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.

Keanu Dig It?

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Lately I’ve been finding myself over excited for the possibility of Chad Stahelski adapting Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, a series that was a personal guilty pleasure read back in my undergrad years. This excitement was verbalized shortly after seeing his latest feature John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum, the third in the John Wick franchise that saw him make the move for Hollywood stuntman to action film director, where I realized that this franchise and the Sandman Slim series had a lot of things in common that Stahelski has proven a boon to: (under)world-building, a story of romance-based vengeance, a protagonist who is evidently the best at the violent thing he does, but the biggest element that Parabellum indicates (and that I should have known from the first John Wick) is a love for movies and eagerness for references that is shared by Kadrey’s books.

Within the first three minutes, Buster Keaton clips are projected in the background off of a Times Square building (this was also done in John Wick: Chapter 2 within the first three SHOTS). Within 30 minutes, the titular assassin John Wick (Reeves) seeks refuge in the Tarkovsky Theatre*. And then there’s the casting, which is obviously not the first thing I’d expect to praise John Wick for, but as the best ensemble of the whole franchise to date, a lot of the actors feel very much winking to their past careers. Mark Dacascos is introduced running a sushi shop, Jerome Flynn (in a heinous accent) finally lives Bronn’s dream of having a castle, Boban Marjanovic’s cameo appearance feels reminiscent of fellow basketball player Kareem Abdul-Jabbar in the Bruce Lee vehicle Game of Death, and in a franchise full of flexes, no bigger flex is made than having Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahman – Mad Dog and The Assassin themselves – mark over getting to fight John Wick himself! Not unexpected coming from a franchise that knowingly reunited Laurence Fishburne with his Matrix co-star but to the degree that this third entry indulges in… wow.

Needless to say, the ensemble is only one of every single aspect of the John Wick films that Parabellum has amped up. Following in the style of the later Mission: Impossible films, Chad Stahelski and his team’s response to continuing the tales of their grieving assassin is to just bring out “more”. More elaborate fights, more elaborate sets, more elaborate world-building, and on and on. The note that Chapter 2 left Wick on was the promise of the entire underworld of Assassins – centralized by the international chain of hotels called The Continental – coming down on Wick, so there wasn’t much to demand of writer Derek Kolstad and yet he finds a way to add a layer to that threat in the form of the confident and poised official Adjudicator (Asia Kate Dillon). The Adjudicator’s sights expand beyond Wick to the hands of anybody who aided or aids Wick in his escape from repercussions, including New York City’s Continental manager Winston (Ian McShane) and Bowery King (Fishburne), and this allows more sketching of the hierarchies and traditions of this murderous culture while Wick has to deal with end-to-end would-be killers trying to get his head.

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More than anything, this unrelenting hunt that Wick is at the center of introduces a wide variety of combat styles stemming from the otherwise mundane locations Wick has to escape from alive – from having to deal with the cramped rows of the New York Public Library to a vintage Chinatown warehouse filled with knives to evading motorcycles under the L train on horseback – bringing out the full creativity of the stunt coordinators trying to escalate each fight to a climax and the full ability of the stunt team to use their bodies as spectacle. And their humor too as this turns out to be the most self-aware of the John Wick films to date with moments like Wick weaponizing a notorious joke from Blart Blart: Mall Blart 2 and recreating Tuco’s revolver-building sequence from The Good, the Bad, the Ugly as a ticking timeclock sequence. Dacascos himself seems eager to jump in on the good humor of the franchise, his shinobi master Zero being all too eager to make pals with Wick while still stressing the inevitability of him killing Wick as hired by The Adjudicator as their primary instrument. And it’s a cheeky attitude that fills every facet of Parabellum as a work of art, most notoriously when production designer Kevin Kavanaugh includes – amongst his sleek, flowing luxury Berber tents in the Sahara and finely-aged historic ballet auditoriums – a set made out of glass designed to visualize the video game-like boss levels Wick must elevate in the climax as well as facilitate an absurdly hilarious moment where he just keeps getting kicked over and over by Zero’s ninjas into sugarglass pillars with no time to catch his breath.

