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“Annihilation” Review: “The Roses In Her Garden Fade Away”

Annihilation - PosterIn many ways, we have been living through a golden age of science-fiction in media for at least a decade. I mean, yes, we have our Star Wars and Marvel Cinematic Universes all toppling records every year and they have been good. Look past them though and just look at the breadth of choices we’ve had in the last few years: Get Out, Blade Runner 2049, Mad Max: Fury Road, Westworld, Horizon: Zero Dawn, The Martian, Arrival, Uprooted, The Handmaid’s Tale, Saga, Edge of Tomorrow, Spec Ops: The Line, Gravity, Her, The Walking Dead, Inception, Who Fears Death, Mass Effect 2, 2312, The Last of Us. In the midst of that, there’s been writer Alex Garland. First famous for adapting the novel, The Beach, Garland began writing screenplays for movies like 28 Days Later, Sunshine, Never Let Me Go and Dredd before taking his hand at directing. His debut, Ex Machina, fits comfortably on the list of titles I’ve listed above: it was smart and confident and unnerving at the end. It seemed a good portent for future projects.

So the idea of taking Garland and letting him adapt the Nebula and Shirley Jackson Awards winning novel Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer seems like a no brainer. Smart sci-fi writer director takes smart sci-fi book to make smart sci-fi movie. Problem being that the novel was told from a first-person point of view, that it has no names and that it mostly takes place inside the protagonist’s head as they either descend into madness, have their consciousness expanded or are suffering from an encounter with an alien entity beyond their understanding. How do you adapt something like that?

Annihilation tells the story of Lena (Natalie Portman), a former Army specialist-turned cell biology professor. She has been living with the memory of her husband, Kane (Oscar Isaac), an Army sergeant whose unit was sent in a classified mission a year before and that never returned home. She has begun to think of him as dead when he mysteriously turns up at their home with no memory of the mission or how he got back. Before they know it, he’s violently ill and both are taken to the mysterious “Area X” — a military compound standing on the edge of an area known only as “The Shimmer.” Here, three years ago, a mysterious object crashed from space and set up an area where signals of any kind cannot enter or leave. All previous expeditions into The Shimmer have turned up nothing nor have returned — until Kane re-emerged from it. Desperate for answers, another expedition is sent into The Shimmer, with Lena, who has both the background and the reason to enter, joining physicist Josie Radek (Tessa Thompson), surveyor/geologist Cass Sheppard (Tuva Novotny), medic Anya Thorensen (Gina Rodriguez) and psychologist Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh). The question becomes: can they find the answers in there that they’re seeking or will The Shimmer claim another group?Annihilation - Team

Having cut her teeth on everything from the Star Wars Prequels to Thor, Natalie Portman is no stranger to having to act against elements that are not there. She has always been a great actress but there are times that she rises or falls according to the quality of the material — compare her in Black Swan versus in Thor: The Dark World. The good news is that here, she rises to the occasion. Lena is the heart of the story as she rightfully has to be. Her reasons for entering The Shimmer are explored as is her character. I won’t spoil much beyond what you read above but, suffice it to say, Lena is a far more complex than she seems and this complexity is what drives her towards her goal. And Portman gets that correctly in her performance.

The rest of the cast is good with most of the performances falling on Leigh, Thompson, Rodriguez and Novotny as the other team members. They all get at least one moment to shine and do well with it. What’s interesting is that all save Rodriguez give very subdued and quiet performances. It ties into who the characters are and what The Shimmer is doing to them, but I won’t divulge much more than that. I’ll only say that there are reasons why none of them should have entered Area X. Beyond them, Isaac, who brimmed with energy in Ex Machina, is called to be something different here and does another good job. I do wish we got more than the few snippets of his and Lena’s life together as it would have acted as a juxtaposition for their relationship and where they find themselves at the movie’s start.

Rather than highlight a whole mess of the crew that worked on this film, I’ll give a quick kudos to production designer Mark Digby, set decorator Michelle Day, art director Denis Schnegg and sound editor Glenn Freemantle; all of whom work to bring the world inside The Shimmer to life. This is what you came to see: the strange flora and mutated fauna that breathes and lives and sometimes attacks Lena and her team. Though they are symptoms of the greater threat that The Shimmer represent, it’s the beautiful plants that seem to not make sense and the grizzly animals that do things that they should not that represent the most immediate danger to the team.

Annihilation - CrocGarland’s team does also a great job of building up tension which then boils over into action and those should be enjoyed. Whether it’s facing off the dangerous fauna, of which there are two key sequences that are a lot of fun, or it’s making discoveries of what happened to Kane and his team — no spoilers but body horror enthusiasts will have a blast with it while everyone else cringes — Lena and her team are presented with a mission that makes one recoil from moment to moment.

The road for this movie was a complicated one. Agreeing to adapt only the first novel, as the rest of the proposed trilogy was not out yet, seems to have been the start of many issues for Garland and his team. The latter books revealed different racial backgrounds for key characters as well as different courses — Book 2, for example, going into greater detail into the organization studying The Shimmer, the Southern Reach. This has caused some fans of the book to decry the changes that Garland made for this movie. Meanwhile, the production company began getting cold feet at a movie that was turning far more cerebral than they had intended and wanted edits. When the producer refused, Paramount opted to sell the international distribution rights for it to Netflix for $50 million — not bad for a movie that cost something like $55 million to make.

What I will say is that Garland manages to nail, if nothing else, the spirit of VanderMeer’s novel. Inspired by a trek through the woods of St Marks National Wildlife Refuge in Florida, VanderMeer sought to create a tale about a world that was full of life different from and, in many ways, indifferent to humanity. The world inside Area X looks and sounds and feels like our own but it is not. It is alive and it is both beautiful and dangerous but it is not like the life we know and understand. Garland and his team put us inside such a world and ask us to consider just what is life at its basic level and if we could understand it if it got put together in a different way.

Annihilation at times feels like cosmic horror — that genre of sci-fi/horror that asks us to consider the insignificance of man against grander cosmic elements. And towards its climax things can get a bit out there for most mainstream audiences. You’re asked to interpret some of the beats and depending on your taste for such things, you have either bought into it or have rejected. For my part, I was able to buy in and follow the story to its conclusion. And I do feel it is concluded. I don’t get a sense that Garland or Portman meant to make a follow-up adaptation of the other two novels. Like Ex Machina, Garland leaves the story on a moment that seems to portend much more but that we will not get to see.Annihilation - Bear

Overall, I liked Annihilation a great deal. Add it to the list of good sci-fi properties of the last decade. Even with the slow pace it sets on and the sometimes difficult to follow elements, it is a good movie that found ways to make me think of cell biology and life on planet Earth in ways I didn’t think of before. That is usually what sci-fi is best for: making one reexamine what they know and see it in new and intriguing ways. I am beyond happy that we are getting more and good sci-fi now. Here’s hoping for more in 2018!

