X-Men: Apocalypse – Review

cf7kkqeuuaeqameIt’s already been a summer of superheroes with Batman v Superman and Captain America: Civil War, many people may have forgotten that there was a new X-Men movie as well. Following up Bryan Singer’s Days of Future Past, the team finds itself in the middle of the 80s and an ancient power has awoken which could mean the end of the world as we know it. X-Men: Apocalypse is just as much about it’s characters as it is about spectacle. Singer knows we come to see them and watch them grow and the film does not disappoint.

Magneto’s Struggle

Eric’s story line is one of the most poignant. After the events of Days of Future Past, he has retired to Poland, works in a steel mill, married a woman (he told her who he was the first night they met) and they have a child. He’s happy in the small life he created until an accident at the mill forces him to use his powers to save a fellow worker. Word gets out who he is and before he and his family can escape, the local police capture his daughter, who is killed in a showdown. Enraged, Eric lashes out at the men, killing them all, leaving him screaming to the heavens, “Is this all I am?”. He cannot seem to escape the darkness within. It’s a clear reminder that there is something inside all of us that we cannot control, that is dark and evil and by ourselves we are powerless to control it. In the movie, it’s Charles, Raven and Quicksilver that help bring Eric back to the light, it’s part of the answer, to realize we cannot do it alone, dimly reflecting the truth of,

If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (1 John 1:8-9 ESV)

Better Together

Apocalypse, also known as En Sabah Nur, believes himself to be a god among men. He believes that his power instills in him the right to rule. The gifts that he was born with have been used to benefit himself alone. On the opposite side you have the X-Men who learn to harness their power and use it for others and the betterment of the world around them. It’s a beautiful picture of what the Apostle Paul talks about in Corinthians when he discusses spiritual gifts,

Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills. (1 Corinthians 12:4-11 ESV)

The X-Men series has always been about coming together and Apocalypse is no different. in the fight against En Sabah Nur neither Magneto or Charles is strong enough to destroy him, it takes, Scott Summers, Jean Grey working in concert with everyone else to save the world. Thinking about the film brought the next part of the Corinthian passage to mind,

For the body does not consist of one member but of many. If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body. (1 Corinthians 12:14-20 ESV)

Each member of the team has a gift, that when combined with the others makes them even stronger. The gifts are meant to be used for the welfare of all of humanity and cannot hoard for ourselves, because we need each other. Each person brings strengths and weaknesses to the table and united we form a more perfect union. apocalypse-180759

Conclusion

I really enjoyed this movie. I love the new cast they have playing the younger versions of the people we know from the previous films and Quicksilver is still one of the best things in superhero films. The rest of the character work has me excited for what comes next in the series as hopefully we move to the 90s. Side note, this is how you make a joke about a Star Wars film. This film is rated 3.75 out of 5.

Captain America: Civil War – Review

Captain-America-Civil-War-FAN-MADE-Poster-captain-america-38467259-1382-2048.pngListen to The 602 Club Episode here!

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After the events of The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, Age of Ultron and the beginning of Civil War itself, the Avengers team find themselves under fire for their unchecked use of power and civilian casualties. As the team divides amongst itself on the best way to solve this problem, a malevolent force works to tear them apart from the inside out. Civil War is a great superhero movie that asks big questions and still has the heart of the first two Captain America movies. It is a worthy successor to the series.

The Truth is Not Relative

The most powerful scene in the movie comes at Peggy Carter’s funeral. Her niece Sharon Carter gives the eulogy and recounts a conversation she had with her aunt. Peggy told Sharon, “Compromise where you can. Where you can’t, don’t. Even if everyone is telling you that something wrong is something right. Even if the whole world is telling you to move, it is your duty to plant yourself like a tree, look them in the eye, and say ‘No, YOU move’.” Rarely has a comic book movie been more resonant to the times in which we live. The world is upside down and it’s screaming at us that wrong is right every single day. Peggy Carter’s message is a clarion call to us, we must plant ourselves in the truth, like a tree and not be shaken. It’s a clear picture of Psalm 1,

“Blessed is the man who walks not in the counsel of the wicked, nor stands in the way of sinners, nor sits in the seat of scoffers; but his delight is in the law of the LORD, and on his law he meditates day and night. He is like a tree planted by streams of water that yields its fruit in its season, and its leaf does not wither. In all that he does, he prospers. The wicked are not so, but are like chaff that the wind drives away. Therefore the wicked will not stand in the judgment, nor sinners in the congregation of the righteous; for the LORD knows the way of the righteous, but the way of the wicked will perish.” (Psalm 1 ESV)

Steve Rogers is a wonderful model for this. His morality and virtue are not shaped my popular opinion or politics, but by something much more foundational and unchanging, knowing that there is right and wrong and that they are not something to be compromised.

