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Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker — A Review

Star Wars is about balance. Light versus Dark. Jedi versus Sith. One versus one. Should the Force fall out of balance, chaos ensues.

The Rise of Skywalker epitomizes balance — balance in story; balance in heritage; balance in its namesake.

This will not spoil. It is intended to be read after viewing the film. This is due to a balance in context versus content.


It is fun to watch J.J. Abrams play in the sandbox of Rian Johnson before him, as it was fun to watch Johnson play in the sandbox of Abrams before him.

Abrams built up what Johnson tore down, and thus Abrams is challenged to rebuild from those pieces. To construct a cohesive narrative, Abrams must construct something cohesive from the rubble Johnson laid before him.

Like Empire after Hope, Johnson laid waste to the monomyth laid before him. He’d done away with nearly every construct setup before him. Rey’s parents are nobodies. Snoke was an easy kill. Luke’s saber means nothing. Like an angsty teen, Johnson throws away legacy. He wants to define his own path. The Last Jedi is punk.

By blowing The Force Awakens to hell, the return to its author had to be nothing but a challenge. Abrams is forced to not only to piece together loose ends, but also tie it up with a satisfying bow.

If Kylo’s helmet is a symbol for this third act, The Rise of Skywalker is the valiant effort to salvage the pieces it was born from.

Fast vs. Slow

The Rise of Skywalker is fast. Maybe a little too fast. Fast to the point where it feels like it’s doing its best to ignore The Last Jedi. It simply wants to snap into The Force Awakens, working as it’s own Star Wars trilogy second and third acts in a single film. But as soon as one feels that way, there are questions and weight from The Last Jedi that must be answered — Jedi books, helmets, and Force ghosts, etc.

The Rise of Skywalker is slow. This is a third act that feels like a single film full of third acts. It’s relentless, but moves at a slower pace than that of The Last Jedi. There is less plot than there is filling gaps or doing the grunt work of attempting to reconstruct Johnson’s deconstruction. By the end, I had a hard time remembering the beginning or even caring about it for that matter.

Big vs. Small

The Rise of Skywalker is big. This film above all other Star Wars films feels massive. The scale of the fleets. The cinematography of the ships. The velocity of light-speed chases. The variety of planets. The sheer magnitude of the shots is breathtaking. Impossible odds haven’t felt so impossible since the first front on the Death Star in A New Hope.

The Rise of Skywalker is small. The relationships feel small. Where The Last Jedi expands familial, friendly, and sexual bonds, The Rise of Skywalker contracts them into a focused few. The stakes stay within the family. The stressors are on individuals. Our heroes and their connections to each other and themselves are at the heart of this story.

Fan-service vs. Familiar

The Rise of Skywalker is fan-service. Every “I” dotted”. Every “T” crossed. The Rise of Skywalker pays tribute to the series to date as a whole. Yes, to the point of eye-rolling, but that could be seen in The Force Awakens, between the Death Star 3.0 (Starkiller Base) and the new Cantina band. The Rise of Skywalker goes above and beyond these callbacks by embracing Johnson’s (or even Gareth Edwards’ (Rogue One)) ideas and even playing them up every now and again. Anything seems possible in the Star Wars universe, and if I surrender to the idea that this is all make-believe, I’m ok with that.

The Rise of Skywalker is familiar. While the fan-service is welcome, we’ve seen this story before. None of the encounters feel magical. None of the cameos feel surprising (save for one, maybe two). The Last Jedi and The Force Awakens before it did a great job shocking the audience with unexpected moments, be it live-action puppeteering or reappearances of deceased characters. The Rise of Skywalker has plenty of fun, but it feels like we’ve been there before.

Rise of Skywalker

Between these three aspects — fast and slow, big and small, fan-service and familiar — it may be the speed that gets in the way the most. I struggled to care about the characters. I remember them from the previous films, but I did not have time to reconnect with them. If The Rise of Skywalker has shown anything, it’s that Johnson is the gravity to Abram’s lightness. The Last Jedi made us feel the depths of characters and the internal demons they were facing. The Rise of Skywalker seemingly doesn’t have time to dwell on that and tries to race to the finish line, soon realizing it still has another hour of story to tell.

Where The Rise of Skywalker shines is in its balance. There is balance in how Abrams and Johnson handle the saga. There is balance in the pace of each of the films. But speaking to The Rise of Skywalker in particular, the title speaks to balance most of all.

