No metaphor or hyperbole here — cartoonist Dash Shaw’s 2016 cinematic debut, My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea, is an indie animated feature that’s about exactly what its title claims. And what kid, present or former, didn’t dream about precisely that happening to their high school at least once?

And yet Shaw, in his capacity as writer/director, avoids romanticizing the youthful outsider, as one would assume he’d be inclined to do — in fact, his stand-in protagonist (also named Dash and voiced with considerable range and realism by Jason Schwartzman) comes off as both willfully delusional (he’s convinced that he’s the best writer in the school and that his newspaper is “making a difference” — while also less-than-begrudgingly admitting that he chases after banal gossip stores in an attempt to boost his readership) and, frankly, more than a bit of a jerk. His best friend/good-natured foil, then, Assaf (Reggie Watts) ends up assuming the role of the film’s conscience/key sympathetic figure pretty much by default, but even he has his less-than-stellar moments after the shit hits the fan, quite literally — but then, who would remain calm, cool, and collected at all times after an earthquake sent their school careening off a cliff and plummeting, slowly but surely, toward a date with Davy Jones’ locker?

Shaw has long been one of the rising stars of the “alternative”/indie comics scene (his graphic novels New School and Cosplayers are both must-reads, and his strips have been among the highlights of numerous anthologies ranging from Kramers Ergot to Now), but for those not tuned into his wavelength going in, the hand-drawn animation in this flick may take some getting used to. The abstract color blocks laid underneath the art give the proceedings a very distinctive and vaguely modernist look, but if you’re not focusing on the “hand-drawn” in that sentence, then you’re focusing on the wrong thing. The art for damn near every animated film is cranked out on a computer these days — the fact that this wasn’t is straight-up cause for celebration. But it’s not just Shaw’s aesthetics that set his little opus apart —

As is the case with pretty much every generation since time immemorial, we’re told that today’s youth are “lost,” that they’re “coddled,” that they “have it easy,” that we’re more or less fucked when they grow up and take charge. Shaw turns every one of those dull assumptions on their ear and shows that, warts and all, the kids are alright. Dash and Assaf have a lot to work out — their differences are ostensibly “creative,” but run considerably deeper than that — as they try to make their way up to the school’s roof to (hopefully) be rescued, but they both come off as reasonably thoughtful, articulate, and smart adolescents, hampered mostly (hell, only?) by the same insecurities, zealotry, eagerness, and hard-headedness that we were all afflicted with at that age. If we turned out okay (alright, fair enough, the jury’s still out on that), odds are better than good that they will, too.

What’s perhaps most surprising about Shaw’s film, though, especially given its roughly 75-minute length, is that no one comes off as a one-note cipher. Lena Dunham’s Mary is afforded a good deal more depth than most “Queen Bee”-type characters, Maya Rudolph’s Verti is more than a simple antagonist for Dash , and this same courtesy is even extended to the flick’s grown-ups, such as Susan Sarandon’s lunch lady Lorraine and Thomas Jay Ryan’s Principal Grimm. Every one of these various and sundry personages could reasonably be expected to be little more than plot devices and/or comic relief, but dang — for a bunch of drawings, they sure seem real.

And while we’re on the subject of drawings, keep a close eye on Shaw’s at all times. Absurdist visual gags and “Easter eggs” abound, with one thrusting itself into the foreground every few minutes or so. Obviously the premise here lends itself to outlandish humor, so when it rears its head it’s hardly a shock, but what is shocking is how damnably clever and smart it all is. In his work as a cartoonist, Shaw has always excelled at the “oh my God I wish I’d thought of that” moment, and has managed to work them into his books or strips without interrupting their narrative flow — to see him translate that skill into a new medium with this much ease is almost jealousy-inducing.

All in all, then, I believe that captivating is the word we’re looking for here. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking about the crisp dialogue, the stylish animation, the pitch-perfect humor, or the honest characterization — My Entire High School Sinking Into The Sea is a film that’s firing on all cylinders. After enjoying a reasonably popular (if limited) theatrical run, it garnered a further dose of attention and acclaim upon its Blu-ray and DVD release, and it’s now available for streaming on Netflix. Pass on it at your peril (okay, that may be overstating things, but still) — this is supremely confident, assured, and heartfelt stuff that will almost make you wish you were a kid again.

Provided, of course, that the everybody else in your high school sank into the sea while you and your friends made it out in one piece.


