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Star Wars Breakdown (Part 1) – Anyway, That’s All I Got

star wars

Solo: A Star Wars Story hits theaters this weekend, so we decided to revisit each and every Star Wars movie, including the strange, misfit TV movies history has tried to erase. We didn’t want to force (no pun intended) every single installment into one episode, so for part 1 of our discussion we review everything from the very first movie up through the prequel trilogy. Our discussion has plenty of surprises and hot takes (mostly from Jason), and we hope you enjoy listening!

Question for you: What do you think of any of the movies we talked about today (especially the Ewok movies and the Holiday Special)?

Go on…Star Wars Breakdown (Part 1) – Anyway, That’s All I Got

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Review: ‘Rogue One’ Is About Half Of A Great Star Wars Movie

rogue one

Before Rogue One, which is aptly subtitled “A Star Wars Story,” even begins, it suffers from a remarkable weakness no other movie in this franchise has ever had. A real purpose.

It’s a standalone prequel to the original trilogy, filling the gap (and space) between Episodes III and IV, but it does nothing of note beyond that, except to elaborate on a minor plot point that sets up A New Hope, in the form of a ragtag suicide squad on a mission to retrieve the Death Star plans so Luke Skywalker can find them in a droid days later.

All the while, Rogue One presents side character archetypes as protagonists to a well-realized war movie, one without much of the Force or any stunning lightsaber duels to balance against the space battles. It’s exactly one-half of what we love about Star Wars, but lavishly treated with respect for fans who’ve always yearned for a shift in emphasis toward the “Wars” in “Star Wars.” Cinematographer Greig Fraser (Zero Dark Thirty) managed to make this universe feel big again, and one of the film’s greatest strengths is its sense of location and a visual consistency begging for a better story to match it.

There’s no doubting this is the galaxy far far away, just taking place a bit earlier than what George Lucas and his team established aesthetically 40 years ago. The colors, technology, and overall atmosphere are masterfully recreated, less so however with the CGI-rendered actors we recognize from A New Hope as well, not that they’re the prime focus of what’s essentially an ensemble film. Less recreated, however, are any deep or enriching characters to serve as a compelling thread throughout this surprisingly complex (and fast) war drama.

rogue one

It seems at one point that Disney and Lucasfilm intended to give a weightier role to Jyn Erso, played rather straight here by Felicity Jones, once again one of about three women in a Rebellion consisting of hundreds of men onscreen, which is a noticeable step back from the more balanced Force Awakens.

Much of the material used in the trailers for Erso seem to have been shifted in those pesky reshoots, so that the rest of the “Rogue One” rebels too rebellious for the rebellion could have thematically interesting moments of their own. That was the intention, anyway. Instead, even the most creative characters are quite thin, falling short of what’s done so successfully in Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a more cohesive and ultimately satisfying “misfit ensemble in space” movie.

Rogue One is a classic example of what happens when a beautiful and polished movie filled with colorful characters fails to come together by the third act, which is more bombastic and methodical than anything epic or narratively  fulfilling. The story builds to something far more grand in scope, while also personal in its individual characters’ struggles against the overwhelming Empire, but instead, everything simply fizzles out and fades to the distance to make way for New Hope matters, muting the questionable triumph for these rebels, instead of what the dialogue suggests we ought to feel for them.

rogue one

That said, Rogue One is an easy sell for fans of Star Wars, who will love it anyway for everything that does work—like the complexities rendered for a tougher, less forgiving Rebel Alliance and world-class sci-fi cinematography and sound mixing—and overlook what is sorely missing that would have made this good film actually great, or at least as memorable as something like The Force Awakens, a flawed movie that had a much easier time justifying itself.

Come for the snarky droid, stay for the blind Force monk, and prepare for one scene in particular toward the very end that will make you yearn to see a “real” Star Wars film.

