Author Archives: tomholste

Tom’s SCREWTAPE contribution to F&F

I’m waaaay late in posting this, but I wrote an article for a webzine called Fellowship and Fairydust. The issue was entirely devoted to C.S. Lewis. My contribution was “The Screwtape E-mails,” in which I imagined how Lewis’ fictional devil might react to politics in the age of social media. It’s on pg. 34 of the PDF linked below.
 
This is the second time I’ve written something like this; I wrote a Screwtape letter about the Dan Brown/”Da Vinci Code” controversy 9 years ago for Kelly Capriotti Burton when she was editor of SGN Scoops. It was a lot of fun to revisit the character.
 
This isn’t actually about TV and film, but it’s rare for any writing of mine to pop up somewhere else, so I wanted to give it a shoutout. And thanks to Avellina Balestri for this opportunity!
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A QUIET PLACE Worth Thunderous Applause

By Tom Holste

Apr. 23, 2018

On the spur of the moment, we ended up seeing A Quiet Place at the theaters yesterday. AMAZING movie! Sci-fi/horror, done with just a few actors on a handful of sets. More suspenseful than gory. Reminded me of M. Night Shyamalan in his prime. Who knew John Krakinski from “The Office” had this movie in him? (He directed, co-wrote and stars in the film with his wife Emily Blunt.)

Quiet_Place

If you’re the kind of person who can’t handle intense and frightening movies, this one is definitely not for you. In fact, normally I would say this isn’t my kind of movie either, but it’s so artfully done that I just loved it. I don’t want to reveal too much (I went in knowing almost nothing), but the clever premise forces Krakinski to tell the movie in an extremely visual way and not use dialogue as a crutch. It’s one of the most cinematic movies I’ve seen in years. 

Also, if you’re the type of person who’s been saying that they’re tired of superhero movies, sequels, remakes and reboots: Please go see this movie. It’s an excellent film that’s completely original and not like anything else out there. If you think Hollywood isn’t willing to take a chance on new ideas anymore, show them that you’ll support a unique movie like this one!

Plus, as a person of faith, there were several things that deeply resonated with me: a scene of prayer portrayed positively; no cussing or sex; and selfless love as a profound theme in the movie. Normally, those last few points only show up (or are attempted) in harmless but not-very-interesting movies aimed directly at the Christian community. To see these things in a modern mainstream film is nothing short of astonishing! (And yet none of it feel cloying or preachy.)

Seriously, folks. Go see this film. 🙂

 

Joss Whedon Broke Up With Batgirl

By Tom Holste

Feb. 27, 2018

Last April, I reported that Joss Whedon, who directed two Avengers movies and also created Buffy the Vampire Slayer, had come on board a Batgirl movie project for Warner Bros.

But apparently, last week, to little fanfare, Whedon exited the project, as seen in this article by the Hollywood Reporter.

Whedon diplomatically cites an inability on his part to crack the story. Unnamed insiders suggest that a woman-centered superhero film directed by a man might face too much scrutiny these days (and, indeed, a leaked draft of his unproduced Wonder Woman script got eviscerated by the Internet last year).

But the one thing that no one is talking about, which seems to be a major piece of the puzzle here, is the Justice League fiasco. After the movie’s original director, Zack Snyder, left the project due to a family tragedy, Warner Bros. asked Whedon to step in and finish the film in time for its November release date. Unfortunately, the film opened to dreadful reviews and ended up performing weaker at the box office than any of the DC Extended Universe movies to date.

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Joss Whedon likely had the same worried look on his face when the first reviews of JUSTICE LEAGUE were released.

Even though Whedon is well known for giving fans what they like, and Snyder’s films have been, at best, divisive, many fans ironically blamed Whedon for the film being a mess, and have demanded for Warner Bros. to release a Zack Snyder cut of the film.

I haven’t seen the movie, but it seems more likely to me that Whedon simply wasn’t able to save the project by being brought in at such a late date. Part of the problem is that Warner Bros. hadn’t bothered to properly set up all the individual characters in their own movies before rushing out their big team movie. Another part of the problem was Warner’s insistence on a 2-hour time limit for the film, probably due to the box office disaster of the critically acclaimed but nearly 3-hour Blade Runner 2049. But without all the individual films for each character, there was too much setup that needed to be done in too truncated of a time frame.

Those asking for a Snyder cut of the film don’t seem to realize that no such cut exists; if the film had been far enough along for such a cut to exist, Warner Bros. wouldn’t have needed to call in another director. The DVD/Blu-ray release will hopefully have a bunch of extended/deleted scenes or possibly even an extended cut that might salvage the film.

