Rogue One: The Second-Best Star Wars Movie

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If you’re a Star Wars fan, then you’ve seen Rogue One, the latest film in the franchise and a sort of standalone movie. (If you’re a Star Wars fan and have NOT seen Rogue One, then you’re not a fan — sorry.)

I went into the viewing with low expectations. Why the hell would they make a standalone film? Money, of course. Disney is milking their cash cow. Fine, that’s their right.

My low expectations were totally wrong. For me, Rogue One was the second best of all the Star Wars movies. It was expertly plotted, with a sharp cast who were all believable. Rogue rogue-one-3one managed to capture the slightly dated atmosphere of the originals while keeping a modern tone. The action was very well paced, and the special effects took a backseat to storytelling.

There were two action sequences that I found unbelievable. One involved inhuman jumping. The other, holding on for life in the pouring rain. Both impossible! But for an action film, such is expected.

Other than that, it was fun as hell. We also got Darth Vader and Princess Leia! I’m not complaining.

So here’s my list of the top Star Wars films so far:

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  1. The Empire Strikes Back
  2. Rogue One
  3. A New Hope
  4. The Force Awakens
  5. Return of the Jedi

Oh, and I’m not including the prequel trilogy. I like to pretend those crappy movies never existed.

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Watch this movie: The Babadook

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Horror movies are our modern-day fairy tales. They use dark imagery to highlight our blackest fears in order to help us manage them. For a horror movie to work well, it must tap into one of these universal fears or struggles, otherwise, the movie ends up being an incoherent, gloopy mess.

The Babadook, a strange little Australian horror flick, had me confused at first. It’s the story of single mother Amelia raising a difficult son, Samuel, who is about to turn seven. Samuel is rambunctious and annoying as hell, going on and on about having to protect his harried mother from invisible monsters ad generally getting into trouble. Watching Samuel in action made me never want to have children. During these first minutes of the film, his antics left me wondering what the hell this supposed horror movie was supposed to be about.

Then The Babadook shifted, subtly and brilliantly. I can’t remember what the exact moment was — most likely it was a small series of moments that built up until the change was undeniable. And I realized what the heart of this particular horror was: Amelia was burdened with grief for her husband who died while she was in labor en route to the hospital. Those invisible monster Samuel was always fighting was real — it was his mother’s suppressed grief, grief which kept her removed from her own life, and her son’s as well.

babadook 2.jpgOf course that’s not what literally happened in The Babadook. It’s a horror movie, after all. A monster called the Babadook possessed Amelia, causing all sorts of cringeworthy madness and mayhem. Kudos to the writer and director for capturing truly horrific moments, from a cockroach infestation to a nasty bit of self dentistry.

But while the outward plot — a monster invades a house and must be defeated — was well handled, the meaning behind it all was what elevated this movie. Parts of it hit mighty close for me. I know what it’s like to be a child in a situation where you have no control, where you feel like you’re being tossed around in a storm, burdened by someone else’s unresolved pain, and this movie, through Samuel, captured that experience.

Even the resolution nailed it. Horror movies are notoriously difficult to resolve. Often the killer comes back, again and again, or some thoroughly unbelievable event wraps up the story, killing all believability. The Babadook managed to avoid these pitfalls, while also keeping true to the horror at the heart of the story — the failure of a woman to mourn the death of her husband, and the wreckage bequeathed to her son.

What’s the single scariest moment on screen?

Horror/suspense fans out there, I’m talking to you.

Admit it. We love watching scary edge-of-your-seat movies for the same reason we love roller coasters: that rush of adrenaline, that supreme thrill that gushes through your body when fear jumps right out at you. I know I do.

Lord knows there are way too many chilling, thrilling moments on TV and in the movies (mostly movies) to catalog them all, but Flavorwire has taken the brave and controversial step of compiling the top 12. And they’ve done a solid job.

