Sunday, June 17, 2018

Halloween (1978) Movie Review

On Halloween night in 1963, six-year-old Michael Myers (Will Sandin) snapped and brutally stabbed his teenage sister Judith to death. He was sentenced and locked away for fifteen years. But on October 30, 1978, while being transferred for a court date, Michael (Tony Moran) steals a car and escapes Smith's Grove Sanitarium. The Shape (Nick Castle) returns to his quiet hometown of Haddonfield, Illinois, where he looks for his next victims, while his doctor Sam Loomis (Donald Pleasence) hunts him down to stop his inevitable reign of terror and destruction.
Before 1999’s The Blair Witch Project became the highest-grossing independent film of all time, that title had belonged to 1978’s Halloween, an Alfred Hitchcock-inspired, independently-made, low-budget horror thriller that proves that you don’t need a massive truckload of money or A-list stars to make a good film that people will love and cherish for years to come. All that’s needed is pure talent and an abundance of creativity, no matter what limitations step in their way.

Initially premiering to negative critical reviews before being re-evaluated during a theatrical re-release in 1979, with Roger Ebert giving it his highest rating of four stars, Halloween became the film that influenced a whole new generation of both horror films and horror fans, and although it wasn’t the first slasher film seeing as Psycho, The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, and Black Christmas all came out before it, it helped pave the way for the notorious slasher film craze in the 1980’s along with Friday the 13th. The fact that this small little gem has managed to stand the test of time for forty years now is without a doubt a remarkable accomplishment. There’s a reason why this is considered by many to be a high point in the horror genre.
A large part of why this film has managed to remain such a wonderful influence on future horror films is due to John Carpenter’s meticulous direction. Carpenter was, is, and always will be one of our finest filmmaking artists, with a distinct, recognizable style; a great deal of empathy for his protagonists; and fantastic attention to detail. When you see one of his films, you immediately know it’s his when you notice his style. Carpenter’s talent for utilizing a limited amount of resources in a creative way and making his films look more expensive than their budgets would suggest is highlighted on full display here in Halloween, and it’s glorious.

Major props should also be given to frequent Carpenter collaborator Dean Cundey, who serves as director of photography and would later go on to serve as cinematographer for films such as Back to the Future, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? and Jurassic Park among others. The cinematography is considered some of the best in horror film history and for good reason. The impeccable use of shadows and the 2.35:1 widescreen aspect ratio, the absolutely sublime lighting, the smooth camerawork, the striking use of primary colors.
Along with the incredible cinematography and camerawork, a massive part in why the film is as effective as it is comes along in the form of Carpenter’s incredibly moody and bone-chilling musical score, one of the film’s many highlights. One of the most oft-duplicated soundtracks in the history of the genre, the score for Halloween is able to encompass a variety of different moods and feelings while still maintaining a great level of fear and atmosphere.

Laurie Strode’s theme gives off a peaceful, innocent, idyllic sort of vibe while giving you the impression that there’s something rather sinister underneath the surface. The Myers house theme gives off a hint of tragedy while still representing the perfect haunted house music. The Shape Stalks is when the terror in the third act kicks in and never lets up, completely chilling you to the bone, and of course, I can’t forget to mention that absolutely iconic title theme music, which is guaranteed to give you goosebumps.
It’s often said that in order to be scared by a slasher film, you need to be invested in its characters. If the characters come across as bland, annoying, or hateful, you struggle to care and you’re instead cheering on the villain to kill them in various gross, creative, and gruesome ways, which is what seems to be the case for many modern slasher films. If the characters seem like people you’d enjoy being around and actually manage to make intelligent, well-thought out decisions in spite of their fear, then the suspense is genuine because you don’t want the heroes to have anything horrible happen to them. Luckily, the characters in Halloween represent the latter as opposed to the former.

Laurie Strode represents a girl scout kind of character, but it works insanely well. Jamie Lee Curtis delivers a likable, compassionate performance as this kind and caring yet strong-willed character and she makes her very easy to root for. When the third act kicks in, her fear looks and sounds frighteningly genuine and Curtis’ acting becomes a powerhouse in the process. Nancy Loomis and P.J. Soles play Laurie’s friends Annie and Lynda, and while their characters may seem like the typical ditzy, sex-obsessed stereotypes we’ve come to be familiar with in a lot of other slasher films like this, we come to like and get invested in them as well as we see that they have a certain spunk to them that’s endearing.
Of course, the best performance comes courtesy of the late great Donald Pleasence as Dr. Loomis. The way he describes how Michael Myers is the living emobodiment of evil, essentially a walking tornado of chaos and mayhem, to Sheriff Leigh Brackett (Charles Cyphers) and to Marion adds so much to the film without even having to provide any visuals. It’s a testament to Loomis’ characterization, Carpenter’s direction, and Pleasence’s unforgettable performance that Loomis is able to serve as Michael’s voice in a way even with Michael being a completely silent figure.

Aside from being the film to spawn a countless slew of slasher clones during the 1980’s, Halloween is also the first slasher film to portray its main antagonist -- who’s a rarity in the sense that this is a normal-looking human being (as evidenced in the ending, where Laurie takes his mask off just before falling onto the floor after being strangled by him) who just happens to wear baggy overalls and a painted, messy-haired William Shatner mask as opposed to a deformed, grumbling humanoid-like person -- as a supernatural force in some way. Michael is able to take multiple beatings, stabbings, and shootings and yet nothing can ever keep him down. It’s this, and the film’s ending where Michael seemingly vanishes, that enforces Loomis’ point that Michael is the embodiment of true evil. He is the boogeyman. True evil never dies. It lasts forever.
Halloween is a shining, clear as crystal example of how to do a slasher film right and how to do a horror film in general right. The characters are likable and incredibly memorable, the villain is genuinely menacing and poses a very much real threat that keeps the stakes high, there’s a great level of plausibility to the proceedings that prevents it from feeling ridiculous and silly, the atmosphere is everlasting and wonderfully creepy throughout, the sense of dread is intensely overwhelming, the dialogue sounds naturalistic and authentic, the cinematography is clever and moody, and the acting is on top form throughout.

What makes this hold up in particular is the fact that this is a film that focuses on its characters, its storytelling, and the suspense it builds up, as opposed to how many imaginative and disgusting death scenes can be conjured up and how gross and blood-soaked those death scenes can be. Halloween is a timeless classic, and it’s destined to maintain that status for as long as both the horror genre and the human race are still around.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Black Panther (2018) Movie Review

Black Panther is a 2018 science fiction superhero fantasy adventure action techno-thriller film directed by Ryan Coogler from a screenplay co-written with Joe Robert Cole, based on characters created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby, produced by Kevin Feige, Jeffrey Chernov, Louis D’Esposito, David J. Grant, Nate Moore, and Victoria Alonso, and starring Chadwick Boseman, Ashton Tyler, Michael B. Jordan, Seth Carr, Lupita Nyong'o, Danai Gurira, Martin Freeman, Daniel Kaluuya, Letitia Wright, Winston Duke, Angela Bassett, Forest Whitaker, Denzel Whitaker, Andy Serkis, Florence Kasumba, John Kani, Atandwa Kani, Sterling K. Brown, Sydelle Noel, Connie Chuene, Isaach de BankolĂ©, Dorothy Steel, Danny Sapani, Nabiyah Be, and Sebastian Stan.