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“Black Panther” Review: “The Path of the Righteous Man”

BP - PosterEver since Iron Man came out a decade ago, Marvel Studios has managed to become the biggest behemoth in modern entertainment. Whether it’s luminaries like The Avengers, Captain America: The Winter Soldier or Guardians of the Galaxy, Marvel turned its roster of heroes into household names. They have mined their over-60 years of stories with the creative output of some extremely talented writers and artists to forge their Marvel Cinematic Universe and made it the envy of Hollywood. While everyone around them falters and fails, they somehow find a way to keep delivering good movies that get great responses from their audiences. And Black Panther is another one in that line.

The creation of comic book royalty Stan Lee and Jack Kirby in 1966, Black Panther has been a staple in Marvel’s comics ever since:  from being an ally of the Fantastic Four to being a member of The Avengers and even appearing for a time with his then-bride Storm of the X-Men. He was the first black superhero in mainstream comics in a time when they were not prevalent even as sidekicks or guests. Despite all of this, his publishing career has had many of the same ups and downs that many of the books not named X-Men or Spider-Man have suffered. It’s the late-90s run crafted by Christopher Priest and Mark Texeira that most influences this movie — with some touches from the Reginald Hudlin-John Romita Jr run of a few years later as well as some of the more recent work by Ta-Nehisi Coates, Christopher Sprouse, Brian Stelfreeze and others. From here director Ryan Coogler and co-writer Joe Robert Cole craft the tale of the new king of Wakanda.

NOTE: There are parts and elements of this movie that should be discussed. Suffice it to say that I do not feel I am the one to do so given that I am not black or of African descent. I would prefer to leave those topics of discussion to black writers who want to share their opinions on them as they would present a richer and fuller scope of criticisms than I could. I’ll just touch on the movie as a movie. And obviously, I will not spoil more than is barely necessary to get across a sense of plot. 

BP - T'Challa

Black Panther starts but a week after the events of Captain America: Civil War concluded. Prince T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) is set to be crowned king. It is something that his mother, Queen Ramonda (Angela Bassett), his sister, the tech-savant Shuri (Letitia Wright), his bodyguard and general Okoye (Danai Gurira), his best friend, W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), his former girlfriend and spy Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o) and his head statesman/priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker) all want to see happen. T’Challa has been groomed for the role of king by his deceased father, T’Chaka (John Kani). It’s his birthright. However, not sooner has he taken on the mantle of king, that T’Challa is forced to confront Wakanda’s foes, both old and new, in the form of Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis) and Eric “Killmonger” Stevens (Michael B. Jordan). They see in this unexpected transition an opportunity to use Wakanda’s vast technological and mineral resources as a means to gain great wealth and vast power. For it is only in Wakanda that vibranium is available and it has the capacity to shift the world on its head should the king of Wakanda deem it so.

Having met T’Challa in Civil War gives us already a sense of the way Boseman plays him here though his situation is different. In that movie, he was a far more active participant in the action whereas in this one, he’s far more reactive. That’s due to the differences in the stories told. In Civil War, he was a man on a quest of vengeance with no regard for what the consequences might be. In Black Panther, he’s a man trying to find his own vision for the future where every action and decision brings unforeseen consequences. Suffice it to say that T’Challa is the center of things which demands Boseman anchor the story and give the rest of the talented cast the opportunity to be far more flamboyant and free.

Not that it’s a bad thing with this cast. What I appreciated the most was that they all came out as fully fleshed-out characters. Gurira’s Okoye, for example, is the leader of the Dora Milaje, the royal bodyguards, and Wakanda’s top general. But she’s comfortable cracking jokes at T’Challa as she is facing crisis of personal conflict as the story progresses. Her choices are made because she’s loyal to the idea of Wakanda. Meanwhile, on the total opposite of her, there’s Serkis’ Klaue, who is greedy, self-serving and uninterested in anything but how to exploit Wakanda’s vibranium. Seen in Age of Ultron as your standard arms dealer, here he is allowed to rip loose and be a total madman, cackling as he fires at the Black Panther. It’s like that up and down the cast. Whether it’s veterans like Bassett, Whitaker and Martin Freeman or younger actors like Kaluuya, Wright and Winston Duke, each actor here brought their A-game and it shows on screen.

BP - Killmonger vs T'ChallaBut I have to highlight the work Michael B. Jordan does here most of all. Though it should not be a surprise given the great performances that he’s delivered under Coogler’s directorship — Fruitvale Station and Creed — here, Jordan is just unleashed as Killmonger. He’s passion with a terrible purpose. He’s rage aimed at the world with laser-like focus. I won’t spoil all the twists and turns that his story takes the larger plot into but it leads to some of the movie’s biggest questions. Like the best of villains, Killmonger is a shadow opposite of T’Challa. Like the best of villains, it’s easy to empathize with his point of view and to consider that he may not be entirely wrong to feel the way he feels — particularly once you know how things have impacted him. It’s his response to things — his way of fixing things — that make Killmonger the villain. Much in the same way that Professor X and Magneto are diametrically-opposed by their worldview, so are T’Challa and Killmonger. One sees a good world worth protecting while the other sees a failed world that should be leveled and changed no matter the cost.

Of all the characters on screen though, perhaps none is grander or more impressive than the kingdom of Wakanda. Brought to life by Coogler and his team of collaborators, both new and old — from director of photography Rachel Morrison to production designer Hannah Beachler, set decorator Jay Hart, costume designer Ruth E. Carter, composer Ludwig Goransson and makeup designer Joel Harlow — Wakanda feels like a place that exists in our world and yet is from somewhere else. It is a place of grand vistas, lush forests and towering mountains. It has modern African markets sit underneath maglev trains and towering shiny skyscrapers. Its people are varied among its different tribes — each one distinct and inspired by traditions from throughout the African continent in wardrobe and language — but making a cohesive whole. It isn’t a surprise that people are taken with Wakanda. Of all the fictional places Marvel has created in its movies — from Sokovia to Kamar-Taj to Asgard — none has felt so realized and complete right out of the gate.

It’s the character of Wakanda, however, that is at the heart of the story. Wakanda means something different for each one of the characters. It’s a home that should be protected. It’s an ideal worth striving towards. It’s a dream long-denied. It’s the future. This posits the central conflict within the story: does T’Challa, as its new king, keep Wakanda hidden from the world and in the state it has been for so long? Or does he risk forever changing what Wakanda is by exposing it to the world at large and taking a larger stake in global affairs? Each one of the characters presents a different, but fair, viewpoint on this issue. Appropriately, every one of them is forced to make decisions based on where they stand on it. Through them all, T’Challa must navigate and find the way that he thinks is best for his people and his nation — a task far harder than facing off a bad guy with a cannon for an arm.