John’s inability to ever catch his breath seems evermore present in this installment, making us more aware then ever that everything John is going through during this trilogy took place in very close chronological proximity (Parabellum opens less than an hour after Chapter 2 closed) and after Kolstad practically ignoring John’s widow-ship in the last movie, it’s brought forward once more for John to answer the query: “My son, how did you come to be so lost? Never seen a man fight so hard to end up back where he started.” Indeed, embodying frustrated exhaustion turns out to be yet another effective utilization of Reeves’ acting limits, where his laconic nature pushes against all the blood and sweat and sand all around him to be more focused in its viciousness than ever.

But really this is all just a pretext for designing fashion like violence. A very dedicated pretext mind you that certain viewers might understandably not find as gloriously pulpish as I do (indeed, a backstory scene between Wick and Halle Berry’s Sofia feels like the weakest moment in the franchise while still maintaining this film being the best work either actor has performed yet), but the pretext is able to step out of the way quick enough to return to the chase for Wick and the constantly escalating danger (paced impeccably by Evan Schiff so that each battle feels like an individual short film) in an ever-more florid array of Metropolitan color provided by Dan Laustsen (this film might include my favorite cinematic depiction of Manhattan’s Chinatown, presented in such overwhelming rain that the lights become blurry circles in the alleys interrupting the blue with imperfect circles of yellow and red).

It’s such an overwhelming amount of visual stimuli, overwrought dramatic epic (with a 30s serial-esque quest into the golden Sahara desert taking place in the middle), and breathtaking body movements (so aware of action movie’s function as cinematic ballet that it intercuts a violent slaughter with a ballet sequence) outdoing its predecessors that answering John Wick: Chapter 4‘s demand for “more” seems an impossible task for Stahelski, but I’m excited nevertheless for how they meet that need head-on. I mean, we have MORE DOGS in this film even and they munch on their enemy’s nuts! Deez Nutz!

*Which in turn brings one to remember Atomic Blonde – directed by John Wick‘s uncredited co-director David Leitch – featuring a fight scene set behind a movie screen playing Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker.

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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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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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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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Above the Rim

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Guillermo Del Toro has long been in the business of making movies for Guillermo Del Toro, who must be deep down inside still the monster-loving child he was at age 13. I think I acknowledged this the last time I reviewed one of his movies, in which I had to admit that The Shape of Water may have pleased many many people but I was not one. However, it is more often the case than not that the tastes Guillermo Del Toro and my own align with a click and I am very very happy to have the opportunity to talk about a film that illustrates that.

It is also the case that audiences have been very much on the way to devaluing Pacific Rim as a film since so quickly after its release in the summer of 2013, which is hilarious given that it was one of the few highlights of such a dire summer. Not even necessarily out of slim pickings, but in a summer where the biggest popcorn tentpoles included such consciously unsmiling fare as The Wolverine and Man of Steel, one can hardly be blamed for finding joy in one of the few non-animated wide releases to just be about looking cool and having fun while killing giant monsters in giant robots. But even beyond that retrospective of a timeframe I don’t think deserves one, there is of course several popular criticisms of Pacific Rim that I can’t help spending my time here shaking quickly off:

First, there is the shallowness with which it homages all the properties Del Toro yolked the concept from: beginning especially with the seminal anime franchise Neon Genesis Evangelion and moving down the line to Mobile Suit GundamGodzilla and the other Toho monster movies, Ultraman, and even a future noir influence out of a favorite of yours truly Blade Runner*. And certain of those influences – especially NGE – imply a sort of emotional and thematic severity that most popcorn films, let alone Pacific Rim, are even remotely interested in attending to. Pacific Rim never made any promises of being a 1:1 remake of Neon Genesis Evangelion and hardly needs to be an in-depth exploration of its protagonists depression and emptiness in a cruel world barreling towards their destruction.

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It just needs to be one thing: a vehicle for how we watch giant mechas called Jaegers, sanctioned by the united governments of a desperate world, fight and crush the sinister skin-cracked sea-emerging creatures called Kaiju that threaten humanity so. Which the screenplay by Del Toro and Travis Beacham knock right off the bat, establishing that the world is in this state, that the war between humanity and alien invaders is in media res here, and boom! In less time than it takes to make a turkey sandwich, the game is on. The combatants are goliath, the environments variable, everything else is pure theory.

