Shazam! Review

For most people, the DC cinematic universe got started on the wrong foot.  The first two Zack Snyder directed films are controversial to say the least and set a tone that is certainly not to everyone’s taste.  But people seem to be unable to let go of his two and half movies and see what DC has been offering for the last couple of years.  Wonder Woman was one of the best just straightforward superhero movies of the last decade.  Aquaman was a bonkers spectacle that is unlike anything else I’ve ever seen.  Shazam continues DC’s trend of making individual movies that play the strengths of the characters, with the unifying feature the sincerity with which they approach things.  Shazam is a pure delight.

Shazam manages to find a new niche in the super hero movie genre.  It feels like a throwback, like the 80’s Amblin version of a superhero movie.  What came to my mind while watching it was Gremlins. Gremlins is a weirdo family horror movie.  This movie is combines a sincere, even touching drama about foster kids with strange magic secrets and some moments of terrifying horror.  It is a unique mix, but one that absolutely works.

Shazam starts with the young Thaddeus Sivana, bullied by his father and older brother, being magically transported to the realm of the wizard Shazam.  Shazam is old and his power is fading.  He is tested to see if he is worthy of the wizard’s power, but succumbs to the temptations of the seven deadly sins, who are monstrous spirits trapped in statues.  Shazam returns Sivana to his horrible family; Sivana then spends the next thirty or so years trying to get back there to get the power he feels he was wrongly denied.  Eventually he does, and the wizard is too weak to stop him from freeing the sins.  The story then shifts to Billy Batson, a troublesome foster kid who is searching for his birth parents.  Knocked around by the system, he doesn’t trust anybody and constantly finds himself in trouble.  At the start of the movie, he is assigned to a group home as sort of his last chance.  After sticking up for one of his foster siblings, he is transported to the wizard.  The wizard is unsure of Billy’s worthiness, but he is out of options and grants Billy the power to turn into the superhero Shazam.  The distrustful Billy must learn how to be a hero before Sivana finds him and wrests the power away.

Shazam feels like something from the 80’s because it is ostensibly a kids movie, but it still features some horrific stuff that is sure to scare kids.  The scenes of Billy and Freddie testing Billy’s new powers are delightful and sure to please children.  But mixed in with those are some scenes of the villains committing terrible crimes or one particularly graphic death.  They are these weird atonal elements that mostly get ironed out of kids movies these days.  There is also the a few genuinely heartbreaking scenes with Billy attempting to track down his mom.  It is this idiosyncratic mix of tones that makes the movie feel fully fleshed out. It also doesn’t feel like an accident, the movie wants to vary the tone.  And the mix just works.

It helps that it has some genuinely charming performances.  The combination of Zachary Levi and Asher Angel as Billy Batson/Shazam is perfect.  They manage to echo each other, making it easy to believe that they are the same person just with different outside appearances.  Jack Dylan Grazer has a perfect mischievous air about him as Freddie Freeman.  The two of them carry the movie, really feeling like a pair of teenagers that stumbled upon superpowers and are pushing the boundaries and seeing what they can do and get away with.  Shazam perfectly juggles teenage irony with a touching, childlike naivety with these two damaged kids figuring things out as best they can.

The movie does spend a little too long on the final confrontation.  It is a scene that seems to go on too long, and that time feels like it could have been better spent fleshing out Billy’s interior journey just a little more.  Still, that is a small complaint in a movie that is otherwise a delight.

Shazam treats the genuinely strange magical backstory of the mythos with admirable sincerity.  Shazam is a concept from the 40’s and it feels like it.  Most often backstories like this get sanded down in the adaptation process, Shazam leans into it, to great effect.  It is just a genuinely charming movie.

*****

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The Favourite Review

The Favourite turns a story of the political machinations of the 18th century English court into a brilliant, witty comedy. It plays fast and loose with historical accuracy, but that really isn’t the point and it doesn’t diminish what is one of the funniest and smartest comedies of the year.

