Thursday, December 31, 2015

2015 - The Highlights (EHeroFlareNeos)

With 2016 upon us, now is the time to reflect on 2015. College may have prevented us form writing as many reviews as before, but that won't prevent us from talking about the releases of the past year. Our only limitation is whether or not we've seen or played it. As usual, the list is in no particular order.

Top Movies of 2015

Inside Out

Coming off a wave of less-than-stellar movies, Pixar shows with Inside Out that they have fully returned to form. The movie follows the rather interesting premise of telling a story from the perspective of a character's emotions rather than that of the character. While the movie is capable of making the viewer laugh one minute and cry the next in true Pixar fashion, it's also a pretty useful way to visualize the effects of emotions on human behavior.

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens

While I did have my reservations about this installment in the Star Wars canon, a lot of which came from the inescapable hype train unleashed by Disney, The Force Awakens managed to be much better than I thought it would be. The plot makes several echoes to the original trilogy, but the movie is enjoyable anyway, partly thanks to the thrilling action and top notch special effects. Unfortunately, we'll need to wait for the upcoming Episode VIII before receiving any sort of closure or explanation for some of the new plot threads introduced, as well as any semblance of a concrete backstory for some of the new cast.

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection 'F'

Following Battle of Gods and partially inspired by a Maximum the Hormone song, Resurrection 'F' is the second canon Dragon Ball movie follwing the ending of the Buu saga from the famous "Z" portion of the original series. The plot may be a little rusty in this installment, but the real highlight is the action. It feels very satisfying to watch Goku once again defeat the resurrected Frieza, though there are a couple minor hangups within this section that don't detract too much from its enjoyability. Though not required, watching Battle of Gods will enhance the relationships with the characters Beerus and Whis and reading the 9-chapter Jaco the Galactic Patrolman (also by Akira Toriyama) will help the title's character's appearance make more sense. Additionally, knowledge of the Frieza Saga is also required to fully understand Frieza's actions. Mega64's sweded version of the Frieza Saga can help with this if you don't want to (re-)watch several episodes of the anime, though watching a comedy video isn't a perfect solution.

Top Games of 2015

Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain

I had actually played the PS3 version, but wanted to honor Hideo Kojima
by using the original box art (before Konami removed his name).

The debacle between Konami and Hideo Kojima, not to mention Konami's business practices, is pretty well-documented, though the details aren't entirely known, and, as a result, The Phantom Pain is an unfortunate crossfire victim, resulting in cut content that would have provided better closure to the story and elements of gameplay and story that feel a little under-cooked. That said, this game provided some of the most fun I've had all year. The gameplay is the most polished in the series yet, taking everything Kojima learned from previous Metal Gear games and applying them while still adding new elements like the Buddy system and adaptive enemies to keep it fresh and exciting. It may not be as iconic as previous entries, save for maybe Metal Gear Sahelanthropus, the intriguing character Quiet and the loyal buddy DD, but this was an experience I simply had a hard time putting down and in the end, that's what really matters.

Batman: Arkham Knight

The finale of Rocksteady's Batman: Arkham Trilogy doesn't quite match the experience of Arkham Asylum and Arkham City, but the game still manages to be fun. The addition of the Batmobile is excellent and the side missions are interesting, though the payoff can feel a little underwhelming and the Riddler trophies are still annoying. Road bumps aside, this is a very polished game, particularly in the combat, and well worth playing.

Assassin's Creed Syndicate

Taking place in Victorian London and starring twin protagonists, Syndicate is a drastic improvement in nearly every way over Unity. The gameplay takes some cues from the Batman: Arkham games by Rocksteady and focuses somewhat on gang warfare to help the experience feel fresh and tweaks to the graphical output (ex. less dense crowds) help the experience run much smoother than before. Plotwise, it's not quite as engaging as some of the other games and it puts up a rather PC front that at times sounds like it's pandering for no reason, but the latter actually happens much less than I thought it would and the experience is still enjoyable.

Top Disappointments of 2015

Avengers: Age of Ultron

While not exactly a bad movie, Age of Ultron is certainly a disappointment when compared to heavy hitters The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy. An overly ambitious plot filled with character/plot details with no foreshadowing and an overdose of special effects and choreography, the last of which also makes Black Widow look too perfect, results in a movie that feels too unrealistic, even by the standards set by the Marvel Cinematic Universe.

