Doctor Strange

Writing a review for Doctor Strange might be, well, the strangest thing I’ve ever done.  It’s a fun film that’s exceptionally well-cast and stands apart from the majority of Marvel’s other offerings…and yet it’s a film that can’t be objectively recommended.  While it’s a step-up from the likes of Ant-Man, Hulk and Civil War, Doctor Strange has some critical flaws that keep it from entering the Iron Man 1/Winter Soldier/Guardians tier of top Marvel films.

The major critique with Doctor Strange is that the film is just too short.  At a run time under 2 hours, it’s amazing the film accomplishes as much as it does.  It has to establish Stephen Strange’s character, the accident that leads him to becoming a powerful sorcerer as well as how magic works and differs from other superpowers.  That’s a lot to do in a film that’s only 115 minutes.

And it’s that short run-time that really does Mads Mikkelsen (and Rachel McAdams, to a lesser extent) an injustice.  In a film that’s incredibly well-cast, Mikkelsen’s talent is wasted by giving him a role that could have been played by anyone else.  With a longer time, perhaps the actor behind Casino Royale’s Le Chiffre and Hannibal could have put an interesting twist on a villain in a cinematic universe sorely lacking in them.  Instead, his character is never anything more than “revenge seeking ex-student foil to the protagonist.”

Rachel McAdams is also shafted but given that Gwyneth Paltrow (Iron Man) and Natalie Portman (Thor) have been written out of their respective series, it’s much less of a surprise.  Guess Marvel’s going to stick with romantic pairings between the main cast like Gamora and Star Lord in Guardians of the Galaxy.

It’s a shame that these two flaws cripple the film from being something really unique.  Every other aspect of the film is top-notch.  There’s a ton of talent in the cast.  The visuals are spectacular and even more so in 3D.  Some could complain about how formulaic the Marvel movies have become but there’s enough of a performance and visual novelty to make this film worth seeing.  It’s definitely the best Marvel film since Guardians came out over 2 years ago.  However, factor in ticket prices and the flaws emanating from the short run-time and it seems like this film shouldn’t be recommended like it should be.

Aw hell, I’ll probably watch it again.

Inferno

Inferno is a bit of an oddity, as both a Dan Brown novel and a movie.  As a novel, it’s the darker and more mature of his Robert Langdon series (there’s no other way to describe an ending where the characters are relieved only 1/3 of the world was sterilized).  The film adaptation is now happening over 7 years after Angels & Demons hit theaters.  Let’s not forget all the other weird things surrounding the film, like how the project started out as an adaptation of The Lost Symbol (the third book) before the studio decided to skip over straight to Inferno.  Too long of a sequel gap with a somewhat troubled production, the deck is definitely stacked against Inferno…and yet, it was a really enjoyable thriller.

Some might complain about the spoilers in the previous tag but (A) that’s only how the book ends and (B) it’s hard to talk Inferno without using spoilers.  The plot synopsis (Robert Langdon must team up with a doctor to solve Dante-related puzzles while thwarting global conspiracies in order to stop a virus from sterilizing the human race) is almost completely invalidated over the course of the film.  As is true in every Dan Brown work, few things are ever as they seem.  So, the viewing experience centers on the audience not only getting interested in seeing how everything pieces together but if it makes any sense.  Inferno makes full use of dramatic tropes to convey the sense

A more meta recommendation for Inferno is the acting talent involved.  Tom Hanks in a starring role automatically makes any film watchable.  Felicity Jones is the female lead and since she’s going to be the main lead in the upcoming Star Wars: Rogue One, some people might want to see if she has the talent to carry a movie.  Inferno proves that she does.  Irrfan Khan is also a treat to watch.

This isn’t to say the movie’s perfect.  The film starts slow and takes its time before the pace picks up substantially (which fits thematically within the story but isn’t too exciting to watch).  The book was darker and edgier than Dan Brown’s other works but the movie’s a bit more upbeat and action-heavy, which can rub some people the wrong way.  The ending, in particular, doesn’t end with the heroes’ efforts to thwart the release of the Inferno virus mostly in vain.

However, most people are looking for an enjoyable way to kill 2 hours worth of time and for that reason, Inferno serves its purpose.  The movie’s a fun little romp with phenomenal acting talent.  Go in with those expectations and Inferno should meet them.  Besides, has there ever been a terrible Tom Hanks movie?

Warcraft

Alternate headlineWarcraft movie is so bad, David Bowie died after watching an advance cut!

Despite the jest, there are no strong feelings about the Warcraft film.  When reacting to the critics who are slamming the film, it’s important to keep the following in mind:  Most critics hate fantasy films, most video game movies are mediocre at best and there’s not any great expectations for Warcraft anyway.

It might seem a little ridiculous to say “critics hate fantasy films” in the age of a comic book movie.  All one has to do is look at the awards shows, though, and see that box office success does not translate to critical accolades.  The Dark Knight is one of the greatest movies of all time yet didn’t even get nominated for Best Picture (which went to Slumdog Millionaire).  Even after the number of nominations increased from 5 to 10 after that controversy, The Avengers didn’t warrant consideration in 2013.  This isn’t even a new phenomenon:  Annie Hall beat out the original Star Wars and Lord of the Rings only received the Best Picture honors in its last year when it should have won three consecutive awards.

So, yeah, critics aren’t going to like Warcraft or movies like it anyway.  Of course, video game movies have a pretty terrible track record.  What would be the best video game movie?  Resident Evil (which has inexplicably spawned a series of films)?  Tomb RaiderSilent HillMortal Kombat?  None of these are on the level of a Dark Knight or The Avengers, which comic book fans can proudly point to as great representatives of their medium.