The film is centered around three excellent performances. Emma Stone plays Abigail Hill, a young noblewoman who has fallen on hard times who has come to seek help from her cousin. That cousin, Sarah Churchill, played by Rachel Weisz, is the current power behind the throne, running Queen Anne’s court with an iron fist. Olivia Colman plays Queen Anne, a physically and psychologically weak Queen who tries to do her job well. The Queen holds all of the power, but lacks to ability to actually use it, and Abigail and Sarah jockey for the position as her favorite to have the power turned to what is important to them, while also being generally kind of mean to everyone around them. All three are great performances. Sarah essentially controls Queen Anne. They have been friends all their lives, and Sarah knows how to manipulate and goad Anne into seeing things her way. Their balance is upset with the arrival of Abigail, who at first is hired as a maid but works to make herself indispensable to both Sarah and Anne. Abigail does not want to return to the life of hardship she has known and will do nearly anything to insulate herself from that. Sarah wants to maintain her position and the Queen needs genuine human contact.

The Favourite does an amazing of getting the viewer to change their sympathies over the course of the movie. At the start, Queen Anne seems weak and easily manipulated, Sarah ruthless and Abigail tragic. The movie starts the viewer in Abigail’s corner, with her stories of hardships contrasted against the lavish lives of those living in or near the royal palace. The movie then reveals more about Sarah and Anne that changes how you view them. Anne is weak, but she has also undergone many tragedies in her life and is shown to want desperately to be a good Queen. Sarah, meanwhile, is revealed to actually care under her prickly exterior.

The women take center stage, there are men on the outsides. Nicholas Hoult plays Robert Harley, a political enemy of Sarah and just a complete ass. There is also Samuel Marsham, the almost complete nonentity that ends up married to Abigail. They are there, but the structure of the movie keeps them on the margins. Marsham only matters to Abigail because he is how she get stability. As soon as that is achieved, he is all but forgotten.

Where The Favourite really shines is in its pitch perfect script. It may dispense pretty quickly with historical accuracy, but man it has some great dialogue. Most of it delivered perfectly from Weisz or Stone. Whether it is Weisz’s withering, perfect put downs of the puffed up clowns at court or Stone’s more vulnerable and slightly veiled shots at other characters, it all works.

The Favourite is a purely enjoyable movie. It has some fairly dense psychological underpinnings, dealing with the nature of power and the machinations of those close to it, layered into a wonderfully smart and witty comedy.

*****

Aquaman Review

Through Amazon Prime, I got tickets to an advance screening of Aquaman. I loved it; to a shocking degree. I have generally been more receptive to DC’s superhero movies than most. Sure, Wonder Woman is the only one I wouldn’t begin my defense of with “it’s flawed, but…,” but I’ve enjoyed them. I was still caught off guard at how much fun I had watching Aquaman. Instead of writing a review right then, I decided to see it again. After plans to see it with family over Christmas fell through, I went see again just before New Years and everything fell into place.  I liked it even more the second time around.

Aquaman’s greatest strength is how unrelentingly earnest it is. That is a trait is shares with most of DC’s movie output. Marvel’s movies have this veneer of irony, a remove from the material that by treating it all subtly like a joke. The DC movies have lacked that remove. Aquaman is no different. This is a movie where the villain puts on a silly mask and tells everyone to call him Ocean Master, a moment that is treated as sincerely ominous instead preposterously silly, which it is. However, by playing the joke straight it keeps the viewer in the preposterous world of the movie. Assuming, that is, that the viewer bought in to begin with. It opens with mermaid Nicole Kidman washing up on shore near a lighthouse and pretty quickly fighting a squad of mermen in reverse scuba suit armor. You should know right then if you are in or out. And if you are in, the movie will take out on a ride.

Aquaman is something of an origin story, but not the one we’ve seen repeatedly in superhero movies. Aquaman’s, whose real name is Arthur, journey is one of accepting his place as a child of two worlds and of determining what sort of hero he wants to be. It is the same kind of story that Man of Steel flubbed the landing on. Early in the movie, Arthur makes a choice while rescuing a submarine from submarine pirates. It isn’t necessarily the wrong choice, his decision makes sense and is largely justifiable. It does, however, have repercussions. By the time he feels those repercussions, Arthur knows he made the wrong decision. The next time he faces a similar choice, he chooses otherwise. It is believable and gradual change, with Arthur deciding what kind of person he is going to be. In places Aquaman hits many similar notes to Black Panther, giving the movie something of a fantasy epic feel, like Lord of the Rings as a superhero movie.