2015 - The Highlights (Tetris_King)

Another year, another time to reflect on what we did and did not like about it. Though my output on this blog has slowed significantly, you will still find my thoughts on my favorites and disappointments of the year (out of the handful of new movies and games I watched/played this year), with review links where applicable, presented in no particular order.

Top Movies of 2015

This is truly Pixar’s best effort in a while, especially after the awful Cars 2 and disappointing Brave. Without giving anything away, this movie about emotions manages multiple times to tug at the heartstrings (and when it does, it hits hard); it nearly got me to cry in a public theater, and after a second viewing at home it still managed to get to me. I would encourage anyone who hasn’t seen this movie yet to do so as soon as they can, and if you’re a Pixar fan you will not be disappointed.

I was nervous about what to expect from this movie going in, especially after factoring in the massive hype as well as the Prequel Trilogy, but my fears were alleviated upon my initial viewing, surpassing my expectations to where I feel like watching it again. Without delving into spoilers, though it’s not perfect, the writing was really good, especially in regards to character dialogue, and the story took some interesting turns that I really was not expecting. It doesn’t live up to the sheer amount of hype in the months preceding the movie’s release, but it is definitely worth seeing as soon as possible, especially if you’re a Star Wars fan and have managed to avoid spoilers up to this point.

Dragon Ball Z: Resurrection ‘F’

In this canon Dragon Ball movie, the almighty Frieza is brought back to life and, after he decides to train for the first time in his life, the ensuing battle against Goku and Vegeta is nothing short of glorious. There is also a healthy dose of comedy mixed in with all the action, with humorous situations coming from smaller moments. The animation is also amazing, doing justice to the style of action present in the series. This movie is a must-see for Dragon Ball fans, especially after you’ve seen the other canon movie, Battle of Gods (and/or have read the 9-chapter manga, Jaco the Galactic Patrolman). It may be a bit harder to go into this movie without any prior knowledge of Dragon Ball, though Mega64’s (sweded) companion video serves as a humorous summary on some of the major events of the Frieza Saga.

Top Games of 2015

Transformers: Devastation

Platinum Games did an amazing job with this Transformers game, especially with how it goes all out in matching the 80’s cartoon’s look, style, and sound (they even got a number of surviving voice actors from the original cartoon, meaning Dan Gilvezan gets to play Bumblebee again after all these years). I haven’t actually played Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance (Platinum’s ever-popular entry in the Metal Gear series), but from what I’ve seen of Rising’s gameplay, I thought that the gameplay style translated perfectly to Transformers, including the way they incorporated the ability to transform. There are five playable Autobot characters in the game: Optimus Prime, Bumblebee, Sideswipe, Wheeljack, and Grimlock; I only played through the game once as Optimus Prime, though I am interested in playing it again later as each of the other characters, as well as trying to get all those oft-elusive collectibles.

Skylanders: SuperChargers

Having played the Skylanders games annually for the past 5 years, I think this is perhaps the best one yet (though it did come out about a month earlier than usual). The gimmick this time is Vehicles, and while said gimmick admittedly has one or two shortcomings, the game seems to require less to get 100% (which is good for me) and items are made easier to get with the addition of a wishing well in the hub world and chests in each level randomizing what you get (this includes Soul Gems and Story Scrolls, the latter of which is presented as pieces of Kaos’ Diary recorded on vinyl). I have not bothered with the new Online Multiplayer option, but I can definitely say that the game is more fun with a second local player.

Top Disappointments of 2015

This is not to say that Age of Ultron is a terrible movie; I thought it was actually enjoyable and it still had some good humor in it. However, I found that there seemed to be too much going on within the overall story and that it could have been either cut down to speed up the pacing or presented as a longer feature to give the full story. In any case, while I loved Marvel’s first Avengers movie (I rank it up there with Spider-Man 2), this one did not feel like it lived up to its predecessor.

2015 - The Highlights (lionsroar)

Films watched for the first time and reviewed in 2015

Note: Since Trophy Unlocked has to pay for most of the movies we see in the theaters and for most of the films we watch at home, we don’t have the scope of a newspaper reviewer. We don’t see everything that’s out, so our ratings of films are based on what we decide to spend our money on.

Best Films of the year:

In no particular order:

A return to form for a franchise that has been over-exploited and more than a little neglected. After a disappointing second trilogy, The Force Awakens harkens back to the original trilogy, in both spirit and story context. Not a perfect film, it is still worth seeing more than once, which is really rare these days.

