Jon Turner's Reviews

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What's this? Can it be? A Star Wars prequel that's actually -- gasp! -- great? Believe it or not, yes. Although technically not a prequel -- it's more of a spin-off "anthology" movie -- Rogue One: A Star Wars Story could very well qualify. It's easily superior to the prequel trilogy (even Revenge of the Sith, good as it was, was held back by flaws, none of which exist here, thankfully). While not necessarily a better made film than The Force Awakens, I actually enjoyed Rogue One a lot more than I thought I would. Which was not something I was expecting to say.

But Rogue One works as both a movie and a bridge to the opening moments of the first Star Wars movie (rebranded as Episode IV: A New Hope). It's also one of the few Star Wars movies to actually show the tragedies of going into war -- something that we have not seen from entries in this galactic saga. A new cast of characters propels this tale, of which K-2SO is easily the most successful. Voiced by Alan Tudyk, this droid is very much in the vein of C-3PO, what with his deadpan, dry humor and prissy personality. He's also very badass -- can you name a scene in which C-3PO wielded a blaster to save his colleagues? No. The fact that this robot does makes him a very memorable newcomer.

The most surprising moment of the movie is the return of Death Star Governor Grand Moff Tarkin, as portrayed by Peter Cushing in A New Hope. Apparently CGI was used to make this possible, but honestly, I'd be hard-pressed to know if it were, because the onscreen results are convincingly real. Since the actor has now passed, Stephen Stanton supplies the motion capture work for him. His voice is supplied by Guy Henry, who does a dead-on job of impersonating the character's chilling mannerisms. (The same is true of a surprise cameo at the very end of the film -- you'll have to see for yourself to find out.)

The real jewel is the return of Darth Vader, complete with James Earl Jones' unmistakable baritone. Unlike the prequels, we get to see this iconic villain as his usual nasty self, berating an Empire leader one moment, and at the climax, slashing at rebels with his familiar crimson lighter. Although his appearance is brief, he is still the highlight of Rogue One. In fact, the last thirty minutes are where this movie really dazzles.

Fault-wise, Rogue One has very little to speak of, other than the fact that it starts off somewhat slowly and occasionally dips into lulls. However, performances across the board are very well done all around (a commendable feature of these Disney-produced Star Wars movies), and while their characters don't register with us in the same emotional way as Luke Skywalker and company did, they are at the very least soulful and believable characters as opposed to anyone in the prequels. And of course, as usual, the visual effects are of the same standard we've come to expect from the Star Wars trilogy. It's refreshing to have this movie refrain from overusing computer graphics except for necessary purposes.

One could easily ditch one of the Star Wars prequels and replace Rogue One with the one in question. This movie really is that good.




"Money won is twice as sweet as money earned."





"A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away..."

From the moment these words filled up the screen to ecstatic audiences in May of 1977, a legend was born. That's a pretty cliché way of putting it (since, chronologically, this happens to be the fourth chapter in the saga), but there is some serious truth behind the impact that this, the original Star Wars, left upon many viewers. It's hard to believe that this movie ever got made, too. It was George Lucas's brainchild project since childhood, but when shooting this movie, he ran into production problem after problem after problem--many executives predicted that Star Wars would die at the box office. And now look at what place it has in the history of moviegoers. If Star Wars had not been the megahit that it was, there would be no sequels, no prequels, no fans going around reciting memorable quotes from the movie ("May the force be with you!"), and, well, all that it is.

Looking upon Star Wars, retitled in subsequent reissues as Episode IV: A New Hope, it's not hard to understand why this film became such a status of pop culture. Sure, it doesn't have the flashy graphics of today's big, loud and noisy CGI films (although this reincarnation does; more on that later)--but what makes this movie such a classic is simply because, at heart, it is great FUN. The storyline is epic and action-packed (the starship battles and the climactic Death Star Trench fight continue to thrill no matter how many times you see them), the atmosphere that Lucas created is imaginative and engaging, and, best of all, it has a cast of characters that have quickly become household names--eager, earnest young hero Luke Skywalker; dashing, courageous Captain Han Solo; tempestuous yet regal Princess Leia; furry Wookie Chewbacca; wise, saintly Obi-Wan Kenobi; ruthless helmeted villain, Darth Vader; and of course, those lovable robots (sorry, droids), C-3PO and R2-D2.

Lucas has never really been gifted at directing actors, but unlike the later prequels, which suffered from some stiff performances, he got fairly lucky with his first entry. Although there are moments of stiff delivery, at the very least the cast manages to handle the material with just the right amount of exuberance. Indeed, it is hard to imagine a better trio than Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher as the three human leads, Alec Guiness as the elderly Jedi Master, Anthony Daniels as the golden, worrisome robot, or even James Earl Jones' memorably stentorian voice as Vader (one of cinema's greatest vocal performances ever).

Equally memorable is John Williams' soundtrack, the title fanfare has been used in every Star Wars movie to date, and of course, the motifs Williams creates for the characters fit them to a T. One can only imagine the atmosphere of Star Wars had it been scored by someone else....

With all this, and more, it's no wonder that Star Wars's impact is still going strong, and, at the risk of causing controversy, the original trilogy can easily hold its own against some of the more cinematically complex and impressive trilogies of our time such as The Lord of the Rings, The Godfather, and Back to the Future.

However, George Lucas wasn't satisfied with his original version of Star Wars, so in 1997, he and his company, LucasFilm Ltd., re-released the film as a "Special Edition". This version consists of some added-in and/or altered scenes as well as some more enhanced visual effects. Purists have opposed these additions, especially since Lucas has not decided to release the original print of Star Wars on DVD or BD. While this is a valid argument, Lucas himself has stated that this revamp is his vision. For the most part, some of the alterations work well -- a brief scene involving Luke's friend Biggs is a nice bonus, even if it is marred by one clumsy edit, and the climactic X-Wing Trench battle actually looks even better with the CG enhancements. There have also been cases where dust, dirt, and matte boxes were on the original print, and to have those removed provides better results.