Since critics aren’t going to like the movie and all since most video game movies are “eh” at best, the expectations for Warcraft should be very low.  It also faces some rather tough competition:  the star-studded Now You See Me 2, The Conjuring 2 (which will most likely be the popular alternative to the former) and for critical snobs there’s Genius.  Oh and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles sequel will be in its second week, which while action blockbusters tend to be front-loaded in their box office take, there will be that someone who thinks it’s worth seeing again (or didn’t see the movie the week before) and goes to see TMNT than Warcraft.

Let’s also not discount Blizzard’s rather awful track record with Warcraft since its merger with Activision back in 2008:  Wrath of the Lich King?  Hit but shouldn’t count since development on it started well before Activision and Blizzard got in bed.  Cataclysm?  Awful.  Mists of Pandaria?  Meh.  Heartstone?  Hit.  Warlords of Draenor?  Critical miss!

Sure, Warcraft could rejuvenate the series and be a super awesome fantasy movie this summer…but it won’t.  Critics already hate it.  Video game movies struggle to be “decent” at best.  Unless there’s more hardcore Blizzard fans than thought, people are going to be more interested in something else than what looks to be “ye olde derivative fantasy movie.”  Maybe a December release date would have been better?  Sure, it could still flop like Eragon and Narnia did but it’d also have a better chance of succeeding than it does now; sandwiched between Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Finding Dory.

The Nice Guys

Comedies are often difficult to review because humor is so subjective among the viewing audience. Some people love loud, screaming nonsense punctuated with bodily harm. Others like sophisticated word-plays and “clever” dialogue that relies on established call-backs. Yet despite its marketing, The Nice Guys isn’t really a comedy but a action-comedic take on a 1940’s noir film.

Yeah, if that sounds weird, imagine paying to see a comedy and two hours later, walking out of an action/parody thriller.

The main strength of the movie is its excellent cast. Russell Crowe’s character is an enforcer whose methods are fairly direct. It’s a good contrast to Ryan Gosling’s role; a smartass private investigator who despite his incompetence (he’s dubbed the worst detective in the world by his own daughter, who also is kinda his secretary) occasionally has flashes of mad genius. If the movie was two hours of the duo bantering and interacting with one another (and Angourie Rice, who plays Ryan Gosling’s daughter), it’d be a great film.

Instead, the film struggles to find its footing between “comedy/parody” and “action conspiracy thriller.” The film’s plot revolves around Crowe and Gosling trying to locate a missing person and end up stumbling upon a vast conspiracy involving the federal government, Detroit car companies and the Los Angeles porn industry. There’s a good parody film that could be made with those elements but The Nice Guys fails to walk the line separating “comedy” from “serious.”

Take the film’s climax, for instance. It’s mostly an action set-piece but the moments where comedy is implemented really throws the film off-balance. There’s a scene where the duo are held up at gunpoint and then Ryan Gosling makes a sudden move trying to grab a gun from Russell Crowe’s leg. Crowe doesn’t actually have an “ankle gun” because Gosling hallucinated him having one earlier in the film…but the person holding them at gun point just stands there with a weird look on their face. Why doesn’t the gun-toting individual just shoot Gosling, especially if that person has told him to not to make any sudden moves!

If you’re nostalgic for the 1970’s, The Nice Guys should more than fit the bill. There are some moments that are legitimately funny and they mostly come from Russell Crowe and Ryan Gosling having fantastic chemistry. The problem is the film never decides on its identity and any moment it comes close to doing so, it shifts gears.  Not recommended!

Dawn of Justice

As someone who felt like they were on a roller coaster throughout all the hype surrounding Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice, it should not be surprising that opinions surrounding the film are mixed.  It’s equally unsurprising that the people responsible for Man of Steel (a polarizing film in its own right) have again created something controversial.  However, the split appears most pronounced between the critics who solidly hate the film and the audience that has enjoyed it.  This is an experience that carried over into my own showing.  As someone who went into the movie with not too many expectations and ended up enjoying it, it will be revealed whether the critiques of the film have any water (spoiler:  mostly no).

Let’s establish expectations for the film:  Critics literally watch movies for a living.  I can’t speak to doing this professionally (i.e. getting paid from a mass media conglomerate to write a review) but their perspective on critiquing movies differs from the audience.  Average Joe/Jane Movie-Goer is not looking for films to reinvent the cinematic landscape, they are looking to enjoy some entertainment, possibly even with friends/family.  Even people who read critical reviews before going to see something have someone they trust who, rather than bore them with nonsense, answers their one simple question:  Is going to see this worth my time?

To answer that question, I have to establish my expectations.  After seeing all the wanton destruction in Man of Steel, I wanted someone to kick Superman’s ass for not trying to save innocent lives (the whole “he’s a rookie Superman who doesn’t know how to control his powers yet” excuse never worked because there’s nothing stopping Superman from taking the fight out of a densely-populated area and the one time they do end up in space, Superman brings him back to Metropolis!).  So, when the Dawn of Justice hype established that someone was going to be Batman, hell yes I got excited!  Now, that anticipation was tempered with the “Dawn of Justice” subtitle because one of the smarter (not to mention lucrative) things Marvel did was have a bunch of individual movies lead in to the big team-up.  This fear led to a feeling that the film will try to do too much, especially when it only has 2 or so hours to work with…which wasn’t helped when talk of a R-rated Director’s Cut surfaced.

In order for Dawn of Justice to work, it had to address that Man of Steel was a flawed film, Batman needed to thoroughly beat the shit out of Superman and restrain itself from indulging in too many Justice League characters and/or subplots.  With these expectations in mind, the film turned out pretty good.