Pixar is no longer the studio that can do no wrong, but they certainly came up with a winner in their summer release. Inside Out takes a look at what goes on in the head of a young girl and shows how emotions and memories make us who we are. Very inventive, funny and moving, this is one of the better Pixar films, which is certainly saying a lot.

Not a big fan of Tom Cruise, but I really must say I enjoyed Rogue Nation. It seems that the Mission: Impossible franchise is actually getting better with age.

One of the more interesting concepts in recent years, the idea of following the life of a boy from childhood through college seems quite daunting and Richard Linklater, as well as his actors, should be commended for not only pulling it off, but making a compelling film.

Again, another film in a long running franchise, Jurassic World gave this moribund franchise a new start, bringing it back bigger than before. Like Star Wars, new blood infused this story with new life, though it still doesn’t make sense from a scientific or moral perspective. But for free, it was worth every penny.

Honorable Mention:

I had seen this movie before, but had not reviewed it until this year:

I knew going in that this Buster Keaton short was hilarious, but it is still one of the better films that I watched this year and it deserves to be watched again and again. Keaton may have worked in the shadows of Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd, but his body of work includes some of the best comedies ever made and One Week is one of his better efforts in short form.

Disappointments of the Year:

In no particular order:

I feel like I’m picking on a lost film, but London After Midnight, from what is left, seems to fail on so many levels. The plot is a little wonky as a murder mystery gets a horror film overlay, but the driving force of the plot, the person who most wants a police investigation into a murder, is the killer himself, which makes no sense. I wish the film had not been lost in a fire, but I doubt seeing it whole would really have changed my opinion.

Big-budget non-franchise films are hard to come by and I doubt this film would have gotten made without Brad Bird’s involvement. But one expects better from the man behind The Iron Giant and from lead actor George Clooney. Tomorrowland aims big, but sadly misses the mark.

A famous film does not always live up to its reputation and while Fatty and Mabel Adrift had some moments, it was for the most part not as funny as advertised. Fatty Arbuckle and Mabel Normand are silent comedy royalty, but this particular pairing sadly does not stand up to the test of time.


Joss Whedon set the bar too high with The Avengers (2013) and simply could not match it even with a bigger budget, the return of most of the original cast and the addition of James Spader as the villain. In this case, bigger does not mean better.

Going in I knew this film would suck. Some superheroes make for better movies than others. For some reason, not one has quite found a way to make a good film about the Fantastic Four and this third try is no exception. Making everything politically correct didn’t help and actually worked against it in some ways.

Honorable Mention:

The James Bond series is the grand-daddy of all film franchises, which along the way has laid a few eggs. While definitely not the worst of the franchise or of Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007, I hope that his time as Bond does not end on this slightly disappointing note.

The Good Dinosaur - Wasn't Good Enough at the Boxoffice

The Good Dinosaur (2015) Starring the voices of Raymond Ochoa, Jack Bright, Sam Elliott, Anna Paquin, A.J. Buckley, Jeffrey Wright, Frances McDormand. Directed by Peter Sohn. Screenplay by Meg LeFauve. Produced by Denise Ream. 90 Minutes USA. Color Animated, Comedy, Drama, Adventure

In an unusual move, Pixar Animation released two movies in the same year, first, Inside Out and second, The Good Dinosaur. One was a huge blockbuster hit and the other struggled to find an audience and might even be considered a flop. Such a label is unfair to a film like The Good Dinosaur; while it doesn’t quite have the magic that Inside Out had, it is a breathtaking example of the achievements of computer animation.

The gimmick of the film is that the meteor that lead to the extinction of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, misses. Rather than being killed off in an instant, the dinosaurs continue to dominate the Earth. It is a very interesting premise, but the film has dinosaurs slowly (65 million years slow) evolving into farmers rather than simply hunters. Sadly, that’s where the premise starts to fall apart. There is a sort of Flintstone equivalency with dinosaurs managing, without opposable thumbs, to repurpose objects for practical purposes.

Rather than wiping out the dinosaurs, the meteor flies by Earth.

The setting is sort of like a frontier Western, except the settlers are dinosaurs trying to grow crops that they need to survive the winter. There are no Indians, but the main villain here is Mother Nature, which can provide sunshine and also send thunderstorms and floods. The Western theme is played up, almost to the detriment of the film, as buffalos are herded and rustled and T-Rexes are shown to look like cowboys riding horses.