The efficiency of the screenplay does not somehow mean that it is devoid of weaknesses, however. For the lack of depth with which we are introduced to characters we ride along with the Jaegers are of a cliché sort: Raleigh Beckett (Charlie Hunnam), a former hotshot pilot, is being pulled out of a retirement originally brought on by the death of his co-pilot brother (it is established that the Jaegers require two compatible minds to operate and what better signifier of compatibility than fraternity). The grizzled no-nonsense General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) is the one who pulls Beckett out and, after an assessment, pairs him up with Pentecost’s adoptive daughter and long-time aspiring Jaeger pilot Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi). And then there’s so many other clichés surrounding them: namely the pair of wacky scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman or the eye in the sky brains of the operation played by Clifton Collins, Jr. (a famously Mexican actor, though the name Tendo Choi suggests the character is… Chinese?).

And of course, there is the surrounding friendly rival allies from different nations (minus the friendly in the case of Robert Kazinsky’s Chuck), portraying an international unity in our heroes efforts. It’s more than textual as each of the main Jaegers – Gipsy Danger, Cherno Alpha, Crimson Typhoon, and Striker Eureka – are distinguished within the design of Andrew Neskoromny & Carol Spier with worn-out colors that suggest national pride in the face of an apparently losing war (the Chinese Crimson Typhoon lives up to its name) and bodily structures that suggest the utilitarian focuses of their nations, such as how Cherno Alpha has a core that resembles a defensive plant. Or even just doing more for character than the script, given that Chuck is easily the most aggressive of all pilots and his Jaeger Striker Eureka comes with blades on its forearms (though there is “that’s so cool!” moment where we learn Striker is not the only Jaeger with that edge).

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The Jaegers are not the only place in which the design is inspired. To begin with, the Kaijus themselves are alive and crackled, the CGI giving their body that living feeling of movement that can’t be said for a lot of animation even in this day (look at the “zombies” of Rogue One). And we have here a world that recognizes the sort of social and aesthetical impact that the existence of Kaiju would have across a society: a religious shrine is made out of the bones of a dead Kaiju, jobs invented out of creating walls in a new defense economy, fallout shelters, black market interests, and the interior design of a Jaeger feeling like a mechanical brain. This isn’t world-building: the world is already built just beyond the corners of our eyes, it’s world exploring.

And again, rain-soaked night time neon metropolis backdrops are my personal catnip. That some of these Kaiju vs. Jaeger battles occurred in dark oceans with shafts of light above illuminating fragments or dark rainy cities, as though this obscures the giant beasts of metal and bone, doesn’t ruin the effects anymore than it did in Jurassic Park 20 years prior. It works, the goliaths have a sense of physicality and scale that the camera is barely able to hold onto in full and promises more than meets the eye, making the battles have punch and impact, earth-shaking popcorn movie spectacle that we rarely see these days. It’s absolutely hard to lose the joy Guillermo Del Toro had putting these battles together, complete with great “Oh snap!” moments within them.

Still storytelling through design and action does not hide two-dimensional storytelling in plot. The characters are mostly flat as a board beyond Elba showing you can’t keep him down with first draft writing (the rest of the cast sadly do not fare as well with Hunnam weakest and that just brings more attention to the flaws of the script). And yet, when I hear Transformers used as a ridiculous comparison, I have to say it doesn’t indulge in the weaknesses of that franchise: there are no real “idiot plot” characters, no racial caricatures, no garbage humor, the very last beat of Pacific Rim rejects the concept that Raleigh and Mako are anything beyond very fond friends without losing any of the heart behind their friendship. The only real elements of the writing that gnaw under my skin are the leaps of logic and misunderstandings of science or physics (including the much mocked line “Gipsy’s analog. Nuclear.” as a response to all Jaegers being digital) that barely hold together the concept of a series of nations deciding the best response to monsters is to punch them out to a hell of a lot of city damage in big mecha suits and I just need to shut that thought in my mind up with one response:

“Listen, motherfucker, do you want to see robots fight monsters or not? Eat your damn popcorn.”

*I will confess that while I was sold already from premise and filmmaker long before the trailer hit and blew my socks off, the moment that cemented that I was watching it the night of was the end of the trailer with a raining neon Tokyo backdrop and Ron Perlman wearing future suave gangster threads being told by Charlie Day “It is pretty cool.” Yes, it was.

