The Saga’s Endgame (Star Wars: the Rise of Skywalker, 2019)

Star_Wars_Rise_of_Skywalker_PosterAll things must end they say. It seems like May 4th is the appropriate day for me to put out my review of the final film in the “Skywalker Saga”. While I saw the film twice in theaters, December and January passed before I started playing catch up…and then I decided to wait for the 4K release of the film so I could get one more watch. And I finally committed to a third watch.

The film opens with a quick update crawl telling us the Emperor is back. And the story picks up with Supreme Leader Kylo Ren trying to locate the Emperor so he can defeat him.  But quickly, we learn the Emperor has plans and wants Kylo to help, in exchange for an army that the Emperor and his Sith Cultists have been building for thirty years.

We then get reintroduced to Finn, Chewie and Poe, who are gathering data from someone who reveals there is a spy within the First Order.  Rey is busy training to be a Jedi under the watchful eye of General Leia Organa. Once they find out the Emperor is definitely back, they determine they must take the fight to the Emperor, but the problem is that Exogol, the home planet of the Sith, is not on any map.  They need a special Sith device that will lead them to the planet.  So Ray, Finn, Poe and Chewie go off on a series of adventures.

So, the core question, if you are reading this, I suspect is “Did I Like It?”

I…guess? I mean, I did not hate it? But I did not love it?

Some Spoilers ahead…

It was great to see the characters return. It was nice to finally see Lando back.  I like the way they used Hux in this film.  I feel like John Williams did a solid job with the soundtrack.  The action sequences were great.  I was not super bothered by the return of the Emperor, since the old Extended Universe used the idea that the Emperor had been using cloning technology to extend his life.  I also am never bothered by “new” Jedi powers being revealed in the films.  The power to move objects was introduced in Empire, as were actual Force ghosts.  And the powers exhibited in this film really build on stuff we have already seen.

Babu Frick is awesome.

At the same time?

A large chunk of the film feels like course correction. It feels like J.J. Abrams and writer Chris Terrio are trying to respect that Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi Happened, but also trying too soft reboot. When Kylo Ren told Rey her parents were nobodies, he was not lying…he did not know the dark truth that her father was the clone son of Emperor Palpatine. And they were really good people trying to protect her from the Emperor. It is weird to think that Rey has had almost no interaction with Poe, but somehow they are besties in this film.

We have heard about the Knights of Ren for several years now and we meet them in this film.  Kind of.  I have no idea if they have names, but the movie shows them walking around.  We have a Storm Trooper say they are scary.  That is pretty much it. There is one fight with them towards the end and they are quickly dispatched. Otherwise we just see them walk around.

The way they tried to retro fit previously unused Carrie Fisher footage in the film never feels organic.  At no point does it feel like anyone is interacting with her. Which leads me to this frustration… Abrams and Terrio sidelined Rose Tico in the saddest way possible.  They make her a sidekick to a digital restoration of Carrie Fisher.  Why was she not part of the action on the Millenium Falcon in the early part of the film? Why was THIS guy there instead???

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The film has multiple points where it raises the stakes dramatically, only to reveal that there was nothing to worry about.  Major story impacting incidents are reversed so that we lose nothing as fans. There is not anything that engages our emotions for the story. And that is where I lean towards feeling disappointed with how the Skywalker Saga comes to a close.  It is fun, but not as satisfying as I had hoped it might be. It has some good ideas, such as Storm Troopers who rebelled against the First Order. But then instead of the obvious plot point of Finn having inspired Storm Troopers to refuse their orders, it is just never something that is connected.

So… I did not hate the film. There is stuff I really enjoy and stuff that annoys me.  It kind of evens itself out.

Loveless Fascination (Annihilation, 2018)

annihilation_posterLena is a professor who has been trying to come to terms with her husband Kane’s disappearance a year back.  He went on a mission for the Army and seemed to disappear completely.  As she tries to move on, one evening he just walks into the room. Kane is tight lipped, even absent minded.  Suddenly, he starts to vomit blood.  On the way to the hospital, the ambulance is accosted by government agents.

Lena learns where her husband has been, a strange part of an American swamp that is encircled by a strange barrier.  To try and get answers as to what is wrong with Kane, Lena volunteers to join four other scientists into what they call “The Shimmer”. They realize it may be one way, as other than Kane, no other group has returned.

What they find within the shimmer is evolution on overdrive.  Biological life is being melded into new lifeforms. The four scientists begin to question their sanity and even their physical forms.

Annihilation is a patient and quiet film.  It plays out and reveals itself in a deliberately calm fashion.  This is not a sci-fi spectacle.  Instead it is a world of frightening beauty. The film is full of haunted, eerie visuals.  At one point, they discover shrubbery that has grown to look like people. It is both creep and remarkably beautiful.

Much of the film rests on Natalie Portman’s shoulders, and luckily, she is in sync with the film’s tone. She has a quiet intensity throughout the film. Jennifer Jason Leigh offers us an uncertain leader.  Dr. Ventriss appears to have ulterior motives, but the audience gets no more real access than Lena.

Tessa Thompson plays scientist Josie in a role so uncommon for Thompson so far, that it took me awhile to realize it was Tessa Thompson.  Josie is quiet and mousey, but has a tremendous intellect. This allows her to start to understand the Shimmer in a way the other women cannot.  Gina Rodriguez is the well meaning conflict for the women within the film. Oscar Isaac’s role is small, but his performance as Kane is unnerving.

The film is visually stunning, every frame of the Shimmer full of horrific beauty. Alex Garland (director of Ex Machina) is proving himself a force to be reckoned with in thoughtful science fiction film.

Nothing But Star Wars Episode Eight (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017)

Last_Jedi_PosterI will be be honest.  Walking out of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I had no idea just how controversial this film would be.  I wrote my first review and then rewrote it due to a spoiler claim. I watched as the film seemed to rise with critics and fall with some fans.

So I went to see the film a second time in the hopes of determining my feelings on the film.  Do I think it sucks on a second viewing? Did I see those glaring flaws?