Grade: B

Extra Credits:

  • Now I’m really worried about that Young Han Solo spinoff.
  • Better than the prequels, but that’s about it.
  • First Star Wars movie not scored by John Williams, which is pretty sad. But Michael Giacchino did a tremendous job, and this one has a main score I found much more memorable than in Force Awakens. Edit: I do wish, though, that the music matched the movie’s actual tone. I just don’t blame Giacchino.
  • Alan Tudyk as the aforementioned snark droid, K-2SO,  was easily the best character. Not just in terms of comic relief, but as the obvious heart of the team, similar to Tudyk’s “Wash” in Firefly.
  • Some of the cameos and Easter eggs are great. A handful are just pointless and completely unnecessary, similar to the prequels. Still, I won’t spoil any so you can view them as surprises. Not enough of this movie is a surprise, anyway.

    Thanks for reading this. Seriously. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. 

    Or just say hello on Twitter: @JonNegroni


Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Will Please Everyone, But That’s About It

star wars force awakens review

This is a spoiler-free review. 

When Disney acquired the rights to make a new Star Wars film, there was a unified cheer that this new take on the beloved franchise would be reinvigorated, creatively. Finally, there was a new hope for Star Wars, one of the most groundbreaking and revolutionary trilogies of its time.

So it puzzles me to see The Force Awakens be the most derivative Star Wars movie yet.

George Lucas has always infused his films with what he calls “rhyme.” That is, he echoes moments from previous movies in order to manufacture a compelling moment. Limb-cutting, catchphrases, and even cinematic shots are repeated endlessly throughout the original trilogy and its prequels.

The Force Awakens restrains itself from “rhyme,” but settles instead for replication. Elements throughout the film are carbonite copies of plot structures in both A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, remixed and polished for a new audience.

star wars force awakens review

The doe-eyed Rey serves as the new Luke Skywalker, there’s a mysterious Sith villain tied to the past, a resistance versus an unstoppable military, and of course, there’s a destructive space station that must be stopped. There are few sparks of novelty in The Force Awakens when it comes to the ideas and struggles we’ve seen already.

This is likely intentional. Like the balance and cyclical nature of the Force, The Force Awakens almost advertises that its story must firmly echo the adventures of Luke Skywalker and his friends. And that caveat serves as an excuse for J.J. Abrams, the director, to evolve the lore for a brand new audience unwilling to sit through 30-year-old movies.

That said, Star Wars looks better than ever. The creatures, settings, and practical effects are a marvel. So much so, that any use of CGI is actually distracting. You’ll probably feel underwhelmed by one or two of these computer-generated characters who don’t hold their own against Abrams’ other creations. They’re inventive, to be sure, but stand out in the worst way possible.

The best thing that The Force Awakens has going for it is its new cast, with Rey (Daisy Ridley) at its center as one of the saga’s best characters yet. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) also delivers an excellent performance as the villain you’ll love to hate, and I gushed over the antics of the “daring pilot,” Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

star wars force awakens review

BB-8 is also a welcome addition to the new family of characters, truly deserving of the role left behind by R2-D2. And while I’m not yet won over by John Boyega’s character, Finn, the actor provided an energy to this role that his peers should certainly take note of. And like the other characters, I’m waiting intently to see what Finn can offer as the trilogy progresses.

The characters interact well with each other and the original cast. Taking a note from its Marvel Cinematic Universe, Disney allowed the screenplay to have plenty of humor and levity, which balances well against the dramatic stakes and galaxy-crushing battles taking place in the background. Its one of the film’s strongest, most unique offerings.

Because the characters are a delight to watch onscreen, the battles (both with lightsabers and blasters) are more electric than ever, and easily among the best of the saga. The ample space battles are among the most entertaining dog fights you can see at the movies, and a one-take shot in particular featuring Dameron will likely be replayed dozens of times when this gets to DVD.

There are only two noticeable things that hold The Force Awakens back from surpassing the best of Star Wars. As discussed, it fails to fully develop any of its newer ideas, in favor of plot retreads that somewhat break the line of being an homage. You can argue that they’re kicking the can down the road for the next two movies to gain their own identity, but for now, it comes off as manufactured. Disney knows the recipe for pleasing a crowd full of fans, and this is both a good and bad thing.

star wars force awakens review

You’ll get most of what you want out of The Force Awakens, but you’ll also know that you’re getting it. If The Empire Strikes Back had let itself be crammed with this much fan service, it wouldn’t have become one of the greatest films of all time, by comparison.

