Category Archives: Action Films

‘Rogue One’ explosive but lacks soul

Are you ready for a “Star Wars” movie every year until the end of time? Disney is. After rebooting the franchise last year with “The Force Awakens”, the next film in the series deviates from the Skywalker storyline and focuses on a Rebellion troop who manage to secure the plans for the Death Star and deliver them to Princess Leia.

The story follows Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a renegade whose father, Galen (Mad Mikkelsen), was forced to build the Death Star by the Empire. Meeting up with Cassian (Diego Luna), a member of the Rebel Alliance and a few other allies, she intercepts a message from Galen that contains information on how to destroy the weapon. She and her team must retrieve the plans before the superweapon is operational.

The action is strong and exciting, the last thirty or so minutes of the film a breakneck war film that recalls memories of “Saving Private Ryan” and “The Dirty Dozen.” It is refreshing to see a darker tone and something a little bit different.

However, when confronted with a story where the audience pretty much knows the ending, the filmmakers have to establish a basis for the audience to care. That starts with strong and empathetic characters, but there is nothing particularly compelling about Jyn. The story is a simple stop-the-bad-guys type of affair, which by itself is pretty boring. Jyn and her rebel friends really need something to drive them internally.

For example, take a look at “Guardians of the Galaxy.” The film’s conclusion is about an army trying to save a planet from a warlord trying to destroy it, but that is not really what it’s about it. It’s about a team of losers who have been alone for so long and have found friendship and are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice for each other. We are given time to really know them and to understand their fears and desires, what has held them back, what they want in life and they build off each other.

In “Rogue One”, we are rushed through from scene to scene, never quite identifying with Jyn or Chirrut (Donnie Yen) or Saw Gerrera (Forrest Whitaker) or any particular character. We don’t really understand their past or why they are fighting for the Rebellion so the resolution to the story lacks meaning and emotional punch.

Perhaps Jyn’s father was a loyal Imperial and she has to correct his evil deeds (similar to Luke in “Return of the Jedi”). Or she has been running her entire life from responsibility and ditches the fight only to be lured back at the end (similar to Han in “A New Hope”). Perhaps Cassian was a stormtrooper who couldn’t stand the killing anymore. Perhaps Chirrut and Baze (Wen Jiang) lose their home to the Empire after it begins ethnic cleansing and want to take revenge. We just need a little backstory to care.

It’s a shame because there is so much that “Rogue One” does right. It’s direction and visual style are strong, it’s action scenes are top-notch, the premise is precise and interesting and it elaborates on the “Star Wars” mythos. But without a heart behind it all, it is just a pretty facade.

‘Interstellar’ gets most of it right

What are the limits of mankind’s ingenuity? Can we understand the forces that exist in the universe? Is our capacity to feel love quantifiable in the vastness of space and time?

Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar examines not only our role in the cosmos, but how our emotions influence science and vice versa. It tells the story of Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), a former astronaut who has been forced to become a farmer like everyone else since the world’s problems (climate change, overpopulation) have rendered the globe a wasteland. He has to leave his home and his daughter, Murph (played by Mackenzie Foy, Jessica Chastain, and Ellen Burstyn as time fluctuates), to go on a last-chance-for-mankind space mission to discover another planet for humanity to live on. Organized by Professor Brand (Michael Caine), the crew consists of his daughter (Anne Hathaway) as well as a couple of others.


