Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

If this movie was not related to Star Wars I would never probably had even watched it. And that probably goes for everyone else too. The fourth installment in the Star Wars saga (but the first one on the actual timeline of the series), was met with cheers and applause from die-hard fans of the series on release. It took until much later for the rose-colored glasses to come off and see it as the film it actually is. The bland performances, the odd juxtaposition of Jar-Jar Binks with the main cast for comic relief, and Jake Lloyd. That didn’t matter though, it was the sixteen year return of possibly the most famous and most profitable franchise of all time. In other words, there was little to no way that it would not be loved by hard-core fans on release.

This Complete Saga marathon that I started two years ago, with the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) has made me realize that with every re-watch, Phantom Menace gets worse. I get more and more bored with the world that George Lucas creates and the story he tells in this picture. You can only take so much of the podracing scene before it becomes just ugly computer-generated effects and tonally more similar to the go-kart race in Little Rascals (1994) rather than anything resembling Star Wars. Or, the way that everyone in this movie acts so lifeless and monotone which isn’t necessarily their fault more of the workings of Lucas’ directing. In fact, the only character who even shows any sign of life in them is Jake Lloyd’s tiresome portrayal of young Anakin Skywalker. Lloyd’s performance was so notoriously disliked in fact, that he claimed that his role “ruined his childhood”.  Nonetheless, his performance is quite grating. Although, Lloyd’s delivery of lines such as “Now this is podracing!” and “My name is Anakin and I’m a person!” can only be so much his fault rather than Lucas’ poor dialogue. It just makes it a little hard to believe that the same person delivering all those lines is also the same individual that will slaughter innocent children. Jar Jar Binks (Ahmed Best) was included into the story to provide that comedic edge to the stories, the way that C-3PO was in the Original Trilogy. Except, 3PO was a sidekick to R2-D2 which is what made him work for comedic purposes. The bickering between the two characters helped keep the comedy from being too in-your-face. Both characters were also isolated in the background many times which helped separate the two tones of those films (A New Hope, Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.) . Binks on the other hand, is not a sidekick, but just a lone bumbling idiot who shouts catchphrases and my have been planned to be a sith lord in subsequent films him doing all this while the on many times the main cast does not acknowledge him many times. Nonetheless, Lucas understood his mistake it seems and dialed back his character in Attack of the Clones (2002) and The Revenge of the Sith (2005).

For all of The Phantom Menace’s shortcomings, one of the things that at least makes watching this movie not entirely a dull experience is John William’s score. “Duel of the Fates” may just be my favorite song from any Star Wars movie. The lightsaber battles are also much better than the prequels thanks to the new special effects that are utilized. In the final battle, Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) battle Sith Lord Darth Maul (Ray Park) and it is a spectacular sequence that almost makes you forget about how long it took to lead up to that scene. Some of the character design in this movie (and all the prequels in fact) is pretty awesome. As a child, Darth Maul was my favorite character because of his imposing design and his double-bladed lightsaber. Before the prequels, there were no other Jedi introduced in the films other than, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Yoda (Frank Oz), and Obi Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). One of the positives of these movies were the introduction of new and interesting Jedi such as Ki-Adi-Mundi (Silas Carson) and Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson). There were many interesting set pieces and characters set up to be later explored in the subsequent movies, books, and video games.

When I was in elementary school, I loved Star Wars above anything else. Funny enough, The Phantom Menace was my favorite movie out of the five that I had seen (my parents didn’t allow me to watch Revenge of the Sith due to its PG-13 rating). I think it was because of that I wanted to become a Jedi like Anakin. Me being a child, felt like I could relate to his character. I was also fine with Jar Jar Binks and he never seemed to annoy me, but I never remember laughing at anything he did unironically. I also thought the overuse of CGI was pretty awesome and always kept me interested because it resembled video games so closely. All of these points leads me to believe that The Phantom Menace was made with mainly children in mind. The merchandising for this movie was insane and helped add to the grandiose marketing campaign that this movie had. For all it’s shortcomings, The Phantom Menace will always be remembered in cinematic history for the massive cultural event that it was, and the massive disappointment that followed it.

