Category Archives: Movies/TV Shows

Joker Movie Review

The Joker is possibly the most iconic comic book villain of all time. He has been played five times now in live-action television and film since 1966, each interpretation improving upon the previous rendition until that unfortunate thing Jared Leto did in 2016. I was a little apprehensive about a live action Joker origin movie because DC universe flicks have been unimpressive over the past few years and casting has been a major part of the problem. But with Joaquin Phoenix reprising the role, all concerns can be laid to rest. Joker is its own movie not to be conflated with other recent DCU film adaptations, and fortunately it shows.

[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]

As the film opens, it’s 1981. Arthur Fleck is sitting in front of a mirror putting on his clown makeup. He’s one of a half-dozen rent-a-clowns shown working for the Haha company to be farmed out for meager gigs. A broadcaster can be heard on the radio reporting the dismal state of Gotham City and the overflow of litter in the streets. Arthur is a sad case, trying to force a smile in the mirror, bewildered by his own misery.

Phoenix gets lost in the character of Arthur, bringing him to life. He’s a proto-Joker based loosely off the Batman: The Killing Joke graphic novel, but more pathetic. He’s a tragic character going through a sad transformation. He lives with his mom in a rundown urban apartment building. He doesn’t have a girlfriend, or any friends to speak of and he never gets any mail. It seems he may as well not even exist. But he does exist and he has to live with himself every day.


Arthur has an unspecified mental disorder causing him to have inappropriate and excessive emotional reactions. He has been seeking treatment from a publicly funded therapist, and even she is little more than a detached bureaucrat just putting in the time but not the effort to see Arthur’s individuality or pay attention to him. A couple scenes later we learn that the City of Gotham is pulling funding for the service and Arthur is going to lose access to his seven different medications. Arthur feels abandoned, rejected. The realization he’s coming to is communicated without sacrificing anything for poetry when his therapist exclaims “they don’t give a shit about people like you.”

Arthur is bullied and ostracized, and he’s not socially or psychologically equipped to deal with his challenges. He is faced with so little respect or empathy that even when he is assaulted and mugged on the street by a roving gang of teens who steal and destroy the sign he was hired to wave, his boss holds him responsible for the loss. When his coworker Randall pushes him to take a gun for protection he feebly tries to refuse and then winds up dropping it at another gig resulting in his being fired. Randall lies to the boss saying Arthur had pressured him for a gun.

Arthur is trying to function in the world, but he just can’t seem to make it work. Being a fan of comedy, he tries his hand at standup only to bomb miserably and to become the object of public mockery when a clip of his performance is played on the Murray Franklin Show, a late night television talk show hosted by a comedian (Robert De Nero) Arthur has admired for years.

When Arthur is assaulted again on the subway by three “wall street guys” and this time pulls out the revolver and blows two of them away it’s a bit sympathetic. After all, the only people he’s harmed so far were handled in self-defense. Then he pursues the third culprit into the station, and shoots him in the back. This is the moment the Joker begins to emerge as Arthur is shortly afterward seen dancing joyfully in celebration. Even he is surprised how easily killing comes to him without any remorse. Over the course of the movie Arthur descends further into violet retribution against the people he perceives have wronged him.

Arthur kills his mother when he discovers that she has lied to him about his father, and his past, and allowed him to be abused as a child by one of her lovers. He later kills Randall for lying about him. Then when he is invited on the Murray Franklin Show to talk about the clip of his embarrassing performance at the comedy club he chooses this moment to reveal himself to the world as Joker. He confesses his murders on the air and makes an impassioned speech about the world’s injustice, and how rich, out of touch elites like Murray Franklin are the problem just before shooting the host in the head, killing him.

Joker is about a man that an increasingly dysfunctional society not only has no use for, but openly disdains. He has a very tenuous grasp on reality, is unable to function or communicate effectively and he is floundering in a state of failure with no one to lean on for support. Media ridicules his genuine attempts to succeed and be accepted while news headlines sensationalize the murderous clown on the loose causing protesters against Gotham’s elite to adopt clown masks the way Guy Fawkes masks have been adopted in the modern world. It doesn’t take long for Arthur’s fragile mind to see where his recognition and validation will more easily be found.

I love that Todd Phillips dispensed with the classic story of Joker’s origin as a villain falling into a vat of chemicals and emerging with green hair, white skin and red lips, and instead chose a story of a troubled man working as a clown, struggling as a comedian who descends into murder and crime. Even as a child I’ve always found the chemical origin silly. This idea that Joker was a professional clown before his criminal career makes a more believable story with more depth to the character. This could really happen. Initially I was less than enthusiastic about the makeup rendering a distinctly classic clown appearance complete with a red nose instead of just resembling a clown as Joker has always been portrayed, but as the character develops this look quickly becomes the face of Joker.