After the death of his father T'Chaka (John Kani) and the subsequent Civil War of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, T'Challa (Chadwick Boseman) returns home to the isolated and technologically advanced African nation of Wakanda to take his rightful place as king. When a powerful enemy named Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) suddenly emerges, T'Challa's mettle as the king of his land, and as the Black Panther, gets tested when he's drawn into a conflict that puts the fate of Wakanda and the entire world at risk. Faced with treachery and danger, the young king must rally his allies and release the full power of the Black Panther to defeat his foes and secure the safety of his people.

Back in the old days, black characters in comic books were either villains, comic relief, or sidekicks. But then the world was introduced to Black Panther, created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and debuting in 1966. The first superhero of African descent in mainstream American comic books, Black Panther's creation was utterly remarkable at the time. Not only was the character a black lead in a comic book, but he was also one of the most incredibly intelligent characters ever to be written on the page and drawn on the panel and his home of Wakanda is home to some of the most advanced technology and weaponry on the planet, and the comic itself highlighted the beauty and majesty of Africa.

For years, a film adaptation has been struggling to get off the ground, with Wesley Snipes pursuing one back in the early 1990's, but after some time, he decided to abandon it and move on to another black Marvel superhero: Blade, whose film ended up making Marvel serious bank and revolutionized the current superhero genre. It made audiences take comic book films seriously again. Without Blade, we wouldn't have X-Men, we wouldn't have Spider-Man, and we wouldn't have the Marvel Cinematic Universe. After years and years, Black Panther finally made his cinematic, live-action debut in 2016's Captain America: Civil War, with Chadwick Boseman playing the character. He ended up being one of the best parts of that film, so we were all looking forward to his solo film, and I have to say: not only is Black Panther currently the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, but also arguably one of the most important.

For starters, I need to talk about this film's cultural impact. This may not be the first superhero film with a black protagonist, but it's by far the best and destined to be the most impactful given the timeline we live in right now. Usually, a lot of great films dealing with the African American experience tend to focus on their pain and suffering as well as their poverty. Black Panther isn't that type of film. It's a film in which a black male is the ruler of an entire kingdom. A film in which the special forces consists entirely of strong, compassionate, and intelligent black women. A film in which black people have invented technology and weaponry that's far beyond what we're normally capable of. It's a comic book film that gives black audiences a large majority of characters that not only look like them but that they can also identify with. To deny the cultural significance of this character and this film is a brand of ignorance that's deeply saddening.

Speaking of cultural significance, this is by far the most politically charged and socially relevant Marvel Cinematic Universe film to date. Beautifully mixed-in with all the effects-heavy, fast-paced action set pieces is spectacularly handled commentary that's handled very effectively. Not only do director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole wisely refuse to condescend or preach to their audience but they also use the themes they tackle as a means to further develop their characters and increase their complexity. We see these characters think about what they're doing is either right or wrong, we see them raise interesting points, we see them provide compelling arguments for what they seek to achieve or what they want the world to notice. This is especially evident with the character of Killmonger, who's by far the absolute best villain in this franchise. While he's an antagonist, he brings up subject matter that makes you understand where he's coming from and makes our protagonist think about his actions. He's a rare villain that you can actually sympathize with.

All of the performances are utterly spectacular. Chadwick Boseman once again is outstanding as Black Panther and absolutely embodies the role, getting the character's kingly nature down flawlessly. Michael B. Jordan is excellent as Killmonger and he shows that he can play a bad guy impeccably. Lupita Nyong'o is phenomenal as Nakia, Letitia Wright is energetic and hilarious as Shuri, Angela Bassett excels with her portrayal of the motherly and loving Queen Ramonda, Forest Whitaker adds a small yet nonetheless great amount of gravitas to the role of Zuri, Andy Serkis is once again wonderfully hammy as Ulysses Klaue, and Martin Freeman is great as always as CIA agent Everett K. Ross. But by far my favorite performance comes from Danai Gurira as Okoye, the leader of the all-female special forces, the Dora Milaje. She is absolutely magnificent as this character, the most powerful warrior in Wakanda who's dedicated to protecting her people. Gurira practically disappears into the role, getting her down to a tee, equal parts compassionate and ferocious.

What especially makes these performances so great and stand out so strongly is the sharp and tightly written script, which is paced a little more slower than the typical Marvel Cinematic Universe film, but that's all for the better. Why is that? Character development, character development, character development. Every character in this film, in particularly the women of Wakanda, gets a chance to shine and the opportunity to be fully realized, even those with minimal screentime. You can tell from how the story plays out, how the dialogue flows, how the characters interact, and how confidently this film is directed that Ryan Coogler is intensely passionate about this source material and he cares deeply about these characters, wanting to create the best cinematic interpretation of them possible, and he pulls it off with flying colors.

Speaking of flying colors and fully realized elements, I absolutely adore the look of the land of Wakanda in this film. The way production designer Hannah Beachler and her crew managed to translate this absolutely beautiful and incredible place from the panels of a comic book to the silver screen is utterly breathtaking. Everything looks gorgeous and dazzlingly unique and yet there's also a sort of lived-in quality to the environments that give them a sense of authenticity, which ends up increasing the audience's immersion into this world. Ruth Carter's costume designs are also exquisitely beautiful throughout the entire film, brilliantly blending together traditional African elements with those of other tribes and futuristic qualities. The highlights for me would have to be the costumes of the Dora Milaje as well as the glamorous green dress Nakia wears in the casino. Of course, Black Panther's suit is also spectacularly realized.

The film is shot marvelously, no pun intended. Ryan Coogler once again collaborates with director of photography Rachel Morrison, the first female cinematographer in the industry to be nominated for an Academy Award, following their work on Coogler's directorial debut Fruitvale Station and their work together on this film is jaw-dropping. Every shot in this film took my breath away. The lighting is perfect, the shot composition is superb, the camerawork is wonderfully fluid and smooth, and the use of glowing, radiant colors is magnificent. There's a lot of slick style and creative visual flair on display here. Call me crazy, but I'm just going to say it, and I mean this when I say it: Rachel Morrison is the female Roger Deakins, if her work on this and Mudbound are any indication.