And so here we go…let us dive into the Last Jedi…

Spoilers, spoilers and and in the words of Artoo, “Bleepin’ Spoilers To Follow”!

 

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi L to R: Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and a Porg

The Last Jedi opens in the middle of an evacuation by the Resistance. Due to their actions in the Force Awakens the Resistance is no longer underground, and they have no cover from the New Republic as, well, the First Order obliterated them.  While the Starkiller Base was destroyed, that does not mean the First Order is no longer a threat.  They have located the Resistance Homebase and arrive in the middle of the evacuation.  They bring in a super ship called a Dreadnought.

They are startled as a lone fighter appears to face the ship.  It is Poe Dameron and BB8. Dameron is patched through and messes a bit with Admiral Hux. This is, for me, anyways a good little bit.  It also worked for both audiences I saw it with. Poe starts firing on the ship, leaving the Hux confounded, but the Dreadnought Captain realizes what is happening. He calls for tie fighters to be scrambled, As Poe takes out the last of the cannons, Leia calls for him to abort the attack.

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Dameron rejects the command, noting that taking out a Dreadnought is a big deal.  He has the fleet launch their bombers.  But as they near the Dreadnought? the Tie Fighters start taking the bombers out.  The last bomber is in position and Poe is calling for them to drop the bombs.  But the bomber’s, uh, bomb guy is out called.  Gunner Paige tries to grab the trigger, but gets nocked down, in a last minute move, she gets the trigger and drops the bombs, sacrificing herself.  We see her holding a medallion, which seems important.

Poe and the remaining fleet return, the ships jump to hyper space. There, Leia demotes Poe for his refusal to follow orders.  He points out the gamble was a success, but Leia notes that the cost was to high.  They lost all their bombers. They lost countless pilots. At the same time, Finn wakes up from his injuries received in the Force Awakens. He meets up with Poe and asks where Rey is…

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Rey gives Luke the lightsaber…he looks at it and…tosses it aside?! Luke is not happy to see Rey at all.  In fact, he walks off bitterly. Rey is perplexed.  She tells him the Resistance…his sister…needs him.  And Luke responds with derision. He mocks the notion of the legend returning with his laser sword and sending the First Order packing.

Rey follows Luke around a bit, but his day to day is kind..bizarre yet mundane.  Luke went to find a place to hide and die. Rey suddenly feels a pull and finds an old tree…inside is a collection of books.  Luke asks Rey why she is there.

Rey notes there has always been something inside, and now it seems to be growing. Rey wants to understand it.  But Luke is convinced the Jedi should end.

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Meanwhile, not long after having dropped out of hyperspace, the First Order shows up right behind them.  The Resistance realizes they were able to track them through hyperspace.  They put it together that the ships only have enough fuel for one last jump through hyperspace.  The First Order launches their ship.

As Tie Fighters attack, the pilots race for their X-Wings.  But along comes Kylo Ren.  He and Leia seem to sense each other, he flies into the Resistance ship’s hanger.

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All the X-Wings are destroyed.  Ren and two other tie fighters approach the bridge of the ship, Kylo hesitates, but the other ships fire, blowing the ship bridge wide open.  Leia appears dead, but then her eyes open and she flies to the bridge where medical officers retrieve her.

The Resistance opts to get out of the range of the main First Order ships, forcing the Tie Fighters to fall back and also allowing the shields to hold up under the First Order Barrage.  It is announced that Leia’s command is passing onto Commander Holdo.  Instantly there is friction between her and Poe.  Poe clearly thought he should be leading, and he demands to know the plan.  The only answer he gets is… “Be a good soldier.”

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Finn tries to escape, hoping to find Rey, but runs into Rose. Rose is introduced in tears, looking at a familiar medallion. We find out her sister was the bomber gunner from the beginning of the movie. She recognizes Finn and starts gushing about what a hero he is.  He is embarrassed, but then Rose realizes he was trying to take an escape pod.  She stuns Finn and as she is hauling him to the brig, he mentions that the First Order can track them through hyperspace. They start to contemplate this and formulate a possible plan.

All the while, Rey has found herself psychically connected to Kylo Ren. They are conversing at times, Ren making his pitch on how terrible Luke is. Luke merely tells Rey that Kylo attacked him.  But Kylo states Luke tried to kill him, claiming it was self defense to attack Luke. After confronting him, Rey finds Luke did indeed have a moment of fear, when he considered killing Kylo Ren, but he realized it was wrong.  Unfortunately, Ren awoke to just see Luke standing over him and freaked out.

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Luke starts to train Rey in a rather…unique fashion. He at first mocks her…he has her close her eyes and says to reach out.  She literally reaches her hand out.  He starts to tap her hand with a weed. Rey starts to get excited until she opens her eyes to realize what Luke was doing…but her second attempt starts to yield results.  Luke explains that the Force is not a magic rock moving power.  It is more like the tension between things.

Poe finds out from Holdo that they plan to have everyone take the emergency transports to reach a nearby planet. Poe thinks the idea is terrible. He works on a plan with Finn and Rose.  They reach out to Maz to try and figure out a way onto Snoke’s ship. She tells them to go to find the Master Codebreaker.  He will be at a Las Vegas type of place.  Rose and Finn go to find him.  In the meantime, Dameron leads a mutiny against Holdo, believing her plan will get everyone killed.

Finn and Rose arrive at their location, and in a humorous reference to the New Hope, Rose tells Finn what a terrible place they are visiting (not unlike Mos Eisley) and then it is a beautiful location.  One the surface. They see the Master Codebreaker, only to be promptly arrested for a parking violation.

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They end up in a cell with a guy who claims he can get them in.  At first they reject him, but he ends up helping them escape.  They may work their way back toward’s Snoke’s ship.

Rey and Chewbacca leave Luke behind, as Rey believes that since Luke won’t return, Kylo is their only hope. Rey arrives on Snoke’s ship and is brought before Snoke.  He reveals that she and Kylo were connected by him.  He had thought that Luke Skywalker was the Force Equal for light to Kylo’s darkness. But he now realizes it was Rey.