The film is really an exploration into the bond of parent-child and how much that bond can be tested over the course a lifetime. Through wormholes and gravity-induced time suppressing, Cooper tests his own limits and must decide which is more important: the immediate love of his family or the future of the human race. It is an interesting dilemma (even if it is just an expanded episode of Lost in Space), but one that is unnecessarily hammered into the viewer rather than allowed to develop naturally. The story is also bogged down by unnecessary explanation of scientific theory (similar to Nolan’s issue in Inception (2010)), slowing the pace of the story and expanding the runtime (the film clocking in at almost three hours). Rather than try to explain every little detail of fifth-dimension travel and time-space continuum, the film should just let the actions of the characters and the environment speak for themselves. A common problem across cinema today is filmmakers not trusting the audience to just go along with the ride, thinking that everything needs to be explained in order for the viewer to appreciate the story. Just showing the action and letting the audience come to their own conclusions rewards our ingenuity and keeps the plot moving.
Though clunky at times and confusing at others, the film is emotionally resonant and never lacks in dramatic tension after a ponderous opening act. One of the criticisms often levied against Nolan’s films is that they are cold and detached, a critique often hurled at Kubrick as well, neither of them true. Nolan counters those naysayers with his latest offering, with McConaughey letting the tears flow and showing his agonizing struggle, perhaps too much at times.
The emotional core relationship between him and Murphy keeps all the other elements in check, providing the audience with something to hold onto. Even though it becomes somewhat overdone and soap opera-ish at times, without it, the stunning visuals would go nowhere. This is the same structure that Nolan has used throughout his career, firmly establishing a core emotional struggle (giving hope to the people of Gotham in The Dark Knight (2008), rectifying Cobb’s guilt in Inception, figuring out the identity of the killer in Memento (2001)) that grounds the film even as elements of the story become incoherent and confusing.

Though one of his weakest entries in some years, for those audience members who appreciate Nolan’s efforts, the film will be a satisfying space journey about a man trying to save the human race and his family. For those who can not get past the gaps in logic and somewhat pedestrian dialogue that have become common in his work, this is an adventure best left unexplored. For this viewer, the good outweighs the hokey.

‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ one for the ages

At first glance, another Mad Max movie feels like Hollywood just reaching deeper into the apple barrel looking for more franchises to bring back from the dead. So what should an audience member expect from a film whose last entry was 30 years ago? Few would expect one of the best action movies of all-time.

The film starts in the middle of dystopia, the earth a desolate wasteland with few survivors. These survivors quickly organize themselves into gangs of biker-riding, flame throwing hooligans intent on waging war against each other and securing the most precious of resources: food, water, milk, gasoline and fertile women. Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne) is the leader of one particular faction, having taken a number of wives.. These women however are stolen from him by Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron) who intends on taking them to a promised green land where they will be free from his rule.  Caught in the middle of this storm ,and just trying to survive, Max (Tom Hardy) finds himself forced into helping the freedom seeking women out of necessity.

The first thirty minutes of the film are nearly flawless, the camera seemingly delving straight into Max’s subconscious as the shots are quick, the effects loud and the score thundering. There is barely any dialogue as we are led into the realm of these road warriors as they pillage at a frantic pace yet the story is still conveyed to us dramatically.

Director George Miller, having directed the other Mad Max films, returns to the franchise seemingly determined to use modern technology to create the dystopia that he never could in the 1980s. Special adoration must also be given to editor Margaret Sixel, cinematographer John Seale and composer Junkie XL for creating such a strong cinematic environment.

The action scenes are so wonderfully done that you forgive the filmmakers for their occasional bloatedness. The combination of stunts, ingenuity and occasional CGI effects create breathtaking sequences.

Mad Max: Fury Road may be Hollywood again refusing to try anything new, but it is a breathtaking adventure film that should not only entertain fans of the original films, but the casual action film moviegoer. It is already an instant classic, one that people will reference for years and years.

‘Sicario’ a taut thriller

Often lost among all the talk about terrorism, gang violence and mass shootings is the fact that the United States is still fighting a drug war. Billions of federal and state dollars are being used to keep cocaine, heroin and other narcotics off our streets, and it has largely been forgotten in comparison to other policy matters. “Sicario”, directed by Denis Villeneuve, illuminates how that fight is taking place mostly in the shadows and without due process of law.

Idealistic FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is recruited to a special CIA task force by Matt Graver (Josh Brolin) after an IED kills two officers at her crime scene. She finds Alejandro Gillick (Benicio del Toro) also on the task force, but something seems off about him. After a confrontation in Juárez against the cartel, Kate discovers that the team is operating outside of the law as they seek to take down the architect of the fiasco, Manuel Diaz.