That said, there were some changes that have caused controversy, and diehard fans still rage about them today. One in particular involves a showdown between Han and an alien, Greedo. In the original cut, Han takes out Greedo in one blast, but in the new edition, it is Greedo who takes the first shot before Han fires. For fans who saw Han as something of an anti-hero, this was a jarring move, and understandably so -- it flows very clumsily.

Then there's the added in scene with Jabba the Hutt -- one that Lucas originally shot for the movie but couldn't complete due to budget constraints. While it is nice to have this scene in, the CG model for Jabba (at least in the 1997 edition) doesn't look on par with his counterpart in Return of the Jedi, and a moment where Han steps on his tail looks distractingly goofy. (Subsequent issues have a more improved model.) As nice as this scene is, I feel that it might be better if it were cut since it repeats a lot of lines Han says in the previous scene. The Mos Eisley extension scene also suffers from similar goofy antics from droids.

In the end, Star Wars's entertainment value still remains as timeless as it does, although the original cut does get an edge over the Special Edition for being tighter and faster-paced, overall. Regardless of which version, there's no denying this movie's classic status in cinema.






From the beginning, George Lucas had envisioned his 1977 epic Star Wars to be a trilogy. The phenomenal success the film attained gave him the opportunity to realize two more sequels, beginning with 1980's The Empire Strikes Back. It is usually common for a follow-up to an original to be a let-down, but this movie is not one such example. Directed by Irvin Kirschner, the new chapter in the saga doesn't just live up to its predecessor, it surpasses it--and then some.

The storyline takes a darker, more heavy-handed spin as Luke, Han, Leia, and the Rebel Forces find themselves under assault from Darth Vader and the Imperial troops. As the movie progresses, we root for our heroes to prevail--only to find ourselves downcast when we come to the somewhat sad (yet hopeful) conclusion. Yet the movie is all the more magnificent for it.

The Empire Strikes Back also gives a chance to expand upon the characters' relationships with each other--to entertaining and occasionally amusing results. It also provides the cast a glorious opportunity to expand on their characters (of course it helps to have a director who is competent with directors, which is what these two sequels were lucky to benefit from). The give-and-take banter between Han and Leia (which, of course, turns into a romance) is hilarious and made all the more memorable by Harrison Ford's swaggering portrayal of Han and Carrie Fisher coming off as a perfect foil for his bluster. The chemistry between them is definitely a lot more lively and interesting than, any of the love scenes involving Natalie Portman and Haydn Christensen in the prequels. Mark Hamill also deserves special mention. In this film, he displays an incredible range of emotion and growing pains, which helps the audience to identify with his struggle. His eventual growth from a reckless, unthinking youth to a mature, confident hero is completed full-circle in the final entry, Return of the Jedi, but tracing where it begins in this movie credits that.

Not only are we introduced to all-new worlds such as the freezing, snow-covered ice planet Hoth to the musty swamp bog of Dagobah, we are introduced to new characters. For example, on Bespin, we meet Lando Calrissian, a charismatic yet shifty rogue who shares a somewhat shaky friendship with Han Solo. Billy Dee Williams conveys the character to effectiveness; the transition from traitor to ally is well handled and believable. Of course, the most memorable character in the movie is Yoda, the crotchety yet benign Jedi Master who takes it under himself to lead Skywalker down the straight and narrow path. In the prequels, we see him flex his facial expression chops through computer animation, but in this film (in addition to Return of the Jedi) we see him as a rubber puppet operated by Frank Oz. His playful yet wise nature exudes through the latex and comes across as a staple character. There's a good reason why he's considered one of the best characters in the Star Wars saga.

The production values are spectacular, with unforgettably visceral action sequences highlighting every minute on screen such as the snow battle against giant dinosaur-like walkers, the daredevil chase through the asteroid field, and of course, the climactic confrontation between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader. That each of these set pieces are so fully realized in rich detail and execution contributes to this film's greatness.

In 1997, George Lucas revamped this film (along with the other two entries in the original trilogy) as a Special Edition. Of them, Empire Strikes Back doesn't suffer too badly in its new dress. Unlike Star Wars or Return of the Jedi, which featured some distractingly controversial changes, most of the alterations are, for the most part, minor. Matte lines are smoothed out, and transparent cockpits from the original cut are thankfully fixed. There's also a lovely expansion of Cloud City which allows us to see an entire depth of dimension to the planet. The digitally added windows provide for some lovely shots. (Only exception is one brief roller-coaster flyby of some flying cars zooming through the city.) Perhaps the best change is in the scene where Darth Vader commutes with the Emperor. In this revamp, Ian McDiarmid, who created the role to begin with, takes over for the previous stand-in (dubbed over by Clive Revill), and he provides a more chilling turn. Although there was one added in line of dialogue I wasn't crazy about in this scene, it's still a welcome addition.

On the other hand, the moment where we see the ice monster approach Luke (the original version has only two brief cutaway shots of this creature) isn't as effective. It's not a bad addition by any means -- at least the monster is not a goofy CG creation -- but there is something to be said about the original scene having the creature implied to be coming instead of seeing it in full. Probably the only jarring, unnecessary change is an alteration of Darth Vader's "Bring my shuttle" line to "Alert the Star Destroyer to prepare for my arrival", as well as a brief shot of him walking onto the craft in question. This disrupts John Williams' score and briefly kills the momentum of the climax.

Still, if you have no access to the original cut, then the Special Edition will suffice, as it's at the very least not as jarring or distractingly cartoony. In either version, though, not only is The Empire Strikes Back one of the best entries in the Star Wars saga, but one of the best sequels ever. Period.






The final entry of the classic Star Wars trilogy, 1983's Return of the Jedi, is often cited by many as the weak link, and perhaps it is in some ways. Having said all that, though, it's still both a great film and an appropriate conclusion to the saga. Despite being less focused on character development and more heavy on action, director Richard Marquand nonetheless keeps us enthralled... even when things slow down a little bit midway through.