Among the better choices (and the ones that definitely made me jump the first time I saw them):

–The reveal of the demon-eyed urchin in Rosemary’s Baby

–The gut-busting birth of the baby alien in Alien

–And the final scene at the grave in Carrie

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All great choices. All iconic images. But for me, one of the most terrifying moments came in a movie that was hyped, if not overhyped, when it first came out. 1999s The Blair Witch Project was made on a shoestring budget. It was the first movie (or at least the most prominent) to be filmed and marketed as “found footage.” Sure, now it’s a cliche, but back then it was a novelty. And what got me about it was that so much of the movie took place in darkness and shadows. When we finally saw the big bad (or at least some version of it) at the end, though still grainy and dark, it was a shock. I definitely jumped out of my seat.

So for me, believe it or not, the low-budget nearly forgotten flick The Blair Witch Project gets my vote for scariest on-screen moment.

Blair Witch

It Follows: hype and (no) story

I’m a sucker for a good horror movie. Give me some chills and thrills, but not too much gore, and I’m into it. but good horror movies are hard to find. Too often the thrills are just obvious and trite. Every scary story has seemingly been told.

it-follows-movie-posterThat’s why when I caught word of the new horror film It Follows, I was excited. io9.com, one of my go-to websites, called it absolutely must-see horror flick. They gushed over this movie so much (as did other media outlets) that I couldn’t wait to see it. So I forked over $14.50 and went.

First, the premise. Set in a typical middle America suburb (in Michigan), 19-year-old Jay (played by Maika Monroe) is dating a mysterious guy named Hugh (played by Jake Weary). After they have sex for the first time, he ties her up and tells her that he’s passed on a curse to her. A mysterious, slow-walking demon-like creature that can take the form of any human will follow her, and if it touches her, she will die. If she dies, then the curse will revert back to Hugh. The only way she can survive is to pass the curse on by having sex with someone else.

A killer premise, right? But premise doesn’t equal plot.

Before I deconstruct the hype, I’ll talk about what works.

It Follows is beautifully shot. It comes off like an expertly made indie flick. the imagery, from dull suburbia to decaying Detroit, are all lush and inviting.

–The soundtrack is both jarring and creepy. It Follows is scored by Disasterpiece, and it is filled with sudden electronic bursts, thumping synth beats, terror and pounding hearts gone ragged.

–The cast is generally appealing. This movie is not filled with the too-pretty Hollywood types we’re used to seeing. They’re good looking enough to be believable, and the actors all do fine jobs.

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–The pace of the movie is steady. I never felt bored or hurried.

–There were some genuinely creepy elements. The way the creature would stalk Jay was unsettling, and it stayed with me long after the movie ended.

–Early in It Follows, after Jay is first infected, she is scarred by the fact that Hugh attacked her and tied her up. The actor who plays Jay relayed the shame and horror of that all-too-real occurrence in a way that left me shaken.

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But while watching the movie I was acutely aware of the fact that while the premise was strong, and the production was excellent, the plot was thin. Many horror movies fail when it comes to crafting a compelling narrative. Too often the movies simply turn into repetitive scenes of the hero trying to elude or battle the monster, a back-and-forth that just ends suddenly, leaving the viewer unsatisfied. It Follows fell into this trap.

Part of the problem was that the characters were underdeveloped. It took me a good 45 minutes before I realized that the blond girl’s name was Jay — and she’s the main character! There is no backstory, and the movie suffers as a result.

Then there’s the theme. All horror movies have a theme, a primal fear that the writer and director exploits. For It Follows, it was clearly sex. The curse is passed on through sex. But this is a well-worn trope that has almost become a cliche. In my opinion, the writers missed a great opportunity to offer a twist on this. As I said earlier, I was moved by Jay’s traumatized reaction to her attack. It was real and visceral. What would have It Follows been like if they explored the theme of sexual trauma?

Maika Monroe and Jake Weary in It Follows

One of the most compelling scenes is when Jay and her sister and friends track down Hugh, the one who passed the curse along to her. The group sits in the grass as Hugh explains what happened to him. Rather than a villain, Hugh came off as a tortured, terrified soul. I couldn’t help but wonder what this movie would have been if it had spent more time on the characters of Jay and Hugh, and explored the repercussions of their sexual/relational traumas. There were also hints of a Freudian/Oedipal undercurrent, as the creature takes the form of parents of two of the characters. But this was too fleeting to leave much of an impression.

