Month in Review: December ’19

Happy New Year from Thomas J! New year, new decade and a new slate of movies to take in and start complaining about immediately! 😀 Let’s do it!

I’ve come out of 2019 tripping over my own damn shoelaces. Not only did I botch the landing when it comes to finishing off the Marvelous Brie Larson actor feature within the year (that final installment is still coming by the way, it’ll just be posted in a new decade instead), I reviewed exactly none of the movies I watched in December: The Irishman; The Report; Waves; The Two Popes; Uncut Gems; Ford v Ferrari; Tennessee Walking Man.

But that’s why these monthly re-caps are handy, right? Below you’ll find a few blurbs about a select few of those titles, and while these movies absolutely deserve more expanded reviews — two of them were really best-of-year material for me — I feel like getting something out now is better than likely nothing later.

How long can you keep a movie in your head before the details start to blur? If you write reviews, are you a note-taker or a no-note-taker? 

For those who missed it, here’s what little actually did happen on Thomas J during December.


New Posts

Theatrical Releases: Jojo Rabbit

Alternative Content: When a Song Gets Bigger than the Movie: Walking on a String


Bite Sized Reviews: Three from, uhh, November 

Waves · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Trey Edward Shults · Texan-born indie director Trey Edward Shults is in the family business — all three of his films thus far have been about families in crisis. Waves is his follow-up feature to his 2017 horror/thriller It Comes at Night and in it he provides one of the most extraordinary, if not also painful film experiences of the year. Replacing the cold and lifeless backwoods of the Appalachians with the sunny and vibrant coastlines of South Florida his new film may not take place in as much literal darkness but as an exploration of guilt and grief, a testament to familial love and perseverance, it certainly goes to some deep and dark emotional places. A powerfully affecting journey that follows an African-American family through a tragedy and how they come together again in the aftermath, it’s really the authenticity of the performances you notice first. Not a single actor here registers a false note, yet it’s perhaps Kelvin Harrison Jr. (returning from It Comes at Night) who crests the highest, encapsulating both the Jekyll and the Hyde sides of his gregarious, fun-loving and athletically gifted Tyler. When he receives some medical news that’s not necessarily favorable for his plans to go to college for wrestling, he goes into a tailspin that ends up having devastating consequences for his entire family. Beyond its excruciatingly personal story Waves also has a stylistic quality that is impossible to ignore. As a movie about what’s happening on the inside, very active camerawork and the moody, evocative score — provided by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross — work in concert to place you in the headspace of the main characters. It all adds up to an experience that’s felt more than just passively taken in, and by the end of it you’ll feel both rewarded and exhausted. (5/5)

The Report · November 15, 2019 · Directed by Scott Z. Burns · This dour-faced legal thriller (available via Amazon Prime) details the efforts of a young and ambitious White House staffer named Daniel Jones (Adam Driver) as he leads an investigation into the CIA’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks. The five-year process would result in a 6,700-page document called The Torture Report and, ultimately, in the McCain-Feinstein Amendment being passed in November 2015. What begins as an inquiry into the destruction of  videotapes by a high-ranking CIA official — this at the behest of California Senator Dianne Feinstein (Annette Bening) — builds into the largest investigative review in Senate history, with Jones both making a name for and a nuisance of himself even after the Bush administration has left the building. Director Scott Z. Burns confidently guides us through an information-dense narrative, and Driver’s stoicism is well-matched by the gravitas provided by a very good supporting cast, which include but is not limited to the likes of Jon Hamm, Maura Tierney, Tim Blake Nelson, Jennifer Morrison, Corey Stoll and Ted Levine. Ultimately a quiet celebration of a whistleblower who’s name has already been forgotten, The Report is perfectly watchable though not exactly what I would call gripping drama. (3.5/5) 

Ford v Ferrari · November 15, 2019 · Directed by James Mangold · A pure joy ride from start to finish, James Mangold’s Ford v Ferrari does for Le Mans what Ron Howard’s Rush (2013) did for Formula 1. It alleviates the air of elitism that tends to hang over these kinds of races with a crowd-pleasing tale of triumphing over the odds. You don’t have to be a car enthusiast to feel the thrills of these movies. Ford v Ferrari is a superior racing movie because not only does it describe multiple levels of competition, the most fascinating scenes are those that take place behind closed doors at the Ford Motor Company as a clash between blue and white collars threatens to derail the company’s grand plans of besting Ferrari at the 24 Hours of Le Mans, a brutal endurance race that tests the very limits of mechanical integrity and driver performance. That’s not to say the sequences along the Circuit de La Sarthe aren’t positively thrilling themselves. But Ford v Ferrari really puts its characters first, and you have to admire Mangold because there are a lot of human components and even more technical ones to juggle. Like a finely tuned engine all those parts work in harmony with one another — and Christian Bale and Matt Damon as British racer Ken Miles and acclaimed American car builder Carrol Shelby once again prove why they’re so highly paid actors. The result is a racing movie that may just be one of the year’s best movies, period. (4.5/5)