Man of Steel deserves a post itself but for brevity, its flaws center around the aforementioned destruction, poor characterization (particularly Pa Kent) and over-usage of Lois Lane.  Superman and Zod completely leveling Metropolis was the biggest critique and the fact that played into the plot was the movie’s biggest draw.  This complaint is addressed in the movie, almost painstakingly so.  Numerous times it is mentioned that the area heroes are fighting in are “abandoned” or “post-working hours so very few people are likely to be around.”  While it would have better to see Superman punch Doomsday through a mountain instead of a skyscraper, Dawn of Justice does a sufficient job of addressing the “wanton destruction and disregard for civilian life” problem Man of Steel has.

Dawn of Justice also had to answer for Man of Steel‘s poor characterization.  It’s a fair point:  If Man of Steel couldn’t characterize Pa Kent correctly, how can they be trusted with Batman, Alfred, Wonder Woman or Lex Luthor?  Instead of course-correcting itself, Dawn of Justice voices Pa Kent’s concerns in Man of Steel better than Pa Kent did in Man of Steel!  Essentially, Pa Kent had reservations about Clark using his powers because the best intentions don’t often bring the best results.  There’s an infamous scene in Man of Steel where Pa Kent tells Clark he should have thought about letting a group of kids who are drowning in a school bus die.  Dawn of Justice has a scene where Superman hallucinates talking with his “dad” and Pa Kent tells him how he tried to save the family farm from a flood, only for the diverted waters to ruin another farm instead.  Such a scene explaining Pa Kent’s logic behind his beliefs would have done wonders for Man of Steel.

Not only does Dawn of Justice repair Pa Kent’s character but the movie itself is incredibly well-cast.  Ben Affleck’s Batman and Jeremy Iron’s Alfred (as well as the interaction between them) are some of the film’s highest points.  Gal Gadot doesn’t have a lot of dialogue but it’s a good omen for the Wonder Woman movie that she makes the most of her plentiful screen time (her interactions with Wayne and fight with Doomsday got some of the audience’s loudest applause).  Jesse Eisenberg is really good at playing Lex Luthor like a mad genius but as someone who grew up on the DC Animated Universe, Clancy Brown’s menacing businessman will forever be the definitive portrayal.  The returning cast from Man of Steel is mostly excellent (notably Laurence Fishburne’s Perry White) with the exception of Lois Lane.

Unfortunately, the one thing Dawn of Justice didn’t correct is how overabundant Lois Lane is to the plot.  In Man of Steel, Lois was asked to go on Zod’s ship for no particular reason when he really only wanted Superman.  She can even talk to the Krypton ship computer and Jor-El even formally addresses when he should have no idea who she is!  Later in the movie, she’s able to virtually teleport from one end of Metropolis to the climax where Superman breaks Zod’s neck.  While Dawn of Justice does a better job utilizing her journalism skills, it is rather annoying that she can just get a helicopter from a news agency and fly to Gotham to stop two superheroes from fighting in about 15-20 minutes.

With my expectations mostly met, it’s no surprise that the film ended up being pretty good.  So, let’s focus on the critics, whose criticisms boil down to two salient points:  (1) The movie’s too serious/not fun enough and (2) it’s too imposing/bloated for its 2.5 hour run-time.

For a moment, let’s indulge in the critical consensus and make the movie more “light-hearted” and/or “fun”.  Then people would be bitching about DC copying Marvel’s template and having no identity!  These critics also forget that the “fun” studio is having its two biggest characters not only fight but recruit other heroes (!) to fight for them in Civil War!  To more seriously address the point, the movie has more than enough levity between Lex Luthor, Perry White and Alfred.  And in a movie that’s literally titled Batman v. Superman, two of the world’s most renowned heroes, how much fun should there be in a fight?

The “film’s got too much going on considering its run-time” argument will have more merit, if only be default.  Dawn of Justice follows the same plot trajectory Man of Steel did, where the first 1/3 of the movie introduces all the characters and provides an origin story while the 2/3 leads to the 3/3 big action climax.  Thus, it inherits the pacing issues although the opening scene where Bruce Wayne is on the ground in Metropolis is absolutely riveting.  It was also a treat seeing all the talking head bits in the middle part discussing Superman, asking some rather poignant questions for the viewer to think about.  The movie does seem a little over-complicated (Lex Luthor doesn’t really need to manipulate both Batman and Superman into fighting each other) but once the action-filled finale starts, most people won’t care.

So, is Dawn of Justice worth the time and money?  Before that can be answered, it’s worth asking another question:  What do you want/expect from it?  I wanted the film to address the flaws inherent within Man of Steel.  The heroes’ disregard for civilian life and wide-scale property damage had to be reined in.  Superman needed to get his ass kicked by someone who he had hurt through that disregard.  Because DC/Warner Bros. had eschewed the Marvel method of individual hero movies leading to the big team-up, the movie needed to not be a gigantic cluster-fuck of Justice League cameos.  On those counts, Batman v. Superman:  Dawn of Justice succeeded tremendously.

Dramatic Escalation

Stories are built on a foundation known as “dramatic conflict.” While it can take many forms, drama usually boils down to one of two possibilities. Conflict will either specific to a character or revolve around their response vs. a threat to the world they live in.  Stories will often have both but one will take precedence over the other.  The Star Wars saga has successfully tackled both approaches but has gone to the well containing one option a little too often.

The main plot of the original Star Wars revolves around the Death Star, an Imperial space station with enough firepower to destroy an entire planet. There’s some character conflict present (Luke unsure if he wants to accept his Jedi heritage, Han’s conflict of selfishness v. selflessness) but the movie really revolves around the Death Star. The movie’s climax, for instance, has Luke trusting the Force over his targeting computer and Han choosing to save his friend…actions that result in the Death Star’s destruction. Their character development exists for the sole purpose of wrapping up the main plot.

