SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) – Not As Fun As It Should Be

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As origin stories go, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY (2018) is okay, but that’s about the best I can say for it.

There are two main reasons why this tale of Han Solo’s early years didn’t quite work for me. Even though the events chronicled in this movie were about parts of Solo’s life not known before now, all the big parts, the stuff that happened in the original STAR WARS trilogy and in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015), are known, and so it’s a challenge when telling a background tale about a character whose fate is signed, sealed, and delivered.  It’s a challenge that I don’t think the filmmakers handled all that well here.

And second, I never quite bought Alden Ehrenreich as Han, the role made famous by Harrison Ford.

A young Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich) and his girlfriend Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) attempt to leave their home planet of Corellia in search of a better life where Han can fulfill his dream of being a pilot, but to do so they have to escape the clutches of the evil worm queen, Lady Proxima (Linda Hunt). Han escapes, but Qi’ra does not. Han vows to return for Qi’ra.

But first Han crosses paths with Tobias Beckett (Woody Harrelson), a thief, and they attempt to steal the valuable fuel known as coaxium for a crime lord known as Dryden Vos (Paul Bettany). Along the way, Han meets and befriends the Wookie Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo). Gee, I wonder how that friendship will work out?

Han also discovers that working for Dryden is none other than— Qi’ra! What are the odds? Not very high, I can tell you that! Anyway, this convenient plot point saves Han the trouble of having to go back to Corellia to rescue her.

In order for the heist to be successful, they need a fast ship and a fearless pilot, and so they seek out Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) and his ship, the Millennium Falcon. Together, this band of merry thieves set out to steal the highly explosive coaxium and sell it to Dryden so they can all get a piece of the proverbial pie. Of course, everyone and their grandmother is a thief and a scoundrel in this movie, and so no one’s to be trusted, which is supposed to be a source of fun, but that’s another place where this film does not score high.

It’s just not as fun as it should be.

First and foremost, Alden Ehrenreich simply didn’t win me over as Han Solo. Sure, he has huge shoes to fill, as Harrison Ford created perhaps the most memorable character in the entire STAR WARS franchise. But I’m not so stuck on Ford that I can’t envision another actor in the role.  I mean, I’m a huge William Shatner fan, but I like Chris Pine just fine as Captain Kirk in the new STAR TREK movies.

Ehrenreich has flashes where he nails the role. I thought his scenes with Chewbacca were very good, and he seemed a natural fit at the controls of the Millennium Falcon. But most of the time when I watched him on-screen I simply didn’t believe that this was the same man who we would later meet in STAR WARS (1977). The film features moments where Han’s hardened cynical personality takes shape, but for the most part, the story here is more interested in making sure the audience knows that in spite of being a smuggler, Han Solo really is a good guy at heart.

Trouble is, based on his actions in the other STAR WARS movies, we already know this.

Ehrenreich also isn’t helped much by the script by Jonathan Kasdan and Lawrence Kasdan. For some reason, most of the connections to the other STAR WARS movies fall flat, like Han’s line, “I have a good feeling about this,” which is supposed to poke fun at his famous line in STAR WARS, “I have a bad feeling about this,” a line that was repeated in subsequent movies. Again, the point here is to show that Han is a nice guy at this stage of his life and not yet the scoundrel he appears to be when he first meets Luke Skywalker.

But wouldn’t the better story have been to show how Han Solo became that scoundrel? We catch glimpses of these origins in this movie, but not many.

The scene where he pilots the Falcon and completes the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs ties in with a Han Solo quote from the first STAR WARS, but here, he’s already bragging about it and mentions it several times, as if the writers thought audiences wouldn’t have made the connection on their own.

The scene where Han gets his name is right out of THE GODFATHER (1972) and a million other movies where characters need to declare their name as they enter a new country, or in this case, a new planet.

I enjoyed Woody Harrelson as Tobias Beckett, although his appearance here isn’t as memorable as his appearance in two other genre series, as the villainous colonel in WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES (2017), and as Haymitch Abernathy in the HUNGER GAME movies.

Emilia Clarke was okay as Qi’ra, although the character is very underdeveloped.  She’s made shady on purpose, as we’re not supposed to know where her loyalties lie, but the unintended result is that we really don’t know much about her. Because of this, I didn’t really care all that much about her.

Donald Glover makes for an enjoyable Lando Calrissian, although he doesn’t really add that much to the character.  We don’t really learn anything new about Lando.

Paul Bettany was solid as the villainous Dryden, but I enjoyed him more as Vision in the AVENGERS movies. Thandie Newton does well in a small role as Val, one of Beckett’s closest friends and fellow thief.

SOLO was directed by Ron Howard, and truth be told it’s been a while since I’ve really enjoyed a Ron Howard film. I was disappointed with his IN THE HEART OF THE SEA (2015), which I thought was a superficial take on the book on which it was based.  The last movie by Howard that I really enjoyed was FROST/NIXON (2008), and my favorite Howard movie remains APOLLO 13 (1995).

Technically, SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY looks fine, although at times the cinematography can be a bit dark. I thought the pacing was off as well.  The first half of the film was heavy on action and early character development suffered.  Later things tended to slow down. I thought the escape from Kessel was the best sequence in the movie.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016) worked as a prequel because it was a prequel to an event: the stealing of the Death Star plans, and while audiences knew what happened to those plans and how they were used, we knew nothing about the how they were stolen or about the people responsible for the daring theft.

SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is less successful because it’s an origin story for a character, Han Solo, and while it’s interesting to learn a bit about Han’s background, it doesn’t change the fact that audiences know his fate exactly, and so it’s hard to rally around a story about a character when you how that character’s story ends. The origin tale needs to be so good you forget about the Han Solo from the later movies, and that’s simply not the case here.

ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY also worked because it was clearly a standalone film. It was all in, and the film took no prisoners. While SOLO is being marketed as a standalone movie, there are hints all over the place that a sequel is in order.

There’s also a big reveal featuring another STAR WARS character, but even that didn’t really do much for me.

At the end of the day, the biggest knock against SOLO: A STAR WARS STORY is it’s simply not all that fun. A movie about a young Han Solo should be rollicking and gutsy, two things that this movie are not, as it never seems to go as far as it should.

The result is a rather tepid origin tale.

Han Solo deserves better.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com. Print version:  $18.00. Includes postage! Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.crossroadpress.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Print version:  $18.00.  Includes postage. Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

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Luke Skywalker is Back in Action in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

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At long last, Luke Skywalker speaks!

As much as I liked STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015),  I was left disappointed by the fact that after characters spent the entire film searching for the elusive Luke Skywalker, he shows up for a mere half-second in the final reel and doesn’t utter a word.

Hey, it’s Luke Skywalker!  Cue end credits.

So, for me, the thing I was most looking forward to about STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017), the latest chapter in the STAR WARS saga, was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action. And since he finally gets to speak some dialogue and then some, his presence here was easily my favorite part of the movie.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI picks up immediately where its predecessor, STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) left off.  And so we find the Resistance fighters led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) battling the evil First Order led by Leia’s and the now deceased Han Solo’s son Ben, who goes by the bad-guy moniker Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  Yup, you might say the current STAR WARS battles are more of a domestic dispute!

Actually, the villain who is calling the shots is the supremely evil Snoke (Andy Serkis), as Kylo Ren works for him, but any acute viewer can spot the writing on the wall a mile away, that the real villain in this new trilogy is no doubt the conflicted Kylo Ren.

Things are not looking good for our merry band of Resistance fighters.  They are outgunned and outmanned by the superior First Order forces, even with the presence of young new heroes Finn (John Boyega) and Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).

And so it’s up to young Rey (Daisy Ridley) to convince the Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) to come out of retirement and help their cause, which is no easy task since Luke is a cranky old man now, disillusioned with the world, and he wants no part in any more of its conflicts.

It takes old friend R2D2 to point out that years earlier it was another old Jedi who was asked to help the cause, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Kenobi said yes.  And when Luke still hesitates, the spirit of Yoda arrives to set him straight.

In spite of the box office records that STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI is currently setting, the film really is a mixed bag.

For me, the best part of this film was seeing Luke Skywalker back in action on the big screen. His scenes are clearly the best in the movie.

Just as interesting are the scenes with newcomer Rey (Daisy Ridley).  Her scenes with Luke resonate.  As she tries to convince Luke to join the Resistance, she’s also trying to learn more about who she is, and just why it is that the Force is so strong with her.

And as much as I enjoyed Luke in this movie, and most of this is due in large part ot Mark Hamill’s performance, the two most interesting characters in the film are Rey and villain Kylo Ren. As Rey searches for answers to her identity, she becomes increasingly connected to Kylo Ren, as their strength with the Force allows them to communicate with each over vast distances, and each wants to convert the other. Rey wants to turn Kylo Ren from the Dark Side, while Kylo Ren wants Rey to join him in his ambitious plot to pretty much take over the galaxy.

And Kylo Ren is also connected to Luke Skywalker, since Luke had tried to train his nephew years earlier, but failed when Ren turned to the Dark Side.

Kylo Ren is a very interesting character, with some pretty neat conflicts.  He sees himself as the next Darth Vader, but he continually falls short, and part of this is he’s the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, and their connection is also strong with him.  Yet, to shut them down, he murdered his own father in the last movie, and this time around he promises the same fate to his uncle, Luke Skywalker.

All these parts of the movie work and work well, and the good news is these three characters do make up the bigger portion of this movie.  However, the other stories, the ones involving the Resistance led by Leia, and featuring subplots with Finn and Poe Dameron, pretty much fall flat.  They suffer largely from a “been there, done that” situation. We’ve been down this road before in previous STAR WARS films.

The First Order’s pursuit of the small Resistance fleet which takes up the entire movie is rather boring, and the smaller plot where Finn and Poe try to incapacitate the Rebel ship chasing them is rather redundant and could have appeared in any STAR WARS movie.

I found myself only interested in the story which featured the triangle of Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker.

Written and directed by Rian Johnson, known for his science fiction thriller LOOPER (2012) starring Bruce Willis and Joseph Gordon-Levitt, a film I liked a lot, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI looks as amazing as you would expect.  The special effects are all top-notch, and it does contain some decent scenes.  When Luke and Kylo Ren finally face each other, the moment is up there with some of the most dramatic and memorable scenes in the series.

But running at 152 minutes, making it the longest STAR WARS movie, it does tend to be a bit overlong and does struggle somewhat with the pacing.  Let’s put it this way.  It felt like 152 minutes.

It was great seeing Mark Hamill back on the big screen as Luke Skywalker.  Hamill is a very good actor who has been missed in the movies over the years, as his career took a different path which saw him do more voice-over roles in animated features.  For those of us who grew up watching young Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star and eventually become a Jedi to confront his own father Darth Vader, it’s a special experience to watch him here as an older man once again drawn into another conflict, but this time as the older, wiser force. If there’s any downside here, it’s that the film doesn’t include enough Luke Skywalker.

That being said, both Daisy Ridley as Rey and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are strong enough performers that they appear more than up to the task to take on the next movie on their own. I like Daisy Ridley a lot, and I enjoyed her here every bit as much as I enjoyed Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker.