The second thing that holds The Force Awakens back is some of its writing. Granted, it’s a tradition with these movies to have gaping plot holes. But that’s no excuse at this point, especially when you have a movie that is excelling at doing the same things as its predecessor. You’ll notice many odd and confusing plot inconsistencies that will take you out of the movie, and even if they can be explained in the next movie or two, they’ll still distract you until we get answers.

The script’s job is to make us feel like we can keep up with the film’s mythology, letting us peek into the development of the characters based on the moments we’re allowed to witness in the story. The previous trilogy did a poor job at this as well, and I’m disappointed that Abrams and company were unable to produce a tighter narrative. One or two more drafts would have served this film extremely well.

Grade: B+

It’s one of the better B+ movies I’ve seen this year, to be sure, and a standout among 2015 sci-fi movies. But as a first offering by Disney, I’m not yet impressed by what they can do with Star Wars in terms of pushing the series forward and delivering something new and exciting to audiences. It’s a crowd-pleaser, by design, and that’s about all you’ll get out of it.

Extra Credits:

  • This movie could have used double the amount of Poe Dameron that we got. Oscar Isaac was superb in Ex Machina, his best movie of 2015, in my opinion. Be sure to check that film out, if you haven’t already.
  • I’ll be providing a spoiler-filled discussion review at some point, so for now, keep your spoilers to yourself, please.
  • I want to watch this movie again (it really is a lot of fun), but I’m actually more excited for Rogue One at this point, since it seems to be the Star Wars movie that will take more risks. It’s coming out next December.
  • I firmly believe that many of the unsolved mysteries in The Force Awakens will be tied somehow to events in the anthology movies. That’s all I’ll say, for now.
  • All of the old characters fit snugly back into their roles. Especially a certain droid.

Retronalysis: Rewatching A New Hope

star wars new hope

Later this week, a new Star Wars trilogy will be kicked off by The Force Awakens. In preparation for this event, I’ll be rewatching the original trilogy (from A New Hope to Return of the Jedi) each day this week. My goal is to reevaluate these films’ merits, decades after their release.

This is also a discussion post, so if you have any lingering thoughts about the original trilogy after reanalyzing them yourself, be sure to sound off in the comments.

Let’s begin.

George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, claims to have always intended A New Hope to be the fourth entry in a series of “episodes.” When Star Wars (1977) premiered, the studio allegedly forced him to omit this chapter heading from the opening credits, because they believed it would confuse audiences.

Since then, A New Hope has become the de facto title, and for good reason. Much like the first act of a movie, A New Hope serves more as an introduction of characters, rather than a full story. And the creators of this film did a fantastic job of making it feel like it could be more than just one movie without delivering something that felt incomplete (a mistake studios have been making pretty frequently these days with their non-starter franchises).

The story is simple, yet set against a vast and complicated setting. The characters are easy to understand and relate to, but their circumstances and backstories feel rich and unexplored. Part of the fun that comes with Star Wars is letting your imagination fill in the blanks when new story elements are brought in, including the reveal of the Force, the Clone Wars, and the history between Darth Vader and Obi Wan.

Simply put, the characters exist in a world that feels different, but familiar. The sounds aren’t synthesized and foreign. The materials are imperfect and rusty. This is a fantasy that is more down to earth (so to speak), making it feel more “lived in” than many other epics we’re used to seeing.

star wars new hope

A New Hope begins with a swift explanation of who the Empire is and what they’re capable of accomplishing. Their massive ship descends upon a remarkably smaller one on the run. The stormtroopers easily break through the rebel soldiers on the ship and quickly take over.

This entire sequence is well-done because it manages to convince you of how powerful the threat of the Empire is without having to really say it. And your understanding of this conflict between the rebellion and an all-powerful military keeps building from there.