Unlike a lot of superhero universe movies, Joker didn’t require a lot of special effects or CGI to keep it interesting. There were no muscle-bound heroes dominating the screen. In fact it was the complete opposite. Phoenix plays a scrawny, sickly looking character, having lost a remarkable 52 pounds for the role.

Joker is darker than most comic book movies, but the Batman universe usually is. It alternates between gloomy, funny, and tense, providing a range of emotional experience manipulating your perceptions along the way. Sometimes we’re not quite sure who the good guys are and who the bad guys are, just like Joker himself, and we share in his insanity during the show. It seems a fair amount of the story may be nothing more than Arthur’s delusion anyway. We can never be too certain what reality actually is.

Now to the big question that every fan will be talking about; where does Phoenix rank up next to the other live action Jokers? The truth is for me it’s hard to say. The movie is about Arthur Fleck who over the length of the story becomes the Joker. The actual Joker gets very little screen time, and we never get to see the fully developed criminal mastermind that the Joker is known to be. It’s difficult to compare this Joker to the screen time of Ledger’s or Nicholson’s Joker. The character of Arthur Fleck becoming the Joker is however performed amazingly, and the few minutes we get to see the Joker realized is full of promise. I would bet if a sequel is produced Phoenix would give Ledger a run for his money.

To put it simply for me, Joker is one of the best films of 2019, and one of the best superhero universe films ever.


Friday the 13th and the Ghost in My Backseat

Paraskevidekatriaphobia is the fear of Friday the 13th, and this evening, I had my weird Friday the 13th experience.

I was on my way home from dropping off my daughter at her school dance. As I was turning a corner I saw for a brief flash in my rearview mirror the image of a ghastly woman as if she was sitting in my back seat. She had a sort of bluish illumination with two dark eyes with blackened mascara-like smears running down her face. Nothing too original, but it did cause me a split second’s release of adrenaline. The best part is that I know exactly what I saw and why.

Yeah, kinda like that!

For uncertain reasons in the Western world and especially the United States when the 13th of the month falls on a Friday it is believed to be an unlucky day.

I grew up with this superstition and believed in it to whatever degree young children can believe in anything they have no ability to understand and no reason to believe other than the influence of their peers. The fact that I was a very young child at the beginnings of the extremely successful Friday the 13th movie franchise has shaded my view of the event in a particular light for me.

I’m not unique in this, these days Americans particularly see Friday the 13th as a scary and dark day, a sort of reverse holiday similar to Halloween without the costumes or trick-or-treating. It comes with its own myths and urban legends. Much like the Santa Claus at Christmas of the Easter Bunny in spring, the murderous hockey mask clad and machete wielding zombie Jason Vorheese from the Friday the 13th movies is and for a long time to come will be in the future attached to this spooky unholiday. This really is a testament more to the quality of the marketing of the franchise than the quality of the movies themselves that even as I child I found to be more funny than frightening, but I still love them. Jason lives in mythology alongside classic legendary supernatural evils like the Headless Horseman, Dracula, or Frankenstein.

There’s a fair amount of speculation regarding the origin of the Friday the 13th superstition, but no one really knows for sure. The number 13 has been considered an unlucky number for hundreds of years. This is so prevalent that most hotels do not even host a 13th floor. The numbers on an elevator will often go straight from 12 to 14 because many people are afraid to rent a room on the 13th floor. It might seem crazy, but it’s true.

The superstition of 13 being bad luck seems to have arisen during the middle ages and is assumed to have come from the story of the arrest of Jesus after the Last Supper when He and His twelve apostles were present equaling thirteen.  Similarly, the fact Jesus was crucified on the following day; Friday made that day a particularly infamous part of the week, one which Catholics and Orthodox Christians still consider a day of fasting. These two beliefs combined seem to be the origin of the superstition; two unlucky points occurring at once although the origins of Friday the 13th being especially unlucky didn’t seem to arise until the 19th century.

In the 20th century authors such as Maurice Druon in his novel Le Roi de fer (1955), and John J. Robinson in his book Born in Blood: The Lost Secrets of Freemasonry (1989) postulated a connection between this superstition and the day on which the Knights Templar were arrested on charges of heresy by King Philip the IV of France, Friday the 13th of October 1307. This was echoed in Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003), and other books, memes and papers since then. Although this is one of my favorite hypotheses, the evidence to support this being the origin of the superstition is dubious at best. It’s more likely a combination of reasons.


