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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

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Revisited: Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace

Twenty years ago this week, I was caught up in the spectacle of the biggest pop culture event I had ever seen in my short two decades on earth. The triumphant return (according to all the promotional materials) of George Lucas to the franchise that changed movies forever was cause for feverish celebration. I remember seeing the headline of a review for Episode I in the days after the film’s opening that dared to disparage the first new Star Wars movie released in 16 years. It called the origin story of Anakin Skywalker The Phantom Movie.

I scoffed. I was having none it. As a die-hard Star Wars fan, the fact of The Phantom Menace’s existence was proof of its greatness. There was no way to convince me that the movie wasn’t anything other than what was promised: the greatest, most exciting movie event in a generation. After a stint in film school, twenty years of studying movies, and a hard-fought effort to refine my critical thinking skills – not just about movies, but everything – it’s no surprise that I don’t look at The Phantom Menace in the same way that I did a long time ago in a small town far, far away.

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Avengers: Endgame

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Avengers: Endgame

Those of us who didn’t grow up reading the source material, who can’t recite chapter and verse the labyrinthine backstory for the dozens of characters integrated into the MCU, can sometimes feel like outsiders. As one of those outsiders, my first instinct is to focus on these films’ over-reliance on Earth-in-Peril (and more increasingly, Universe-in-peril) scenarios, the deadening effects of pixelpalooza CGI battles, and the constant hype machine always building towards the next movie.

While the criticisms are valid – especially in the weaker MCU entries like Avengers: Age of Ultron – they cause me too often to overlook the moments of emotional resonance that these movies contain, and the connection that their most loyal fans have to the characters. With Avengers: Endgame, the grand finale and culmination of over 20 Marvel movies spanning more than a decade, it’s impossible to overlook the emotional resonance. Screenwriters Christopher Markus & Stephen McFeely and sibling directing team Anthony & Joe Russo made a film rich with human drama.

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

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The Man Who Killed Don Quixote

The most uncharitable way to describe Terry Gilliam’s work is that it is solipsistic. Almost every film the director has made centers on a hero battling – not always successfully – to maintain his autonomy and individuality in a society obsessed with conformity. Gilliam’s characters rage against the system to protect their romantic, singular view of the world. The most satisfying of his films are those in which Gilliam is able to make us see the world through his protagonists’ eyes. His best films, Brazil, The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, 12 Monkeys, and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, unlock the hero’s mind. His misses – The Fisher King, The Brothers Grimm – frustratingly fail to do so. We can see the vivid imagination of the central character, but only from the outside. We’re never allowed all the way in.

Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote belongs in the latter category.

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The Predator

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The Predator

There’s been a lot of movie geek hype over the fact that cult icon Shane Black is at the helm of the latest Predator reboot, a beloved middle-aged white dude franchise. Black is the writer of late 80s/early 90s action fare like the first two Lethal Weapon pictures, The Last Boy Scout, and Last Action Hero, which, despite its disastrous theatrical run, has turned into a treasured cult artifact.

Black returned with a critical hit in 2005 when he not only wrote but also directed Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. He had a full-on career resurgence in the mid-2010s when he did the same with Iron Man 3 and The Nice Guys. His brand of gritty action and snappy, foul-mouthed dialog has huge cachet among those middle-aged white dudes I just mentioned – a subgroup that includes your humble reviewer. (Although the OED defines “middle age” as being 45-65. I’m 38, so maybe I’m not quite there yet? Maybe?!? But I digress).

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Ocean's 8

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Ocean's 8

The strangest thing about watching Ocean’s 8 is that I could never quite figure out what it was supposed to be. Maybe that’s because the movie never quite figured that out, either. Like 2016’s gender-swapping Ghostbusters, Ocean’s 8 sort of works like a reboot of the Ocean’s franchise, with an all-female cast in place of the men from Steven Soderbergh’s testosterone drenched series of heist movies. Soderbergh is credited as a producer on this film, by the way.