A lot of people tend to dislike what happens next, when the movie shifts perspective to the two droids who escape this ship and wander the desert planet of Tatooine. True, this entire sequence drags a bit, but consider how peculiar it was for the movie to spend so much time on the story of these two droids, who are arguably the crux of this entire movie. The plot moves forward because of them, and they’re essentially the glue that brings all of our main characters together. I don’t think A New Hope would have worked quite as well if the movie hadn’t given them this chance to establish their legitimacy in the story.

Because the movie builds from each of these moments, the ending will feel huge when you consider that it all started with these two droids. It was a novel idea that truly paid off.

star wars new hope

I’ve always appreciated the handling of Luke Skywalker’s introduction. It’s very modest and believable, so it takes you a few minutes to grasp that this is the story’s main protagonist (and John Williams is there to help you figure it out in one of the movie’s best scenes).

Granted, he’s a bit whiny, and his worst lines of the franchise occur in the first half hour. But it’s clear that making him a little unlikable at first was Lucas’s intention. It made his story arc much more interesting and expansive, making it a treat to rewatch his journey in later viewings.

The movie’s only major bout of exposition comes during Luke’s first extended conversation with Obi Wan. Here, Obi Wan tells Luke about his father, the Force, the Clone Wars, and all sorts of other plot points that we’re hearing about for the first time.

But because Alec Guinness delivers this long scene with such grace and gravitas, it actually works. Most sci-fi movies that are this high-concept typically fall flat on their face by the time the characters erupt with exposition, but they casted the perfect actor to help us get invested.

Mos Eisley serves as an excellent set of scenes that help establish more of our characters, along with some new ones. Interestingly, Luke gets very little development here, which is for the best. Instead, Obi Wan gets a chance to prove to the audience that he really is a powerful Jedi Knight. The mind trick — which is gracefully explained in just a short sentence — and Obi Wan’s quick lightsaber demonstration get the point across that the Force is a dynamic, mysterious tool our hero can one day use.

At this point in the movie, we just want to learn more about the Force and see all of this Jedi lore in action. But the movie instead branches off into the story of our next main protagonist, Han Solo. We’re quickly introduced to the more grounded aspect of this universe, which is another saving grace for this franchise. And like Luke, Han doesn’t arrive with fanfare. We don’t truly understand his importance to the story until his fateful confrontation with Greedo, which tells us more about his character in less than a minute than some movies can do in two hours.

star wars new hope

The next act of the movie is arguably its best, as we watch these characters go on their first real adventure. And it’s right in the heart of the Death Star, a massive space station that’s been shown to have destructive powers beyond even our heroes’ imaginations. At this point, I was still reeling from the quick elimination of Luke’s entire family, an event that truly sets the stakes as we see just how hopeless it is to resist the Empire. Now, once we have a few allies and (dare I say it) hope, our heroes are plunged into a pretty hopeless situation.

To be fair, we know that this has to happen in order for Luke to meet Leia. But the fate of Obi Wan and other somewhat extraneous allies seems murky. Throughout the entire sequence on the Death Star, our heroes are faced with increasingly dangerous threats that keep us entertained and wanting more.

But the true grab of the Death Star scenes is watching these characters interact and play off of each other. It’s great because this is the result of all the character development achieved in the first act, so watching them together onscreen is both fun and engaging.

To be fair, some of what happens on the Death Star is pretty silly and oddly convenient. Han rushes into a hallway full of stormtroopers, and they run away from him for no reason. Our heroes don’t get shot once by these apparently “precise” soldiers. Luke makes a weird lasso to get away from stormtroopers who have the high ground on him, and it actually works without him or Leia getting injured, despite having no cover. And there’s very little Obi Wan action, to the point where I actually forgot about him.

star wars new hope

Of course, Obi Wan and Darth Vader battle, which is a pivotal scene. It establishes Vader’s lightsaber skills, and it validates their history only alluded to earlier. Honestly, I found this scene pretty underwhelming the very first time I ever watched it, but it’s grown on me over the years. Yes, they’re tapping their lightsabers slowly, but the thing to remember is that Lucas originally intended the lightsabers to be extremely heavy, which was changed for later movies.