Marvel Studios' BLACK PANTHER


Ph: Film Frame

©Marvel Studios 2018

Just as importantly, the story looks for T’Challa to make a peace with the difference between the idealized position he held for his father and the previous kings of Wakanda versus the harsher and uglier truths that T’Chaka and his forebears engaged in to keep the secret of their power. To be a king is to take on everything that has come before him and that will come after him. So at times he’s called to reconcile the past with the future he sees for himself and his people. After all, Wakandan secret agents live throughout the world, all of whom are ready to strike if their king deems that their secrets are about to be exposed. This is a far different set of concerns than any that other Marvel superhero has had to wage with before and it shows the vastness of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. These are concerns that would never enter into a story about Spider-Man or The Hulk or Iron Man. But they can be brought to the foreground and discussed with Black Panther.

Before I wrap this up, I do want to give a big tip of the hat to Ryan Coogler who, only on his third film, shows a tremendous eye for great directing and storytelling. Marvel movies are not the easiest to make because they must fit within the grander scheme of their shared universe. At the same time that Coogler is able to give us the normal action beats we come to expect — the Busan chase sequence a particular highlight — he is also giving us with smaller moments of impact where the actors can breathe and dig into their roles. Part of me worries he will get so big he won’t be able to go back and do smaller fare like Fruitvale Station. At the same time, I want him to get a Star Wars movie or a James Bond movie offered to him (maybe bring Daniel Kaluuya to that role?). He’s one of the best young directors out there and it will be interesting to see what he follows this with.

BP - Nakia and ShuriSo in summation, is Black Panther worth your time? Yes. Absolutely yes. It’s a tremendous movie, well done by all its cast and crew and made with a sense of passion that shames other, bigger productions.  It is a film brimming with confidence that seeks to say a lot of things and that does it under the banner of great spectacle. I know that it’s going to take me a few more viewings before I can definitely state where it ranks for me in the “Great MCU Chart” but right now I know that it goes near the top with the best that Marvel has made. There’s a million different ways in which things could go for T’Challa, Shuri, Nakia and their counterparts but for now, we know they are all part of the MCU as it heads towards its epic encounter with Thanos. Like the best movies, it hints at a grander world that you have yet to see. Here’s hoping we get to see it in future outings.

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My Saints Post 2017 Season Thoughts

Saints - KamaraI don’t want to go too long with this blog post. Suffice it to say, I was gutted at the way the season ended for these New Orleans Saints. Oh, don’t get me wrong. I loved what this season had. Particularly after the poor 0-2 start and staring at the abyss of irrelevance were so near, the fact that they turned it around and made every Sunday must-watch TV was a minor miracle. The rookie class of Marshon Lattimore, Alvin Kamara, Marcus Williams, Ryan Ramczyk, et al was a revelation. The free agents that were added — Alex Okafor, Ted Ginn Jr, A.J. Klein, Manti Te’o, Larry Warford — fit well into the team and helped the veterans flourish.  Cameron Jordan was a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. Mark Ingram ran like a man who could bring down walls if he just had a running start. If Kamara and Lattimore are not the Offensive and Defensive Rookies of the Year, retire the awards. They were that good.  

And in the season, there were so many good moments. You had the dominations over the Panthers (three times this season. Count ’em), the shutout of the Dolphins in London, the shootout against the Lions, the tough win against the Bears that I attended, the silly game against Buffalo where the Saints ran and ran and ran, the epic comeback against Washington and the Christmas Eve domination of Atlanta. There were Saints players leaping into the stands. Photos were taken after every major turnover. #BoonkGang entered the lexicon. Everyone went nuts over the rookie third string QB out of Brigham Young when he turned into a special teams hero. I think most of the city has developed a serious addiction to Airheads.

Those are the things I’ll take from this 2017 season. Yes, it ended in a gut punch. But as I tweeted at half time, I would take the loss provided they came back to at least make it fun. I know each Saints fan is taking the time to rank which loss hurt them the most. Personally, after the sports year I’ve had, I couldn’t even put this one in my top 5. If there is one thing the Saints have been good at is finding ways to tear your heart up. Not that it didn’t suck. Had Marcus Williams made the normal tackle, they likely still kick that game winning field goal. And then where would we be if not in our week of ennui and discontent?Saints - Lattimore

Instead, I’ve spent the last few days looking at mock drafts, free agent lists and hoping that training camp was starting next week. Why? Because I’m a sports masochist? Because I want the pain to come back? No. Because I’m an optimist and, having spent much of last offseason wondering if the window of success was closed for Drew Brees, Sean Payton & the best Saints team of my life, to see it creak open this year was fun. And I don’t want it to just close next year again. No, 2018’s Saints will not be 2017’s Saints. But that doesn’t mean they cannot be better. So here’s the questions I’ll be on the lookout for answers this offseason:

  1. Drew Brees returns? He’s said he wants to be back. And while some might look at his last season as a down one because he only threw for 4,334 yards — his fewest total since coming to New Orleans — he also had a 72% completion rating, 23 TDs and only 8 INTs and had a rating of 103.9.  Being that he just turned 39 years of age on Monday, relying more on the running attack of Ingram and Kamara makes sense to let him avoid those pressures, hits and sacks. Even so, we have seen him turn it on when he needs to and there’s every desire for his return. Mickey Loomis and agent Tom Condon have danced this dance before.
  2. Draft a QB? The question will linger though. “How long do you wait to bring in an heir apparent?” If the Saints want a guy with some NFL experience, someone like Teddy Bridgewater might be an interesting follow (only 25, coming back from major injury but showed flashes of quality. Plus what do the Vikings do with Case Keenum leading them like he has?) The Draft class is pretty deep with everyone from Sam Darnold to Baker Mayfield to Lamar Jackson available. The only question there is how early do you take one? There’s tons of QB needy teams (if you noticed last season) and the Saints don’t have a 2nd round pick to offset taking a player that wouldn’t help in 2018.
  3. A new Tight End? Though the offense has maximized the talents of Jeremy Shockey, Jimmy Graham and Benjamin Watson, this past year was more TE by committee with Coby Fleener, Josh Hill and Michael Hoomanawanui all sharing roles and responsibilities. That is until Fleener was lost to a season-ending injury. He had managed 2 TDs from 22 catches and 295 yards in his 11 games till that point. The other two added 157 yards and 2 TDs combined. Given the dynamic offense that Sean Payton wants to run as well as the level of protection that a TE gives Brees, you have to imagine they’ll be looking for an upgrade, whether in free agency or the Draft.
  4. Saints - GinnMore depth along the lines?  Obviously, there’ll be interest in adding more playmakers at LB, at WR, in Special Teams. That’s to be expected. Me, I’ll hope that they find a way to help the guys in the trenches. Look, it’s to be expected that players will get hurt and have to play through the pain. But between losing Nick Fairley before the season started due to his enlarged heart, losing Zach Strief since Week 5 due to a knee injury, watching Terron Armstead miss 4 games and play much of the season with a thigh injury praying that he can manage it, losing Andrus Peat in the playoffs against the Panthers, losing Alex Okafor to….I think you get the point. The NFL Season is a game of attrition and while many players stepped up when called upon, more bodies are needed to throw into the grinder.
  5. What happens with Kenny Vaccaro? The 2013 first-round pick from Texas has had his ups and downs in New Orleans, but it seemed like this defense was suiting his skills. He had 3 INTs and 47 tackles. He was one of the veteran voices in the locker room. Then a groin injury took him out. He’s 27 and an unrestricted free agent. On one hand, maybe the team seeks a deal that pays him his worth and he stays. On the other, maybe another team comes with a bigger offer and the team opts to give the starting safety spots to Vonn Bell and Marcus Williams and they look to bring in either a younger or cheaper safety via the Draft. And a lot depends on how he heals.