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A New Hope

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Obviously “name the scene that changed the game of cinema” is way too broad an accomplishment to narrow down, but when deciding on the three major moments that totally transformed the art form in my eyes, I settle on the Odessa steps sequence of Battleship Potemkin, the mid-film death of Marion Crane in Psycho, and the opening shot of Star Wars. And while the other two describe a scene that impacted me on an intellectual level, only the Star Wars sequence hit me on a gut eye-widening level even when I first watched it – which was, for the record, on a TV screen in the 1990s at a toy store that probably was one of the much edited Special Editions (and obviously, I’m not a caveman… at this point, I only go Despecialized or bust).

Anyway, that shot alone to remind you if you’ve seen Star Wars, because you almost certainly have (and if not, don’t both reading this review because I won’t really try to bring you up to speed and will not hold back on the spoilers), is a rebel cruiser slowly but desperately crawling above our heads in a speed that tells us enough with its blasts that it is being followed. We see in the same shot shortly after what is following it: this Goliath prism of forebodingly bleached technology with the very appropriate name of the Star Destroyer completely eating up the screen too quickly for us to prepare for its entrance, let alone have any hope that this cruiser will escape its clutches. I mean, describing it doesn’t work, you gotta see it to believe it.

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It’s like “yep… that’s a spaceship alrigh– no wait, THAAAAT’S a spaceship.” It’s more than just an incredible opening move by writer/director George Lucas to establish the dominance and antagonism of the evil Empire in less than a minute. It is in my humble opinion the most accomplished work of visual effects to date. It’s a challenge to popcorn cinema since Star Wars first opened on 25 May 1977 to try to surpass the scale and tangibility of this fantastical moment of bleeding edge technical storytelling. While visual effects have only evolved further and further down the line, nothing in my eyes has made good on the challenge (though I will say the gap in evolution between 2001: A Space Odyssey and this doesn’t feel that large). Even the dinosaurs from Jurassic Park or Gollum from The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers feel like distant runner-ups compared to how that Star Destroyer takes me aback if I give myself enough time between viewings of Star Wars.

I mean, one doesn’t really need to recount the ways that Star Wars had affected the filmgoing sphere since it dropped like a proton torpedoes. It’s practically a joke among “sophisticated” (read: sticks-up-their-asses) cinephilia circles that the movie killed cinema along with Jaws and, sure, the sudden focus it brought in to ambitious bombastic narratively and thematically unchallenging spectacle into the 1980s is irrevocable after the thoughtful auteur-driven 1970s New Hollywood movement. But it’s very easy to fall for that spectacle when it’s this refined and bleeding edge, capable of retaining its ability to create plausible worlds to suck its audience in even 41 years after the fact. And it is apparently even easier to forget that it gets to accomplish that by having its designs tap into the malaise of New Hollywood and the disillusion of the post-Vietnam late 1970s, making it no less a bonafide member of the New Hollywood movement than Lucas’ previous two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti.

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I mean, take a look at the beginnings of Tatooine farmboy-turned-hero Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) story: he lives in the middle of nowhere, just a dried desert planet so empty that just watching TWO FUCKING SUNS feels like a mundane way to vent out his boredom. And mind you, those two suns are yet another brilliant showcase of Lucas’ visual storytelling… the way Luke faces out towards the horizon telling us of the potential journeys ahead of his hopes of escape, the rising sun being the most basic of “this is the beginning of something life-changing” metaphors.

But anyway, this is diverging how Tatooine looks like it sucks, right? Because it does – the film does nothing to dress up the fatigue of the Tunisian desert it was shot in. The script by Lucas spends a little less than an hour lying inside this godforsaken sandy mass that occasionally has dunes and domes popping out from under its surface making Skywalker feel no less restless about the lack of direction in his life as any of the teenagers from American Graffiti, where Lucas seems to tap into the youthful yearning of such a hero. And mind you, the vehicles which American Graffiti revolves around (no wonder Lucas was so fascinated with having John Dykstra bring some technological logic to the models) are not glamorous but they are a sight better looking than the slim hovercraft speeder he rides around that looks more like the wheels fell off than any actual advancement was made or the rusted up massive maroon Sandcrawler from which Skywalker picks up protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and astromech droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) that take him onto his impromptu journey with the guiding old hermit Obi-Wan “Ben” Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to rescue the kidnapped Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) from the grasp of the Empire’s main enforcers, Grand Moff Tarkin (Peter Cushing) and Darth Vader (voiced by James Earl Jones; physically played by David Prowse).