I was lukewarm to Adam Driver as Kylo Ren in the previous movie, but he really has grown into the role, and he’s much more of a formidable presence here.  Even better, his inner conflict does not appear forced, and so he’s that rare villain who isn’t just flat-out dark and evil. It’s a neat performance.  He also gets rid of his silly mask in this movie, and that’s definitely a plus.

The rest of the actors are all okay. Of course, Carrie Fisher passed away shortly after filming her scenes for this one.  She’s fine here as Leia, but honestly, the character doesn’t fare as well as Luke Skywalker does in this movie or as Han Solo did in the last.  She’s simply not as interesting a character, nor does she have a whole lot to do in either film.  Still, it was sad to watch her in this film, knowing that in real life, she’s gone, and the character will not appear again.

Both John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron are fine in their roles, but they’re stuck in storylines that aren’t so interesting.

Andy Serkis is on hand doing what does best, performing as a CGI/motion capture character, this time playing the villain Snoke, and when he’s on-screen he’s sufficiently menacing, but he’s not onscreen all that much.  I enjoyed Kelly Marie Tran as newcomer Rose Tico, who helps Finn here, and it was also fun to see Domhnall Gleeson return as General Hux, who constantly operates in the shadow of the bigger evil villains.

And the amazing John Williams returns once again to score yet another STAR WARS movie, and once more, the music is excellent.

The screenplay by director Johnson is okay.  Again, the Luke/Rey/Kylo Ren arc is the best part, while the rest seems like a rehash of previous STAR WARS movies.

Also, in general, the whole conflict in these “star wars” just isn’t all that interesting.  In fact, it’s pretty darn boring because the writing in these films has never been good enough to spark interest in its larger universe.  The best stories have been the small ones, the conflict between Luke and Darth Vader, Vader’s conflict between the Dark Side and the good, and here the conflicts with Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke.

Whenever the stories revert to the larger conflict at hand, which is what a lot of the second trilogy did and is largely why those three films were so lifeless, the tales fall flat. I don’t really care about the Rebellion, or the Resistance, or the politics of these worlds because, again, the writing has never been good enough to make me care.

So, every time characters and events in STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI dealt with the ongoing conflict between the First Order and the Resistance, I yawned, but when it focused on the very specific conflicts between Rey, Kylo Ren, and Luke Skywalker, I was all in.

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI will not be the last STAR WARS movie, but with Rey and Kylo Ren poised as the future of the STAR WARS universe, it may be the last one to look so keenly on its past.

—END—

 

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

Movie Lists: The STAR WARS movies

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Empire Strikes Back poster

Welcome back to the MOVIE LIST column, where we look at lists pertaining to the movies.

Up today, the STAR WARS franchise.  Yep, with the latest STAR WARS film STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017) set to hit theaters today, December 14, 2017, here’s a look at how the previous films in the series rank:

  1. THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980)

For my money, this first STAR WARS sequel is the best of the lot.  Following upon the heels of the original, EMPIRE is darker, bolder, and more innovative and exciting than its predecessor. All three leads- Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher grew into their roles here, and much more is revealed about one of the screen’s greatest villains, Darth Vader (David Prowse, with James Earl Jones providing the voice).  John Williams’ iconic Darth Vader theme, the Imperial March, is introduced here, making it hard to believe it didn’t exist in the first movie.

In a brilliant stroke, to keep things fresh, George Lucas stepped out of the director’s chair in favor of Irvin Kershner, something Lucas would stumble over in the second trilogy with his ill-fated decision to direct all three films.  EMPIRE also has the best script in the series, written by Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan.  Before ROGUE ONE came along, EMPIRE had the darkest ending in the series, with its now infamous reveal about the relationship between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader.  Also the film that introduced Yoda.

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2. STAR WARS (1977)

The movie that started it all.  I still remember when this one first hit the theaters, back in the summer of 1977.  When I saw this on the big screen that summer at the age of 13, I was blown away. Having grown up watching STAR TREK and LOST IN SPACE on TV, I had never seen such amazing special effects before.

Instantly drawn into the story of Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia, and Han Solo, I was along for the ride from the get-go, and I still haven’t forgotten the awe and wonder I felt entering the strange alien worlds and spaceship of this ultra imaginative movie.  Also featured my all-time favorite actor, Peter Cushing, playing the villain, Grand Moff Tarkin, which gave me the second opportunity to see Cushing on the big screen, the first being the inferior Amicus adventure AT THE EARTH’S CORE (1976).

Rousing iconic score by John Williams, and brilliant directing by George Lucas make this one a classic for the ages.  It’s now called STAR WARS: EPISODE IV: A NEW HOPE to fit in with the entire trilogy, but back in the day when it first came out, it was just STAR WARS, and rightly so.

3. STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

After a sub par and inferior second trilogy, STAR WARS returned to the top with this energetic and exciting new entry by writer/director J.J. Abrams, who earlier achieved similar success with his excellent STAR TREK reboots.  The spirit of STAR WARS seemed to be missing in the previous trilogy, but it’s back and stronger than ever here.

With the return of familiar characters like Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Princess Leia, and newcomers like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), this sequel which takes place thirty years after the events of RETURN OF THE JEDI, completely recaptures the magic of the original STAR WARS movies.  My only gripe is that Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) doesn’t appear until the very end.

rogue one poster

4. ROGUE ONE – A STAR WARS STORY (2016)

The first stand-alone STAR WARS movie was a mixed bag for me the first time around.  I thought the film did a poor job with character development which was a major deal here since the film contains nearly all new characters.  But I liked this one much better upon a second viewing.  Its story, the tale of how the rebels stole the Death Star plans used by Luke Skywalker and the rebels in the original STAR WARS film, is a good one, and it even addresses the long-standing joke of how inept the Empire must have been to have built the Death Star with a glaring weakness that the rebels could expose so easily.  ROGUE ONE makes it clear that this supposed weakness was not by accident.