So with all that said, let me get back to messing with mock drafts and looking forward towards the 2018 calendar. This season may not be over but I cannot wait for what next year will bring. WHO DAT!

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“The Last Jedi” Review: A Rambling Spoilerific Follow-Up

As I promised, I’m going to get into some of the more nuanced criticisms of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in this post. I admit up front that this just devolved into a rambling mess that meanders all over the place. Apologies for that. I’ve been trying to rack my brain on how to fix it and make it neater and…yep, no luck there. So forget it and just put it up is my motto. That will also mean spoiling the ever-loving hell out of the movie. In other words, if you have not seen it and want to see it free of spoilers, GET OUT NOW! This is your first, last and only warning. From beyond the point below, we will start dissecting The Last Jedi in earnest. Got it?TLJ - Explosion

In the immediacy of The Force Awakens, the biggest charge against that was that it hewed too closely to the Original Trilogy. The First Order looked and felt a lot like the Galactic Empire. The Resistance functioned in much the same way as the Rebel Alliance. Kylo Ren and Supreme Leader Snoke were stand-ins for Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine. Rey was a new Luke Skywalker. The expectation may have been imprinted that this movie would then follow along that path and be The Empire Strikes Back. And it is not.

At its core, The Last Jedi is about two elements. The first one of which is hope. The hope that the Resistance can continue the fight despite their losses. The hope that Finn and Rose can find the master codebreaker in time. The hope that Rey can convince Luke to return and help in the fight. The hope Rey has to turn Kylo Ren back to the light side. The hope Kylo Ren has to turn Rey towards the dark side. The hope that the First Order can be beaten. That the spirit of the Rebellion can be found once again despite all that has been lost. The idea of hope, of finding it, keeping it, not losing it is foremost in The Last Jedi.

And we see this element tested. With the New Republic decapitated thanks to the blast from Starkiller Base, the Resistance has little in the way of support from the galaxy. Their quest for the entire movie becomes one of escape and survival. So how much can they lose before they lose that hope? How many ships, pilots and crew have to disappear before the Resistance no longer exists? The movie even finds ways to strain them by removing from their midst their leader and symbol, General Leia, for a bulk of the movie. Unsurprisingly, with their iconic leader gone, characters like Vice Admiral Holdo and Captain Poe Dameron start sizing up one another to see who’s really in charge. The fraying of the Resistance due to the non-stop assault by the First Order truly begins in earnest then.

TLJ - HoldoIs that what would really happen in a military structure? Well, Star Wars has always played fast and loose with its chain of command — remember Han Solo being made a general after spending a year in carbonite? Yes, the key in this story arc is for Poe to recognize that there’s more to being a leader than just charging headlong into a battle. But how he gets there is the key in the story. “Hope is like the sun. If you only believe in it when you can see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” Both Holdo and Poe have heard Leia say this, but when it gets right down to it, Poe doesn’t start to truly believe that until the end. He keeps trying to make miracles happen and they blow up in his and the Resistance’s face.

Which brings us to the quest by Finn and Rose to find a master codebreaker on Canto Bight. I will admit: I really thought they were setting us up for a Billy Dee Williams’ cameo at that moment. From Maz Kanata’s description, it sounded as if Lando Calrissian was set to make his Sequel Trilogy debut. Alas, it was a fake out. Finn and Rose get captured, find DJ in their cell and he rescues them and becomes the codebreaker that gets them onto Snoke’s ship and nearly through to the end of their quest before they are captured.

I did not think the concept behind their search was dumb. It allows for Finn to be an active participant in this story, introduces another character to the saga and allows us to not be stuck all the time between Ahch-To and the escaping Resistance fleet. The only thing that seems odd is that they did it right in the midst of their escape. Maybe I would have preferred for the Resistance to get to Crait and then start thinking of another escape plan away from the First Order, but that’s me. It could have conceivably led to a longer battle on Crait than what the movie gives us and ratcheted up the pressure between Poe and Holdo as their attempts to hold back the First Order keep failing. However, by keeping the story aboard the cruiser, we get DJ’s betrayal and Holdo’s final act.

We also see hope strained on Ahch-To. Rey thought she was arriving to fetch the Jedi Master back to the Resistance and thus bring hope back to the fight. She might also have hoped he could show her how to use her newfound connection to The Force and help her reveal her true self. Because deep down, Rey appears to want this new power that’s awakened inside of her to be the conduit towards some grand revelation of herself. She wants her new Force sensitivity to reveal the hidden truth of her parentage. Instead she finds a man who is beaten, who is lost, who refuses to do any of what she hoped he might do. That’s because Rey has found a Jedi Master who has failed.

TLJ - LukeFailure is the second element at the heart of The Last Jedi and it is a bit surprising to have a massive, franchise blockbuster be built around the idea of failure. Luke’s failure with Ben Solo, which lead him to becoming Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren’s own failures in his duel with Rey, which see him chided by Snoke at the start of the movie. Poe Dameron’s successful failure above D’Qar, where he leads his squadron on a suicide mission against the Dreadnought. Finn and Rose’s failure when they’re betrayed by DJ, a man who is upfront about the lack of morals he has towards anyone. The Resistance’s failure when, after all their fighting and all their struggles, no one comes to their aid on Crait. The Jedi’s failures most of all.

While we might mince words as to the misunderstandings between Luke and Ben led to one’s fall to the dark side and the other’s exile, the sad fact is that it’s in keeping with the traditions of the stories we have seen so far in the Star Wars movies. Yoda’s student, Count Dooku, betrayed the Jedi and fell to the dark side. Obi-Wan’s student, Anakin, betrayed the Jedi and fell to the dark side. In each instance, their fall precipitated a period of darkness. Dooku led the Separatists in the Clone Wars. Anakin led the Empire during their reign. Now Ben Solo, student of the last Jedi, falls and leads the First Order in their quest to reconquer the galaxy.

The effect it has on Luke is similar to the effect such losses had on his masters, both of whom ended in exile in a distant world. And Mark Hamill does a great job in displaying the effect that this loss has on him. His failure cost him his hope. He perhaps thought he could find some answer in the ancient Jedi teachings but all they revealed to him was more of the same. His loss of hope led to him abandoning it all and deciding to stay and die on Ahch-To. Lost in the anger and disappointment many fans have towards Luke’s character arc is that Hamill turns one amazing performance here.