At any rate, although no one has said it outright, I can’t help but think that Whedon and Warner Bros. just didn’t want to work together anymore after what happened with Justice League.  So now, the future remains up in the air for both Batgirl (which wasn’t even greenlit until Whedon came on board, so does Warner Bros. keep going?) and for Whedon (who doesn’t have any projects lined up other than a return for a possibly final “season” of Buffy in the comics). It’ll be interesting to look back in another year or so and see what’s happening for both of them.

Brace Yourselves; More STAR WARS is Coming

By Tom Holste

Feb. 7, 2018

Since I blog a lot about Star Wars, I really intended for my next blog post to be about something else. But every so often, a crazy story breaks where you just have to drop all your other plans and focus on the new thing.

Yesterday, Lucasfilm astonished fans around the world by announcing that a new series of movies was on its way from David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, the show runners of HBO’s immensely popular and acclaimed fantasy series Games of Thrones.

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David Benioff and D.B. Weiss, two of the happiest guys in the galaxy.

Why astonishing, you ask? These two writers/producers have a great track record, after all. (Indeed, Thrones has made such a cultural impact that I know the catchphrase “Brace yourselves; winter is coming” even though I haven’t seen any episodes.)

Well, it’s astonishing because one would think that Lucasfilm would wait for one trilogy to be done or at least partway through before announcing the next one. We’re not even done with the current sequel trilogy; director Rian Johnson hasn’t shot one frame of his follow-up trilogy; and now we’ve got another series of films announced beyond that. (And note that Lucasfilm does say “series of movies,” therefore not limiting it to just a trilogy.)

After the negative fallout from many fans regarding Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, one would be excused for thinking that Lucasfilm had removed Johnson from heading up the new trilogy, yet the press release clearly indicates that Benioff and Weiss’ films are completely separate from Johnson’s upcoming saga.

Even more baffling is that we still don’t have any official confirmation of the next standalone Star Wars movie. Variety announced back in August that they had heard rumblings of an Obi-Wan movie. Variety has a very good reputation for accuracy, but the “sources” that they mentioned never made an official announcement.

We were expecting to hear an announcement about Obi-Wan or whatever the next standalone film turned out to be either way, but we just got crickets chirping. And then this news — which no one was expecting — gets a straight-up confirmation on StarWars.com.

Mind you, none of this is bad, just surprising.

I am starting to wonder if the next standalone has just simply been canceled at this point. It seems like it would have made more sense to continue doing standalones in between the trilogy installments. But maybe all the production problems that Rogue One and Solo went through have caused Kathleen Kennedy (the head of Lucasfilm) to swear off any more standalones.

Of course, as with anything, one can see potential issues, which are not the same as real concrete issues, just fun/interesting things to speculate about:

1) Rian Johnson is already known for turning in dark and gritty stories. Both Last Jedi and his earlier film Looper fit that bill. I presume his new trilogy will be more of the same. Does it make sense to hire another creative team also known for making dark and gritty stories? It seems like it would make sense to do a different movie (or series of movies) with a lighter, more crowd-pleasing tone, since a lot of people associate that with Star Wars more than the darker stuff.

It’s possible that the GoT producers want to break from tradition and not be pigeonholed, deliberately choosing to do something lighter. But I assume part of the reason why Lucasfilm hired them in the first place is so they could basically market the movies as “Star Wars done Game of Thrones-style,” which should pack people in the theater.

2) On that same note, I initially assumed that Benioff and Weiss understood that Star Wars is more family-friendly than GoT. But considering the fact that Marvel has done some TV-MA stuff with the Marvel brand (albeit only on Netflix), a few people I’ve talked to have expressed concern that these producers were brought on board specifically to bring R-rated content to Star Wars, which I certainly hope is not the case.

3) StarWars.com cites Benioff and Weiss as the creators of Game of Thrones. While it’s true that they developed the TV series, the actual creator of GoT is, of course, author R. R. Martin, who wrote the books on which the series is based. Benioff and Weiss have shown that they know how to adapt a story in a way that makes the fans happy, but this wouldn’t be adaptation, it would be creating something new (although admittedly playing within a very well established fictional universe). I wonder how much difference that’s going to make in the final product.

4) If they had been hired as the showrunners of the upcoming live-action TV series coming to Disney’s new streaming platform, that would be less surprising to me. But apparently these movies are going to exist in addition to Johnson’s movies, plus a live-action TV show on Disney’s streaming service, and another animated TV series following Rebels.

In fact, the same day as yesterday’s announcement, Disney also announced that they have several TV shows currently in development.