Aquaman is also a movie filled with solid performers giving fun performances. Nicole Kidman plays Arthur’s mom. Dolph Lundgren plays an undersea king with murky motivations. Willem Dafoe plays Arthur’s mentor Vulko. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II plays the villainous Black Manta, though he mostly only gets to show rage. The central characters are Jason Momoa’s Arthur, Amber Heard’s Mera and Patrick Wilson’s Orm. Momoa brings a delightful sort of bro-y charm to Arthur, making him believably conflicted and brash. Wilson is fun as the wrongheaded, but not completely wrong, Orm. He is far enough gone to be villainous, but his motivations, both his larger ones and his more personal ones, are believable. Heard has by far the hardest job, being the only Atlantean to have to have meaningful interactions with the surface while also explaining to Arthur how a lot of the undersea world works. Still, she does it while making Mera a believable character except from some unbelievable wigs.

I am not blind to the movie’s flaws. The most prominent of which is some just miserable dialogue. The plotting of the movie is fine, good even, but the dialogue is frequently dreadful. Sometimes in a fun way, see “Call me Ocean Master,” but more often just being things that no person would ever say to another person. It can be rough. But the movie more than makes up for it with unparalleled spectacle. This is not a movie to hold anything back. It goes places and goes for it with every scene in the movie. You get to see the unreal majesty of Atlantis, then the real beauty of Sicily before the movie takes you to the horror of the Trench and then to the lost kingdom that is the last resting place of Atlantis’s first king. It is very special effects heavy, but it is gorgeous anyway.

I am a sucker for Aquaman’s brand of earnest nonsense. It is the same sort of thing I fell in love with in Flash Gordon (and recently Mortal Engines and 1996’s The Phantom). It is just the sort of movie the I am prone to falling in love with, and I did here.

*****

Widows

Widows is an exquisite piece of pulp. It revels in its genre setting, being a great example of the heist movie, but it has so much more on its mind. That is what sets it apart from other such movies; it frames the heist in a meditation on social and political problems. The combination makes for one of the best movies of the year.

Widows opens with split scene, going back and forth between Harry Rawlings and his gang of thieves on a job with them at home with their spouses, played by our stars Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez and Elizabeth Debicki. Given the title of the film, it should come as no surprise that the job goes south and the thieves end up dead. Soon the man whom Harry stole the money from shows up at Davis’s home and forcing her to pay him back. Armed only with a book Harry kept with plans for his next job, Davis gathers the other widows to pull off a job and save their lives.

Widows is a great ensemble movie. Viola Davis is the star, for sure, but Rodriguez and Debicki each get their own developed arcs. Then there is the arc going on around the heist, with entitled an entitled alderman candidate Jack Mulligan, played by Colin Ferrell, engaged in a close election with Jamal Manning, David Tyree Henry, who just so happens to also be the crime lord that after Viola Davis. Cynthia Erivo is a late addition to the heist team and again shows that she deserves to be a star.

Davis’s Veronica initially seems emotionally numb. Seeded throughout before being shown in the back half is the event that had already damaged her marriage before her husband’s death. She projects an icy strength, but it is clear that is covering deep pain. The blackmail almost seems like a positive development for her because it gives her something to focus on and a reason to interact with anybody else. Rodriguez has the most plain, the most common, problems to deal with. Her husband left her his gambling debts and two children to care for. She joins the heist because she has no other choice, but she is the most aware of the likely outcome. Finally there is Debicki, long abused and stifled, whose mother pushes her to prostitute herself to make up for the loss of her husband. The heist for her is a chance to finally take action, to prove herself as valuable person.

The growing strength of the women is countered by the utter entitlement of Jack Mulligan. His father was a long serving alderman who is now retiring. Jack is unsure if he even wants the job that he sees as his birthright. With him as an example, Manning looks to exchange a disreputable life of crime for a reputable one. Meanwhile his brother sees no reason to change a something that is working.

Widows doesn’t preach. It lets the story speak for itself. It is easy to compare it to this summer’s Ocean’s 8 and see how that movie was lacking. Ocean’s 8 was a fun piece of popcorn entertainment that was very proud of its girl power cast but lacked in any coherent voice. Widows is less proud of itself for having a cast full of women, but has so much more to say about how the differences in how society treats men and women. Ocean’s 8 was good; it was a lot of fun. Widows is great.