In my car, as quickly as the ghastly woman had appeared in my rearview mirror she was gone, but I could still see the impression of her eyes. They were spots of dirt with what appeared to be smeared finger print running down the glass. As I was turning the corner the setting sun passed directly behind me for just a brief moment. The sun’s rays reflected off of the mirror in a manner framing the fingerprints in a glow and accentuating the smudges. Then my lizard brain took over and assembled this into an image I could make sense out of based on the fact I’ve been thinking about Friday the 13th and creepy stuff all day. When my daughter gets home from her dance we plan on watching some scary movies.

Human psychology is such a fascinating subject.


Midsommar, a Poor Rewrite of the Wicker Man

When I first learned about the movie Midsommar, I was excited to see it, but I was skeptical that it would be another modern rewritten and renamed reproduction of the Wicker Man. I’m not talking about the 2006 abomination starring Nicolas Cage. That was awful. I’m talking about that original 1973 British masterpiece starring Edward Woodward, and Christopher Lee.

Unfortunately, it was just a rewritten Wicker Man, and not good one.

The plot is very simple. An exchange student from Sweden decides to take some of his American college buddies home to take part in the Midsummer festival in Hårga, a reclusive Swedish commune. After a long, drawn out and obvious setup, Hårga is revealed to be a murderous, psychedelic-infused pagan cult as the guests start disappearing one by one, culminating in a grand holocaust at the end. In and of itself, as a Wicker Man rip-off that sounds like it has some promise.

Promise broken.

Midsommar failed on every level. The movie just didn’t make any sense and was full of plot holes and consistency errors, but the worst part was the awful pacing that rolled along like cold molasses. Scene after scene was just long, slow and drawn out, I suppose intended to create suspense, but instead created boredom.

If you could keep conscious through the slowest scenes, then you had to struggle through the lack of a compelling narrative. Once the main cast arrives in Hårga they indulge in eating psilocybin mushrooms, as is the custom of the village, and from then forward the cinematography is filled with psychedelic visuals rather than strong and original plot points. Actually that was the best part because other than visually, Midsommar also failed to deliver any psychedelic sensation thematically or philosophically. It was all just superficial like so much else in Midsommar.


The neo-pagan cult of Hårga was also poorly developed. There was no sense of a convincing philosophy at work that could compel a community to collectively engage in mass murder. The villagers followed a scripture consisting literally of crayon scribbles made by a severely deformed product of inbreeding. There was nothing more than a hack-job of mediocre imagery and costuming that came across as if it was cobbled together by someone who spent all of about thirty minutes researching paganism on the internet. It seems like they just ran with the most superficial aesthetics. In the Wicker Man, the paganism seemed sincere, and living. In Midsommar, it just seemed like post-Woodstock communal hippie LARPing.

The scenes that were clearly intended to be the most bizarre and mind-blowing or frightening more often came off as cheesy. The most noteworthy in this way was the breeding scene which almost came across like a bad comedy routine. Judging by the laughter from other audience members, I was not alone thinking this.

From beginning to end, Midsommar is a hack-job. The little that was good about it was done far better in the Wicker Man forty-six years earlier. All that was rewritten into that plot was poorly developed and thrown together, boring, or unintentionally comical. Not making any sense, especially after a post-viewing deconstruction is not the same as being mind-bending, or psychologically thrilling; it’s just poor writing.

My final ruling is that Midsommar is nothing more than a long, slow, half-baked rip-off of the Wicker Man without any of the charm or cultural depth. It’s not scary, not creepy and not a thriller, psychological or otherwise. And it tried way too hard to be all those things.


Motley Crue’s The Dirt Movie is a Wild Ride

The Dirt hit Netflix several days back and it’s pretty killer. I’ve only watched it four times since then.

To say “the book was better” is pretty cliché even if it’s true, but I have to respect the process and the logistics involved in making a film of this scope. It’s difficult to fit a 428 page memoir into an hour and forty minute movie. It’s probably even harder than fitting a 20 year career (at the time of publication) into a 428 page memoire.

I have to say I didn’t have a lot of high expectations for this movie. It’s easy to be cynical. Band biographies are often hit or miss and I didn’t care for some of the updates I saw of The Dirt as it was being produced.

Upon the first viewing, my concerns were mostly squashed. It’s a fun ride through the debauchery and maturing process of one of hard rock’s most notorious and most popular bands. Aside from a few minor timeline issues and some soft-balling of major tragedies, I can’t much complain.

I can easily forgive the timeline issues, as I said above it’s a 20 year career reduced to less than two hours. What more can we expect? We’re even afforded a scene when manager Doc McGee arrives in which guitarist Mick Mars informs us it didn’t actually happen that way. The Dirt acknowledges from within that there’s only so much time to make the important points and still have an entertaining movie.