The background visuals are spectacular. I have never seen an animated film that looked so real. Clouds and running water look like they were filmed rather than rendered. The characters are not so realistic, but they really shouldn’t be, this isn’t a documentary about dinosaurs. The PG rating is justified as there are some strong images, an allusion to taking a hallucinogen and a real sense of peril at times.

The backgrounds in this film are spectacular.

The plot revolves around a young dinosaur, Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), who is the weakling of his family. He wants to make good, but he is timid and afraid. He forms an unlikely friendship with a six year-old human, Spot (Jack Bright), when the two end up swept away from Arlo’s home by a fierce and deadly flood. Spot starts out as an unwelcomed pest whom Arlo can’t shake, but in time they grow to not only respect the other, but a platonic love develops between them as Spot helps Arlo find his way back home. They each end up watching the other’s back and Arlo grows to believe in himself.

The human Spot moves to protect Arlo as the two develop a close bond.

The Good Dinosaur boasts some heavyweight voice talent, but with the exception of Sam Elliott’s Butch, they aren’t readily recognizable. Elliott is also the only one who seems destined for their role to the point it sounds like it was written with him in mind. Most of the others don’t have much presence or that much to do for that matter. No one’s bad per se, just under-utilized.

While Inside Out told us a story we’ve never seen, The Good Dinosaur tells us one that we’ve seen many times before, or at least feel we have. The twist is that dinosaurs are in the lead roles and the gimmick is not enough to carry the film.

The Good Dinosaur still does manage to touch your emotions. There is more than one moment that pulls at your heart strings and you should find yourself crying or close to tears at least once, if not twice. But there is more to making a good movie than making the audience cry. It’s too bad the story is not as revolutionary as the visuals.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Stubs - Return of the Jedi (1983)

Return of the Jedi (1983) Starring: Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Anthony Daniels. Directed by Richard Marquand Written by Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas. Produced by Howard Kazanjian.  Color. US. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy

And what goes up…

Back for a third and final slice of the original Star Wars trilogy, we now turn our attention to Return of the Jedi (1983).

There was no surprise anymore about there being another Star Wars. After the success of The Empire Strikes Back (1980) and Lucas’ declaration that this was a three trilogy saga, the third installment was a foregone conclusion.

Just like in the NFL, it’s hard to keep the same team together year in and year out, especially after you’ve had great success. Irvin Kershner decided he’d had enough of the Star Wars universe and backed out of directing the third film. He’s quoted in a Vanity Fair article from October 2010, “After working for two years and nine months doing Empire, and having it take so much out of my life and having given me so much, I felt that it was a complete experience and it was time to move on.”

Lucas then offered the director’s chair to David Lynch, best known at the time for Eraserhead (1972) and The Elephant Man (1980). Lynch would turn down the opportunity, so that he could direct Dune (1983). David Cronenberg was also on Lucas’ short list, but the director of The Brood (1979) and Scanners (1981), would also turn him down, choosing instead to direct Videodrome (1983) and The Dead Zone (1983).

The director Lucas chose was Richard Marquand, best known up until then for Birth of the Beatles (1979) and Eye of the Needle (1981). While I really liked Eye of the Needle, it would not seem to be a stepping stone to taking on such an endeavor as a Star Wars sequel. For proof, since Marquand had little experience with special effects, Lucas, who wanted to retire from actual filmmaking, had to spend a lot of time on the sets.

And what’s a director without a team. Harrison Ford was the only one of the major three who had not signed up for two sequels. By the time Return of the Jedi was in pre-production, he had already appeared in Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) and Blade Runner (1982) and wasn’t all that keen to return to the role. He suggested that Han could be killed through self-sacrifice, and Kasdan apparently concurred, thinking if it happened early in the film, it would provide some doubt of the others' survival. But Lucas was against it and he had the final word. Merchandising, which was essentially paying for this sequel, would suffer. Lucas wanted a happy ending, which would mean more merchandise sales.