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Hold on to something — we’re just getting started. (Source: Reddit)

As an old-school fan who’s used to having to wait three years between installments and then decades between trilogies, I am a little concerned about viewer burnout. This feels like the Avengers effect: Because Marvel has been so successful at having multiple movies and TV shows on all at once, every other franchise feels like they have to do the same thing. But Star Wars is special, and I’m concerned that this abundance of media will make it less special. (To be fair, though, it used to feel like there weren’t enough Star Wars movies, and that certainly won’t be a problem now.)

I do think / hope Disney means that they’re developing multiple ideas and trying to figure out which one they want to take all the way to the finish line, rather than saying we’ll have 20 Star Wars shows on the air at the same time.

I must again heavily emphasize that these things pique my curiosity, but I’m not an angry raging fanboy about them. In the world of fandom, there’s probably nothing bigger than Game of Thrones right now, so Lucasfilm has really gone all out and gotten the top people to work on these new movies. Metaphorically speaking, I just got told that Michael Jordan got hired for my favorite basketball team. That’s a good thing, and I want to show a proper level of gratitude for that.

My concerns are small, and hopefully none of them will be realized. I plan to keep an open mind. These are just my initial thoughts.

Finally, there have been many Tweets weighing in on the news, but this one was by far the funniest: (SPOILERS for The Last Jedi ahead!)

 

Blake Schultz‏ 
@AsAlwaysBlake

What are the Game of Thrones writers going to bring to Star Wars?  The siblings already kissed, and the beloved characters are dead…. #starwars #GameOfThrones

THE LAST JEDI: What Happened?

By Tom Holste

Jan. 16, 2018

There has been a grave disturbance in the Force.

The new Star Wars movie, The Last Jedi, released last month to an astonishing level of critical acclaim, with “the best movie in the series since The Empire Strikes Back” being a common refrain. But once fans started seeing the movie, a much different anthem started gaining traction: “the worst movie in the series, worse than The Phantom Menace.”

Rotten Tomatoes, a site that pulls reviews from around the Web and compiles percentages based on positive and negative reviews, has been at the center of the controversy. At the time of writing, Last Jedi’s critical consensus stands strong at 90%, but the Audience Score (which can be affected by any user who signs up and votes) has currently plummeted to 49%.

LAST-JEDI-on-RT

“Oooooh. Triggered, people on the Internet are. Hmm, hmm, hmm!”

So, what happened to cause such a wide gap in reception between critics and audiences? What follows is not a review, but an attempt to objectively show both sides of the argument. (Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD if you haven’t seen the movie!)

It’s Different. A common sentiment after the release of The Force Awakens is that there were too many things that felt like clichés from other movies in the series. People wanted (or thought they wanted) the sequel movies to be different. Writer-director Rian Johnson took the message to heart, and ironically delivered a movie that felt so different in its tone and structure that it became off-putting to many fans. For critics, though, who probably like cinema as a whole more than they like Star Wars in particular, any change was welcome.

It’s Sad. Rather than playing it safe and having nothing bad happen to characters from the Original Trilogy, as one might expect from a major corporation reviving a franchise, Disney-owned Lucasfilm has surprisingly taken a lot of risks, putting the classic characters through the ringer. In Force Awakens, we learned that Han Solo failed to be a good husband and dad and that he went back to a life of crime before ultimately being killed by his son. In Last Jedi, we find a bitter, depressed Luke Skywalker who failed to revive the Jedi Order and enabled his nephew to go on a killing spree. (In fairness, all of these ideas are already in Force Awakens, but in Last Jedi, everything gets spelled out in detail.) In the end, Luke also dies.

These sequels have also shown us that Leia failed in her diplomatic duties to restore the Republic. By the end of this film, the heroes are once again broken and on the run. And since actress Carrie Fisher has passed away, there’s no chance for her character to take part in any happy ending in the next sequel. All of the major classic characters are now dead. While critics enjoyed the risk-taking elements, fans are crushed from watching their childhood heroes meet such sad fates.

Luke-Skywalker-LAST-JEDI

“I hear there’s going to be a new TOY STORY trilogy, where Woody dies, Buzz dies, and Jessie gets written out of the story.”

It’s All About the New Characters. Unsurprisingly, Disney has made the new heroes—Rey, Finn and Poe—the focus of the new trilogy. As already mentioned, the major characters from the Original Trilogy are now all gone (with no mention of whatever happened to Lando Calrissian), and supporting characters such as Chewbacca and the droids have been reduced to cameos in films that juggle a very large cast. Critics appreciate the focus on the new, interesting characters; nostalgic fans come away with an empty feeling.

