Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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This is spoiler free but there are some very general things mentioned so if you want a completely empty slate then go see it first.

At some point in the process of taking on the enormous expectations of the movie-going world, J.J. Abrams and company decided that taping into the nostalgia of Star Wars was going to be the single most important element in restoring the faith of fans who felt that George Lucas’ prequels were an enormous misstep. The degree to which Abrams mirrors and calls back to the original trilogy will either have the desired effect or it will leave you with a nagging sense of déjà vu. For me, a lifelong fan who had his seven year old mind blown in 1977, it was mixture of welcome, warm fuzzies and muted disappointment.

That being said, The Force Awakens is fun. A lot of fun. The film’s first act focuses on our new heros Rey (Daisy Ridley ) and Finn (John Boyega ) and they are written and performed with refreshing energy and charm.  And when Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Meyhew) show up a little later, the film elevates and hums along nicely with thrilling adventure and genuinely funny moments (Han and Chewy are an absolute hoot). The film’s new villain Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a younger, less-in-control version of Darth Vader and although there is nothing particularly fresh in the way he is written, Driver is compelling nonetheless.

Abrams directs and moves the noticeably thin story along with the same gusto he showed in the Star Trek films with some adjustments that seem to acknowledge his desire to stay more true to the mise-en-scène of the original trilogy (so, yes, lens flairs have been sidelined).  There are surprises and revelations. There are plenty of things to savor and enjoy. It’s been made with obvious love and care. It’s good. It’s very good. It feels like a Star Wars movie in a way that the prequels never could quite get a handle on. I wanted it to be great but I imagine that my own expectations (just like everyone else) and the unthinkably difficult task of delivering a new Star Wars film that will hit all of the expected marks and carve out something new has rendered that next to impossible. But here we are, in 2015, with a new Star Wars film that mostly succeeds at restoring faith in a series that has spent the last 16 years in a kind of frustrating hibernation. The force has definitely awakened.

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Trailer of Hope (again) – Star Wars:The Force Awakens


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In the court of public opinion, Star Wars has been through a lot of ups and downs since it first altered popular culture in the summer of 1977. After riding a long wave of love and acceptance during it’s initial run (77-83) there was a palpable Star Wars burn out in the months and years following Return of the Jedi. The merchandising and branding of George Lucas’ franchise had reached unprecedented heights in those days. People were ready for a break. By the late 80’s, walking into a store or looking through a magazine rack no longer had the dominating Star Wars presence.  In those pre-internet days it almost felt like it might actually fade away completely.

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Not so exciting Star Wars toys of the early 90’s.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Timothy Zahn’s book Hier To The Empire arrived on the scene in May of 1991 and it became the catalyst, along with Dark Horse Comics’ Star Wars metaseries, for a renewed interest in the Star Wars universe. I have never personally cared for anything in the expanded Star Wars universe but I read the book because it was exciting just to have something new to discover. It was during the next few years that  the merchandise started slowly showing back up on shelves. I still remember being a little excited discovering those ridiculous bend-ems rubber figures in a toy isle in 1993. As underwhelming as those figures were it was still cool to see a Star Wars figure on a shelf in a store.

Then, in 1996, word started spreading about Lucas releasing the original films in theaters all cleaned up and ready for a new generation to discover them. There had been reports of Lucas making new films for several years already but now that was finally confirmed as well. This was truly exciting news. It seemed as though Star Wars was roaring back. People, in my generation especially, were getting drunk on Star Wars nostalgia. Count me as one of the drunkards. I was seven years old in 1977 and seeing Star Wars for the first time was life changing (you can read about my first time seeing it here). So here was this amazing opportunity to see our beloved trilogy again in, what we all hoped would be, an optimal setting.

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Jar Jar seems to be expressing how we fans felt upon the prequels arrival.

What none of us expected was that George Lucas decided that he didn’t like his old films anymore. He wanted them to look like new films. With the release of the “Special Editions” he severely altered the original films and was adamant that these “new” versions were the films. Lucas’ stubborn stance on not releasing the original films should have been the first red flag to what we were going to have to endure over the next 6 years.