The Dirt really captures the spirit, the attitude, and more than anything the personalities and the differences between them of the members of Motley Crue as I came to understand them over the more than three decades I’ve been a fan.

We get to see Nikki Sixx (Douglas Booth) as the dark, angry, creative force that he was and to some extent still is today.

There’s Tommy Lee (Colson Baker) as the young, naive, goofy, party animal he was always known to be.

Vince Neil (Daniel Webber) is as he was the rakish, blond, southern Californian playboy.

Mick Mars (Iwan Rheon) is the older, grumpier, dry, no time for bullshit guitar slinger struggling with his crippling degenerative arthritic condition.


Highlights from The Dirt include a scene wherein the early pre-Motley Crue three-piece arrives at a party to try to recruit singer Vince Neil, and the stark contrast between the dark, grungy borderline punks, and the blond, glam rocking lady’s man is almost comedic.

Tommy Lee’s narrated scene on “a day in the life” of a drummer on tour would probably be almost unbelievable for anyone who hadn’t kept up with the reported antics of the band throughout the 80s and some of the 90s. Still, it’s among the funnier parts of the movie.

And of course, the tour with Ozzy Osbourne poolside scene when the Oz snorts a line of ants which is so infamous even The Family Guy had a segment about it is one of the more memorable and entertaining parts of the film.

However, it’s the soft-balling of two major tragic moments that bothers me the most for a movie that is supposed to be a tell-all expose of the best and worst of the Crue’s career.

For starters;
Vince Neil’s tragic car wreck that killed Hanoi Rocks’ drummer Razzle is presented in a far less incriminating light than the actual accident. In the movie it appears as if it was little more than a silly conversation that distracted Neil, causing him to drift into oncoming traffic resulting in a wreck that ended the drummer’s life and stopped Hanoi Rocks in its rise to fame. In reality Vince Neil was very drunk, speeding at 65 mph in a 25 mph zone and swerving around a fire truck when he crossed into oncoming traffic and hit two other vehicles, killing Razzle and permanently crippling the two people in the other vehicle. It was an avoidable tragedy for which Vince only spent 19 days in jail.

Secondly;
Bassist, primary songwriter and visionary of the band, Nikki Sixx’s overdose in the movie is also a gloss job. The movie doesn’t shy away in the least bit from the crippling heroin addiction that nearly killed him. Well, technically it did kill him for about two minutes, but the paramedic managed to get his heart pumping again. Missing from the story is the reportedly cavalier attitude with which he injected the deadly dose. Also missing were the other prominent actors in the scene. It’s fairly well known that Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash and drummer Steven Adler were at the party, but the movie completely leaves this out except for a brief shot of a figure strung out on the couch who resembles Slash. It’s a significant point considering it was Slash’s girlfriend Sally McLaughlin who performed mouth-to-mouth on Sixx before the ambulance arrived. Maybe these details were left out of the movie to avoid infringing on the reputation of the other band, but their image as heavy heroin users is well established in Slash’s self-titled autobiography anyway. On top of that, The Dirt didn’t mind depicting Van Halen’s David Lee Roth using cocaine in the band’s party pad earlier in the film.

The Dirt skips almost everything regarding the Crue’s time in rehab, but I didn’t mind because as Vince Neil says in the film “you don’t want to see any of that shit.”

They also skim through the John Corabi years as if it took place over little more than a few months, but since most real Motley Crue fans don’t care much for that period it’s fine. In fact, I can’t name a single song from that album. The main problem is that The Dirt completely neglects Vince Neil’s solo career as if the only thing that happened to him during that time was the tragic death of his daughter, Skylar.

The Dirt is a great ride, and a damn good biopic. It delivers well on the best and worst of Motley Crue’s history. It touches the perspectives of all four members of the band, as well as their manager Doc McGee and it experiments with nontraditional styles of story-telling, with fourth-wall breaking segments, cross-narration, comedy, and very candid representations of some of the darkest points of the bands lives.

Any fan of band biopics should enjoy The Dirt.

The Return of the Jedi is still a Great Movie

Tonight I’m watching Return of the Jedi with the girls.

You know, this movie takes a lot of flack, but when I was 8 it was the movie I was the most excited about seeing.

I saw Star Wars in the the theater before it was called “Episode IV”when I was three and no one knew what to expect, especially a toddler.

I didn’t even know The Empire Strikes Back was a thing until I saw the movie poster outside the theater some time before going to see it at the age of five.

But Jedi, I hassled my dad every day for months about going to see it until he threatened to not take me if I kept asking.

Return of the Jedi is the climax of the series. Even though it doesn’t have the high adventure of “A New Hope,” the introspection of “The Empire Strikes Back” and the Ewoks are kind of stupid, it’s still an amazing third act of one of the best epic dramas of western civilization.