Now it would be obvious to up the stakes for the sequel. Instead, the genius of The Empire Strikes Back is not that the Imperials have a super-weapon that’s even more super than the Death Star. It’s that the conflict of the story is entirely character-driven. The Imperials find the Rebel base, causing an impromptu evacuation that has the heroes split up. Han and Leia have to evade Darth Vader’s fleet in a piece of junk that doesn’t even have a functioning hyperdrive. The two of them eventually reach Cloud City and it looks like they’ll be safe…

…Instead, Han’s smuggler past catches up with him as his “buddy” has made a deal with The Empire. Han gets frozen in carbonite and turned over to a bounty hunter that’s going to return him to Jabba the Hutt, who put out a bounty on him when Han chose not to repay his outstanding debt. Luke senses his friends in trouble and has to decide between helping them or completing his Jedi training. Luke ignores the advice of his Jedi teachers to go aid his friends. Instead of helping them, he loses his hand and lightsaber in a duel with Vader.

And the best part is that all this dramatic conflict is completely reasonable. The audience has already been introduced to a galaxy dominated by a tyrannical empire. Sure, they can’t blow up planets with impunity but they’ve still got starships, soldiers, droids, vehicles, credits and connections. All of those resources can be used to hunt down a few people of interest, not to mention a rebellion.  They can also be used to set a trap, an incredibly effective one if the person setting it is skilled in the Dark Side of the Force.

Oddly enough, Empire Strikes Back is the only time character-based drama trumps a galactic-wide threat in terms of plot significance.  For a series that prides itself on characters rather than plot, it’s amazing Star Wars doesn’t try character-based conflict more often. It’s not even that difficult to do: Just put them in tough situations and figure out how they’ll prevail (or not). As we’ll see, this method is a lot easier than creating threats on a galactic scale.

The follow-up, Return of the Jedi, centers around a second Death Star although Luke confronting Vader and the Emperor is also significant. However, Jedi suffers from a bad case of copying the original movie too much. Once the heroes free Han Solo from Jabba’s clutches, the only thing any non-Luke character can do is blow up a second Death Star. This Death Star is unfinished but it can now shoot capital ships with little difficulty. Of course, we only find out about that capability a few minutes before Death Star 2.0 is blown up by the Rebels…

For the sake of being thorough, the prequel trilogy has conflicts on a galactic scale (Palpatine engineering a galactic war so he can turn the Republic into an Empire he rules) and on a personal level (Anakin being lured by the dark side). The problem with the prequels, though, is that they are terrible at establishing why the audience should care about any of the drama. We already know the creation of the Empire is destined to happen but aside from our own predisposition towards republicanism, that belief isn’t reinforced in the story. It wouldn’t have been difficult to have a Senator oppose Palpatine and give speeches that reinforce the values of republican democracy.  Sure, there’s people in the Senate who eventually go on to support the Rebellion (Bail Organa, Mon Mothma) but none of these people do anything when Palpatine institutes a galactic empire.  Why not use the political process to drag out his charges against the Jedi?

The character drama fares no better. Anakin’s written as a bad person from the start when he’s deemed “dangerous” by Obi-Wan, the person who will become his future Jedi Master. Obi-Wan made a promise to train Anakin to fulfill Master Qui-Gon’s wishes but he completely fucks it up. The rest of the Jedi are completely oblivious to Palpatine’s plot. Nothing seems to matter because since everything is predestined to happen: No one tries to stop the Empire from rising or Anakin falling to the dark side until it’s too late.

To the prequels’ credit, at least their plots didn’t revolve around a super-weapon. The Force Awakens features another Death Star (Starkiller Base), that’s now the size of a planet (instead of a moon) and can destroy multiple planets in the same star system. Given that the Death Star in each appearance has been getting more powerful, how does the post-Force Awakens universe escalate the threat from here? Destroy multiple star systems at a time? Destroy the entire universe itself?

The Star Wars Fate game I’m currently game-mastering has run into the same problem. While the Imperial Remnant is still a force to be reckoned with in the galaxy, the greater threat involves nanotechnology. Said nanotech was developed by a mad scientist, implanted in a Force-sensitive crime lord whose mentally unstable and can replicate itself by cannibalizing the Force. If left unchecked, this could lead to these “nanites” eliminating all life in the universe. While that’s all pretty threatening, it does raise questions about how to escalate the threat from there. A later campaign revolving around a re-surging Empire to conquer the galaxy would get eyerolls from the players, who would note (correctly) they’re not as dangerous as the nanites.  The only answer to this problem is to make future game sessions revolve around conflicts specific to the player characters.

Hopefully, Disney doesn’t go the route of bigger and better Death Stars when character drama would be much easier to handle. The Force Awakens has a established a new ensemble with enough depth to them that’s worth exploring while raising possibilities for the old Star Wars characters. Who is Rey, how is she so strong with the Force yet so reluctant to embrace it? What will Finn do once he wakes up from his coma and his primary motivation to aiding the Resistance, Rey, is off training to be a Jedi? Kylo Ren seems to have passed Supreme Leader Snoke’s test of resisting the redemption of the light side, what further training will he undergo? Luke has isolated himself from the galaxy, what will he do now that it needs him again and his isolationism resulted in the death of his best friend? With no Republic Senate and the Resistance the only ones who understand the threat of the First Order, does Leia become Queen of the galaxy or assume some other leadership role?

The forecast for Episode VIII is cautiously optimistic. With J.J. Abrams no longer involved, the audience doesn’t have to worry about the same problems that plagued Star Trek Into Darkness (where the film hit too many familiar beats covered in Star Trek 09 and went as far as bringing back Khan). Think of this way: If J.J. had directed Episode VIII, it honestly shouldn’t surprise anyone if he gender-flipped the famous carbon freezing scene (Finn would be watching helpless as Rey gets frozen in carbonite, tells her he loves her before she rolls her eyes and says, “I know”). New director Rian Johnson directed the best episode of Breaking Bad (Ozymandias) and, hopefully, was taking notes from Vince Gilligan about putting characters in the worst possible situation.