Excellent storytelling gets better as the movie goes along as it moves towards its powerhouse finale, the darkest by far in the entire series.  Also notable for its sometimes impressive CGI re-creation of Peter Cushing playing Grand Moff Tarkin.  On the big screen, I thought he looked cartoonish, but at home on my TV screen he looked a bit more genuine.

 

5. STAR WARS: EPISODE III: REVENGE OF THE SITH (2005)

I am really not a fan of this second series, but I do like the third and final film in which we learn how Anakin Skywalker becomes Darth Vader.  Part of the problem with this series is it’s a prequel. Another part is that it simply takes too long to tell its story.  The three movie arc was unnecessary.  Had REVENGE OF THE SITH been a standalone film, it would have been better received.

Other problems with this series: a lack of imagination and fun.  They are about as cold and lifeless as one can get in a supposed adventurous science fiction fantasy tale.  They also feature a stoic unimaginative actor in the lead as young Anakin, Hayden Christensen.

But I do like this third film, mostly because it succeeds in convincingly telling its tale of just why Anakin Skywalker chose the Dark Side in the first place.  In short, the Jedi were jerks to him, while the Emperor filled his head with flattery.  Most of the film is uneven, but the final reel is the best part and well worth the wait.

 

6. STAR WARS: EPISODE II: ATTACK OF THE CLONES (2002)

Completely unnecessary movie in the STAR WARS canon, notable mostly for Christopher Lee’s presence as Count Dooku, and Natalie Portman’s portrayal of the increasingly tragic Padme.

 

7. RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983)

I know, a lot of people love this one, but I’ve disliked it since I first saw it at the theater.  Following the masterful EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, JEDI is clunky in its story telling, struggles with pacing, and doesn’t come close to capturing the awe and magic of the first two movies.  When the film should have been reaching new heights in its tale of light vs. dark, it instead reverts to cutesiness, introducing us to huggable Ewoks, who do nothing but take away valuable screen time from Luke and Darth Vader.

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Darth Maul, one of the few good things about THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999).

8. STAR WARS: EPISODE I: THE PHANTOM MENACE (1999)

My least favorite of the series.  Did we really need an entire movie about Anakin Skywalker’s life as a little boy?  In a word, no.

Notable for Liam Neeson’s presence as Qui-Gon Jinn, and the very cool villain Darth Maul.  Yep, Qui-Gon and Darth Maul are by far the two best characters in this movie, and they are both promptly killed off.  Shows you how good this movie is.

And there you have it.  A quick take on the STAR WARS movies.  I’ll be sure to update this list shortly to include the latest movie, STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (2017).

Until then, thanks for reading!

—Michael

LOGAN LUCKY (2017) – Light and Fun but Short on Laughter

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Logan-Lucky poster

Director Steven Soderbergh has enjoyed a long and varied career.  He’s made dramas [SEX, LIES, AND VIDEOTAPE (1989)], comedies [MAGIC MIKE (2012), science fiction [SOLARIS (2002), thrillers [SIDE EFFECTS (2013), and of course the George Clooney OCEAN 11 movies.

With LOGAN LUCKY (2017), Soderbergh returns to comedy in this lighthearted tale about two brothers planning an improbable heist at the Charlotte Motor Speedway. And while it appears that everyone involved is having a great time, it doesn’t always translate to full-throated laughter.

Things are not going well for Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum).  He loses his construction job because of a bad leg, and his ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) is about to move out-of-state with her new husband, which will make it more difficult for the out-of-work Jimmy to see his young daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) on a regular basis.

So, Jimmy plots with his bartender brother Clyde (Adam Driver) to rob the Charlotte Motor Speedway. He chooses the race track because he had been working there on the construction crew repairing sink holes, and he had seen firsthand the vault underneath the stadium which holds the cash from the concession stands.

To pull off the heist, Jimmy and Clyde turn to the their friend Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), who is an expert at blowing open safes. Trouble is, Bang is in jail, and so Jimmy and Clyde concoct a plan to break Bang out of prison so he can do the job and then get him back inside again without anyone noticing. To do this, they employ the help of Bang’s two oddball brothers, Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson), as well as their own sister Mellie Logan (Riley Keough).

Then it’s off to the races, or so they hope.

LOGAN LUCKY reminded me a lot of a Coen brothers movie, only without the dark edges. It features quirky characters, puts them in some ridiculous situations, and lets things fly. The only difference is with a Coen brothers movie you expect something bad to happen, some bloodshed perhaps, while here, the loose ends are all tied together nicely, perhaps a bit too nicely.

Incredibly, the story manages to remain grounded in reality. In spite of how wildly inane the plot becomes, it all remains believable, and the characters in spite of their eccentricities remain real. It’s a smart script by Rebecca Blunt.

That being said, I wouldn’t have minded more zaniness, as the film isn’t as funny as it should be.  More laughs, and sharper ones, would have definitely made things better.

The story jumps back and forth between Jimmy’s West Virginia home and the Charlotte Motor Speedway in North Carolina, and the whole film is steeped in southern country atmosphere, helped along by Jimmy’s favorite song, John Denver’s “Country Roads.”

Director Soderbergh also gets the most out of his strong cast in LOGAN LUCKY.

I’m not a Channing Tatum fan, but he’s excellent here as Jimmy Logan.  He’s pretty much the straight man in the story, and while he’s surrounded by oddball characters and takes part in a ridiculous scheme, his character remains pretty real.  This might be my favorite Channing Tatum movie performance, mostly because it reminds me of nothing he has done before.