Once you forego the belief that the lightsaber fights should be quick and pretty, this scene becomes a lot more interesting. You focus more on what’s going on between the characters, which is really what the point of this scene is. It’s not the best lightsaber fight, to be sure, but it’s definitely not the worst.

The final stretch of the movie is also its most critical. By the time our heroes escape the Death Star, there’s little chance for rest and mourning as Luke is summoned to fight off more of the Empire with Han. This is the part of the movie I like the least, not because it’s a bad scene, but because at this point, I’m exhausted. Danger upon danger has been thrusted upon these characters, and though the reality of the story demands it (they can’t just get away that easily), I was ready for Luke and the gang to take a breath.

Thankfully, we do get respite in the third act, though only for a moment. Lesser movies would have extended the Death Star scenes in order to borrow its weight for a climax, but A New Hope opts to show us the heart of the rebellion. On Yavin, we see what the alliance is truly like, and we get a chance to see Han Solo weigh his choices that have been building up since Tatooine. Will he stay and help, or will he take off with the reward? Both choices are believable, which makes his confrontation with Luke all the more heartbreaking when his “May the Force be with you” is met with silence.

star wars new hope

The symbolism in the movie’s climax isn’t subtle, which is probably why it’s so effective. Almost all of Rogue Squadron is eliminated, including Luke’s childhood friend. Up to this point, Luke has relied on wit and creativity to make it out of each predicament he’s been in, but for the first time, he has to rely on the Force to save the lives of his friends. All while dealing with the fact that Darth Vader’s ship has picked off all of his allies, with the exception of Wedge.

Two things save the day: Han’s rescue and Luke’s reliance on the Force. These are two somewhat disparate elements, as one displays the loyalty of a friend, while the other is otherworldly and focused on the promise of someone departed. In fact, it’s these two strengths that Luke will have to weigh as the next two movies progress, making for a brilliant first entry in the trilogy.

We do see that Darth Vader survives this battle, opening up the film for sequels. But aside from that, this is a massive blow to the Empire that symbolically shows that the rebels do have a fighting chance. In that way, the film could have easily stood alone, hinting that Luke’s transformation into a Jedi Knight was well underway. And with Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids at his side, who could stop him, right?

A New Hope is definitely one of my favorite films of the franchise, by far. I only touched on some of what I love about the film here, but I don’t doubt that many of you reading this can relate. Let me know what you think about A New Hope below, and I’ll see you back here tomorrow to talk about The Empire Strikes Back.

I’m Jon and thanks for reading this. You can subscribe to my posts by clicking “Follow” in the right sidebar. Or just say hey on Twitter! @JonNegroni

Why The Ruler Of My Childhood Just Got Kicked Off The New ‘Popeye’ Movie

If you’ve never heard of Genndy Tartakovsky, then you’ve at least loved his work. The animation director is an under-the-radar legend in the business, despite never acquiring the acclaim he truly deserves.

Some of his early work included Batman: The Animated Series, but the man is better known for creating Dexter’s LaboratoryPowerpuff Girls, and Samurai Jack. When I was a kid, this guy was one of the kings of animation, at least for people who could get Cartoon Network on their cable subscription.

This is the man George Lucas entrusted the keys to the first Star Wars: The Clone Wars miniseries (long before it was ever computer animated), which won three Emmies. Before that, Tartakovsky directed the somewhat successful The Powerpuff Girls Movie and (it bears repeating) creating the legendary series, Samurai Jack, which also won multiple awards.

genndy tartakovsky

Sadly, this was the end of Tartakovsky’s reign. After 2004, the momentum of his work went into a gradual free fall, as new projects like Adult Swim’s Korgoth of Barbaria were canceled before they even started. This kicked off a trend for Tartakovsky that we’re still seeing today.

Tartakovsky planned on creating the long-awaited Samurai Jack movie to complete the series, but Bad Robot abandoned him to work on Star Trek. Genndy’s new Cartoon Network series, Sym-Bionic Titan, only lasted one, short season.

