The Life & Times of an Auteur.

Commentary on Pop Culture, and maybe creating some of my own.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Yet Another "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" Think Piece

I loved it. Bye, now.

Okay, I suppose the three of you that still follow this blog would like to read more of my thoughts on the new "Star Wars" movie. I'm not sure what I can say that hasn't already been said by others, so I'll do my best to be consistent.

When I mention franchises that broke my heart, "Star Wars" is at the top of my list. "A New Hope" is a very good movie. "The Empire Strikes Back" is a very great movie. "The Return of the Jedi" is a pretty bad movie, but it has elements in it that I love. Now, I'm not old enough to have seen these in theaters during their original runs, I juuuust missed being born early enough to do so. But I had "A New Hope" on VHS (the first release of it on VHS) at home, and I repeatedly rented "The Empire Strikes Back". My local video rental store (look them up, they totally existed once upon a time) didn't have "The Return of the Jedi" so it eluded me for several years, until I caught it on TV one day. You see, you young whipper snappers, we didn't have the internet in those days, and VHS tapes cost upwards of $50 to buy, so seeing movies that our local video stores didn't carry came down to luck. Anyway, I watched "Return of the Jedi" only to be disappointed by it, largely. I didn't like Ewoks then, and I don't like Ewoks now.

Then came the Special Editions, and changes aside, it was an awesome feeling to experience these movies on the big screen. Then, the franchise broke my heart. George Lucas released his three prequels and all but destroyed something I truly loved. "Star Wars" was dead to me. For a longer explanation of why the prequels failed as movies, I will refer you to Mr. Plinkett's Star Wars Prequel Reviews at Red Letter Media... which also double as the most extensive and informative film studies class you can take for free and from the comfort of your own home.

When Disney bought "Star Wars", I predicted that it would be the best thing that could happen to the franchise, but mostly because I had hoped that the unaltered original movies would be released on Blu-ray; so far we have yet to see any real sign of that. When Episode VII was announced, I rolled my eyes. I didn't care. Keep in mind, the franchise was dead to me. I did watch "Star Wars Rebels", but was lukewarm to it (which, honestly, was carryover of my disappointment in the prequels; I have since re-watched it and would give it a much higher score than I did earlier in the year... and I can call myself a fan of the show, now). The fact that J.J. Abrams, a director I loathe, was attached to it didn't help.

The first trailer came out for "The Force Awakens" and I was unmoved. But, as the release date approached, I'm not sure what was going on, but the marketing was doing its job. The right things were being said, the right images were being released. Despite myself, I was beginning to get excited. It also helps that Kieron Gillen's "Darth Vader" comic book was excellent, as was Greg Weisman's "Kanan" comic. Darth Vader's return to form in "The Siege of Lothal" did a lot to remind me why I loved that character after the prequels destroyed him... even something as innocuous as a Death Battle between him and Dr. Doom (which Vader lost) helped.

Finally, the movie came out, and I was there on opening day.


I loved it. I didn't know I was going to love it, I wasn't prepared to love it. At best I thought I'd walk out of there saying "That was fun, I liked it." But, no, I loved it. I already cannot wait for Episode VIII.

This movie looked and felt like a "Star Wars" movie. A good "Star Wars" movie. It wasn't filmed entirely in front of a green screen. They went out and shot at actual locations, built actual sets, and used beautiful practical effects. Yes, there was CGI, but it was well utilized. I'm not against CGI, just use it smartly. Don't do what George Lucas did in the prequels. That was embarrassing.

The lightsaber duel at the end was better than any lightsaber duel from the prequels. Where George Lucas gave us these overly-choreographed dances that lacked any kind of authenticity to them (along with people shouting things like "From my point of view the Jedi are evil!") I've seen fights in GI Joe cartoons that felt more real than that, and one of those fights had a man in a gold snake costume use a live snake as a javelin so he could impale a guy. When Kylo Ren battled Finn and Rey, this felt like a real fight. There was no wire work, no back flips, no unnecessary moves; I thought these people were actually trying to kill each other. It was more down to Earth than any fight in the prequels, and there was a lot more grace to it at the same time.

This movie was all about passing the torch to a new generation of characters. Rey, Finn, Poe, BB-8, Kylo Ren, and the rest. And it was successful at this. Each of the major new characters was automatically endearing and intriguing. We found ourselves asking the right questions thanks to a great script, and the actors were natural and charismatic in their roles. Oh... charismatic, natural acting in a "Star Wars" movie, how I have missed this.

Daisy Ridley as Rey is great. Her performance is terrific, and as the Luke Skywalker for a new generation, she gets the job done. At this point, I firmly believe she is Luke's daughter. It's not just that she is a natural at the Force as Luke and Anakin were before her, it's not that their lightsaber called to her; it's also the vision that Kylo Ren saw in her head of a vast ocean and a green island... which, living in the desert, Rey would have never even thought existed. And, hey, where did Luke turn out to be? Why was she dropped off in Jakku? Good question, but one that I am confident will be answered next time.