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Edwards: ‘The wipes are the cheesiest thing in the world’

Regarding differences between Star Wars story and saga films, I failed to notice the omission of the iconic Star Wars ‘wipe’ in Rogue One.

Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, in an interview with Empire:

4. The famous ‘wipes’ do exist in other cuts

We did have versions of the film [with] wipes, and then it just felt like we were doing it because we could. The wipes are the cheesiest thing in the world. The only time you can ever do it and not be cheesy’s in Star Wars. There’s part of me that wanted the wipes and things like that, but the film is supposed to be different. We were given a license by the studio to be unique from the others, and we just took that license and ran with it as an excuse to try and be a bit more out there.

While I won’t disagree with Edwards, I think “cheesy” is the wrong word. Whimsical, perhaps?

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Nerdist Interviews the Cast of Warcraft

Nerdist nabbed an answer to a question in my previous post. It’s Garona.

From WoWWiki:

Garona Halforcen is a half-orc half-draenei quest giver for the Horde in the Twilight Highlands. Like most others, she believed she was half-human until the truth was revealed to her. She is an assassin and a spymistress.

From the Nerdist interview, it appears Garona is half-orc half-human, which, in the visual language of the Warcraft Movie, seems to justify her unanimated self. I don’t think it works and still lends itself to an awkward visual balance.

Daniel Wu, playing the part of Gul’dan:

If they don’t seem real, it’s going to be hard as an audience to get into the character. But they are very real. And they are very compelling as CG characters. Like two minutes into the film, you forget that they’re actually CG characters.

They don’t seem real. However, I said the same of Avatar. And after a few minutes into that film, I was onboard.

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Warcraft Plot


Azeroth stands on the brink of war as its civilisation, led by the humans, faces a fearsome race of invaders: orc warriors fleeing their dying world, Draenor, to find their place in another. As a portal opens to connect the two worlds, known as the Dark Portal, the humans face destruction while the orcs face extinction. Anduin Lothar (Travis Fimmel), leader of the humans, and Durotan (Toby Kebbell), leader of the orcs, are then sent on a collision course that will decide the fate of their family, their people and their home, in which war has many faces and everyone fights for something.

Maybe the trailer wouldn’t have been such a miss if they stuck to this description?

Regarding my last post, how come one of the female orcs (Garona? Draka?) doesn’t get the GCI treatment? Seems to heighten the awkward balance between the animated and unanimated.


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Warcraft and Toontown

News of a Warcraft movie with the involvement of Duncan Jones and Legendary Pictures has had me excited for years now. Unfortunately, this trailer does not.

I’ve eagerly awaited every Blizzard in-house cinematic since Starcraft’s in 1998. (If I recall correctly, it shipped on the Warcraft II: Beyond the Dark Portal disc.) I don’t believe Blizzard’s in-house cinematic team had much to do with this film. And if true, that is a sad fact.

In the games, the orcs’ robust physique is met with nearly as robust human physique. Blizzard’s own in-house cinematics reflect this as well:

Physique aside, the use of real actors against what appears to be a solely computer-generated backdrop and animated rivals is jarring. (See also the Star Wars prequel trilogy and The Hobbit) I thought we were working passed this. I thought the gag of cartoons working in Hollywood was in the process of being shuddered. Confused about how real actors would look in either the orc or human role, I figured they’d both be bolstered by CGI. I figured wrong. On the upside, the close-ups of the orcs look great.

I’m not a World of Warcraft player, but within an hour or so of the Warcraft Movie trailer premier, a cinematic trailer for World of Warcraft: Legion, the upcoming WoW expansion was released. This is the kind of visual consistency I was hoping for:

All I’m saying is the unbelievable visual inconsistency of animated characters and backdrops alongside real actors is tired. Give me real or fake. If both, let’s stick to the Who Framed Roger Rabbit and Space Jam gags.

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Thoughts on Star Wars Teaser #2

  1. I could have sworn they were pulling audio from Return of the Jedi. (Mark Hamill still sounds youthful.) Until Luke’s line: “You have that power, too.”
  2. And if this is truly new dialogue, Luke state’s that his ‘father has it.” Has. Not had.
  3. It’s fun to imagine Vader is still around, but whether it’s clever audio splicing or Luke referring to the omnipresent (Force ghost*) Anakin, I say Vader is dead and gone.
  4. Finn is a trepidatious Stormtrooper recruit. The chaotic stormtrooper battle scene affirms his worries and he chooses to leave the Empire (or equivalent faction). This is the first time we witness the weight of war and death on soldiers in the post-prequel films.**
  5. I need to figure out a way to be a part of this upcoming series of Disney Star Wars films.
  6. I hate zoom. (1:28)


* Thanks for the heads up to @AlexandreSitbon. The term was slipping my mind.

