Review: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”

After much anticipation, it’s finally here: “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”  Apologies for the delay in my review.  It’s a busy time of year, and I wanted to see the film for a second time to parse out my thoughts.  Plus, with the film having been out for over a week and having made enough money to fill 10 battle stations, I figure it’s safe now to talk about some spoilery plot points.

I’ve already written about what this universe means to me, so the big questions is:  Does director JJ Abrams’s “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” live up to its galactic hype?

Pretty much.  And that’s no easy feat.  Let’s dive in!

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From the title crawl, you know you’re in good hands.  “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  Whoa!  No taxation or trade routes here, huh?  (I can see your eyes glazing over already.)  The film opens with the remnants of the Empire, now the First Order, attempting to intercept a map to Luke.  Squash the last remaining Jedi and there will be little hope for the Resistance.

A resistance pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) hides the plans in his BB-8 droid before he’s captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a disciple of the Dark Side.  The BB unit rolls through the dunes of the desert planet Jakku until he comes across Rey (Daisy Ridley), an independent and resourceful scavenger waiting for her family to return.

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Meanwhile, Kylo Ren learns what the droid is carrying.  A conscience-stricken stormtrooper (John Boyega), nicknamed Finn, helps Poe escape.  The two crash on Jakku in a TIE fighter.  Believing Poe to be dead, Finn finds his way to civilization, or the backwater planet’s version of it, where he meets Rey.  After a skirmish with the First Order, the two board the Millennium Falcon.  (I know the Force works in mysteries ways, but talk about coincidence!)

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The Falcon is picked up by none other than its former captain and co-pilot, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).  We learn that Rey believed Luke Skywalker to be a myth.  Han informs her and Finn that Luke went into hiding after a Jedi in training was seduced by the evil Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

That pupil was Kylo Ren.  In one of the film’s most stirring scenes, he prays to the helmet of Darth Vader.  “I feel it again…the call to the Light…Show me again, the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way.”  Just as Luke was tempted by the Dark Side of the Force, Kylo is tempted by the Light.  And why shouldn’t he be?  He’s Han Solo and Leia Organa’s son.

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Now, if a lot of this seems familiar — a droid carrying secret plans, a young person on a barren desert planet with aspirations for something greater — that’s by design.  Similar to this year’s “Creed,” this is as much a soft reboot as it is a continuation of the saga.  Would I have liked a little more daring and originality in the story department?  Absolutely!  Given JJ Abrams’s track record — I’m looking at you, “Star Trek Into Darkness” — I was pretty nervous about fan service, but the callbacks didn’t bother me much.  With one huge, planet-sized exception.  I’ll get to that later.  There certainly isn’t anything as eye-rollingly awful as Anakin Skywalker creating C-3PO.  (Sorry, I’ll try to stop referencing those.  They’re painful for me too.)

One of the things this film, the first in a new trilogy, needed to do was set up a cast of compelling characters.  And in that regard, “The Force Awakens” is aces.  Oscar Isaac’s Poe has all the charisma of a 1930s swashbuckling movie star.  Think Errol Flynn.  I loved that John Boyega’s Finn was allowed to be scared out of his mind and in over his head.  Few things are duller than a hero who’s completely and utterly confident in their abilities.  If they aren’t concerned for their own well-being, why should we be?

It’s a testament to the film that I wasn’t twiddling my thumbs while waiting for the original cast to show up.  But even they deliver…mostly.  Carrie Fisher doesn’t do much with the very little she’s given to do.  But Harrison Ford — I haven’t seen him this engaged by a part in years!  This is a far cry from “Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.”

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The two MVPs are undoubtedly Daisy Ridley’s Rey and Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren.  Much has been made about Rey being too perfect, which is to say she excels at everything she does.  She’s a good pilot and mechanic.  She’s strong with the Force and can more than hold her own with a lightsaber.  While I can’t argue that she doesn’t have many defeats (if any at all), I profoundly disagree that the character, as a result, is uninteresting.  Rey is filled with longing and doubt, fear and incredulity at her own abilities.  Ridley owns the role.  There are some wonderfully evocative, dialog-free moments.  When we meet Rey, she sleds down a sand dune after acquiring some scrap.  A fighter pilot helmet strapped to her head, she wistfully looks out at the empty desert landscape.