Likewise, Adam Driver excels as Jimmy’s brother Clyde.  Seriously, all Driver has to do in this movie is stand there and he gets laughs.  It’s a much more satisfying performance than his troubled Kylo Ren in STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015).  I enjoyed Driver much more here.

And then there’s Daniel Craig as safe cracker Joe Bang, looking as far removed from James Bond here as ever, with his southern accent and quirky personality.  It’s probably the most fun performance by Craig- who always looks so serious- to date.  The scenes where Tatum, Driver, and Craig appear together are very funny, and the film soars during these moments, like the sequence where Joe Bang explains to Jimmy and Clyde the chemical formula for his bomb, writing the formula on the wall of the motor speedway tunnel and speaking to them as if he’s a classroom chemistry teacher.  But sadly there aren’t as many scenes with all three actors together as you might expect.

I’m quickly becoming a big fan of Riley Keough.  I first noticed her in the excellent horror movie IT COMES AT NIGHT (2017).  She’s superb again here as Jimmy’s and Clyde’s sister Mellie.  She’s wonderfully real, and terribly sexy at the same time.

Jack Quaid and Brian Gleeson are also very good in smaller roles as Joe’s brothers Fish and Sam. Katie Holmes’ role as Jimmy’s ex-wife Bobbie Jo is pretty standard.

Two other stars appear in smaller roles.  Seth MacFarlane is unrecognizable with his long hair, mustache, and a beard in a thankless role as a NASCAR promoter and TV personality Max Chilblain. And Hilary Swank shows up late in the game as FBI Agent Sarah Grayson who investigates the heist.

When Swank’s FBI agent shows up to investigate the robbery, it’s at a point in the film where it naturally seems to be winding down, but it doesn’t, and it continues to go on for some time, a bit too long. The final reel of the film seems tacked on and unnecessary.

Other than this, LOGAN LUCKY is a well-made, well-directed, well-acted, and smartly written comedy that is light and enjoyable. The only thing missing, and it’s a big thing, is the laughter.  While I chuckled here and there, the comedy simply isn’t as sharp as it needs to be.

Granted, the film has its moments, but for a movie that feels like a screwball comedy, the limited laughter came as a surprise.  That being said, LOGAN LUCKY has an intelligent script that keeps things believable throughout, and with a solid cast delivering exceptional performances, it’s a hard movie to dislike.

I just wished I had laughed more.

—END—

 

 

 

 

THE HORROR JAR: Genre Films Where PETER CUSHING Did NOT Play A Doctor/Scientist/Professor

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Peter Cushing - The Skull

Peter Cushing and the Skull in THE SKULL (1965), a horror film in which Cushing did not play a doctor.

 

Welcome back to THE HORROR JAR, that column where we look at lists of odds and ends pertaining to horror movies.

Up today, my all time favorite horror movie actor, Peter Cushing.

When you think of Peter Cushing, his two most famous roles immediately come to mind, Baron Frankenstein and Dr. Van Helsing, two characters who were also both doctors.  In fact, a lot of Cushing’s roles in horror movies were of medical doctors, professors, or scientists.  So much so, that I thought:  when did he not play a doctor?

Turns out— many times.

Here’s a look at those roles, the times Peter Cushing starred in a horror or science fiction film but did not play a doctor or scientist.

THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959) – Sherlock Holmes.  Technically not a horror film, but that being said, Hammer Films added plenty of horror elements to their rendition of the Sir Arthur Conan Doyle tale.  Directed by Terence Fisher, with Cushing as Sherlock Holmes and Christopher Lee as Sir Henry Baskerville.  Superior little movie, atmospheric and full of thrills, with Cushing’s energetic Holmes leading the way.

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Cushing as Holmes in THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES (1959).

 

NIGHT CREATURES (1962) – Rev. Dr. Blyss – even though the character is identified in the credits as “Dr. Blyss” he’s really the vicar of the small village of Dymchurch— check that, he’s actually the infamous pirate Captain Clegg, hiding out, posing as the vicar, while secretly smuggling rum in this rousing adventure/horror tale by Hammer Films.  Cushing at his energetic best.

Peter Cushing - Night Creatures

Peter Cushing delivers one of his best performances, as Captain Clegg/Dr. Blyss in NIGHT CREATURES (1962).

 

SHE (1965) – Major Holly – lost cities, a supernatural woman, and lots of action in this fantasy adventure by Hammer Films.

THE SKULL (1965) – Christopher Maitland – plays a private collector interested in the occult who purchases the skull of the Marquis de Sade with deadly results.  Christopher Lee co-stars as Cushing’s rival in this fine horror film by Hammer’s rival, Amicus Productions.

TORTURE GARDEN (1967) – Lancelot Canning – another film by Amicus, this one an anthology film featuring five horror stories based on the works of Robert Bloch.  Cushing appears in the fourth segment, “The Man Who Collected Poe,” once more playing a collector of the macabre.  Jack Palance co-stars with Cushing in this segment.

THE BLOOD BEAST TERROR (1968) – Inspector Quennell-  One of Peter Cushing’s worst movies.  In fact, Cushing himself considered it his worst.  Produced by Tigon Films, a company that tried to join Hammer and Amicus as a voice in British horror but ultimately failed.  The monster is a woman who turns into a giant moth that preys on men’s blood, and Cushing plays the police inspector (in a role originally written for Basil Rathbone) who tries to stop her.

SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1970) – Major Heinrich Benedek – pretty much just a cameo in this film, famous for being the first time Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, and Vincent Price all starred together in the same movie.  A bizarre flick, perfect for 1970, but ultimately a disappointment as Cushing and Lee only appear briefly, while Price gets a bit more screen time.