This film also features some of the best and most awe-inspiring world-building in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It's honestly so good and perfectly realized that it can easily rank right up there with the Star Wars saga. I am dead serious. Another thing I really loved about this film is that you can watch it without needing to watch the other Marvel Cinematic Universe films. It fits beautifully into the franchise but it works even better as its own unique thing. The action sequences are also superbly put together. Ryan Coogler in his blockbuster debut has a great knack for well-choreographed, thrilling action sequences, all of which are beautifully shot and edited. The visual effects courtesy of the wizards and maestros from Industrial Light & Magic are dazzling throughout in spite of a few rough spots, mostly around the third act, and the storytelling is also some of the best of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, not just because of how topical it is but also because it's just so intelligent and expertly crafted.

Let's talk about the soundtrack for this film, which is not only one of the best for a Marvel Cinematic Universe film but undoubtedly the most unique of them all. The score by regular Coogler collaborator Ludwig Goransson is absolutely stunning. I especially loved how Goransson combines the usual orchestrals with traditional African instrumentation, inspired by the music of thousands upon thousands of tribes, as well as trap sounds. It gives the score its own distinctive identity that's very refreshing and it's a royal feast for the ears when listening to it. The songs used in the film, from the one and only Kendrick Lamar, are also fantastic, mainly because of how well they reflect the main themes of the film, and they also complement the score very nicely.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

Really, there's nothing much else I can say about Black Panther that I haven't said already. Not only is this the current champion of Ryan Coogler's filmography but also the current champion of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Ryan Coogler has now gone three-for-three, and I sincerely look forward to what this brilliant young talent has to offer next, and I also sincerely look forward to a Black Panther sequel. Rich with topical and relevant themes, exquisite cinematography, beautiful production and costume designs, intense action sequences, superb character development, and outstanding performances from start to finish, Black Panther is a rare Marvel Cinematic Universe installment that's right up there with The Avengers and Guardians of the Galaxy as a game-changer for the superhero genre and it’s now one of my all-time favorite comic book films. Wakanda forever.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016) Re-Review

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice is a 2016 psychological science fiction superhero fantasy action thriller crime drama film directed by Zack Snyder from a screenplay by David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, based on characters craeted by Bob Kane, Bill Finger, Jerry Siegel, and Joe Shuster, produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Emma Thomas, Christopher Nolan, Wesley Coller, Benjamin Melniker, Michael E. Uslan, Steven Mnuchin, Jim Rowe, Curtis Kanemoto, Gregor Wilson, and Geoff Johns, and starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Jesse Eisenberg, Diane Lane, Laurence Fishburne, Jeremy Irons, Holly Hunter, Gal Gadot, Jena Malone, Scoot McNairy, Tao Okamoto, Callan Mulvey, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Lauren Cohan, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Joe Morton, Kevin Costner, Robin Atkin Downes, Harry J. Lennix, Rebecca Buller, Christina Wren, Carla Gugino, Michael Cassidy, Brandon Spink, and Ripley Sobo.

It's been nearly two years since Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman's (Henry Cavill) colossal battle with General Zod (Michael Shannon) devastated the city of Metropolis. The loss of life and collateral damage left many feeling angry and helpless, including crime-fighting billionaire Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck). Convinced that Superman is now a threat to humanity, Batman embarks on a personal vendetta to end his reign on Earth, while the conniving Lex Luthor (Jesse Eisenberg) launches his own crusade against the Man of Steel.

Man of Steel, producer Christopher Nolan and director Zack Snyder’s reimagining of the Superman franchise, is a film that left critics, fans, and audiences split down the middle when it came out in the summer of 2013. Some praise it as a fresh, unique, bold take on the character and his mythos, while others say it betrays and does away with everything the character ever stood for. Still, it can’t be denied that Man of Steel has plenty of ambition and thought behind it. Whether you liked it or not, Snyder made an attempt to try something new with this character by grounding him in reality and integrating him into our modern everyday society, and not only is that very admirable, it’s a very cool approach to a character like Superman. I personally love Man of Steel and I still love it to this day. In regards to its follow-up, Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, a kickstarter for a new cinematic universe for DC a la Marvel, that’s a different story.

When I first saw this in the theater on March 25, 2016, I was really hyped for this one. It seemed to have everything going for it and it also seemed to have all the right ingredients to make for something truly special. I went into it really excited, hoping for something good despite all the negative reviews and audience reactions. But when it ended, I was not only really sad, but very angry. I couldn’t believe how disappointing and how nonsensical it was, especially since I loved Man of Steel. I was depressed while watching it. I found it to be the most disappointing big-budget blockbuster since Star Wars: Episode I - The Phantom Menace and the most disappointing superhero film since Spider-Man 3. That’s how let down I was, how crushed I was.

Then, in July, I watched the Ultimate Edition of the film, which Snyder’s preferred cut and not the version that was released in theaters. Because the initial cut was over three hours long, Warner Bros. forced Snyder and company to cut it down to two and a half hours so that way there would be more showings at theaters and more money would be made. Needless to say, this turned out to be a terrible decision, as after watching the extended cut, I was pleasantly surprised by how decent it was and it also made me angry at the studio’s moronic decision. What makes them think that audiences won’t sit through a three-hour film with Batman in it when The Dark Knight Rises, a 165 minute long film need I remind you, made over a billion dollars worldwide? Over time, I’ve given the Ultimate Cut a few more viewings and it just gets better every time I watch it, to the point where I would call it one of the most underrated and misunderstood comic book films of all time.

Henry Cavill once again delivers a great performance as Superman, who’s presented here as a martyr for humanity’s criticism and a controversial figure, a god-like outcast among us human beings who has a complicated relationship with the American image. We see that he tries the best that he can to save people and be a real hero, only to realize that sometimes doing the right thing can lead to bad consequences, leading him to doubt himself. He’s someone who simply wants to be, but he isn’t sure what to do, and he’s inexperienced, he’s still learning. The way Superman is characterized in this film is incredibly thought-provoking and adds a great deal of relatability and humanity to a character who was often criticized by some people for being a one-dimensional, overpowered, non-engaging boy scout.

Another impressive performance comes from Ben Affleck as Batman, with Snyder crafting arguably the most brutal and fascistic take on the character yet. Affleck, much like Michael Keaton and Christian Bale before him, embodies the character down to the last detail and gives audiences a version of the character that had yet to be seen on film before, greatly inspired by how the character was portrayed in the Frank Miller’s phenomenal The Dark Knight Returns. Affleck’s Batman is one who’s been pushed over the edge, hardened by over two decades of heartache. The opening sequence of him in Metropolis does a brilliant job of establishing his hatred for Superman. Like Superman, Batman is also humanized a great deal, with him realizing that someone as alien, powerful, and seemingly destructive as Superman is more human than he truly thought.