And then there’s Kylo Ren.  All too often, studios — I don’t wanna name names so let’s just say Schmarvel — are content to prop up empty, soulless, uninteresting villains to give their heroes something to hit.  Not this guy.  Unlike Darth Vader, he’s still in flux — a villain that hasn’t quite hatched from his cocoon.  His impenetrable mask and Driver’s icy delivery hide an interior that’s filled with uncertainty.  A petulant young man, he’s prone to violent, lightsaber-swinging outbursts when he doesn’t get his way.  From the moment he stepped on screen and stopped a blaster bolt from hitting its mark, I knew I was in for a treat.

(Seriously, the sound design in this film is incredible.  The Force now has an audible presence, as though the air flexes when it’s in use.  It feels more powerful and dangerous than it ever has before.)

Though the film has its dark passages, JJ Abrams and co-screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt imbue it with a sense of humor.  It’s maybe the funniest entry in the series.  I get a chuckle just thinking about BB-8’s lighter thumbs-up.  Abrams is known for his acrobatic camera, but he and DP Daniel Mindel dial it back here.  We’re allowed to appreciate the scale of this universe, whether it’s a star destroyer eclipsing a moon or Rey dwarfed by the massive engines of a vessel.  Abrams also made good on his commitment to return to practical effects.  Though puzzlingly, there are a couple poorly executed CGI characters. Still, I enjoyed the assortment of puppetry, make-up and animatronics bringing the corners of many scenes to life.

Now for that troubling bit of fan service.  The First Order has a super weapon not dissimilar from the Death Star, though it’s much bigger as the film eagerly points out.  This monstrosity has been carved out of a planet and has the power to destroy entire star systems.  Complete with an easily exploited weakness, the new baddies seem incapable of learning the lessons of the Empire.  Not being revealed until the mid-point, this Starkiller Base barely has a screen presence.  Its annihilation of five planets is met with a shrug rather than a shriek.  Contrast that with the harrowing destruction of one planet in the original “Star Wars.”  Every time the film cut to this storyline, I felt the otherwise brisk pace come to a grinding halt.  While many of the tropes and archetypes feel lovingly constructed, this truly seems like filmmakers going through the motions.

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“The Force Awakens” never achieves the storytelling efficiency of the original “Star Wars” trilogy, especially the first two entries.  In many respects, it feels like the most episodic of the films, even more so than “The Empire Strikes Back” and its infamous cliffhanger ending.  Many questions are left dangling, right down to the tantalizing final frames.  (Luke!)  Though it may be a little frustrating, I suppose we are in that era.  It feels like a backhanded compliment to say that this latest entry is better than the prequels, but it’s way better.  JJ Abrams and company have done a good job setting up the board for grand chess master Rian Johnson.  I am very excited to see where he takes the story in Episode VIII.

What did you think of “The Force Awakens?”  Did the fan service elements bother you?  Comment below!

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Review: “Spectre”

I was really enjoying “Spectre,” the 24th film in the James Bond series, for the first hour and a half.  Had it ended there, this would be a positive review.  But it didn’t.

It’s hard to talk about this film without delving into spoilers, so I’m not even going to try.  You’ve been warned!

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Sam Mendes, responsible for the previous (and best) entry, “Skyfall,” returns to the director’s chair.  He brings his fluid sense of action and a knack for making sure every penny of the budget shows up on screen.  The film opens in Mexico during a Day of the Dead celebration.  Mendes and cinematographer Hoyte Van Hoytema craft an elaborate long take which follows James Bond (Daniel Craig) as he tracks a target through the festivities.  I suspect friend of the blog, Ben, would call this an embodiment of the Bond experience:  exotic locations and grand spectacle mixed with intrigue.

As things are wont to do in this franchise, everything goes to hell.  Bond finds himself running from a collapsing building and then chasing his target right into a departing helicopter.  (So much running!  Where’s Tom Cruise when you need him.)  Here we have a spectacular blend of what looks to be location photography and a gyrating set, the actors rolling and bouncing inside, as 007 tries to take control of the aircraft.