THE VAMPIRE LOVERS (1970) – General von Spielsdorf – Cushing finally appears in a vampire movie where he’s not a doctor or a professor!  This time he’s a general, but he’s still hunting vampires in this atmospheric and very sensual vampire film from Hammer, starring Ingrid Pitt as the vampire Carmilla.  The first of Hammer’s “Karnstein” vampire trilogy.

THE HOUSE THAT DRIPPED BLOOD (1971) – Philip Grayson – Another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing stars in the second segment “Waxworks” and plays a retired stockbroker who runs afoul of a nefarious wax museum.  Director Peter Duffell once said in an interview that Peter Cushing’s entire segment in this film was simply a contrivance to place his head on a platter, which remains one of the more shocking images from the film.

TWINS OF EVIL (1971) – Gustav Weil – Cushing is excellent (as he always is) in this vampire film from Hammer, playing a different kind of vampire hunter.  He leads the Brotherhood, a fanatical group of men seeking out witches in the countryside, a group that is every bit as deadly as the vampires.  As such, when the vampire threat becomes known, and the Brotherhood turn their attention to the undead, it makes for a much more interesting dynamic than the typical vampire vs. heroes.  It’s one of Cushing’s most conflicted roles.  There’s a scene where he laments that he only wanted to do the right thing, that really resonates, because for most of the film, he’s been doing the very worst things.  The third “Karnstein” vampire film.

peter cushing - twins of evil

Peter Cushing as the fanatical Gustav Weil in TWINS OF EVIL (1971).

 

I, MONSTER (1971) – Utterson – plays a lawyer in this version of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde tale by Amicus, which changed the names of Jekyll and Hyde to Marlowe and Blake, played here by Christopher Lee.

TALES FROM THE CRYPT (1972) – Arthur Edward Grimsdyke – famous Cushing role in yet another anthology film by Amicus.  Cushing appears in the third segment, “Poetic Justice” where he plays an elderly junk dealer who is terrorized into suicide by his neighbors, but a year later, and this is why the role is famous, he returns from the grave.

DR. PHIBES RISES AGAIN (1972) – Captain – cameo in this Vincent Price sequel.  Blink and you’ll miss him.

ASYLUM (1972) – Smith – appears in the segment “The Weird Tailor” in this anthology film by Amicus.

FEAR IN THE NIGHT (1972) – The Headmaster – plays a sinister headmaster, in this thriller written and directed by Jimmy Sangster, and also starring Joan Collins and Ralph Bates.

FROM BEYOND THE GRAVE (1974) – The Proprietor – plays the owner of an antique shop, and the man in the wraparound story in this Amicus anthology horror vehicle.

MADHOUSE (1974) – Herbert Flay – plays a screenwriter in this one, and best friend to Vincent Price’s horror actor Paul Toombes.  Toombes is having a rough go of it, as the character he played in the movies- Dr. Death – seems to be committing murders in real life.  A really interesting movie, not a total success, but definitely worth a look, mostly because Price and Cushing share equal and ample screen time in this one.

TENDRE DRACULA – Macgregor – bizarre ill-conceived French horror comedy, notable for featuring Cushing’s one and only performance as a vampire.

LAND OF THE MINOTAUR (1976) – Baron Corofax – plays the villain to Donald Pleasence’s heroic priest in this tale of devil worship and demons.

STAR WARS (1977) – Grand Moff Tarkin – aside from his work in Hammer Films, the role which Cushing is most known for.  As Tarkin, he’s the one character in the STAR WARS universe who bossed Darth Vader around and lived to tell about it.

Peter Cushing - Tarkin

Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin in STAR WARS (1977).

 

SHOCK WAVES (1977) – SS Commander – Nazi zombies attack!    Nuff said.  With John Carradine.

THE UNCANNY (1977) – Wilbur – Cushing plays a writer who learns that cats are a little more “active” than he first imagined in yet another horror anthology film.

MYSTERY ON MONSTER ISLAND (1981) – William T. Kolderup – plays the “richest man in America” in this bizarre horror comedy.

HOUSE OF THE LONG SHADOWS (1983) – Sebastian Grisbane – famous teaming of Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price, and John Carradine in the same movie for the first (and only) time ever, this really isn’t a very good movie.  It tries hard, and ultimately isn’t all bad, but could have been so much better.  Price and Lee fare the best.

SHERLOCK HOLMES AND THE MASKS OF DEATH (1984) – Sherlock Holmes – Holmes comes out of retirement to solve a case.   Again, not horror, per se, but since this film was directed by Roy Ward Baker, written by Anthony Hinds, and of course starred Peter Cushing, there is a definite Hammer Films feel about this movie.  John Mills plays Dr. Watson.

There you have it.  A list of genre films starring Peter Cushing where he did not play a doctor, scientist or professor.  Perhaps next time we’ll have a look at those films where he did don a lab coat or carry a medical bag.

That’s it for now.  Thanks for reading!

—Michael

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Science Fiction Movies 2016 – Worst to First

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Here’s a look back at the major science fiction movies from 2016.  There has been a resurgence of late of quality science fiction films, but that being said, 2016 didn’t have a lot to offer audiences in the sci-fi genre.  In fact, of the more than 50 films I saw in 2016, only five were science fiction.

Here’s a break down of how they fared, from worst to first:

passengers

5. PASSENGERS – this big budget pairing of superstars Jennifer Lawrence and Chris Pratt was my least favorite science fiction film from 2016.  That being said, it’s really not that bad a movie.  I would rate it slightly less than average.  Probably not worth a trip to the theater, but something you might consider catching at home on a streaming service or on DVD or Blu-ray.