The film builds off the knowledge that the viewer already understands the roots of the drug trade. It expects you to view it with seasoned eyes. That makes the tension stronger as you know what will happen to naive Kate as you witness the lawlessness and disorder of the region. Chases, gun fights and executions are portrayed expertly. Blunt and del Toro shine. The film is an excellent example of setting the stage, laying the trap and delivering high quality action set pieces. It is not the most original film, but it delivers what it promises.

The film struggles a bit by trying to tie everything into its message of violence leading to more violence and America instigating carnage, but the film needn’t have bothered. The message comes through clear enough through the story itself. The destruction of innocence is a story that will never cease to interest us.

 

Could it Have Been Saved?- Man of Steel and Batman V Superman

Goodness gracious, where to begin? The tone is stone-cold dread, the characters are uninteresting and the camerawork and action are shoddy and incoherent. But this is Batman and Superman. The material is there for something great.

Looking at the implications of a standalone modern Superman film and a Batman versus Superman film, some fans will say that DC is rushing the story, and while that may be true, it does not mean two strong films could not have been made from their concepts. So how could Man of Steel and Batman V Superman have been saved? Let’s start with Man of Steel:

Man of Steel

  1. Make Clark Kent the central protagonist with real stakes and with deliberate choices in the film

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This is screenwriting 101, but was sorely lacking in the film. Basically, Clark Kent has too little to do with the actual narrative of the film. The events of the plot are initiated by his father, his adopted father, Lois Lane and Zod, leaving Clark pretty much as a puppet.

Taking away all the clutter, the narrative should focus on him, his character and his choices and should simply be this: Unsure of who he is, young Clark Kent, brimming with powers beyond his comprehension, wanders the world, searching for purpose, until he discovers a clue to his past that leads him to discover that he is the last descendant of an alien race. Listening to the guidance of the hologram of his father, Clark witnesses for himself firsthand the suffering of man and the need for a savior. He takes it upon himself to serve his adopted homeworld as a symbol of hope against evil.

Many complain about the tone being too dark in the film, and granted, that may indeed be a detriment, but it is not a film-killer. You can have a dark Superman film and have it be good, but you have to handle it well. What Snyder gave us in Man of Steel was simply darkness; you also need the light. You need ying to balance out yang in order to feel anything. Clark should see a world devastated by war and conflict, see people losing hope, and that could inspire him to give his very soul and identity towards a higher goal. That is a powerful sacrifice that should be examined, and it should start with Clark being the center of attention, driving the action and choosing his own destiny.

2. Themes: Establish the Idea of Gods and Make the Villain Essential to the Story

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The theme of Man of Steel is a little murky. Is it that mankind needs a protector (the destruction of Metropolis and Superman stopping Zod)? Is it that violent measures are sometimes necessary in a dangerous world (Superman killing Zod)? Is it that people are wary of a superpowered individual (arresting Superman and gaining the people’s trust)? What is the point of it all?

The focus should be on Superman and his relationship to Earth. Since it is established early on that Clark is an outcast looking to find his way, his quest should be fulfillment, finding a purpose. Everything that influences the plot should reflect that goal of his. For an example, look to the plot of the animated Hercules.

The theme would then be accepting the potential power of yourself to make your world better despite the road that got you there.

In act one, we would meet a young Clark Kent, raised by his parents in Smallville. He begins to show powers beyond what others believe possible, and he feels shunned. His father and mother tell him the truth: they discovered him in a strange ship no one has ever seen before.

At the beginning of act two, we find Clark traveling the world, from Kansas to Brazil to India to Russia, trying to find his place. Every now and then, he is forced to do something extraordinary, such as saving a family from a falling building, but in so doing, he has to keep moving because of other’s fear of him. His exploits draw the attention of a reporter, Lois Lane, who chronicles this “man of steel.” This is pretty similar to the film.

Also on his journey, he learns of the cruelty of man, meeting warlords and terrorists, stopping them when he can. Clark eventually discovers a clue to the Fortress of Solitude where he learns about his true nature and consults the hologram of his father. He wrestles with the realization that he will always be different from everyone else and the loneliness that comes with it, unsure of what to do.

In the background, sinister forces are at work, perhaps led by Lex Luthor with his own subplot. He is representative of the evil that man has in its midst.