State of the Galaxy

Two of the most interesting parts of the new Star Wars movie is what state the galaxy is in (especially compared to the one previously established in the expanded universe) as well as the possible future conflicts.  These two components will be dissected and analyzed across several continuities:  the current Disney Star Wars EU, the former Star Wars EU with the focus being on Timothy Zahn’s Thrawn Trilogy and Fate of the Galaxy (the name of the Star Wars tabletop RPG campaign I’m currently game-mastering with Fate rules).  For the sake of having a focus, only the state of the Star Wars galaxy will be assessed here with future conflicts saved for another day.

Regardless of continuity, the ending to Return of the Jedi wraps up all plot points.  The Emperor is dead, an Imperial super-weapon has been destroyed along with a great deal of resources and all character arcs are concluded.  The Rebels even throw a luau on Endor to celebrate and the audience leaves with the impression of a happy ending.  All continuities state Endor was the turning point in the galactic civil war, a point that would culminate in the Rebels emerging victorious and establishing a new republic.  Where they differ is in execution.

The Thrawn Trilogy takes place five years after the Battle of Endor.  The Rebels have formed the New Republic, established the capital on Coruscant and pushed the Imperials to a mere quadrant of the galaxy.  It’s established that the Imperial war machine is reliant on raw recruits and they don’t have the resources to match the New Republic in terms of capital ships.  What’s left of The Empire is on the defensive and there’s a sense the real fight is over.

However, the Imperials being relegated to the fringes of space doesn’t mean all is well within the galaxy.  One of Han Solo’s main responsibilities in the books is trying to recruit smugglers like him to sign on for honest work with the New Republic.  The galactic civil war really upset the economy, so the Republic needs men and ships so they can jump-start interstellar trade.  I’m no economist but a healthy economy should generate opportunity and money for all involved, so the fact the New Republic’s economy is lacking suggests the Zahn EU galaxy isn’t the greatest place to live.

There’s also in-fighting among the Republic factions.  One of the Republic council members, Borsk Fey’yla, is nothing more than a political opportunist.  Borsk and his group of Bothans do good work but only because they expect substantial influence in Mon Mothma’s New Republic government.  This manner of behavior rubs individuals like Admiral Ackbar, a Mon Calamari who prefers to be more open and direct in his dealings and opinions, the wrong way.  Even Mon Mothma, who is holding this alliance together, has her own biases like refusing to ally with a political rival until she has no choice.  Such a political rival includes Garm Bel Iblis, who feared Mon Mothma would establish a dictatorship not unlike Palpatine’s and stockpiled resources to lead a counter-revolution.

All of this, of course, pales in comparison to the main plot of the books:  An Imperial Grand Admiral (Thrawn) returns to known space, seizing command of the Imperial Remnant and taking the fight to the New Republic.  All Thrawn has to work with is an Imperial military full of raw recruits, one of the Emperor’s storehouses that allows him to create a clone army as well as his own tactical and strategic abilities.

The Thrawn Trilogy is impressive because of how well it handles the Imperial resurgence and how they can give our heroes problems again.  It’s also really easy to see Thrawn’s viewpoint and how different leadership can be under him vs. Sith Lords like Palpatine and Vader who have infinite resources at their disposal.  Because the Thrawn books are so great, the Fate of the Galaxy campaign kept most of their themes intact.

No plot survives contact with player characters, though, so Fate of the Galaxy isn’t an exact copy of The Thrawn Trilogy.  Notably, Fate diverged fairly significantly from Return of the Jedi with a more somber ending based on the suggestions of Gary Kurtz (who had significant input on the original two movies).  Such suggestions include Han Solo being dead, Leia becoming ruler of the galaxy and finding the task incredibly stressful.  Luke goes off into the sunset unsure of what to do with himself in a brave new world.  This moves established characters out of the picture and allows player characters to put their influence on the world.

Non-Kurtz input replaced the Death Star II with Elysium:  A re-initalization program that could purge an entire planet of life forms and repopulate them according to a select genetic archetype (it’s ultimately the end goal of the antagonist in Mega Man Legends 1 and 2).  After the Rebels destroyed the weapon above Kashyyyk, the Emperor’s death created a power vacuum among the Imperial Moffs that ruled each galactic sector.  Some surrendered to the Rebels and the results of that coalition that would lead to the New Republic.  Others would carve out niches in space and style themselves with fancy titles and basically become Emperor themselves.  These people would lead Imperial Remnant forces that would trouble the New Republic for years to come.

The players themselves would make their own destinies.  Jace Beleren (yes, the same name as the Magic character) would be the one to reform the Jedi Order instead of Luke.  The Crime Lord Spice would fill the position of power left by Jabba the Hutt. While the Crime Lord had his own objectives to pursue, he would have considerable influence over the New Republic government since he could make his enterprises completely legitimate (negating the need for the Republic to convince smugglers, since the majority of them work for him).  He would also oversee a gradual transition between an Imperial command economy and the Republic’s more laissez-faire capitalist-oriented model.  Various members of another player’s family would hold high positions in the galaxy, from Jedi Knight to Commander of the Republic Defense Fleet.

Despite their varied backgrounds, all players agreed on a decentralized government.  All agreed that a centralized government with a powerful military would result in the same tyranny that created The Empire.  They abolished forced conscription of a planet’s populace and empowered local systems at the expense of sector governors and the Senate.  Star Wars is rife with historical references so an Articles of Confederation-style government being established after a tyrannical one wasn’t out of the question but there were consequences to this decision.