Note: This short 15 minute documentary explains the whole Phantom Menace phenomenon better than even my words can describe

Justice League (2017)

★★

Justice League is a Frankenstein of a film. A movie that seems to be fighting for its own identity. At some moments having Joss Whedon’s comedic writing and bright colors and at others, going back to the gritty and grim Zack Snyder-ized DC. Though, somehow it never seems to be boring. I think that would be quite hard to do actually, considering how many plot lines were crammed into a two hour movie.

I just want to say sorry to Marvel Studios (and Cate Blanchett) for criticizing Hela’s character and purpose in my Thor: Ragnarok (2017) review. Justice League‘s villain, Steppenwolf (Ciarán Hinds) is so jammed into this movie that he feels like a joke. Closely resembling the features of other DC antagonist, Ares from this year’s Wonder Woman. If Warner Brothers publicly announced that Steppenwolf was created to be a satire of stereotypical comic book movie villains I would believe them. He ticks all the boxes. He shoots blue portals into the sky sometimes, has evil minions, and has little character past just being “bad” and doing “bad stuff”.

The actual Justice League made me more excited for what was to come rather than what I was actually watching. Aquaman (Jason Momoa) was a pretty solid character and my personal favorite of the crew. Momoa’s portrayal of the character was a tough and playful “dude-bro” that gelled well with the angle that they were going at for his character. I will be highly anticipating James Wan’s Aquaman when it releases late next year. Ezra Miller as The Flash was also a stand-out character. The character gave Whedon a chance to write a couple funny jokes. Cyborg (Ray Fisher) was the weakest new character introduced in this film. He was not the funny and charming incarnation seen in Teen Titans but more of an angsty character (topped off with really bad CG). As far as the three characters that were already introduced. Superman (Henry Cavill) had a weird and creepy half-CG face, Batman (Ben Affleck) was an old man, and Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) was still a badass. Jeremy Irons’ incarnation of Alfred also felt much more fleshed-out than in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016).

Since three out of the six members of the Justice League have to be introduced in this movie. You can assume that the pacing feels rushed. Well you would have assumed right. Everything is all over the place and exposition is just casually thrown around. Without getting into spoiler territory, there are many other things going on and it just feels too excessive for something that could be much more straightforward. The funny thing is, that Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice was attempting to set up and introduce the Justice League but it was done so poorly that I guess Warner Brothers felt like it was necessary to do it in a more formal fashion.

The CGI in this movie may not be the best, but the fight scenes are pretty enjoyable. As long as you ignore why they are happening that is. Any time that Wonder Woman fights someone or that part at the end where they all team up and fight Steppenwolf (remember, it’s not a spoiler if you know it’s going to happen) was so corny but it is hard to hate it because of how hokey it was played off as. The cinematography was standard Zack Snyder fare. Very dark sets and large wide shots. Some of these shots were even color-corrected in post to look brighter and it fits about as well as Slipknot fit in Suicide Squad (2016).

I can’t say I was disappointed with Justice League. After hearing about the production issues over the past year, I expected it to be much worse than the final product It is a movie that is bad but not in the nearly unwatchable way that David Ayer’s Suicide Squad was. It is dumb and mindless fun that I am unsure if it is self-aware with how messy and tonally uneven it is. Watching it with other people in the theater is not the way to watch this movie however, I would say wait until it gets released on Blu-ray or streaming, get some friends together, and have a good laugh. You can only laugh and talk your friends so loud in a movie theater but in the comfort of your own home that is not an issue.

 

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

★★★

I felt disappointed after getting out of Thor: Ragnarok. I at least thought, that this one would be different from the other, more forgettable entries in the Thor series. With Taika Waititi directing, there were examples of his cool art direction, with the 80s infused setting (and awesome synth-y soundtrack) of the planet Sakaar. There was a lot to love in that aspect. What I found to be underwhelming mainly, was the waste of Hela (Cate Blanchett) as the villain and the wasted potential of exploring Sakaar.

Oh no! Asgard is going to get destroyed! Wait a minute, haven’t we already done this before? Because it sure seems like it. Now this time, Hela the Goddess of Death is the person threatening the people of Asgard. Sadly, Blanchett was wasted in the role. Just like mostly all of the Marvel baddies she is equally as forgettable. Her mere existence as a character is what takes away from the enjoyable parts of the movie. Since Thor is banished to Sakaar, whilst attempting to race back to Asgard before the Goddess of Death threatens other realms. My main issue and question with the story is: Why didn’t the whole movie just take place on Sakaar? Instead of Thor (Chris Hemsworth) having to race back home to fight a generic villain having him arrive back to Asgard would have been substantial. Especially with a gladiator arena thrown into the mix.

