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Fantastic Four Howl's Moving Castle Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

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Fantastic Four

     Superhero movies have had a lot of ups and downs in recent years. The successes of "X-Men," "Spider-Man," and their sequels seemed to herald a new age of quality comic- based movies, only to have the waters muddied with offerings like "The Punisher." As a result, I wasn't really sure what to expect from Marvel Comics' latest adaption, "Fantastic Four." And while it's a good thing my expectations weren't too high, it turned out to be a fun summer movie.
     For the uninitiated, the titular Fantastic Four are a group of superheroes who gain a number of unlikely powers from an accident involving cosmic radiation, and use those powers for good. Their leader is Mr. Fantastic, a super-genius who can stretch and mold his body like Silly Putty®. His obvious romantic interest is The Invisible Girl, whos obvious primary power is complemented by the ability to create force-field barriers. Her brother is The Human Torch, a man with the handy combination of self-immolation and fire-immunity, with flight thrown in on the side. Rounding out the team is The Thing, who is extraordinarily strong, nigh-invulnerable, and appears to be made out of solid rock. But like most recent superhero movies, this is an origin story, so none of this background is really need-to-know when you walk into the theater.
     While I try to minimize spoilers in my reviews, I feel a certain duty to mention that "Fantastic Four" is also an origin story for the titular super-group's favorite recurring nemesis, Doctor Doom. For those few readers who are already fans of the Fantastic Four, Doom's character will come as the biggest shock. And although I don't really know the full story of his background and powers, I know that they have been changed siginificantly for this movie. So if you're a fan, you'll need to be ready for possible disappointment in this area, or it could ruin your whole viewing experience.
     For everyone else, there's still a fair amount to nitpick if the spirit moves you. "Fantastic Four" contains more than its fair share of cliché, contrivance, and cheese. There are unecessary cheap gags, moments of inexpicable character behavior, and some noticeable timing problems. Plus our heroes have a nasty tendency to cause heinous collateral damage in the process of saving lives.
     The good news is that none of this brings the movie past the point of redemption. While I couldn't just overlook the scattered flaws, I was able to forgive them in light of the film's good points. Ultimately, "Fantastic Four" is a movie with heart. The characters are interesting and likeable. The dialogue is mostly clever. The action is entertaining. And it all combines into a solid package.
     And while, as usual, I've spent more time damning than praising, I liked "Fantastic Four." I even hope for a sequel, because I think that this is another story that will benefit from the same treatment that "Spider-Man," and "X-Men" received: with the introductions out of the way, the next movie can get straight to the meat, rather than ending right when we've gotten into the swing of things. But now I'm verging on criticism again, so I'd better end this review before I do the movie a disservice. I'm probably just upset that I couldn't find a way to work any of my favorite Doctor Doom jokes in this thing.



Howl's Moving Castle

     I'd like to think that by now, we've come to a point where I don't have to explain why the name Hayao Miyazaki, when attached to an upcoming film, fills me with such glee. If I am wrong, hopefully a brief reminder will suffice. Miyazaki, the man who created "Princess Mononoke" and "Spirited Away" now brings us "Howl's Moving Castle." And to be honest, I could probably save us all a lot of time by ending my review here, simply stating that this film did not let me down at all.
     Like many of Miyazaki's films, this one features an Ordinary Girl who unexpectadly finds herself on a Magical Journey with Unlikely Companions (as opposed to those that feature an Extraordinary Girl in similar circumstances). But, like so many times before, this formula is approached from a fresh angle, and feels entirely new. It is a fantastic tale of wizards and witches, of love and war, and should be well-received by adults and all but the youngest of children.
     Like all of Miyazaki's work, "Howl's Moving Castle" is beautifully drawn. The backgrounds are highly detailed, the scenes are full of life, and the titular castle - while apparently animated using fairly simple techniques - is truly amazing to behold. The human characters, as usual, are something of an exception to this. However, the movie features few enough important human characters that their somewhat bland appearance causes no identification problems.
     There are a few points of confusion in "Howl's Moving Castle." Several events either go unexplained, or are justified by only a single, easily-missed line of dialogue. For instance, most of the movie takes place with the backdrop of a violent war. The cause of this war is mentioned early on, in the form of background characters discussing the disappearance of the neighboring nation's prince. Many viewers missed this line entirely, resulting in some confusion about later events. The good news is that most of these confusing points are minor, and can be easily overlooked in a world suffused with magic and fanciful technology.
     Unfortunately, it's easy for me to describe the few points I had problems with (such as the somewhat too- tidy ending, which I must forgive since it is a children's story), and hard for me to describe the fact that I loved everything else about this movie. It simply has an enchanting quality that makes you love its characters, and care about their ordeals. Even the villains are in their own way loveable - like many of Miyazaki's recent works, "Howl's Moving Castle" features little in the way of genuine evil.
     And still I haven't done the movie justice, because it is also full of action, humor, drama, and some very powerful metaphor. I could probably devote a paragraph to the wonders of each, but I wouldn't know where to begin, nor would I wish to spoil anything with specific examples. Nonetheless, I somehow feel like I'm failing "Howl's Moving Castle" by not writing page upon page of glowing praise. It really is that good.
     I'm sure it surpises no one that I liked "Howl's Moving Castle." And I'll admit that I might be biased when it comes to Miyazaki. But I feel that I can confidently recommend this movie to anyone and everyone. If you have a heart, I think you'll love this movie too. And if you don't, maybe you'll be lucky enough to have someone give it back to you.



Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith

     After 28 years, the saga is finally over. George Lucas' epic is complete. The third installment of the "Star Wars" prequel trilogy, "Revenge of the Sith," has arrived, and it is a highly-polished turd. Polished, because this movie is largely beautiful to look at, and has a few memorable highlights. But don't be mistaken - it was a bad movie.
     When you strip away all of the fat, you find that "Revenge of the Sith" has a plot, and it's the very one we knew it had to be. This is the story of Anakin Skywalker's fall to the dark side of the Force, of the Emperor's rise to absolute power, and of the extermination of the Jedi. But when I reference "fat," I'm referring to the fact that seemingly little of the movie's two and a half hour run-time has anything to do with furthering this plot.
     I think an example will be instructive. During the opening scroll we are introduced to General Grievous, the diabolical leader of the evil droid army. This villain is extremely cool-looking, and spends early parts of the movie giving us brief hints of his capabilities, and bringing up questions about his background. When he finally springs into real action, it leads to a brief but exciting lightsaber-duel between himself and our hero, Obi-Wan Kenobi, followed by a laughably absurd chase scene involving a high-tech unicycle and a giant lizard, and ending finally with Grievous going the way of Jango Fett and Darth Maul. So General Grievous was a cool-looking and cool-fighting (and horribly voice-acted) character, who of course dies. What's the big deal? The trouble is that nothing Grievous does, alive or dead, effects the plot in any way. His presence adds nothing to the film, except to give something for Obi-Wan to do while Anakin Skywalker is being gradually turned to the dark side. But the movie would not be fundamentally changed if Obi-Wan had spent that time having a nice nap.
     Huge chunks of the movie are occupied with needless but pretty filler just like this. We are treated to five minutes worth of fighting on the wookie home-world, including a Chewbacca cameo, that has no relation to the plot. We watch R2-D2 engaged in comical combat on multiple occasions, again for no apparent reason.
     I might be more forgiving of the various action scenes (after all, this is an action movie), if they had been more satisfying. But the epic duels of "Revenge of the Sith" - both those that mattered and those that didn't - marched right past the line of "exciting" or "thrilling" and ended squarely in "over the top." For every cool, intense moment of fighting, there was a lizard chasing a unicycle, or two guys swinging lightsabers while they swing from melting cables.
     It's almost a bigger shame that are a few great moments in "Revenge of the Sith," so that I can't just write off the whole film. The final showdown between Obi-Wan and Anakin has a great beginning and great resolution, including some moments of genuinely gripping emotion. The soon-to-be Emperor Palpatine's machinations are just as fun as in the last two "Star Wars" installments. The destruction of the Jedi order has some very cool scenes, including one that's downright chilling. These are glimpses of the movie I wanted to be watching.
     There are a lot of "if only's" I could go on about at this point. "If only the they'd focussed more on the plot." "If only someone had tightened up the dialogue." "If only they'd cut Darth Vader's final line." But it's not my job here to talk about the many, many ways that "Revenge of the Sith" could have been better. I have to tell you how it was. And it was not very good.