Let’s be honest — as was the case with last year’s Wonder Woman (in fact probably to an even greater degree), Black Panther was a cultural phenomenon before it was even released, and in future it will be examined as such. As something more than a movie. As something that resonated within, and reverberated throughout, the zeitgeist. Its trajectory in that regard is largely unwritten to this point, but can be predicted with a fair amount of certainty : near-universal praise will come first, followed by the inevitable backlash, followed by an almost apologetic, “ya know, maybe we were too hard on this thing that we loved at first” sort of acceptance. If we could just skip all that, and take it as a given, it would save us all a lot of time and effort — but it’s on the way, so tune in or out of all that as you see fit. My concerns here are considerably more prosaic : to talk about the movie as what it began “life” as, to wit — “just” a movie.

For what it’s worth (which may not be much), I’m tempted to agree, to an extent, with those who are pointing out that simply seeing this flick is in no way an act of “resistance” in and of itself : after all, if the fact that the first thing that runs in theaters before the film starts is a commercial for Lexus cars featuring Chadwick Boseman in full Panther gear isn’t enough to clue you in to the reality that, at the end of the day, this is much more about profits than it is about politics, then the product placement within the film itself should do the job — and at the end of the day, one of the largest corporations in the world, founded by noted racist Walt Disney, is still the one making all the money off it. If, then, shelling out ten or fifteen bucks to watch Black Panther is an inherently defiant or dissident act (and I’m not saying it is), then it’s a highly commodified and co-opted one.

All that being said, when a film is released out into the world, particularly a film with as much fanfare attached to it as this one, there are gonna be ripples that emanate out from it — and among the millions of kids, in particular, who watch this flick, the seeds of an interest in African culture are sure to be sown, and the more they follow the metaphorical stalks that grow and flower from those seeds, the more they’ll discover things like historical resistance to colonialism, exploitation, capitalism, and the like. So while Black Panther may not be a radical (or even a particularly political) work in and of itself, it may inspire some radicalism in the future — one can only hope, at any rate.

But that’s pure speculation at this point, so let’s talk about what we know for certain.

One thing anyone who follows this site, or my work anywhere else, absolutely knows is that I’m no fan of Marvel Studios product in general. Unlike, apparently, most people, I find the overwhelming majority of Marvel flicks to be hopelessly redundant, formulaic, lowest-common denominator fare directed in a flat and lifeless “house style” with no particular visual flair, no particularly standout performances, no particular vision to do anything but get audiences keyed up for the next one. They exist as a self-perpetuating celluloid organism, one with no distinct personality but a lot of business sense and promotional muscle. This has been going on for so long, and with so much box office success, that I went into flick essentially expecting more of the same — sure, I knew it had a predominantly-black cast, and was set in Africa (albeit in a fictitious country), but that doesn’t mean that director Ryan Coogler was going to break the mold in any appreciable way. Hell, it doesn’t even mean that he would be allowed to do so. Happily, my pessimism was turned on its ear almost from word the word “go” here.

Black Panther looks different, feels different, because it is different. Coogler and co-screenwriter Joe Robert Cole certainly capture the dynamism, the energy, the Afro-futurism that has been a part of King T’Challa’s backstory since Jack Kirby created the character and his world (nope, we don’t lay any credit at Stan Lee’s feet around these parts, but I’m not getting into the “whys and wherefores” of that right now because, shit, I don’t have all night), but advance it all considerably, absorbing the extra layers added onto the mythos by the likes of Don McGrregor, Billy Graham, Christopher Priest, Reginald Hudlin, and Ta-Nehisi Coates over the years, and coming out with something uniquely suited to cinema and very much of the “now.” There’s a hard-driving and kinetic sense of energy to this film that the so-called “MCU” has been missing since it inception, and if you’re among the small number of those who agree with my assessment that most of these flicks play out more like two-hour TV episodes than proper movies, you can relax : this is as bold, brash, and big as it gets. This is blockbuster fare not only in name, but in execution, with visual effects that amaze, sets that inspire awe, cinematography that commands attention, action that sizzles, a script that charges forward, and music that slicks that trajectory along. This is arresting cinema that doesn’t even give you the option to leave your seat.