Holdo and Leia end the insurgency, stunning Poe.  They start to send out their transports.  But Holdo stays behind.

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In an unexpected moment, Kylo uses the force to slice Snoke in two. This results in a battle between Snoke’s guards, Rey and Kylo.  Rey believes the tide has turned. But Kylo reveals that he wants Rey to help him reshape the galaxy.

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Poe Dameron wakes up to find that he is on a transport ship to reach the planet.  And the danger increases when Rose, Finn and the Codebreaker are caught.  The Codebreaker betrays them and tells the First Order about the  escape plan. The First Order starts firing on the transports.  But Holdo takes the main ship and then jumps to light speed, splitting Snoke’s ship in half.

Finn, Rose and BB8 escape the ship, as does Rey.  They arrive at Chait (a planet that initially looks like Hoth).  Kylo claims that Rey killed Snoke and basically takes up the mantle of Supreme Leader.  They arrive on the planet surface, planning to destroy the Resistance.  Finn and Poe take junk ships to try and destroy a giant battering ram laser thing.

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The planet surface, instead of snow, is covered in salt, and just below that is red. It creates this really cool visual. They end up failing to stop it…but when all hope seems lost…in walks Luke Skywalker.  He takes a moment with Leia to apologize.  He then marches out and stands before the First Order Walkers.  They fire on him (at the order of Kylo Ren). When the smoke clears, Luke is still standing.

Kylo steps down and confronts Luke in person.  They start to fight, but Kylo seems unable to lay a blow on Luke.  Meanwhile, Poe realizes Luke is giving them time, and they look for a way out.  They follow some animals to find an exit…blocked by boulders.

It is revealed that Luke is projecting himself across the Galaxy.  Then Luke fades away.  Rey moves the boulders so the last of the Resistance can escape.  They all climb aboard the Millennium Falcon and fly off.

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As noted, the film has been…controversial.  While critics has mostly loved it, the audience reaction seems largely split with a leaning towards negative.  Some of these reasons are, well…okay… flawed.

One of the first negative articles I saw included the phrase “There is no gravity in space”.  STOP SAYING THIS PEOPLE.  There is gravity in space.  But it functions a bit differently. But more importantly? Star Wars is not a hard science series.  X-Wings would not fly like they do in any of the films. The Star Wars films disobey science all the time.  The Empire Strikes back has space ships dropping bombs in space. Yes, yes, light speed would work differently than it does in the film.  Stop arguing science against Star Wars films you do not like.  Because the films everyone agrees are good are every bit as guilty.

Hologram Luke.  Really, it is more like Astral Projection.  We have not seen this in prior films.  However, both Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi introduced new Force powers.  And certainly, the Star Wars world was in it’s infancy then. But at the same time, maybe the Astral Projection was a lost or forgotten thing.  It is presented as immensely taxing.  Snoke merely tied Rey and Kylo Ren together psychically, and he noted that would have torn either of them apart. So, it stands to reason it would not be something Jedi used a lot, if at all.  Plus, it is certainly an extension of the concept of the Force Ghost. I actually liked this.  I like how there are a few queues (that I missed on my first viewing) that something is off.  Luke’s beard and hair lack any gray, and he does not effect the ground around him.  Seriously, if you can accept Force Ghosts, but not Astral Projection?  You probably need to be a fan of something else.

Related to that was “Space Leia”.  After being pulled into space by an explosion, Leia opens her eyes and flies back to the ship. While I think the way it was shot is a little goofy, the concept itself is fine.  Leia is Force sensitive, and in a life or death situation, using the Force to save her life is plenty believable.  If the force can pull a lightsaber across a room to a Jedi, certainly a person can use the Force to pull themselves towards an object.

A couple things that I found a little disappointing.  The class issues of the Las Vegas resort is lacking room to breathe and explore it.  It all feels rushed. They need to find the Codebreaker and take off.

Then there is the fight with Captain Phasma.  Phasma has a cool look with the Metallic Storm Trooper armor.  She was set up as something big, even though she was disposed of quickly in The Force Awakens.  Here, they have a decent fight and then she falls into a pit of fire.

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Star Wars: The Last Jedi L to R: Finn (John Boyega) battling Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) Photo: Lucasfilm Ltd. © 2017 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

The fight is to quick, so Phasma becomes kind of like Darth Maul…gone to quickly.  However, I loved the exchange with Finn in which she tells him he will always be scum.  Finn looks at her and says, “Rebel scum.” It is a great moment for Finn. I would also note that I have seen people constantly refer to Finn as a janitor, suggesting he should not be a good fighter based on this.  But the problem with that logic is…he was raised and trained as a Storm Trooper.  He has combat training, regardless of his assignment as a janitor.

I also found it frustrating that as Finn was about to sacrifice himself to destroy the laser battering ram, Rose blows through and stops him.  Now, mind you, I like Finn, and did not want to see him die.  But I also felt it would be a dramatic and heroic moment. I found myself admiring Finn as he was flying into the mouth of the cannon.

Now, some have made a big deal that the Last Jedi is an attack on Mansplaining.  I am not convinced that it is this extreme.  I think it is a bit simpler than that.

One of the things I really enjoyed was how the film thwarted my expectations.  As a movie going culture, we have been heavily trained to be sympathetic to guys like Poe Dameron. Poe is kind of the John McLane character here.  In any other film, Poe would be the guy who knows more than his leadership.  When they announce that Leia is in a coma and they have chosen her successor, Poe clearly thinks it will be him.  But instead it is Holdo.  Oscar Isaac has a pretty hilarious reaction, as you see him practically ready to stand up and thank everyone…only to be deflated. In the case of Dameron, I think he would have reacted to command the same from a man as he does women.  Poe does not think he is smarter than them because he is a man.  He thinks he knows more than everyone else.

