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🎬 Star Wars prequels and Mister Rogers

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ESJ's Movie Project

December 20 · Issue #45 · View online
I'm reviewing every movie I watch, and watching every movie I own. Settle in, this is going to take a while.

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As I write this on Thursday, I’m bracing for several days of carefully avoiding Star Wars spoilers until I see The Rise of Skywalker on Sunday. I may not have a newsletter at the normal time next Friday (TBD), but keep an eye out for a bonus edition sometime next week with my thoughts on the new movie.
That hypothetical edition will also have my reviews of the remaining films in the series that I’m rewatching before Sunday: Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens, and The Last Jedi.
So, uhhh, hope y'all like Star Wars. If not, then scroll down for a review of the Mister Rogers movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
And if you are the sort of person who hates both Star Wars and Mister Rogers, then I don’t know how to help you. Happy holidays and see you in a couple weeks.
⚔️ Revenge of the Sith
Pictured: When you're about to have aggressive negotiations with your manager.
Pictured: When you're about to have aggressive negotiations with your manager.
By the time the Star Wars prequels reach their conclusion in REVENGE OF THE SITH, the creative choices of the Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones had been cemented in the story and there was nothing left to do except tie up the loose ends. The final movie in this trilogy and (for a time, we thought) the last movie in the series hurtles toward an inevitable and somewhat satisfying conclusion. Other than a brief but visually entrancing battle on the Wookiee planet Kashyyyk and the grim montage of the Jedi’s downfall (“execute order 66”), the surprises in Revenge of the Sith are few and far between, and several of the actors appear to have checked out. Ironically, this either makes Hayden Christensen seem better by comparison, or he actually did improve as an actor, but it’s honestly hard to tell, and he’s once again hindered by the (ma)clunky dialogue. I do like the climactic lightsaber battle on the volcano planet Mustafar, which is accompanied by an excellent John Williams piece called “Battle of the Heroes,” although watching it now, I can’t unsee the strange choreography choices that were mocked in this “Fictional Fight Commentary” video.
Anyway… To reiterate my pipe dream from last week: Disney should remake these movies. There’s so much good material buried amidst the rubble, and Disney is definitely not shy about remaking much better films, so I think there’s a decent chance it will happen. Eventually.
Also: Disney should hire me to write the remakes of these movies. Have I ever written a complete movie script? Nope! But, more importantly, do I have a round number of ideas for how to make the prequels better? Yes!
🚨 Bonus round: 8 things I would change about the Star Wars prequels if Disney hired me to rewrite them
(Note: These ideas are not wholly original, as I’ve been paying attention to prequel critiques online for at least 15 years. In addition to reading my suggestions, I’d recommend this comic that I linked to in my Phantom Menace review and this 12-minute video that imagines a story executive’s rewrite of that movie. I also really like the three recent episodes of the podcast Beyond the Screenplay that pick apart the story choices of the original, prequel, and new trilogies of Star Wars movies.)
Just in case you haven’t seen them, be warned that there are unmarked spoilers for the prequels below.

  1. Padmé fell in love with the wrong guy: She should have fallen for Obi-Wan first, and my sources tell me this tracks because Ewan McGregor is (checks notes) “hot.” Anakin, who has a crush on Padmé, sees all this and wishes he could change it, but what’s he going to do? Obi-Wan is his master and Padmé looks at him like a kid brother. Much later, after Obi-Wan has rejected her out of loyalty to the Jedi’s “no attachments” rule, Padmé starts to see Anakin in a new light, but he never lets go of his jealousy and distrusts her affections.
  2. “You were my brother”: We’re told in both the prequel trilogy and the original trilogy that Anakin and Obi-Wan were good friends, but most of that friendship happens off screen. We should see more of them collaborating and helping each other — and my 2 cents on how to underline this relationship goes as follows: By the end of Episode II, Anakin has already begun to rebel against the Jedi rules. Obi-Wan knows this and tries to rein him in, but ultimately decides out of a sense of brotherhood not to tell the other Jedi about what Anakin’s up to … including marrying Padmé. He and Anakin are such good friends that, against his instincts, he becomes complicit in Anakin’s big lie. This pays off later on when, once again under the expectation of secrecy, Anakin reveals that he’s been learning a lot from this guy Palpatine. Oops. Speaking of which…
  3. The Emperor wasn’t a mastermind: One of the wilder things the prequels expect us to believe is that Senator, then Chancellor, then Emperor Palpatine played a 20-year game of five-dimensional chess with Anakin, the Jedi, the Sith, and the Republic, concocting an elaborate revenge plot that put him in power. But throughout the movies, we’re also told the galaxy’s institutions are in decline, and given ample evidence that the Jedi have become (proverbially) fat and lazy. Palpatine would have been more satisfying as a talented political opportunist who uses the dark side to secure his ambitions.
  4. The Jedi aren’t perfect: On the topic of the Jedi, I wish the prequels had leaned harder into the fact that allowing the Sith to come back and losing their most talented young Jedi amounted to a colossal failure of the prequel-era Jedi. Most of the Jedi masters are presented most of the time as stoic and wise, a.k.a. boring! We should see that they are fallible: Obi-Wan is impatient; Mace Windu is prone to anger; Ki-Adi Mundi is fearful. And most importantly, Yoda is arrogant — a flaw that leads to his defeat and later concession that “wars not make one great.”
  5. Too many villains: Look, I get that the filmmakers wanted to sell toys, and more characters means more merch. But I would have loved to see Darth Maul return in later films to haunt Obi-Wan, not replaced by inferior successors. And Count Dooku’s backstory is implied, but I would have liked to see him among the Jedi in the Phantom Menace so that by Episode II, when he has abandoned the Jedi and joined the Separatists, his appearance on the latter side actually feels like a betrayal and not “random old dude we’ve never met before.” General Grievous should maybe not be a character at all — or a henchman, at most.
  6. Naboo: Padmé’s home planet of Naboo should have just been Alderaan, a planet we know by name from the original trilogy. Her bodyguard should have been a slightly older Bail Organa. When she dies in Episode III, Bail is emotionally wrecked at the idea that he failed to protect her and adopts Leia out of a sense of duty rather than what he says in the movie, which is basically “uh, sure, my wife and I were going to adopt a daughter anyway.” Later on, in Episode IV, the destruction of Alderaan will suddenly take on a lot more meaning because we’ve seen how lovely it is.
  7. Classic characters: If someone has a better idea for how they could have been used, I’d like to hear it. But based on the movies we got, I think R2-D2, C-3PO, and Chewbacca should have had brief cameos at most. They bring nothing uniquely valuable to the story and are better suited as passers-by to the war who get roped into the battle in the original trilogy, rather than active participants in some of its most crucial moments.
  8. War is hell: Rogue One (see below) does a much better job of this, but we should see and feel the effects of the war on the galaxy far, far away. Political infighting, refugees, destruction, terror: We’d expect a massive years-long planet-spanning war to cause all of these things, but for the most part, life goes on as normal in most places and the war is weirdly contained to small battlefields. You could make the case that this was George Lucas’ commentary on — or a subconscious reflection of — the way US armed forces had become an isolated “other” to a mostly ignorant American populace by the start of the War on Terror. You could, but I won’t. It’s a movie series called Star Wars, and I want to see how this liberal society is changed and challenged by war.