Solo: A Star Wars Story Review

Solo: A Star Wars Story opened this month and everyone who has seen it has an opinion about it. Here is mine.

BEWARE: Here be minor spoilers!

I’ve heard multiple detractors say no one wanted this movie, that Han Solo is not a particularly popular character. It seems these critics consider The Clone Wars cartoon series as the standard by which they measure their appreciation for the Star Wars universe.

To be clear, I saw the original Star Wars when it was just called STAR WARS (no episode IV or subtitle) in the theater when I was three years old. Han Solo is my favorite character in the entire Star Wars universe. I have always wanted a Han Solo focused back-story in a spin-off since before the prequels were released, so I was eager for this film to be produced, released and to be sitting, popcorn in hand in a dark theater hoping they didn’t screw it up. I love the Star Wars universe, but I think the Skywalker/Vader, Jedi/Sith, Rebellion/Empire storyline is kind of played out, and I’d like to see explorations into other storylines, lineages and professions. The universe has so much to offer, why get bogged down with one family? Solo, I think was a good first step in that direction.

Like many Star Wars fans, I had a lot of concerns about this movie. Reports of production problems with fired directors, harsh criticism of the cast’s acting abilities and the need for scene reshoots were so dismal that I was genuinely concerned this movie would be a total disaster. I was confident however; if Episode I, The Phantom Menace didn’t ruin the franchise we’d survive any misfortune that might befall us with Solo.

I was worried that Alden Ehrenreich couldn’t pull off the character of Han Solo. Han’s persona is so entrenched with Harrison Ford’s depiction it makes for some rather large shoes to fill. Similarly, I was concerned that Lando Calrissian couldn’t be duplicated by Donald Glover or anyone else. Billy Dee Williams IS Lando, after all. Those worries were assuaged, I’m glad to say. Both actors did great jobs depicting their roles. I didn’t have any trouble believing Ehrenreich was Solo, and Glover’s Lando was spot on.

Solo is essentially a space western, and like a good western it’s all based around a train heist. It delivers the scenes and answers to questions we’ve had for four decades such as how Han found his way into the smuggling racket. We learn Han’s origins as an orphan, forced to steal to survive in the shadowy underworld of Corellia. We see Han acquire his surname almost like a mobster’s nickname because he is a loner; none of this “House of Solo” nobility from the now (thankfully) de-canonized Legends which I always thought detracted from his roguish nature.

Criticism

The movie did have a few drawbacks. I thought the first ten minutes on Corellia were a bit cartoony, but that didn’t really diminish the story. I would have liked to see a closer friendship and working relationship between Han and Lando before Han obtained the Millennium Falcon, and I would like to have seen him win the ship in a different manner than as depicted, but alas the writers and producers didn’t call me and ask for my pre-production opinions on the matter. Similarly, the initial meeting between Han and Chewbacca didn’t go exactly as I had imagined it, but it was one of the best scenes in the movie. The Kessle Run is something I always envisioned taking place much differently and at a time well into Han’s career as a smuggler rather than at the beginning, but the way it was depicted worked just fine.

A major disappointment in the film comes when the chief of Enfys Nest who gave our protagonists such trouble during the train heist, killing two of the major supporting characters turns out to be a teenage girl leading the incubation of the Rebellion. It’s not a particularly compelling plot twist, and it’s not very believable. It’s all too much Wesley Crusher for me, and it ruins an adversary with a lot of potential. Besides, she was responsible for the deaths of two of Tobias Beckett’s (Woody Harrelson) friends and rather endearing characters, and it’s never even addressed.

The worst character in the movie is without a doubt Lando’s droid L3-37 who is a rather accurate portrayal of the bothersome and trollish sjws she was modeled after. She added a level of cringe reminiscent of, but not as severe as Jar Jar Binks. I could have done without her character altogether and was glad when she was removed from further screen time.

         

Other reviewers have complained that Ehrenreich’s Solo was not as dark or grumpy as Ford’s, and that’s true. It’s what I would expect. This is a Han Solo who is a good ten years younger than Ford’s initial introduction of the character. This Solo is just entering a life of smuggling and piracy that would without a doubt offer plenty of opportunities for the disillusioning experiences that would turn the cocky and ambitious twenty-something year old Solo into the more selfish, and cynical thirty-something year old Solo we meet at the Cantina on Tatooine in Episode IV. Time and experience, especially in crime syndicates can change a man.