*****

Blindspotting

Blindspotting is powerful. It does an amazing job of balancing a high wire act of presenting a very real world but breaking from that at moments to add to the effect of the movie’s most powerful moments. It might not work for everyone, but I found it to be one of the most enthralling movies I’ve seen this year.

Blindspotting stars Daveed Diggs as Colling and Rafael Casal as Miles, two best friends living in Oakland. Collin was previously convicted of a felony and is nearing the end of his probation. He is trying to avoid any trouble. Meanwhile, Miles is a magnet for trouble, buying an unlicensed gun near the start of the movie and waving it around everywhere. They work together for a moving company. Collin’s former girlfriend works at the counter for that moving company. Miles lives with his girlfriend and their young son. With three days left on his probation, Collin witnesses a cop murder a man. The movie follows him for the next three days as he continues to try to keep his head down and stay out of trouble, despite Miles insistence on drawing as much trouble to himself as possible.

The movie deals deftly with so many issues. There are class issues, with the area where Collin and Miles grew up steadily gentrifying, with the lower class settings of their youth being replaced with more well to do facsimiles. There are now vegan burgers at the fast food place and expensive green juice at the convenience store. The two movers are always seen moving people out, never in. Often they are dealing with the remains of a family home with many affects left abandoned inside. These problems also touch on the movies racial musings. Collin fits in, visually, with the old Oakland because he is a big black guy. Miles works overtime to show that he is ‘street’ because as a white guy he is frequently mistaken for one of new hipsters in town. It is an advantage to him, since he can move in both worlds, but he considers it an insult. That also plays into how Collin ended up in jail; the idea that the world treats these two friends differently based on their race. Blindspotting plays it smart by mostly leaving the cop shooting in the background. It is always there and just like Collin the viewer is always aware of it, but he just has to go about his life regardless of what he saw. It builds, though, throughout until the movie gives viewers one of the most tense scenes I have ever seen.

Where the movie does some of its best work is in showing why the fairly mild Collin sticks with the erratic Miles. The bond between these two childhood friends is something that nearly everyone can relate to. Collin knows both that Miles is likely to get him into trouble and that despite his nonsense Miles is a good guy. Both things are true and while it seems pretty obvious that getting away from Miles is likely the best thing Collin could do, it is is easy to see why he won’t abandon a friend that never abandoned him.

Blindspotting is masterful. Wonderfully written and acted. Everyone should go see it.

*****

Sorry to Bother You Review

Sorry to Bother You is one of the best movies of the year. It is an incisive and funny satire that never let’s the viewer get comfortable in its world. That world is close enough to the real world to be recognizable, but far enough away to be disorienting, creating something that feels like a mix of Jonathan Swift and Robocop. Sorry to Bother You is an insightful social commentary that keeps its message front and center while not getting in the way of its humor.

LaKeith Stanfield stars as Cassius “Cash” Green, a down on his luck man who wants to make a difference in the world. He shares his troubles with his performance artist girlfriend Detroit, played by Tessa Thompson. Cash starts his journey to greatness when he gets a job at RegalView, a telemarketing company. While he initially struggles, after a coworker, played by Danny Glover, teaches him to use his “white voice” Cash excels. He also joins a group of coworkers who are organizing a union. Soon, his newfound success at work creates a conflict with his friends and Cash is forced to choose between his ideals and his newfound success.

That is the surface level story of the movie, but there is more going on. So much more and it gets so much weirder. From the fake TV show “I Got the S#*@ Kicked Out of Me” to the advertised corporate slavery of WorryFree living, the movie starts in a weird place and just keeps amping up the weirdness from there until it takes a turn into out and out scifi in the last third of the movie.

The satire of Sorry to Bother You is that of a hammer; it is blunt rather than subtle. This is not a mistake, subtlety can be misinterpreted and Sorry to Bother You does not leave itself open to misinterpretation. The system that Cash must join into to survive is built to keep keep people like him in their place.  From how he succeeds to what his success actually gets him, the movie makes it clear that Cash can’t truly win in this system.