Bond discovers that he’s embroiled in a larger conspiracy involving a nefarious organization known as Spectre.  After learning that a former nemesis, Mr. White, has ties to the group, he pays him a visit.  In an attempt to gain leverage over the man, Bond vows to protect his daughter Madeleine (Léa Seydoux).  Simultaneously, M (Ralph Fiennes) is wrestling with Max Denbigh (Andrew Scott), a member of the British government trying to coalesce intelligence organizations from several countries into one massive, Orwellian security group.

Now, things aren’t all expensive tuxedos and vodka martinis during the first half of the film.  There’s some eye-rolling dialog like, “As you know, 007, [insert something that Bond clearly does know but we the audience don’t].”  And poor Dave Bautista (more on him later) and Monica Bellucci are completely wasted as a henchman and Bond girl respectively.  But it isn’t until shortly after our hero meets up with Madeleine that that delicious vodka martini ends up all over that nice tuxedo.

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Few and far between are the Bond girls that develop any real connection to James.  That’s certainly attempted here, but the film doesn’t lay the groundwork.  By the end of “Spectre,” we’re to believe that Bond would give up his double-0 license for a life with Madeleine, but we’ve no reason to think their relationship is any more special than the countless women he’s shagged.  Frequent callbacks to Vesper Lynd, perhaps the best Bond girl in the series, don’t help.  She was smart, resourceful and complex in her own right.  We saw her relationship to Bond develop in “Casino Royale.”  Not the case here.

Now we come to the film’s other crippling problem.  The head of Spectre is Ernst Stavro Blofeld (Christoph Waltz).  He is and always has been the franchise’s big bad.  The Joker to Bond’s Batman.  The Moriarty to his Sherlock.  That Waltz is playing Blofeld will come as a surprise to no one who’s even a casual Bond fan.  But the film certainly wants it to.  Hiding his identity, we initially know him as Franz Oberhauser.  Franz is a brother of sorts to James Bond.  After the death of Bond’s parents, Franz’s father looked after him, and Franz felt that James supplanted him in the eye of his dad.  So he killed his father, faked his own death and took the name Blofeld.

Wait, there’s more…

“Spectre” retcons so many elements from the previous three films.  As it turns out, Blofeld has been Bond’s puppet master for all his life.  He’s responsible for everything that’s happened during Craig’s run.  All those baddies worked for Spectre.  In addition to making the universe that much smaller (even Auric Goldfinger avoided the mantle of Spectre), this is lazy, lazy, lazy writing.  Instead of constructing a worthwhile villain or setting up the evil organization in the previous entries, the filmmakers trot out a fan favorite (with tired daddy issues to boot) and hang the plots of “Casino,” “Quantum” and “Skyfall” on him.  He says to Bond at one point, “I’ve really put you through it all these years.”  If you say so.

Without any emotional stakes or character investment, the back half of this film feels tedious.  It dives head first into most of the Bond clichés the Craig movies have spent ribbing, but they feel half-assed, like the director’s heart isn’t in it.  Bautista’s Mr. Hinx is a completely unremarkable henchman.  He’s got metal thumbnails, a fact that I needed to be reminded of after my screening because they’re such a non-entity, which he uses to gouge out a foot soldier’s eyes.  And he’s dead by the middle of the film.  You remember Oddjob and Jaws.  You remember their names.  (I had to look Mr. Hinx up.)  You remember their quirky character traits, Jaws for his nasty chompers and Oddjob for his lethal propensity for hat throwing.

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Not once, but twice, this film falls into the elaborate scenarios that Bond always escapes from.  The first is a torture scene with a series of small drills and James’s head.  The second is an escape sequence.  Blofeld sends Bond on a chase through the bombed out MI6 to find Madeleine.  If he can’t find her in three minutes, they’ll both be killed when the building is completely leveled by another bomb.  This sequence left me wanting to scream, “Just kill them!”  Same old villain falling for the same old tricks.

As another friend of the blog, another Ben, put it, “I can see what they were trying to do.  They wanted an updated version of the cheeky, kitschy fun of the late Connerys.  Watches, quips, muscle men, countdowns.  That could be fun in small doses.  But to build an entire film on those references isn’t borrowing classic fun from the franchise’s past.  It’s inviting back all the problems of banking on those references to captivate an audience, or even keep them vaguely involved.”