The biggest culprit is a story that just didn’t work.  It’s about a massive spaceship carrying thousands of passengers in sleep stasis to a new colony planet where they hope to begin a new life.  When there’s a malfunction, and a man Jim Preston (Chris Pratt) is accidentally awoken, he finds himself alone and realizes with 90 years still left to the voyage, he won’t get off the ship alive.  His decision to awake fellow passenger Aurora Lane (Jennifer Lawrence)— in effect giving her a death sentence— and the subsequent love story  which follows sets up the burning question:  what will happen if Aurora finds out that unlike Jim she didn’t awake by accident?

The resolution to this question is both unsatisfying and unbelievable.  PASSENGERS is a good-looking science fiction movie hindered by a muddled storyline.  Plus Lawrence and Pratt share very little chemistry as desperate space lovers.

 

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4. ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY –  while legions of fans call this the best STAR WARS movie ever! I simply found it to be a decent stand alone film in the series.  It starts off slow but gets better with an exciting ending that is one of the best endings of the entire series.

ROGUE ONE is a stand alone film in the series, meaning it’s the first film in the STAR WARS franchise not to be part of a trilogy.  It tells the intriguing story of the daring mission to steal those Death Star plans which would ultimately give Luke Skywalker the ability to destroy the evil Empire’s ultimate weapon way back in the very first STAR WARS (1977).  It’s a good story, but the film struggles to tell it at first, as we are introduced to a bunch of new characters early on with a minimum of character development.  As such, during the film’s first half, I didn’t care for any of these new characters.

Things eventually get better, and the ending is superb.  I really liked Felicity Jones as Jyn Erso, but the rest of the cast didn’t really wow me.  Nor did the much hyped CGI-motion capture hybrid of Grand Moff Tarkin, which tried to recreate the late great Peter Cushing in one of his later roles.  Mixed results here, as this Tarkin looks just like Cushing if you imagine him as a cartoon.  I enjoyed STAR WARS:  THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015) better.

 

morgan

3. MORGAN – Little seen and critically panned sci-fi actioner, but I really liked this one.  It’s the story of an artificially intelligent being named Morgan (Anya Taylor-Joy) who kills one of the scientists working with her.  As a result, the company which financed the project to create Morgan sends in an agent Lee Weathers (Kate Mara) to investigate whether or not Morgan needs to be terminated.

The scientists who created and now care for Morgan argue in her favor, even though she killed one of their own.  They believe she has attained life and as such cannot be terminated at the whim of a company.  While the film does explore what it means to be an artificial life form, the story is not on the same level as the deeper and better written EX MACHINA (2015).

But where MORGAN does succeed is as an action thriller.  As such, MORGAN features two strong performances, one by Kate Mara as the driven investigator who will stop at nothing to reach her conclusions, and the other by Anya Taylor-Joy as the introspective and potentially dangerous Morgan.  The climactic fight scene between agent Lee Weathers and Morgan is expertly edited, as intense and violent a fight as you’ll see in an action movie, especially between two women.

 

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2.STAR TREK BEYOND- As a lifelong STAR TREK fan, I’ve enjoyed this rebooted movie series a lot, as it explores an alternate timeline involving the characters from the original STAR TREK series.

This third film in this rebooted series is as enjoyable as the two films which came before it. By far, the best part of these movies is its cast, which continue to do a bang up job at capturing the personas of the original cast from the first STAR TREK TV show.  Chris Pine shines as Captain Kirk, and I thought he played the role a bit more like William Shatner here in this third film than he did in the previous two.

Zachary Quinto continues to nail Mr. Spock by delivering a performance that Leonard Nimoy would no doubt be proud of.  But most impressive is Karl Urban as Doctor McCoy.  He has gotten better with each successive movie, and he was excellent to begin with.  He truly captures what DeForest Kelly did with the character in the original series.  Urban’s performance is uncanny.

 

And now we’ve reached my pick for the best science fiction movie from 2016.  We started with PASSENGERS, which I found slightly less than average, and the next three movies were all solid, flirting with average to better than average.

But my pick for the #1 science fiction movie of the year is the only science fiction film from 2016 that I considered excellent.  It’s a far superior science fiction movie than the other four films in this list.

And that movie is:

 

arrival

1. ARRIVAL – the one true science fiction movie from 2016.  When mysterious space ships suddenly appear all over the Earth, suspended silently above ground like enormous storm clouds, the governments from around the world scramble to decipher what these aliens want.

The U.S. government sends in linguistics professor Louise Banks (Amy Adams) to communicate with the aliens.  Banks not only has to try to learn the aliens’ language, but she also has to figure out a way to teach them ours.

What she, along with physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) ultimately learn changes the way we think about time and space.

ARRIVAL is fun science fiction movie with a thought-provoking script by Eric Heisserer.  It’s not perfect. I found the ending not quite as satisfying or mind-blowing as the ending to INTERSTELLAR (2014).  But Amy Adams is excellent in the lead role, and the film really belongs to her.

Without much serious competition, ARRIVAL is easily the best science fiction movie I saw in 2016.

Until next time, thanks for reading!

— Michael

 

 

 

 

 

MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES: STAR WARS (1977)

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Welcome back to MEMORABLE MOVIE QUOTES, that column where we look at memorable quotes from some really cool movies.  Up today, on the heels of the hype of the latest STAR WARS movie and first stand alone film in the series, ROGUE ONE:  A STAR WARS STORY (2016), we look at quotes from the movie that started it all, STAR WARS (1977).

Those of us old enough to have seen STAR WARS when it first exploded across theaters back in 1977 remember fondly that back then it was simply known as STAR WARS and not STAR WARS:  EPISODE IV –  A NEW HOPE.

Ah, the good old days, when the Force was young!

So, without further hesitation, here are some cool quotes from the original STAR WARS, screenplay by George Lucas.