The material is helped by almost uniformly excellent performances from the cast. Stanfield is great in the movie, being something of an everyman than never really feels comfortable in his role. Thompson is as good as she always is. Danny Glover and Terry Crews each show up for a couple of memorable scenes, especially Glover. Armie Hammer is perfect as Steve Lift, the “visionary” CEO of WorryFree. One of the more interesting choices the movie makes is dubbing over the voices of its black actors when they speak in “white voice,” with Stanfield done over by David Cross. It is strange, but like in most aspects of this movie the strangeness works for it.

Writing this review has been difficult because I am reluctant to spoil any part of the experience. Sorry to Bother You is a movie that deserves to be experienced with fresh eyes. The ride is so much more exciting when you don’t know where it is going. But it is a ride that you should definitely take.

*****

The Incredibles 2 Review

I have long felt that The Incredibles is Pixar’s best movie. It was also the Pixar movie most calling for a sequel. It didn’t need a sequel, no Pixar movie has needed a sequel, but The Incredibles seemed like the one that was tailor made for there to be continuing adventures. Now, more than a dozen years after the original’s release, a sequel is here. While Incredibles 2 doesn’t quite match the original, it is a more than worthy follow up.

Although more than a decade has passed since it was released, Incredibles 2 picks up right after the The Incredibles ends, with the Underminer attacking the city and only the Parrs there to stop him. After a somewhat botched fight with the Underminer, the movie moves on to its main point. Winston Deaver wants to bring supers back, and his plan involves getting some of the most popular ones, like Mr. Incredible, Frozone and Elastigirl, to go on something of a charm offensive. Primarily, he wants Elastigirl, since she tends to be the least destructive in her crime fighting. That leaves Mr. Incredible to take care of the kids on his own.

The movie proceeds along those two paths, Helen/Elastigirl’s adventures at her new job trying to make supers look good and Bob/Mr. Incredible having to be a stay at home dad. Helen’s adventures have her dealing with the mysterious new villain the Screenslaver and mostly put other superhero movie action scene to shame. Her on her motorcycle chasing down a runaway train is one of the best action scenes I’ve ever seen. Bob’s scenes are likewise a lot of fun, with Bob having to help Dash with his homework, to try to fix a breach he caused between Violet and her beau and to deal with the fact that Jack-Jack has started exhibiting superpowers.

Mostly, Incredibles 2 is a fun expansion of the world of the first movie. It introduces a half dozen new heroes with inventive powers. It works on solving the problem that drove all the heroes underground in the first movie. Where it falters, slightly, is how it doesn’t really move the characters along that much. It flips the relative roles of Bob and Helen from the first movie, but doesn’t do anything all that new with them. The kids, other than Jack-Jack, don’t really have much to do. They are the same characters they were the first time around and we don’t really learn anything more about them or see them grow. The movie does have a lot of fun with the baby and those scenes delightful.

There isn’t much about the movie that doesn’t work, but it lacks a little of the original spark of the first movie. Maybe it is just that the landscape for superhero movies is quite different now than it was in 2004. The Marvel Cinematic Universe as we know it had not even started yet; its contemporaries were X2, Daredevil and Spider-Man 2. Now, instead of one or two superhero movies a year and maybe one of them is good, we see five or six, plus all the TV shows. It makes it harder for Incredibles 2 to stand out. Nothing, however, hides its excellent construction and marvelous adventure.

*****

Black Panther

While I wouldn’t call any of the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies bad, I think the quality slipped in recent years. 2014 saw the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Guardians of the Galaxy, two of the best movies they have released. Since then, though, Marvel has not exactly struggled, but I would call the next half dozen movies middle of the road output for them. There is a certain level of polish that all of their movies have that never left, but none of those movies really stuck with me. Last Falls Thor Ragnarok pushed things to a new level, finally giving Chris Hemsworth a movie fully worthy of his God of Thunder. With Black Panther, Marvel may be at the start of a trend. Black Panther stands with the very best superhero movies ever made.