The first act, where Luke and his friends rescue Han from the palace of Jabba the Hutt, is still entertaining. Jabba, a truly disgusting blob of bloated flesh who speaks in his own language, not only makes a great villain, but a memorable one, too. Constructed as a puppet operated by three people, this slug-like, deep-voiced monster is the stuff of nightmares. Actually, what also makes this sequence fun is the clever use of puppets for the various members of Jabba's court, including the intimidating Rancor and scary Sarlaac pit monster. It builds masterfully to its climax and pulls punches all the while.

Things get a little bit slower around the second act (and even then, it's not anywhere nearly as sluggish as the prequels), where Luke discovers that he and Leia are related by blood and when we travel to the forest planet of Endor, home of the cuddlesome but stalwart Ewoks. Most of the complaints about Return of the Jedi center around these creatures, whose cuteness struck several viewers as out of place for a gritty space adventure. While that may be true to some extent, I will say that the Ewoks aren't as jarring as they could have been. Unlike, say, Jar Jar Binks, these characters do at the very least prove to be competent, resourceful warriors as opposed to goofy comic relief that The Phantom Menace often suffered from.

By the time we get to the third act, though, the pace picks up again, as we intercut between the Ewoks battle against the troops, Lando and the Rebel Forces launching an attack against the Empire's all-new half-completed Death Star, and Luke's final showdown with Darth Vader and the Emperor. The latter ties with the Jabba Palace sequence as the highlight of the movie. It also provides for some of the best acting in the trilogy. Mark Hamill flexes his chops once again as Luke Skywalker, particularly when we see him as a now full-grown Jedi, struggling to overcome his temptation to darkness. Also, as iconic as James Earl Jones' voice as Darth Vader is, he is rivaled only by the shriveled, crone-like Emperor, played with deliciously raspy, frightening evil by Ian McDiarmid. The tension between this trio heightens the excitement of this climactic moment, which is appropriately darkly lit and menacingly underscored.

Acting-wise, too, the other performers continue to excel. Harrison Ford, despite apparently getting tired of the trilogy, nonetheless never fails to deliver a great line, even if Han Solo, here, is less cocky than his previous entries. And of course, Carrie Fisher, Billy Dee Williams, Alec Guinness, and Anthony Daniels continue to offer fine work as Leia, Lando, Obi-Wan, and C-3PO, respectively. Frank Oz's Yoda only gets one scene (and a tragic one at that), but brief though it may be, he makes the most of it.

On a technical level, Return of the Jedi remains just as impressive today as its predecessors. The space battle fights are as exhilarating as always, and a speeder bike chase through the forest is a knockout. Of course, given that this movie was made after A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, it probably shouldn't be so surprising that the special effects have reached an even greater level of excellence.

In 1997, George Lucas re-released the classic Star Wars in digitally restored (and revamped) "Special Editions", which featured added-in effects and/or shots as well as some enhancements. Not of all these changes have been unanimously welcomed, though -- A New Hope had some particularly controversial moments that infuriated many fans. Sadly, Return of the Jedi's "Special Edition" suffers from some as well. There's a brand new song for a brief musical number in Jabba's palace, called "Jedi Rocks." This change also suffers from the same cartoonishly CG goofiness that we got from Jar Jar. It's not a particularly great song, either. The original number, "Lapti Nek", is not only more fitting, the puppetry work in the scene actually ages better than the digitally added aliens in the Special Edition. More controversial is the decision to add Hayden Christiansen's ghost in the final celebration scene as opposed to leaving Sebastian Shaw's Anakin Skywalker. I understand George Lucas' reason for doing so, but the problem is that it doesn't fit with the rest of the film.

That said, there was one change from the Special Edition I did like, and that is the extended celebration scene at the end. We get to see the different planets across the galaxy, and the new musical number is arguably a better fit than the Ewok song from the original. It provides a more majestic tone to the situation. The editing is also considerably better, too.

I do feel that Return of the Jedi ultimately plays better in its original form, even with that nice extended ending from the Special Edition. Nonetheless, the film continues to enjoy a better reception today than it did years ago (probably in light of the disappointing Attack of the Clones and Phantom Menace). Inferior though it may be to its predecessors (and even then, only marginally so), it remains a fitting finale to the trilogy, and remains every bit as enthralling with repeat viewings.






Ten years after the lesser Star Wars prequel trilogy wrapped up with the mostly solid if not perfect Revenge of the Sith, George Lucas' ever-popular space opera saga gets yet another trilogy in the making, this time in the hands of J.J. Abrams, the man behind the magnificent Super 8 and the equally enthralling Star Trek reboot.

This time, he reunites most of the original cast members (including Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, and yes, Peter Mayhew as Luke, Han Solo, Leia, C-3PO, and Chewbacca, respectively) while introducing a welcome host of newcomers. These include Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and even Lord of the Rings' Andy Serkis. Rather than relying on the mostly CGI approach of the prequels, Abrams also opts to use models, bizarre aliens, and lots of action as well as surprise twists out of nowhere.

Abrams had a difficult task with this film, as it would have to serve as a reminder to audiences why they fell in love with Star Wars to begin with, as the prequels did nonetheless did leave a stain on its reputation. Fortunately, he got this one right.

This is a much more spirited and lively entry than the likes of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones, emphasizing humorous byplays between its characters as opposed to dazzling visuals. The special effects, of course, are fantastic -- and thankfully they achieve a better balance of practical sets and digital wizardry. The overuse of CG on the prequels often provided those films with a glaring, artificial look, to the point of distraction. This blended approach is thankfully an improvement. As impressive as the visual effects are, they never get in the way of the story.

More importantly, the acting is consistently great from everyone involved: something that could never be said for the prequels. Both Ridley and Boyega get into their roles and exchange rapid-fire chemistry in the same manner as the original, and of course Ford, despite being older, obviously hasn't lost his swagger and badassery as Han Solo. Although villains Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine are missed, the mentally unstable, bad-tempered Kylo Ren (Driver) makes for a compelling villain. His big boss, Snoke, (Serkis), while menacing, doesn't get a lot of screen time to stand out that much, but that's a minor quibble.