Is “Spectre” as bad as “Quantum of Solace?”  Not quite.  It’s got too much polish for that.  But it was a lot easier to slap a tourniquet on “Quantum” and brush it off.  This one, thanks to its ties to the other films, ain’t gonna be that easy.  Stir it or shake it up, I hope the producers do whatever they need to right this ship.

Have you seen “Spectre?”  What did you think?  Let me know in the Comment section!

Review: “Sicario”

I’ve got it. The next big trend in physical fitness. All you need to do is watch Denis Villeneuve’s “Sicario,” once a day, every day, and the pounds will melt off in no time.  From its opening moments, depicting a raid on a drug house, the film is sweaty-palms suspenseful.

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FBI agent Kate Macer (Emily Blunt) is part of that raid.  Soon after, she’s recruited into a task force, which includes Josh Brolin’s Matt Graver and Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro Gillick.  They’re to take down a major drug kingpin in Mexico.  Kate, unsure of whom to trust even on her own team, realizes she’s swimming in dark and dangerous waters.

The main cast — Blunt, del Toro and Brolin — are really strong.  Brolin, with his wry smile and reluctance to give up information, generates a lot of nervous laughs.  But del Toro is the MVP.  In one of my favorite moments, shortly after we (and Kate) have met him, he’s sleeping on an airplane and his hand starts to twitch and then he wakes with a start.  The smallest suggestion that under the enigmatic and menacing exterior, there’s a lot of pain and sadness.

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Taylor Sheridan’s screenplay doesn’t provide Blunt’s Kate with a whole lot of background or even agency, but that’s why you cast one of the best actresses of her generation.  In an early exchange, we learn that she’s divorced and doesn’t have kids.  No family attachments.  (How’s that for foreboding?)  Throughout the film, she often finds herself on the losing end of conflicts, which is a little unusual for mainstream audiences.  I didn’t mind it so much, as it felt emblematic of the drug war itself.  It’s a losing battle.

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The action setpieces have a real sense of presence.  Explosions aren’t accompanied with the standard fireball.  They’re concussive forces, throwing our heroes to the ground.  Kevlar vests don’t keep characters free from harm.  Bullets still knock the wind out of them, leaving them gasping for air.  Interrogations aren’t performed with a lot of flapping and yelling but cold and quiet intimidation.  I’ve never witnessed a real explosion, been shot at or interrogated — knock on wood — but these moments felt refreshingly absent any trumped up Hollywood conventions.

Indeed, the film achieves all this without resorting to cinema verite techniques (handheld camera, extensive film grain, etc.).  I’ve talked about Cinematographer Roger Deakins on the blog before, and I can’t overstate his skill and artistry behind the camera.  In what’s sure to be one of the shots of the year, a group of gunmen are preparing for a dangerous trek underground at sunset.  As they move across the barren desert landscape, their silhouettes appear against the nearly-night sky and slowly sink into the dark horizon.

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Deakins and Villeneuve employ a lot of helicopter shots, particularly as the task force is driving across the border into Mexico for a mission.  Being a fan of “The Shining,” I couldn’t help but think of the opening moments of Stanley Kubrick’s film as Jack Torrance drives to the film’s haunted hotel.  The effect here is similar, as we watch from on high as our characters navigate into trouble.

Due to its blistering intensity and pessimistic worldview, “Sicario” isn’t going to be a film for everyone.  But if you’re willing to take the ride, I think the craftsmanship and strong performances are definitely worth your time.

Have you seen “Sicario?”  What did you think?  Comment below and thanks for reading!

Review: “Godzilla” (a.k.a. “Gojira”)

This week marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the original “Godzilla,” known as “Gojira” in its native Japan.  The Japanese cut of the film wasn’t available in the States until 2004, so for roughly 50 years, Americans had to make do with the U.S. edit, “Godzilla, King of the Monsters.”  It featured Raymond Burr, thanks to some…unique editing.  The biggest crime of the U.S. version wasn’t Burr’s haphazard inclusion, but the way it muted — eradicated even — the cautionary aspects of the original.

Warning: giant monsters and spoilers ahead!