The prequel trilogy was a confusing, frustrating and extremely disappointing time (1999-2005). Everyone remembers the build up to the Phantom Menace. The fuss over that trailer was much like last night’s release of the final Force Awakens trailer. We had so much hope after that trailer. Then the film arrived. Everyone remembers trying to convince themselves that they liked The Phantom Menace. Everyone remembers thinking the next one would be better. Everyone remembers that that didn’t happen. Everyone remembers thinking the new, next one would be better. And everyone remembers that that didn’t happen either. It was a really dark time for the fans. The rest of the world shrugged their shoulders and moved on.

Which brings us to now.

Seeing that trailer last night left me with the feeling that this new film could be something really special. It all just seems so right for once. Unlike the prequels, there hasn’t been the concern that old man Lucas has lost touch with what made the original films great. The people involved this time around feel right. I love that Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan is the top billed screenwriter. I love that J.J. Abrams is the director (lets be honest, his reboot of Star Trek felt more like a Star Wars movie than a Star Trek movie). I love that it is being shot on film and that there will be an emphasis on practical effects. Model ships. The biggest thrill of all is that our original heroes have returned (Han, Luke and Leia) and seeing them on screen is undeniably emotional for us fans. All I keep thinking is, everyone involved is more than aware of the bad taste that has festered in our mouths following the prequels. They know what is at stake. They don’t want to be remembered for putting the final nail in the coffin. So here we go again. We have seen the trailers. We like what we see. We have hope…again.

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Jurassic World (2015)

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There are some fun moments scattered about the two hour running time of the shiny, new Jurassic World; mostly clever deaths of secondary characters. The rest of the film is a pretty empty experience mostly because there isn’t one character that rises above the simple function they serve in the recycled plotline (hey! lets build another park!).

Bryce Dallas Howard plays Claire, the park’s operations manager. She is rigid, career-minded, fiercely formal and consistently annoying to not only us the viewers but to everyone else in the film (it should be noted that I have never seen a haircut that projected a character’s personality so clearly). Chris Pratt plays Owen Grady. He trains raptors but mostly he runs around in a vest looking like Han Solo. He also works on his motorcycle outside of his Jim Rockford-looking place there on the island. This is so that when he flirts and eventually hooks up with Claire it will be such a big surprise seeing as how different they are from one another and everything. Claire’s nephews (Nick Robinson and Ty Simkins) have arrived at Jurassic World for a visit but she doesn’t have the time and sends them out into the park with an assistant. Eventually the two brothers get to zoom around in a gerbil ball and admire all of the expensive cgi work before they are thrown into harms way and having the obligatory conversation about their parents’ immanent divorce because Steven Spielberg has, I think, made that a law for all card carrying screenwriters. There is Irrfan Khan as Simon Masrani, owner of Jurassic World. He is an updated John Hammond with much better clothes. I don’t want to leave out Vincent D’Onofrio who chews a little scenery as security guru Vic Hoskins who, for some reason, was given a shirt one size too small from wardrobe. I love that his name is Vic.

None of the silly plot really matters; especially the whole training raptors and the military wanting them for war thing. Even as plots go in these sorts of movies, this one is just layers and layers of dumb. But who cares when there are swooping Pterosaurs grabbing tourists and throwing them this way and that? And though there are a plenty of dinosaur scenes to satisfy, it was depressing how many (lots) were complete lifts from the the first film; blatantly mirroring whole moments and shots. The film seems uncomfortably  obligated to keep calling back to the 1993 juggernaut. Did I mention they have a skinny computer guy this time but he wears the same glasses as the fat computer guy from JP? Did I also mention that the two brothers somehow hotwire and then drive (because gas stays fresh for 22 years) a 1993 jeep from the first JP? Lots and lots of callbacks. I was almost expecting Ralph Edwards to come out from behind a tree with that big book and start interviewing the T-rex.

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Miller’s Masterpiece / Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)

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This image appropriately represents how Charlize Theron’s character dominates while Max is pushed to the back.

I think the thing that most amazed me while watching Fury Road last night was how much it restored my faith in movies in general and specifically of this type. As much as I enjoy the Marvel movies, to give one example, there is always a nagging sense that what you are seeing has been through the rigorous filters of studio bean counting and tracking data. But with this new Max I felt like I was transported right to the creative center of  George Miller’s brain. For the length of the film’s running time I never doubted that he made this movie exclusively for himself. Period. This is his plaything and we are just fortunate to be able to have a front row seat.