Freedom to Choose 

Captain-America-Civil-War-645x370There is also another side to the coin. Captain America sees the inherent danger of taking choice away from the Avengers and making them pawns of a political body. He is fearful that they will be asked to stay out of situations they should be in and forced to act in ways they ought not because of prevailing political sentiment. There is a good correlation with the Jedi in the prequels, that allowed themselves to become agents of a government and not what is right. In the end the Jedi became compromised, realizing too late that they’ve been in service to the wrong master all along.

The choice to do what is right cannot be left to a committee and popular opinion, Steve knows this and willingly lives out that principle. In fact, this is the very reason Steve is fighting for Bucky. Bucky is someone who has had choice forcibly removed, enslaved to the will of an evil organization and been made to do terrible things. He is a microcosm of the question facing the Avengers team. Captain America shows his quality once again as he interposes himself between Iron Man and the Winter Soldier, protecting both: Tony from acting on revenge and Bucky from something that is not his fault.

Conclusion

Captain America: Civil War is a fantastic movie and honestly the Avengers movie we all hoped Age of Ultron would be. While I do have some minor quibbles, I feel Spider-man is shoehorned into the film and would have rather had his time devoted to other characters like Agent 13 or Black Panther, it does not detract too much from the enjoyment of the film. This is rated four shields out of five.

Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice – Review

thetrinityThis review contains spoilers.

Get The 602 Club review here!

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“Black and blue. Fight night. The greatest gladiator match in the history of the world. God versus man. Day versus night! Son of Krypton versus Bat of Gotham!” – Lex Luthor

Comic fans have been having the argument for over 70 years about who would win in a fight between Superman and Batman. At the end of Man of Steel the production team was looking for the next challenge that Superman would face and in that conversation the idea was thrown out that it should be Batman. Thus was born the genesis of Batman v Superman, Zach Snyder’s newest film in the DC cinematic universe. Pitting a grizzled, bitter Batman against a Superman the world is not sure it wants, Batman v Superman is a serious comic book film that asks big questions while at the same time not loosing heart.

Fear What They Don’t Understand

Martha Kent tells her son that people fear what they do not understand and that theme plays itself out throughout the movie. Lex Luthor plays on the fears of the government, which is not sure what to make of this alien with god-like powers. He is also able to prey on the fear, anger and rage of Bruce Wayne who after 20 years as Batman has seen the loss of a Robin and many so-called “good men”. Fear drives Bruce to see Superman as something that cannot be contained, “That son of a bitch brought the war to us. He has the power to wipe out the entire human race and if we believe there is even a one percent chance that he is our enemy, we have to take it as an absolute certainty” he tells Alfred. He has good reasons, since he was there the day that Zod attacked Metropolis, helplessly watching as he lost friends and employees in one of his buildings.

Fear leads Batman to become even harder and more cruel as he searches for answers because he believes it is duty to save humanity from a threat that cannot be controlled. In light of someone with such power who is the Batman? Alfred, like Yoda before him warns Bruce about fear, “That’s how it starts. The fever, the rage, the feeling of powerlessness that turns good men… cruel.” Because of it, Batman is willing to be the complete vigilante, he will do whatever it takes to get the job done. This is where the “v” in the title comes in to play, will justice be served by the law or by someone like Batman. Superman stands clearly on the side of the law and working with it to bring justice, Batman on the other had is much more willing to dole out justice as he sees fit.

It was striking to see this as a reflection of America. We are being driven by fear, we don’t talk, we just yell at each other from different sides of the aisle and problems never get resolved. We are afraid of everything and it continually eats away at our humanity until there is nothing left. We face the same dilemma, will be be driven by our fear, allowing it to lead us down a dark path, or will we be lead by the better angels of our nature? At this moment the answer is utterly uncertain.

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There is a senate hearing about actions that were taking early in the movie by Superman and the senator played by Holly Hunter talks about the importance of talking to one another in a democracy and working things out together. What is provocative is to see how the “fight” between Batman and Superman has come to a head because they have not talked to one another, they have just assumed things about the other. It is only when these two men do talk that they realize they are being used as pawns and are actually on the same side. The most powerful moment in the movie comes when Batman has Superman down and is ready to strike and Superman asks him to save Martha who has been kidnapped by Lex. In that moment Bruce realizes that he and Clark, though from completely different worlds are exactly the same, men who would do anything to save their mothers and it creates a bridge between them.

It’s a timely reminder that it is through dialogue and communication that most problems get solved. The hard work of setting aside preconceptions and prejudices has to be done if we ever want to make a better world. There is a time to fight but more importantly, there is a time to truly listen, learn and make peace.