Production began, under the pseudonym Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination, on January 11, 1982 with 78 days spent at Elstree studios, where the production took up all nine of the sound stages there. After that, production moved, in April, to the Yuma desert in Arizona for Tatooine exteriors. Next it moved for two weeks to the redwood forest outside of Crescent City, California for more exteriors of Endor and concluded with 10 days of bluescreen shooting at ILM studios now located in San Rafael. The idea of the early and quick production schedule was to give ILM as much time as they needed for the special effects. The film was scheduled to be released on May 27, 1983, but was moved to May 25 to the anniversary of Star Wars’ release in 1977.

In late 1982, trailers appeared in cinemas and movie teaser posters were distributed announcing the release of Revenge of the Jedi. But George Lucas, no doubt mindful of merchandising, got cold feet. Jedis, he surmised, wouldn’t seek revenge, and he changed the name to Return of the Jedi. (Revenge as part of a title would be saved back for the third film in the second trilogy, Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005)).

Like its predecessors, Return of the Jedi opens with the statement “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away....” followed by a prologue crawl: “Luke Skywalker has returned to his home planet of Tatooine in an attempt to rescue his friend Han Solo from the clutches of the vile gangster Jabba the Hutt. Little does Luke know that the GALACTIC EMPIRE has secretly begun construction on a new armored space station even more powerful than the first dreaded Death Star. When completed, this ultimate weapon will spell certain doom for the small band of rebels struggling to restore freedom to the galaxy…”

The Emperor is not pleased with delays in construction of the new Death Star and dispatches Darth Vader to spearhead the project with plans to arrive himself in the very near future.

Shortly after Vader arrives, The Emperor comes to see what all the delays are about on the Death Star.

Meanwhile, on Tatooine, Luke Skywalker searches for Han Solo, who in The Empire Strikes Back had been frozen in a carbonite monolith and presented to Jabba the Hut, whom Han owes gambling losses to, by Darth Vader.

Luke sends the two droids, C-3PO and R2-D2 as emissaries to Jabba. R2-D2 carries with him a hologram message from Luke, who offers to bet Jabba for Han’s release. As a goodwill gesture, he offers Jabba the two droids as a gift, much to C-3PO’s chagrin. While Jabba takes the droids, he has no interest in entertaining offers for his favorite ornament.

Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) appears in a message delivered by R2-D2 and C-3PO to Jabba the Hut.

Later, after having been entertained by musicians and dancers from various races, Jabba is visited by a Bounty Hunter, who has with them a prisoner Jabba wants, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). After some negotiations, the Bounty Hunter gets a good price for the Wookie and he is led away.

But the Bounty Hunter is, in reality, Princess Leia in disguise. And later that night, after the partiers are apparently asleep, she sneaks back into the Jabba’s and melts the Carbonite, freeing Han. But Jabba was one step ahead of them and both are captured. Han is sent to a prison cell, where he is reunited with his longtime friend Chewbacca.

Shortly thereafter, using his mastery of the “Force,” Luke gets past Jabba’s guards and gets an audience with him. He finds that Leia has been made into a slave girl, wearing that famously skimpy bikini.

Leia (Carrie Fisher) seems very cozy saddling up to Jabba the Hut when Luke arrives.

Luke offers Jabba a deal, liberate his friends or face a certain death. Jabba laughs at the idea and, using a trap door of sorts, sends young Skywalker into a dungeon along with one of his hapless guards. To Jabba’s and his entourage’s surprise, while the creature in the dungeon downs the guard, Luke manages to kill it. But the Jedi is taken prisoner.

This time, Jabba takes Luke, Han and Chewbacca to the Dune Sea’s pit of Carkoon, which is essentially the mouth of a creature called Sarlacc. But when they drive to force Luke to walk the plank over the mouth, he puts his secret plan into action. With the help of Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), who has infiltrated Jabba’s entourage and Leia, who manages to strangle Jabba with the chain that he’d used to bind her to him, Luke prevails.

Luke's plan is working. He, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca are taken to be fed to Sarlacc.

Later, Han, Leia, C-3PO and Chewbacca leave in the Millennium Falcon and Luke heads back to the Dagobah System, to continue his training with Yoda. But when he gets there, the old warrior tells Luke that he’s dying. He tells Luke that while his training is complete, he will not be a full-fledged Jedi until he confronts his long-lost father, namely Darth Vader, formerly Anakin Skywalker.

Yoda warns Luke to be wary of anger, aggression and negative feelings that might trump his spiritual powers. And while he tells Luke that he is the last Jedi, he tells him there is also another Skywalker just before he dies.