Director Ishiro Honda’s film begins with a dramatization of an event that would have been fresh in the minds of Japanese citizens.  In early 1954, the S.S. Lucky Dragon 5 and the men on board were exposed to fallout from H-bomb testing.  “Godzilla” begins similarly, a group of fishermen are consumed by flames after witnessing a blinding flash of light.  Honda invites our curiosity by completely concealing the monster.  Staging the scene so obliquely, he positions the film as a haunting and even cathartic nuclear allegory.

As more ships disappear, the Japanese public demands answers.  In one of my favorite effects shots – “favorite” not to be confused with “best” — what’s clearly a model boat bursts into flames.  It floats along the surface of the water, a ghost ship, before sinking beneath the waves.  When the full nature of these disasters becomes clear, we get varying perspectives on how to deal with the problem.  Salvage ship captain Hideto Ogata (Akira Takarada) wants Godzilla destroyed.  It poses too great a threat.  Paleontologist Kyohei Yamane (played by Kurosawa-regular Takashi Shimura) wants to preserve the creature for study.  What is it?  How long has it been there?  How did it survive the atomic tests?  They’re linked by Emiko (Momoko Kochi), Kyohei’s daughter and Hideto’s lover.

Among the franchise’s 30 entries, this first film boasts the most compelling human drama.  Emiko’s allegiances are torn between her father, Hideto, and Dr. Daisuke Serizawa (Akihiko Hirata), who she’d been sworn to marry despite her true affections.  Frankly, some of the romantic melodrama could go, but the human element is juiciest when it centers around Serizawa.  Unintentionally, he’s developed a weapon of mass destruction: the Oxygen Destroyer.  When guns, tanks and planes prove ineffective against Godzilla, Emiko and Hideto urge the doctor to use his device.  Only nine years after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, he’s reluctant.  “I can’t add another terrifying weapon to humanity’s arsenal.”

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The film’s special effects centerpiece is Godzilla’s attack on Tokyo, made possible by “suitmation.”  Pioneered by Eiji Tsuburaya, an actor in a monster suit storms through a miniature city.  Though the technique is dated, many shots hold up.  Honda and Tsuburaya frame Godzilla from low angles with foreground elements — buildings, power lines, and a bird aviary in one case.  This creates scale while inky cinematography hides the seams and contributes to a sense of dread.

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But, in the infancy of suitmation, there are plenty of geographical inconsistencies.  Firefighters barrel through the streets only to careen off them…presumably due to Godzilla, but we never have a sense of their proximity to each other.  Still, those mishaps are easily overlooked when you consider the number of chilling moments.  A mother comforts her children as the city falls around them.  “Don’t worry, we’ll be with Daddy soon.”

So many films, post-9/11, attempt to channel the apocalyptic sense of doom from that day, but few achieve what this one does.  The morning after the attack, an eerily-calm establishing shot of Tokyo shows the city in ruins.  A young girl cries as her deceased mother is carried through a hospital corridor that’s bursting with wounded citizens.  A doctor examines a patient with a Geiger counter.  A children’s choir sings for peace.  These moments carry all the weight and immediacy of a documentary.  Despite this film having only one city-leveler — not the smorgasbord* of later installments — the stakes have never felt higher.

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The sorrowful tone is carried through to the film’s final moments.  Dr. Serizawa, seeing the aftermath of destruction, concedes to use his weapon.  In doing so, he takes his own life.  Now that the world knows of his invention, he can’t be coerced into making another.  Where many films might strike a triumphant note with the demise of the monster, this one does not.  Akira Ifukube’s mournful score recalls the choir’s prayer earlier in the film.  Like many great movie monsters, Godzilla is a victim of man’s overreach.  As Kyohei watches, the ancient creature lets out a death cry and finally succumbs.  He warns — in a bit of dialog that’s just a shade too on-the-nose — against further atomic tests.  Alongside science fiction classics like “Frankenstein” and modern classics like “Blade Runner,” “Godzilla” stands as a stirring reminder of the reckoning that follows from man’s hubris.

* – Not that I’m casting judgments.  I’m all for a smorgasbord of giant monsters!

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Have you seen the Japanese cut of the original “Godzilla?”  How about the American cut?  Comment below!