Buckle up my friends. Fury Road is a 120 minutes of endlessly creative, wholly visceral  cinema. The movie opens with a set piece so dazzling that I thought there’s no way this is the opening of the film; how are they going to top this? And yet the film just kept upping the ante with dogged determination. Miller’s energy and instincts as a director defy his age and is probably causing at least a few up and coming directors to reconsider their career goals.

The film is essentially one long chase through a desert so though seemingly sparse, every shot is bursting with the kind of detail that projects the loving attention that went into the production. Every person, vehicle or thing is visually memorable. It all feels beautifully indigenous to Miller’s crazy version of the post-apocalyptic world.

The story is simple. The performances are appropriately subdued (it should be noted that this film belongs to Charlize Theron). Max himself (Tom Hardy) takes a back seat to the terrific female characters that dominate the film. Everything is in service to Miller’s primary goal: one hell of a ride.  I know it’s crazy to say it’s the best action movie I have ever seen so I won’t.

But that doesn’t mean I’m not thinking it

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It’s A Wonderful Life (sometimes)

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George at the end of his rope

It’s A Wonderful Life was released in 1946 but its uncanny ability to have such a direct, emotional connection with audiences has allowed it to be programmed 68 years later in a prime-time slot on network tv in 2014. Sadly, few films that old have that kind of reach these days. But what’s most fascinating to me is how unrelentingly grim the film is. The hugely cathartic ending is the only moment of redemption in an otherwise desperate story of George Bailey; a man who is knocked down repeatedly as he endeavors to get out of Bedford Falls. Moreover, Capra’s most famous movie does not pull any punches when it comes to showing the shortcomings of small town living. The locals are portrayed as short-sighted and easy to manipulate with Potter lording over the town like an evil king. In the end, Bailey doesn’t really achieve anything as much as he dodges a larger than usual bullet. Thanks to his family and friends, he survives. And that’s it. Though the film is often accused of being overly sentimental in it’s portrayal of small town America I find that criticism to be only partly accurate. Sure we are given scenes like the big school dance with its Charleston contest and Buffalo gals-walk in the moonlight but the film bookends those scenes with Bailey’s father lamenting a lifetime spent fighting Potter and then his abrupt death. Is there anything sweeter than young Mary whispering into George’s bad ear at the malt shop? No. But that scene is immediately followed by Mr. Gower slapping George around until his ear bleeds. This juxtaposition of tone keeps returning us back to a familiar reality.  Ultimately, what gives the movie its power is that local yokel George Bailey is punished for his kindness and his generosity. He is made to suffer. And though we are overwhelmed with joy as the town swiftly comes to his aide, we realize that George’s life is much like ours; often messy and incredibly difficult.  However, the beautiful take-away is that lasting relationships and kindness that is not conditional are the only things that allow us to attach the word wonderful to the word life.

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Birdman (2014)

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First things first: It is great to see Michael Keaton in a major role in a major film. I was looking over his filmography the other day and was surprised at how few films he has been in since the late 90’s. He kind of fell off the radar. Birdman is his 43rd feature film since his breakout role in Night Shift (1982) and it really is a great fit for the 63 year old actor who lets it all hang out (literally and figuratively) in a role that will no doubt garner some award nominations. But that’s not all…

With Birdman, director Alejandro G. Inarritu and D.P. Emmanuel Lubezki have created a wholly visceral experience; a black comedy that focuses on the messy life of a washed up actor. It also delves into the selfish, insecure, manic personality traits of actors in general as well as the theater macrocosm/politics. Though these are subjects that other filmmakers have taken on before, Inarritu and writers Nicolás Giacobone,
Alexander Dinelaris, Jr. and Armando Bo find plenty of fresh and darkly funny perspective that never becomes overly corrosive or heavy. In fact, more often than not it feels unusually invigorating.

Riggin Thomas (Keaton) was as big a movie star as they come when he played Birdman on the big screen. But Riggin walked away from the glossy franchise and set his sights on adapting and acting in a Raymond Carver short story on the New York stage. Past his prime and finally facing his facile, mainstream career persona, he craves legitimate, critical approval and success. What follows is an acidic, aggressive tour de force of both acting and directing. Feeling like an adrenaline-fused version of Hitchock’s Rope, the camera glides and dashes around the tight corners of the theater and with careful editing and digital slight of hand the film feels fearlessly in-the-moment and continuous. I was never entirely sure of where it was going which is a rare treat these days. There are several moments of actors transitioning from an intense situation backstage to walking directly on stage in character that has an electrifying meta effect.