Some have quibbled that the plot line for The Force Awakens is mostly a retread of A New Hope, what with the usual destructive space weapon + secret map + hidden weakness formula as well as a little bit of The Empire Strikes Back. In that aspect, the movie is probably the least "original" of the movies. But the end result of a movie isn't measured upon its originality or derivativeness, but in its execution. While the prequels were not guilty of repeating themselves, they still suffered from stiff acting and dialogue. On that level, this movie improves on both of those weaknesses by far. The return to the jokey banter atmosphere is more than welcome, and while there is humor, it's never of the juvenile kind.

All in all, The Force Awakens was a glorious comeback for Star Wars, and it's up there with one of the series' best. Any criticisms of derivativeness is ultimately defeated by the film's overall entertainment value, and there is plenty in store. It's both a great movie and a promising start to the sequel trilogy.






It can't be denied that the original Star Wars trilogy is one of the most iconic cornerstones of filmmaking -- an ambitious mixing pot of space-blasting action, alien cultures, and mythological nuances that has captivated so many audiences for years. The namesake suffered something of a stall, however, with George Lucas' flawed prequel trilogy, which, with the exception of Revenge of the Sith, couldn't live up to the reputation of the original trilogy. In a bizarre twist of fate, Disney of all companies purchased the rights to "Star Wars", beginning work on a new trilogy with other movies to come in the subsequent weeks. 2015's The Force Awakens, handled by J.J. Abrams, while perhaps too much of a copycat of A New Hope, was nonetheless breezy, flashy, and entertaining -- a great love-letter to the trilogy (with the exception of one character death). The subsequently released Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was arguably even better: a thrilling tale which was arguably everything the prequels should have been.

The Last Jedi, however, proved to be a different beast altogether. Unlike predecessor The Force Awakens, this one is helmed by Rian Johnson. (J.J. Abrams serves as executive producer.) Naturally, expectations for this were going to be sky-high no matter what, and regardless of how the movie turned out there were always going to be naysayers who will say nay. The Force Awakens had a lot of detractors, despite being highly reviewed by critics. The Last Jedi suffered the same outcome, arguably even more so. Critics greeted the film with rave reviews, and of course the film performed well at the box office, selling about $600 million domestically, but it sparked a huge and rather nasty debate on how this film compares to the original trilogy, and whether this newest chapter charts the series in a bold new direction or if it derails it like the prequels did. (Some are even dubbing The Last Jedi the nadir of the franchise.)

I personally find the latter a very questionable claim, as I didn't particularly enjoy the prequels all that much -- Attack of the Clones was the weak link. The Last Jedi is nowhere near that territory -- the performances by everyone involved are terrific and the dialogue is thankfully devoid of any laughable, groanworthy lines. There isn't any winceworthy love story either. Which isn't to say that The Last Jedi is flawless.

Picking up from where the last movie left off, Rey (Daisy Ridley) meets Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on planet Ach-To, but the latter is reluctant to help out on account of a tragedy that he blames himself for. Meanwhile General Leia (the late Carrie Fisher) tries to evacuate the Resistance from Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and his First Order, while hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaacs) disagrees. Meanwhile former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) tries to take the situation into his own hands. All of this makes The Last Jedi the longest of any "Star Wars" movie, clocking in at a whopping 153 minutes. For the most part it moves along at a breathless pace, but the second quarter of the movie stalls a bitwhen our heroes take an unexpected detour to Canto Bight, a newly fashioned casino city planet. Although visually intriguing and rich with interesting ideas, this sequence could have used some trimming.

The only really jarring scene for me is where General Leia is literally blown out into space when a photon torpedo smashes her starship, and she somehow uses the Force to pull herself back on board. Despite the idea of showing Leia's own powers, this moment is handled clumsily, more along the lines of Superman than anything else. Considering that Fisher tragically died just after completing work on the film, it probably would have been better to have her killed off at that point instead of surviving. Or more ideally, just cut that space stunt to the character in a hospital bed.

Then there's the handling of Supreme Chancellor Snoke (Andy Serkis), a shadowy, bald crone who appears to be the brains behind the whole operation. Surprisingly, however, we get to know very little about him, and he's unexpectedly discarded halfway through. Although at the same time it does provide an interesting twist to how we think the story is going to turn out, it is a bit of a surprise that we don't know who he is or where he came from. On a similar note, some of the film's newer characters, notably a self-appointed codebreaker, DJ, and a female commander who temporarily takes Leia's place on the Rebel ship feel a tad underdeveloped as well. Perhaps the most interesting newcomer is Rose Tico, a girl who teams up with Finn on his mission to take down Snoke's ship. Although many have found her character bothersome, she actually comes across as a very strong, competent character, and the chemistry between her and Finn is very solid.

Despite my quibbles, there's a lot going for The Last Jedi. The dynamic between Luke, Rey, and Kylo Ren is compellingly presented and all around engrossing, thanks to the skillful acting of all three performers involved. Hamill, in particular, deserves a shout-out. Although Luke here is portrayed as a depressed, demoralized hermit who initially refuses to have anything to do with the Force, Hamill succeeds in making this incarnation very three-dimensional and sincere. He gets to have an especially epic moment at the end of the movie (no spoilers for what it is). The man is a genius at voice acting, but as an actor he's very underrated, and this is arguably his best work as Luke yet. Ridley, Boyega, Isaacs, the late Fisher, and especially Driver as the emotionally conflicted Ren are all at the top of their game as well. Kelly Marie Tran also does an outstanding job of making Rose a very likable, compelling character to root for under all circumstances. She didn't even deserve half of the scathing backlash she got for this role. One can say that her potential hookup with Finn toward the end of the movie feels forced and uncertain, but that is in no way the actress' fault.

The cinematography is also deserving of a shout-out; this is probably the best shot of the Star Wars movies, with a lot of iconic moments that rival any in the series. One very poignant scene toward the end in which Luke gazes off at the binary sunset on the island, in particular, is a fitting callback to A New Hope. The visual effects are top notch, as well, without being overly showy or upstaging the actors. The prequels had gone overboard with this problem, seeming to overload CG-effects for the sake of it. Here the filmmakers find a respectful balance between using practical effects and digital effects when necessary. This makes The Last Jedi feel less artificial for it.