And in almost any other film, he would be proven right. Poe, Rose and Finn would have succeeded and been hailed as heroes.  But the Last Jedi takes a huge risk.  Many are using the rule of the “Idiot Plot” to condemn this particular story point. The Idiot Plot is a story point dependent on people not knowing vital information. Specifically, everything would be solved if somebody just told another character simple information.

This is a common plot device in sit coms and romantic comedies. And yes, as tropes go, it can often be very frustrating in those types of movies.  And sometimes films and shows will have elaborate reasons why two characters cannot show such information. But it is not always applicable just because you can look and say “Gee, if so-and-so only knew this…” Context matters.  Here, Poe is a soldier.  A demoted soldier no less.  And he was demoted for his reckless decision making which results countless deaths. People keep saying that Holdo could have averted the problem by simply telling Poe everything.  But it is Poe that decided he is smarter than everyone else.  It is Poe that decides to not tell Holdo of the plan he sets up, mocking her for keeping him in the dark.

Holdo and Leia are not incompetent leaders.  Instead, it is Dameron’s single minded arrogance that causes the problem.  His unwillingness to trust his boss. We have an endless supply of films about rebellious cops and soldiers who buck the system.  And here we see that play out…and it backfires spectacularly. This may seem like the idiot plot on the surface, but looking below that surface makes plenty of sense as to why they told Dameron to just trust them.

It was quite interesting to see a story played out so differently than the conventional tropes.

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Kylo’s story is interesting to me.  Early in the film, Snoke berates him for getting beat by Rey and mocks his wearing of his mask.  Ren leaves and angrily smashes the mask.  Much of his journey in this film seems to be from that of wanting to be Darth Vader to accepting a different path. His interactions with Rey certainly give us a look at his continuing conflict, and it is understandable why Rey thinks he could be won over.

In spite of Snoke’s death at Ren’s hands, I feel the story is not over and need to withhold judgement for this unexpected move seeming premature.

The reveal that Luke is living alone, bitter and unwilling to help rubbed a lot of people, including Mark Hamill, the wrong way.  But I think it was an interesting choice that made a lot of sense.  Luke ran from both his failures and his legend.  I suppose the Force Awakens could have opened with Luke having successfully rebooted the Jedi Order.  But this is far more interesting.  We find Luke resentful of not being left alone.  He believes that the Jedi is a concept unworthy of continuing.  And in some ways, this feels true.

The prequels established that the Jedi were a flawed bureaucracy, not cool Intergalactic Knights. The original trilogy showed Ben Kenobi to be a guy more than willing to stretch the truth.

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And to this, we find Luke to be a pretty terrible teacher.  And why wouldn’t he be? Even when he agrees to train Rey, it is with the attitude that all the rules of the Jedi are garbage.  The Force is not for special people.  The Force is not about your family line.  The Force is available to all, if they are open to it.

And there is the Rub.  Luke has closed himself off to the Force.  In doing so, he has cut himself off from life.  He cannot sense the activities of his loved ones. He did not feel it when Han Solo was killed by Kylo Ren. And Luke is fearful of the power he sees in Rey.

It is only when he realizes his failures should not define him that he sheds his fears.  In opening himself back up to the Force, he is able to tap into power that even he had not experienced in the past. And upon completing his mission to help Rey and Leia? He finds Peace within the Force.  He tells Kylo Ren, “Be seeing you.”  It sounds like there is more to come with Luke.  By the end of the film, Luke is reconnected with the Force and in unity with it.

The film’s biggest reveal is that of Rey’s parents.  The Abram’s film showed us that Rey’s parents had left her with Unkar Plutt. Fan speculation was all over the map.  Is she a Kenobi? A Skywalker? The Last Jedi loudly declares they were nobody. They were junkies who sold her to get money for a fix.  They are buried in paupers graves on Jaaku.  The Force Awakens hinted that Rey’s parents were not that important, despite claims otherwise.  Maz tells Rey they both know her parents are never coming back.

This works for me.  It of course, also works for the themes of the Film.  Snoke believed that it was the Skywalker line that would stand in his way. It is why he converted Ben Solo. The fact that Rey is some random Force Sensitive person? That she is not some part of a prophesied blood line? I find this a very satisfying answer.

Are there things that I think could have been done better? As noted, yes.  But are these failings greater than the things the film does well?  Not by a longshot.  Johnson has given us an unpredictable, interesting film that still reflects it’s predecessors. The Last Jedi is a strong Star Wars film that has me interested in seeing the next chapter of this story.

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Nothing But Star Wars Episode Seven (Star Wars: The Force Awakens, 2015)

The_Force_Awakens_PosterAfter the prequels, Star Wars appeared to be…well, complete.  Lucas was no longer talking about a third trilogy.  All had gone quiet on that front.  Instead, Star Wars thrived in animated fare like the Cone Wars cartoon and in comic books through Dark Horse. Dark Horse had even started a Canon series that took place between a New Hope and Empire Strikes Back.

But then, in 2012, came a very unexpected announcement.  Disney had purchased Lucasfilm and all it’s properties.  And with this announcement came the news that they were working on a new trilogy.  And on top of that, Disney would also be making Star Wars films set outside the main storyline.

This came with some controversy, as Disney declared that the extended universe of Novels and comics were, in no way, canon. Only the Six movies counted.  This was partially to allow new novels and comic books to start building the universe anew. Dark Horse lost the rights and Marvel took up telling all new stories within the Star Wars universe.

J.J. Abrams was brought in fresh from rebooting Star Trek (ironically enough, he was often criticized for bring a Star Wars attitude to the franchise) to create the new story that would continue the adventures. Of course, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill were all brought in to reprise their roles (some more limited than others).  So let us go forward, back to that galaxy far, far away…and be ready for spoilers!

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Opening up about thirty years after Return of the Jedi, we are greeted by a star destroyer.  It appears that while the Republic was restored, the remnants of the Empire formed as the First Order. The First Order is getting bolder and are trying to wipe out the Resistance, led by General Leia Organa.  She has sent a top Resistance Pilot named Poe Dameron to the planet Jakku in an effort to get information that could lead them to Luke Skywalker.