At the midpoint, Clark finally meets and falls in love with Lois Lane, never letting on that he is the subject of her journalism piece. When he is forced to save her from something (a drug cartel, terrorists, etc.), he understands his purpose. Even though he is not of man, he is bound to them and will sacrifice his life for them if need be. He dons the cape and becomes Superman.

There are pieces of this sprinkled throughout Man of Steel, but they feel rushed so that the big fight at the end can occur or the excruciatingly long introductory Krypton sequence (all of which can simply go- it is not important to Clark’s journey). The importance is Superman’s journey into discovering his purpose and why he chooses to be that hero.

Once the world discovers him, people may fear him and his powers, unsure what to make of him. Luthor’s scheme of some kind of dastardliness gives Superman the chance to save the day, giving mankind a savior they have not seen in a millenia (there are plenty of Jesus references in the film and that is fine, but they can be less overt).

The biggest problem with Man of Steel is Zod and his entire storyline. Man of Steel never needed huge action set pieces and gigantic space battles. Zod hijacks the story away from Superman and his journey. Clark is trying to find himself, someone so different, the last of his kind, and at the end of the film, he has found himself. Zod as a villain is too complicated, attention-diverting and not a proper villain for an introduction to Superman. Luthor may not even need to be in there as he is also capable of stealing Superman’s thunder. Imagine if Superman simply tried to save the world we have now. Imagine if he tried to defeat terrorists or warlords and tried to give hope in a global sense.

From then, his entrance onto the world stage could invite all sorts of other super-powered individuals such as Wonder Woman, Darkseid and Aquaman. Perhaps Superman’s entrance changes the global dynamics of world power, elevating other superheroes who had been hiding out into the open.

I think Warner Bros. was confused as to how to make a Superman film that would appeal to modern audiences, much more jaded today than they were in the Christopher Reeves-era. They decided to go gritty and edgy and darker. Again, that does not equate a bad film, but they forgot or neglected to include the core of what has made Superman special for over 70 years: as spectators, we marvel at his powers as Superman, but as Clark Kent, we empathize with his inner loneliness. That dichotomy between man of steel and man of fears is endlessly fascinating, how one man so powerful could feel so weak. Man of Steel never attempted to go that deep, substituting action for heart. A laugh in a superhero movie never hurt anyone.

3. Make Everything Coherent and Build to Finale

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One last rebuke of Man of Steel that has somewhat been mentioned is its insistence on grandiose explosions and destruction. Zack Snyder seems to have an explosion fetish of some kind for the last 45 minutes of the film are non-stop action and devastation.

It is unfortunate that action is used to replace drama and heart. The greatest action battles and fight scenes are all pretty meaningless unless they are accompanied by real stakes in the character’s life. When Batman tries to save Gotham at the end of Batman Begins, he is not just trying to save a city, he is staking his ideal of the world, a world that can still be saved, against that of a militant organization. The fact that he was once a member of the same League of Shadows and allowed them to rise up again fuels the rage that drives him to stop Ra’s al Ghul. And the fight at the end lasts at most ten minutes, delivering just what is needed for the emotional punch to land.

Man of Steel on the other hand features Superman trying to save the world against a villain he has never really met. To top it off, he never actually saves any people other than Lois Lane, and their relationship is underdeveloped. To top it off, the battle lasts so long that it is the equivalent of a short bald man driving a fancy car as if to reassure himself that he’s something special, even though just about everyone can see that he’s lacking self-esteem. It’s not the length nor the intensity of fighting and explosions that creates audience empathy but the character’s journey to that point and his or her emotional stakes in the action. Man of Steel flashes brilliant nothingness at us for an obscene amount of time.

The climax should be heartfelt, with Superman’s quest of discovery in the balance, his need to be mankind’s savior the emotional crux. This moment should be built up to to achieve full dramatic value and should only last as long as it needs to.

Really, I could go on and on about everything wrong with Man of Steel because the list is nearly limitless. It is almost a perfect representation of everything wrong with the modern blockbuster. But let’s move on to another mess, Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice (right from the title, you knew something was wrong).

Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice

  1. Establish the Protagonist and Whose Story You Want to Tell

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Even buddy cop movies have a leading man. There is always a protagonist unless your film is a true-team movie (i.e. “The Battleship Potemkin”, “The Avengers”- though an argument can be made that Tony Stark is still the protagonist of a “The Avengers”). So it is that BvS needs a main character. The question the film never answers is; is it Batman or Superman?

The answer doesn’t come down to screentime or how many fight scenes there are, but to who drives the action of the story and who undergoes the emotional change through the course of the telling. Two characters can have journeys over the course of one story, but one should be the audience’s heart along the way.

But much like Man of Steel, we are left with nothing to really care for during the film. Neither Batman nor Superman is relatable. Neither of them has a true emotional arc. For all the fighting, talking of gods and whatnot, you still need the basic heart of a hero somewhere in here.

I would think that the protagonist would be Batman. Ben Affleck does a fine role as Bruce Wayne (though I can’t look at the screen and see ‘Bruce Wayne’, I see ‘Ben Affleck as Bruce Wayne’) and he seems actively concerned about the power of Superman. His desire to keep power in check is admirable and the fact that he is a little crazy (as Batman is) works. So the story should focus on him.

Superman can still be in it, but he should serve as a secondary character, an antagonist to Batman’s goals. Especially with the Man of Steel already having his own film, he could play second-fiddle in the narrative to Bruce Wayne. Bruce would then go through the emotional journey of not trusting Superman, to trusting him to perhaps saving his life at the near-expense of his own at the end. Their relationship can build. The climax should not be Batman V Superman, but it should be the act two climax. The confrontation could leave them both broken in some form (Superman by kryptonite, perhaps Bruce’s suit out of juice and stuck in it). This would then give them the opportunity to bond before saving the world from some other catastrophe (i.e. not Doomsday- that’s a whole other storyline for an entirely different film).

The execution of the relationship between the two characters in the film is pathetic. There needs to be development, they need to go from hating to liking back to hating etc. A good example of how something like this is done would be Toy Story. The foundation between Woody and Buzz starts off rocky, they are forced together towards a common goal, drift apart again and finally gain true friendship. They need to save each other, learn a bit about each other, stick up for one another. It’s development that Batman V Superman is missing, and it should be the heart of the film.

2. Stop With the Sequel-Bait

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Wonder Woman is here. So is Aquaman for a second. Flash? Green Lantern? They might appear at some point. It’s hard to keep track anymore with all the sequel-bait.

It’s become an epidemic in the Hollywood blockbuster. One film is never enough anymore. Each film is a prelude to another film which is a prelude to ten other films. The result are mediocre films bogged down by less dramatic plot points and subplots that do not serve the main story other than to advance a future film down the line (“Avengers: Age of Ultron” is very guilty of this).

Wonder Woman does not need to be in this movie. Nor really does Lex Luthor. Nor any of those other cameos. The story should only have as many characters as necessary to its plot. The Dark Knight Rises has many characters, but they all solve a purpose (mostly). X-Men Origins: Wolverine has many characters, but almost none of them serve a purpose. Batman V Superman has many characters, and most of them serve a purpose, but many don’t, and the film feels less because of it. It’s less impactful because it is cluttered in purpose. Batman should have a storyline. Superman should have a storyline. Characters that contribute to each of their storylines should be included. Anyone else should be excluded.

3. Focus on a Simple Story

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So now that we’ve cut away all the unnecessary bits and pieces and added an emotional arc between Batman and Superman, all you need now is a simple story to tie them together. It has to be more than Batman hates Superman because he’s dangerous. One of them actually has to be at fault for something so that that person can learn something over the course of the story.

If Batman is your protagonist, perhaps he views Superman as a dangerous weapon, tries to reason with him to no avail, has kryptonite developed just in case, but after repeated efforts, feels he has to take Superman down for the good of the planet. He has to view the situation as any of us would. We would try to handle the situation peacefully, try harder when that doesn’t work and then work towards drastic measures.

