Movie Review: Raya and the Last Dragon (2021)


Title: Raya and the Last Dragon
Release Date: March 5, 2021
Director: Don Hall and Carlos López Estrada
Production Company: Walt Disney Pictures | Walt Disney Animation Studios
Summary/Review:

Kumandra is an imaginary world based in Southeast Asian mythology and iconography, where humans are protected by dragons. Centuries prior to the events of the film, Kumandra is beset by the Druun, a kind of malevolent virus that turns people and dragons to stone.  The dragons put all their magic into a gem to help defeat the Druun and unfreeze the people, but the dragons remain frozen.  The people fight over the gem and form five warring nations named for parts of a dragon: Heart, Fang, Spine, Tail, and Talon.

Raya (Kelly Marie Tran) is raised by her father, Chief Benja (Daniel Dae Kim) of Heart, to protect the dragon gem.  Benja also dreams of reuniting Kumandra and hosts a summit of all five tribes in Heart.  Raya befriends the daughter of the Fang chief, Namaari (Gemma Chan), but is betrayed as Namaari only sought to gain her trust to gain access to the gem.  In the tussle over the gem, it breaks into five pieces and the Druun reemerge, turning many people to stone, including Benja.

It is up to Raya to find the last dragon and reunite the five pieces of the gem. She finds the dragon, Sisu (Awkwafina), early on in the film, who ends up being goofier and perhaps not quite as heroic as than the legends written about her.  Along their journey through the five lands, Raya and Sisu pick up a crew of misfits from each tribe, who work together to find all the pieces.  I’m particularly fond of Little Noi, the con baby (Thalia Tran).

The movie strikes a good balance of humor, drama, and action. Unlike many Walt Disney Animation Studios productions, Raya and the Last Dragon is neither a musical, nor a romance (although if anyone is writing Raya/Namaari fan fiction right now, they would have a good basis to do so).  I think this is the studio’s first attempt at High Fantasy since The Black Cauldron, and much better executed. If the tropes of High Fantasy are familiar and predictable, they are at least deployed in an interesting way. The animation is absolutely gorgeous and the imagination that goes into the world-building and creatures is terrific.  The message of learning to trust others can get heavy-handed at times, but also something we all need to be reminded of.

Raya and the Last Dragon is a worthy addition to the Disney animation canon.

Rating: ****

Book Review: Revenge of the Sith by Matthew Stover


Author: Matthew Stover
Title: Revenge of the Sith
Publication Info: Century (2005)
Summary/Review:

Continuing reading Star Wars novelizations with my daughter, we come to one of the best novels drawn from a rather mediocre movie. Stover has a highly literary style and inserts into scenes from the film the thoughts of the characters and has them remembering key moments in flashback.  The book is very character-driven and features frequent changes in point of view.  Villains like Count Dooku and General Grievous are interesting and even scary in ways that they aren’t in the movie.  There are also many revealing conversations.  While it makes for an engaging novel with great storytelling, I should note that it would translate into a far too long and dialogue-heavy movie.  (I still contend in hindsight that the prequels would be vastly improved by ditching The Phantom Menace and developing the plot and character points of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith over three films).

Rating: ****

Movie Review: Jurassic Park (1993)


Title: Jurassic Park
Release Date: June 11, 1993
Director: Steven Spielberg
Production Company: Amblin Entertainment
Summary/Review:

Well, I can scratch another movie off the list of movies that everyone has seen except me.  Decades ago, I picked up Michael Crichton’s novel and read it it one day despite the fact that I found it EXTREMELY stupid.  Thus I had no interest in seeing the movie adaptation.  But I saw it was available for a limited time on the new Peacock streaming app, so I finally decided to give it a chance.