Media and the Truth

The movie has a very realistic take on the role of media in our lives. We live in a world of the 24 hour news cycle that has created the era of the sensationalistic sound-bite culture that feeds misinformation constantly. There is very little responsible journalism when getting the story first is more important than getting it right. Clark faces that in the film as he sees the way the Batman is trampling on civil liberties and Perry White yells at him, “Nobody cares about Clark Kent taking on the Batman.” The world has stopped caring about what is moral and right in the news when like everything else it has become a form of entertainment. The movie wonderfully demonstrates this with the likes of Charlie Rose and Anderson Cooper showing up, playing the same roles they do in real life, questioning pundits who have no real knowledge, just half-baked theories built on conjecture. It’s a world where everyone is saying something but no one is listening. This talking heads do nothing but fan the flames of extremism on both sides because it’s good for the ratings and the truth gets trampled in the crossfire.

The film shows the difference of people who have experienced the kindness and help of Superman as apposed to those who have not. It’s shocking to see when he arrives at the capital the demonstrations where half of the people love him and the other half hate him, even though neither sides have probably ever met him or experienced him in person. It plays into the theme of fear perfectly and sadly it looks all too familiar, a world that takes sides with little to no true knowledge of the subject matter at hand.

Consequences 

One of the beauties of the DC cinematic universe so far is the consequences faced by the heroes and the situations that they are in. In Man of Steel an alien terraforming machine was unleashed on the world and two “gods” fought creating massive destruction. This carries in to Batman v Superman as Superman must figure out when is the right time to act, what is the right thing to do and deal with the untended consequences of his actions, even if the action was right. The movie does a good job of showing that Clark is trying to do what is right in all areas of his life, at the newspaper and as Superman, yet he lives in a world where what is right is often not seen as popular or even encouraged.

Perception of his actions have a huge impact on the movie since everything he does is captured, reported on and twisted in a million different ways in the media. It plays in beautifully with the ideas of the media and truth. Superman may have the noblest of intentions but since his actions are often seen or spun differently and it creates a firestorm that he often did not expect. Snyder brilliantly captures the heart of the cynical, jaded and self-important world we live in where it’s not the truth of what happened that matters but your own personal “truth” that is preeminent. We’ve lost the ability to believe in heroes because we’ve lost the belief in good and evil, to accept only our own spin on events. Additionally the blame game is in full effect, since no one these days is responsible for their own actions, it is always the fault of someone else and the one to blame is usually the person trying to do the right thing.

What is incredible about the movie is that it plays all of this out with Superman. His actions to save Lois in the desert from terrorists has led to him being blamed for deaths that he did not cause and the media spin does nothing to help. In the end the whole thing is being orchestrated by Lex to sow the seeds of distrust in Superman and he plays the world for fools by tapping into our fears, the media and the current lack of critical thought to unleash an even greater evil on the world. Sound familiar?

On top of this, Lex openly challenges the idea of an all good “god” with the classic problem of evil. If God is all good how can their be evil and if there is evil, how can God be all good? The death of religious belief has lead us to question the ability of anything altruistic or good in anyone, even our heroes. It’s hard to have heroes when we don’t believe in absolute good or evil, there are only shades of grey and someone like Superman can seem like a relic of a long forgotten age. It truly is the struggle of our time as  we wrestle with the desire for a true hero and ostracism of them in the same breath.  This is why all our “heroes” reflect us now, not the best part, the morally ambiguous part, because heroes make us uncomfortable with what we have given up. Heroes with the virtue of Superman, remind us of what we have lost in expulsion of absolute truth.

Superman, Batman and Wonder Woman

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The thing that I love most about the movie is the was the way it nails the Superman character. May people cried foul at Man of Steel for not having him saving enough people, but this movie takes all of that criticism and builds on it. It shows us a man willing to be a hero, even when he’s rejected. Superman tells Lois, “This is my world” and he is willing to give his life for it, even if the people of it shun, hate or despise him, he’s going to be the hero they need. He lovingly plays out John 15:13, giving his life not only for his friends but for the world, even those that hate him and by doing so fulfilling his father Jor-El’s words, “You will give the people of Earth an ideal to strive towards. They will race behind you, they will stumble, they will fall. But in time, they will join you in the sun, Kal. In time, you will help them accomplish wonders.” And the people do, starting with Batman and Wonder Woman.

Batman was the best Batman I have seen on screen, from the costume, to the movement, to the way in which he seemed to have stepped right out of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns. What made him so compelling was his need to be brought back into the light and that it was Clark that showed him the way. He was reminded of his humanity by an alien. It’s a powerful message of hope in the darkness and the need of someone to show the lost the way.

Wonder Woman was wonderful. DC was right to bring her into this film and introduce her to the world before she gets her own film in 2017. Gal Gadot was phenomenal and some of the biggest cheers in the theater were when she shows up in the costume to help lay waste to Doomsday. Honestly love everything about her.