** Correction: Sad Ewok.

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The Oral History of Steve Barron’s TMNT

March 30, 2015 marked the 25th anniversary of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film. In commemoration, The Hollywood Reporter rounded up several cast and crew members to recount the making of the highest grossing independent film at the time.

The Hollywood Reporter:

Gray: I always thought it would be interesting to have someone who was coming out of MTV videos to amp this up visually. To make it a little bit younger. Director Steve Barron was suggested to us. We looked at his reel. He had done all this great stuff with A-ha. He had done “Billie Jean” with Michael Jackson. He had a very good visual style.

Steve Barron, director: I didn’t want to do something that was bloody. I didn’t want to watch that film. Funnily enough, Batman came out at the same time. It was that sort of tone I was already aiming for. The films that I loved, there was a sense of humor but a sense of peril as well. Of real peril, of grounded peril. Like something that had repercussions for what you did but had a wonderful sense of fun with it. I was a big fan of Ghostbusters.


Eastman: For an independent film, it was beyond our wildest hopes. We liked the final movie and we hoped people would like it, and [the fact] it did as well as it did was fantastic. Of all the versions of Turtles that have been optioned over the past 30 years now — and certainly in the entertainment arena — the first movie stands out as our hands-down favorite version.

If Barron’s TMNT is not my favorite movie, it easily slides into my top 5. I just wish Street Fighter would have been as successful.

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One Tool to Rule Them All

An important read about Tim Sweeney and Epic Games covering Unreal Engine, it’s use in interactive experiences from cinema to video games, the potential of VR and AR, and the state of free-to-play.

Chris Plante, The Verge:

When asked if Unreal Engine 4 will span the next 10 years, Sweeney says that it’s for the foreseeable future, that Unreal Engine will get to “the promised land,” a vision of the future Sweeney’s hinted at earlier in the day during his speech at the Game Developers Conference. “This is the word I was afraid to use earlier. This is the convergence of all these forms of media.”

Technologists, media theorists, and game designers spoke of the convergence ad nauseam in the 1990s, when film and video games came together in a garbage fire of media that could neither be called a good game nor a good film. In the 2000s, the convergence was replaced with the notion of transmedia, with entertainment spread across different mediums, connected through a shared universe or narrative. However Sweeney believes the convergence is making a comeback, that the graphics world is seeing humans and technology meeting at a unified point. Sweeney sees photorealistic 3D objects and lighting and virtual reality attracting game designers, sure, but also industrial designers, architects, and film makers to engines like Unreal Engine 4.

In this future, or present if you ask Sweeney, lessons learned from one field, say an architect designing a virtual building, can be applied to games or film, and likewise. Sweeney believes the potential application of the engine across all fields increases exponentially as information is shared.

All of this raises the question: does Epic Games identify purely as a games company? “We’re realizing now that Unreal Engine 4 is a common language between all these common fields.” Sweeney doesn’t see the industries as all that different. More interesting than Sweeney’s prediction of field-sharing information and experience is the speculation of the fields in some ways merging together. For their most recent demo, Epic Games partnered with Weta to create a VR demonstration featuring the dragon Smaug from the The Hobbit.

The separation between game and experience and art is becoming more defined. Under the guise of this piece, interactive experiences such as Journey and Dear Esther feel like the blossoms of Tim Sweeney’s greater vision, most recently demonstrated with Smaug.

Update: I failed to mention the main reason why this important. Not only does the diversity of Unreal Engine 4 practical uses help clarify the categories of computer generated media, there’s this:

… this year, Unreal Engine 4 is free — the company asks for a 5 percent royalty for any commercial product made with the engine that makes more than $3,000 a quarter.

Commercial product: a product that can make money (i.e. video games, VR/AR experiences, movies, TV shows, YouTube shorts, amateur animations, etc.).