But what of the acting, you ask? It ranges from good to great, and thankfully the great includes the key players : Chadwick Boseman is regal yet human, fallible, relatable in the film’s central role: Forest Whitaker embodies aged wisdom tinged with regret as high priest Zuri; Michael B. Jordan is the first truly formidable villain, crucially one with a compelling backstory and some entirely valid philosophical viewpoints, as Killmonger; Martin Freeman not only reprises, but considerably expands, his already-extant “MCU” role of CIA agent Everett K. Ross with heart, humor, and brains; Sterling K. Brown makes the most of limited but significant screen time as T’Challa’s late uncle, N’Jobu; Andy Serkis — as a human this time! — chews up the screen with dangerous charm as Ulysses Klaue (or “Klaw,” as the comics would have it). These guys are all tops, really. And yet —

It is the women that carry this film. Whether we’re talking about Lupita Nyong’o as T’Challa’s love interest Nakia, a determined, fiercely independent, and soulful force that isn’t just her partner’s “equal,” but his conscience; Danai Gurira as General Okoye, head warrioress of the Dora Milaje, who embodies martial discipline and loyalty with the controlled fury of a hurricane ready to strike at any moment; Angela Basset as Queen Mother Ramonda, a living embodiment of grace, stature, and tradition; or Letitia Wright as younger sister Shuri, part “Q” to T’Challa’s “Bond,” part grounding and humanizing influence, part Moon Girl-style intellectual prodigy — as in life, it is the women that both make this movie’s men what they are, while also being complete and fully-realized in and of themselves. African history is far less patriarchal than is commonly believed, and in Wakanda that proud matriarchal lineage is exemplified, modernized, magnified — and honored.

Most films reflect the moment. Others define the moment. Black Panther goes one further by creating the moment. It’s as near to flawless as big-budget blockbusters get and eschews the too-common-flaw that movies made on this scale have of dumbing things down to appeal to the masses. Coogler and company instead trust those same masses to be intelligent enough to meet them on their level, and to respond to being talked “up,” rather than “down,” to. By believing that the world was not just ready, but eager, for something that goes far beyond mere spectacle — something that challenges the intellect while speaking to the heart — they have woken what could very well be a sleeping giant.

Now, let’s just keep our fingers crossed they’ve spurred that giant to do something more than simply go out and buy luxury cars.

So I’m rolling with one of those occasional kicks we all (I’m assuming) go on where we catch up on seeing a bunch of shit we’ve been hearing about for X number of weeks, months, even years, and  last night said kick took me to 2011’s Rise Of The Animals, a flick shot in and around Rochester, New York for the princely sum of $7,000 by a guy named Chris Wojcik who may be short on what passes for “skill,” but clearly thinks he possesses just enough to crank out one of those “so bad it’s good” pre-fabricated “cult” numbers that outfits like Troma and The Asylum have made their bread and butter for literally decades now. That being said, if any one film can be considered a direct thematic and stylistic predecessor to this one, it would be James Nguyen’s Birdemic, but there’s a very crucial difference between the two — Nguyen was actually trying to make something he thought might turn out to be “good” (at least his first time around), and Wojcik clearly suffered no such delusions and kept his tongue firmly in his cheek throughout his bargain-basement production.

Points to him having his head screwed on straight, then, I suppose, but here’s the thing — recent-vintage “midnight movie” favorites like Birdemic and The Room became grassroots mini-sensations precisely because they’re such earnest films where the various principals involved were working so hard to produce something that could pass for “art,” while a flick that knows it’s a steaming pile of horse (or moose, or bear, or cat, or squirrel) shit and just hams it up as much as its budget allows for can never come close to matching the wondrous ineptitude of those who try and (spectacularly) fail. I guess what I’m saying is that bad movies that were trying to be good are inherently more interesting than bad movies that were just trying to be bad.

I’ll tell you what, though — even with all that in mind, Wojcik almost won me over in the early going. The premise here is amazingly lame — teenage virgin pizza-deliver boy Wolf (played by Greg Hoople) and his equally never-been-laid buddy, Jake (Adam Schonburg), finally get lucky one night when they crash an all-girl slumber party, but Wolf’s lady-love, Samantha (Nicole Salisbury) heads clear across the country the next day. There’s no time time to be depressed, though, because out of the blue the animals (as in, like, all the animals) have turned homicidal and are slaughtering anyone and everyone in sight. And so Wolf, Jake, and Jake’s newfound girlfriend, Rachel (Stephanie Motta) decide their best bet is to hit the road and make sure Samantha’s okay. Cue the madness.