Perhaps Superman is recruited by the US government as a pawn to destroy rival governments (as in the graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns and this would also carry over themes from Man of Steel) and Batman hates that Superman can be used as a weapon of corrupt government officials. As he himself tries to clean up Gotham using whatever means necessary, it is rumored that the mayor of Gotham may call in Superman to deal with the bat menace. The two heroes can meet and have that pivotal conversation where they let each other know they won’t stop their duty. Perhaps Superman is plagued by self-doubt about confronting his friend Batman. Perhaps Batman feels the same way.

There needs to be something internal between the two characters that makes their choices have greater meaning. Two friends, pitted against each other, against the theme of devotion to the greater cause and godhood in the modern world. If only more of that was imbued into the narrative.

Summary

In conclusion, it’s hard to overstate just how much is wrong with Man of Steel and Batman V Superman. Character over action, internal growth, a commitment to story principles and climaxing drama… All of these things are necessary to create an engaging story. Zack Snyder’s films are superficial, uninteresting and nauseating. Warner Bros. is going down a poor road to generate profit and has sacrificed a great story.

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“The Force Awakens” solid, if familiar

For storytelling purposes, the “Star Wars” saga should be over. It should have ended with “Return of the Jedi” in 1983. That was a natural conclusion to the story with the destruction of evil, the redemption of a fallen character and the ascension of the hero. There really was no need for additional films.

But “Star Wars” is the most successful film franchise of all-time so the story will not end despite how natural its conclusion may be. There will be more and more. It’s a shame, but audiences are insatiable when it comes to this galaxy far, far away.

First came the prequels. They were awful. They contained everything that is wrong in today’s Hollywood: an overuse of CGI special effects, a lack of storytelling and character development, an assembly-line production that never hints at any goal other than profit.

But fans still went to see them in record droves which only meant that there would be more films. “Star Wars” may have lost its magic in the digital age, but it has not lost its money-making power.

So it is that we receive Episode VII: “The Force Awakens.” Expectations were sky high (which they should not have been after the disaster of the prequels). George Lucas had sidestepped his throne to the next generation, starting with J.J. Abrams, one of the fanboys who fell in love with the original films.

And amazingly the film delivers. Despite the fact that it is not necessary, that expectations are too high, that it is still purely a money-making machine rather than a storytelling experience, the film is an exciting adventure that utilizes character, reverence and nostalgia (though perhaps too much).

Needless to say, there will be more Star Wars films, there will be more toys and promotions and products, there will be more everything. But if the films can continue to reach this level of semi-competence, this level of pop art, it won’t be the end of the world.

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SPOILERS

“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after the events of “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker is missing and the shards of the old rebellion and the old empire are fighting once again (now called the First Order and the Resistance). It is somewhat confusing who is in charge of what and where everyone is, but that is beside the point. They are fighting, one is evil, one is good, move on.

There is a map to Luke stored on the drive to a BB-8 droid who is left on the planet Jakku after his master Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a Sith, and the First Order. The droid befriends young Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger, and they join up with Finn (John Boyega), an ex-stormtrooper. Together, they go to deliver the map to Luke to the Resistance.

While the prequels are stale and unfeeling, this film is nothing if not packed with emotion. Abrams and everyone in crew obviously love “Star Wars” and have created a film imbued with that love.  There is great attention to detail with many of the side characters, locations and gadgets having complexity and realness beyond the modern movie spectacle. It is a joy to see such adoration in every frame of the film.

However, the story suffers as it is a direct copy of Episode IV: “A New Hope.” Both films follow a young individual on a desert planet who befriends an R2 droid with secret information that needs to be returned to the good guys while the bad guys chase them. They both meet a potential love interest and are chased off the desert planet. They both befriend a scruffy, old, wise mentor from the previous saga (Obi-Wan/Han Solo) who ends up dying at the end of the film at the hand of his former pupil/son over a ravine while the heroes overlook the situation and shoot at the perpetrator. There’s a cantina scene in each where a character looks for a pilot. There’s a menacing creature that the heroes need to escape from (trash compactor creature/ranthars). There’s a confrontation involving X-Wings sent to destroy an evil space station that has already destroyed a planet. There in fact seems to be very little that’s new in the film at all.