First Order ships arrive on the scene, and Poe tries to escape, but his ship is damaged.  He puts the top secret info into his astro droid BB-8. The droid goes on the run and Poe is captured by the mysterious Kylo Ren.  It is quickly revealed that this is the son of Leia and Han Solo.

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In the middle of this, one of the Stormtroopers seems out of step with the others. When they return from Jakku, he removes his helmet to reveal a young man who is not a clone (later in the film, it is explained the First Order takes young children from their families and trains them to be unquestioning soldiers rather than clones). The Storm Trooper helps Poe escape.  In the middle of their escape, Dameron asks what his name is, and the Trooper responds with FN2187.  Poe determines that he will just call him Finn, and the newly christened Finn declares he likes it.  They crash back on Jakku.  Finn cannot find anything but Poe’s leather jacket.  He wanders the desert planet, tossing aside his Storm Trooper armor.

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Meanwhile, BB-8 has been found by the young scavenger Rey.  She helped BB get away from a junk collector and offers to help the droid get to the city. They arrive and Rey finds herself being followed.  BB-8 sees Finn in Poe’s jacket and Rey attacks.  Finn claims to be a member of the resistance, and that he can help.  Finn hears a familiar sound and they realize they are under attack from the First Order.

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They rush to find a spaceship.  Finn points to a ship offscreen and Rey mocks it as being garbage, but the ship she wants blows up…resulting in her yelling out “The garbage it is”…but it turns out to be a very famous hunk of junk. It is the Millennium Falcon.  Rey pilots while Finn mans the guns.  This leads to a very exciting chase through the air forcing the two to rely on their best wits.  At one point, Rey flies the ship through the carcass of a crashed Star Destroyer.

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Once they reach space, they start to try and figure out how to get BB-8 and Finn back to the Resistance.  Finn, of course, has no knowledge of the Resistance, but manages to convince BB-8 to play along. They are overtaken by a larger ship, and it turns out to be Han Solo and Chewbacca.

Things take a turn for the worse as two factions Han has double crossed show up.  After a narrow escape, the newly formed crew head to meet up with someone Han knows can help. Their mission is now to get BB-8 to the Resistance, especially after they find that BB-8 holds coordinates to finding Luke Skywalker.  They reach a lush planet and Han brings them to the temple of Maz.

Maz is a small alien who is even older than Yoda.  She apparently has a crush on Chewbacca (she refers to him as her boyfriend, and it is unclear if this is playful or serious).

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Finn confesses that he was a Stormtrooper and he is terrified.  He only wants to run as far from the First Order as possible. Maz points him out to a couple of guys he could run with.  Rey gets distracted, believing she hears a child calling for help.  She goes to the basement of Maz’s temple where she finds a trunk with a familar item.  Luke’s lightsaber, last seen in the Empire Strikes Back. As soon as she touches it, she faces a barrage of visions and sounds, voices and images of the past and future.

Rey runs from the Temple in terror.  Unbeknownst to Maz, Han or the others, spies for both the Resistance and the First Order have sent out alerts, as the First Order and Resistance are both on the hunt for BB-8.

The first order has a new weapon they call Starkiller Base (this is a reference to the original scripts for Star Wars, when Luke was named Luke Starkiller). It is basically a variation on the Deathstar, except they used an actual planet to create it.

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Having seen Rey run off, Finn starts to run for her, but everyone is stopped by a sight in the sky.  The Starkiller Base has fired on the Republic’s central planets.  The First Order knows that the Republic has been helping the Resistance, and without them, the Resistance loses key support.  Everyone on the ground near Maz’s temple can see the lasers burning through space towards their targets.

Then, the First Order shows up, firing on the temple and it’s fleeing occupants.  Rey and BB-8 are running through the forest while Stormtroopers are in pursuit.  Han, Chewbacca and Finn fight Stormtroopers trying to get to Rey, but end up overwhelmed.  Meanwhile, Kylo Ren has found Rey.

Ren discovers that Rey has seen the map and dismisses the need for BB-8, instead taking Rey with him.  In the meantime, the Resistance shows up with X-Wings to chase off the First Order troops, saving Han, Finn and Chewbacca.

They are greeted by General Leia Organa, who embraces Han.  Now, instead of running from the First Order, Finn argues for a direct assault on Starkiller base so they can save Rey. It is also revealed that Poe survived the crash landing, just as Finn had.

Rey is being interrogated by Kylo Ren, though, he seems to have deeper motives.  He sees that Rey seems to have a natural gift for the Force, much like his grandfather.

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After Ren leaves, Rey feels emboldened and tries a “force” trick by getting a guard to unlock her restraints. The seen is quite entertaining, and more played for the humor than the drama. But the scene works pretty well, showing Rey both a quick learner and more than willing to accept things on faith.

Back at the Resistance base, they prepare for their attack.  They plan for Han, Finn and Chewbacca to take out the shields that will allow the Resistance fighters, led by Poe to take out the base before it can fire.  The Starkiller Base’s primary weapon actually requires the energy of a star, so they have until the star being used for power is snuffed out.

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Arriving in the Millennium Falcon, the heroes go in to find both Rey and set up the destruction of the base.  As they search for Rey, Han realizes she has already escaped.  They meet up with Rey and start planting explosives. Han sees Kylo and calls out to him.  Han and Kylo meet on a bridge.  Han reaches out, and Kylo speaks hesitantly, wanting his fathers help.  Solo promises to help him, in this moment, Han’s facade of cocky hero drops to reveal a father who lost his son, and sees an opportunity to heal the relationship.