And even that’s kinda fun at first — stock footage of house pets, horses, etc, is mixed with amazingly bad puppetry (yes, you read that right) and even more amazingly bad CGI (my favorite being a gorilla with a red mohawk) to create some of the most clumsy animal “attack” scenes ever committed to to film (or, in this case, hi-def video) where actors seem to be moving in no relation whatsoever to the direction the “threats” against them are coming from, but here’s the problem — once the shtick wears off (which doesn’t take long), there’s just nowhere for this flick to go. And so it doesn’t.

There’s plenty of (phony in the extreme) blood and gore on hand here — in many cases people are absolutely drenched in the red stuff for little to no apparent reason even though they were pretty clean a second before — but that, and the hope for some more cringe-worthy dialogue, is about all that can keep you interested for the back half of the film’s scant 70-minute runtime. Wojcik doesn’t even fall back on the tried-and-true trick of consistently one-upping himself with his on-screen kills, some of the better (or at least weirder) ones happening early on, with the boring shit coming later on. The script essentially runs in place (even though the characters are headed toward a destination) until its big finale, and if you’re still any more than, I dunno, 25% more interested in what’s going on by that point, then congratulations on having a much greater attention span than I do.

Still, if there’s one thing I know, it’s my readership, and I’m sure that no matter how hard I might try to warn you off it, this is going to sound like the kind of movie that a lot of you feel like you just need to see. Fair enough. But please do yourself a favor and don’t hunt down Rise Of The Animals on DVD (if it’s even available in said format, truth be told I’m not sure) or pay to stream it, not when you can just check it out for free on YouTube by following this handy link :

Okay, fair enough, it took me awhile, but now that Paul Goodwin’s 2014 documentary Future Shock! The Story Of 2000 AD is available for streaming on Amazon Prime (and still easy enough to find on DVD and Blu-ray, should you desire to go that route) I had precisely zero excuse to delay watching it any further — and, truth be told, now that I’ve seen it, I’m kicking myself for having waited to long.

I’d heard pretty much nothing but good things, of course, and was fully expecting that the history of the self-appointed “Galaxy’s Greatest Comic” would make for the Galaxy’s Greatest Comics Documentary, but you know how expectations go — they’re lived up to so seldom that when it happens, it’s a damn pleasant surprise. I had another major concern about the endeavor, though, as well, one that was amplified by the fact that I saw no mention of it in the hundreds of reviews of the film prior to this one (at least those I’d read) — would Goodwin venture into the weeds of the publication’s shady ethical history, or would this be a glowing hagiography, and nothing more?

More on that in a moment, but first, by way of a brief “backgrounder” for those not in the know, 2000AD is the seminal British weekly comics publication that emerged in the late 1970s from the ashes of Action, a sublimely lurid  comics magazine that touched on any number of hot-button social and political issues of its day within the framework of balls-out adventure stories. Action proved to be too much for the censors of Britain’s nascent Thatcher regime to handle, but its founder and editor, the legendary Pat Mills, hit on the idea that he could stir up just as much shit as ever on the political front, and up the ante on the violence and bad attitude considerably, if he just transposed his gleeful misanthropy into the trappings of genre storytelling — and thus was 2000AD born, its sci-fi tropes offering a kind of “safe cushioning” for the anti-authoritarian (hell, often downright anti-social) messaging that Mills and his cohorts, infused with the punk rock ethos and aesthetic of the time, were still interested in peddling to impressionable, disaffected UK youth. Let the games begin!

Now, Mills was fortunate in the extreme to hit lighting in a bottle almost right off the bat with Judge Dredd, a character he co-created with writer John Wagner and artist Carlos Ezquerra that was an immediate sensation and has gone on to become a household name throughout the English-speaking world (and beyond), and Goodwin does a nice job of using his “talking-heads documentary” format to show what a jumbled effort Dredd’s genesis was, as well as how Ezqurra, who jumped ship early in order to take on work that actually might feed his family, still feels burned by not being allowed back onto the strip after it took off beyond anyone’s expectations. Which rather neatly brings us back to my concern from earlier —-

To be sure, this film is very much a celebration of its subject, but it’s an honest one. Goodwin’s approach is “warts-and-all,” and that makes for a much more engaging and satisfying viewing experience. Sure, the camaraderie and friendly competition that existed between early-days writers and artists is discussed, but so is the fact that they were paid sub-poverty wages. The publication is taken to task for its lack of creator ownership of IP, particularly as it relates to Alan Moore (whose absence looms large over the proceedings) and his unfinished masterwork, The Ballad Of Halo Jones. The poaching of 2000AD  talent by American publishers (especially DC) is presented as a negative thing for the comic itself, as it no doubt was (and is), but also as being inevitable, given the archaic business practices of ownership over the years. The controversial semi-recent editorial tenure of David Bishop isn’t glossed over in the slightest, least of all by Bishop himself. And, crucially, the “boys’ club” mentality prevalent in both the magazine’s pages and its offices is taken to task by recent female additions to the fold such as Emma Beeby, Lauren Beukes, and Leah Moore. There’s no doubt that 2000AD is a kick-ass mag — but it’s one that’s not been without its share of problems over the years, and Goodwin deserves credit for not only not ignoring them, but placing them front and center when necessary.