I think this is why this movie has gotten such a massive backlash. We saw the heroes of the Original Trilogy triumph. The Emperor was defeated. Darth Vader was redeemed. The Republic was restored. That should have been it, right? Except that The Force Awakens showed us that it was not the end of the fight. On top of that, The Last Jedi shows us that our heroes are not as invincible or as capable as we first thought. They’re fallible. They’re capable of fatal errors. They’re human. And humans fail and fail miserably.

TLJ - Rose & FinnThe surprising thing though is that this is not news. The Force Awakens basically told us all of this information. Luke lost Ben Solo to Snoke and the dark side. His reaction was to flee to parts unknown. Leia’s Resistance cause is supported only by some elements of the New Republic and they, in turn, are blasted by the First Order. Much of what the heroes fought to do in the Original Trilogy has not resulted in a better galaxy. People like Rose and her sister and the orphans on Canto Bight continue to suffer under the heel of powers greater than they — no different to worlds owned by the Hutts in the Prequels or to the galaxy under the Empire.

I think what surprises fans is the reaction that characters like Luke and Han have had to this outcome. Of the Original Trilogy’s heroes, only Leia straps her blaster to her side and keeps fighting the good fight, leading others to oppose the new evil stretching across the galaxy. Han ran back to his smuggling ways while Luke lost himself in his grief and misery. Han tried to ignore it all. Luke took on all the Jedi Order’s collective failures and placed them on his shoulders. Is this what heroes should be doing? Is this what the bright-eyed farmboy from distant Tattooine would do?

Why not?

In the Original Trilogy, we saw Luke try to right the wrongs committed by others; Obi-Wan and Yoda foremost. They failed to see Darth Sidious. They failed to see the evil within Anakin. As a result, the Sith wrested control of the galaxy and nearly destroyed the Jedi Order. Luke was the balancing act, correcting their errors. However, The Last Jedi presents us with a Luke that has made errors of his own: not seeing the evil within Ben Solo, allowing Snoke to poison his mind and heart. Most of all, refusing to acknowledge that Ben could still return to the light when he thought to kill him. In that moment, Luke fails Ben and gives Snoke his most potent weapon. Watching all his hard work and effort go up in flames would break anyone. Finding that it’s nothing more than another part in a never-ending cycle might lead to someone deciding to step away and let it all disappear.

And what do we make of Snoke? Some people are furious that the Supreme Leader is betrayed and dies before we get to know anything about him. Which is odd given that, until the Prequels came along, we knew next to nothing about Emperor Palpatine. The big bad of the Original Trilogy? The ultimate villain? Yep. Knew zero about him. He gets two lines in A New Hope. A small cameo in The Empire Strikes Back. Then he’s made the big super-villain for Return of the Jedi. So Snoke is not alone in coming out of nowhere, with little background and then being betrayed by their apprentice. It seems to be tradition.

TLJ - Snoke ThroneIf Snoke’s death felt like a middle finger to the thousands of fan theory videos on YouTube, well, I’d agree with you. But I don’t think they meant it that way. I think Johnson and his crew were more interested in telling a story with Kylo Ren and Rey at its heart and, fact is, Snoke would just get in the way beyond this point. His role in this story was to organize the remnants of the Empire into the First Order, cause Ben’s fall to the dark side and bring about the next galactic conflict. With him out of the way, the story is allowed to branch off in new and different ways.

Rather than having the First Order in the hands of a competent despot like Snoke, now things are led by a deranged, emotionally-distraught Kylo Ren.  In some ways that makes Kylo Ren more dangerous but it also makes a less capable leader. Think to that last look General Hux gives him in the Rebel base on Crait. Ren is not Vader and Hux isn’t one of a myriad of Empire officers who will just follow because that’s the way it is. The Resistance might be brought to its tipping point but it’s the First Order that is left in a more precarious situation by movie’s end.

I feel like this rambling mess could go on for a long while. We haven’t even touched the concepts of disregarding legacy or dynastic bloodlines for a return to populist underdogs embodied in Rose and the orphans. We haven’t discussed the decision by Luke to face Ren as a Force projection of his best image and not the disheveled old man he became. We didn’t mention Captain Phasma and what exactly, if anything, Johnson and company wanted to do with her arc. We didn’t touch on Rey’s revelations of her parentage — the desperate search for meaning that ultimately led to a meaningless answer. I mean, I could go and on.

TLJ - ReyThat’s what I find most exciting about The Last Jedi. It’s a movie that seeks to get inside what you felt were the sacred elements and tear them all apart to find what is really valuable. To see the heroes as human once again. In the short time he was around the Resistance, Finn’s actions in The Force Awakens already have him labeled a hero. We know it was nothing of the sort — he was not being selfless or heroic. He was focusing on what he wanted — escape from the First Order or rescuing Rey — and nothing else. Here he’s confronted by Rose for being selfish just as Rey is confronting Luke for being selfish and just as Leia and Holdo are confronting Poe for being selfish.

To be a hero is to be selfless, to look beyond your immediate needs or pain to fight for the greater good. If you can do that, you can become a hero, a legend, a ray of hope in a dark universe. Your story will be told over and over again and inspire new generations to do the same. That is The Last Jedi’s ultimate message.

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“The Shape of Water” Review: Monsters Need Lovin’ Too

TSOW - PosterLegendary creature effects master Ray Harryhausen once said that the key to making a great movie monster was not to think of it as a monster, but as a being that was unique and whole and natural. It has its own set of rules and tics and biology and if it simply the inability of man to perceive it that may cause it to be monstrous. Look at the Pegasus in Clash of the Titans; a winged horse that behaves like a horse but can lift itself above the clouds and fly. Or the movements of Mighty Joe Young in his eponymous outing as a creature that can communicate with its human companions as well as rear back as a giant ape in a fight.  These creatures would exist in the world somewhere deep and far away.

I bring Harryhausen up because that similar love and care for the monsters of myth, fantasy and imagination pores out of writer/director Guillermo Del Toro. Take your pick. The insect monsters of Mimic. The ghosts of The Devil’s Backbone. The vampires of Blade 2. The jaegers and kaijus of Pacific Rim. The demons and creatures of the Hellboy movies. The Fawn of Pan’s Labyrinth. In each instance, there’s a ton of love just drenched over each and every one of these creations that, even on repeat viewings years later, new details can be spotted and appreciated. Whether it’s his own fantastical creations or an adaptation of a classic creature, Del Toro finds a way to make the creatures of the star of his tales while imbuing them with a timelessness. And he does this again with the Amphibian Man AKA “The Asset” of The Shape of Water.

Conceivably, The Shape of Water is the story of Elisa (Sally Hawkins) a custodian working in a secret research lab in Baltimore in the early 1960s. Orphaned and injured so that she’s grown up a mute her entire life, Elisa manages to get by with the help of friends like her neighbor Giles (Richard Jenkins) and her coworker Zelda (Octavia Spencer). It’s a simple life but one that features music, movies and plenty of hard-boiled eggs. One day, Agent Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon) arrives at the lab with a rare find from South America in town, the Asset (Doug Jones). It is his hope and that of his superior, General Hoyt (Nick Searcy), that the Asset can give the Americans the edge in the Space Race against the Soviet Union. Invariably, Strickland’s methods run counter to the wishes of Elisa, who strikes up a friendship with the Amphibian Man, and those of Dr. Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg), one of the scientists working at the lab. So an escape plan begins to be formed, one that will put everyone’s lives in danger.