It’s a reboot in that it trades on the Ocean’s brand, but features all new characters pulling off a new caper. At the same time, certain elements work as a straight remake of the first film. The beginning of the picture opens in the exact same way as Ocean’s Eleven. Sandra Bullock’s Debbie Ocean is seated in front of a never-seen parole board, who are trying to determine if her time in prison has rehabilitated her wayward con artist habits. Like Ocean’s Eleven, 8 consists of the main character building her team and putting her plan into action.

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

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Solo: A Star Wars Story

When I wrote about Rogue One, the first of the Star Wars anthology films, one of my main takeaways about the picture was how much it broke from the previous movies in the Star Wars universe. It was thematically dense in a way we had never seen in a Star Wars movie, and it only tangentially relied on callbacks to the earlier films to connect us to the series. Much of the credit for that innovative feel was probably due to The Walt Disney Company (which now owns and produces all things Star Wars) introducing fresh blood into the franchise. Neither director Gareth Edwards nor writers Chris Weitz or Tony Gilroy had ever been involved with any Star Wars project prior to Rogue One. The new anthology entry, Solo: A Star Wars Story, is like the anti-Rogue One, but I don’t mean that in the strictly pejorative sense that you’re probably expecting.

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Deadpool 2

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Deadpool 2

I hate that I’m starting to repeat myself when it comes to comic book movies. The critique is a fair one, though, so you’ll have to forgive me as I copy and paste my biggest complaint about Avengers: Infinity War and apply it to Deadpool 2. Writing about Infinity War, I parroted the increasingly familiar refrain from many critics that any sense of dramatic stakes in these movies is undercut when, in the interest of protecting the franchise cash cow, the filmmakers hit the reset button to ensure a next installment. That’s what (predictably) happens at the end of Deadpool 2, and in a mid-credits sequence, no less. This franchise relies on its use of snark and sardonic meta style to laugh at these conventions – and itself – so hard that we can’t help but forgive it. The problem is that after just one sequel, the nihilistic and self-referential humor has started to wear a little thin.

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Avengers: Infinity War

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Avengers: Infinity War

Ten years ago, Marvel Studios launched its “cinematic universe,” using crossovers and tie-ins to connect every property under its umbrella. The strategy has shaken the entire entertainment industry. Any extended universe of characters – from rival DC’s effort at playing catch-up, to Universal Studios’ so far disastrous “Dark Universe” – is a naked attempt at copying Marvel’s lucrative success. To celebrate their decade of dominance, Marvel changed the “i” and “o” in the word “studios” to the number 10 in the Marvel logo at the beginning of Avengers: Infinity War, the 19th feature film release in the MCU.

It’s become harder and harder to think about each of these movies on its own merits, because Marvel’s apparent plan is to work its audiences into a constant frenzy of anticipation for what’s coming next.

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Pacific Rim Uprising

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Pacific Rim Uprising

Pacific Rim Uprising is the follow-up to Guillermo del Toro’s bonkers 2013 special effects extravaganza about giant robots battling giant interdimensional sea monsters. A good way to predict what you’ll think of this sequel is to take your feelings about the original movie and downshift them by about 30 percent. If you loved Pacific Rim, like I did, Uprising will seem like a slightly stale but enjoyable enough retread of the first movie. If the original didn’t do much for you, this one will probably be unbearable.

The most tedious thing about the movie is that it telegraphs to the audience a deep desire to become a franchise. More than that, its creators and studio want to fashion another – and here I have to suppress my gag reflex – Expanded Cinematic Universe. Uprising’s director, Steven S. DeKnight, has said as much in interviews. In fact, one of the movie’s four credited screenwriters, T.S. Nowlin, is involved in the so-called MonsterVerse. That’s the upcoming ECU involving crossovers between the baddies in monster movies like the 2014 reboot Godzilla and last summer’s Kong: Skull Island. So, why not get the giant monsters in Pacific Rim to battle King Kong in a spin-off movie?

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A Wrinkle in Time

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A Wrinkle in Time

The highest praise you can bestow on a kids’ movie is that adults can enjoy it, too. Is that just us grown-ups being selfish? Not really, because if a movie is aimed at children, but is sophisticated enough for adults, that usually means it’s not talking down to its target audience. It gives kids credit for their own level of sophistication. See just about every Pixar movie for the best examples of this sort of filmmaking.