Now, I suppose I should address the accusation that she's a Mary Sue. I've seen that one all over the internet for several days now. Okay. Bull & Shit. A Mary Sue is a poorly written author-insert character. Who's author insert is she? Abrams'? Kasdan's? No. Yes, she is naturally in tune with the Force, but so was her father (who blew up the Death Star the first time he really used it) and her grandfather (who accidentally blew up the Trade Federation's control ship). I know I shouldn't use the next words I'm about to use, but I'm going to say it anyway. Had Rey been Ray and a male, you wouldn't be hearing the words "Mary Sue" or any variant at all. And you will never convince me otherwise. I know it and, deep inside, you know it. So, if you're whining and crying that Rey is a Mary Sue, throw yourself into an incinerator.

What I would also like to comment on is that Rey has become a terrific role model for little girls the world over. Walk into a Disney Store now, you'll see them buying, or asking their parents to buy them, Rey merchandise. They're seeing they don't need to be princesses. They can be badasses. Disney tapped into something that most of us knew was already there, and it's a wonderful thing. Marvel, maybe you should have made that Black Widow movie, hmm? DC, maybe you should have gotten a Wonder Woman movie out long ago.

John Boyega as Finn was a great character as well as a great bait and switch. Look at the trailers and the marketing, who's wielding the lightsaber in all of those? It's not Rey. But Finn was a very endearing character in his own right, someone taken as a baby, raised and conditioned to kill that still had a conscience. I thought the friendship that developed between him and Rey was lovely, as I doubt either of them had made any significant connections with any other sapient being prior to meeting each other. I also really enjoyed watching someone who wasn't adept at using the Force, lacked the potential, attempting it.

Our third major character is Kylo Ren. What a great new villain. This is what the Anakin Skywalker of the prequels should have been. Unlike Hayden Christenson, Adam Driver can act, and he does it so damn well. You see a messed up young man, and you see a murderous warlord. As the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa, he's Darth Vader's grandson that was seduced by the dark side. Han tries to reach him, and is killed for it. Personally, unlike Vader, I think there's no coming back for Kylo Ren; at least I don't think there should be. Vader may have been redeemed, but I don't think we should see that story beat repeated. Kylo Ren looked great, sounded great, and his chaotic lightsaber matched him perfectly. I can't wait to see what he does next.

Rounding out the last of the major new characters is Poe Dameron played by Oscar Issac. We don't see too much of him in this movie, but I expect we'll see more of him next time. He's obviously being set up as the new Han Solo, so I can understand why he wasn't in the movie much...

... when we had Harrison Ford here as the actual Han Solo. I can't describe how happy I was to see Han again after over thirty years. Ford's return as an older Han was everything his return as Indiana Jones in 2008 should have been. Ford is like an old fashioned movie star, you seldom see that kind of charisma anymore. Now, Ford's complicated history with Han Solo has been well documented. At first, I was surprised that he was returning to the role. It couldn't have been for the money, he doesn't need it. Then, it quickly hit me why. Lawrence Kasdan was announced as the screen writer, and I knew. They were going to do what they wanted to do in "Return of the Jedi" before being overruled by George Lucas. I wouldn't be surprised if it was written into Ford's contract. So, when Han approached his son on the cat walk, I knew it was coming. The hairs on my body stood up, and... it was still a punch in the gut. This character that I grew up with, a character so firmly ingrained in not just American pop culture, but the world's pop culture, dead... at the hands of his own psychotic son. It was right. It was perfect.

I will admit, I firmly believe, to this day, that "Return of the Jedi" would have been a better movie if Han had bit the dust there. Watch it again, Harrison Ford is phoning it in, and Han Solo is given so little to do in the movie. But, in the big picture, now that this movie exists, I'm glad Han survived. It took thirty-two years to redeem that misstep, but we're finally here

And, I'm not ashamed to admit, I kinda teared up a little when Han and Leia saw each other again. Chemistry! In a "Star Wars" movie! How I've missed it!

The humor in the movie was perfect, it was genuinely funny. It never felt juvenile. It came out of who the characters were, and how they played off each other. Not pointless slap stick. No one stepping in a pile of alien feces. I laughed at the right places.

It wasn't perfect, there were short comings. I felt there were a few too many retreads of the first movie. After this, I hope planet killing super weapons are a plot point that will be put behind us. Thankfully, that was just backdrop, something for the rest of the cast to do while the real plot unfolded before us with Rey, Finn, Han, Chewbacca, and Kylo Ren. It was a short coming without being even close to a crippling flaw. Also, the villains outside of Kylo Ren, like General Hux and Captain Phasma, got the short end of the stick, but I'm sure we'll see more of them over the next two movies, so I can't complain too much.

It was a very safe movie, and I think that was a smart move. Considering how almost universally loathed the prequels were, "The Force Awakens" had to remind us why we fell in love with a galaxy far, far away to begin with; all while acting as a launching point for the new direction. I suspect that now that this is out of the way, we're going to really cut loose. If history repeats itself, Episode VIII will be even better than this. And Episode VIII is being directed by Rian Johnson. Know who he is? He directed a few "Breaking Bad" episodes, specifically "Ozymandias" aka the most traumatic hour in the history of television, so we've already got a director that's better than Abrams, just as Irvin Kershner was better than George Lucas.