As you must already know, Jurassic Park is the story of a dinosaurs brought back to life from DNA found in mosquitoes preserved in amber.  John Hammond (Richard Attenborough, in one of the best developed roles in the movie, managing to make an arrogant tycoon sympathetic) gathers the live dinos in the titular park on an island off Costa Rica.  In order to get assurances to his investors, he invites paleontologist Dr. Alan Grant (Sam Neill), paleobotanist Dr. Ellie Sattler (Laura Dern), and mathematician Dr. Ian Malcom (Jeff Goldblum) to preview the park and give it their endorsement. Hammond also sends his grandchildren Lex (Ariana Richards ) and Tim (Joseph Mazzello) as Tim Murphy on the trip.

Things, as you’d expect, go wrong.  Despite the important guests attending the demonstration, almost all the staff of Jurassic Park leave on a ship that very day for some unexplained reason, including the large security staff we see at the beginning of the film.  And, an intense (but brief) tropical storm strikes the island. And, computer programmer Dennis Nedry (Wayne Knight, in a cringe-worthy performance of a slovenly villain who actually constantly cackles) steals dinosaur embryos and sabotages the park’s computer system.  For some reason that makes no sense he also makes his escape by driving through the dinosaur enclosures and promptly gets eaten.  The hubris of cloning the dinosaurs should have been enough to have things go wrong without the layering of stupidity and coincidences that pepper this film’s plot.

I like Steven Spielberg, and this movie definitely reflects one of his strengths: realistic special effects that bring fantastical worlds to life.  I give points to the movie for doing that so well.  But Spielberg’s genius is usually found in the humanity of his film’s characters and their relationships.  Jaws is full of great, scary shark moments but it succeeds because Brody, Quint, and Hooper are such fully-realized characters and their camaraderie is the heart of the movie.

Jurassic Park doesn’t do this well at all. There are too many characters for one thing, and many of them are hastily sketched or pigeon-holed to serve one function. The relationship that grows among Alan, Tim, and Lex is one of the movies strengths, but even that is colored by the heavy-handed messaging that “Alan must learn to like children!” There were a lot of moments of forced “comic relief” that go over with a thud. Overall, I see a lot of missed opportunities for good character moments which is more disappointing than if they didn’t try at all.

I also thought that a couple incidents of the dinosaurs being shown to be sick was going to play a part in the resolution of the plot.  And what happened to the stolen embryos? Oh, and I recall that the dinosaurs reproducing was more significant to the plot of the book, whereas it really had no bearing on the plot of the movie. Maybe these threads are covered in the sequels, but I’m not exactly eager to rush out and watch them now, because this movie was not worth the wait.

Rating: **1/2

Movie Review: Tron (1982)


Title: Tron
Release Date: July 9, 1982
Director: Steven Lisberger
Production Company: Walt Disney Productions | Lisberger-Kushner Productions
Summary/Review:

I never saw Tron before even though I was in the key demographic for the movie when it was released. The movie is on the surface incomprehensible, but in reality it is the most basic of stories in which the good guys fight the bad guys for freedom.  It’s just layered under so much technobabble that it’s easy to feel that you’re missing something deeper.  There are some feints at having a message of fighting the dehumanizing affects of capitalism, but at the end the hero becomes the CEO of a tech company, so maybe not.

David Warner plays Dillinger, the evil tech company executive who shuts down access to the company’s mainframe to our hero program.  Warner also plays Sark, the personification of the command program within the computer. Both Dillinger and Sark are reluctantly subservient to the Master Control Program (MCP), the sentient operating system hell bent on world domination. Programmers Alan Bradley (Bruce Boxleitner) and Dr. Lora Baines (Cindy Morgan) want to regain access to their projects in the mainframe, so they bring in ex-employee-turned-video-arcade-operator Kevin Flynn (Jeff Bridges) to hack the system and expose evidence of Dillinger’s wrong-doing.  Flynn is almost instantly downloaded into the mainframe’s cyberspace.