Solo is a good movie. Not a great movie, but the only Star Wars movie that comes close to being great since The Empire Strikes Back was Rogue One. It’s going to continue to be hard to measure any new Star Wars flicks up next to the originals. There will never be another Star Wars at that level, but Solo was a fun ride nonetheless. It was better than the prequels and the follow-ups so far, and I think well deserving of a place in the Star Wars canon.


The Movie “Silence” was Painfully Boring

Silence theatrical release poster

I went with a friend to see the movie Silence.  It looked good and seemed interesting in the previews, and has good reviews online, but to me , it was really slow and boring.

The plot revolves around two Catholic Priests from Portugal in the early half of the 17th century who embark on a trek to Japan to find their missing comrade, and to further missionize the island during a time a great suppression of the religion by the Tokugawa shogunate.

With such subject matter you might think this would be an epic masterpiece of, but instead it was just undynamic and uninspired.  The characters seemed flat and undeveloped, and there was virtually no action at all.  Good movies tend to have peaks and valleys. This was all valleys. The subject matter was pretty heavy, with the persecution of Christians in Japan during the early half of the 17th century, but I didn’t sense any real depth to the story or characters and comic relief was almost non-existent. That’s just the production side.

I also felt like it portrayed Buddhism as a sinister, despondent cult with no redeemable doctrine. While it emphasized the atrocities committed by the Japanese government against the Christians, portraying Christianity as if it would deliver the people from such abuse, it ignored that at the exact same time in Europe the witch-burnings and torture and killings of heretics was at its height. So, not only did I find the movie boring, I felt like it insulted my intelligence.

If you’re interested in watching Silence because you hope to see representations of feudal Japanese society and samurai customs you’ll be disappointed as there is virtually no culture portrayed in this film.

While watching it I felt like director Martin Scorsese and writer Jay Cocks were more interested in creating sympathy and a sense of righteousness for the Jesuit priests than they were in telling a good story.  I can understand why practicing Catholics and other Christians may find the film as providing some form of credibility for their faith, but  I just was not satisfied.

I really found the movie to be uninspired, uninteresting, and unenjoyable. It was painfully boring.

    


Rogue One: The Best Thing Since The Empire Strikes Back

Rogue One theatrical release poster, wikipedia commons

Like the movie-slacker I am, I waited until Christmas Day to go see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story because I don’t care much for long lines and crowded movie theaters.

I’ve been a Star Wars fan since I saw Episode IV: A New Hope in the theater on its first run. I was three years old.  Like a lot of old school Star Wars fans, I loved A New Hope (which we always just called Star Wars), and found The Empire Strikes Back to be an even better movie. Return of the Jedi was not as good as the others, but provided us with the answers and closure we needed.

Then sixteen years later the prequels happened and my confidence in the franchise was shaken.  After this and Lucas selling the rights to Disney, I was skeptical about Episode VII: The Force Awakens, but it turned out to be a pretty decent reboot from George Lucas’ blunders with episodes I, II, and III.  Then with the announcement of Rogue One, I was certainly full of anticipation but was careful not to have too high expectations.

Well, any concerns I had about the quality of this movie were thoroughly assuaged. Rogue One is a brilliant addition to the Star Wars franchise.

It’s Star Wars

Rogue One is a Star Wars story. Unlike the prequels which barely resembled the Star Wars we old-schoolers know and love, and even The Force Awakens to some degree, Rogue One is built from the ground up with the imagery, style and elements of the original trilogy.  There are enough Easter eggs and callbacks to the previous films to plant it firmly in the classic Star Wars universe, but done effectively in a manner that didn’t appear cheap or uninspired.  Rogue One was more Star Wars than I have seen in years.

It’s a War Movie

Rogue One is a war movie to its core.  There’s not a lot of mucking about with deep philosophical themes, political intrigue, romance, or building big mysteries to be revealed in later installments. In fact it resolves some questions we had about aspects of the storyline of A New Hope instead.  It’s darker, grittier and more violent than any of those that have come before it.  The ground combat scenes are as intense as those in classic war films such as The Thin Red Line, or Full Metal Jacket.  The space battle scenes are some of the most epic and action-packed of any of the films.

A Troubled Alliance

I think a lot of times in the past movies it seemed like the Rebel Alliance was a wholly unified and cooperative effort of revolutionaries with only the galaxy’s best interests at heart.  In Rogue One we get to see a more nuanced rebellion, a complex network of disenfranchised and dysfunctional systems.  We get to see a diverse range of Rebels from senators like Mon Mothma, to radical guerilla fighters, spies of questionable morals, and former imperials.

Darth Vader

The impact of seeing Darth Vader in action again is a quality of the film that can’t be overstated. He doesn’t play a huge role in the story, but it’s a significant one that really makes an impression and builds upon the menacing character we got to know in the original trilogy.