Instead, Kylo impales him with his lightsaber.  Han, in a touching moment, touches the face of his son before falling from the bridge. Angrily, Chewbacca fires and hits Kylo Ren.  The horrified trio of Rey, Finn and Chewbacca race out of the structure, setting off the bombs. This allows the X-Wings to start strafing the surface.  Chewbacca heads for the Falcon, while Finn and Rey run into another obstacle…

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Finn turns on the lightsaber and engages Ren, but it is a short fight.  He starts to use the Force to grab the lightsaber the unconscious Finn dropped, but instead, it find’s Rey’s hands.  This is a really nice dramatic and exciting moment, scored just tight by John Williams.

Rey and Kylo have a furious lightsaber duel, only to have the planet starting to break up around them.  Ren tells Rey he could train her, she may be a strong raw user of the Force, but he can teach her better control.  They are split apart by the turmoil around them.  Chewbacca appears with the Falcon and they get Finn, leaving before the Starkiller Base is fully destroyed.

Returning to the base, Rey meets Leia (an they embrace, which Abrams admits was probably a mistake, there is no reason for the attachment, as Leia and Rey have never met). Using the information from BB-8, they have the missing puzzle piece.  Earlier in the film, it is revealed R2-D2 has been in powersave mode, he wakes up and provides the rest of the map.  Rey and Chewbacca fly off to the remote planet that Luke is staying on.  Rey walks up and stands before Luke reaching out with his old lightsaber and the film ends…

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Probably the two biggest knocks against the film were the fact that it mirrors A New Hope far to much and Rey is a Mary Sue.

The film does follow the beats of a New Hope quite closely.  A young desert planet nobody is drawn into a larger battle of intergalactic forces and learns to use the force…while helping to destroy a planet sized planet destroyer. But I do not find this overall a problem.  The repetition is certainly a valid storytelling device.  I confess, I wish the big plot device did not hinge on a planet killer all over again, but I do like the visual design of Starkiller Base.

But the whole “Rey is a Mary Sue” thing.  This is often leveled as a criticism along with folks upset by the film having “diversity”.  Finn is played by a black man, Rey is, of course, a girl and Poe is played by a man of Cuban and Guatemalan heritage.

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Before then, the casts were largely white.  Lando and Mace Windu were exceptions.  And I think Mace was mainly “Wouldn’t it be bad ass if Samuel L. Jackson was a Jedi???” There is a silly contingent of people out there that are certain having non-white male actors in roles is a problem. It somehow ruins the stories to have a variety of actors. They claim, of course, not that their problem is the diversity, but forced diversity.  But John Boyega’s presence did not force some magical change on the story. Opening up considerations for actors in the Star Wars universe is hardly a problem.  Especially when you consider how baked in the cake it is with Star Trek. And it sure seems to work okay there.

But back to Rey.  So, Mary Sue is a term that is a part of fan fiction.  If you are not aware, Fan Fiction communities are folks who love to write stories continuing the adventures of shows, movies, comics, etc that they love. Sometimes they work within the cannon of the franchise, but often, this is their way of saying “what should have happened.” Some writers are specifically focused on relationships they want to see that the official works clearly won’t be doing (*cough, cough* Finn and Poe *cough, cough*).  But the most derided thing in fan fiction is the dreaded “Mary Sue”.  A Mary sue is a character that is created by the author that is simply better and smarter than everyone else.  There is nothing they cannot do. They always save the day and fix everything. It is generally believed that a Mary Sue is a way for the author to insert themselves into the story.

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In the film we see Rey fly the Millennium Falcon, fix the Millennium Falcon, use the Force and have a lightsaber duel with a trained Sith Lord.  Does this make her an all powerful Mary Sue?

No.

There, that was not so hard.

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Not satisfied?  Okay…then we are going to break this all down.

  1. Rey just happens to be a pilot who can just happen to fly and fix the Millennium Falcon.  She even seems to understand it better than Han Solo. But let us look at Rey’s history.  As a child, she is left with junk dealer Unkar Plutt. Her whole life has been as a scavenger.  She plunders the ruins of the crashed ships that litter the surface of Jakku. This means she has some basic technical understanding of how ships function.

    We know Rey is familiar with the Millennium Falcon, because when she is running with Finn, he calls out the Falcon and she says they are not going to take it because it is garbage.   Unkar Plutt owns the Falcon at the beginning of the film. We know this in part because as Rey fires it up, he yells out about his ship. Later Rey tells Han about modifications that Plutt made that she disagreed with.  So, she has been in the Falcon probably many times. So, between being a scavenger and working for Plutt? It stands to reason fixing ships would be a skill she might have.

    She also points out how she has flown ships before, though never in space.  And even with this, the film portrays her as a pilot who gets farther on luck than actual skill.  When she first tries flying the Falcon, she nearly crashes it. This is not Mary Sue Territory.

  2.  Rey uses the force pretty well with no training.  So?

    Okay, okay.  First off, the films have clearly established that those who are Force Sensitive may find themselves using it without even realizing it.  You do not have to have training to use it, training simply helps you better control it it. Rey does a bit more than we see Luke do in the first film, which does not mean anything.  Luke has nobody to duel Lightsabers with, that falls to Obi Wan in the first film. Luke has no more training than Rey in the beginning of Empire when he uses the Force to retrieve his lightsaber from the snow.  There is no in movie argument that he could not have done that in a New Hope. So, this notion that a person who is Force Sensitive cannot do Jedi mind tricks and the like is not based in anything other than “It was not done by Luke in a New Hope”, which is, frankly, not much of a point at all. Still not Mary Sue territory.

  3. Rey fights a trained Sith in a lightsaber duel.  This often is argued that she wins.  But that is absolutely false. Nobody won the fight.  It was a draw. And you might think this still favors the Mary Sue Argument.  But, no, it does not.  Early on in the film, we see Rey protects herself with a staff.  As a scavenger, a weapon is probably a necessity.  And she uses a staff.  It is pretty clear she uses the lightsaber in a similar fashion. But still, how could she fight Kylo Ren to a standstill? Well, right before this confrontation, Ren has killed his father and Chewbacca shot him with his bow.  They spend the entire film establishing just how powerful that bow is. In the fight, Ren is clearly in pain, and he constantly pauses to punch himself in the side, apparently trying to blunt his pain.  He also has been wounded by Finn in their brief lightsaber duel. Rey is fighting a wounded man who still manages to nearly best her, only the destruction of the Starkiller Base ends their fight.