Interestingly enough, The Force Awakens operates under a similar idea.  While the movie takes place 30 years after Return of the Jedi, the novel Aftermath takes place only 2 years afterwards and in the same continuity.  According to the book, Chancellor Mon Mothma is considering cutting the Republic’s military presence by 90% once an end to the civil war can be confirmed.  The film reveals that definitely happened, with Leia Organa Solo spearheading the Resistance which only has newer-model X-Wings to play around with.  Compare this to the situation in A New Hope, where the Rebels at least had Y-Wing bombers to complement the X-Wings.  The Rebel Fleet is even more robust in Return of the Jedi with the addition of A-Wings and B-Wings.

It was actually pretty neat to see the idea of a demilitarized Republic play out on the big screen after being tested in our game group.  It was neater still to see that our group handled it better than the movie!  In Fate of the Galaxy, our players still had to contend with Imperial holdouts.  They also realized having no standing army would be incredibly dumb from a diplomatic standpoint (can’t argue from a position of strength without, you know, strength).  In The Force Awakens, this mistake goes uncorrected for nearly three decades and results in the death of the entire star system of the Republic’s capital planet!

There is so much either wrong or unclear with the New Republic’s post-war approach, with the most obvious being why the Resistance is even called the Resistance.  True to the name, resistance groups are underground operations that resist some sort of higher power (usually some foreign invader, the French Resistance probably being the most famous).  This moniker would have worked 30 years ago when The Empire dominated the galaxy but now it’s less appropriate.

An even bigger offense than the name itself is why the Resistance is a paramilitary arm of the Republic.  There is no reason why the Resistance shouldn’t just be the New Republic military!  For why this is completely insane, picture the following scenario:  A Resistance operative is caught following their discovery in an attempt to impede a First Order/Imperial plot.  The opening title crawl explicitly states the Resistance has Republic support.  How would the First Order retaliate, especially if they have a weapon that can destroy an entire star system:  Hit the Resistance (wherever their main base may be) and watch the New Republic either back off or just fund another group…or attack the New Republic, sending a decisive message through supreme show of strength that possibly eliminates them outright or galvanizes them into action?  The latter option is particularly attractive if the Republic is stupid enough to have all its political leadership in one convenient spot!

Speaking of Starkiller Base, how the Republic allowed the First Order to get so well-equipped is another damn good mystery.  The idea that the First Order can develop a more powerful Death Star without the Republic’s knowledge has no good implications.  Either the Republic underestimated the First Order’s capabilities (dangerous, since this is the remnant of a group that built two Death Stars already, blew up a planet and imposed galaxy-wide tyranny through fear) or it’s an incredible intelligence failure (do they not have people investigating or are the reports being ignored?).

This isn’t to say the Resistance is completely worthless.  All of their actions against the First Order end up succeeding, either because of writer fiat The Force or possessing better talent (pretty sure Poe Dameron eliminated an entire TIE Fighter squadron by himself at Takodana).  The problem, like it was 30 years ago, is resources.  Starkiller Base was well-fortified and while it was lost, it’s a certainty that Supreme Leader Snoke’s base of operations is just as strong.  Conversely, when the Resistance shows up at Takodana, it looks like that’s all the Republic has to offer.

The Republic military mess could be tied to the political one it created.  The star system that is destroyed by Starkiller Base contains a planet that looks like Coruscant but isn’t.  That planet is called Hosnian Prime.  The Visual Dictionary to The Force Awakens reveals another interesting tidbit:  the Republic capital planet changes via election every so often.  There is some logic to the decision, what with Coruscant being the seat of the Old Republic and eventually corrupted enough to oversee the formation of The Empire.  However, constantly changing the government capital would lead to less stability in the long run.  Imagine if the American capital changed every 10 years:  All the bureaucratic agencies and the records they keep would have to be moved.  Instead of using that time to relocate, they could be addressing issues or doing work or hell, doing something (anything) that’s more productive!

It’ll be interesting to see how the repercussions of all this show up in the next few movies.  The First Order looks to still be a formidable force despite the loss of Starkiller Base.  The Resistance did find Luke Skywalker but there’s a giant power vacuum in the Republic now that an entire planet containing the Senate was destroyed.  Who or what fills that gap in leadership and when someone/something steps forward, who challenges them (either because they don’t trust them or don’t want to follow them)?  If the Resistance steps in that role, why didn’t they just do that 30 years ago!?

In essence, the galaxy in The Force Awakens is a complete mess.  It might be a bit unfair to compare The Force Awakens to the post-Jedi world established in The Thrawn Trilogy or even a personal Star Wars tabletop RPG, what with the movie taking place 30 years after Jedi whereas the other continuities only have to worry about 5 years.  That said, how much time has elapsed has no bearing on making a galaxy with some sense behind it.  The Force Awakens’ set-up is needlessly complicated.  The only backstory they needed was the Republic was still fighting Imperial remnants, which is entirely plausible with the galaxy being such a big place.

American Sniper

Without a doubt, American Sniper is one of the hardest movies to review.  Not because it’s difficult finding the right words to use but because at this point, it seems everyone in America has already seen it!  A movie making $89.5 million at the box office in January is just unreal.  While an argument could be made for money not necessarily being the best indicator of quality, American Sniper is proof that film-goers still have excellent taste.  Instead of being a blowhard jingoistic film depicting a sniper killing America’s enemies for 140 minutes, American Sniper is a dramatic character study that’s easily the best picture out of all the Oscar nominees.

Some have compared the film to Nation’s Pride, the propaganda film-within-a-film that plays during Inglorious Basterds‘ third act.  It’s an unfavorable comparison that indicates whoever makes the comparison to have entirely missed the point of the film.  Nation’s Pride focuses on the ridiculous kill count of a German sniper.  It’s all played for laughs, what with the over-the-top death scenes and the American commander calling Hitler to surrender because this one man is just too badass to take down.  In other words, if American Sniper really was similar to Nation’s Pride, we’d have a film glorifying all of Chris Kyle’s confirmed kills.