The first few times I watched this film, I was initially irritated by how Jesse Eisenberg’s performance as Lex Luthor, portrayed here as a whiny millennial-type figure who despises omnipotent figures to the point where he doesn’t think a god-like figure can be both all good and all powerful, was abused by his father as a child, and is manipulated and/or corrupted by Darkseid’s uncle Steppenwolf, relied on over-the-top mannerisms and exaggerated tics. But when I watched this film, I realized that his approach to the material honestly kind of works perfectly for how the character is portrayed. He’s a whiny, angsty millennial and Eisenberg gets that down rather well, so his performance no longer bothers me.

The motivations for why Batman and Superman are against one another are made much more clear and are fleshed out a lot more. Lex Luthor’s plan makes way more sense here and his motivations are also made a lot more clear than in the theatrical version. Lois Lane, once again played beautifully by Amy Adams, whose chemistry with Henry Cavill is still rock-solid, served no purpose in the theatrical version but is indispensable in the Ultimate Edition. This is a cut that delivers more of what those who were initially let down by it, like me personally, wanted it to deliver on. Everything is put very neatly back in its proper place, whereas the wretched theatrical cut made everything nigh on impossible to follow because of how terribly edited it is.

The action sequences are brutal, intense, and exciting. I especially loved the Batmobile chase scene that culminates in Superman confronting Batman. I also adored the fight scene in the warehouse with Batman trying to save Martha from criminals. The musical score by Hans Zimmer and Junkie XL is phenomenal, particularly the pieces Is She with You?, The Red Capes are Coming, and Beautiful Lie. The cinematography by frequent Snyder collaborator Larry Fong is absolutely striking from the first frame to the last, with colors blazing across the screen. This is much less reliant on shaky-cam than Man of Steel. David Brenner’s editing for this cut keeps it running smoothly. It can feel somewhat overly long but the pacing and structure flow so much better and so much more coherently here.

Throughout the film, Snyder and company tackle many interesting themes, including those of fear, power, hope, family, sacrifice, justice, what being a hero really means, how even being a hero can lead to unfortunate consequences, how a powerful and seemingly destructive god among mortals can truly be more human than we first thought, and how such fantastical icons can be integrated into our modern everyday society. Snyder, along with writers David S. Goyer and Chris Terrio, tackle and execute these many themes, ideas, and concepts in a genuinely poignant and insightful way, a way that makes the film honestly quite thought-provoking and that much more engrossing.

Even the infamous Martha scene, a moment I hated and found cringe-inducing when I first saw this film, has a deeper and more emotional meaning to it than I first thought. The deaths of his parents Thomas and Martha have haunted Bruce ever since he was a child. Their deaths taught him that the world only makes sense if he forces it to. He sees Superman as a threat, as an alien, as a monster. One that needs to be destroyed. He even says a line about Superman’s parents (specifically, his birth parents on Krypton) that further increases his belief in how Superman is a threat. He goes for the spear and is set to finally do it. He’s going to kill a god among men, to seemingly save all of humanity. But then, something happens.

Superman begs him to stop, to find Lex Luthor, to save his mother. His human mother. The person who adopted him when he landed on their farm as a baby after Krypton blew up. Martha Kent. The name Martha in that situation ends up triggering Bruce. A trigger word that shows Batman that he’s become someone much worse, a criminal who’s about to take the life of an innocent, the type of person that made Bruce take the Dark Knight mantle, to stop those kinds of people from causing other people harm. Martha’s name was the last thing Thomas ever said as he tried with his dying breath to save her.

Now, Batman was going to be Joe Chill, the catalyst, for the same situation, now happening with Superman. When Lois says Martha is Superman’s mother’s name, that’s when Batman realizes Superman is more human than he made him out to be, with a mother who needs him and a woman who loves him with all her heart and soul. He feels ashamed. He throws the spear away from them. He was wrong about his initial beliefs. He acknowledges very subtly that he should have believed in the good side of mankind including Superman. He makes Superman a promise that Martha won’t die tonight, and she doesn’t. Even at the end when Superman dies, he feels that he failed Superman in life because of his initial beliefs, but he’s now changed. He will not fail him in death. Maybe men are still good after all.

In a way, this is the kind of thing that makes me love and appreciate this film even more. You really have to think about these things and it’s when you think about them more that they start to make sense. It’s so rare these days for a big-budget superhero blockbuster to encourage the viewer to think, to grasp even the smallest of details. People often demand that films like these take more risks and not spoon-feed so often, and yet when they do get those types of films, they reject them. It shows how people really don’t know what they want or even what they think they want. Much like how the public in this film didn’t appreciate Superman until he was gone, the large majority of fans and common moviegoers didn’t appreciate Zack Snyder until he was gone. Talk about a stunning example of life near-perfectly imitating art.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

Admittedly, the e-mail scene still really grinds my gears, and it makes me wish they just moved it to the end of the film as a post-credits scene or even as a deleted scene on the DVD and Blu-ray special features. I’m also still not a fan of the dream within a dream sequence with The Flash, especially seeing how weakly it was paid off and how it was barely mentioned, along with the Knightmare sequence, in Justice League. That being said, I love this film. Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice isn’t so much a typical comic book action film as it is a psychological sociopolitical thriller that just so happens to have superheroes as the main characters and CGI-heavy action sequences. A shame Warner Bros. had to be all annoyingly trigger-happy with the panic control button, especially since if they just let Snyder release his preferred cut, the DC Extended Universe wouldn’t be in the mess that it’s been in since March of 2016.

Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Friend (1985) Book Review

Death can be the most devastating thing in the world for most people, symbolizing the tragic loss of precious friends and loved ones who will never come back. For as much as we fear it, it's a natural part of life. The end of life. Something we cannot undo after it's happened. However, for some of us, we question what happens afterwards, what happens after someone passes on and fades away into a better place. Is there any possibility of life after death? We don't know. We may never know. We may not even deserve to know. Life after death has been a popular subject tackled in different forms of art and media, the most famous example, of course, being Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, where our protagonist Dr. Victor Frankenstein proves he can indeed cheat death but soon realizes how ill-prepared he is for the grave and massive consequences that follow because of his actions. Play God, pay the price. An unfortunately lesser-known example is the subject of today's review, a tragic love story that also serves as a sort-of contemporary spin on the story of the Modern Prometheus.

Paul Conway is a 13-year-old boy whose IQ exceeds most children his age, but he's also lacking in any proper social skills. Nicknamed "Piggy" because of his weight and mocked by his peers, Paul's only friend is a robot he's created, BeeBee. Following a death he accidentally caused at his previous school and the subsequent divorce of his parents, Paul moves into the town of Welling with BeeBee and his mother, newly single Jeannie. Paul manages to befriend another boy named Tom, nicknamed Slime, and his next-door neighbor, 11-year-old Samantha Pringle, a beautiful young girl he finds himself falling in love with. However, Samantha, also a child of divorced parents, is abused at home by her father Harry, an alcoholic. When both Samantha and BeeBee are taken away from this world by the cruel winds of fate, Paul can't accept this as he cannot let Samantha go. He steals her dead body and uses his gifts of genius to bring her back from beyond the grave, only to discover too late that she's turned into a terrifying force of vengeance-driven destruction.