So, in closing, the Mary Sue accusation does not hold up under scrutiny.  In addition, unless you are condemning the original trilogy, the arguments for Rey as Mary Sue apply every bit to Luke Skywalker. If you think Luke is not a Mary Sue (or, Gary Sue, because people seem uncomfortable applying a feminine descriptor to a male character) than Rey cannot be either.

A few things that were bothersome…

Captain Phasma played by Game of Throne’s Gwendolyn Christie.  While I liked the character’s visual look (and loved that they were comfortable always keeping the Helmet on, leaving for mystery), I felt like the character never got to show off, so to speak.  They hired Christie, who is a commanding physical presence and she never really gets her moment.

Supreme Leader Snoke is only seen in in the form of a giant hologram.  Who he is gets played up as a big mystery, but I do not find him particularly threatening here.

I was not sure how I felt about Luke being this legend and enigma in this film, the Last Jedi has given me perspective I will address in that piece.

But, for me, the positives vastly outweigh the negatives.  I enjoyed returning to the universe and the characters. Seeing Han Solo and Chewie and General Leia were all welcome.

Driver gives a fascinating performance.  His Kylo Ren worships his grandfather Darth Vader.  He seeks to be like him, but he is a young fanboy desperate for approval from Snoke, but struggling with a part of him that still desires the love of his parents.  The first six films all focused on the allure and deceit of the Dark Side. The Dark Side is an almost romantic threat that can overpower good.  The Force Awakens is the first time we see the idea that the Light Side of the force has it’s own pull.  And I like this.

I really like Rey and Finn.  Both are in struggles that sometimes cause them to be overtaken by fear. Finn has only known the First Order, and the concept of friends like Rey and Poe quickly start to give him a new kind of hope. Rey has never had the courage of Jakku believing that some day her parents will return.  When Maz points out that Rey knows this is not true, but she has the potential of a new family, Rey is terrified to face this and runs. Poe Dameron is one of those fun swashbucklers, who makes things work by kind of flying by the seat of his pants and hoping it all pays off.

When I saw the Force Awakens in 2015, I enjoyed it a lot.  I have revisited the film a few times in the past few years, and my feelings have not changed.

The Tension Between Things (Star Wars: The Last Jedi, 2017)

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The Last Jedi picks up shortly after the Force Awakens. It begins with a bold battle that has powerful repercussions on the characters.

Rey is trying to get Luke to come back with her to help the rebellion.  But Rey finds herself unsure of her true goals.

This new Star Wars film is building off the questions and set up of the Force Awakens, and yet, it addresses them in very unexpected ways.

Characters you know are the heroes find themselves the ones needing to learn the lesson. Others are trying to come to terms with their celebrity status. Others are trying to come to terms with heroes not living up to their expectations, and in some cases, even face betrayal.

I found Mark Hamill’s performance as Luke to be Hamill’s strongest performance in the entire series.  He is funny, frustrating, heartbreaking and heroic. And the film does this very well.

The film will likely frustrate people who have heavy theories about just how the new trilogy ought to play out, but I found Rian Johnson’s (Brick, Looper) choices to not satisfy those pet theories kind of…well, satisfying.

I appreciated the visual style, there is some genuinely gorgeous action in the film.

I really enjoyed the film, and feel it is one of the stronger films within the Star Wars story.

Temporary Apocalypse (X-Men: Apocalypse, 2016)

X-Men-Apocalypse-IMAX-posterThere is a scene in X-Men Apocalypse where, as a group of students are leaving Return of the Jedi, Jean Grey states “But we can all agree the third movie is always the worst.”  It is a pretty clear shot at X-Men: The Last Stand.  That was the movie Apocalypse Director Bryan Singer skipped and is pretty widely seen as a disappointment after X2.  Except, whether they realized it or not, the joke is kind of a jinx.

See, X-Men: First Class and X-Men:Days of Future Past?  They were quite good.  They are entertaining and filled with terrific performances and nice use of characters from the vast history of the X-Men Comics.  After the Last stand and the damage done by X-Men Origins: Wolverine the series went back to the beginning.  Introducing us to Young Charles Xavier and Magneto.  McAvoy and Fassbender brought characters we knew as aging leaders to young men trying to make the world a better play, but always coming to odds with how to do that.  Then, in Days of Futures Past, they brought the past and future together, to try and fix the timeline, fixing the flaws of Last Stand and Wolverine.

And this brings us to X-Men Apocalypse.  I was looking forward to it, as it was most of the team that brought us the last two installments.  Yet again, the central focus is the relationship between Xavier (McAvoy), Magneto (Fassbender) and Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence).  Beast (Nicholas Hoult) retuns, as does Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne).  We are also introduced to a younger Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), young Cyclops (Tye Sheridan), young Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Jubilee (Lana Condor).  Of course, smartly, the film brings back Evan Peters as Quicksilver…and he steals the show a lot…again.

First, the good.  Again, as I said, Quicksilver is just fantastic.  Yeah, he is not really like his counterpart from the comics.  In the comics, he is arrogant, impatient and snippy. This is explained in the comics by Quicksilver essentially seeing life as being a continuous wait at the DMV, at least when he has to move at the rest of the worlds pace.  Evans approach is more of a lighthearted goofball who enjoys and savors his speed.  And it really works.