TSOW - Strickland Elisa and ZeldaI do not want to reveal more than that about the plot. Working off the story by Del Toro, he and co-screenplay writer Vanessa Taylor, craft a tale that is not the most shocking, but one that manages to work despite how obvious some of those turns may be. Some of that is the conceit behind the story, that this is a fairy tale being told after the fact. As such, much like Pan’s Labyrinth, the events in The Shape of Water are history. They’re done. You’re told of them in the past tense. The end result may not be in question. It’s how you get there that is. And in that, the plot has plenty of turns.

Having seen her in such different movies as Never Let Me Go and Godzilla (2014), I kind of expected a good performance by Sally Hawkins. What I loved about it though is how honest and full it is. It could have been real easy to turn it into a Cinderella-like role, someone beat down by life and circumstance. After all, she’s an orphan, a mute, a single woman in the 1960s and a janitor. (If she came with dancing mice, Disney might have sued). Instead, Hawkins’ Elisa is someone who is independent, who dreams and fantasizes like any other person and does not see herself as anything lesser than any other person around her. When the time comes to act, she comes up with a plan of her own to free the Amphibian Man, recruits people she knows she can trust and sets it into motion.

Next to her, the other characters align as friends or foes. What’s interesting though is that each one is their own individual character with their own individual reasons for helping or trying to stop Elisa. Jenkins’ Giles gets the most screen-time as her neighbor, a struggling artist with his own desires and disappointments who share a floor above an old movie theater. He becomes Elisa’s partner in crime as he’s already her confidant and friend. Meanwhile, Spencer’s Zelda is halfway between a mother figure and a guardian angel for Elisa. She is her communication conduit to the rest of the world even as Elisa is her sounding board for Zelda’s every opinion. They are accustomed to being glossed over and looked past by the big brass and VIPs that stroll around their lab but, given they exist in their own world, it matters none to them. For his part, Stuhlbarg’s Dr. Bob Hoffstetler is equal parts mysterious and sad. He’s a man living a double life who is taken in by the idea of the Amphibian Man and what it can reveal. This will put him in danger.

TSOW - Elisa and AmphManI leave the last two major performances for here. First of all, Doug Jones continues to be one of the best two actors primarily focused on physical performance (the other being, of course, Andy Serkis). There is some of his Abe Sapien here, but Amphibian Man is not Abe. There’s some of the Fawn here, but Amphibian Man is not the Fawn. Instead, Amphibian Man is far more animalistic. He’s not a creature from some distant, fantasy land. He’s of our world but of a different corner of it. Given he mostly chitters, his form of communication is via the American Sign Language Elisa teaches him and through his eyes. Opposite to him is Shannon’s Agent Strickland, who is the closest the movie comes to an one-note character. In some ways, his villainy is visible a mile away. He looks down on Elisa and Zelda. He mistreats the Amphibian Man and ignores its ability to be more than an animal. He berates Dr. Hoffstetler. At home, he has the picturesque American family but he’s barely interested in them. His only goals are to keep climbing the ladder of success and respect he thinks are his by right. Let’s just say there’s a moment between him and Elisa that feels so perfect for the year we have had.

A great deal of the kudos for this movie have to go to the crew behind the scenes who manage to craft a 1960s Baltimore that looks as much as our imaginations would picture its settings as real life might teach us they really did. Whether its the production design by Paul D. Austerberry, the art direction of Nigel Churcher, the set decoration by Jeffrey A. Melvin and Shane Vieau — who make the lab where Zelda and Elisa work look like the most sci-fi lab of the 60s imaginable — or the costume design by Luis Sequeira, The Shape of Water is as much a work of fiction and fantasy as it is a place that existed and a time with which we are familiar. You also gotta highlight the work done by creature designer Mike Hill and the team at Legacy Effects in creating the Amphibian Man and bringing him to life. I also have to highlight the beautiful score by Alexandre Desplat, who creates a score that is built around harps, pianos, flutes, accordion and even whistling which gives it all a very French or South American feel. It’s very light and very fantastical for most of its turns and only gets serious when it the movie does. It really works as a companion to the emotions that a mute girl and a non-speaking creature can share.

And it is the unspoken which is at the center of this story. This is not just because our romantic leads are a mute girl and a fish-man from the jungles of South America. Instead each one of the characters involved has a depth to them. They all either carry a secret desire or have a secret side that could ruin them if it comes out. Elisa yearns for a true connection and finds it in the Amphibian Man. Strickland yearns for respect and finds it in abusing the Amphibian Man and dominating everyone below him. Giles yearns for youth and for meaning and seeks it in his former job and in the cute pie guy down the street.

TSOW - Giles and ElisaSome of that unspoken nature is aided by the world in which it takes place. By setting the story in the 1960s, Del Toro’s story has a certain sense of dread and apprehension due to Cold War paranoia that has seeped into American society. It also allows him to juxtapose ideas regarding identity and standing in society in a world that was changing but also trying desperately to stay right where it was. A person like Giles is ostracized for his desires and identity while someone like Strickland is valued and respected — until he isn’t — and he can run roughshod over the staff at the lab as he likes. And he can treat the Amphibian Man as a creature, an animal, and not something that thinks or feels or could express emotions, curiosity or love.

Love is central to this story and not just the unspoken kind that is shared between glances. This is very much an adult fairy tale where people engage in sexual activity of various kinds — right from the offset as a matter of fact. To some that may appear a little lurid. It has, I find it has another, deeper purpose. The sexual encounters — or lack thereof — express a lot of what these characters are like, what they want, what they lack, what they dream of and what they fight for. Some are matter of fact in their lovemaking, no interest in their partner’s desires. Others are more curious and exploratory. Some are repressed while others blossom. Tales and movies of this nature often leave elements like this buried in innuendo. It’s refreshing to see it brought to the forefront.

I will say that there are a couple of moments that can bring one out of the story. One in particular, a dance number, that is both unique and surprising. I mean, it in the context of the story it works but it’s so different from everything else that it can be jarring as you see it. There’s also some gross-out moments that, well, if you are timid and do not like the sight of blood, it could be uncomfortable. They don’t linger and things are not as gory as Blade 2 or Mimic but, well, let’s just say Del Toro continues to put holes in cheeks. You’ve been warned.

TSOW - Strickland and HoffstetlerWorking of the idea “what if the Creature from the Black Lagoon got the girl he was always after” Del Toro crafts another beautiful fairy tale. This movie is funny without being a comedy, scary and gross without being a horror movie and innocent without being for children. It’s very breezy and light and wants to sweep you in its tale of unlikely romance and dangerous paranoia to say things about the ability to see past the exteriors of people to see who and what they really are. The Shape of Water is wonderful and I continue to be amazed at what Guillermo Del Toro manages to come up with yet again. If you allow it to sweep you, it can sweep you far, far away.