I already saw the movie twice, I can't wait to own the Blu-ray, and overall, I give it an A-.

Rey is going to lose a body part in the next movie, isn't she?

Friday, December 25, 2015

Retro Review: Webworld

Oh, "Transformers". I have such a complicated history with you; some of my earliest memories were playing with your toys and watching your cartoons, then you eventually ended up on the list of franchises I loved that I felt betrayed me. I didn't like Armada, Energon, or Cybertron; I did love Animated, only for that to be killed to make more room on the shelves for toys based on Michael Bay's abominable movies... specifically, "Revenge of the Fallen".

Lately, however, I have been in a reconciliatory mood with franchises that broke my heart. In the case of "Transformers", my brother and other friends had spent two years recommending the current IDW comic books, and I finally broke down and read them. They're good. Really good. I then proceeded to re-visit some of my favorite episodes of "Beast Wars" and the classic series, and decided that I would write a review of my favorite episode not of Generation One, but of the entire franchise.

"Webworld" is an episode of Generation One's third season, the infamous post-movie episodes. I'm not afraid to say that this is the best season of Generation One, as a whole. And I've noticed that history has vindicated it since the shows came out on DVD. In the 1980's, it wasn't so popular. Optimus Prime was dead, the old favorites were dead or cast aside in favor of a new (and, in my opinion, superior) cast of characters. No longer did the show take place exclusively on Earth, but became more of a space-faring science fiction series. Also, and while there were a lot of clunkers in there, the better episodes tended to be a lot more sophisticated than anything out of the first two seasons. They're not "Batman the Animated Series" or "Gargoyles", but they were a step towards the more mature fare we would see later. And I think that's been noticed more by fans who have gone back and watched the series on DVD through adult eyes.

"Webworld" was written by Len Wein and Diane Duane, and right there you realize you're in for something special. Wein is most famous for the creation of Wolverine during his time at Marvel Comics. Diane Duane has written many novels, a few episodes of "Star Trek: The Next Generation", and as an unabashed "Gargoyles" fanboy, I will point out that she wrote "The Hound of Ulster". The animation in the episode is, well, kind of crummy, but the script makes up for any of those short comings.

The episode opens with Galvatron, Cyclonus, Scourge, the Sweeps, and Soundwave attacking a small group of Autobots mining a mineral on an asteroid belt. In his madness, Galvatron proves to be more of a danger to his own troops than the Autobots, allowing the Autobots to easily escape. When they return to Charr, two other Decepticons threaten Cyclonus with mutiny unless something is done about Galvatron's madness.

Side note, Galvatron's madness was caused when, during the climax of The Movie, he was tossed from Unicron into the depths of space, where he landed on Thrull, a lava planet, and spent weeks or months submerged, and his metaprocessor melted. Just for fun, here's where this all started:

The Quintessons appear, and take advantage of Cyclonus' desperation to help his mad leader, by pointing him in the direction of the planet Torqulon, a planet that specializes in psychiatry. Cyclonus tricks Galvatron into going to this planet where he is captured and taken into, not custody, but therapy. The Torqulites attempt several methods of therapy from talking about his problems, shop class, acting out his problems, etc. Each attempt ends with Galvatron attempting to escape and murder one or several people. These scenes are both amusing and sad at the same time.

Once it becomes clear that therapy is useless, the Torqulites attempt to plug Galvatron into their planet's central computer, and effectively lobotomize him. Torqulon itself is a living, organic computer, you see. Cyclonus objects and when he and the Sweeps attempt to rescue their deranged leader, they themselves are restrained as Torqulon begins to destroy Galvatron, and accesses his mind... only to be infected by Galvatron's madness and go crazy itself. Galvatron then breaks free and proceeds to destroy the planet's central memory core before destroying the Torqulites' entire civilization.


I love this episode, I do. It focuses on my favorite Decepticons. Galvatron and Cyclonus are characters that I have loved for many years. They may not be as well known as the more famous Megatron and Starscream, but they are terrific characters. Cyclonus was a loyal second-in-command. Maybe too loyal for his own good. You so seldom see villains, especially in that era actually regard each other with concern, and caring for each other's well being... hell, it's still rare today.

More than that, I am surprised this script was approved and the episode was green lit. The Autobots are only in it for three minutes at the beginning. This is an episode that focuses exclusively on the Decepticons, our villains. Galvatron, the season's Big Bad, is helpless throughout most of the episode, and we begin to sympathize with him and his plight. The episode contains no big battle scenes of note, there is no good versus evil. It's not even shilling new toys. It's about a lieutenant taking his mad leader to receive help. It ends with Galvatron destroying an entire planet. Again, this is still rare today.

I think it's the best episode of the series, and while it's still a product of its era, and despite the mediocre animation, I still can't help but give this episode a solid A. It's just remarkable.

My next post will be about another franchise that broke my heart in the past, but I've been feeling reconcilatory towards. Stay tuned for "Star Wars: The Force Awakens".