A Twist or Not a Twist? Poe’s subplot is about trying to stop Admiral Holdo, who he believes to be a spy. He recruits Finn and Rose to help him. Ultimately, their plan fails, but it doesn’t matter because Holdo’s plot succeeds. For anyone who thought that Poe’s plan was going to succeed, this movie has two great twists in it. For those who guessed that Holdo was in the right, though, the Poe/Finn/Rose subplot has no twists.

Elsewhere on the plot-twist front: Virtually no one saw the twist coming that Rey’s parents aren’t anyone famous or connected to the overall Skywalker/Solo saga. For those who enjoyed the feel of the original movies, and remember that Luke Skywalker himself started off as an “everyman” character from the middle of nowhere in the original movie, this twist feels like a return to form. However, with this saga’s famous shocking family reveals, and with the previous director (JJ Abrams) known for crafting mystery stories like the TV show Lost, this reveal fell flat for some.

Another genuine surprise was when the villainous Snoke was abruptly killed off in this installment, when nearly everyone expected him to make it to the last film in the trilogy. Critics loved the surprise and the renewed focus on Kylo Ren as the main villain. Fans who wanted to know more about his backstory were frustrated that he was dispatched so quickly.

Social Commentary. Many critics gushed over the apparent social commentary, with the movie seeming to take an anti-war stance and to criticize wealthy people. Many fans hated this aspect and preferred the saga when it was more mythic in its storytelling. Ironically, Star Trek fans were upset when the new movies became like theme-park rides rather than the social commentary that they’re known for; now Star Wars is criticized for its commentary from fans that are used to the movies being theme-park rides.

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Star Wars fans: “I hate the Ewoks! They’re too cutesy.” Also Star Wars fans: “Porgs are adorable! I need to buy all the toys!”

With all of these issues in mind, the Star Wars franchise stands at a tenuous crossroads. Last Jedi has made a ton of money despite the backlash (it was #1 for three weeks in a row and quickly became the highest-grossing movie of 2017), but many long-term fans have sworn off seeing Ep. IX. To Disney’s credit, they’ve tried playing it safe and got criticized, and they’ve tried taking chances and gotten criticized. Where do they go from here?

The questions remain as both the studio and audiences find out that Star Wars means something very special to nearly everyone, but we all have different ideas about what exactly it is that makes it special.

Disney Out-Foxes Its Competition

By Tom Holste

Dec. 14, 2017

Last week, I reported on the potential merger between the Walt Disney Company and 20th Century Fox. As of today, via their website, Disney has announced that the merger is officially happening.

Some of the terms of the deal are even weirder than initially expected: Disney will own FX Networks but not the Fox Network. Disney will own both ESPN and Fox Sports. Fox will own a controlling interest in Hulu, but are already planning on launching a streaming service to compete with Netflix in 2019.

According to some of the reports I read, this deal is bigger than any of Disney’s previous acquisitions combined (for Pixar, Lucasfilm, the Muppets, and Marvel). Disney will now own about a third of the entire entertainment industry.

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The Fox Fanfare is now as much a Disney song as “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah.” (Image source: Slashfilm)

Many questions still remain, the biggest one in my mind still being: If Fox Networks will continue to function independently, who gets to own the logo? Will one of them be forced to change their name?

If Disney gets to use the Fox logo, then I can see them using that brand for their R-rated releases, such as the Alien and Die Hard movies. If Fox Networks keeps the logo, I expect that Disney will revive its nearly defunct Touchstone Pictures. Lately, Touchstone has been a shell of its former self, only existing to distribute DreamWorks live-action movies (and DreamWorks is moving over to Universal). But if Fox keeps the logo, I expect Touchstone will release the Alien movies and so forth.

Other weird aspects of this deal:

–Universal Studios, Disney’s chief competitor in the theme park arena, recently opened a Simpsons area of the park. They’ll now be licensing those characters from Disney. Since Disney also owns the Marvel characters, which are in Universal due to a prior licensing arrangement, Disney will now own about half of the characters in the Universal park.

–Disney will own Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel and Firefly (although those will also probably be distributed under the Fox logo or Touchstone, as mentioned above). Expect their long-running comics at Dark Horse to end, and for new series to start up at Marvel. The same thing happened to Star Wars.

–Disney will own all of Fox’s animated movies, including the Ice Age films. Expect those characters to show up in the parks soon. Anastasia will also technically become a Disney princess, although whether that will just be a humorous footnote or something we’ll actually see in the parks remains a question.