But in 2012, Tartakovsky’s luck changed when he moved to Sony and directed the animated monster movie, Hotel Transylvania, starring Adam Sandler. Though the film received mixed reviews, it was a huge financial success for Sony, earning Tartakovsky the chance to strike gold again with a sequel. The trailer just came out this week, and the movie is set to release this fall.

Amidst this Gennaissance, the animator/director was also announced as the director of the new Popeye movie, which we’ve already seen early footage of. And it looks amazing. But just this week, Sony kicked Tartakovsky off the project for unknown reasons, and it’s unclear whether or not the movie will still go forward.

In an interview with Moviefone, Tartakovsky explained the sudden shift:

“Popeye, at least, we put up a great screening, everybody really liked that sizzle, we got a positive reaction. I was in love with what we were doing, but I think the studio is going through changes and I don’t know if they want to make the Popeye that I want to make. So they’ve got to make a decision…It was hard to let Popeye go, but that’s the business.”

To be clear, Tartakovsky still works for Sony, and we all know the production studio is currently in the midst of some unprecedented turmoil. His personal project Can You Imagine? is still in the works for now, which is an original story about a boy and his imagination.

genndy tartakovsky

Before we delve into the why behind Genndy’s expulsion from Popeye, let’s review the man’s career. As the headline implies, Tartakovsky is one of the rulers of my childhood. His work influenced me greatly through shows like Dexter’s Laboratory and Samurai Jack. Just the other day, I reflected on the chaotic genius of “Ego Trip,” the TV movie for Dexter’s Laboratory that made me embrace time travel as the fluid concept it really is.

I still look back on Tartakovsky’s “Clone Wars” with wonder, remembering almost every detail of every set piece. I remember wishing the man had been allowed to work on Revenge of the Sith, even (at least when it came to General Grevious. That final scene of the second season sent chills up my spine).

I can’t pinpoint the exact reason for why Tartakovsky’s work happens to work. I don’t know if it’s that he understands how the mind of a child operates or if he just has a gift for maintaining his own childlike imagination. Whatever it is, there’s something bizarre and magical about the way Tartakovsky visualizes a story, and it’s something noticeable that made me appreciate Hotel Transylvania before even realizing whose vision developed it.

genndy tartakovsky

And yet Tartakovsky hasn’t ascended to the level of greatness that I personally believe he’s earned. For all I know, he could be difficult to work with, or his vision could be akin to George Lucas, in that he needs many checks and balances to prevent his story from descending into pure lunacy.

Whatever the reason, I take solace in knowing that for now, it appears Tartakovsky and Sony are on OK terms. He’s still getting his Can You Imagine? movie, and for all we know, Sony is just gun-shy about putting out an expensive Popeye movie after the middling success of similar nostalgia projects that seem to have doomed Dreamworks Animation, despite them being great movies (I’m looking at you Mr. Peabody and Sherman).

Yes, the hopeless optimist in me somewhat believes there’s a chance Sony wants Tartakovsky to redirect his efforts to finishing Samurai Jack  before a Kickstarter finally does it for him. We’ve been waiting 14 years for that series to have a conclusion, after all (and no, I don’t count the comics that started in 2013).

genndy tartakovsky

To sum up, Tartakovsky is a young guy (only in his mid-forties), and I personally believe his best work is ahead of him. I just hope that whatever is going on with Sony is either resolved, or someone else manages to recognize Tartakovsky’s talent and snatches him up. Can you imagine (har har) how good a DreamWorks movie would be if they brought in Tartakovsky? Specifically, I bet the animator would’ve breathed some incredible life into Rise of the Guardians or the upcoming Home (which looks awful to me).

For now, we’ll see if Tartakovsky and Sony can surprise us all with something completely unexpected. And if anyone can do that, it’s Genndy.

 

Thanks for reading! You can subscribe to these posts by clicking ‘follow’ on the right sidebar. Or just hang out with me on Twitter: @JonNegroni

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