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Thank you, Peter Jackson

I used to stare at my step-father’s collection of The Lord of the Rings as an impassable mountain. Novels intimidate me. So when word let out that The Lord of the Rings was being adapted for film, I was thrilled. My perspective of the volumes on that bookshelf and the trouble I had with their language painted a picture of the gargantuan undertaking the adaptation would be. Not to mention the prospect of a story so legendary being brought to life in my lifetime was exhilarating. I had always been jealous of those who saw Star Wars in the theater; a piece of science-fiction/fantasy so groundbreaking it would have a lasting impact not only on cinema, but on the culture-at-large. I was convinced that The Lord of the Rings would be my equivalent. Bonus: (I thought) I could get away without reading the books.

I set any skepticism I had aside and I went into The Fellowship of the Ring all-in; convinced, without a shadow of a doubt, it would be the greatest thing I had ever seen. I was ripe for disappointment. Alas, Peter Jackson’s vision turned me into as big of a Lord of the Rings fan as anyone could be. It wasn’t the story or the characters. They were mesmerizing and with my lack of knowledge, their tweaks went unnoticed. It was the production value and scale of this work that floored me. I had never witnessed anything of its magnitude. The special effects were like none other and the pacing, tone, and art were calculated and vivid. But the thing that put the films over the top was the baffling accomplishment of its principle photography:

Principal photography for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy was conducted concurrently in New Zealand for 274 days from October 11, 1999 through to December 22, 2000. Pick-up shoots were conducted annually from 2001 to 2004. The trilogy was shot at over 150 different locations,[1] with seven different units shooting, as well as soundstages around Wellington and QueenstownPeter Jackson directed the whole production, while other unit directors included Alun Bollinger, John Mahaffie, Geoff Murphy, Fran Walsh, Barrie Osbourne, and Rick Porras. Jackson monitored these units with live satellite feeds, and with the added pressure of constant script re-writes and the multiple units handling his vision, he only got around 4 hours of sleep a night.[2]

I would later receive the extended edition of The Two Towers as a Christmas gift and pour over it and its bonus features many a high school night. Deep in the burrow of my poster laden teenage room, I would sit with headphones, transfixed by what I was watching. (I also absorbed a self-depricating message on the methodical pacing of the story through the image of the Ents.) To this day, the work behind these films amazes and inspires me. For as much as I love Star Wars, I felt I was right about The Lord of the Rings being my generational equivalent. It was a risky undertaking at a scale never before seen. Influential breakthroughs in cinema, technology, and logistics are rooted its production. I will forever dream to be part of something on its scale.

I needed more Middle-earth. I wanted every licensed video game, continued to pour over special features, and discussed the films at length with friends. I recall the instant I finished watching The Return of the King for the first time, I yearned for an adaption of The Hobbit. While I was sure it would eventually happen, I grew increasingly unconvinced that Jackson would be a part of it. On several occasions he emphasized that he was finished with Middle-earth and productions of its scale:

Nobody’s ever shot three huge movies before and I think the most interesting thing I’ve discovered over the last 14 months is exactly why nobody’s ever done that. Now I know. And therefore, I won’t be doing it again.

Needless to say, I was overjoyed when I learned that Jackson would be taking the helm on The Hobbit. And while many scoffed at the announcement that the children’s novel would be split into two films, I was bursting with excitement. One film was not nearly enough Middle-earth to tide me over. In the back of my mind, there was a small part of me that wished for three. There is something so satisfying with a trilogy, be it the beginning, middle, and end or a pseudo three-act structure. But based on the page count, I understood two films was likely already stretching it. That was until I read the book. I came away from the novel shocked at how dense it was. I wondered how it wouldn’t end up being three films. And to my surprise and delight, a third film was announced.

I agree with Ben Kuchera in saying “we have nothing to lose, and everything to gain” when it comes to more from our favorite franchises. If The Hobbit films were bloated, so what. If one is unhappy with the end product, they still have the book. As mentioned, I had only read The Hobbit months before the first film was released, and I was shocked that they would have attempted to squeeze it into two films, let alone one.

The announcements of return characters, story tweaks, and additions always gave me the feeling that The Hobbit films were more a celebration than a production to stand on its own. Sure, there is moral and epic material there, but it feels like I was watching a party thrown for the cast and crew of such an incredible feat. Do I think An Unexpected Journey and The Desolationof Smaug are in-line with the masterpieces that are The Lord of the Rings films? No. On par with the Star Wars prequels? Far above. The inescapable CGI on both the settings and characters (namely the orcs) are an eyesore, and the dwarves’ makeup doesn’t feel quite as realized as Gimili’s, but the films allow me to bask in the majesty of Jackson’s vision of Middle-earth again. And that’s more than I could ever ask for.