The Thor movies are a good reference for Black Panther, because they are doing a lot of the same things. Black Panther does them successfully the first time. The Thor movies have a lot to do with the politics of a fantasy land, with a young prince having to determine how he will rule and dealing with a fractured family situation. Black Panther does all these things as well, only it does them better. The political situation of Wakanda is clearer than that of Asgard, as is T’Challa’s struggle compared to Thor’s. The Thor movies, though, focused almost solely on the ruling family and their close allies. Though I liked the first two Thor movies, Ragnarok was the first one that I completely effectively portrayed the family dynamics. Black Panther deals more with state of the nation of Wakanda, though family certainly comes into play.

Black Panther also displays amazing range. A lot of movies have trouble doing one thing well, Black Panther works in at least two modes at a very high level. In Wakanda, T’Challa is caught up in essentially a fantasy epic; the story there shares more with Lord of the Rings than with Iron Man. It is among the most effective fantasy epics ever put to film. But there is also a detour to South Korea to play out a mini-spy thriller; the movie turns into a James Bond movie for thirty minutes. What is most amazing that it manages to weld these two concepts together almost flawlessly. The various parts of the movie support each other. The Seoul sequence lets T’Challa see his policies in action, letting him be more sure or less, as the case may be, of his actions when he returns to Wakanda. It creates a movie that feels remarkable assured of itself.

That is not even going into the wealth of interesting characters the movie introduces. Somehow Coogler creates the best, most nuanced villain in a Marvel movie with a character named Killmonger. Another highlight is Shuri, T’Challa’s super-genius sister. Or M’Baku, leader of rival Wakandan tribe who challenges Black Panther. All of these characters come from the comics, but the movie does an amazing job of adapting the into a cohesive story.

There are other ways in which Black Panther is a complete triumph that I am not really capable of or inclined to weigh in on, though I do feel compelled to acknowledge their existence. Judging it solely on how successful it is compared to other Marvel movies, or other superhero movies in general, or among all blockbuster movies, Black Panther stands near the top. This is one of the best.

*****

Star Wars The Last Jedi Review

Honestly, when I first walked out of the theater after seeing The Last Jedi I was disappointed. It wasn’t at all what I expected or what I thought I wanted. As I thought about it on the drive home and over the next day, my opinion really changed. I was shocked at first because the movie is so different from it predecessor. The Force Awakens was desperate to please and easy to like, with constant, reverent references to the original trilogy. While it’s plot wasn’t much more than a point for point remake of A New Hope, it also took the time to set up numerous mysteries. Instead of being focused on living up to expectations, The Last Jedi revels in subverting them. It can feel confounding at first, but once digested it makes for one of the most fulfilling Star Wars experiences I’ve had.

I don’t want to just spoil the movie in my review, though I assume nearly everyone who is going to see it has done so at this point, so I am not going to walk through each of Rey’s, Luke’s, Finn’s and Poe’s stories. They each share key thematic points, though the movie keeps most of the heroes apart. Details are shared across three stories pretty evenly, but I think the strongest example of what the movie is doing is Poe’s storyline. The hotshot pilot gets a moment to show off to start the film with a solo bit of heroics that morphs into a suicide run on the film’s bigger, more dangerous take on the Star Destroyer, the Dreadnought. In any other Star Wars movie, the assault on the Dreadnought would be a grand, heroic moment. That is the sort of moment the series is built on. Here it is a bit of folly that gets Poe demoted. Still, throughout the movie Poe tries to be the action hero like Luke and Han and even Obi-Wan were in previous movies. While I say that isn’t like other Star Wars movies, it isn’t really unlike Empire Strikes Back, which saw the rebellion only as they fought a delaying battle before running away from an Imperial Fleet. The Last Jedi spells it out as a battle to save what you love, not destroy what you hate, a message that fits in with other Star Wars movies even as this one makes distinctions.

It is also a movie about failure and how to deal with it. Each of our heroes must deal with failure in this movie, and how they learn from it is important. That is why people who dislike the Finn and Rose story are missing the point. That part is called a waste of time only because they eventually fail in their mission, but the whole point of the movie, the final lesson that Yoda has to teach Luke, is that failure is among the greatest of teachers.