For all that, though, Goodwin isn’t snarky about his subject in the least, and it’s clear that he loves this comic dearly and knows its history like the back of his hand. His interview subjects run the gamut from originators like Mills, Wagner, Ezquerra, Brian Bolland, Kevin O’Neill, Alan Grant, Dave Gibbons and Bryan Talbot to current contributors such as Rob Williams, Jock, Andy Diggle, and Dan Abnett,  as well as the aforementioned Beeby, Beukes, and Moore. One could argue, I suppose, that Neil Gaiman comes in for a bit too much screen time given that his contributions to the publication were pretty sparse, and that certain 2000AD luminaries like John Smith should have merited at least a mention, but on the whole, those gripes are minor, and are frankly all I’ve got listed in this film’s “minus” ledger. Goodwin has set a high bar for all future comic book documentarians and even those who don’t necessarily find the subject to be interesting are likely to enjoy the hell out of Future Shock! The Story Of 2000 AD. “Check it out now,” I say in my best Judge Dredd voice — “that’s an order!”


This oughtta be simple enough — Sean Baker’s The Florida Project is every bit as good as you’ve heard.

Okay, that’s it, my job’s done — Happy New Year, everybody.

But wait just a second —

You wanna know why. I swear, everybody always wants to know why. And, hey, I can’t say as I blame you — movie tickets don’t come cheap these days and one is forced to choose wisely. I was sold on seeing this from the outset (even if it took me awhile to get my ass to the theater), being a huge fans of Baker’s 2015 shot-on-an-iPhone effort Tangerine, and this time around I was curious to see what he could/would do with some real actors, actual cameras, and a whopping two million dollar budget. Would he “sell out”? Or would he stay true to himself even though the ever-elusive “big time” was clearly beckoning?

The social and economic margins are still where Baker butters his bread, though, and frankly I’m not sure anyone in the movie biz does a better job of chronicling the day-to-day lives of those who exist there than he does — so even though he’s traded in Hollywood Boulevard transgender sex workers for Orlando motel dwellers, his naturalistic style, non-judgmental view, and aesthetic immediacy still serve him very well indeed. Single mother Halley (Bria Vinaite in a breakout performance) is all about the hustle : selling knock-off perfumes, scamming Disney World entry wristbands, waiting out back of the Waffle House for throwaways, anything to get through one more day. And yes, she’ll fuck for a buck too, if push comes to shove. Our auteur is still right in his element with her.

In tow for this decidedly hard-scrabble existence/subsistence is her precocious daughter, Moonee (speaking of breakout performances, Brooklynn Prince has one hell of a future ahead of her), who by all rights probably should be going to school more often, but seems to spend most of her time keeping on just this side of the juvenile authorities with her best friend, Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who crashes with her mom at the fleabag next door. The kids have fun, though, and lots of company — there’s too many of ’em, in fact, for beleaguered “super” Bobby (Willem Dafoe) to keep up with.

But how long can a set-up like this last? One of Moonee’s young friends is a little firebug. Halley still likes her booze n’ drugs. The motel’s owner isn’t to keen on permanent residents. And Bobby, well, he’s got a heart of gold, but he can’t be everywhere at once, and there’s only so much you can do to keep kids protected from leering chickenhawks, state CPS agents, and their own parents’ bad decisions. Everyone’s barely holding it all together by the skin of their teeth.

The Florida Project pulls your heart in all fucking kinds of directions. On the one hand, you know Moonee wants to stay with her mom and you want her to be happy. On the other, Halley clearly can’t keep herself above water and has no business raising a kid. On a third, taking care of that kid is basically the only thing preventing her from completely teetering over into the abyss. On a fourth, raising any child under these circumstances is clearly limiting said child’s opportunities pretty drastically.

Problem is, you’ve only got two hands. And now you know how the characters in this film all probably feel.