Many my say “Jackson will be back for The Silmarillion.” I’m not counting on it. Not after reading Alexa Ray Corriea’s history of The Lord of the Rings in video games:

The Tolkien Estate still firmly holds the score of books and snippets that fill out the world of Arda beyond The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit — called Tolkien’s legendarium — close to its chest. Christopher Tolkien upholds his position as keeper of the keys to Middle-earth; the IP remains split; and The Silmarillion is still locked away, out of reach from those who might adapt Tolkien’s deeper mythology.

If The Silmarillion does come around, my bet is that Jackson won’t be more than an Executive Producer.

I’ve never finished reading The Lord of the Rings. Two-thirds at best. And I only read The Hobbit months before the first film’s release. Yet, because of these six films, I have a profound fondness for franchise as a whole. Two patient, pre-meditated, serialized trilogies (albeit based on existing fiction) as efforts that have gone unmatched are triumphs to behold. When it comes up in conversation, when I see snippets on TV or a passages from the book, or when I hear one of Howard Shore’s iconic pieces, my mind goes to another place for hours at a time. Jackson’s perseverance through the filmmaking and scope of Middle-earth encourages me to dream. It inspires me to undertake something bigger than myself.  Thankfully I live in a world where in an instant I can tune into something that ignites that fire inside. For that, I am forever grateful. Thank you, Peter Jackson, for braving this project. I’m so glad to have experienced it in its entirety over these past thirteen years.

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Water Coolers, Spoilers, and Serial

On the way to work, my wife and I caught up on Serial. On our commute home, she mentioned that Zach Braff had tweeted about the podcast:

I can’t look through my Twitter feed without seeing a mention of Serial. Everyone’s onboard. Everyone’s got a take. But the extent of sharing is “OMG! WTF! #serial” We are all on par with Laura’s confusion in episode 8.

Serial is great. Definitely not my favorite podcast, but it’s a spectacular display of fine editing and editorial guidance. But more importantly, Serial has brought back the water cooler conversation. Everything about Serial thus far is based on presumption. If you tried to explain what is happening, you’d leave behind mountains of critical detail. Because the questions hurdle by ad nauseam, there aren’t answers big enough to spoil the show. Think LOST, with hatches and polar bears and Dharma, but rooted in the nonfiction investigation of a 1999 homicide case with cell records and reenactments and Jay. This is pre-meditated in the sense that Sarah Keonig and the Serial crew know that answers won’t come easy. There are no spoilers. This is great storytelling and we are along for the ride.

This thought led me to other serialized media. Serialized TV is larger than ever, but the good stuff (Game of Thones) is adapted or released in bulk (House of Cards). I kid, I kid. Admittedly, I have not watched True Detective. But in all seriousness, TiVo culture and binging has struck deep fear in sharing too much about nightly TV. While this sounds like a backwards argument against on-demand podcasts, again, Serial doesn’t offer enough answers to divulge spoilers. Again, this is great storytelling.

This led me to thoughts on film. What was the last (semi-)pre-meditated, non-adapted, serialized film series released? Pirates of the Caribbean (2 & 3)? The Matrix (2 & 3)? Star Wars (5 & 6)? Nearly every (if not all) serialized film series released within the past few years has been adapted. Harry Potter. Hunger Games. Divergent. The answers to these series have been lying around in text years prior to the film’s release. The best we can hope for is that we haven’t read the book or the film is so far off from the source material that it feels like a unique experience.

We need more original, pre-meditated, serialized content. Someone write an original three part film trilogy with segments so good they can stand on their own as solid films. Someone conceptualize a three, four, or five season TV show from start to finish. Calculate the journey or take us along for the ride. Stop adapting. Stop playing by ear. If you do play by ear, root it in nonfiction. Make sure you can’t make stuff up.

I realize this is less a message to creators as it is to producers, with overhead and risk to take into consideration. But if you want to give us story, allow us to risk our time and money. Trust creators.

Tomorrow, my wife and I will listen to episode 10 of Serial and the most we’ll be able to share is “OMG! WTF! #serial”

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