Perhaps the thing that struck with me most about The Last Jedi is how daring and bold this newest entry is. Aside from showing familiar faces in a different light, it also makes the controversial choice of deconstructing some of the tropes that fans have come to expect from Star Wars, therefore charting a new direction for the series. For some who feel the franchise may grow stale with every entry, this change of pace is in some ways refreshing, but others have been miffed by it. This also very well be the darkest and bleakest Star Wars entry yet -- there's a high body count in this movie, and one spectacularly staged kamikaze attack (with a brief pause of silence for good effect) is something that we haven't seen in Star Wars before.

All in all, The Last Jedi may seem in some ways like a step down from The Force Awakens, for me it is only a marginal one. It still manages, overall, to be an interesting and provocative entry to the Star Wars saga, totally undeserving of the backlash it has received from disgruntled fans. Only a couple of moments that hold it back from true greatness, but otherwise, grossly underrated.






As the final chapter of both the sequel trilogy of Star Wars and the Skywalker saga in general, The Rise of Skywalker comes with quite a burden. It is a burden that is inevitable with any final chapter in a trilogy, but George Lucas' space saga which began over 40 years ago especially has it tough, particularly when it comes to both the original and prequel trilogies. For the latter, Revenge of the Sith was the best of of an otherwise underwhelming set of prequels, and even then that can sound somewhat backhanded, as it did still contain a lot of the faults of its predecessors. Still, it was at the very essence, the least flawed of the prequels and certainly servicable, which is more than could be said about the likes of The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones. Return of the Jedi meanwhile, was something of a (minor) step down from the fantastic duo of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, respectively. That said, Return of the Jedi was no slouch, and only marginally inferior. It still delivered lots of memorable sequences and was a fitting closure to the original trilogy.

Which brings us to The Rise of Skywalker, where J.J. Abrams once again returns to the director's chair, having helmed the fantastic The Force Awakens. (Actually, the final chapter was supposed to be directed by Colin Trevorrow, but honestly, I don't mind Abrams taking the reins for this last one.) There are oodles of questions to be answered in the film to be sure, but to this viewer, the major question is, where does this latest finale rank? Critics were rather mixed on the film, with many finding it "uninspired" and less daring than Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi, which, while critically lauded, divided audiences bitterly. But opinions are always going to be subjective no matter what, but as far as I am concerned, The Rise of Skywalker, for me, ranks somewhere in-between Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith. Admittingly, I did like The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi a tad more, but while The Rise of Skywalker is probably among the lower end of the spectrum, that isn't to say that it isn't any good, much less entertaining. On the contrary.

However, I do have some quibbles. The film gets off to a rather frantic start, filled with action scene after action scene and random jumping to different planets. Although it's not by any means bad, the first act is the least compelling part of The Rise of Skywalker, coming across as overstuffed, with little time to breathe. New characters portrayed by Keri Russell and Naomi Ackie are, at best, underdeveloped. One moment around the 30-minute mark or so struck me as very odd and off-putting. Viewers who may have appreciated some of the more ambiguous edge that The Last Jedi provided will probably be disappointed to discover that this film disregards much of it in favor of a "faster, more intense" (to borrow a phrase from Lucas) adventure. In that aspect, The Rise of Skywalker is probably a bit guilty of playing it safe. Rose is also criminally underused, perhaps on account of the hideous backlash her character undeservedly received, and some might see her smaller role as a way of catering to those people who disliked her so much.

Despite all this, The Rise of Skywalker still manages to offer a lot of positives. The film settles into groove after this hectic first half and offers a second half full of emotion, action, suspense, and genuine heart. The final 30 minutes in particular will evoke tears. Throughout, the film maintains the same standards as the previous entries. The performances from everyone involved are absolutely fantastic, especially Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver as Rey and Kylo Ren, respectively. Again, the dynamic between these two characters remains the most compelling part of the film, and it is the commitment both give to their roles that sells it. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega are also in fine form as Poe Dameron and Finn, and Anthony Daniels' C-3PO, who finally gets a lot more to do in this film than in the previous entries, is, as always, a delight. Even better, Billy Dee Williams gets to return as Lando Calrissian, and while his screentime is limited, he nonetheless shows he's still got it.

Carrie Fisher died before work on The Rise of Skywalker could be completed, and so any footage involving her are actually deleted scenes from The Last Jedi. One can only wonder what could have been had she lived. As it is, Adrams still manages to do an excellent job of making use of her. It's bittersweet seeing her in this movie knowing that she's no longer with us, but Fisher still provides enough warmth with every minute of her screentime.

At the risk of providing a spoiler, I was at first a bit uncertain of having Emperor Palpatine brought back as the villain for this movie, as he was meant to have been killed off for good in Return of the Jedi. Having said that, though, watching Ian McDiarmid exude gleeful nastiness and chewing the scenery as this ruthless character is always a delight, and this is no exception here.

The special effects and production design are no less great; the cinematography, while perhaps not as vibrant as in The Last Jedi, is no slouch in this film. Each set is rich with detail and exudes a sense of realism. It helps that the film achieves a nice balance between practical effects and digital ones. John Williams, as usual, contributes another fantastic score; easily one of the best for the whole saga. Considering that his music has consistently been the strongest asset of each Star Wars saga, good or bad, that's saying a lot.

As mentioned earlier, The Rise of Skywalker is tasked with answering oodles of questions that viewers might have from the previous two entries. There are plenty of answers to be given, sometimes to the detriment of the pacing, and not everyone will be satisfied with them. However, whatever faults lie with this picture are not on account of lack of trying. Abrams and company clearly gave their all. (The director admits that endings aren't his specialty, but to be fair, he does a fairly good job with what he has to do here.) However you respond to this final chapter will depend on whether you've been on board with the whole sequel trilogy or not.