Flynn must save and restore the cyberspace with the help of Alan’s security program named Tron (Boxleitner) and Lori’s input/output program Yori (Morgan).  The famous Tron lightcycles make for a great visual effect and set piece, but sadly are only a small part of the movie.  Much of the film is technobabble and characters moving from point to point to move the plot along.  Bridges plays his character as if he was Han Solo becoming a nerdy hacker.  The rest of the cast is kind of flat. I expect they were told to act like emotionless computer programs which is accurate but not very engaging.

Rating: **

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)


Title: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker
Release Date: December 20, 2019
Director: J. J. Abrams
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd. | Bad Robot Productions
Summary/Review:

Non-spoiler review: The ninth and (probably not) last installment in the Star Wars saga is a good but not great movie. In addition to being a step down from the classic movie that preceded it, The Rise of Skywalker fails to be a fully satisfying capstone to 42 years of galactic adventures. Viewed on its own terms, though, it’s an entertaining adventure that offers a new and different of Star Wars film while still allowing  favorite characters to shine and for moments that recall this series’ lore.

Rating: ***

Related Posts:

BEWARE! A HUTT-LOAD OF SPOILERS BELOW

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=83apjSbVV-o

Continue reading “Movie Review: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)”

Star Wars Film Festival: The Last Jedi (2017)


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of The Last Jedi, originally published December 22, 2017.

TitleStar Wars: The Last Jedi
Release Date: December 15, 2017
Director: Rian Johnson
Production Company: Lucasfilm Ltd./Walt Disney Studios
Motion Pictures
Summary/Review:

The Last Jedi is a movie that that defies all expectations a Star Wars film, or action-adventure films in general, deliberately undermining genre tropes again and again. Whatever movie you expected to see after watching The Force Awakens, or what you imagined about what would happen to the Rebellion after defeating the Empire when you watched the original trilogy when you were younger, or what you may have read in the extended universe books, or even what you saw in the trailer for The Last Jedi, this is not the movie you were expecting.

This movie feels like a spiritual sequel to Rogue One, as again and again we see people sacrifice themselves to save the Resistance, yet those sacrifices end up being ineffective and it is an open question whether the Resistance can survive the loss of so many lives. We see the Resistance begin with a large fleet and finish with just a handful of people aboard the Millennium Falcon. The First Order suffers heavy casualties too – losing Supreme Leader Snoke, Captain Phasma, and at least two enormous ships – but they seem unaffected, relentlessly continuing pursuit under the monomaniacal leadership of Kylo Ren.

The movie is steeped in failure.  Rey fails to convince Luke to join the Resistance.  Rey fails to convert Kylo Ren and Kylo Ren fails to convert Rey.  Vice Admiral Holdo, after being vindicated for her plan to rescue the fleet against the Poe’s mutiny, sees that plan fail too due to DJ’s treachery.  One of the major subplots of The Last Jedi, where Finn and Rose go to the casino at Canto Blight to get a codebreaker (and end up with DJ) turns out to be a MacGuffin ending in complete failure.  Albeit, the whole sequence is valuable because I live Finn and Rose and their blossoming friendship, and the scenes at Canto Blight introduce a part of the Star Wars galaxy we’ve never seen before, the disgusting inequality at the root of all these wars.  As Yoda says, “The greatest teacher, failure is.”

While much of the ongoing saga of Star Wars is steeped in the greatness of the Jedi, and the Skywalker family in particular, as wielders of the force, this film challenges the notion of the great hero entirely. Kylo Ren bluntly informs Rey that she doesn’t come from anyone special, her parents were ordinary people, and I believe he’s telling the truth.  The most egregious flaw of The Phantom Menace, that certain people have midichlorians that make them more sensitive to the Force, is condemned as a heresy against the Force which flows throw all living beings.  Once again, Rogue One is the model here.  Success does not come from waiting for a great hero but by ordinary people working together. Even when Luke Skywalker finally makes his stand against Kylo Ren and the First Order forces, it is not the heroic moment we’re expecting. But it’s the heroic moment we need, as does the Resistance.  Rose Tico says it best “This is how we’ll win. Not fighting what we hate … saving what we love.”