I wish that the writers had gone through a few more drafts. This could have been a truly great horror movie. As it stands, I’m going to buck the hype. It Follows, while well made, is not a brilliant horror film, and not one of the best of the decade. It is well made, chilling, but ultimately unsatisfying. Watch it on Netflix, and save your $14.50.

Watch this movie: Predestination

Time travel story plus great performances minus a creaky plot equals a stylish, though flawed, film.

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It took me about 20 minutes into Predestination, the new sci-fi film starring Ethan Hawke, to figure it all out. Predestination is a movie that tries to shroud itself in mystery, but that mystery is pretty evident to anyone who pays attention. If it wasn’t for the stylish visuals and strong performances by the two main actors — Ethan Hawke and Sarah Snook — Predestination might have ended up being nothing more than a silly time-travel flick that falls apart too quickly.

But it’s not.

The plot, or as much as I can share, is this: Hawke plays a time travel agent who has been hopping around the latter half of the 20th century in an effort to stop the so-called Fizzle Bomber. When he’s on a stakeout as a bartender in a NYC dive in 1970, he meets a surly patron who proceeds to tell him a wild tale.

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That’s about all I can say without giving anything away. Predestination, based on the short story All You Zombies by Robert A. Heinlein, brings one huge thing to the table for me: time travel. I love the conceit. I don’t care that time travel stories are inherently unstable, full of logical paradoxes. They’re fun. Predestination isn’t especially groundbreaking in its use of time travel. But at least they didn’t spend too much time trying to explain it. Part of that was a conscious narrative choice. This is a tightly told story. It sticks very close to certain characters. Just like them, we never get the bigger picture.

What sets Predestination apart from other movies of this genre is the performances. Ethan Hawke has been around long enough now — the man knows how to act convincingly. He is solid throughout. Sarah Snook, who plays a tough but lonely girl named Jane, is something else entirely. I’ve never heard of Snook, but I can’t imagine I won’t be hearing from her again. She had a tough role to play, and she was simply amazing. Her emotions ran the gamut, and she pulled them off convincingly and movingly. As played by Snook, Jane is a tragic character who you can’t help but relate to.

Sarah Snook

Despite all this, Predestination is stuck in B-movie land. The plot, especially toward the end, just could not carry the movie to the point of greatness. Nevertheless, Predestination is worth the time.

Hellraiser: behind the scenes

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I was a teenager when I watched Clive Barker’s iconic horror movie Hellraiser. It freaked me out, to say the least. I’d never seen evil presented on screen in such a visceral, repulsive way. What made it so scary? First, several years of Catholic school had conditioned me to be afraid of hell. Second, the villains — Pinhead and the rest — were not just mindless monsters. They were human. Too human.

This movie has stayed with me after all these years. I haven’t watched it in a long time. Maybe I should. But will Hellraiser hold up? Sure, it was low-budget, but the core element of pure horror will remain as strong as ever, I’m guessing.

In the meantime, I came across this article in io9.com that details some behind-the-scenes tidbits about the movie. Here are a few highlights:

–Clive Barker sold the script for Hellraiser based on the idea alone. He’d never directed a movie — he didn’t even know how. Unfortunately the two books in the library on directing were both checked out.

–Jennifer Tilly auditioned for the role of Kirsty. But Barker wanted Ashley Laurence, an unknown actor, to play the part. He had to fight for her. Obviously he won.

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–Doug Bradley, who played Pinhead, did not want to take the role. Why not? Number one, the hours of makeup required. Number two, with all the makeup, who would recognize him? Now that Pinhead is an icon, I bet he’s glad that he took the role.

–The original title was The Hellbound Heart, but the studio heads worried it would be mistaken for a romance. If only.

–The costumes were inspired by those seen in S&M clubs. Then again, that’s not a surprise.

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See this movie: Edge of Tomorrow

What do you get when you combine aliens, explosions, and the repeating day motif of Groundhog Day? Tom Cruise’s latest sci-fi action flick Edge of Tomorrow.