To begin with, there are a lot of classic quotes from STAR WARS, enough to fill several columns, and so today we’ll just be looking at some of them.  I’d rather write multiple columns in order to give all the quotes their due rather than jampack them all into one crowded piece.  Hmm.  I just might have to do that.

A lot of my favorite quotes from STAR WARS come from Han Solo (Harrison Ford), the wise-cracking pilot of the Millennium Falcon, such as in this sequence where Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and Han discover that Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) is being held prisoner on the Death Star, and Luke tries to convince Han to help him rescue her.  Let’s listen:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  They’re gonna execute her! Look, a few minutes ago you said you didn’t want to just wait here to be captured. Now all you want to do is stay?

HAN SOLO:  Marching into a detention area is not what I had in mind.

LUKE SKYWALKER: But they’re gonna kill her!

HAN SOLO:  Better her than me!

 

But Luke won’t give up:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  She’s rich.

HAN SOLO:  Rich?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Rich, powerful. Listen, if you were to rescue her, the reward would be…

HAN SOLO:  What?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Well, more wealth than you can imagine!

HAN SOLO:  I don’t know, I can imagine quite a bit.

star-wars-han-luke

Later, when they actually do attempt to rescue the princess, Han finds himself on the wrong end of a communication device.  After he and Chewy had taken out the Stormtroopers guarding Princess Leia, the intercom beeps and an official wants to know what exactly is going on there.  Han has no choice but to answer:

HAN SOLO:  Uh, everything’s under control. Situation normal.

VOICE:  What happened?

HAN SOLO:  Uh, we had a slight weapons malfunction, but uh… everything’s perfectly all right now. We’re fine. We’re all fine here now, thank you. How are you?

 

Han Solo even gets philosophical when Luke questions him about his lack of belief in the Force:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  You don’t believe in the Force, do you?

HAN SOLO:  Kid, I’ve flown from one side of this galaxy to the other, and I’ve seen a lot of strange stuff, but I’ve never seen anything to make me believe that there’s one all-powerful Force controlling everything.  ‘Cause no mystical energy field controls my destiny. It’s all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.

 

Speaking of the Force, another character with lots of memorable lines in STAR WARS is Ben Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness).  In this now classic exchange with a troop of Stormtroopers, Ben uses the Force, the now infamous Jedi mind trick, to circumvent the Stormtroopers’ checkpoint.  Let’s have a listen to the Jedi Master:

STORMTROOPER:  Let me see your identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI (waves his hand):  You don’t need to see his identification.

STORMTROOPER:  We don’t need to see his identification.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  These aren’t the droids you’re looking for.

STORMTROOPER:  These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.

Which led to years later, a hilarious T-shirt photo of a Stormtrooper sitting forlornly with his head buried in his hands with the caption:  “Those were the droids you were looking for!”

 

Ben Kenobi also has one of the more ominous lines in the movie and perhaps the entire series when the Millenium Falcon approaches the Death Star for the first time, and Han announces they’re approaching a small moon, to which Ben says gravely,

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  That’s no moon. It’s a space station.

 

And later, when he finally meets Darth Vader in a duel to the death, he has this exchange with his former pupil:

DARTH VADER:  Your powers are weak, old man.

BEN OBI-WAN KENOBI:  You can’t win, Darth. If you strike me down, I shall become more powerful than you could possibly imagine.

I remember my reaction when I first saw this scene in 1977.  I thought, what is he talking about?  And after Darth Vader struck him down, I thought, Well, that was wishful thinking on his part.  But then, miraculously, his dead body is not present, and I immediately changed my tune.  Hmm.  Maybe he had something there.  And of course, Kenobi’s “spirit” is on hand for the next two STAR WARS movies, THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (1980), and THE RETURN OF THE JEDI (1983).

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One character I haven’t mentioned is the main character in STAR WARS, Luke Skywalker.  Luke has his share of memorable lines as well, like in this banter with Han Solo and Princess Leia:

PRINCESS LEIA:  It’s not over yet.

HAN SOLO:  It is for me, sister. Look, I ain’t in this for your revolution, and I’m not in it for you, Princess. I expect to be well paid. I’m in it for the money.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You needn’t worry about your reward. If money is all that you love, then that’s what you’ll receive. (To LUKE)  Your friend is quite the mercenary. I wonder if he really cares about anything. Or anybody.

(She exits.)

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I care.  (To HAN)  So, what do you think of her, Han?

HAN SOLO:  I’m tryin’ not to, kid.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Good.

HAN SOLO:  Still, she’s got a lot of spirit. I don’t know, whaddya think? You think a princess and a guy like me—.

LUKE SKYWALKER:  No.

star-wars-luke-skywalker

 

Then there’s this lively exchange as Luke arrives to rescue the princess:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m Luke Skywalker. I’m here to rescue you.

PRINCESS LEIA:  You’re who?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I’m here to rescue you. I’ve got your R2 unit. I’m here with Ben Kenobi.

PRINCESS LEIA:  Ben Kenobi? Where is he?

LUKE SKYWALKER:  Come on!

 

And then there’s these prophetic lines, when Luke finally decides he’s ready to follow Obi-Wan Kenobi:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I want to come with you to Alderaan. There’s nothing for me here now. I want to learn the ways of the Force and become a Jedi like my father.

Luke also gets to utter the line, along with many other characters in subesequent movies, which would become a STAR WARS catch phrase:

LUKE SKYWALKER:  I have a very bad feeling about this.

 

Of course, the most famous catch phrase and line to come out of STAR WARS is the now iconic “May the Force be with you.”

So, that’s it for now.  I’m sure I will follow this up at some point with another column on more memorable quotes from STAR WARS, especially when in this edition we heard nary a word from one Darth Vader.

Thanks for reading, and join me again next time when we look at more memorable quotes from another classic movie.

—Michael