Yes, American Sniper is an action movie at heart but the action is only there to supplement a dramatic character study.  Chris Kyle is a Texas man who was raised to be a sheepdog who protects others.  He enlists in the Navy after the 1998 embassy bombings and eventually undergoes SEAL training.  He meets and marries Taya Renae but is deployed to the Middle-east after 9/11.  It’s that dilemma that drives the film’s drama:  Kyle’s responsibilities as a husband (and later, father) vs. his beliefs and duty as a soldier.

The dilemma of trying to juggle work, personal beliefs and family is something everyone can resonate with, even if it’s on an incredibly basic level (most jobs aren’t as stressful as Navy SEAL sniper).  The film also does an excellent job of humanizing Chris Kyle without glorifying what he did.  Yes, the man racked up an impressive kill count but it’s not portrayed as something to be impressed by.  Instead, the film showcases Kyle’s guilt over not saving enough of his fellow soldiers and how he’s haunted by his experiences in Iraq.  It deals with his PTSD as he re-adjusts to civilian life and his quest to eventually come to peace with himself.

The title American Sniper easily conjures up a preconceived notion of what the movie’s about.  Yes, it’s about a sniper with a very impressive kill count but the film explores ideas much deeper than that.  The film’s ultimately about a soldier juggling personal responsibilities and coming to terms with the actions he’s done.  It’s a character arc and study that most members in the audience will be able to relate to, even if they themselves have never fired a gun.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

Comedy is often hit or miss and Seth MacFarlane’s brand is no exception.  Add in the fact that A Million Ways to Die in the West is, well, a western that comes across as a vanity project and the movie has quite a bit going against it.  Despite all those factors, the movie is quite enjoyable.  A Million Ways to Die in the West is a good comedy that could have been great.

One such issue holding the movie back is the movie’s opening.  The pacing is a bit slow as the movie sets up all the pieces to move the story along and doesn’t kick into gear until Charlize Theron shows up.  Comedies aren’t renowned for epic plots but this one is coherent:  Albert Stark (MacFarlane) is a “sheep farmer” whose characteristics are at odds with everyone else inhabiting the Old American West.  He’s a smart, rational guy living in a time where everything and everyone wants to kill you.  He prefers to talk issues and resolve things through reason than shoot people at high noon.  This causes him to lose his girlfriend (Amanda Seyfried), who wants a more take-charge guy.  In order to win her back (and under the tutelage of newcomer Anna [Charlize Theron]), Albert becomes more take-charge and discovers a side of himself he didn’t know he had.

The run time is nearly 2 hours but Ways to Die doesn’t feel long, just that the time was misused.  There’s a bit within the first 10 minutes where Albert sums up the movie:  how everything in the west is trying to kill you.  He just lists them off like a laundry list and the joke falls flat as a result.  A better way to approach it would have been to inter-cut some scenes Family Guy-style to show the audience how everything in the west kills you, not just tell them.  Thankfully, the pacing and entertainment pick up when Albert has Anna to interact with and play off of.

Aside from singing the praises of Charlize Theron, Neil Patrick Harris also deserves special mention as Albert Stark’s foil.  Their interactions with each other and the rest of the cast are some of the movie’s highest points…along with the satirical take on the Old West.  Most of the best gags are the ones where they focus on the lifestyle and culture (why does no one smile or look happy in the old photographs?).

The jokes are classic MacFarlane.  Scat jokes are prevalent but not overtly to the point of dominating the movie.  The humor’s mostly crass, poking fun at hypocrites and bordering on offensive but most people going to see this film know what they’re going to be in for.  Some jokes cross a line (why is there a runaway slave shooting gallery in 1882?  What was the point of the “Parkinson’s is just another mysterious way of God showing us how much he loves us” jab?) but never to the point of making one regret purchasing a ticket to watch.

These issues prevent A Million Ways to Die in the West from being a great comedy.  This does not make it a terrible movie but one that only squandered potential.  This seems to be a vote against the movie but I strongly recommend it.  It’s better to come from a movie thinking “it was good but they could have done this to make it better” than “that movie was terrible and it had been better off never being made!”

Amazing Spider-Man 2

Disclaimer:  I went in fully expecting to hate The Amazing Spider-Man and found it to be very enjoyable.  Enjoyable enough, in fact, that the sequel might be worth checking out.  Not enough to see it opening weekend but maybe at a later date.  Then Amazing Spider-Man 2 was released and was critically panned.  Is Amazing Spider-Man 2 the awful movie the Sony reboot was expected to be?  No.  It’s just not very good.

A viewer can tell within the first 15 minutes if they’re going to like the movie or not.  It starts with Richard Parker recording a video message to explain his disappearance, dropping Peter off at Aunt May and Uncle Ben’s before segueing into the private jet that he and his wife have chartered.  The jet crashes after a nebulous well-dressed figure murders the pilot and has an action scene where he tries to kill the Parkers.  From there, we go to the present day sometime after the first movie where Spider-Man is in the midst of thwarting a Russian mob from stealing Oscorp materials…on the day of Peter’s high school graduation ceremony which he is nearly late for.

Within the first 15 minutes (roughly), we’ve gone from an action thriller set-up (Richard’s video message) to a sad scene where Peter’s parents leave him with his aunt and uncle before the action sequence on the plane.  When we get to the present, we shift from action (Russian mobsters hijacking Oscorp materials and Spider-Man attemping to stop them) to drama (Gwen calling to wonder why Peter hasn’t arrived at high school graduation ceremony) to comedy (Spider-Man’s quips, Peter’s denial of sirens when talking with Gwen).  That’s a lot of tone shifts for a movie to juggle and Amazing Spider-Man 2 doesn’t do a terribly good job of it.

