TV Review: Loki (2021)


Title: Loki
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Michael Waldron
Director: Kate Herron
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of Loki, please don’t read

This Disney+ series picks up from a scene in Avengers: Endgame when the Norse trickster god Loki (Tom Hiddleston) uses the Tesseract to escape the Avengers, and over six episodes ends up in a completely different place that appears to be setting up the next phase of Marvel Cinematic Universe.  Loki is captured by the Time Variance Authority (TVA), a bureaucratic organization that operates out its massive mid-century modern headquarters to maintain the Sacred Timeline by “pruning” branches from the timeline.

Judge Ravonna Renslayer (Gugu Mbatha-Raw) condemns Loki to be erased from existence but Agent Mobius (Owen Wilson) convinces her to allow Loki help investigate another Loki variant who has killed several time agents.  They find the Loki variant and discover it is a woman who uses the alias Sylvie (Sophia Di Martino). Loki and Sylvie end up teaming up and begin uncovering the dark truths behind the TVA. The final episode avoids the typical Marvel battle for a quieter conversation with the TVA’s creator He Who Remains (Jonathan Majors).  As someone who hasn’t read 60 years of Marvel Comics, I found it a bit frustrating to not be aware of the identity behind He Who Remains until after I read reviews of the episode, but he appears to be setting up to be the MCU’s next Thanos-level threat.

Loki is another excellent limited series that takes storytelling to new and interesting places.  The acting is on point with Hiddleston getting a chance to show his ranges as Loki and Di Martino is a great addition.  I also really enjoy the style of the TVA and the self-referential humor.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

Movie Review: Black Widow (2021)


Title: Black Widow
Release Date: July 9, 2021
Director: Cate Shortland
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

A standalone movie for Black Widow was long overdue (even before it was postponed by the COVID pandemic) and suitably the bulk of this movie takes place in 2016, just after Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson) goes on the run for violating the Sokovia Accords in Captain America: Civil War. But the movie also has a prologue set in 1995 where we learn that as a child Natasha was lived as a surrogate daughter of undercover Russian agents posing as normal family in Ohio (why Russia would have undercover agents in the US just after the fall of the USSR, I don’t know, but the geopolitical realities of the world and the Marvel Universe don’t always match up).

In 2016, Natasha learns that the Red Room, the secret Russian program that uses mind control to turn girls and young women into assassins called Widows, is still active.  As a result she has to reunited with her “sister” Yelena (Florence Pugh, whose mix of humor and hidden vulnerability make her the MVP of the movie), “father” Alexei Shostakov (a super soldier known as Red Guardian played with chaotic glee by David Harbour), and “mother” Melina Vostokoff (a former Widow and scientists played by the criminally underused Rachel Weisz).

The better part of the movie is fighting and action sequences, perhaps even more so than your typical Marvel movie.  I tend to like the slower, more thoughtful types of scenes in between the fighting.  Still, Black Widow does a great job of developing it’s story of this “fake family” coming together to work out their differences and solve a problem in a way that feels natural when it could’ve been cheezy.  And while this is a popcorn movie, the underlying theme of young women and girls suffering abuse in an uncaring world is a terrifying reality.

Rating: ***

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

TV Review: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier (2021)


Title: The Falcon and the Winter Soldier
Release Date: 2021
Creator: Malcolm Spellman
Director: Kari Skogland
Episodes: 6
Production Company: Marvel Studios
Summary/Review:

WARNING: This review contains light spoilers, so if you’re sensitive to spoilers and not watched all 6 episodes of The Falcon and the Winter Soldier, please don’t read.

Much like its predecessor WandaVision, this Marvel series on Disney+ is set shortly after the events of Avengers: Endgame and uses recovering the traumatic events of “The Blip” as the background to series.  Sam Wilson/Falcon (Anthony Mackie) and James “Bucky” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) were both snapped out of existence for five years and both lost one of their closest friends with the passing of Steve Rogers.  As the series begins, Bucky is in therapy dealing with the murders he committed while brainwashed by Hydra.  Sam received the Captain America shield from Steve, but determines to place it in a museum rather than take up the mantle himself.  He also grows concerned about his sister Sarah (Adepero Oduye) being in a position where she needs to sell the family’s fishing business in Louisiana, but even as a superhero he can’t get credit from predatory banks.

The main antagonist in the series is Karli Morgenthau (Erin Kellyman playing a character very similar to her role as Enfys Nest in Solo), the leader of an organization called the Flag Smashers who are fighting for open borders in the post-Blip world.  Workers who were allowed to move to to more prosperous countries during the Blip are now being forced out.  This is an interesting concept that relates to real life issues of refugee crises, but the goals of the Flag Smashers  seem very muddled in practice, as if the show’s creators wanted to make them somewhat sympathetic but still keep the moral certainty needle pushed towards the shows “heroes.”  Another antagonist is John Walker (Wyatt Russell), a U.S. Army veteran appointed to be the new Captain America when Sam refuses it.  He’s an interesting morally-grey character because he’s arrogant, but also seems to be trying to do the best he can in the shadow of Steve Rogers.  He eventually does turn heel, but then is far too easily redeemed in the final episode.

The series focuses deeply on issues of race and how Black people are treated inequitably in America.  Sam’s reluctance to be Captain America is partially due to the fact that the colors of the American flag don’t represent Black Americans and that a Black Captain America would not be accepted by white Americans.  Issues such as police harassment of Black people and the revelation of super soldier experiments on Black prisoners are covered in the show.  The race issues are unnuanced and a bit simplistic, but on the other hand it’s a credit to Marvel for trying to address them.

The very busy six episodes also include appearances by anti-super soldier villain Helmut Zemo (Daniel Brühl), Avenger James “Rhodey” Rhodes (Don Cheadle), a fugitive Sharon Carter (Emily VanCamp), and member of Wakanda’s Dora Milaje Ayo (Florence Kasumba).  The series serves as a transition for Sam and Bucky to set them up for future chapters in the ongoing MCU.  I found it entertaining with some good performances, but it bit scattered storywise with too many plot elements packed in.

MASTER LIST OF MCU REVIEWS

 

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.