Really, I can’t say enough good things. Baker and his co-screenwriter, Chris Bergoch, don’t concern themselves with anything like a strict “plot” per se so much as just allowing events to unfold and follow the course that they’re gonna follow — kinda like how real life works. And “real life” is exactly what’s on display here — in point of fact, a side of it most of us (fortunately) never even have to think about too often. This flick will leave you counting your blessings, no doubt about it, and wondering about how “the other half” even manages to get by. How long they can hold out. How long until it all falls apart.

When it does, it hurts. Even if it’s ultimately for the best. And that’s no guarantee. Baker is too honest a filmmaker to give you any of those.

I pride myself on not impressing easily, and The Florida Project impressed me mightily. Maybe not as much as Tangerine, in the overall scheme of things, but it came pretty close, and is a far more accessible film for John and Jane Q. Public to wrap their heads around. Sean Baker is bringing his uniquely “no-frills” take on the lives of the marginalized right where it needs to be — into the hearts and minds of the people who would rather pretend they don’t exist. No more resting easy. Shit just got real.


It’s always a dicey proposition when you’re reviewing a new Star Wars flick. One way or another, you almost can’t win — I recall, for instance, my lukewarm review of Star Wars : The Force Awakens being met with a comment stating, I shit you not, that “I agree with all your criticisms, but you should have given it a positive review anyway.” When I asked, naturally, why the hell my review should have been more sunny even though all my criticisms were legit, said individual responded, I assume with a straight face, something to the effect of “well, it’s more difficult to write a positive review than a negative one, so you should challenge yourself more.”

If I had any sense, I would have just walked away at that point, perhaps with a quip like “it’s only ‘more difficult’ to write a positive review of a film when said film sucks,” but instead I pressed further, insisting that it takes no more effort to write a glowing review than it does to write a pissy one, which is obviously and inarguably true, and was met with a (very) poor man’s bit of philosophy about life in general, my internet sparring partner insisting that “it’s hard work to be positive about anything, and way too easy to be negative.” Uhhhmmm — okay, if you say so.

For the record, I am not “down on” life. Hell, I wasn’t even that “down on” The Force Awakens. I just thought it was a mediocre re-tread of shit we’d seen done earlier, and better. What was painfully obvious, not just in retrospect but at the time, was that this particular commenter knew that’s all the flick amounted to, as well, but he liked it anyway, and was bent out of shape that I was both decidedly more cool on it than he was, and was able to articulate in fairly cogent terms why the overflowing love it was getting at the time really didn’t make much sense.

Well, that was two years ago, and when the hype died down, sure enough, my opinion at the time rather solidified into something like the overall consensus view. The Force Awakens hit a number of nostalgic notes, it made people feel the right way, but it certainly didn’t break any new ground, and basically amounted to a couple hours of fan service. Clearly, then, it would be left to the second chapter of the new trilogy to actually move things forward in any kind of significant way.

As early reviews for writer/director Rian Johnson’s Star Wars : The Last Jedi first trickled, then flowed, in, I was feeling reasonably good about its prospects to do just that : critics seemed to like it, while hard-core fans seemed to hate it. Pretty good sign right there that the amount of “fan-wank” in this was going to be minimal. It even seemed like Johnson was taking some risks here, and let’s face it, when you move forward, you’re going to necessarily leave plenty of overly-protective sorts behind. Maybe now that the Star Wars “greatest hits” reel was out of the way, we could get down to business.

And to an extent, Johnson does exactly that. Picking up essentially right where the last film left off, we see the so-called “Resistance, ” Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron in particular, scoring a pyrrhic victory against the “Empire-Lite” that is the newly-labeled “First Order,” only to find their space armada surrounded and running low on fuel while, concurrently with all this, Daisy Ridley’s Rey attempts to lure the reclusive Luke Skywalker (played by an older, but no less wooden and whiny, Mark Hamill) out of retirement to come save the galaxy from Lord Snoke (Andy Serkis, who joins Frank Oz, Lupita Nyong’o and, after a fashion, Carrie Fisher, as CGI “cast members”) and his now-apprentice — and Luke’s former trainee — Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

Those two plotlines take up most of the flick, and certainly Rey’s eventual training (no big surprise, but she’s the titular last Jedi, not Luke) in the ways of The Force is loaded with any number of call-backs to the Luke/Yoda scenes from The Empire Strikes Back, but beyond that, yeah, the “nostalgia factor” here is kept to a welcome minimum. A third major story strand involving John Boyega’s Finn and new sidekick/potential love interest Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) attempting to locate, and then secure the services of, a supposed “master code breaker” in order to disable an Imperial — sorry, First Order — blockade is a bit hackneyed on the whole and too dependent on a series of lucky coincidences to be overly interesting, but I’m willing, probably just because it’s the holiday season, to give Johnson props for trying with that one, even if it’s one big “twist” moment amounts to audiences saying to themselves “hey, whaddya know, I never thought I’d see Benicio Del Toro in a Star Wars movie.”

