many arcs for its imminent first season, calling attention to the clunkiness with which these plotlines collide over each other and their incompatibility in some places.

And I’m honestly having trouble remembering any performance except Boyega, Eastwood, and the first movie’s alumni (Kikuchi, Charlie Day, and Burn Gorman), let alone thinking highly of them. Most of them are just muted underwhelming plays at the most common character types – Plucky young bloods with their own high schooler drama. Eastwood’s attempt at grizzled by-the-book disciplinarian (between this and The Fate of the Furious, I’m starting to feel like he just sucks the air out of any dramatic moment in popcorn cinema). Mako has no character to work with whatsoever and what the movie lands on her feels slightly contemptuous on the part of everything her character grew on. Day and Gorman are the only ones whose characters seem to have developed into a schism in their previous partnership in the wake of their dive in a psychic Kaiju brain.

This hardly matters, to be honest. Pacific Rim itself was not an examplar of great dramatic writing or character work, it was barely survivable in that area. Probably what sticks in my craw is more how much effort it appears that Uprising put into trying to develop its own new threat through complicated swims of Kaiju brainwaves and digging into the politics that it all turns into a slightly better (read: shorter) version of Independence Day: Resurgence.

No no no, what does matter in the end with Pacific Rim Uprising is what we’re here for: The visuals. Not particularly the production design which is much less revelatory this time around beyond a brief introduction of a man-made mini Jaeger and a chase through the remains of a demolished one (the cities especially are utterly disinteresting to look at after the cool glowing streets of Tokyo in the rain in Pacific Rim). I mean that sweet nectar of Mecha and Kaiju monster action. And thankfully, Uprising is not really short in that department, though the quantity of Jaeger and Kaiju setpieces does not factor against the lack of variety between them as they all just seem to be framed in a lazy manner not calling attention to the fact that these are HUGE GIANT ROBOTS dwarfing us, but more as though these robots were having a civil dialogue scene with sedate camera movement. Or the lack of poppy color and within them beyond one hella cool shot in red smoke as we witness a Kaiju’s evolution into something even more menacing, totally blanketed in crimsons**.

Or the ballsy but fatal mistake for them to set all the CGI battles in broad daylight, giving them a slight bit of flatness that makes it impossible to recognize these as more effects than physical beings of cold steel. Y’know, say what you will about Pacific Rim‘s decision to include shadows in its fight scenes but it gave these beings shape and visual power while Uprising resembles a rejected episode climax from an episode of Power Rangers. A more polished one and one that gets the job done in distracting me long enough to get through a very rushed button ending, but everything about Uprising in the end seems to feel like an obligatory attempt at continuing a franchise while leaving behind the beating heart that was at the center of the film that started it all.

*And I am definitely aware that this is an unpopular opinion, especially when it comes to The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, though I will concede they are the best of his post-Attack The Block movies with enough in favor of them.
**Although this shot may have won me for reminding me of another better monster movie, Gareth Edwards’ 2014 Godzilla remake.

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