A Wrinkle in Time truly is a kids’ movie. It’s not meant for me, so it feels mean-spirited to beat up on it too much. There are perhaps millions of kids out there who might have a cultural earthquake happen inside them when they see this picture. But, the movie does a disservice to the kids it wants to entertain. Aside from the gigantic budget and the production value that goes along with it, A Wrinkle in Time doesn’t offer its audiences (either the kids or the adults) much sophistication at all.

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Black Panther

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Black Panther

If you suffer from the condition known as Superhero Fatigue Syndrome, as I often do, you might be hesitant to see the latest Marvel movie, Black Panther. There’s no reason to be hesitant. In fact, Black Panther works as an antidote to the feeling that you’ve grown tired of just about anything based on a comic book or that is incorporated into Marvel’s sprawling, at times unwieldy, Cinematic Universe. Black Panther might just be the best Marvel movie yet.

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

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Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Rarely have the first 15 minutes of a movie given me more conflicting emotions than those at the start of Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. My reservation during the opening crawl gave way to the thrill of a taut, explosive opening action sequence. The source of my initial unease stemmed from a sense of déjà vu.

The exposition contained in the iconic floating paragraphs for writer/director Rian Johnson’s first Star Wars adventure is a little too similar to that of Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The fascistic First Order, under the control of evil Supreme Leader Snoke, is ruthless in its pursuit of the Resistance, lead by General Leia Organa. The First Order is attempting to crush this rebellion so it can solidify its power and rule the galaxy unchallenged.

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Dunkirk

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Dunkirk

“More than 900 little ships came from Britain [to Dunkirk], evacuated the British and French forces and ferried them across the Channel to safety. They were able to rescue thousands of troops over the course of several days. This is often reported as an example of wartime British bravery and comradeship. 

What is rarely talked about is the fact that many troops in the French Army were from Africa, and the little ships refused to take the Black soldiers. They left them on the beaches for the Germans to capture, and many ended up in Auschwitz. Senegalese director Sembene Ousmane mentions this in his film Camp Thioroye, which is based on the true story of a massacre of African soldiers by the French Army during the war.” - From the website ancestralenergies.blogspot.com

The inconvenient facts described above lay the groundwork for the most damning criticism of Christopher Nolan’s otherwise thrilling new film Dunkirk. How much more complex and challenging of an experience could Nolan have presented by simply making a noticeable percentage of the troops desperately trying to get aboard the rescue ships ones of color? Soldiers from India, Senegal, and Morocco (to name but a few) fought in the war to end fascism as part of the British and French empires.

Instead, Nolan and his casting team made the film a 99.9% white affair. That’s not cause enough to junk the picture. On the contrary, there is a lot to praise (which I’ll get to soon) about Dunkirk.

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War for the Planet of the Apes

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War for the Planet of the Apes

War for the Planet of the Apes chronicles more than the struggle for species supremacy. This is the latest film in Fox’s popular franchise depicting a world where apes evolved from men. It gives us an internal war, one which rages within our hero, the ape Caesar. In War, we see a very personal loss, plus the ravages of constant battle, take its toll on the weary leader who was willing to go to great lengths for peace. The brutality that he and his kind face sparks a descent into rage and a thirst for vengeance in Caesar that is both uncharacteristic, yet completely understandable. This film is the culmination of a meticulously crafted character arc; it’s at once mournful and dark, but rich and satisfying. One near fatal tonal misstep aside, every aspect of filmmaking comes together in War to conclude the tragedy of Caesar in grand style.

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Okja

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Okja

South Korean director Bong Joon-ho is a master at blending opposing tones (see 2016’s Snowpiercer if you doubt me). That’s exactly what he does in his newest film, Okja. Half broad, outrageous comedy and half heart-rending, stomach-turning drama, Okja is beautifully executed.

Setting the tone of a movie is a big part of the magic of cinema. So many people contribute to the production – from actors to set decorators, cinematographers to sound mixers – working together to create a living, breathing world that draws us in. The director is at the center of it all, acting as the conductor, bringing order to the chaos that could result from hundreds of people focusing solely on their own jobs. And Bong Joon-ho is an amazing conductor.