Hulk and Thor do in fact, fight in the gladiator arena and it is probably the best part of the film. One of the things I was most excited for was how the relationship between Thor and Bruce Banner/the Hulk (Mark Ruffalo) was going to be handled and portrayed. There were some terrific character building moments, such as when Hulk and Thor are talking to each other for the first time in years. However, I left Thor: Ragnarok wanting more out of the chemistry between the two characters. For other characters, Jeff Goldblum as the Grandmaster of Sakaar was great casting. Goldblum’s odd delivery of the lines provides some great comedy. Just as equally funny with his delivery was director Taika Waititi’s portrayal of Korg, the gentle rock-giant.

Even though the design of Sakaar was pretty great, I found the CGI to be lacking in some areas. I can sense it becoming dated soon. There were some points where it looked almost like it was done by a film student, rather than a professional that works in the film industry. Such as when walls and floors were smashed. It is unfortunate to see, since these movies are being produced at a rapid speed, they have to fill the scenes with CGI instead of at least some set pieces and miniatures that would help ground the film and not make it look as artificial as it does at some points in the movie.

My overall disappointment with Thor: Ragnarok could have something to do with the past two Marvel Cinematic Universe movies setting the bar so high. Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) and Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)  had fun at changing up the standard Marvel formula. Offering solid villains and good pacing. Ragnarok on the other hand, is much more generic by MCU standards. It is, by no means a bad movie, but a passable one. It did not fully embrace the weirdness of the premise and setting which is why I found it to be lacking. It is still the best Thor movie however, which is not really saying much.

 

Downsizing (2017)

My favorite thing about film festivals is that you are able to catch some movies before they get a wide release and try to get the word out to people to go and see them when they do eventually reach theaters. However, Downsizing is the complete antithesis of that statement.

The trailer gives you hope. Hope that something will be done with this interesting concept. Alexander Payne has directed and written some fine films, such as, Sideways (2004) and Election (1999) to name a couple. Movies that tell interesting stories with interesting characters on a much smaller, more personal scale (no pun intended). Downsizing is completely different in that way. I think the idea could work, as people shrinking themselves down to five inches to save the environment Unfortunately, it lacks any direction whatsoever, characters are uninteresting, and the movie is boring.

The lack of any likable characters makes this movie even harder to get through. I haven’t seen Christoph Waltz wasted this badly since Spectre (2016). Matt Damon can not do comedy at all as well. All the characters are wasted, but nothing really can compare to the character Ngoc Lan Tran (Hong Chau). Chau plays a Vietnamese activist that sounds less like an actual person and more like Short Round from Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984). The comedic complexity and questionable racism of the character is that she sounds funny, which is fine, for the first minute or so. Afterwards, when you realize she is a going to be a main character, she becomes obnoxious fast. The best characters are the cameos in the movie. Notably, Laura Dern, Neil Patrick Harris and James Van Der Beek to name a few.

Do you like product placement? Not in the David Fincher way where it adds to the realism. Just overt Adam Sandler-esque product placement? Because if so Downsizing is a great fit for you! Paul Safranek (Matt Damon) works at Omaha Steaks and LL Bean, people eat at Olive Garden, Fed-Ex is mentioned a couple times, there is a giant Nabisco Saltine Cracker that is used to show Paul Safranek how small he became. All of this stuff is shoved in our faces in the worst way possible. Giving it that feeling like the reason why this is Payne’s most expensive feature yet is because of all the product placement that had to be done to get that money.

It could be said that Downsizing is satirical, but in order for that to be true the filmmakers would need to look up the definition of satire. The basic theme of Downsizing is about saving the environment. (I think?) The reason why I am unsure about that is because the way this is conveyed is about as well as Birdemic: Shock and Terror (2010) tries to preach about environmental awareness.

Downsizing is like a Saturday Night Live skit that goes on for two hours mixed with a half-baked attempt at satire. It doesn’t know what it wants to satirize but, by golly it attempts to. Alexander Payne is a talented director and I still can not comprehend how he is attached to this horrible film. If you like the idea of Matt Damon being small with little else to offer, then this is the film for you. Everyone else should avoid this film at all costs.      