Personally speaking, though, in spite of my quibbles, I found The Rise of Skywalker to be an uproariously entertaining work. It is a bit of a step down from its predecessors, to be sure, but it's still good fun overall. And that's exactly as it should be.

In the end, we can argue again and again over the merits or deficits of each of these movies, and whether it was a necessity or not. For me, however, the sequel trilogy comes very, very close to capturing the magic of the original trilogy, which was something that the prequels never could. While Episodes I-III had some reason to exist and offered what we may call “different” experiences from this one, all three were very problematic on account of lackluster execution. This new trilogy has faults of its own; occasionally underdeveloped new characters and at times delving a little too much into nostalgia as well as some controversial character choices that may or may not sit well with viewers. Having said all that, the direction, visual effects, performances, character dynamics have all been consistently excellent across the board. For all that, I would gladly visit this sequel trilogy again any time. It ranks just a notch below the original trilogy and above the prequels. Only time will tell if it ages well, but at present, these three movies are great fun, overall.

The Rise of Skywalker is the final goodbye for the legendary heroes we've all come to love from a saga that began way back in 1977. While there have been some occasional missteps on the way, we are very fortunate to have endured such a long journey with these movies at all.






More than seventy years ago, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a story called "The Hobbit", in which the title character somehow gets mixed up with a bunch of dwarves to reclaim missing treasure. The success and acclaim of this book led to the highly acclaimed "Lord of the Rings" trilogy, which years later was transformed into one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time by Peter Jackson. It was perhaps inevitable that one day Jackson would return to this territory to tackle the trials of Bilbo Baggins, but because this movie follows on the heels of a towering achievement like the Lord of the Rings films, comparisons are bound to be inevitable.

Adding to the burden of the brunt is the controversial decision to extend The Hobbit into a trilogy. That approach worked ideally well for Jackson's Lord of the Rings, but because The Hobbit is a considerably shorter book (more like one third of the trilogy), it doesn't really merit the decision for three two-and-a-half hour movies. A more ideal approach would have been to film the book as a two-part series, not a trilogy. On a technical level there's nothing majorly wrong with Jackson's direction; the casting and performances are both excellent, the cinematography breathtaking as always, and the visual effects, for the most part, are as impressive as ever. The problem is that the movies are just too unnecessarily long.

In fact, it takes a whopping 45 minutes to get Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) out of his cozy home in Hobbiton to go out on his fateful quest with the eponymous wizard Gandalf (Ian MacKellen), as well as a pack of dwarves led by a brooding fellow named Thorin Oakenshield (Richard Armitage). En route, we first see a lengthy, ten-minute prologue in which the old Bilbo (played with a wavering sincerity by Ian Holm) begins writing his book about his adventures, starting with the downfall of the Dwarven city of Erebor. The subsequent half hour is basically the first chapter, in which Bilbo's quiet humble life is turned upside down when the dwarves intrude into his household and take over his pantry in no time. The nature of this scene is also noticeably more lighthearted than even the prologue of The Fellowship of the Ring. In all fairness, the tone of Tolkien's Hobbit is more of a children's story and what's on the screen is more or less true to the original, but it also requires a subjective approach. Fans familiar with the book will get the gist of it and more or less be fine, but for more antsy audience members, it does require patience to sit through this scene.

Extending scenes like this aren't the only aesthetic choices that Jackson chooses to approach when tackling the story to screen. Sometimes he ends up culling information from the footnotes of Tolkien's fantasy, even borrowing bits of "The Simulation" for good measure. For instance, we meet the wizard Radagast, an eccentric fellow who cares for animals and goes around riding on a massive "rabbit" sleigh. There is also a shady backstory involving a conflict between Thorin against a nasty-looking orc named Azgog (a mostly computer-animated villain with a vicious grin and a prosthetic arm). Finally we get a surprisingly long scene at the Elven city of Rivendell in which Gandalf converses with his colleague, the ill-fated sorcerer Saruman (Christopher Lee) about the potential return of Sauron. This is obviously meant to tie The Hobbit into The Lord of the Rings trilogy, which is understandable because this is, after all, a prequel, but again, whether one is willing to sit through such slow scenes depends on the nature.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey really comes to life during the bits when it actually sticks to the story. The sequence where Bilbo and company are captured by giant trolls does justice to the book. In the second half, we get a scarifying roller-coaster style confrontation with two stone giants (a scene which nailed me to my seat) to a visit to the infamous Goblin City, ruled by a bloated fellow called the Goblin King. But the film's real highlight is the "Riddles in the Dark" sequence, a cunningly choreographed, thrilling confrontation in which Bilbo must outsmart the twisted Gollum (again brought to life by the remarkable motion capture and hoarse voice of Andy Serkis).

Despite the occasional lull in the story, though, I honestly wasn't necessarily bored at all by any of this; I have quite enjoyed Tolkien's stories and I could spend hour after hour in the fantasy world that Jackson still manages to fully realize on the screen, thanks to the luscious sets and aforementioned cinematography. And unlike George Lucas, who obviously was no great "actor's director" when it came to his weaker Star Wars prequel trilogy, Jackson hasn't lost his ability to extol performances from his cast. Freeman was practically born to play Bilbo, embuing the character's neurotic reluctance with a charm that easily makes even the slowest parts of the film tolerable to sit through. Armitage mostly portrays Thorin as a grumpy, dour fellow who doubts his new charge, but he does so with hints of a tortured personality. Sylvestor McCoy is also quite good as the eccentric Radagast, and the dwarves are all well cast and fitting for their roles. And of course, it's gratifying to see McKellan, Lee, Serkis, and even Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel) reprise their roles.

On a more controversial move, Jackson chose to shoot this Hobbit trilogy in High Frame Rate mode, in which the speed of the frames is increased from 24fps to 48fps. It's a bold, daring move, and in many ways it works quite well for this movie; Middle Earth looks spectacular and rich in its depth with the 3D format, but other times it gives the feel of a super-polished real-life documentary on TV rather than a film. Having said that, though, the film plays well either way so aside from the frame rate length.