My first experience with Henstell's story, truth be told, wasn't with the book. My introduction to the material was with its 1986 film adaptation, Deadly Friend, one of horror director Wes Craven's lesser-known works. It was a film I enjoyed, and I still do to this day, but I acknowledge its multitude of flaws (which I can't necessarily blame Craven for if its troubled production complete with negative scores and reactions from preview audiences at test screenings and studio-mandated re-writes, re-shoots, and re-editing are anything to go by), one of which being that there are much more interesting and even thoughtful directions that can be taken with this kind of story, especially one with such a dark yet powerful emotional underpinning seemingly at its center, than resorting to cranked-up jump scares and unintentionally hilarious sequences of jarring, out-of-place violence and gore. Henstell's book gave me that and then some.

The story, at its core, is a tragic love story between a mentally unbalanced boy with no friends and a troubled past and a shy girl who's beaten at home with hardly anyone else in town batting an eye and takes her subsequent post-resurrection rage out on those who wronged her. But there's more to it than simply that. Much like Shelley's Frankenstein, the story is also a dark and uncompromising look at the dangers of meddling in the domain of those of a much higher power. In the book, it's explained that Paul is a vehement agnostic, a person who doesn't believe that the existence of God can be proven. This is what turns his professor at school and much of the townspeople against him and BeeBee. They see these two as anomalies, spectacles, no-good troublemakers.

Another compelling layer to the story that makes it stand out from others of its ilk is how Samantha, even when she's brought back to life as a monster that kills people, isn't the true villain of the story. The true villain of Friend is the town of Welling, specifically its people. People who don't care about the world around them. People who know what's going on with Samantha back at home but don't care enough to do anything about it. They just go on with their lives. It's this type of callousness that's arguably the most frightening aspect of the story. It's them where the true evil resides within, not Samantha, living or dead. It's a story about the unpredictability of those around her and the evil that men do.

What makes this story work so strikingly well is how well Henstell draws her characters. One of the most interesting characters in the story is Harry, Samantha's father who routinely beats her and makes her do everything around the house, from cooking to cleaning. His wife Grace left him for another man due to his violent ways and Sam had to stay with him and not her. It's because of Grace's actions that he resorts to alcoholism and violently abusing Samantha, using her as a vent for his rage and feelings of jealousy and rejection. He feels so rejected that he even stares at Paul's mother Jeannie in her nightgown through his window at night and narrates disturbing rape fantasies to himself. Henstell wisely doesn't attempt to make Harry's character sympathetic because of his actions but at the same time we are able to understand why he is the way he is.

Jeannie is also one of the most interesting characters in the book, as well as one of the best-written and most complex in terms of motivation and development. As opposed to the film adaptation where she is almost a non-event and doesn't really have that much of a purpose to serve to the story, Jeannie is a troubled character in the novel whose relationship with Paul is on increasingly thin ice following the accident, the divorce, and the move. She's haunted not just by the accident but by her separation from her husband who was cheating on her with another woman. She struggles with wanting to give Paul his own space while also wanting to properly care for him and be motherly towards him. She struggles with wanting Tony back in her life while also wanting to move on and date other people.

Of course, since this is a dark romance, it's the love story between Paul and Samantha that shines the brightest in the story. These are two characters who have both dealt with and suffered from tragedy in their lives, with Piggy's in the past and Sam's ongoing, and this is what makes these two bond with one another and connect. Paul can relate to Sam's ongoing pain and her anger as a result of her parents' separation from personal experience. Even when Sam is turned into a murderous creature, Paul can't let her go no matter what she does. She's a monster, but he still loves her, because he understands why she's become a monster. The image of a lonely boy dragging his dead friend through the streets in the dark of night and cold of weather is undoubtedly effective. Their characters' relationship is realistic and endearing and it's this, along with Paul's refusal to let nature take its course, that gives the story heart. This is especially evident in the bleak, bittersweet ending, a masterfully crafted conclusion that's rich with poignancy and is the perfect way to bring closure to this story.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

Friend, even during its darkest and most unsettling moments, is a beautiful little gem of a book that deserves another shot at being adapted. It's a shame that greedy studio executives more passionate about money than art failed to see the heart of the story and instead demanded the pointless, off-putting addition of senseless violence. With this book, Diana Henstell has crafted something truly special and unique. It's one of my favorite books and it earns my highest recommendation.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Justice League (2017) Movie Review

Justice League is a 2017 science fiction superhero fantasy adventure action film directed by Zack Snyder from a screenplay by Chris Terrio and Joss Whedon, based on characters from DC Comics, produced by Charles Roven, Deborah Snyder, Jon Berg, Geoff Johns, Christopher Nolan, Emma Thomas, Jim Rowe, Wesley Coller, Daniel S. Kaminsky, Gregor Wilson, and Curtis Kanemoto, and starring Ben Affleck, Henry Cavill, Amy Adams, Gal Gadot, Ezra Miller, Jason Momoa, Ray Fisher, Diane Lane, Jeremy Irons, Connie Nielsen, J.K. Simmons, Ciaran Hinds, Amber Heard, Billy Crudup, Jesse Eisenberg, Joe Manganiello, and Joe Morton.

Months after the events of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice and inspired by Kal-El/Clark Kent/Superman's (Henry Cavill) sacrifice for humanity, Bruce Wayne/Batman (Ben Affleck) and Princess Diana/Diana Prince/Wonder Woman (Gal Gadot) unite a team consisting of Barry Allen/The Flash (Ezra Miller), Arthur Curry/Aquaman (Jason Momoa), and Victor Stone/Cyborg (Ray Fisher) to face the catastrophic threat of Steppenwolf (Ciaran Hinds) and his army of Parademons, who are on the hunt for three Mother Boxes on Earth.

Starting in the spring of 2016, it seemed as if the executives at Warner Bros. made it their mission in life to actively anger moviegoers and ruin their DC Extended Universe. They demanded Zack Snyder cut over thirty minutes out of Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, resulting in a confused mess of a theatrical cut that made no sense and was insanely hard to follow. They ordered David Ayer to write the script for Suicide Squad in six weeks with an already-set release date and demanded reshoots to drastically alter Ayer’s initial vision for the film with disastrous results. And now, they strike a third time.

In March of this year, director Zack Snyder’s daughter Autumn tragically committed suicide, which led to Snyder leaving the project to be with his family in this time of grief. It was initially reported that Snyder knew the film needed more work so he hired Joss Whedon to write additional scenes for the film, and when he left, Whedon was hired to also direct those additional scenes and stick around for post-production. But then I’ve been hearing about how it was actually the decision of Geoff Johns and the higher-ups at the studio to hire Whedon and not Snyder’s, and after I saw this, I’m inclined to believe that.