Luke is uncertain that he can go on without Yoda’s mentorship, but the spirit of his other deceased mentor, Ben “Obi-Wan” Kenobi, is there to continue with the exposition. He explains that Luke and Princess Leia were separated at birth so that Darth Vader would remain unaware of his daughter’s existence. Obi-Wan admits to lying to Luke about his father, but gives him the explanation that if you look at it a certain way, Anakin was killed off by Darth Vader.

Meanwhile, Rebel forces want to attack the new Death Star before it is completed. But while it might not have all its own weaponry in place, it is protected by an energy shield generated by a plant on the planet Endor. In order to attack the Death Star that plant was to be destroyed. With the shield down, Lando can lead the attack on the Death Star.

The plan is to send General Solo, it is wartime, in a captured imperial shuttle down to Endor and to deactivate the shield. Leia, Chewbacca and the droids agree to go with him. As the strategizing continues, Luke returns to base and offers to join in with Han’s covert attack.

When the shuttle approaches the Imperial Fleet to get clearance down to Endor, Darth Vader senses his son is aboard the shuttle. Luke, meanwhile, realizes he’s put the operation at risk. Despite that, the shuttle continues to Endor. They are discovered by Imperial guards riding flying motorcycles and in order to prevent them from giving away their presence, Luke and Leia take chase. During the chase, the two get separated and when Luke returns to the main group, he learns that Leia is still missing.

Leia, who has been thrown from her vehicle, is befriended by a furry creature. Though unnamed in the actual movie, we learn he is an Ewok, a race of bad ass teddy bears living on the planet. When Leia is reunited with her friends, the Ewoks mistake C-3PO as one of their deities come to life. This allows them to form an alliance to attack the power station.

Ewoks are sort of soulless Teddy Bear-like creatures that inhabit Endor.

The night before, Luke tells Leia that he has to confront Darth Vader, confessing that he is Luke’s father. He wants to bring Vader back into righteousness, but if Luke’s mission fails, Leia has to continue the fight, as she shares “the Force” because they’re twins separated at birth.

Leia doesn’t seem surprised by the revelation and encourages Luke to run away, but he is intent on saving their father from “the dark side.”

Soon, Luke is captured by Darth Vader, who has journeyed down to Endor. Luke gives his father the chide to join forces or to kill him. But Vader remains true to his evil ways and turns Luke over to the Emperor, who tells young Skywalker that the rebels have fallen into a trap he’s set. To demonstrate the new Death Star is operational, he orders the destruction of a rebel space station.

Darth Vader (David Prowse) brings Luke back to the Death Star to present him to the Emperor.

Meanwhile, back on Endor, Han and his group are helped by the Ewoks into the power station generating the energy shield.

Back in space, Lando and his fleet must call off their attack of the Death Star when they realize the shield is still in place. Empire forces attack the Rebels in space and on land.
Luke, who is watching helplessly, grows angry, one of the things Yoda warned him against doing. The Emperor seizes on this anger and, feeling Luke is being drawn to the “dark side,” returns his lightsaber.

But Luke attacks Darth Vader instead, as the Emperor watches, chuckling with delight. Luke is convinced that his father won’t be able to kill his only son, while Vader tells him the only way to save his friends is to convert to the “dark side”. When Vader reads Luke’s mind, he learns that Leia is his daughter and suggests that she, too, can be guided to the “dark side”.

Father and son battle with lightsabers, much to the delight of the Emperor.

This causes Luke to lose his composure and sever Vader’s lightsaber bearing hand. The Emperor is delighted by the turn of events, but Luke refuses to kill his father.

The Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) takes fiendish delight in Luke and Vader fighting in front of him.

Meanwhile, back on Endor, the Ewoks rescue Han’s landing party and together they manage to shut off the Death Star’s shield.

The Emperor grows tired of Luke’s resilience and tortures the boy. Darth Vader kills his evil master in order to stop him from hurting his son.

Out in space, Lando and his wing discover the shield is down and continue their attack on the Death Star.

Luke wants to save his father, but Vader, after his battle with the Emperor knows his life is over. He orders Luke to remove his oxygen mask so that he can look at his son with his own eyes. Father and son gaze into each other’s eyes for the first and only time before Vader dies.

Darth Vader has Luke remove his helmet so he can gaze at his son.