Nor does it do a good job of handling multiple plot threads.  We have Peter still trying to figure out the truth behind his parent’s disappearance, which is suitably fleshed out although it feels like there’s more information to come later.  Peter’s conflicted between his duties as Spider-Man vs. his love for Gwen.  He’s haunted by Gwen’s father, who’s dead and didn’t want Gwen to end up like him since heroes attract enemies.  This latter point is not suitably addressed.  Peter and Gwen break-up early in the film, go through a few spells including Peter’s stalking of her while he’s dressed as Spider-Man (which is more creepy than romantic) and then they get back together rather unceremoniously before the film’s climax.

A whole movie could be made about the conflict between the hero’s desire and wants vs. his duty and responsibility.  In fact, that conflict was the whole crux for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man 2.  Peter had told Mary Jane at the end of the original Raimi Spider-Man that they couldn’t be together for their own safety.  Spider-Man 2 is then about Peter and MJ trying to figure out how to make the relationship work.  It’s an issue that’s not resolved until the end of that movie.  In AMAZING Spider-Man 2, this plot point feels rushed…and even unnecessary since Gwen says her and Peter have had this talk before.

All these threads and we haven’t even got to the villains yet.  Electro’s the main villain and he’s superbly played by Jamie Foxx.  His character is essentially summed up with “what happens when you give socially awkward nerd who’s scorned by his superiors super-powers”.  Electro’s characterization isn’t something I’d have given Jamie Foxx but he makes it work.  Paul Giametti also shows up as a Russian mobster who will become the Rhino but that’s not enough action to get the billing of “supporting villain”.

The supporting villain then is Harry Osborn.  Harry returns to New York to run Oscorp after his father dies.  He also learns that the disease that killed his father is also genetic and that’s he begun to show symptoms of it.  Peter and Harry were also friends when they were younger but difted apart after Harry got sent to overseas boarding school.  They re-unite soon within the film’s opening but come at odds when Harry learns that the only cure to the disease is Spider-Man’s blood.  Peter’s unwilling to help Harry since the blood transfusion could make Harry insane or worse.  This makes Harry resort to striking up a partnership with Electro, although he ends up getting radioactive spider blood through other bullshit means.  Turns out the radioactive spider venom was extracted and placed in a prop department vault containing the costumes of other Spider-Man villains to set up the Sinister Six appearing in the next movie!  Harry manages to get the venom injected into his veins and then puts on the Green Goblin costume before flying off to fight Spider-Man.

Peter and Harry’s relationship here is not given enough time to develop, especially when it’s inevitably compared to the one in the Raimi movies.  By the time Raimi’s Spider-Man 3 rolls around, we understand why Harry doesn’t like Peter.  His father took more of a liking to Peter than his own son.  Peter ended up marrying Mary-Jane, who was dating Harry in the first movie before Harry caught Mary-Jane and Peter holding hands in the hospital.  From Harry’s perspective, Peter stole Mary-Jane from him.  He stole his father’s affection from him.  So when Harry finds out his father was the Green Goblin and that Spider-Man killed him, he has more than enough motivation to hate Peter.

In AMAZING Spider-Man 2, while Harry’s understandably angry at Peter, his descent into villainy feels rushed and what friendship they had is only contrived enough for the sake of the plot.  Why not have Harry and Peter be best friends in the first Amazing Spider-Man?  Or have Harry already running OsCorp and appoint Gwen Stacy as his secretary (after being an intern in the first movie).  Have him and Gwen bond over their mutual interest in discovering a cure for Harry’s disease when Gwen and Peter’s relationship is on the rocks.  Have Gwen’s discovery of what the radioactive spider blood will do to Harry coincide with her patching up her relationship with Peter.  Have Harry know about that patch-up so when she tells him the symptoms of the cure, he ignores it because he’s emotionally enraged at Peter “stealing” his girlfriend from him.

Amazing Spider-Man 2 repeats the sins committed by Spider-Man 3:  Having more villains and plot threads than your movie can feasibly hold.  It doesn’t do a good job at managing these villains and plots so rather than having multiple elements have their own movie (or suitably develop over the course of the series), all the development feels rushed.  The best way to compare Amazing Spider-Man 2 is that this is close to the result we would have gotten had Sam Raimi and Sony been able to co-exist on Spider-Man 3.  Neither movie could juggle multiple plots and villains well but at least none of Amazing Spider-Man 2‘s villains get the Venom treatment (i.e. underdeveloped and only appearing in the last 30 minutes of the movie before being unceremoniously dealt with…Harry’s Green Goblin may fit the bill but he’s at least alive to see the sequel).

I did like the movie, though.  When it comes to narrative and writing, Amazing Spider-Man 2 is a mess.  The acting is great, though.  The only blemishes in that category are Andrew Garfield’s Peter Parker (although he’s still pretty good at portraying Spider-Man) and Dane DeHaan’s Green Goblin portrayal that’s like a poor Jack Nicholson Joker impression.

As a mindless summer blockbuster, Amazing Spider-Man 2 fits the bill.  Too bad this movie has to clear not only the bar set by the Sam Raimi movies but the one set by The Avengers as well.  The Avengers took elements from each of its respective character’s movies and brought them together in an epic.  Amazing Spider-Man 2 does the inverse of that:  Having too many plots/villains that could have been spread out over a series instead of crammed into 142 minutes.  Spider-Man doesn’t have the luxury of The Avenger‘s ensemble cast but the Sam Raimi movies developed similar plots and villains over the course of its trilogy just fine.