Conclusion

This movie is a comic book on screen. It is fun too, do not let the reviews out there fool you, there were moments I was cheering and having a blast. I like that the plotting of Lex throughout the film brings all of the heroes together in the end, as well as sets up the need for the Justice League to form. I thought that Jesse Eisenberg’s Lex Luthor was a refreshing take on a well known character. He brought a manic malevolence to the performance that set him apart from other Luthors we have seen. I also enjoyed the final climax to the movie as the three heroes try to find a way to defeat Doomsday and not destroy another city. The movie is not perfect, but I like is immensely and cannot wait to see it again as well as Zach Snyder’s Director’s Cut on blu ray. This is 4 and a half stars out of 5 for me.

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New Podcast!

AN-ReimaginedJanuary19-1400x1400-FadeI have recently begun a new podcasting adventure with my good friend John Mills called Aggressive Negotiations. It is a Star Wars podcast and yet not your usual Star Wars show. We do not cover any news or current Star Wars evens, we cover the things you talk about with your friends. We are just two guys who enjoy contemplating the silly, the serious and everything in-between about the Star Wars saga. I hope you will join us for our 30ish minute shows as we talk about a fun new topic each week. You can find us on our website as well as iTunes. Check us out, let us know what you think and help spread the word!

Best Books of 2015

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This is a list of the best books that I read this year in no particular order. There are some links to full reviews or a podcast so be sure to check those out as well. Comment and let me know what you read so I can add to my list for 2016.


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The Sun and Other Stars

I feel in love with this book and it’s simple story of a small Italian town that is turned upside down when a famous European football star escapes to a villa just outside the city. Pasulka makes you feel as if you are in the seaside village of San Benedetto, as Italy comes alive around you. This is the perfect book for any time of the year when you wish to escape on an exotic vacation.

91PrwyEfcwLAstoria

Six years after the success of the Lewis & Clark expedition, John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson dreamed of a Northwest empire along the Pacific coast. This is the true story of the three year journey that would end without an empire but inadvertently blazing the Oregon Trail. It’s a harrowing story of the wild frontier, survival and shattered dreams. Fascinating from start to finish.

star-wars-dark-discipleDark Disciple 

I cannot add anything to my original review, “Christie Golden has written the finest book in the new canon with Dark Disciple. The book immediately feels like an arc of The Clone Wars. In many ways it is a stinging reminder of just how much life was left in this show and the power it had to tell amazing stories. My sincere thanks to Dave Filoni and Pablo Hidalgo for continuing to find opportunities to get The Clone Wars content to fans any way they can. Dark Disciple is now my gold standard for what this new line of canon books can and should be. This book is rated a perfect 10.” Be sure to check out The 602 Club review and interview with author Christie Golden.

81Yengb18CLBecoming Worldly Saints 

Maybe the hardest thing to do as a follower of Christ is to live in the world but not of it. With so many books swirling around the Evangelical world, many with opposing views on how to live as Christ has called, Wittmer wisely and carefully shows that enjoying the life we’ve been given and radically following Jesus are not at odds. “Careful Christian thinking holds these two truths in paradox, never allowing one truth to drown out the other, never allowing the extreme position of one side to lead us to the other. To miss one side of this paradox or the other is to distort the beauty of Christianity.” Excerpt From: Michael E. Wittmer. “Becoming Worldly Saints.” iBooks. https://itun.es/us/fBev1.l

Lost-Stars-CoverStar Wars: Lost Stars

This may have been the biggest surprise of the year. Lost Stars was released on Force Friday this year and aimed at the young adult market. In the shadow of the much touted Aftermath, Lost Stars flew under the radar with no expectations and with that eclipsed Aftermath in both quality and praise. Gray weaves an expansive story that moves from before A New Hope to after Return of the Jedi all from the point of view of the Empire’s finest recruits. Next to Dark Disciple, this is the finest example of how to add to the Star Wars canon. Be sure to check out The 602 Club review.

Epitaph hc cEpitaph

Mary Doria Russell has long been a favorite author of mine and this year’s Epitaph was another feather in her cap. A work of historical fiction about the man behind the legend, Wyatt Earp. Russell has dug deep to research this book, giving it an authenticity and reality that will blow you away. This may be the closest you will ever come to reading the true story of the O.K. Corral and the people behind the famous shootout.

book-bag-the-wright-brothersThe Wright Brothers

David McCullough is back as he chronicles the Wright brothers determination to see a man fly. The ingenuity these men had as self-made inventors is astonishing. The “can do” spirit has never been stronger as they take advantage of every benefit American freedom offers to create the first piloted aircraft and make sure their names would be long remembered.  Inspirational to the last.