Luke escapes and the Death Star is destroyed. Back on Endor, the Ewoks celebrate when they see the explosion in the sky. When Leia is concerned about Luke’s safety, Han tells her that he’s safe. She admits to feeling a spiritual connection to Luke, which Han mistakes as love. He promises not to stand in the way of her relationship with Luke. But Leia confides that she and Luke are brother and sister, which Han is happy to hear.

Later, on Endor, Luke mourns his father with a funeral pyre as everyone rejoices in the Rebel victory, even the ghostly images of Yoda, Obi-Wan and, yes, even Anakin Skywalker.

The spirits of Anakin, Yoda and Obi-Wan rejoice at the Rebel victory in Return of the Jedi.

The film was released on May 25, 1983. By now, and as we’ve learned from the subsequent prequel trilogy, the franchise is critic-proof. Reviews were mostly mixed, though some, notably Roger Ebert, loved the film. Domestically, the film made over $252 million. It would add another $165 million worldwide. Merchandising would not suffer, though I don’t have numbers, but from then on, it seems, there has been merchandising in some form or the other, in retail, book and toy stores ever since, even when there was no imminent release of a new film.

Like all of the previous films, Return would get the enhanced treatment with 1997’s Special Edition and the original would disappear, hopefully preserved in some film vault in canisters next to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back. But for the average filmgoer, you might as well consider the version we’re reviewing as “lost”.

That said, Return of the Jedi provides the best example of special effects needing enhancement. It is painfully obvious when green screens are used, even more so than in the first two installments. They come off looking fake rather than special. It is most noticeable on the chase scenes through the redwood forest on Endor.

Like in the previous films, the costuming is hit and miss, but here it is more miss than hit.

Outside of the iconic costumes already introduced, there is nothing really good. Whenever we’re introduced to a new “race” of creature, they look like they’re wearing costumes. There is no sense of a soul, for lack of a better word, behind any of the eyes on any of them. They come across as looking like something you’d see in a high school production rather than a multi-million dollar film. The Ewoks, as an example, might as well have had button eyes than what they had.

Not all the costumes were bad in Return of the Jedi.This outfit is particularly iconic.

The Ewoks are also an example of Lucas trying too hard, in this case, not to lose young viewers. It is no accident that they resemble teddy bears though they definitely have a native vibe, like pygmy's from a Tarzan movie.

Disappointing costumes and special effects aside, the acting is what really doesn’t congeal in this movie. It’s as if the man characters are going through the motions without emotion. Maybe familiarity has brought on a certain flatness, but I don’t feel like any of them (Hamill, Ford and Fisher) really put in their best efforts here. Even Alec Guiness, who again makes an appearance as Obi-Wan, comes across as flat in his delivery.

The plot point that is brought out in Return of the Jedi, the fact that Darth Vader doesn’t know he has a daughter, seems a little hard to believe. If this took place in a little backwoods village without any advanced technology, you might believe that a woman might be pregnant with twins and she and her husband might not know until she actually gives birth.

But even though this is long, long ago, these people have mastered inter-galactic travel. It’s hard to believe that a pregnant woman wouldn’t know there were multiples inside her. Add to that Anakin’s mastery of the Force and it’s hard to imagine he wouldn’t sense two “younglings” growing inside Padme. After Revenge of the Sith, I always assumed he knew and that they were trying to hide both children from him.

Watching The Empire Strikes Back and then Return of the Jedi was similar to watching Spider-Man 2 (2004) and then Spider-Man 3 (2007). When Spider-Man 2 ended, I couldn’t wait for 3, but after sitting through the final in the trilogy, I felt more like “phew that’s over.” Return of the Jedi is not as good as Spider-Man 3, but the disappointment is just as real.

You don’t watch Return of the Jedi because it’s a great movie; it’s not. You watch it because it completes a trilogy you’ve already given the first two parts of multiple viewings and hours of your life. But as disappointing as this might be, it is still heads and shoulders above the next three films, which we will not be reviewing.

The stage is set for Episode VII; who would have thought it would take 32 years to get there.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens - The Franchise Reborn

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Starring: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamil, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac. Directed by J.J. Abrams. Screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams Michael Arndt. Story by George Lucas. Produced by Kathleen Kennedy, J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk. 135 min. Color. U.S.A. Science Fiction, Action, Adventure, Fantasy

You’d have to be off the grid and off planet not to know there is a new Star Wars film in the theaters, The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams.  Even if you’re not a part of “social” media, you can’t avoid the marketing for this film which seems to have reached most areas within the consumer market, from truck ads to food on the grocer’s shelves to the seemingly endless line of toys.