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“Star Wars: The Last Jedi” Review: “Be Heroes Just for One Day”

TLJ - PosterHow do you review a Star Wars movie at this point? When the franchise was resurrected by Disney’s purchase of Lucasfilm, it felt like a big deal. Five years since that purchase, we’ve now had three new movies in as many years and it feels like the expectations and interest in them only increases with year after year. For a franchise which became a generational cornerstone, a changing of the entertainment model and a goliath of merchandise to still find ways to get bigger and bigger is at times surprising and at times scary. No opinion, positive or negative, will stop it from being a gigantic success. Ultimately though, the core remains the same: it’s a movie. It’s a story with plot, with characters and events that is working towards a central theme.

Turning from writer/director J.J. Abrams to writer/director Rian Johnson, the task for whoever followed up The Force Awakens was not simple. It required continuing the story of Rey, Finn, Poe and Kylo Ren while expanding the universe and providing answers that fans have demanded since that movie ended two years back. And manage all the expectations that have been building and building.  So did he succeed?

NOTE: This will be a Spoiler-Free Review. I do plan on another post with thoughts and spoilers. I do have to at least talk a bit about the plot but I recommend going in completely free of any information. So if you want to leave, here’s your chance. Go see it.

The Last Jedi continues right where The Force Awakens left off. The First Order, angered over their defeat at Starkiller Base, continues the war against the Resistance, which is itself scattered due to the toppling of the New Republic’s government. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), Commander Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and their forces try to find a way to escape the counterattack by General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Meanwhile, neophyte Force user Rey (Daisy Ridley) has traveled to the island of Ahch-To and found long-missing Jedi Master Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) in a quest to bring him back to the Resistance. Can she convince him that the galaxy is in peril and needs the last Jedi to return? Can she do it before Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) finds them?

TLJ - ReyThe first thing that needs to be said is that Johnson does a fine job of continuing with the established palate and sensibilities that Abrams established in Awakens. He does add some flair here and there — the very red throne room of Snoke, the way Poe’s X-Wing dances and weaves, the red sand kicking up over the land of Crait — but he manages to keep things very much humming in a way that will appear normal for Star Wars fans. Even the vistas and scenes in Canto Bight harken back to the images more commonly seen during the Prequels. Johnson also displays a deft hand with the actors and their dialogue, keeping it from becoming ponderous.

The cast does a good job overall. Ridley, Isaac, Driver, Gleeson and John Boyega continue the paths that their characters established in Awakens. Ridley and Driver in particular are called to be the center of the story and they interplay with one another’s characters over who will fall to who’s side. Isaac for his part is instead forced to go through a growth spurt — from cocky ace pilot to someone who can think about the greater needs. For that he relies on Fisher and on newcomer Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo. He’s taught some harsh lessons about leadership. Boyega, meanwhile, is teamed up with newcomer Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico and is given his own mission to help the Resistance. Some people have issues with Tran and Boyega’s quest but I’ll admit that it did not bother me as much while recognizing that the two had good rapport and it highlights one of the key points of the story. But more of that in a moment.

Of the older cast, the highlight here has to be Hamill’s return to Luke Skywalker. The farm boy we met back in 1977 has grown up in the intervening forty years and his life in the Jedi path has taken a lot out of him and this comes out in his performance. The Force Awakens implied that things did not turn out as planned for him or for the Jedi and he makes sure you feel the complexity of his losses. He is as much a man lost as he is one certain of his path before Rey arrives. Meanwhile Carrie Fisher, in her final performance before her passing, continues to deliver one of the more complex characters in Star Wars lore. She’s a mother to the Resistance as well as its leader and figure. She’s having to deal with the various personalities under her command, the needs of the ragtag group looking to her as well as fighting the First Order and her own son. Fisher managed to mix pride, disappointment, love and desperation in the various scenes she has and it’s sad that we won’t get to see how her arc would have ended.TLJ - Leia & Poe

Johnson brings some of the people who’ve worked on his films before like cinematographer Steve Yedlin and editor Bob Ducsay while mixing in some of the people behind the scenes that have already worked on a Star Wars movie, like music composer John Williams, costume designer Michael Kaplan, stunt coordinator Nicole Chapman and the visual effects teams from Industrial Light and Magic. They help him not only bring things to life but to keep it looking and sounding as much like a continuation of the story started in Awakens.  From the space above D’Qar through the streets of Canto Bight and onto the salted landscape of Cait, the movie looks and sounds like Star Wars should. The creature effects for everything from the porgs to the fathiers to whatever that seal-cow thing on Ahch-To was (you’ll know it when you see it) is vintage Star Wars.

And vintage Star Wars is what is at the heart of The Last Jedi. More specifically, how it does not want to be that.

In some ways, The Force Awakens had to hew closer to the Original Trilogy than it probably even wanted because it needed to prove to fans that was not the Prequels — whose specter still loomed large in the minds of many a fan. The problem it caused was that it immediately created an expectation that this Sequel Trilogy would follow on the footsteps of the Original Trilogy, with Snoke as the new Palpatine, Kylo Ren as the new Darth Vader, Rey as the new Luke, Luke as a new Old Ben Kenobi and so on. That might have been pleasant and interesting on some level. But it would have also limited the story to being a retread of something old and already experienced.

Johnson chooses to instead go in wild new ideas and directions with the table set for him by Abrams. The classic characters, set 34 years apart from their Original Trilogy versions, are allowed to grow and change and develop both new quirks and new failings. The First Order is allowed to not be a mirror copy of the Empire — as it should not really be.  Kylo Ren is called out by Snoke for trying to be a Vader fanboy. And choices made by Abrams that appeared to have significance are tossed aside to allow their characters to strike out in new and different ways.

TLJ - Kylo Ren

That said, not every choice Johnson makes is perfect. I do wish some of the storyline elements had been streamlined in order to make things easier to understand. Had the escape from D’Qar to Crait been shortened and Finn and Rose’s quest started then, then maybe, it would have made more sense for what followed. There’s also one sequence that feels right out of Harry Potter more than it does Star Wars.  And a few characters’ decisions, while defensible in regards to the overall theme, are difficult to accept within the context of the story. But I’ll save any more detail for a spoiler post.

So what is this central theme at the heart of The Last Jedi? Hope. Having hope. Holding on to hope. Finding it after you have lost it or it has been taken away from you. Believing in things, having faith in them, despite the way things may look in the immediacy. The First Order works tirelessly to destroy the Resistance once and for all. Snoke and Kylo Ren are desperate to find and kill Luke Skywalker while trying to turn Rey to the dark side to end the Jedi forever. Even characters like Benicio Del Toro’s DJ — morally-ambiguous and gray — are present to remind heroes that the best thing to do is to look out for number one and cut the foolish notions of the Resistance behind. After all, if there’s no difference between the First Order and the Resistance, why should you care who triumphs?