20150326140533US_cover_of_Go_Set_a_WatchmanGo Set a Watchman

I cannot add anything to my original review, “Go Set a Watchman set the world afire when it was announced. After years of rumors that Harper Lee had written another book and questions about if it would be published, the book’s final discovery continues to be followed by controversy surrounding whether or not Lee had been taken advantage of by her publisher. Regardless, the book is out and with society in upheaval again, it just may be the perfect book at the perfect time. In the story, Jean Louise (Scout) is home visiting from New York and what follows are vignettes on a theme. Each vignette builds to a crescendo as Jean Louise breaks the shackles of childhood to become her own person…Go Set a Watchman is a visionary book about the past yet it is just as relevant today. It’s an important read and well worth your time. I encourage everyone to wrestle with the themes because you just might find yourself changed in the end.”

fellowshipThe Fellowship

The Inklings are the stuff of legend in the literary world and with giants like Lewis and Tolkien in their midst the other members are often overlooked. In The Fellowship, Philip and Carol Zaleski look at the lives of the four main members J.R.R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield and Charles Williams. They never shy away from the imperfections of each, giving a well rounded look at each man’s strengths and weaknesses and just what made this group so special. It’s a long read that is worth the investment. 

Honorable Mentions:

For the Star Wars Fan: Weapon of the Jedi, Smuggler’s Run, Moving Target, Before the Awakening, Shattered Empire, Lords of the Sith and The Star Wars Heresies.

The History Fan: Dead Wake.

The Mystery Fan: Career of Evil.

For the Star Trek Fan: Sight Unseen and Atonement.

The Young Adult Fan: The Sword of Summer.

The Non-Fiction Fan: Into Thin Air.

Best Movies of 2015

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This is a list, in the order of release date, of the best films I saw in the theater this year. Titles with links will take you to the full review I wrote. Also be sure to look for the links to The 602 Club reviews of many of the movies on the list.


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Cinderella

The live action remake was a true surprise. As I said in my original review, “Going into the movie, one would not expect much more than the basic story seen in the animated feature. What Branagh has done is create depth in a story that many have derided as nothing more than an old fashioned and sadly outdated tale. This simple yet elegant theme, ‘Have Courage and Be Kind’ is the heart of the movie…The greatest gift of this Cinderella is the reminder to the world that it takes the utmost courage to be kind, especially in the face of constant adversity. Most films give us sarcastic, mean-spirited people who use their painful experiences as excuses to treat people terribly. Crafted with a deft hand, though, Cinderella lovingly directs us to see that it’s easy to be cruel and almost impossible to be kind, unless you have courage.”

Mad-Max-FuryMad Max: Fury Road

I have never seen any of the previous Mad Max films, but with the praise this movie garnered on it’s release it felt like something I should see. Thankfully I was far from disappointed. As I wrote in my review, “No movie in the last decade has been a better representation of the total depravity of the human race than Mad Max: Fury Road. Set in a post-apocalyptic world, caused by its hubris, humankind has returned to the dust, scrounging like the animal it believes itself to be. What is left is ruled by a demonic sadist with a proclivity for a heavy metal inspired wardrobe. This is survival of the fittest at it’s most extreme. This is a movie that shows in the bleakest of ways that humanity left on it’s own is truly it own worst enemy.”

Tomorrowland-IMAX-PosterTomorrowland

This film’s mysterious marketing had me intrigued for a year and I was glad that the film did not let me down. For me it was the themes that really captivated my attention and my review pointed out a few. “There does seem to be a loss of perspective; thoughts of tomorrow have been replaced with an obsession over what can be accumulated or acquired for immediate pleasure. A mandate was given at the beginning of time to take care of the earth and steward it. We were meant to create and foster life all around us. Inspiration used tocome from places like NASA, where the impossible seemed possible. Where the undiscovered country of the future was just a shuttle ride away. Technology was about making the world a better place, not just a more convenient one. Tomorrowland reminds us that we are all in this together, and not just now, but for the generations to come.” Please check out The 602 Club review. 