In short, whether you decide that The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is for you depends on how much you are willing to overlook the eccentric decision to extend what is essentially a shorter story and embark on another adventure. Having said that, though, I still quite enjoyed the movie and if nothing else, it left me eager for the next chapter.






I don't know how one is supposed to turn a rather short book like J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit into a trilogy, but that's exactly what Peter Jackson has done. No stranger to Middle-Earth, having helmed the phenomenal Lord of the Rings trilogy, the best things that can be said about his re-imagining of this classic tale is that at least the production values and acting are on par with its predecessors. As with the aforementioned trio, The Hobbit was shot back-to-back in New Zealand, resulting in the release of one sequel per year. For better or worse, An Unexpected Journey kicked off what would be an all new adventure, albeit on a rather sluggish pace, particularly its overlong dinner party sequence and character introductions that made up most of its first half.

Luckily those problems do not extend to the second part of the trilogy, here titled The Desolation of Smaug. Having already established the cast, the film picks up from where we left our heroes after being rescued from orcs by eagles. The pace is certainly tighter and less slow, although there still is the occasional lag. The film begins, oddly, with another prologue scene: this time a conversation between the battle-hardened dwarf prince Thorin (Richard Armitage) and the ever-wise Gandalf (Ian MacKellen). After that we cut back to where we last left the Hobbit and his dwarf companions. As before, The Desolation of Smaug really comes alive during the moments which readers are familiar with. Lots of new hazards await our heroes in the form of monstrous spiders, suspicious elves, more and more orcs, corrupt townsfolk, and ultimately, the titular villain himself.

Speaking of which, the crowning jewel of this second part is the fated scene where Bilbo confronts Smaug the dragon in his treasure-laden lair. Like Gollum, the folks at Weta Workshop, through the wizardry of motion capture technology do a bang-up job of rendering this beast a truly dangerous, terrifying monster. Benedict Cumberbatch, too, deserves credit not only for performing the motion capture movements of the dragon (similar to Andy Serkis as Gollum), but for providing the beast with a rumbling, floor-shaking baritone that sends chills up one's spine. For audiences more familiar with Cumberbatch as Sherlock Holmes and Martin Freeman (Bilbo) as Watson, the scene, perhaps unintentionally, is also dryly amusing if you make the connection. Either way, Smaug is a real triumph, emerging as one of cinema's greatest dragons.

That said, The Desolation of Smaug takes quite a while to get there, and as with its predecessor, it ultimately depends on whether the viewer is prepared to accept the changes and additions Jackson made from the book, appreciate the film at face value, or are prepared to grumble with disappointment. En route, the film zigzags back and forth between talky bits and CGI effects as well as other additions. The fight with the spiders in the Mirkwood forest is chillingly handled and builds to its climax with true terror, the arachnids themselves being the stuff of nightmares. There's also an extensive roller-coaster style escape in which our heroes escape downriver in barrels while dodging attacking orcs. For the most part this sequence is viscerally exciting, but there are a few moments when it gets a bit silly, particularly in the sometimes implausible choreography of the elves as they fight back against the attackers. There's an even lengthier showdown between the dwarves and the dragon in the Misty Mountain which mostly works on a crowd-pleasing level (especially for audiences who want to see Thorin face off against the beast that destroyed his home), but may infuriate Tolkien loyalists expecting an untarnished adaptation what they see as a work of art.

Then there's the inclusion of two new characters, one of who is familiar to audiences of Lord of the Rings, Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and a skillful she-elf named Tauriel. While it's nice to see Legolas again, I'm not quite sure what Jackson is going for by including him in the incidents where the dwarves are taken prisoner. There's also an implied "love story" subplot between the youngest of the dwarves and Tauriel which, although not fatal to the film, is a curious addition nonetheless. We also Gandalf and Radagast (Sylvestor MacCoy) trail a mysterious evil to stone ruins, which turns out to be the ghost of the major baddie from The Lord of the Rings trilogy. This is obviously meant to tie The Hobbit to the more famous trilogy, which is quite understandable given that this is, after all, a prequel to Lord of the Rings. Lake Town is also stunningly realized as a destitute but simultaneously seedy village with a corrupt mayor. Luke Evans also makes a very pleasing Bard, and the addition of his family brings a lot of emotional weight to his character.

In short, The Desolation of Smaug's length and additions will understandably annoy anyone expecting Jackson to adapt the novel more "accurately", but my "criticisms" are mostly just shameless nit-picking, because on the whole I really did enjoy The Desolation of Smaug. It's certainly more frantic than its predecessor and never boring. The only major drawback of the movie is its cliffhanger ending. This is intentional and meant to make audiences come back for the final film, but it's still done in a way that feels very abrupt. On that level, then, The Desolation of Smaug is not meant to be a standalone film, but a two-parter in the same way that Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows ended up being.

Love it or hate it, Jackson's enthusiasm for the material still shines through even in places where it occasionally goes off the rails. While it may be in the shadow of its predecessor trilogy, it's nonetheless great to go on another adventure with Jackson, Weta, and company.






Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy worked beautifully because it was based on a trilogy of books with the genuine depth of an epic fantasy drama. Turning the relatively shorter Hobbit into a trilogy was a much riskier move, however, as the length of the story doesn't really require a nearly nine hour long marathon. One of the biggest criticisms of this trilogy is that it's slower paced and filled with padding. Most of it is from footnotes of Tolkien's universe and attempts to tie it to Lord of the Rings. For the most part it works; the casting is uniformly excellent (Martin Freeman and Richard Armitage especially as Bilbo and the moody Thorin), the visuals realize the beauty of Middle Earth to a tee and the action sequences, although bordering on goofiness at times, are nonetheless thrilling. And as with the cliffhanger The Desolation of Smaug, the titular dragon makes a delightfully splendid villain, as voiced by Benedict Cumberbatch. There are times, however, when Jackson does take some liberties with Tolkien, and add in scenes that feel more like, well, roller coaster rides and a few new characters who don't really add much to it. That said I still have enjoyed the first two Hobbit movies quite unreservedly despite any issues I had, and I was still anticipating this last one.