If there’s one major flaw to this movie is that it runs too long.  Not that there’s anything I could suggest that could be cut out. It almost feels as if this story could be made into an entire tv series, expanding on the great characters and deep themes.

I’ll have to see The Last Jedi again – preferable when I’m not with children who need to visit the bathroom frequently – but I think this a movie that will reward repeat viewings.  I like a movie that makes me think, and The Last Jedi is an action-adventure space opera that deeply considers the realities of the human condition in an imaginary galaxy far, far away.  That, for me, is filmmaking that puts The Last Jedi among the best of Star Wars movies and the best of films.

Some stray things I loved/admired from The Last Jedi:

  • Chewbacca becoming the perfect father figure for Rey
  • Admiral Ackbar died tragically as result of … a trap
  • Rose Tico is no one’s depiction of an action hero, but she’s awesome in every way
  • R2-D2 guilt-tripping Luke with the old hologram of Leia
  • Sassy dead Yoda living up his afterlife by teasing Luke for his dramatics
  • Laura Dern as Admiral Hold is fascinating in a relatively brief appearance. In of the great ways that The Last Jedi undermines our expectations, we identify with the “hero” Poe in his mutiny against what we’re lead to believe is Holdo as Captain Queeg, only to realize with Poe that she was right all along
  • Another great misdirection is Supreme Commander Snoke, built up to be the next big bad, but ending up to be a deformed creature lounging in a Hugh Hefner robe who gets cut down in his arrogance.
  • Seeing Gwendolyn Christie’s blue eye through the crack of Captain Phasma’s helmet just once before she plummeted to her death
  • The allusion to Hardware Wars. Just beautiful
  • There’s a lot of humor in this film that is not distracting but builds on the movies themes and characterization (unlike the cheap gags in the prequel trilogy)
  • Bite me, porg haters.  They’re hardly in the movie at all, and dammit they’re cute!
  • So many stunning visuals – Paige Tico in the bomber, Skellig Michael, Snoke’s chamber, the salt planet Crait
  • Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac all impressed in The Force Awakens and really knock it out of the park in The Last Jedi. One disappointment is that there’s very little time with Rey and Finn or Finn and Poe on screen together.  I hope the three of them get to team up for the next film
  • Luke and Leia’s reunion.  Perfect played and filmed.  It breaks my heart that neither Luke nor Leia will be in the next film (albeit Mark Hamill may return as a force ghost).
  • I don’t envy the filmmakers having to find someway to explain Leia’s absence in the next film. There doesn’t seem to be any good options that will be respectful to Carrie Fisher and Leia’s character.

Rating: ****1/2

 

Star Wars Film Festival: The Force Awakens (2015)


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of The Force Awakens, originally published February 20, 2016.

TitleStar Wars: The Force Awakens
Release Date: 2015
Director: J.J. Abrams
Summary/Review:

I was probably among the last people in the Star Wars-loving universe to see this movie, but it was worth the wait.  The Star Wars franchise is back in good standing with this movie that, yes, has great special effects and action sequences, but more importantly it has a good story, terrific acting, and heart.  While it was great that old favorites such as Han, Chewie, and Leia play an important role, I’m impressed with how the new characters Rey, Finn, and Poe slide so seamlessly into the Star Wars saga and the lead roles of the film.  And I’m really amazed by the acting ability of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega,  and Oscar Issac.  The future of Star Wars is in good hands and I look forward to the upcoming sequels and side projects.  While The Force Awakens isn’t quite good enough to unseat The Empire Strikes Back as the best Star Wars movie, I think it sits comfortable beside the original Star Wars in a tie for second.
Rating: ****1/2

Some Stray Post-Rewatch Thoughts:

  • The major criticism of The Force Awakens, repeated so often that its trite, is that it is a rehash of the first Star Wars film. People of made lists of similarities as proof, but I think that they miss the forest for the trees in their criticism, and thus the unique aspects of this movie including:
    • Rey is like Luke in that she is a young protagonist entering into a new world of galactic war and the use of the force. But unlike Luke who had a family support system, she is an orphan, abandoned as a child. She’s had to teach herself to work, fight, and survive and as a result is a more skilled and capable person than Luke. I think the “Rey is just Luke as a girl” argument misses the many fascinating details of her character.
    • Finn is unlike any character we’ve seen before. Stormtroopers in previous movies are literally faceless as we never see one remove their helmet in the original trilogy and they are clones in the prequel trilogy.  In Finn we have a character forced as a child to be a soldier choosing to leave that life behind because of its immorality.
    • People are disappointed that Han Solo has reverted to his youthful life as a smuggler seemingly negating the growth of the character in the original trilogy.  While it’s not overtly mentioned,it’s pretty obvious to me that Han is desperately looking for his best friend and brother-in-law, Luke, and using his skills as a smuggler as a means to that end.  And how anyone watch Harrison Ford’s performance in this film and deny the growth of the character, both in the original trilogy and in the intervening years offscreen, is beyond me.
    • The point of Star Wars (and in many ways Rogue One) is to destroy the Death Star.  Starkiller Base is a similar weapon to the Death Star and demonstrates how the First Order has come to rely on more firepower to compensate for the loss of the Empire’s widespread forces.  And yet it’s destruction is a minor subplot in the film, something so run of the mill that Han jokes “How do we blow it up?”  The real purpose of Starkiller Base is to add tension to our heroes duels with Kylo Ren and the question of how they will escape in time.

 

Star Wars Film Festival: Return of the Jedi (1983)p


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of Return of the Jedi, originally published February 29, 2016.

Title:  Return of the Jedi
Release Date: 1983
Director:  Richard Marquand
Summary/Review:

And so we conclude introducing the children to the classic trilogy of Star Wars films.  The kids enjoyed this and certainly got a lot more laughs than the previous two installments.  Return of the Jedi certainly does have more humor and a positive spirit of bonhomie that is a big tonal shift from Empire Strikes Back. On the other hand the Luke-Vader-Emperor scenes have an undertone of menace I didn’t catch as a child (although at least one of my kids was spooked). The portions at Jabba’s palace really creeped me out as a kid, and they’re still pretty creepy (I didn’t recall just how gruesome it is when Leia chokes Jabba to death)

Over the years, Return of the Jedi has gotten a bad rap, but I loved it as a kid and I think it still holds up.  People criticize the Ewoks, but dammit, I love the Ewoks.  Not only are they cute, but the whole success of the Rebellion hinges on the fact that the Emperor is too narrow to foresee that a small, non-human species will ally with the Rebels and turn the tide of the battle.  

Of all the changes made for the Special Editions, this one fares the worst in my opinion.  Give me back my Ewok celebration song and the ghost of Sebastian Shaw! All things considered, it was a delight to revisit this series of childhood memories with my own kids.

Some stray post-rewatch thoughts:

  • In the prequels, Palpatine has a charming public persona and he even plays his “deformity” for sympathy. In Return of the Jedi we only see the cackling, controlling villain. I wonder if he maintained the charming persona for public appearances after declaring himself Emperor?
  • Leia has the fighting and tactical skills equal to the men around her, but her scene with Wicket W. Warrick shows her great diplomatic skills that Han, and even Luke, lack.
  • I’m still angry that Leia clearly remembers her mother and they still had Palme die in childbirth for no reason. I’m surprised Lucas didn’t edit that scene out when he stuck Hayden Christensen in.
  • Speaking of edits, I never noticed that freakin’ Jar Jar is shouting “Wesa free!” in the celebration scene on Naboo. 🙄
  • It never occurred to me how much Han is the comic relief character in this movie, probably cause Harrison Ford does it so well. Perhaps they should have cast Ford to play Jar Jar too.
    Rating: *****

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7L8p7_SLzvU

 

 

 

Star Wars Film Festival: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)


In preparation for the release of The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of The Empire Strikes Back, originally published February 22, 2016.