A Deeper Perspective on “A New Hope”

Rogue One takes place over a matter of a few days leading up to the opening scene of “A New Hope.” Multiple loose ends are tied and questions answered that had always lingered from the original story.  Perhaps most significantly, the two movies fit together more fluidly than any of the prequels or the original trilogy, or most sequels of any movies.  They almost seem like two acts of the same very long movie.  It’s hard to walk out of Rogue One and not feel compelled to rewatch A New Hope shortly afterward.

Cons

No movie is flawless and I’m not such a Star Wars fan boy to not admit flaws when they are present. There are a few criticisms worth mentioning.  To begin with the first thirty minutes or so of the movie is a little too fast-paced with scenes jumping around so much that it seems disjointed.  Fortunately this a rectified and everything becomes clear in the later acts of the film.  While Vader’s scenes are dynamic and dramatic, his suit looks a little off.  The chain that holds his cape around his neck in all the other movies is absent and his helmet doesn’t seem to fit properly as the neckline sticks out in front of the chest plate too much.  It’s a bit distracting and seems inauthentic but it’s the rest of Vader’s scenes are so great it hardly matters.  Michael Giacchino’s musical score isn’t quite up to par with John Williams’ masterpieces in the previous films, but it doesn’t detract from the movie in the least.

In many ways Rogue One is the Star Wars movie I have always wanted, but I got the Skywalker prequels instead.  Rogue One is well out of the league of the prequels.  It’s more intense than The Force Awakens, and a better all-around production than Return of the Jedi.  To me, it’s the best movie since The Empire Strikes Back.

         


It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia: No Happy Endings

With situations that are simply outrageous and characters that are despicably endearing, “Sunny” is quite possibly the funniest show on television.

The show features “the gang,” consisting of Dennis, Dee, Mac, Charlie, and Frank who operate Paddy’s Pub, an Irish bar in downtown Philadelphia—once rated “the worst bar in Philly.”  Paddy’s seems to not have much of a clientele, and whenever it starts to see any level of success, “the gang” finds a way to ruin it within 28 minutes.

“The gang” is a vile concoction of alcoholic and virtually sociopathic personalities, unethical, ignorant, and narcissistic.  The main cast includes these five well developed characters:

Dennis Reynolds (Glenn Howerton) started off the series as the player, completely in love with himself. His highest aspiration in life is to have as much sex with as many women as possible, and he was originally pretty good at it. He devised a system for getting laid called the D.E.N.N.I.S. System, each letter representing a step in the seduction process which he tries to pass on to the other men in the gang.  As the seasons progress though, Dennis becomes more unhinged, deranged and obsessed with his image that women become less susceptible to his charms and more creeped out instead. We find that the popularity he supposedly enjoyed in his youth existed mostly in his imagination.  By season 10 it becomes evident that Dennis is really starting to crack up.

Dee Reynolds (Kaitlin Olson), the fraternal twin sister of Dennis is the awkward girl who still hasn’t grown into herself.  She still has unfulfilled dreams of being an actress and comedian, a theme which makes for several mishaps along the course of the series. She’s rude to her customers, and can’t seem to get involved with a man who doesn’t have a myriad of problems without screwing it up. As the series progresses, Dee is shown to be quite verbally abusive to her lovers, and she becomes even more delusional about her star qualities. The gang treats her like garbage, unconcerned with her thoughts or problems and she is proclaimed at one point by Mack to be “the useless chick” of the gang.

          

“Mac,” Ronald McDonald (Rob McElhenney)— Early in the series Mac is essentially a wannabe meathead and fitness poseur obsessed with building body-mass and admiring men’s physiques. He pretends to be a skilled athlete and martial artist, but proves time and again to have fewer skills than anyone else.  From the beginning he displays a religious pose that becomes more important to him as the series progresses, although it is clear he has a fairly superficial understanding of the doctrines of his faith. In the first season there is enough evidence to question if Mac is fully comfortable with his sexuality and as time goes by it becomes more and more obvious that he is struggling with some homosexual tendencies which with his religious convictions reveals a rather conflicted personality. His father is a convicted drug dealer

Charlie Kelly (Charlie Day) is the moron amongst the idiots.  Other than being a partner in Paddy’s Pub, he has nothing going for him, so the gang made him the pub’s janitor.  An almost illiterate slob, Charlie is often opining over and sometimes stalking the coffee shop waitress introduced in the first episode. As it turns out, Charlie is a naturally skilled musician responsible for writing some of the series’ most popular songs like “Dayman.” While Charlie is apparently the  least put together member of the gang, as his character develops we find out that he is in many ways the foundation that holds the entire enterprise together, though he never receives any recognition from any of his friends.