The film often veers into fantasy and I suspect that some may find this distracting or not entirely effective. I thought it worked. Either way, there are a lot of good things going on in Birdman not the least of which is a cast and crew diligently trying to trump your expectations and, for the most part, succeeding.

Highly recommended.

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R.I.P. Robin Williams

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When Robin Williams broke out back in the late 70’s he had a hugely visceral impact. There was no one else like him. Last night I watched his first appearance on Happy Days and every little, nutty thing he did elicited a wild reaction from the studio audience. There were even a few moments where you could see the other cast members trying not to laugh; what a boost of energy he gave to a show that was withering on the vine at the time. It was obvious this guy was going to be big. He was like a human funnel cloud; you had no choice but to be caught up into his universe. The problem with artists that thrive in that high energy zone is that, over time, it can be exhausting to the viewer. In the last few decades I have preferred Robin Williams minus his manic shtick perhaps because he danced on that high wire for so long that I was personally tired of it. Thankfully, he branched out in so many wonderful ways following his initial success; a movie career that included more than a few roles that could be legitimately labeled classic.
But watching him last night, young and about to bust wide open, it was clear that he had arrived at just the right time. And he was hysterical. Out of this world. Playing a man from outer space was probably the only thing that made sense at the time. He brought an otherworldly level of crazy to our planet and that was indeed a good thing.

 

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Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (2014)

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Following a quick recap of where the last film left off,  Dawn of the Planet of the Apes opens with the camera locked on simian-leader Caesar’s (Andy Serkis) intense eyes as he leads a hunt in a rain-soaked forest. This is appropriate as the film spends most of it’s running time unfolding from the perspective of the apes. The first half of the film is mostly dedicated to showing us the inner workings of the ape community and the strong, emotional connections they have with one another. Scenes often unfold with no dialogue as the apes sign to one another; their facial expressions and body language conveying everything beautifully. It’s some kind of miraculous alchemy of performance and visual magic. Amazing stuff.

The film has humans too of course but they are not nearly as interesting. Following the flu epidemic that wipes out most of the earth’s population, we are introduced to a small band of people who have traveled into the Muir Woods to access a hydroelectric generator at a damn.  They are hoping to restore electricity back to an outpost of humans in the remains of San Francisco. It is here that the two worlds collide.

Screenwriters Mark Bomback, Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver parallel the mounting fears/distrust in each of these societies as well as their longing to protect and maintain their sense of family. The benevolent Caesar tries to reign in his lieutenant Koba (Toby Kebbell) who is eager to head to war. Similarly, human-survivor Malcom (Jason Clarke) is eager to make peace with the apes even as his outpost leader (Gary Oldman) wants to wipe them out for good. Everyone’s intentions are in the right place but fear has a way of snowballing into violence.

Serious minded, somber, yet engaging all the way, Dawn may not be the more crowd-pleasing outing that Rise of the Planet of the Apes was but it takes the ape community dynamic to another level and in turn resonates more deeply. With its mind a little more on war, race and politics than Rise, it feels more akin to the original Fox series of films. Director Matt Reeves may be a bit transparent/pedestrian in his style but the pacing here is near perfect and the more emotional moments between the apes are thoughtfully handled. In fact, those quieter scenes that make up a large part of the first half of the film are so good that they make the inevitable second half feel like a bit of letdown.

I really enjoyed the score by Michael Giacchino which, early on in the film, had some call back moments to Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score to the original POTA.  I should also mention the marvelous production design by James Chinlund; the ape village and post-epidemic Frisco were both effectively realized. If nothing else, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes raises the legitimate question: Can a performance-capture role be nominated for an acting award?  Recommended.