Title:  The Empire Strikes Back
Release Date: 1980
Director:   Irving Kushner
Summary/Review:

Still the best of the Star Wars films, allowing space for the characters to breath and grow and for the actors to show their chops, while still having intertwining action plots that come together at the end.  And it’s funny.  It certainly wasn’t satisfying as kid to have it just end with the good guys essentially losing and so much unresolved.  Watching this with my kids for the first time meant lots of questions, Yoda being scary, and Darth Vader being unexpectedly cool.

Rating: *****

Some Stray Post-Rewatch Thoughts:

  • I’d never cottoned on before that “The Imperial March” made its debut in this movie. And how impressive is it’s first use on the fleet of Star Destroyers!
  • Han is really creepy to Leila in this movie. I guess she does like scoundrels.
  • Watching so soon after the prequels’ CGI Yoda really emphasizes how much more lifelike and expressive is Frank Oz’s puppetry work.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=96v4XraJEPI

 

Star Wars Film Festival: Star Wars (1977)


In preparation for the release of  The Rise of Skywalker, I am rewatching all of the previous Star Wars films in episode order.

Here’s my review of Star Wars, originally published February 16, 2016.

Title:  Star Wars
Release Date: 1977
Director:   George Lucas
Summary/Review:
Rating: ****1/2

What can you say about this movie in 2016?  Most people know and love the movie and our popular culture is steeped in its motifs.  But this was the first time my children watched the movie and  the first time I’ve watched it in a long, long time (but still within this galaxy).  The kids generally claim not to like movies, but they liked this one and asked to watch it again, which is always a good sign.  I wonder what it’s like to watch Star Wars for the first time when it’s something that’s always been around and references are wound into our culture like mythology as opposed to when I was a child and it was brand new?  I was impressed that the movie holds up very well.  There are many things from the 70s, 80s, & 90s that seem to have dated much more than this.  Of course, I’m an old fuddy-duddy and prefer the somewhat slower pace and practical special effects of Star Wars to many of today’s blockbusters.  But really the stories and the characters are what made the movie what it is and what makes it persist.  So simple, rooted in older stories, yet so fresh and new at the same time.

Some Stray Post-Rewatch Thoughts:

  • I’m pretty sure the opening scenes on Tantive IV features the only time in any Star Wars movie that a blaster is used on stun setting.
  • Captain Antilles: A Star Wars Story
  • A distinction of this movie is that it really allows scenes and settings unroll slowly.  For example, we spend a lot of time just following the droids through the desert, panning through the Jawa sandcrawler, looking around the cantina. Maybe modern filmmaking considers this “boring” but I think a lot of the success of later Star Wars media is that it provided such a rich background for creators to fill in the blanks.
  • It’s often said that R2-D2 and C3PO are the point of view characters for this movie but that’s only true up until the point when Aunt Beru calls Luke to dinner.  From that point, Luke is the point of view character, with cuts to things happening on the Death Star.
  • From the dialogue, every indication is that Uncle Owen and Anakin Skywalker are brothers. I’ve been re-writing the prequel trilogy in my head and think that a tense relationship between a teenage Anakin and a disapproving older brother would’ve been a good place to start. I suppose, alternately, Beru could’ve been Anakin’s older sister.  Either way it would be a much less convoluted family dynamic.
  • I unironically love “Maclunkey!”
  • So TK-241, another stormtrooper, and the scanning crew are all killed by Han, Chewie, and Luke.  Do they fly off from the Death Star with four dead bodies on the ship?
  • Leia recognizes the name “Ben” Kenobi and calls Han a “flyboy” when she shouldn’t know these things yet.
  • I want a supercut of all the scenes in Star Wars movies where stormtroopers are just chatting.
  • Chewbacca doesn’t get a medal, but he gets the last word in the movie – “ARGH!”