💥 Rogue One
Pictured: When "the dark side" is the latest fashion trend.
Pictured: When "the dark side" is the latest fashion trend.
The story ROGUE ONE sets out to tell — how the Rebels got their hands on the plans to the Death Star — is inherently smaller than the epic arc of the prequels, and so I don’t watch it with the same sense of “that could have been so amazing!” But every time I’ve seen it, I walk away thinking “that was good, but it could have been great.” And then I watch the amazing teaser trailer, and I’m reminded of the ways it falls short of the movie that promised. Starting with the good: This is the most consistently beautiful and well-directed Star Wars film, and yes, I am including both The Empire Strikes Back and The Last Jedi in that ranking. Almost everything looks incredible, from the original trilogy-accurate grime to the novel ways director Gareth Edwards shoots iconic objects like the Death Star. The only things that don’t look quite right are the CGI version of Governor Tarkin (who should have just been played by a human actor) and the tropical planet of Scarif (which looks too darn pleasant and not as otherworldly as other Star Wars biomes). The biggest missed opportunity surrounds the characters, who have promising setups but never really click into place. One could argue that that doesn’t matter since this is a one-off spin-off movie, but I’d retort that when you only have two hours with a movie’s characters, you should take the time to make sure every minute counts.
🏘 A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
Pictured: What comes after the first 51 cards in a deck? Cardigan.
Pictured: What comes after the first 51 cards in a deck? Cardigan.
If you see one movie about Fred Rogers, it should be the sublime 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor. But if you have the time and the inclination, the newly released A BEAUTIFUL DAY IN THE NEIGHBORHOOD is well worth watching, too. Rather than trying to be a biopic and telling the whole of Mister Rogers’ life, A Beautiful Day focuses on the profound effect he had on one family late in his career. You have probably heard that Tom Hanks plays Rogers here, a fact I initially greeted with some mixed feelings; I have seen a lot of Tom Hanks movies, so I know his face and voice better than I ever knew the real Rogers. And yet, I was stunned by the degree to which Hanks disappeared into the role, something he never quite did in Sully or The Post. I also loved some of the risky choices director Marielle Heller made, the fun surprises of which I won’t reveal here. The script is unsubtle at times, leaning hagiographic while raising — but choosing not to answer — some very good questions about the dark side of Rogers’ reputation as a “living saint.” Still, when the movie commits to its characters it really works, and I like it just the way it is. Recommended.
🏆 Every New Movie I've Seen in 2019 (So Far), Ranked
(new additions in bold)

  1. Knives Out
  2. Parasite
  3. Booksmart
  4. The Farewell
  5. If Beale Street Could Talk
  6. Us
  7. Free Solo
  8. Ford v Ferrari
  9. Avengers: Endgame
  10. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
  11. The Favourite
  12. Amazing Grace
  13. Long Shot
  14. The Wife
  15. The Art of Self-Defense
  16. Toy Story 4
  17. Jojo Rabbit
  18. Shoplifters
  19. Hustlers
  20. The Last Black Man In San Francisco
  21. Once Upon a Time … In Hollywood
  22. The Irishman
  23. Harriet
  24. Apollo 11
  25. Zombieland: Double Tap
  26. Spider-Man: Far From Home
  27. Aladdin
  28. The Peanut Butter Falcon
  29. Slut in a Good Way
  30. Green Book
  31. Cold War
  32. Official Secrets
  33. Ready or Not
  34. Always Be My Maybe
  35. Rocketman
  36. The Lighthouse
  37. Roma
  38. The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
  39. Ad Astra
  40. The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part
  41. On the Basis of Sex
  42. Shazam!
  43. Frozen II
  44. Isn’t It Romantic?
  45. Judy
  46. The Lion King
  47. Downton Abbey
  48. Fighting With My Family
  49. They Shall Not Grow Old
  50. Yesterday
  51. Mary Poppins Returns
  52. Captain Marvel
  53. Minding the Gap
  54. Motherless Brooklyn
  55. Tolkien
  56. The Biggest Little Farm
  57. Alita: Battle Angel
  58. The Dead Don’t Die
  59. The Great Hack
  60. Stan & Ollie
  61. Vice
  62. Bohemian Rhapsody
  63. Aquaman

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