Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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What does Star Wars mean to you? Anything? Everything? Nothing? For me, it certainly means a great deal. Growing up, The Star Wars Saga was a collection of stories that I often revisited. I love all six films (despite the many flaws found in the Prequels) And couldn’t bring myself to hate any one of them. There was a lot riding on the latest entry in the franchise, The Force Awakens. It was without a doubt the most anticipated movie of the year, and fans expectations were through the roof. Did the film live up to expectations? Or was it a huge letdown? Everyone you ask is going to have a slightly different answer, but read on if you want to hear my thoughts. Also, fair warning, This review WILL contain Spoilers.

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Star Wars has always taken familiar stories and re-imagined them into something new. When George Lucas wrote the first Star Wars, the story borrowed many aspects from films and shows he had grown up with. J.J Abrams does something similar with the Force Awakens, as the film borrows heavily from A New Hope in terms of it’s story and how it plays out. At first glance, this seemed like a flaw to me, because the film seemed overly familiar. However, upon seeing the film a few more times, I discovered something important that I had somehow missed in my first viewing. The film may be similar to A New Hope in many ways, but it definitely has it’s own voice. It feels like it’s own thing, while still respectfully paying tribute to the original three Star Wars films visually and narratively. It admittedly plays things a little too safe at times, but since this film is meant to be a re-introduction to the Star Wars universe, I can’t really fault Disney for choosing to make a familiar sure-fire crowd pleaser as their first outing, rather then try something risky and new. The Force Awakens has a lot more humour, and while opinions on this choice will vary among fans, I enjoyed the more light-hearted nature of this story. It had a bit of a Guardians of the Galaxy vibe (but not overly so) and the jokes were written and timed well. The action scenes aren’t as impressive or memorable here as they were in the previous films (though it is especially awesome to see the Millennium Falcon back in action), but the character interactions and development have been greatly improved this time around.

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Part of what makes the film so enjoyable is it’s cast of characters. It’s wonderful to see old favourite return like Han Solo, Chewbacca, Leia, C-3PO and R2-D2 (My two personal favourites) but it’s the new characters that really carry the film. Finn and Rey in particular are very interesting. Finn’s conflict is something we haven’t seen in a Star Wars movie before. He’s a Stormtrooper with a conscience, and this is shown brilliantly within the opening sequence of the film. Without the use of any dialogue, you’re able to tell exactly what Finn’s character is all about just by seeing his actions and reactions to the chaotic opening sequence of the movie. Rey’s character is also given a dialogue-free introduction, and it’s handled extremely well.  Like Finn, we get to know her character very quickly thanks to clear and clever introductory sequence that harkens back to Luke Skywalker’s character arc in A New Hope. The film’s lead villain, Kylo Ren, is one of the most interesting Star Wars villains we’ve had in a long time. He’s not a mute bad-ass like Darth Maul, or a calm and wise villain like Darth Vader, but rather a complex and immature individual that’s being torn apart as he struggles to find his place in the dark side. He’s the kind of villain that you feel sorry for, but can also be very intimidating and unpredictable when he wants to be. As I mentioned earlier, seeing the return of the classic characters is as thrilling as you might expect, with Harrison Ford’s performance as Han Solo being the highlight. Luke Skywalker’s role in the film was unexpected, but powerful, and i applaud Disney and the crew for showing so much restraint with his character.

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One of the most memorable new characters of the film is the Droid, BB-8. Behaving like a beach-ball version of R2-D2, the little droid has plenty of screen time and is actually quite important to the plot.  He does admittedly become less important as the film goes on (he’s barely in the third act) but he’s still a fun new addition to the cast, and it’s great to see him interact with C-3PO  and R2-D2. Unfortunately, some of the characters that seem really interesting aren’t given much screen time. There’s Poe, a Rebel X-Wing pilot that gets a few good laughs, but is ultimately not in the film for very long.  the biggest offender of a lack of development and screen time though is Captain Phasma, the chrome captain of the Stormtroopers. The marketing leading up to this film heavily featured Phasma, but her character does practically nothing in the movie itself, and it’s really a shame, because her character design looks so good, and her character has real potential to be interesting. Here’s hoping we see more of her in Episode 8.