But then it shows us characters like Rose or the orphans on Canto Bight: characters for whom people like Luke Skywalker and Finn are legends for standing up to evil and rejecting it. People they aspire to become and wish to emulate. There is great power in being that symbolic hero that everyone looks up to.  There’s also a moment of recognition that being that can be a burden that not everyone can live up to all the time. But just as importantly, it’s the recognition that heroes and legends are fallible. That they’re human and they err and they screw things up and they fail as much as they succeed. But that their failings are not why they are remembered or idolized. Instead, it’s because they choose to get up and fight for what is right and true time and again.

TLJ - X-Wing

Like I said, I’ll touch on more criticisms and praise on a spoiler post. For right now, let me leave you with this: I really liked The Last Jedi. I find it sits well alongside the rest of the Star Wars canon, even as it proceeds to tear it from its old ways. At its core, Star Wars has always been the story of young people looking towards the horizon, dreaming of adventure, longing for a life of meaning greater than they have. Luke Skywalker dreamed of such a life and found it. Along the way, he inspired countless little boys and girls to look towards their own horizons and dream of a different life. His story won’t ever fade because that longing is universal. That need to dream is universal.

Given the year we’ve had that might be the most important idea we could leave the theater with.

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My Five Favorite Saints Games Under Sean Payton & Drew Brees

Saints - Brees & PaytonI have been enjoying the hell out of this New Orleans Saints season. How could I not? After losing the first two games to the Minnesota Vikings and New England Patriots, the Saints have gone on an 8-game winning streak! From starting the season thinking that another mediocre time was about to start to seeing them become one of the best teams in the NFL, it’s been a roller coaster of a season so far. And while, yes, there’s every criticism that this run is built on the backs of some awful teams — like the Miami Dolphins and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers — it doesn’t mean that they have not been fun!

In any case, there has been some discussion on Twitter in regards to this last game and how it was one of everyone’s favorite Saints games under Sean Payton & Drew Brees. Which got me thinking which games would I put in that list. So far, not counting playoff games, the head coach/QB combo has racked up a total of 169 games together. That’s from 2006 through this past Sunday with the 2012 season taken out thanks to Roger Goodell. Of course, to be fair, I had to set aside the playoff games (particularly the 2009-10 run to Super Bowl 44). I’ll also special mention the 2006 Monday Night Football game against the Falcons that reopened the Superdome. It was a great game and will be forever etched in my mind, but it’s akin to putting the Super Bowl there — it’s got too much going for it to let any others get in.

With all of that preamble, here are my five favorite Saints games of the Sean Payton/Drew Brees era.

Saints - Will SmithNumber 5: 10/04/2009 vs New York Jets. Final Score: 24-10. I don’t know if y’all remember that 09 season (rhetorical question of course) but after winning against the Lions, Eagles and Bills, there was a lot of expectations in regards to the back-to-back games the Saints would have against the equally-unbeaten Jets and Giants. Time to prove if the Saints were for real. What is tough to recall is that the offense didn’t record its first touchdown until 6 minutes were left in the game via a Pierre Thomas 1-yd run. What really separated the two teams was the Saints defense. The big difference were a couple of interceptions from Darren Sharper, including a 99-yd pick-six, and the signature play: Will Smith’s strip-sack of Mark Sanchez with Remi Ayodele falling on the ball in the endzone. After this game, I recall thinking “this team is a contender.”

Number 4: 10/23/2011 vs Indianapolis Colts. Final Score: 62-7. I was at this game back when I worked at the Dome during my grad school days. Normally, you just want a good game but with the Peyton Manning-less Colts coming into town, I was hoping for a good win. (Good wins mean fans start leaving early to keep partying outside. That means you get to go home sooner). I don’t think anyone expected what we got. Drew Brees going 31 of 35, 325 yds and 5 TDs. Mark Ingram, Pierre Thomas and Darren Sproles rushing for 236 yards. Cam Jordan and Jonathan Vilma each recovering a fumble. Setting a team record for most points put on an opponent was one way to send fans home happy. Look, anyone who’s ever played Madden has, at one point or another, turned it to the easiest setting to see what that would be like. This was the only time I can recall ever seeing that happening in real life.

Saints - WatsonNumber 3: 11/01/2015 vs New York Giants. Final Score: 52-49.  If there’s one thing that has defined the Saints under Payton/Brees is their passing offense. It’s Drew Brees lobbing bombs to everyone from Marques Colston to Jimmy Graham and picking apart defenses with surgical precision. Usually when they’re on, opponents wither. This was a rare instance when the Giants swung back, blow for blow, until the very end. Drew Brees throws for 511 yds and 7 TDs? Eli Manning goes for 350 yds and 6 TDs. Odell Beckham Jr grabs 3 TDs? Brandin Cooks and Willie Snead get 2 each. It was an insane game where whoever got the ball last was going to win. Good thing it was the Saints who finally edged it out thanks to a Kai Forbath FG at the end.

Number 2: 11/19/2017 vs Washington Redskins. Final Score: 34-31. There were many games I could have picked for the “Saints pull victory out of jaws of defeat” choice. There’s the one-two punch of the 2009 Dolphins-Redskins games or last year’s furious comeback against the Chargers. But given it’s the game freshest in my mind, I had to favor this one. Besides, this was a game that was all but done. Less than 5 minutes and down 15? In a game in which Washington’s defense has all but clamped down on the Saints’ offense while the Redskins have moved the ball at will? After Washington made it 31-16 with 5:58 left, the Saints went in 2 drives of 13 plays that took 4:10 to tie the game.  They even punted the ball, forced a massive 3-and-out in order to get the ball and get the touchdown that would bring them within 2. Once the game was tied, I don’t think anyone believed it would end any other way than a Who Dat win. I love that this is something the Saints do now after many years of being on other end.

Saints - Devery

Number 1: 11/12/2009 vs New England Patriots. Final Score: 38-17. You know how I said the Jets/Giants combo in 09 was the time for the Saints to prove themselves? I think this is the game where the idea of a Super Bowl title really crystallized in my mind as a possibility. And why not? Monday Night Football against the best team of the decade and they were completely beaten off the field that night. It’s more than the 371 yds and 5 TDs Drew Brees threw. It’s more than Pierre Thomas and Mike Bell running for a combined 114 yds. It’s Devery Henderson finding himself completely open for Brees to throw him one of those TDs. It was Sedrick Ellis, Darren Sharper and Mike McKenzie (right off the street) coming through with key turnovers to stymie the NFL’s #2 offense at that point. It was forcing Bill Bellichick to say uncle and pull Tom Brady halfway through the fourth quarter. The Saints have had fewer outings better than this one.

But you know, what prompted this was that silly run-first game the Saints had at Buffalo. So there’s every possibility that there’s more, better and crazier games could be in our immediate horizon. I’m just glad this season has been fun and exciting. That’s all you really can hope to ask from year to year. Here’s hoping the next 6+ games are just as good! WHO DAT!