Jurassic-World-Poster-Official1Jurassic World

This may have been the biggest surprise of the year for me since I didn’t have high hopes after the mediocre Lost Word and awful jurassic Park III. What I wrote originally still holds up, “Jurassic World is fun. I’ve been a dinosaur fan since I was young and I love having them back in a movie that is good. There are moments that the movie does make you feel awe again, just as the original did. While at the same time reminding you just how scary these animals would be. I liked Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. A lot has been made of whether or not Claire is feminist enough and I think if her character had been a guy, no one would complain about the characterization, so I have no issues with her. Jurassic World is a great popcorn movie with timely reminders of the dangers that not dinosaurs, but humanity are to ourselves and to the world when we forget our place.” Please check out The 602 Club review.

inside-out-5492d0c4e3912Inside Out

It’s a testament to Pixar that when they are on their game their movies can be the most heartfelt and moving you will see. I wrote, “Inside Out powerfully and emotionally helps illuminate for everyone the ways in which the worst things in our lives can actually become the best, sadness and joy going hand in hand. It’s here that complex emotions are born; things are never simple but a jumble of joy, sadness, anger, fear and disgust.”

ad1c3134-1bce-465d-a9f7-108076bf5551Mr. Holmes

The story of an aging Sherlock Holmes that is making the slow slide towards dementia was one of the most powerful films of the year. “Mr. Holmes is the perfect antidote to superheroes, explosions and dinosaurs. None of these have been bad things, but Mr. Holmes stands above these with it’s reminders of the importance of community and truly knowing those around us and allowing ourselves to be known. Go see Mr. Holmes and revel in the quiet mystery of a film doing what the medium does at it’s best, teaching us through a good story and good characters.”

Mission-Impossible-Rogue-Nation-International-PosterMission Impossible: Rogue Nation

When you reach the fifth movie in a franchise the audience cannot be blamed for wondering if it can possibly be good. Let’s face it, on a whole, the more films in a series, the more likely one is to experience diminishing returns. Luckily, Rogue Nation could arguably be considered the best of the Mission Impossible series. Tom Cruise continues to fire on all cylinders, proving that he’s still a mega star, but it is Rebecca Ferguson that steals the show. She’s the best female protagonist in the series and thankfully will be back for the next mission. Please check out The 602 Club review.

chkgr8auiaae_opThe Man from U.N.C.L.E.

There is no cooler or more retro film than U.N.C.L.E.. Henry Cavill and Armie Hammer are terrific as Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin in a prequel that sets up the hit show from the 1960s. Alicia Vikander continues to impress, she was phenomenal in Ex Machina and her she’s every bit a foil for both men. The soundtrack is the grooviest you’ll hear and the movie is just so much fun, start to finish. Rent it, buy it and let’s cross our fingers they are given a sequel.  Please check out The 602 Club review.

11190916_oriEx Machina

This movie was a fascinating look at the creative drive of men and the ways in which we are terrible gods. Oscar Isaac is mesmerizing as an inventor that has created the first true A.I. and asks Domhall Gleeson’s character to administer the Turing Test to the android. What follows is breathtaking, with performances from Isaac, Gleeson and Vikander that are truly Oscar worthy.

 large_unexpected_ver2Unexpected

This was a gem in a summer of superheroes and dinosaurs and it’s message was inspiring. “Hollywood is not particularly known for being overly pro-life in it’s films, yet Unexpected is. There’s a beautiful moment when Samantha and John are at the doctor’s office for their first ultrasound and she sees the heartbeat on screen for the first time and it becomes real to her, that there is a life inside her. It can be so easy to forget that since the baby is hidden, but as that window opens, so do her eyes to what’s truly happening; she carrying a human baby. Neither of these women planned for their pregnancy, yet each of them decides to do the best for that new life. John Lennon famously said that life is what happens when you are busy making other plans and that is exactly what happens to the characters in this film. Having a baby is never going to be convenient, but it is always going to be a blessing whether that’s to the biological parents or the adoptive parents.”

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Bond is back and this time it feels a little more familiar. There is a sense that yes, Craig is more serious as Bond but that does not mean he can’t have fun. The action is spectacular, especially the opening sequence and the story wraps up most of the storylines that began in Casino Royale. I thoroughly enjoy Léa Seydoux as Bond’s new love interest, she the best Bond woman since Tracy in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. This is a worthy successor to Skyfall and if it is Craig’s last Bond, a wonderful swan song. Please check out The 602 Club review.

brooklyn-poster01Brooklyn 

Set in the 1950s, it tells the story of Eilis, an Irish immigrant who comes to America in search of a better opportunities. Just as she begins to build a new life for herself, she must race back home to face the past and her family. Saoirse Ronan is a vision in this film and the scenery in Ireland will leave you longing for a trip to the Emerald Isle. Small movies that are all about characters are sometimes hard to find so be sure to seek this one out.

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterStar Wars: The Force Awakens

There is no bigger movie this year than the latest film in the Star Wars saga. My review on this was a long one, but it boiled down to this, “This is not the best Star Wars movie, that honor still belongs to The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a better one than I initially thought. It has some problems in the pacing, lack of clarity in the story and themes as well as a death that still leaves me numb…I would recommend seeing the movie more than once, since the first time can be a little jarring with it’s fast-paced nature and important story points almost glossed over because of it.  I’d give the movie 3.75 lost lightsabers out of 5.” Please check out The 602 Club review.

onesheetJoy

This movie tells the story of Joy Mangano who invented the Miracle Mop. David O. Russell is back with Jennifer Lawrence, Bradley Cooper and Robert De Niro muses. I found the movie inspiring as Joy embraces the “can do” spirit of America and rises above the limitations that life, choices and family have put on her to become one of the most successful QVC sellers and a self-made millionaire. It’s not perfect, but it’s a strong movie with another stellar performance from Jennifer Lawrence.