Granted, there can be some allusions to the plot of the franchise’s first film to tie everything together, but at a certain point, the repetition gets to be a little too much, especially in regards to the Death Star-esque weapon and confrontation at the film’s conclusion. It would be nice if Episode VIII left the nostalgia at the door and presented a unique, new story, devoid of similar plot references. Otherwise it will feel like just another cashgrab based on nostalgia and sentimentality.

And personally, it would have been nice for few if any of the original characters to make an appearance as Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher all seem a little long in the tooth for this type of movie. Perhaps just the character of Luke Skywalker was all that was needed to tie in this saga with the previous as Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren are all engaging, interesting characters who could have carried the film themselves. All that needed to be mentioned about Han or Leia or R2-D2 is that they lived happily ever after or died in some explosion or something that ended their story so that a new cast of characters could get their narrative without being bogged down by the previous trilogy’s characters.

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So there will be more “Star Wars” films. One every year for the foreseeable future in fact. There will be product tie-ins, film spin-offs, excessive merchandising and a gluttony of fan tributes and speculation. It is the greatest film juggernaut of all-time, seemingly a religion for some people, and though “The Force Awakens” plays it a little too safe, it is fun, it is adventuresome, it avoids so many of the problems that plagued the prequels, and it is far better than many other blockbusters released over the last few years.

If the films can continue to be this engaging, the marketing will be easier to stomach.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies a Mess

Peter Jackson has finally finished The Hobbit series, a series that pretty much everyone knew beforehand should have been at most two films. As the third entry ends, everyone’s worst fears were vindicated. This was too long, too monotonous with too much shoved in to create three films from what should have been a very simple story.

The film begins exactly where the last left off, the evil dragon Smaug (voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch) intent on destroying Laketown. After his demise, the kingdom of Erebor, long sought by Thorin (Richard Armitage) and his company, is up for grabs, with orcs and men and elves and dwarfs all converging in one climactic battle. This battle consumes most of the film, but with no real characters of consequence other than Bard (Luke Evans) involved, there’s not a lot to be emotionally involved with, and the overabundance of CGI effects (in stark contrast to the first trilogy, which heavily used effects, but in conjunction with actual props and locations) renders the spectacle more tedious than thrilling. In much the same vein as the reviled prequel Star Wars trilogy (1999-2005), Jackson has sacrificed emotion at the expense of attempting to create awe, but awe is created with a blending of grand spectacle combined with concern for characters. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in The Two Towers (2002) was immersive in scope, a grand attack on a large scale, but at its heart was a concern for the people of Rohan, our heroes laying everything on the line in a last desperate attempt to save humanity. The Battle of the Five Armies has several random armies fighting for gold and jewels and strategic advantage. With Bilbo, Thorn and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) pretty much on the sidelines, there is not a lot to care for. Bilbo needed more to do, with more of a stake in the events surrounding him, for an audience to care.

The entire series has suffered from a lack of direction, torn between adoration for the original trilogy with its hardened war analogies, and Tolkien‘s original novel, more whimsical and youth-based. For every scene where the dwarfs are in danger of being eaten by trolls (youth), there is a gory battle scene involving orcs and decapitation. The lack of a cohesive vision has hurt the series overall, giving it no real identity. Audiences can only wonder what originally-planned director’s Guillermo del Toro’s films would have been like. A new director with a new style may have served the story well, differing in tone from the first trilogy while still fitting into the same Tolkien world.

Somewhere hidden in this mess of forced romances, overlong battles and dismissive comic relief (the character of Alfrid is not only not funny, he is downright painful to watch) lies a pretty good four hour film, similar in scope to Lawrence of Arabia (1962) epic. Perhaps some fan edit will give us the Hobbit film audiences deserve. What Jackson and company have given us however are three films that pretend to deliver heart, but abuse that sentiment under an avalanche of CGI nonsense and subplots that offer nothing to the tale of Bilbo (Martin Freeman), the supposed protagonist who is often relegated to secondary status, the single worst sin by the filmmakers. Bilbo’s tale, and his relationship to Thorin and the other dwarfs, should have been the heart of the film. What we have instead is a mess.