 

Lady Bird (2017)

★★★★★

I find it difficult to think that I will discover a film this year that I will love more than Lady Bird. How it came at the right time in my life, wanting to break away from my home after college; applying to universities in cities that just really want to live in. It was almost as if Greta Gerwig was tapping into my own psyche while writing this movie.

Other than just the more personal connection I felt to the story. You don’t have to be a senior in High School worrying about your future to enjoy this movie. If you like coming-of-age movies and comedies, Lady Bird will not disappoint. The opening scene immediately grabs you in (not spoiling anything though), making you pay attention and laugh at the fiery and rebellious nature that Cynthia “Lady Bird” McPherson (Saoirse Ronan) emits. Her journey through the last year of high school is one trek that most of us will or have made at some point in our lives.

As far as Gerwig’s direction went, at some points of the movie I was getting a bit of a Wes Anderson vibe from certain shots. Which is not an insult but, I found it as an interesting stylistic decision on her part. I think Noah Baumbach, gave her helpful lessons on directing and she utilized them in a movie that shot-wise has no problems.

Lady Bird is one of the strongest directorial debuts I have seen in this decade. It makes me look forward to what Gerwig’s directing future will have to offer. With her Husband, Noah Baumbach being a great director as well, I look forward to seeing how they will both inspire each other through their separate directing careers.

 

Molly’s Game (2017)

★★★★

Molly’s Game or The Movie Where Jessica Chastain Wears a Lot of Dresses is Aaron Sorkin’s directorial debut, and is where he has full control for the first time over everything. If you’ve seen anything written by Sorkin you know what you are in for. Incredibly fast and sharp dialogue in situations that otherwise would most likely be boring if done by anyone else. The best way to describe Molly’s Game is, the most Sorkin-esque film yet.

If not for Jessica Chastain and Idris Elba’s performance as well as Sorkin’s dialogue, direction, as well as speedy editing; this would have probably made this nearly two-and-a-half hour movie a slog to get through. The opening of Molly’s Game is both action-packed and and also metaphorical for the course her life took. The expectation that the movie would start out with poker, which is how most would expect that to be the subject that is tackled first. Instead, this provides background to Molly Bloom (Jessica Chastain) as a character showing her strict upbringing by her father (Kevin Costner), and her determination. Leading into what the future held for her after that one skiing accident. The surprising thing however, is that Aaron Sorkin did not even want to direct the film at first. As he said in his Q and A following the screening. He had picked directors with the producers and both the directors selected had turned down the movie multiple times, both insisting that he should be the one to direct. This is surprising to discover, because I could not really picture anyone more perfect for this movie and am glad that he turned out to be the one for the job.

Molly’s Game tries to set the record straight. Portraying Molly Bloom as an intellectual, brilliant, and independent woman. Who just happened to be a victim of circumstance. Painting the reports in the tabloids to be false. Using the movie as factual evidence supporting her. Never boring us, but keeping us interested until the very end.

Frankenstein (1931)

★★★★★

And so here I am, exactly a week before going to see a screening of Benedict Cumberbatch perform Frankenstein. and it wasn’t until today that I actually watched the 1931 classic. At only 71 minutes, James Whale wastes no time establishing everything, making this a quick and atmospheric Halloween watch.

Even though I have never seen Frankenstein, I know everything about it, the plot, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”, and of course the monster (Boris Karloff). This film has, like Victor Frankenstein’s monster itself, stumbled into its legendary pop culture status. The strongest point of this movie other than Karloff’s performance, is the atmosphere which, for a movie made in 1931 still is impressive to look at. The editing and film making represent a different more primitive time in Hollywood. The abrupt editing of scenes and the over the top delivery from some characters. None of these things even come close to ruining this film. Why not? Because it is Frankenstein. Sure there have been more adaptations of the story but this is not one of them. It makes up for the awkward moments with the Gothic atmosphere, and the studio sets add to this making it seem more like a stage play if anything else.

Frankenstein has cemented itself in its legendary status is everything that came after it and the influence of it still shines bright through all horror films in some way and a good place to start for anyone looking to study the genre.

Hoop-Tober Film #7 of 35