271345The Big Short

I can say, unequivocally that this is the best film of the year. It is based on the book by Michael Lewis which chronicles the lives of the people that recognized the coming crash in the housing market that led to the financial crisis of 2007-2010. Seldom has a film portrayed the hubris of man in all it’s disgusting glory. If Gordon Gekko though greed was good then those responsible for the foundation of sand that the housing markets were build on put him to shame. It’s a compelling and brilliant film that tries to help the view actually understand the financial mumbo-jumbo so that the viewer walks away with a clearer picture of just what and who was responsible. In a world throughly distracted by social media, celebrity lives and technological trinkets, mass fraud never been easier and sadly the world only cares when it all hits the fan. The Big Short is a clarion call to everyone, this will happen again if we let it, so we need to wake up and demand that things change.

I was reminded that Love&Mercy was this year and it was clearly one of the best of 2015 with Paul Dano’s phenomenal performance. Be sure to seek it out! What were your favorite movies this year? Comment and let me know so I can put them on my “to see” list!

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Review

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterThere are Spoilers in this review.

2013 was a massive year for the Star Wars franchise as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for four billion dollars. Yet the biggest surprise from the deal was the announcement of more Star Wars films in the Skywalker Saga, meaning the long rumored sequel trilogy would finally come to fruition. Since that time, fans have excitedly and trepidatiously awaited December 17th, 2015 for Episode VII. Anticipation built throughout the year as the movie’s coming was heralded by soup cans and action figures alike. The film’s release has seen a maelstrom of emotion from fans and critics as The Force Awakens has become the best reviewed Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but the question is, “Is it really that good?”.

Themes and Story

As I have gotten older, one of the joys has been the realization that the Star Wars saga is about more than just good and evil, it was George Lucas’ way of giving a history lesson about freedom. The Original Trilogy was about how freedom is won back from a dictatorship, the Prequel Trilogy was about how freedom is lost as bureaucracy and corruption undermine a democracy and now the Sequel Trilogy looks to be just as timely.

It has been thirty years since the Return of the Jedi and the galaxy has seen the end of the Empire and the beginning of the New Republic. As the Republic has taken hold and a new generation has been brought up in relative peace, the idea of vigilance against evil has gone out of fashion. The Republic keeps it’s fleet close to home and the loss of the Jedi to Luke’s nephew’s turn to the dark side has left the galaxy vulnerable. It has given rise to the First Order, a regime even more fanatical and bent on completing the failed mission of Darth Vader and the Emperor, bringing “order” back to the universe.

The New Republic, unwilling to acknowledge the threat of the First Order, secretly sponsors the creation of the Resistance, lead by Leia, while publicly denouncing them. Leia is a child of war, understanding the price of freedom and is willing to sacrifice again for it’s continuation. Unfortunately there is resistance to seeing the First Order as more than a phantom menace in the senate and the correlation could not be clearer to the situation we face in the real world with ISIS, which has challenged the entire western world yet certain world leaders refuse to acknowledge the full threat.

starkiller base scifidriveAnother correlating theme is that of recognizing evil and facing it. Maz Kanata, the thousand year old bartender says to Rey and Finn, “The only fight: against the dark side. Through the ages, I’ve seen evil take many forms. The Sith. The Empire. Today, it is the First Order. Their shadow is spreading across the galaxy. We must face them. Fight them. All of us.” She sees the First Order for what it is and calls it out, it is evil and it must be apposed. What a timely message. We live in a world that is unwilling to call out evil for what it is and confront it, but Maz is absolutely correct that it must be named and fought. In this way, The Force Awakens proudly upholds the tradition that George Lucas began in A New Hope.

Pacing 

As wonderful as the themes are in the story, they are not all completely fleshed out in the film. To get the full picture one must dive into The Force Awakens novelization, Before the Awakening or the Visual Dictionary to get everything I mentioned above. Director J.J. Abrams has made a Star Wars film that is truly faster and more intense. It flies at a breakneck speed and barely slows down to let the character breathe. Unfortunately this leads to some scenes that would have fleshed out the political landscape as well as the motivations of the villains on the cutting room floor. Honestly, it seems like an over-reaction to the Prequel Trilogy and it’s frustrating since the politics here are a crucial story point and resonant theme for the times in which we live. It’s still the thing I have the biggest issue with in the movie.