The first thing I should mention about The Battle of the Five Armies is that in order to truly enjoy this film you have to be prepared to come to terms that this is not meant to be a standalone movie, but the final act of a story. Because each of these movies are meant to be viewed together as a single unit, viewing The Battle of the Five Armies without seeing the first two parts is not recommended (unlike, say, the Star Wars prequels where one could disregard Episodes I and II if they choose and go with the superior if not spotless third episode). As mentioned, Tolkien purists will also find plenty to carp at for the occasional additions and liberties Jackson chooses to take. If it's a strictly word-for-word approach you want, this isn't it. If, however, you're prepared to accept all of that, then it's much easier to appreciate the movie at face value.

The Battle of the Five Armies starts off with a thunderously explosive bang as Smaug takes out his fiery rage on the village of Laketown. This spectacularly staged sequence is nothing short of visceral as we see buildings topple and others torched by the dragon's fiery breath. Everything about this scene all the way up to the climactic showdown between heroic Bard (Luke Evans) and Smaug (who gets to have several new lines) is magnificent, and arguably the highlight of the movie. The story takes a more slower but essentially darker turn, however, as the once proud Thorin Oakshield (Richard Armitage) becomes greedy and refuses to part with any share of the gold in his now reclaimed home. Naturally, Bilbo Baggins (Martin Freeman) doesn't take too kindly to this and, in an act of daring defiance, hands over the Arkenstone to the Elf King in order to prevent a bloodbath. This and Thorin's paranoia strain their friendship and ultimately build to what Jackson promised to be the longest battle ever committed to screen. And long the battle of the five armies itself truly is, taking up a good forty-five minutes of the film's 144-minute duration. (Ironically, this is the shortest of the Middle Earth movies!)

In between that and en route, there are other positives to this final chapter. The dynamic between Thorin and Bilbo is powerfully presented, with Freeman and Armitage both providing strong, emotionally charged performances. The chemistry between the two is very powerful, and arguably the real heart of the movie. Indeed, it makes the final parting scene between them all the more heartbreaking and misty-eyed. Armitage also does an expert job of portraying Thorin's conversion to an avaricious tyrant -- at some points his voice melds with that of Smaug's, providing for a rather chilling and frightening effect. This change of character culminates with Thorin having a nightmarish vision of being swallowed by the gold he craves; a somewhat surreal but nonetheless very effective scene.

The performances in general have always been among the strongest points of this trilogy. Aside from Freeman and Armitage, Evans is a very charismatic and instantly likable Bard, and the addition of him having a family of similar strength provides the character with an arguably greater dynamic both for taking down the beast. He is easily another hero to root for, as are returnees Ian MacKellen as the wizard Gandalf, Hugo Weaving as the elvish Lord Elrond, Cate Blanchett as Galadriel, and Orlando Bloom as Legolas. Christopher Lee also gets to show off some real fighting stunts in his return as Saruman. Although his appearance is brief, Saruman's hint of becoming corrupt is also chillingly presented. Billy Connelly, although mostly seen on a CGI-rendered pig and wielding an unrealistically huge sledgehammer, is a pleasant new addition to the cast as Thorin's uncle.

For all its positives, though, The Battle of the Five Armies isn't without its faults. Although most of it is just excessive nitpicking on my part, there were several bits that I felt could have been handled differently. Although the battle between the armies itself is dramatically staged for the most part, there were times when I felt disconnected from it, not necessarily because of the onslaught of CGI characters. Legolas' heroic action stunts such as catching a ride on the talons of a bat, slaying said bat with his arrow, and dodging falling bricks like Super Mario also border on goofiness. Even his antics in the Lord of the Rings trilogy weren't as "cartoonish". The climactic showdown between Thorin and the nasty Orc Azgog is also too drawn out to have any major emotional impact one way or the other. (That said, the final parting from Bilbo and Thorin that follows this showdown takes the movie's emotional heart back on track.) I'm also unclear about the love triangle between the she-elf Tauriel, the young dwarf Kili, and Legolas. Although all three actors involved do what they can, it doesn't feel very necessary to the momentum of the story and I do question why Jackson thought to include it. Admittingly, Tauriel is a pretty cool character, but again, her presence feels extraneous at times, as if there needed to be a heroine. Probably the only really useless character is Alfrid, a corrupt town official who, aside from having a getaway disguised as a woman, is otherwise a fairly forgettable character. Luckily in the extended edition, he is mercifully bumped off.

Speaking of the Extended Edition, it's clear that Jackson wasn't particularly thrilled about how the theatrical cut turned out for this last chapter, and has stated on record that the extended edition is his preferred version. That's subjective, of course, but to me the best scene of the extended edition is a funeral scene for Thorin and a few more moments where the other dwarfs get moments to showcase themselves. However, it's rather curious that this extended edition is the only one of the Middle Earth movies to get an R rating, and most of that applies to one gruesome attack scene. I don't think such violence for the heck of it makes a story better.

Quibbles aside, everything else about The Battle of the Five Armies excels; the production values are as top notch as you'd expect from Jackson, Weta, and company, Howard Shore's score is, as usual, magnificent, and as mentioned, the casting and performances are all spot-on. Aside from the opening and the dynamic between Frodo and Thorin, the other major highlight of this last chapter is the ending. It is brilliantly done and faithful to the book, concluding with a very clever lead-in to The Fellowship of the Ring as the older Bilbo (Ian Holm) goes to greet Gandalf for the first time in years as the camera slowly trucks in on the map before the closing credits begin. For all that, The Battle of the Five Armies , although sketchier than one might expect, is still worth a good recommendation and ranks as a solid final chapter overall. It may be the least effective of the three (which is a slight disappointment considering that The Return of the King concluded Lord of the Rings magnificently), but when it delivers, it still does.

On the whole, if The Hobbit trilogy falls in the shadow of The Lord of the Rings, despite its sometimes draggy pace and occasional missteps (mostly from additions that sometimes work and sometimes don't), it's still good fantasy fun for adventure lovers at heart, and everyone involved still deserves to be commended for their efforts at bringing this tale to the screen.