Frank Reynolds (Danny DeVito) is Dennis’ and Dee’s stepfather and possibly the biological father of Charlie.  A former high-power corporate CEO turned lousy con-man, he first appears in season 2 and scams his way into partial ownership of the Pub.  Frank is financially independent from past business dealings, and embezzles money from Paddy’s Pub. Perhaps the most depraved character on Sunny, Frank is determined to see just how weird he can get with the last remaining year of his life.  He moves into Charlie’s apartment and the two develop a strange bromance. Being independently wealthy from his business years, Frank is the financer for the gangs many schemes which allows for some rather pricey adventures.

The gang is remarkable in that the members always manage to make the wrong decision, ethically and economically in every situation.  In one episode Dee and Mac try to raise a baby they found in a dumpster.  Another time Dennis and Dee purposely become addicted to crack in order to qualify for welfare.  They destroy an immigrant family’s house by trying to perform an “extreme home makeover” after becoming inspired by the book “the Secret.”

In “The Gang Exploits a Miracle” Frank leads the gang into trying to profit from a restroom water stain that resembles the Virgin Mary.  This episode introduces one of the most dynamic side characters, Rickety Cricket (David Hornsby). Cricket is an old acquaintance from high school who enters the pub as an ordained Catholic Priest, to investigate the “miracle.”  In short order his life is ruined by his unrequited love of Dee, driving him into a life of homelessness.

The gang has also attracted the attention of a local lawyer, whom after experiencing first-hand their deceitful and shameless behavior has taken to occasionally making sport out of litigating against them.

In It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the standard sitcom structure doesn’t apply. The classic format calls for 20something minutes of mishaps, and satire that will all be wrapped up in the end with the lives of the main cast back to normal and okay.  At the end of each episode, the gang usually receives the karmic retribution they have earned, or at least they lose everything for which they were aiming.  No matter how bad the outcome, it’s difficult to feel sorry for any of them.

There are no happy endings in “Sunny,” just hilarious unfortunate consequences.


Bar Rescue? More Like Bar Boot Camp.

(Originally published in 2012 on GodDrinksBeer.com)

Bar Rescue, at the time of this writing is two seasons deep, and moving toward a third. Airing on Spike TV, this “reality” show is currently one of my favorites.  If you have any interest in the bar and nightclub business this series is definitely worth watching.

Bar Rescue stars Jon Taffer, an industry big-shot who specializes in turning failing bars into lucrative establishments. At the beginning of each episode he sends one of his assistants into the featured bar to assess just how bad off it really is.  After getting a feel for the place they leave and return to meet with Taffer, and deliver their report.  At this point Taffer enters the bar with both barrels blazing, and quite often all hell breaks loose.

It’s a reality show so I’m certain the drama is scripted to one degree or another, but in most episodes it’s pretty clear that there is genuine dysfunction at hand.  Usually the bars are in pretty rough shape, but some are especially terrible. In the majority of cases the problem lies in a lazy or poorly educated management, and slack employees. This results not just in poor products and service, but sometimes in the most disgusting working conditions.  This show has exposed filth that really makes a person wonder what is going on behind the scenes of a lot of struggling bars and pubs you might have a drink or dine in.

A lot of the episodes deal with poor or ridiculous branding.  From just plain stupid names like “Swanky Bubbles,” or the poorly located “Piratz Tavern,” or just bad ideas all around like the “Blue Frog 22” which was decorated with children’s games, Taffer often has to rebuild the bar’s brand from the ground up.  This often includes retraining the staff and management, renaming and remodeling each bar. To back him up, Taffer brings in the support he needs, particularly mixologists, and chefs.

             

Critics of the show knock Taffer for his loud, in-your-face style. He often confronts owners, employees and even the occasional unruly costumer with the tact and sophistication of a drill sergeant. Taffer has a limited amount of time for each project and sometimes, like boot camp it is important to make a heavy impact, and break the cadet down just before building them back up.  It doesn’t do much good to passively explain what changes need to be made if the root problems in an enterprise have not been addressed and conquered.  Of course a lot of this done for ratings and drama attracts viewers.

In most cases the bar is renamed and completely rebranded, and by the end of each episode it is clear that the new or revitalized original theme has made a significant and lucrative leap forward. Most of the rescued bar-owners keep to Taffer’s advice and continue to see increased profits.  A few reject his changes and then later “decline to comment” on their current profitability.

Bar Rescue is a good show, especially for a “reality” series.  From understanding a bit about marketing toward the local demographics, utilizing the environment as a guide to branding, and the importance of consistency, anyone considering the bar or restaurant business can pick up a lot of good tidbits of wisdom from Jon Taffer by watching.