Surprise casting moves seem to be a running theme of The Last Jedi in a more general sense, though, too, truth be told, and since we’re on that subject Laura Dern should get some credit for her turn as Vice Admiral Holdo, who takes over the Reb — goddammit, I’m doing it again — Resistance fleet when Fisher’s Princess/General Leia is incapacitated for a good chunk of the runtime. In fact, of all the various competing subplots, the one she features in prominently is probably the most effective, as her motives — and, by extension, those of the Resistance leadership itself — come into question, throwing some shades of grey into what’s usually a fairly black-and-white Star Wars cinematic “universe.” Things work out alright in the end, of course — they always do in these movies — but at least there’s some genuine intrigue and tension along the way.

Speaking of ends, though, that’s where most of the trouble here comes in. Johnson has, by my count, two “red herring” endings that he toys with until we get to the actual big finale, and by then you’re sort of ready for the thing to be over. The conclusion, when it arrives, is every bit as spectacular as it needs/is expected to be, but there’s definitely a sense that it’s past due. So, yeah, if you’re getting the idea that this film’s third act is more than a bit herky-jerky, you’re absolutely right.

Probably the biggest knock against The Last Jedi, though, is one that plagued The Force Awakens, as well : simply put, this First Order outfit just never seems like an “A-list” threat. Kylo Ren is an even more unstable basket case in this flick than he was last time (ditching the mask only accentuates his status as a lame bad guy), “Boy General” Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is about as intimidating as a frat boy incensed at getting to the liquor store ten minutes after closing time and banging on the door to get in, and when Lord Snoke is finally removed from the equation, these guys are even more decisively “Bush League” than they were before. We all know the Resistance is going to win the day in the final act of this trilogy (which will no doubt be J.J. Abrams doing an updated take on Return Of The Jedi), but damn, with this Keystone Kops crew as their adversaries, the outcome is never even momentarily in doubt.

Still, for all that, The Last Jedi has more on the “plus” side side of its ledger than the “minus.” It establishes Rey as the powerful central protagonist she needs to be, it actually gives Poe Dameron plenty to do, and Finn and Rose make a good team. In short, it’s far more concerned with the characters we’re supposed to care about now rather than those we cared about a quarter-century (or more) ago — even if Hamill gets top billing in the credits.  It steps out of the long shadow cast by the franchise’s past (hell, it’s unafraid to poke fun at its own mythology, although some of the humor comes off as a little bit forced on occasion), even if it does so in a wobbly and uneven manner, and makes a statement (albeit, again, a shaky one) about where the series is in the here and now, rather than taking all of its cues from the past.

Huh. Now that I think about it, I hope my quasi-antagonist from a couple years back reads this review, since my final verdict should be right up his alley : Star Wars : The Last Jedi has a lot of problems — some of them pretty large — but you know what? I liked it anyway.

You’ve heard the scuttlebutt by now, of course — Justice League is a mess; Henry Cavill’s face looks ridiculous thanks to the shooting-schedule-necessitated decision to “erase” his mustache by means of CGI; the 9th-inning additional re-shoots are easy to spot; the so-called “DCEU” is doomed thanks to this film’s poor box office performance.

Some of these points are legit (the flick is certainly uneven, tonally and structurally, Cavill’s MIA ‘stache is conspicuous in its absence, the re-shoots (and brighter, “happier” color grading) undertaken by “relief” director Joss Whedon don’t fit in with Zack Snyder’s material), while others are clearly over-stated (the sub-$100 million opening weekend has been largely off-set by a stronger than expected “hold” over the five-day Thanksgiving holiday period), but at the end of the day, even after filtering out the noise (much of it generated by a certain competing comic-book-publisher-turned-movie-studio), the simple fact remains — this is obviously an up-and-down affair.