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Baby Driver

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Baby Driver

To the people in charge: please, please, please let Edgar Wright direct the next installment of the Fast and Furious series. Let him write it, too. With Baby Driver, he’s proven he is up to the task. He might not have any interest, though. Wright thrives on challenging himself with a different genre for each new film he makes. He dismantles them, and rebuilds them in his own quirky, original image. He did it with horror in Shaun of the Dead, and the buddy-cop movie in Hot Fuzz. He did it with the romantic comedy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, and science fiction in The World’s End. Now he’s done it with the heist/car chase genre in Baby Driver. It’s exhilarating, funny, and a damn good time at the movies.

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Wonder Woman

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Wonder Woman

It’s not my intent to damn Wonder Woman with too much faint praise by measuring it favorably against the abysmal Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice. After all, saying this movie is leagues better than that one is akin to lauding really good fast food over something you found in the dumpster because, well, at least it isn’t actual garbage. The comparison needs to be made, though, because both exist in DC’s attempt at a Marvel-style cinematic universe, and the character made her debut in that earlier film. Wonder Woman is a well-crafted action spectacle with its greatest strength (both the title character and the actress playing her) right at the center. The elements orbiting that center, though, keep it from being transcendent.

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Alien: Covenant

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Alien: Covenant

A great thing about the early entries in the Alien franchise is that they are exciting and scary good fun. Alien: Covenant is too obsessed with its own mythology to be much of either. Director Ridley Scott had the perfect opportunity to pull a George Miller. That filmmaker revived his Mad Max series with the fresh and inventive Fury Road. Miller wasn’t concerned with what he did in the past. With Fury Road, he gleefully started from scratch, and as a result produced a rip-roaring action film, one of the best of the decade. Alien: Covenant is the first true Alien movie in 20 years. Scott’s 2012 film Prometheus was a sort of spiritual sequel to the franchise, taking place in the same universe, but centered on its distant origins. Covenant is a direct sequel to Prometheus. Instead of surprising us with the possibilities of a clean start, Scott and his writers, John Logan and Dante Harper, give us that sinking feeling with Covenant that this is someplace we’ve already been.

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

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Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

The most enjoyable thing about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 is exemplified in its very first action sequence. An alien race called The Sovereign have hired the guardians – Star-Lord, Gamora, Drax, Rocket Racoon, and Groot – to protect some highly powerful and very valuable batteries from a giant space slug. An epic battle ensues as a backdrop to the opening credits. There’s plenty of razzle-dazzle special effects work and camera trickery in this sequence, to be sure, but the real focus isn’t the fight at all. Groot, the 12-foot tall extraterrestrial tree-creature, sacrificed himself in the first Guardians film, and regenerated as a tiny seedling now known as Baby Groot. Obviously, he’s not much help in this fight. Instead, director James Gunn has him avoiding danger by showing off some hilarious dance moves to Electric Light Orchestra’s classic hit Mr. Blue Sky.

It’s a clever, goofy way of launching directly into the oddball sense of humor that made the original movie from 2014 so entertaining.

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Free Fire

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Free Fire

Free Fire is an outrageous little movie. It shouldn’t be as entertaining as it is. This hilarious gun-deal-turned-shoot-out is provocative and cathartic, with cartoonish violence aimed mostly for laughs. It’s Tarantino, but straight-slapstick.

It would be reasonable to think a movie that consists almost completely of people shooting each other would become tedious, not to mention a little hard to watch considering the unimaginable spate of mass shootings constantly featured in the news. Director Ben Wheatley and writer Amy Jump – who co-wrote the script together – pull it off, though.  Set in 1978, the movie begins with two factions traveling to a Boston warehouse to complete an illegal weapons deal. An intermediary, Justine, represents the buyers: a group of IRA members, led by Chris, who want firearms for use against their enemies in The Troubles. Justine’s colleague, Ord, is bringing the seller, a South African gun runner named Vernon, who is accompanied by his own group of associates. An uneasy tension hangs in the air as all the interested parties, ten people total, attempt to exchange cash for guns.

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