 

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Finally Done Right: Godzilla (2014)

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Serious-minded, restrained and often breathtaking, director Gareth Edwards’ Godzilla is deliberately and firmly planted in the less-is-more camp and I relished not only this approach but the film as well. In an era of movies that race to the finish line, fearing the viewer won’t sit still for scenes to play out in a more satisfying way, this new take on the now 60 year old Japanese cinematic /cultural icon will surprise ardent kaijū eiga fans in how similar in concept/tone/pacing to the Toho films it actually is. Mainstream American audiences, used to overdoses of cgi spectacle may find this Godzilla’s methodical pacing a tad frustrating at times.

Without going into all of the plot specifics let me just say that the film begins with some wonderfully acted and effective scenes between Bryan Cranston and Juliette Binoche (husband/wife who work at a nuclear plant) that provide an emotional foundation which creates a tone that lingers over the rest of the film. It’s as if the filmmakers, knowing that the film will eventually succumb to giant beasts battling, front-loaded it with the strongest character scenes. As the film goes on, the character scenes are divided up mostly between Aaron Taylor-Johnson /Elizabeth Olsen who play a soldier/wife and David Strathairn/Sally Hawkins/Ken Watanabe who play General/Scientists. These characters and scenes are decidedly less dramatic but are still engaging enough.

But enough about the humans.

The rest of the film belongs to the monsters and, in effort to mirror Toho’s usual story structure, it becomes Godzilla protecting the world from other monsters (here it doesn’t really have a name but is referred to as a M.U.T.O. (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Edwards creates a genuine sense of majesty and scary-beauty to all of the scenes with the M.U.T.O. and (especially) Godzilla. Something as simple as Godzilla swimming under a bridge becomes a jaw dropping visual flourish. Instead of fast cutting and lots of explosions, Edwards goes the other way and sells so many scenes with nuance and surprising amounts of quiet. Also, unlike the disappointing Pacific Rim, Edwards gives us the proper amount of glorious long shots allowing us see these giant creatures in full scale with plenty of landscape around them. The last battle is a knockout that will especially appeal to and elicit adrenaline-charged grins from hardcore Godzilla fans.

I wish I could have seen Godzilla just a little more than the film allows and I think one or two more scenes in the daytime would have been great but, overall, this is a monster movie done right. Highly recommended. 

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Too Much and Not Enough: The Amazing Spider-Man 2

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Marc Webb’s frenetic The Amazing Spider-Man 2 opens with a forced hysteria; following a short prologue involving Peter Parker’s father, Spider-man (Andrew Garfield looking more and more like 60’s era Anthony Perkins) chases down a truck full of plutonium through the streets of New York. It has an abundance of close calls, web-slinging, one-liners and destruction but fails to project a genuine sense of urgency or even feel like things are actually happening. It all feels like a Universal Studios theme park ride. Gears shift quickly and Peter catches up with girlfriend and recently graduated Gwen Stacy (Emma Stone). They have one of many,many (see:many) relationship conversations that feel at once cute, awkward, silly, contrived and occasionally sweet. These scenes give us something to cling to as well as some thoughtful moments between Peter and his aunt May (a wonderfully emotional Sally Field).

We also get Spidy foe Electro (Jamie Foxx) who starts out in full nerd cliché mode (pocket protector, comb over and obligatory chip on his shoulder ) and ends up with a massive, synthesized voice and impressive CGI make-over.  I really loved how he looked. And yet the long build up to his villainous transformation gives way to some shrill battling that ends rather abruptly and then he’s gone.

That’s ok because while this is all going on there is yet another storyline involving Peter Parker’s old friend Harry Osborne (Dane Dehaan) who has recently inherited his father’s company OsCorp but then is fired by said company via some confusing narrative that just further adds to the film’s long ( and I do mean loooong) and tiresome running time. He eventually begins his journey towards becoming the Green Goblin thanks to some leftover venom from the radioactive spiders that Peter was bit by. New York city is rife with costumed, science-orientated villains.

I am not sure what possessed the filmmakers to feel obligated to stuff so many elements into this entry. Oh, I should mention that there’s yet another villain (Paul Giamatti doing everything but acting) revealed near the end in a scene that is beyond ridiculous. I wasn’t able to fully embrace the quieter, well acted character scenes because they were broken up by frantic, borderline-silly action scenes and bloated exposition that proved more distracting than anything else. Unlike the recent and excellently realized Captain America sequel, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 looks and feels like a very expensive piece of machinery with plenty of bells and whistles but little else.  Not recommended.

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