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Tom Cruise’s personal life gets a lot of attention, but strip away that nuttiness and what you have is a workhorse actor who knows how to entertain. Whether it’s the Mission: Impossible series, Minority Report, or Oblivion, Cruise is a master at making a damn good action film. Edge of Tomorrow is the latest in his string of successes.

Edge of Tomorrow is based on the Japanese sci-fi novel All You Need Is Kill (great title!) by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. All You Need Is KillThe movie’s plot: an alien race known as mimics has overrun the European continent, and unified forces are gearing up for a D-Day style invasion in France. Major William Cage (Cruise) finds himself on the front lines of the invasion, where he quickly dies. Only he doesn’t. Time resets, and he wakes up the morning before the invasion. He relives the same day, dying again and again. Aided by Sergeant Rita Vratraski (Emily Blunt) the war hero known as “Full Metal Bitch,” he plots to defeat the mimics.

What’s great about Edge of Tomorrow:

–Cruise and Blunt are excellent. This isn’t Oscar bait. We’re not looking for amazing acting. We want skill, competence and relatability. They deliver.

–The action is intense. The battle scenes are breakneck, part video game, part roller coaster.

–Humor. I didn’t think I’d be laughing during a Tom Cruise sci-fi action movie, but the writers were wise to add some funny scenes. On one level, this movie almost calls for it. The humor, which comes mostly from bungled deaths (and repeated days) helps break the tension. It also lets the audience laugh at the overall concept. Cruise plays it well — sometimes he’s clearly ready to die (again).

–The invasion of France has clear and obvious parallels to the Allied invasion of Europe in D-Day during World War II. The writers build a pretty complete world, one that has been at war for a while.

What’s not so great:

mimic3–The aliens were fine. I have no major complaints, but there was nothing particularly novel about them. The special effects were also fine. But I wanted a little more.

–I had a couple of issues with the ending, which I won’t reveal. The best I can say is that it was satisfying. I’ll leave it at that.

Overall, Edge of Tomorrow is a thrill ride of a movie with solid performances, some laughs, and great action scenes that make it worth a trip to the theater.

Don’t see this movie: The Host

The Host is proof that a great concept won’t work when saddled with a bad plot and annoying characters.

The_Host_PosterGranted, I’m not the target audience for a YA movie with a romantic subplot based on a book by Twilight’s Stephenie Meyer. But the premise sounded intriguing: the human race is taken over by alien body snatchers that obliterate the host human consciousness. Think of this as a more literal Invasion of the Body Snatchers than the original movie(s), which were all great, but should have been called Invasion of the Body Copiers.

I watched The Host solely for that premise, and that was the only good thing I can say about it.

The plot: Human holdout Melanie Stryder (played by Saoirse Ronan) is captured and taken over by an alien called “Wanderer” (that name was the first warning sign of trouble ahead). But Melanie manages to hold on. Melanie/Wanderer seek out her fellow human holdouts, trailed by a Seeker (the unbelievably beautiful Diane Kruger) who is determined to wipe them out.

The Host ends up turning into a weird love quadrangle. Melanie/Wanderer reunite with KrugerMelanie’s boyfriend Jared, and Wanderer falls in love with some guy named Ian.

How can true love work out if Melanie/Wanderer share the same body? I didn’t really care, because I never bought it. The love story was not developed, it was unrealistic, and the tension felt manufactured.

The rest of The Host was clunky as well. Great actors like William Hurt had little to do, because nothing really exciting or unpredictable happened. Saoirse Ronan is usually a phenomenal actor, but she couldn’t do much in this part. If you want to see her shine in an action flick, watch the surreal Hanna.

The worst part of the movie? Melanie’s voiceover. Since Wanderer had active control, she spoke through the body. Melanie spoke through thoughts, which we heard as a voiceover. Very early on I was wishing that Wanderer had indeed obliterated Melanie. That’s not a good sign.

All of this is a shame, because, like I said, the premise is great. But The Host is bad, and not even in the “so bad it’s good” sense. You’ve been warned: watch The Host at your own risk.