There are good aspects to this deal. (And not everything mentioned above was bad, just sort of weird.) Kevin Feige’s track record with producing excellent Marvel movies is unparalleled. I expect the upcoming X-Men movies to be amazing. And we’ll probably finally get a good Fantastic Four movie for once.

Anyway, one source I read said it would take a year for the deal to finalize, and the current Fox movies in production (Deadpool 2, X-Men: Dark Phoenix) will probably reach completion before the big reboot. It’ll be fascinating to sit back and watch what happens in the coming years with possibly the biggest entertainment merger in history.

STAR WARS: Where to Start

By Tom Holste

Dec. 11, 2017

Over and over again in my Facebook feed, I’ve been seeing the same question show up in groups: “I want to watch Star Wars, but where do I start?” The hype for The Last Jedi, which opens this Thursday, is at a fever pitch, and some people who have never dipped their toe into this franchise want to give it a shot. But with nine live-action theatrical films and a ton of animated TV shows and other media, the barrier for entry is getting bigger and more overwhelming.

This blog is intended to help those who want to get to know Star Wars, with different levels dependent on your level of interest.

BEGINNER LEVEL: WATCH THE FORCE AWAKENS

Let me be clear: I’m not saying that The Force Awakens is the only Star Wars movie you should ever watch. I’m saying that, with the goal of getting ready to watch The Last Jedi this weekend, The Force Awakens is probably the only one you’ll need to watch to understand the new story. The caretakers at Lucasfilm don’t want audiences to have to watch everything in order to understand what’s going on; they want as many people in the seats as possible. The Force Awakens itself was made in such a way that newcomers could easily understand what’s going on, and any references to the past are clearly explained. By all means, eventually watch other Star Wars movies, but if you’re short on time and just want to be ready for this weekend, The Force Awakens is an entertaining entry point.

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INTERMEDIATE LEVEL: THE ORIGINAL TRILOGY

Let’s say you have more time on your hands this week, or you’re going to wait until the crowds die down. Then you should start with the original trilogy – Star Wars (1977), retroactively titled A New Hope to distinguish it from the others; The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). People argue about the relative quality of the other films, but pretty much everyone agrees that the first three movies are good, and they tell a complete story unto themselves. For most people, I would recommend having these under their belt before watching the new movies if they have the time.

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ADVANCED LEVEL: THE PREQUELS

In homage to the old adventure serials that he grew up watching at the movie theater, George Lucas playfully added “Episode IV,” “V,” and “VI” to the first three movies that he made. After fans kept asking him what happened in the other episodes, Lucas finally fleshed out the details of the backstory that he had created for the saga in Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999), Episode II: Attack of the Clones  (2002), and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith (2005).

Many people feel that these movies are not up to the craftsmanship of the original films. Still others defend them passionately. Whatever the case, the original movies made sense without this backstory so they can be watched independently. Despite being numbered “Episode I,” etc., these movies ruin some of the surprises of the Original Trilogy for new viewers, so if by some chance you’ve managed to remain unspoiled on some of the most famous plot twists in movie history, don’t destroy the pleasure of discovering these for yourself for the first time. Save these movies for after you’ve seen the others.

My personal favorite way to view the films has become the Machete Order, wherein a couple of the prequels are viewed as a flashback in the middle of the Original Trilogy to preserve the surprises yet create greater emotional impact in the final installment. However, if this method seems too confusing, just ignore it and save the prequels for the end. (Also note that the blog I linked to has some NSFW language.)

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JEDI MASTER LEVEL: EVERYTHING ELSE

Lucasfilm is now also making standalone “Star Wars Story” movies, the first of which was Rogue One, which in my opinion was excellent. Next year will see a standalone movie about Han Solo, one of the most popular characters in the franchise. Despite being set in the past, the standalone nature of these movies means that they aren’t necessary to watch immediately to understand anything else.

If you’re still excited after seeing all of these, there are two different animated series under the name Clone Wars; I preferred the first, although the second is more popular. Rebels, Forces of Destiny, and LEGO Star Wars: The Freemaker Adventures are other current popular animated series. There are also TV movies featuring the furry Ewoks from Return of the Jedi; a couple of Saturday morning cartoons from the ‘80s based on the Ewoks and the Droids from the films; and an awful, unwatchable Holiday Special that only ever got a semi-official release when the Rifftrax crew released a mocking commentary on it. These latter projects are mainly for the hardcore completist.

There are also a variety of excellent comics, novels and video games, but sifting through those requires a post unto itself.

Happy viewing! As Obi-Wan Kenobi say, you’ve just taken your first step into a much larger world.