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Speaking of Stormtroopers, they’re given a sleek and imposing new design, Despite the fact that quite a few scenes featuring them are played for laughs. Stormtroopers are almost always the butt of jokes amongst Star Wars fans, so seeing them be portrayed in a slightly comedic light felt oddly meta. I still prefer the classic Stormtrooper designs overall, but these new designs are certainly a welcome addition to the series. I’m sure you’ve heard plenty about the old-school approach to the film’s visual effects, and while there is a good amount of CGI used, mostly in the aerial action scenes, the film’s uses practical sets, costumes and props for most of it’s characters and settings, and the film as a result looks amazing. I’ll be the first to admit that I enjoy the Prequels, but seeing the franchise return to it’s home-made style roots with the special effects was nothing short of wonderful. The film makes use of CGI sparingly but appropriately, mostly to enhance certain sequences and locations, but also for scenes that would be too difficult to achieve otherwise.  You can’t talk about A Star Wars movie without discussing the music, and The Force Awakens has a good soundtrack, but it’s not quite as grand as some of Composer John Williams previous work on the franchise. It’s an enjoyable score with some memorable cues, just Don’t expect to find a track as epic as 1999’s “Duel of the fates” here.

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Is Star Wars: The Force Awakens the best Star Wars yet? I wouldn’t go that far. Is it one of the most enjoyable and entertaining films of 2015 though? Without question! The film is not without it’s flaws; but the positives really do outweigh the negatives. i’d recommend this movie to just about anyone with an interest in the Star Wars saga, but chances are you’ve probably already seen it by now. If by some odd and unlikely chance you’ve not gone out to see The Force Awakens, I can assure you that it’s worth the price of admission to see it in the theatre, because a movie this gigantic deserves to be enjoyed on the big screen.

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Krampus

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In 1984, we got a little movie called Gremlins. It was a strange and surprising holiday film that featured some good scares and good laughs, as well as a heartwarming message about family. In 2015, we get a little movie called Krampus. It’s a strange and surprising holiday film that features some good scares and good laughs, as well as a heartwarming message about family.  Huh….I guess I can see why everyone was comparing it to Gremlins now. Anyways, Back to Krampus. Man, what a great way film to help end the year on. It’s not the last film of 2015 I’m going to review (stay tuned for a Galaxy far far away) but it’s one of my favourites. I enjoyed nearly everything about this movie, and most of this review’s going to be me just gushing over it. There are a few nitpicks here and there, and I’ll do my best to keep this review as fair as the others, but I honestly can’t stress just how fun this movie was enough.

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I made the Gremlins comparison earlier, but this film shares similarities to a ton of Christmas classics. There’s clear elements of the Charles Dickens Classic Christmas Carol featured here (one of the film adaptations of the story even plays on the family’s TV near the beginning) There’s elements of Christmas Vacation here too, especially near the beginning when the extended family arrives and the usual chaos ensues. A lot of the characters are set up at the beginning to be unlikeable, but as the film goes on, many of the family members are given moments to shine and opportunities to be helpful, which makes the cast a lot more likeable as the film carries on. (For the most part at least, since a few of the family members, such as the older sister, don’t get as much time to develop like the others do) The movie plays out like a love letter to several Christmas properties, and it works really well. It makes the scares that the film offers even more effective, because there’s enough humour in the movie to fool you into letting your guard down. Despite the film’s apparent twisted tone, it still feels like a Christmas movie, with a certain sense of warmth amongst all the crazy shenanigans going on.

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As far as presentation goes, Krampus excels. The film is shot beautifully, particularly when the characters have to go outside and fight against the big snow storm. The special effects are mostly practical, with very little use of CGI for most of the monsters. The monstrous toys in the attic are absolutely terrifying, because they’re really there. (The Jack-in-the-Box in particular is an incredible and freaky sight to behold.) The costume and design for the Krampus himself is impressive as well, it just towers over everything and gets a fairly minimal but hugely effective amount of screentime. The film’s soundtrack fits perfectly with the delightfully dark fairytale-esc tone that the film is going for. There’s no scene after the credits, but stick around anyways to hear a few songs written exclusively for the film that put scary and unique twists on popular christmas tunes. There’s even an animated sequence in the movie that really helps expand the lore and backstory of the Krampus himself, and it’s presence further conveys the film’s modern fairytale-style.