So what does work about Justice League? Quite a few things, actually. First, the cast. The actors are all trying really hard to make this work and they do deliver impressive performances. Ben Affleck is still good as Batman, although you can definitely tell in a few scenes that he really doesn’t want to be there. There have been several rumors that he wants to leave the DC Extended Universe, and if he does, I don’t blame him. You can tell from his facial expressions that things weren’t going the way he had hoped.

Gal Gadot is the highlight as Wonder Woman, still embodying the character and getting her down right to the last detail just like she did in her solo film and in her short appearance in Batman v Superman. She also has a couple scenes with Batman that reminded me of how they were portrayed in the Justice League animated series. Jason Momoa is my favorite new addition as a more hard-eged, alcoholic version of Aquaman. I just loved how energetic he is and his personality made the character a lot of fun to watch, which bodes well for his upcoming solo film.

Ray Fisher is also a decent new addition as Cyborg, one of the more tragic characters in the film as he doesn’t want to be what he is now and wishes his father would've just let him rest in peace. His character was initially conceived to be the heart of the film before rewrites and reshoots ended up giving him the shaft, which is really disappointing. Ezra Miller is also fine as The Flash, for the most part, and you can tell he’s having a lot of fun playing the character. The camaraderie between the League is well-handled and you can see that they have chemistry with one another.

The film’s action sequences are also entertaining to watch and it helps that it’s beautifully shot, as usual for a Zack Snyder film. Fabian Wagner and Jean-Philippe Gossart’s cinematography is very much solid from beginning to end, even if it’s a bit too reminiscent of Seamus McGarvey’s work on The Avengers, and the fact that they're both shot in the same aspect ratio isn't really helping matters. There’s a lot of visually stunning imagery on display here. I know Danny Elfman’s score has gotten a lot of flak but I personally thought Elfman did a decent job and I liked how he managed to incorporate the classic Batman and Superman themes into the music.

Also, let’s talk about Henry Cavill. Yes, Superman does come back in this film, and I will admit, I thought his resurrection was well-handled, even if it could've been better. I liked how when we wakes up, he’s confused and the only memories he has of Batman are when he was trying to kill him in Batman v Superman, so he fights the League but he encounters Lois and they fly away to Smallville so he can calm down and recover his memories. When he comes back to join the League, he ends up acting and feeling more like the classic Superman from the original comics and the Richard Donner films and Cavill plays it so well. He’s completely charismatic and it bodes well for a potential solo Man of Steel sequel.

So, yes, all of this resulted in me having a decent enough time with this film and giving it a pass. However, you can tell that Snyder’s vision has been compromised and royally botched. I normally love Joss Whedon, but my God does his extended involvement hurt this film. There’s a really awesome scene with Batman chasing a criminal only to be ruined by the comedic tone and Batman acting out-of-character by literally saying Alfred’s name. Batman doesn’t seem to care about keeping his identity a secret, which leads me to believe that Whedon doesn't at all understand the character.

There’s also a lot of painfully forced humor, specifically with The Flash, who cracks jokes about him looking like a snack, him not understanding brunch at all, him being a Batman fanboy, and there’s even a scene played for laughs where he accidentally lands on Wonder Woman’s chest and falls on her breasts. There’s also a scene where Martha Kent is talking with Lois Lane and she accidentally misquotes Clark and calls her thirsty instead of hungry. Hungry as in passionate about her job, thirsty as in desperately wanting sex. Not all of them are bad, some did admittedly get a chuckle out of me, they are so painfully out of place and the change in tone doesn’t feel earned.

Justice League is a film that's in desperate need of an identity. It reeks of a botched, compromised product that doesn’t know if it wants to be one thing or another. I know it was intended from the beginning to be lighter than the previous films, but what I thought was that it would be along the lines of Wonder Woman, a film that takes itself seriously but knows when it's the right time to take a breather and lighten up, and has a hopeful and optimistic sense of spirit and heart at its center. But no, instead we get a mostly lame attempt to copy Marvel, sacrificing potentially interesting and complex ideas for the sake of pandering and playing catch-up.

Several scenes that popped up in the trailers, such as Alfred talking to Superman about hoping he’s not too late, aren’t even in the film. Warner Bros. head honcho Kevin Tsujihara wanted the film to be cut down to two hours and rush post-production to meet the November 17th release date just so he can get his bonus. It’s disastrous. It results in utterly clumsy editing and several characters being underdeveloped, as well as certain subplots and story arcs going nowhere in the end. There are some genuinely emotional scenes with Aquaman and Mera, Barry Allen and his father Henry, and Victor Stone and his father Silas that don’t really lead to anything. The Knightmare sequence, the Flash cameo (minus Lois Lane being the key), Lex Luthor’s warning, and the dirt rising from Superman’s grave, all from Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, all seem to be forgotten about.

The rushed post-production and studio mandates especially hurt the effects. For a film with a gigantic budget of $300 million, making it the third most expensive film ever made, the CGI is shockingly uneven. Some parts look pretty good while others look downright awful, such as Superman’s upper lip and even Steppenwolf. Speaking of Steppenwolf, good Lord is he such a boring villain. He’s to this franchise what Malekith is to the Marvel Cinematic Universe. His motivation is that he wants all three Mother Boxes so, in an an attempt to join the New Gods and please his nephew Darkseid, he can take over the world and terraform to have it be more like Apokolips, his homeworld. So we’re basically retreading what Zod was trying to do in Man of Steel, only much lamer and more boring. Ciaran Hinds does a decent job in the role but his character is so poorly written and it doesn’t help that the motion-capture work and CGI makes him look like a PlayStation 3 video game cut-scene.

It really angers me that Warner Bros. refuses to learn their lesson, even with all that’s happened with their franchise in-between Man of Steel and this. Contrary to what these moronic money-grubbers believe, their comic book films are at their best when they let their directors actually create. Richard Donner with Superman, Tim Burton with Batman and Batman Returns, Christopher Nolan with the Dark Knight trilogy, James McTeigue (and the Wachowskis) with V for Vendetta, Patty Jenkins with Wonder Woman, Zack Snyder with 300, Watchmen, and Man of Steel... need I go on? This outdated and, dare I say it, dangerous method of interference and mandating is only going to hurt them, their films, and the audiences even more and it’s no wonder this is a box office disaster.

FINAL SCORE: 6/10

In the end, I acknowledge that this is film is fundamentally flawed and I can only hope that an extended cut or Zack Snyder’s initial cut gets released. Still, and as much as I should hate this, I just can’t bring myself to do so despite all that it has working against it. I did have a fine time with this. I simply found it to be okay. I feel the same way about this film as I do about Suicide Squad: what's good works really well and what's bad is pretty terrible. It was genuinely cool seeing the Justice League come together on the big screen in live-action for the first time, but in the end, it could’ve and should’ve been so much better.