The performers are good choices.  I like that they kept the faith element for Nightcrawler.  I know his creator never cared for that addition…but I always liked the combo of swashbuckler swordsman Christian who happens to look like a demon.  Setting young Storm in Cairo was a nice touch, acknowledging her history from the comics.  There are a lot of great visuals. And yet…

The story is just a mess.  There is so much going on, so many introductions, characters get lost.  Jubliee, who was a pretty big character in the comics for over a decade is barely a side character.  We never even see her mutant powers in action.   Angel is just a random passerby in the film, for all intents and purposes.  Both he and Psylock (Olivia Munn) get precious little to do and zero character development.  The film routinely feels like it is advertising “There will be a deleted scene on the blu-ray fans!” as it transitions from moment to moment.  Maybe those deleted scenes will make Apocalypse feel threatening.  When some of us expressed concern about the pictures of Apocalypse on Entertainment Weekly’s cover last year, we were told to not assume this was the final look, they will Fix It In Post, so to speak.They did not.  Or at least not enough.  In spite of hiring a terrific actor (Oscar Isaac), Apocalypse just never feels as frightening as the film keeps telling us he is.

And it is clear the film is going for epic.  But it just never feels that way…because the film takes forever to get through it’s big dramatic moments.  There is a sequence that is supposed to be the big Jean Grey moment.  She walks dramatically into battle towards Apocalypse.  There is a standoff going on the mental plane involving the psychic characters…and the film spends a ridiculous amount of time on dramatic shots of Jean Grey walking.  And walking.  And walking.  Instead of being thrilled by a big moment, I was just wanting them to get to the moment.

And there is a dramatic image from the trailers…that turns out to be the filmmakers taking a cue from Superman IV: the Quest for Peace.  The film just shambles along from scene to scene, never feeling coherent or particularly great.  And after the last two films?  A pretty big disappointment.  I mean, it is okay, but it was a real drop after the last two films.  And Deadpool.  It is okay for an X-Men movie means it might be slightly better than the Last Stand.

Love and Deception (Ex Machina, 2015)

Ex_Machina_movie_posterAlex Garland’s Ex Machina is is a dark tale of amoral scientists and their creation.  Nathan (Oscar Isaac, playing a very different role than Poe Dameron) is a brilliant scientist who has created a mechanical person he has named Ava (Alicia Vikander).  He has brought Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) in to test the quality and authenticity of Ava’s A.I.

Through a series of interviews, Caleb starts to become confused about his feelings.  Is he falling in love with Ava?  Is This the real intention of Nathan?  Or does he have another goal for Ava?

The film is very dialog heavy, mostly we sit through conversations between Caleb and Ava or Caleb and Nathan.  As the film unfolds and more is revealed, thing become darker and darker.  Intended or not, there is something being said about scientific culture and it’s view of women, but I cannot speak more on any theory without revealing some big twists in the plot.

The art direction and design in the film is beautiful.  Ava is clearly mechanical, and yet looks lovely, making her ability to draw a person in believable, even though only portions of her are covered with a synthetic skin.

The three primary actors give solid performances.  Isaac’s egotistical Nathan moves from merely appearing to full of himself to darkly detached from humanity.  Vikander has a cold humanity.  You know what emotions she is expressing, but they seem slightly off.  Domnhall gives a strong performance as a bright guy who finds himself feeling more and more like a devastated pawn.

This is a good film that builds very quietly to a dark and tragic finale.

 

Rebirth (Star Wars: The Force Awakens,2015)

Star-Wars-VII-PosterAnd so, here it it is.  The fans started skeptical when new films were announced, yet as we grew closer, folks started to get more and more excited.  And as long as they were better than the prequels, these new films would be loved.  But now I have seen J.J. Abram’s film.

For me?  This was an exhilarating rush.  I felt a genuine joy watching the film.  The characters we know are back, and much as we remember, though a bit more worn and heartbroken.

The new characters look poised to take over the main franchise, and they are quite likable.  I especially enjoyed the interactions between Rey, Finn, Han and Chewbacca.

Rather than a clone of Darth Vader, Rylo Ken is more emotionally twisted by the pull of the dark side.  There is a hint that the light side of the Force has it’s temptations to be fought.

The jokes land on target, the film has plenty of laughs.  There are plenty of call backs and nice little homages to the original trilogy.  The film also sets up mysteries to be answered in the future.

I truly enjoyed the film, and this has me excited for the next installment.

The Argh of Apocalypse

The X-Men films started off strongly (X-Men was decent, X2 was very strong) faltered in the middle (X3 and X-Men Origins Wolverine were big stumbles),  X-Men:First Class started the films back to a solid footing that X-Men: Days of Future Past continued with.  The Setting in the past helped give the films a sense of purpose.  And as they go into the 80’s with the X-Men: Apocalypse, introducing Apocalypse makes a lot of sense.

In the Marvel comics world, Apocalypse was the first mutant.  He is ancient.  And he looks like this:

x-men-apocalypse-coming-in-2016Entertainment Weekly recently revealed the look of Apocalypse for the film:

ew-x-men-leg-05ApocalypseHeaderAnd it just feels…off.  People slammed it quite harshly.  My own reaction was that it looks like a lame Doctor Who villain or a rejected idea from the Wishmaster franchise.  I mean, maybe there is going to be a barrage of digital yet.  But some folks quickly jumped up to point out that folks complained about Quicksilver and look how that turned out.

And, this is fairly true.  People howled loudly about how awful Quicksilver’s outfit looked.  And yet, Quicksilver was one of the most engaging characters in the film.  His sequence in Days of Future Past was a real standout.

And so, folks are understandably saying, the character could still be awesome.  And true, the performance may turn out to be awesome.  I am not expressing a dissatisfaction with the performer.  But I am rather unexcited about the characters look…and no performance is going to suddenly make it look cool.  I may like the performance and character, but unless there is a lot of post production touch up, I cannot see the character looking less comedic.

As an aside, the inclusion of Jubilee feels odd… Jubilee is really very much an element of the 90s X-Men comics. Yes, she technically first appeared in the 80s.  May of 1989.  The actress seems like a good choice and they do seem to have hit her style near perfectly.

Oh yeah, Moira McTaggert is in this one…if it’s not archival, there is a 20 year jump in time since we last saw her…are they aging Rose Byrne (the character would be pushing 50, if not older)?  And really Entertainment Weekly and Filmmakers…if Scott Summers is a “bad boy” in your film…crap, that is a big misunderstanding of the character.

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