And I mean, from the moment he arrives, the gilded C-3PO is the best looking thing on Tatooine and his paint is practically fading off his body as is. When the escape pilots bad boy Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and wookie Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) unveil their bucket of bolts the Millennium Falcon, it’s a bulky disc of a thing that makes Ben and Luke’s initial doubts understandable (though this is maybe not a feeling that translates well into the new generation, given how the Falcon is now the most beloved ship in the entire fandom). Even once they’re off that planet, the only other major locations in the film are either the clearly unstable Rebel Base looking more commandeered than fixtured within the ruins they seek quarter in and the Death Star. And my oh my does the Death Star look sterile and unwelcoming from the aged chrome that surrounds its hallways from top to bottom to the very designs of its space Nazi rebels, not least of all Vader himself sweeping through corners in a towering posture as Jones gives cold delivery to every single word he utters as he crushes throats in midair with the power of the Force.

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It’s a miracle the film works so well as unambiguous entertainment despite living in a world that’s not as fascinated with its own existence as we are, thanks to John Barry probably deciding to use the limited budget 20th Century Fox afforded this project to avoid glamorizing the futurism Lucas and producer Gary Kurtz envisioned and cinematographer Gilbert Taylor refusing to ease up on the grain of the film stock, practically timestamping it within 1977. And I’m sure Barry had more budget to work with than costume designer Michael Kaplan, who wisely knew how to use the texture and shade of the rags he put atop of most of the characters to signify their humble beginnings (and of course Leia doesn’t have a complex costume herself and yet the clean clarity of her white dress tells all about her hierarchy above our plucky heroes) while color-coding the alignments of our cast into good whites and evil blacks (with Vader the blackest of all, practically shining with a shadow of a cape following him). And of course, Tatooine wouldn’t be transformed without the landscape shots of second-unit photographers being the accomplished soon-to-be-household names of Tak Fujitmoto and Carole Ballard.

But my oh my, here I am establishing how accomplished visually Star Wars is as a production and I never truly got around to talking about how amazing it sounded. Because if there’s one name more attached to Star Wars than anybody except Lucas himself, it’s the incredible composer John Williams and Williams takes this opportunity to truly put the “opera” in “space opera”. Even against the “Master of Manipulative Schmaltz” Steven Spielberg, the music Williams puts into Star Wars might very well qualify as the most audience-directing work he’s done in his entire career, largely through the not-so-secret weapon of leitmotifs he adopted from the structure of operas so that we could quickly associate certain musical phrases with characters and events so that when they pop up now and again we have a sort of mapping of emotions and thoughts to guide us through story beats. Remember that duel suns thing I mentioned above and how mundane it is: we know that because of Luke’s emotions in the scene prior, the way he’s unimpressed with everything, and frankly the lack of emotiveness to Hamill’s look at the sunrise but Williams is not telling us that’s what the moment is: he’s all about driving the longing of the horizon deep into the heart of the viewer with his famous “binary sunset” theme and by god does it overpower us anyway alongside the fact that Luke may have seen a binary sunset before, but we sure as hell haven’t.

And even after Williams is the soundscape Ben Burtt designed for this universe. R2-D2 for instance famously only speaks in beeps and whistles (C-3PO is the anglicized one of the pairing) and Burtt’s intuitive enough about the range of sounds to give R2 a true identity and personality enough to recognize him as a little trouble-maker full of energy is a miracle of character creation simply from knowing what sounds can communicate that. Or the lasers, not least of which the trance-like neutrality of the fucking laser sword lightsabers or the excitement of the crackling and spitting those things make when they’re in contact, something to make the otherwise frankly boring battle between Vader and Ben feel more violent and charged. Burtt and Williams collectively are the best things Star Wars have going for it and the unsung creators of an audial world that allowed already transporting visuals to occupy our hearts in a primal invisible way, answering why 1/4 of its 6 Oscars went for its sound and music (the others being Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Visual Effects, and Best Film Editing).