Which, believe it or not, is actually something of an achievement in and of itself — the forced departure of original director Snyder due to family tragedy definitely meant this production had to pull some kind of a rabbit out of its hat, and while Whedon (who in the end only gets a co-writer credit that he shares with Chris Terrio) clearly steered the ship into more “light-hearted” territory a la his fan-favorite Marvel Avengers flicks, it’s hard to tell how much of what he came up with originated in his own mind, and how much was dictated by WB execs who, let’s face it, were almost certain to part ways with Snyder anyway and were reportedly displeased with the “dark” tone of what he’d come up with prior to his exit.  Indeed, everything about the finished product that is Justice League feels focus-group-tested, specifically designed to appeal to as broad (and, some would argue, dumb) an audience as possible. Snyder’s visual ambition is on full display in the early going, but is completely absent by the time the credits roll; Hans Zimmer’s throbbing, rhythmic soundtrack work is gone in favor of  Danny Elfman’s nostalgia-heavy score; jokes (not all entirely successful) fly left and right; the body count is pretty damn low for a movie about an apocalyptic alien invasion. In short, this is a movie clearly trying to be as different from its predecessors, specifically Batman V. Superman : Dawn Of Justice, as possible. But that was never going to be an easy task with the same guy in the director’s chair.

Taking all that into account, then, the simple fact that Justice League succeeds in much of what it’s trying to do (like it or not) is pretty remarkable, and the DCEU definitely feels like it’s heading in a new, sunnier direction after this. The resurrection of Cavill’s Superman (achieved by means that can be described as “morally questionable” at best, seeing as how Ezra Miller’s Flash and Ray Fisher’s Cyborg actually dig his dead body out of the grave) seems as though it was designed to be the narrative catalyst for the change, and that’s all fine and dandy, but it sells Gal Gadot’s Wonder Woman short (as does much much of the movie in general) given that the newly-formed team decides that she just can’t lead lead ’em even though she’s essentially carrying this fictitious “universe” on her back these days. That’s a pretty significant slap in the face right there.

Gadot’s not alone in getting the short shrift, though, by any means — supporting players J.K. Simmons, Amy Adams, Connie Nielsen, Jeremy Irons, Diane Lane, Amber Heard, and Joe Morton all get stuck with roles that punch far beneath their respective weight classes — but by and large the main starts come out of this whole thing pretty well : Jason Momoa offers a decidedly revisionist, but altogether successful, take on Aquaman; Ben Affleck again gets the Bruce Wayne/Batman balance more or less exactly right (not so easy to do in this case since he’s saddled with a lot of decidedly-out-of-character “comic relief” material); Fisher proves to be an inspired choice to play Cyborg; Ezra Miller’s Flash starts out annoying but finishes up endearing; Gadot makes more than the most of a criminally-underwritten part. Hell, Cavill even finally appears to be enjoying this whole Superman gig. The principal cast, then, proves to be more than enough to carry this film through its not-inconsiderable story bumps, logical holes, shifting styles, and dodgy effects.

Not to mention its less-than-compelling villain. Like a lot of people, I thought we were going to get a full-on clash with the villains of Jack Kirby’s Fourth World here, but in the end all we get is Ciaran Hinds as a lackluster Steppenwolf accompanied by a horde of dully-realized Parademons. Honestly, if I want a bad guy this generic and uninspiring, I’ll see a Marvel movie.

And yet, this still ends up being a somewhat pleasing — uhmmmm — crowd-pleaser. The character designs are cool, the pacing is brisk enough that you don’t need to think about the film’s flaws until it’s over, the action sequences (particularly those obviously overseen by Snyder) are stirring and dynamic, the “fist-pump” quotient is reasonably high. Yes, it’s clear that DC is trying to “Marvel-ize” their movies from here on out, but given the absurd amount of critical and financial pressure on them (Batman V. Superman and Suicide Squad both being successfully tarred with the “disappointment” label despite taking in about $900 million each at the worldwide box office, roughly triple their budgets) maybe “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” was the only option they were left with.

I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. I realize I’m in the distinct minority in finding Snyder’s vision for these flicks to be inherently more compelling than your typical brain-dead blockbuster fare, but the people have apparently spoken, and while Justice League doesn’t quite hit all its marks — there’s no way it could —  for folks who felt the DCEU had gotten off on the wrong foot, it shows that WB is more than willing to adjust course “on the fly” in order to, as the Brits say, keep the punters happy. I’m a bit pessimistic going forward, to say the least, but there was enough of the DCEU that almost was on display here to have me leaving the theater reasonably happy. For now, at any rate.