Monday, December 18, 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Movie Review

Thor: Ragnarok is a 2017 science fiction superhero space opera fantasy adventure action comedy film directed by Taika Waititi from a screenplay by Craig Kyle, Christopher L. Yost, Stephany Folsom, and Eric Pearson, based on characters created by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber, and Jack Kirby, produced by Kevin Feige, Thomas M. Hammel, Brad Winderbaum, Louis D’Esposito, and Victoria Alonso, and starring Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Anthony Hopkins, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Idris Elba, Karl Urban, Benedict Cumberbatch, Clancy Brown, and Rachel House.

After trying and failing to find the Infinity Stones, Thor (Chris Hemsworth), the God of Thubder who’s being held captive on the alien planet Sakaar without his mighty hammer Mjolnir, must win a gladiatorial duel against his old friend and fellow Avenger, Bruce Banner/Hulk (Mark Ruffalo), in order to return to his home of Asgard in time to, with the help of Hulk and drunken bisexual warrior Valkyrie (Tessa Thompson), stop the villainous Goddess of Death, Hela (Cate Blanchett), and the impending Ragnarok, the doom of all Asgardian civilization.

When it was announced that What We Do in the Shadows and Hunt for the Wilderpeople writer and director Taika Waititi, everybody was pretty much saying the same thing. That he’s a great director but Marvel’s going to force him to bow to their whim, remove any sense of what makes his films so great, and pump out another mediocre borefest. I guess they forgot about how the Marvel Creative Committee was disbanded and booted out of Marvel’s film division, thus meaning these new Marvel films wouldn’t have that problem anymore. Plus, there was also the fact that people weren’t all that excited for a third installment, with the first one being one of the more overlooked installments and the second one being one of the worst installments. But lo and behold, Thor: Ragnarok turned out surprisingly really awesome and the absolute the best in the Thor trilogy by far.

First, I want to talk about the humor. I don’t think a single joke in this film didn’t have me busting a gut laughing. I especially loved two moments, one with Thor talking about a childhood story about Loki turning into a snake and another one involves the Grandmaster’s spaceship. Those two had me dying. Sure, it all seems like typical Marvel comedy, but the way it’s directed and delivered is what makes it all so consistently funny. The comedic timing is absolutely superb throughout and you’re still invested in the story even with the onslaught of comedy.

The performances are all fantastic from beginning to end. Chris Hemsworth is clearly having a blast playing the God of Thunder and I love how he embraces the more comedic and ridiculous aspects of the character and his history. The entire cast works off each wonder beautifully. The dynamic between Thor and Loki in this film is especially wonderfully done and the chemistry between Hemsworth and Tom Hiddleston has never been better than in this film. New cast members such as Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, and Cate Blanchett are all phenomenal. Thompson gets some of the best moments in the film, Goldblum gets some of the funniest moments in the film, and Blanchett chews the scenery with glorious relish.

The characters in the film are also very engaging along with the storytelling. I love Thor’s arc in this film, especially near the end when he realizes his full capabilities. Valkyrie’s backstory is rather been there done that but the writing, acting, and direction are so strong that I can easily overlook how generic it is. Hela is also arguably one of the most entertaining villains of the franchise and it helps that she’s also a very interesting character who has a deeper personal connection to our hero that we didn’t expect based on the trailers. I also love how they handled Hulk’s character, especially in regards to where he first transforms back into Bruce Banner for the first time since the events of Avengers: Age of Ultron. Also, Hulk talking in comprehensible sentences for the first time was also a lot of fun to watch.

The cinematography by the criminally underrated Javier Aguirresarobe is gorgeous. The camerawork is consistently slick and smooth and he makes great use of bright, shining colors that radiate and pop in every shot and are nothing short of dazzling to look at. I also love the set, production, and costume designs, as well as the stunning visual effects, with the exception of the green-screen in the scene in Norway with Odin, although I understand why Waititi moved it to Norway instead of the originally-shot New York. You can really tell how Waititi and company were heavily influenced by the art of Jack Kirby in old-school Marvel comic books and it shows in literally every single frame. You can also see in the use of lush colors how Waititi was also influenced by a lot of 1980’s films and a lot of film, video game, comic book, and music poster cover art during the time period.

Speaking of heavy 1980’s influences, I absolutely adore the musical score by the great Mark Mothersbaugh, who delivers inarguably one of the best and most memorable and unique scores of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. It’s just such a feast for the ears, it’s an utter treat to listen to. Mothersbaugh’s fittingly puppy work makes great use of both classic orchestras and retro electronic synthesizers. It’s just such a beautiful score. The synth aspect makes it that much more exciting and unique.

The film’s action sequences are just a blast to watch and Taika Waititi really delivers his A-game in this department. He has a great eye for energy and stylish visual flair and he immerses the audience into the action just like a good director of action should. It’s consistently fast-paced and exciting and not a single moment is dull. The editing by Joel Negron and Zene Baker keeps the film moving very smoothly. It moves as fittingly quick as lightning and nothing ever gets boring or uninteresting. It’s lean, mean, and sweet from start to finish.

FINAL SCORE: 9/10

Yet another winning entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, Thor: Ragnarok is both the best of the Thor trilogy and another sign that 2017 has been one of the best years for comic book films in a long time, with stunning visual effects, gorgeous cinematography, fantastic set designs, thrilling action sequences, hilarious comedy, engaging characters, excellent performances, and energetic direction. If Waititi gets the chance to direct more Marvel films, I’m very excited to see what he can do.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015) Movie Review

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a 2015 science fiction space opera fantasy adventure action thriller war film directed by J.J. Abrams from a screenplay co-written with Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and Simon Kinberg, produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Bryan Burk, Tommy Harper, and Jason McGatlin, based on characters created by George Lucas, and starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Max von Sydow.

Over thirty years after the defeat of the Galactic Empire at the hands of the Rebel Alliance, the galaxy faces a new threat from the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and the sinister First Order. When a defector named Finn (John Boyega) crash-lands on the desert planet Jakku with Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), Finn meets Rey (Daisy Ridley), a tough orphaned scavenger, and BB-8, a droid that contains a top-secret map. Together, they join forces with Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to make sure that the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), receives the intelligence concerning the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last Jedi Knight.

We never thought after Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith that we would ever see another live-action Star Wars film. But then, something unexpected happened. In 2012, George Lucas sold his production company Lucasfilm to Disney, meaning that the House of Mouse would now be the new owner of the epic saga. Some saw this as an opportunity for new live-action films to come, while others saw this as a betrayal. Nonetheless, shortly afterwards, Disney announced their intention to develop a new trilogy of films set after the events of Return of the Jedi as well as multiple standalone spin-off films and television shows outside of the main saga. Fans were pumped when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would direct the first in the planned trilogy, Lawrence Kasdan of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi fame would return to co-write the screenplay, and the film would mostly utilize real sets and practical special effects just like the original trilogy did back in the old days. Star Wars: The Force Awakens ended up becoming the most highly anticipated film of 2015 and when it came out, we were all blown away. Star Wars was back and better than ever.