Cyclical Nature 

Star Wars has always referenced and mirrored itself as Lucas would use themes and motifs in both trilogies to create the saga’s tapestry. As this new trilogy beginnings it’s clear that the same thing is happening, yet it’s not as well done as before. Regrettably The Force Awakens is much more than a homage or layer of the tapestry, it is a remake of A New Hope. Plot points line up almost perfectly as you think about each film and exact beats from Star Wars are repeated in The Force Awakens. Frustratingly this means that there is absolutely nothing surprising in the new movie, if you have seen A New Hope then you will pick up on exactly where this story is going including the death of a major character as well as the use of yet, another super weapon. The movie is clearly more worried about appeasing fanboys than truly inspiring the next generation of fans.

Characters

rey__bb_8_star_wars_the_force_awakens-HDThe true salvation for this film is the casting. Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are all phenomenal. They are the key to the success of this film as they immediately bring you into the story and it’s their performances that cover a multitude of cinema sins. By the end of the movie you will care about each of them and be so invested as to what will happen, you’ll be wishing Episode VIII was next month.

Alongside the new characters there are old favorites that have returned, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew are all back. Ford has not been this engaging on screen in years and it seems he is firmly invested in doing justice to Solo, especially in light of his character’s demise near the end of the film. Carrie Fisher brings an understated grace to Leia which is a relief to anyone that’s seen her on the talk show circuit and Hamill has little more than a cameo, whetting the appetite of fans to know exactly what happened to Luke Skywalker.

Interestingly for me, it’s not the old characters or their stories that captivated me, it was the new. Sadly the meta knowledge of Ford’s desires for the Han character robbed me of the emotional impact it was suppose to have. The film’s adherence to the formula of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace where the old, wise character meets their end does the same since you can see his death coming for miles. There is also something that just does not seem earned in Han’s death, story wise it makes sense for the character of Han and Kylo, but it’s just lacking something for me personally. I find myself much more invested in the character of Rey and where she will go next. Daisy Ridley has cemented herself as a star with this performance which is good news for the rest of this trilogy.

Real Sets, Practical Effects

11895123_1007878895930378_4624932683842585912_oThis has been the mantra of this movie since it’s inception. It’s a dig at the Prequel trilogy even though Abrams has praised the fact that without Lucas’ breaking every rule in his work on the Prequels, the new trilogy would not have been possible. Where this idea works best is in the character of BB-8. The result is astounding. I challenge anyone not to fall in love with this new droid and struggle to not name him their favorite as credits role. The way in which the onset effect and the sound effects work to create a fully realized character is incredible.

Where it did not work as well is with some of the creature design. The Happabore that drinks next to Finn on Jakku looks like a character from a Disneyland ride and the luggabeast that Teedo rides, lumbers at the pace of a desert turtle, making it the most impractical mount ever. In both places CGI would have been more effective in my opinion and more “real”.

With all of the incessant chatter about the practical effects, one of the best new characters in the film is CGI. Maz Kanata is an outstanding achievement in character design in the same way Gollum was in The Lord of the Rings. You truly feel like the character is on screen with Harrison Ford and it’ll leave you longing to know more about her history.

Strangely the CGI work at the end of the film is not as sharp as one would expect. The X-Wing battle above Starkiller base seems like an afterthought and looks muddled. The editing lacks the Lucas clarity in the geography of the setting and it’s one of the clearest examples of the magic he brought to the films truly lacking.

Another important piece that is missing from this new movie is the addition of exciting new ship designs. All the ships here are just variations on Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters and X-Wings and the new ships like Ren’s shuttle or the Resistance transport are either forgettable or just plain awful.

Sadly, there are also no fun alien cameos in the movie. Abrams seems preoccupied with creating new alien designs, which is fun but the lack of anything familiar in this area is a regrettable lack of connective tissue to the rest of the saga.

Conclusion

This is not the best Star Wars movie, that honor still belongs to The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a better one than I initially thought. It has some problems in the pacing, lack of clarity in the story and themes as well as a death that still leaves me numb. Furthermore, the movie lacks a score that is as strong as John Williams other work in the saga. There are a few nice cues and Rey’s Theme by far the strongest new musical motif, but you won’t find yourself humming anything as you did with the Imperial March, Duel of Fates or the Forrest Battle.

Seeing the movie four times has helped me to overcome a lot of the problems I still see and the performances of the new cast have me sold on this new trilogy. I would recommend seeing the movie more than once, since the first time can be a little jarring with it’s fast-paced nature and important story points almost glossed over because of it.  I’d give the movie 3.75 lost lightsabers out of 5.

Be sure to check out The 602 Club’s episode on the film, you won’t want to miss it!

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