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What a fun note to (almost) end 2015 on. This is the kind of modern Horror film that’s actually a ton of fun to watch, rather than a chore to get through. It takes full advantige of it’s strange premise, and because of that it ends up being highly memorable. Is it really Gremlins for a new generation? I wouldn’t go that far yet, as only time will tell. (The film also brought to mind the likes of Tales From the Crypt, thanks to it’s dark yet playful tone.) As the film stands, it’s a satisfyingly fresh and unique Christmas film that’s destined to become a cult classic.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2

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The Hunger Games is a series of great films, if you’re a fan. From what I’ve heard, the films have put forward a fairly solid effort in terms of staying true to the books, and I’ve even talked to some people who think some of the films have improved upon their source material in various ways. As a non-fan, I’d say my opinions on the films have ranged from “decent” (Catching Fire) to “forgettable”( Mockingjay: Part 1) to “just plain bad” (The Hunger Games) Despite my lack of knowledge of the books and my minimal interest in the series as a whole, I was curious about how the final instalment, Mockingjay: Part 2, was going to wrap itself up, especially since the only thing I knew about the way the book ended was that it was incredibly controversial amongst fans and readers alike. One thing I was wary of however, was if splitting the final chapter into two films was necessary.

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I don’t remember much from Mockingjay: Part 1, but I remember the majority of that film being buildup for the big finale that would unfold in Part 2. The film had some nice moments, but overall it was a pretty disappointing followup to Catching Fire, (which was a film that I surprisingly enjoyed and is by far my favourite of the series) Mockingjay: Part 2 is definitely an improvement over Part 1, but I can’t help but feel that it would’ve been a more satisfying finale if the two films were trimmed down and combined into one long film. But of course, that wouldn’t’ve made Lionsgate studios double the money, so I guess focusing on making one good film is just a silly idea. Huh….I’m being a little harsh. And who am I to talk? After all, I personally enjoyed the Hobbit trilogy, and that was quite possibly the biggest offender of the “unnecessarily stretching one book out to multiple films” club, so I won’t harp anymore on the decision to split the last book into two movies. Having said all that, Mockingjay part 2 works well as a climax. Once the film kicks into high gear, it rarely slows down and leaves you on the edge of your seat during it’s effective action set pieces. I personally liked the battle in the sewers the most. I’m a sucker for cool monsters, and the creatures present in this fight scene were thankfully a vast improvement over those horrible CGI monster-dogs from the first film and the so-so looking baboons from the second film.

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The acting in the film is also quite good, with Jennifer Lawrence and Donald Sutherland pulling off compelling conflict between Katniss and President Snow. I would’ve liked to see the two share a bit more screen time together, but what we got is fine. The tired love triangle thankfully doesn’t play as big a role in this movie, and almost feels like an afterthought here, since the focus is rightfully on Katniss leading her resistance against the Capital. Nearly every character you’ve met over the course of the series makes an appearance in this film, so if you’re a fan, this will definitely feel like a good farewell to the film franchise. (Although The Studio is apparently developing a series of prequel films….are you the least bit surprised?) The actual ending of the film feels a tad rushed. Perhaps that’s how it was in the book too, but after four films I expected the film to take a little more time with it’s actual ending. One could argue that the entire film is one big climax, And while that is a fair argument, It’s not what exactly what I’m referring to. I’m talking about the actual resolution. It’s shockingly quick, and left me feeling a little less satisfied then I wanted to feel, but again, that may’ve been the intent of the novel’s ending.

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2 is going to thrill longtime fans but probably won’t win over naysayers.The film is certainly well made, and I can’t fault the acting or the editing, but I just never fell in love with these characters or the story the same way many other people did. (Also, where was that amazing Red Suit that Katniss was wearing in all the promotional material for this film!? That was an incredible costume, and I was let down that it wasn’t in the actual film…) Out of all the movies, Catching Fire is still my favourite, and the only one I can see myself revising from time to time. Overall ,The Hunger Games franchise wasn’t the worst thing ever, but it wasn’t for me. Fans will be happy however, and that’s the audience that will truly appreciate these films when all is said and done.