It seemed at the end of Return of the Jedi that balance was brought to the Force, that things would now be great, that things had been going smoothly with our heroes. But as they always say, things will always change over time. Not all stories fully end with happily ever after. Now, I will admit, the story is very much derivative of the original trilogy, specifically A New Hope, like almost beat-for-beat the same as that film. I will admit that. I’m not stupid. I know this. I’ve known it since I saw it in the theater twice back in December of 2015. But here’s the thing, I was able to let this slide because of what Abrams was trying to do. Many fans who grew up with the original trilogy and were disappointed with the prequels wanted something closer in line with the original with this film and they got just that. What Abrams wanted to create was a love letter to the original trilogy, and in that regard, he succeeded triumphantly.

Even with its familiarity, Abrams and company knew that they had give the franchise a good shot in the arm because of how many people were disappointed with the prequel trilogy, which was lambasted for poor direction, cheesy writing, wooden acting, draggy pacing, and overuse of CGI among a lot of other things. Also, this film is the start of a brand new trilogy. Much like Abrams’ Star Trek films (specifically the first one), Star Wars: The Force Awakens had to not only introduce new characters but re-introduce old characters to a new generation of Star Wars fans and it also had to re-introduce a science fiction slash fantasy universe that wasn't seen in theaters for over a decade. With what they had to accomplish, I’d say they all did a bang-up job and just because they play it safe for the first installment doesn’t mean they’ll do so with the next two installments.

The new characters are all absolutely wonderful. Kylo Ren is a fantastic villain and his characterization is how Anakin Skywalker should’ve been handled in the prequels: someone who’s conflicted, someone who knows what they have to do but doesn’t know if they have the strength to do it, and Adam Driver plays the character beautifully. He’s essentially a Darth Vader fanboy who aspires to be as powerful as him but never will be because of how he often resorts to whining and temper tantrums when things don’t go his way. He has anger issues and is emotionally tortured. Even with all the evil things he does, Kylo manages to be a surprisingly sympathetic character whose motivations and goals we can understand. It’s also refreshing to have a villain in this universe who looks a normal everyday person, just like you and me.

John Boyega’s Finn is not only incredibly likable and sympathetic but also hilarious, getting some of the funniest moments in the film. Poe Dameron may not have a great amount of screentime, but he’s still awesome and Oscar Isaac is great in the role, often reminding me of how Han Solo acted in the original trilogy. Daisy Ridley is phenomenal as Rey, an orphan who’s still waiting on the desert planet Jakku for her parents to return after they were taken away from her at a young age. This is a genuinely strong and independent character who can take care of herself without anyone’s help and really cares about the new friends and allies she makes along her unexpected journey.

And no, I will not let you give me that nonsense that Rey’s a Mary Sue. That has been a terrible argument since day one and it will forever be a terrible argument. To paraphrase CinemaWins, “It makes sense that an orphan left to fend for herself on a planet full of mostly male scavengers would have learned to defend herself. Her years of being alone scavenging for parts that would earn her food give her technical and mechanical know-how. And as was established throughout, she has some serious Force sensitivity. She surprises herself with her capabilities. She even says that she’s flown some ships but she’s never left the planet.”

As for the other new characters, Domhnall Gleeson is great as General Hux, especially in that scene where he’s giving an epic, over-the-top, Hitler-esque speech to the Knights of Ren before Starkiller Base is activated. Lupita Nyong’o is wonderful as Maz Kanata, a pirate and smuggler who managed to find Luke Skywalker’s old lightsaber that ends up calling to Rey in a really chilling sequence. Andy Serkis is amazing as always as Supreme Leader Snoke, even if his character is probably the least interesting of the bunch. Gwendoline Christie is also awesome as Captain Phasma even if her character doesn’t have a whole lot to do.

And yes, the old characters are still as awesome as they were in the original trilogy, especially Han Solo, with Harrison Ford giving one of his best and most energetic performances in years. This is an older and sort-of wiser Han who’s still cool but also acknowledges that everything in regards to the Force and the Jedi are all true and you can tell in the scene on the bridge that he genuinely cares for his son and would do anything to help him in spite of the terrible things he’s done after turning to the Dark Side. Han also has a couple great scenes together with Leia, now a general for the Reistance, once again played beautifully by the late Carrie Fisher. My favorite character, however, has to be BB-8. Not only is he hilarious, and genuinely so, unlike a certain quote-unquote “key” to all of The Phantom Menace, but he’s absolutely adorable. Whenever he pops up on screen, I just want to give the little guy a hug. He’s that endearing.

Abrams’ work behind the camera is utterly breathtaking. He directs every single action set piece, every single moment in general really, with such a great eye and with such a raw, fierce intensity to them that you’re immediately immersed into what’s going on. The combination of traditional practical, make-up, and creature effects and digitally-enhanced motion-capture and CGI is amazing, and the production designs are simply stunning to behold. Everything looks and feels lived-in and authentic, making them all the more easy to be fully immersed into. The cinematography by the always phenomenal Dan Mindel is nothing short of gorgeous, with lots of fantastic shots throughout, slick camerawork, great lighting, excellent shot composition, and dazzling use of lush, radiant colors that burst on the screen and pop all over it.

The editing by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey keeps the film, which runs at a runtime of two hours and sixteen minutes, moving at a lightning-fast pace. There isn’t a single boring moment in it. Not one. The world-building, just like all the other Star Wars films, is fantastic. And of course, I can’t not mention the forever great John Williams, who provides yet another exquisite and soulful musical score. It fits the film like a glove, from the first frame to the last. I especially love Rey’s theme. Every time I listen to it, I can’t help but smile. It’s just so beautiful.

Another thing that makes this film so special is its message and theme, which involves fear. Living in fear, running away from fear, facing your fears, learning that it’s okay to have fear, et cetera. Finn tries to run away from the First Order, Rey wants to stay on Jakku because of her missing parents whom she fears never seeing again, and even Kylo is afraid of how conflicted he feels, how he might never be able to up to the legacy of his grandfather and his empire and how he might not have the strength to do what he knows he must do. This is a great theme for a Star Wars film to tackle and the way it executes that theme and delivers its message is brilliant. It gives the film a lot of heart and makes it all the more special and unique.

FINAL SCORE: 10/10

Offering plenty of new things while still paying loving tribute to what came before it, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fan’s wet dream come true and easily one of the best in the entire saga. I love it so much. After seeing how this and Rogue One turned out, the franchise is most definitely in good hands over at Disney. I can only hope that The Last Jedi turns out awesome and that Solo isn’t as bad as many fear and expect it to be.