While no film could live up to such hype, The Force Awakens comes pretty close. As you’ve no doubt heard, this one is setting boxoffice records, but that’s really not a measure of how good a film is. With a built in and loyal fan base, we’ve seen far worse films from this franchise (prequel trilogy) made into megahits. Add in 6,000 screens and higher ticket prices, not to mention add-ons for 3-D and IMAX, and we could be in for a new all-time box-office champ.

I will say that while I waited with my family for the film to start at the Cinerama Dome on Sunday afternoon, I was nervous. The previous films, Episodes I through III, had been disappointing. Maybe it was time for someone else to take over the franchise, but I will admit I was uneasy about Disney putting Abrams in charge. While he might have suggested the story, the lack of George Lucas’ involvement seems to have been a good thing.

The story, and I will endeavor not to spoil anything, is actually very involving. There are a couple of Deus Ex Machina moments, but that seems to be my experience with Abrams’ work. If you accept it as part of the territory, they really don’t get in the way. The story involves many of the same plotlines that have been a part of the franchise from the beginning: parentage and the struggle of good v, evil, once again “the Force” and “the dark side.” There are other throwbacks to the original films as well and John Williams is back as film composer.

To my surprise, for the first time in a Star Wars film, people seem to talk like people talk, with awkward moments and sarcasm. It was quite refreshing. Exposition is handled much better than the clunky way Lucas often did and even the new characters seem to be well-rounded and it didn’t take an entire trilogy to tell their story. Bravo to screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt, who have written one of the best Star Wars scripts. Not everything is explained, but that's what sequels are for, aren't they? The writers manage to pay homage to the past while at the same time pointing the way to future adventures or should I say episodes?

Lego recreation of the director and cast going through a table read of the screenplay
written by Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt.

The main actors from Star Wars through Return of the Jedi, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill, are back, but Ford does most of the heavy-lifting as far as acting goes. He does get top billing after all. Chewbacca is also back in the fold. The droids we’ve also come to love also appear, though in much reduced roles. Lucas had planned for them to be in all nine of the films he envisioned, but if they had been in this much more they wouldn’t have made this film better.

Newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley) learns from Han Solo (Harrison Ford) in the new Star Wars film.

But The Force Awakens is really more about the next generation and they are very well represented by Daisy Ridley as Rey; John Boyega as Finn aka FN-2187, Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron and Adam Driver as Ben. Ridley, a virtual unknown, is phenomenal in what should be a breakout role for her. Boyega, is also not a familiar face, unless you count the numerous trailers for this film, but he is good as well. I can’t say too much more about these actors and these roles without giving too much away, but trust me, the acting is very solid all the way round.

John Boyega plays Finn in The Force Awakens.

As a counter to the return of C-3PO and R2-D2, a new droid, BB-8 is introduced. While he's presented as a youthful R2-D2 style bot, since he's been available for purchase since the summer, one has to wonder how much of his introduction was for story and how much for merchandising.

BB-8 is presented as the new generation's R2-D2 and is available for purchase at many fine retailers.

Having recently seen the original Return of the Jedi makes the special effects seem all the more amazing. While filmmakers endeavored to make as many of the special effects practical as possible, any film about space requires blue screens, green screens and plenty of CGI, all of which seem to mesh well with location shooting. There are the usual diversity of alien races, but these don’t look like grown up Muppets, the way they did in Return of the Jedi. And if you have a chance to see this in 3-D, then do it.

Despite my concerns, J.J. Abrams really came through here. He not only managed the myth, but he actually made a better story than I could have hoped for. Now, I guess I should worry that he’s not directing the next installment. That’s really too bad, on so many levels. A franchise, like a good team, needs strong leadership. We don’t want to see Star Wars go the way of the Die Hard franchise, which suffers without someone to give it direction. Lucas might have needed to go, but the series needs an overall vision, that constantly changing of creative teams would seem to work against.

I had my concerns, but J.J. Abrams rose to the occasion with his work on The Force Awakens.

Overall I would say that this is the best Star Wars film since the original. It may not live up to the hype, but it is well worth watching at least once. If you’re like my family, you may want to see it again. If you’re a real fan boy, you’ll go broke watching it.