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Which leaves the misfortune of having to recognize that these accomplishments in craft are given the task of carrying less than stellar writing and acting. The writing itself is easier to pinpoint. It is the opinion of yours truly that the scripts of every Star Wars film are always the weakest link and the 1977 original certainly gave a decent enough jump start to that tradition, but its adherence to the cliché Hero’s Journey of Campbell that Lucas espoused so highly is hardly criminal in itself and it’s certainly a broad line for which Williams to follow and amplify through his music. It’s the dialogue: excusable maybe to those who have no problems with in-universe kludges of proper nouns, but it’s all chewy and clunky when the cast has to use those nouns and unsubtle direct plot-plodding when they don’t. The fact that the majority of the cast feel unconvinced with the diatribes on the Force and the Empire that they have to deliver makes it all so much less believable and truly makes Williams’ work cut out for him.

Which may as well segue to the cast, but at least they do have their high points: for one thing, Cushing’s gaunt grey-haired skull-like visage already does well enough to communicate his somber wickedness and then he has to add a sort of smacking sneer to his threats and interrogations that blow my mind how he can accomplish that without even the shadow of a smile cracking. Then there’s all the non-verbal characters: Mayhew and Baker able to use body language in their limited roles to feel friendly and in some cases scene-stealing. And while I understand Guinness’ famous hatred of Star Wars, he’s frankly one of the best actors in the world and can turn even a expositioning old man like Ben into a viable source of guidance to what our heroes objectives are and the possibilities they can achieve with the help of the force. And frankly, between Guinness here and Hamill in the later film The Last Jedi, it’s quite possible that cynical jaded actors who have doubt about the direction of their characters make for the best aged and tired performances of long-lost heroes trying to prepare their successors for what is to come.

Sadly, Hamill does not accomplish anything as brilliant as The Last Jedi here: he is frankly wan and whiny in a petulant off-putting way, like a grown child that doesn’t make for a compelling surrogate to the audience. And meanwhile, none of his major co-stars Ford or Fisher do as well either: Fisher’s pronunciation of words between her teeth is so naggingly conscious that it feels like a college freshman trying to do an overexaggerated British accent on stage and Ford’s cockiness is quite honestly the best out of the three but doesn’t sell one bit on the moral ambiguity we’re supposed to buy from the character before his big saving return in the climax through the trenches. I’d probably prefer to say more about their performances when I get to the sequels where they improve significantly, because wallowing in a trio of amateur actors at the beginning of their careers feels quite mean.

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Let’s instead return to what makes me high off of Star Wars and choose the afore-mentioned trench run climax as a brilliant metaphor to how the experience of Star Wars shakes me as a viewer. Luke’s rushing through all these details surrounding him deep on the surface of the Death Star and there’s so much thought put into their construction and grounding them all within the same universe and yet he barely recognizes them nor do we. We’re just on the ecstasy of the speed in which we’re exploring this surface towards our destination. Meanwhile, three crooked looking eyeball-esque TIE fighters are on his tail with Vader closing in and it brings a sense of danger and urgency to scene beyond everything else. And then there’s the moment where we hear Guinness’ warm voice calm Luke and us down and re-assure us that this is a story where we know the ending and that the good guys will prevail, the certainty that gives Luke confidence to abandon the missile-guiding system, the cheeriness that accompanies Solo’s entrance as he gets the TIE fighters off of Luke, and most of all the exhilaration we have at witnessing Luke make a bullseye at the ventilation shaft, punctuated by the explosive blast of the Death Star’s destruction just as Luke zooms away.

So many different emotions communicated to us at lightning speed thanks to the factors all collected and arranged by the editors Marcia Lucas (George’s former wife), Paul Hirsch, and Richard Chew. And all with the trust and direction of Lucas, a man who probably later on invited ridicule for his overwhelming inability to tell a complex or nuanced story, but for now carried an ambitious desire to create some semblance of new worlds, even out of a limited number of locations and none of them as fantastical as one would think, and transport us there. And frankly, Star Wars isn’t a story that needs nuance or complexity. The attempt to input it feels like the failing of most Star Wars movies I’m not fond of. Sometimes, you can provide intelligent popcorn cinema simply by trusting the sounds and designs to magnify the emotions the story can barely give us and Star Wars does that in such a kinetic way that I can’t imagine how anybody could leave it feeling unstimulated.

It lifts me up and takes me back a long long time ago in a galaxy far far away.

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Actually, Chewbacca deserves a medal. Fuck this movie, it’s the worst.