The best part of the movie is how it backs away from the idea of the destined hero. That flaw is largely confined to the prequels, which started Anakin out as this mythological figure before we even got to know him. This pulls that back. The heroes of Star Wars maybe do heroic things, but they are just people in this world, like Luke and Han were. It is deliberately lessening the emphasis on legacy that The Force Awakens focused on. People spent a couple of years speculating about who Rey’s parents were because of who Luke’s dad turned out to be, but Rey’s story isn’t Luke’s story. The revelation that her parents aren’t anybody is the best possible way to solve that mystery.

At first, I didn’t like that The Last Jedi withheld the comforting conclusions that I was expecting. I wanted to see Luke in his full glory, I wanted to see Finn and Poe go on adventures. Watching the movie, I didn’t get anything that I wanted, other than the wholly excellent throne room scene. But judging the movie not based on my preconceived notions about what I thought it would be, but on what it is and what is accomplished convinced me that this is the best Star Wars movie since the original trilogy ended.

As I said, I didn’t really like the movie when it first finished, but by the time I went for my second viewing a fews days later I was even more excited than I was before my first viewing. The Last Jedi is a thematically rich movie that upends a lot of what people expect Star Wars to be, while not really changing anything. It makes the galaxy far, far away feel larger than it has since it was revealed that Leia was Luke’s sister. It is a big galaxy, and anybody can be the hero. For the first time in a long time, I feel like I don’t know what is coming next with Star Wars and I couldn’t be more excited.

*****

Blade Runner 2049

I am not the biggest fan of the original Blade Runner. I like it just fine, but it always felt standoffish and cold to me. Maybe it is because I am most familiar with the theatrical cut. At least I think that is the cut that I watched occasionally on VHS decades ago.  I have seen at least two different versions of it.  It is stark and moody and beautiful, but I could never connect with it. While Blade Runner 2049 shares a lot of qualities with the original, I didn’t have that problem here.

Blade Runner 2049 eschews ambiguity about whether its protagonists is a replicant, and artificially created person, (I don’t think Deckard is) telling the viewer right at the start that Ryan Gosling’s K is one. After successfully hunting down an older model, he stumbles upon a discovery that has the potential to completely disrupt society. This sets off an investigation that largely plays out like a noir mystery. Trying not to spoil anything, K must deal with his boss with the police, his companion Joi, mysterious CEO Niander Wallace and his associate Luv and finally Deckard from the original movie as he tries to get to the bottom of things.  It is hard to really dig into this movie without spoiling everything. I am not usually a big stickler for spoilers, but this is a mystery.  SO there will be mild spoilers ahead, but I will endeavor to not ruin things outside the basic premise.

It does deal with the idea of what makes us human.  Our protagonist K is a replicant, and he believes he is not a person. He puts up a persona of being cold and emotionless.  A later revelation causes him to question that, and he becomes much more emotional and expressive.  By the end, he has shown his humanity no matter what he learns about his creation.  That is contrasted with Luv, another replicant who never seems to question her birth and purpose. No matter what she does or what she sees, she robotically follows her orders.  Then there is Joi, an AI program designed to tell its owner exactly what they want to hear.  She gives K exactly what he wants; turning his barren apartment into a home and telling him he is special, even giving him another name, Joe.  But is she doing anything more than what her programming tells her to do?  An encounter with another version maybe answers the question, but I don’t think that answer is definitive.  Then there is also the inhumanity of many of the human characters, like [boss] and Wallace, who coldly want to, or do, dispatch with replicants because they do not see them as human. It makes things a little more clear as to what each character is, and then muddies it up with how to look at them.

It is also an utterly gorgeous movie, taking place in a largely ugly setting.  The earth of 2049 is a dying place, with irradiated desert reclaiming Las Vegas and San Diego turned into a giant dump and Los Angeles managing to seem both overcrowded and empty.  The costuming is amazing; there are tons of memorable shots. The music is good, if a little modern blockbuster-y.  It is just a truly well-made film.

I’m not trying to hide the ball here, I loved Blade Runner 2049.  It isn’t a copy of the original; it takes its themes and builds on them.  I think it surpasses the original.  It is a little messy, there are plot threads that don’t really go anywhere and lots of questions left unanswered, but those mostly worked to make the movie feel alive for me.  This world is bigger than just the story of this movie, those story threads are not to be dealt with here.  Not really sequel hooks, just other events that are also happening.  Everything about this movie works for me.

*****