All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: IMDb; IMP Awards 

 

 

BlacKkKlansman

Release: Friday, August 10, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Spike Lee; Charlie Wachtel; David Rabinowitz; Kevin Willmott

Directed by: Spike Lee

BlacKkKlansman is one wild ride. Loosely based upon the 2014 memoir of the same name (minus that little ‘k’ that writer/director Spike Lee threw in there), it recounts the experiences of an undercover black police officer in the late 1970s, when he cozied up to a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan in an effort to bring them down from the inside. Despite the foul regions of humanity it must poke and prod around in, BlacKkKlansman proves to be a mightily entertaining movie. It’s intermittently even beautiful, but more importantly it’s alarmingly relevant.

In 1979* Ron Stallworth made waves by becoming the first black officer hired to the Colorado Springs Police Department. In the film he’s portrayed by an unflappable John David Washington (son of action superstar Denzel Washington), sporting a classic 70s ‘fro and an earnest face that has commitment to duty written all over it. It wasn’t a smooth transition of course. Not all members on the force wanted him around, like Master Patrolman/Major Asshat Andy Landers (Frederick Weller), who’s introduced as a kind of primer to the pleasantries we can expect later on.

Having the good fortune of working for Robert John Burke’s open-minded station chief, he eventually gets handed more meaningful work when he’s assigned to observe a rally that is to take place at Colorado College, where prominent civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael, a.k.a. Kwame Ture (Corey Hawkins, powerful) is set to deliver a speech addressing the escalating tensions between black citizens and police officers nationwide. There, he runs into a Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier), the president of the Black Student Union. Harrier creates in this fictitious character a headstrong young woman, someone in whom Stallworth finds a reliable source of information and possibly something more. Spurred into action due to the harassment she and her peers have had to contend with on a daily basis at the hands of bigoted cops, Dumas is a staunch believer in retribution, rather than the more “diplomatic” tactics her newfound brother is trying to engage in. If only she knew.

The story of Ron Stallworth is one of dueling identities, not so much metaphorically but in an actual physical sense. The overarching reality is that he’s an officer sworn to protect and serve, but in order to do those things he will also become a rising star within the ranks of the white brotherhood. When he makes detective, it becomes his mission to pull out the weeds of hatred by their roots. To beat the Klan, he’ll have to join ’em. Finding a recruitment ad in the paper, Stallworth calls up Walter Breachway (Ryan Eggold), the president of the Colorado Springs chapter, and in a profanity-laced rant, pitches himself as the next-in-line to help “make America great again.” Watch as the heads in the precinct turn, including those of his soon-to-be inside man Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver — I love this guy) and underling Jimmy Creek (Michael Buscemi).

Breachway wants a face-to-face, but there are obvious complications — a major one being the fact that the newbie detective used his actual name over the phone. (He is, however, mindful enough to disguise his “black voice.”) So Stallworth will send Zimmerman, a non-practicing Jew, into the field as him. Two Stallworths, one ballsy mission, absolutely zero fuck-ups allowed. The newly-minted White Stallworth is swiftly integrated as one of them good old boys, with standouts being Finnish actor Jasper Pääkönen as the intensely suspicious Felix and Paul Walter Hauser’s dumber-than-a-box-of-bent-nails Ivanhoe.

From here, strap in and hold on for dear life as we stroll into the living rooms and basements of some of the most hateful people imaginable. As Zimmerman gets in deeper, finding himself doing and saying things he never imagined, the morality of the mission becomes further complicated. The writing team envisions Stallworth as a force for good but stops short of painting him an out-and-out hero. Occasionally he seems reckless in the pursuit of justice — perhaps more so than if it were actually him being threatened to take a lie detector test. As Zimmerman puts it after a close call, is this really anything more than a personal vendetta? Meanwhile, the threat of something big about to go down, as vaguely hinted at by Felix’s wife Connie (Ashlie Atkinson), makes it pretty clear the composited Stallworth has little option but to continue apace.

As BlacKkKlansman is a film largely informed by attitude and ideology, you expect Lee’s righteous anger to be ever present, and it is — that real-life coda at the end leaves little doubt as to how the writer/director feels about the progress we have made since the days of the Civil Rights marches. What you might not expect is for the film to also be amusing. If it isn’t laugh-out-loud funny, there are moments of such gratifying uplift that feel just as good as a fit of the giggles. The comparatively calming presence of producer Jordan Peele is undoubtedly responsible, and nowhere is that felt more than in a scene of glorious comeuppance, wherein an accomplished Stallworth finally gets to stick it to the man (“the man” in this case being KKK grand wizard David Duke, played by a very good Topher Grace). It’s a real team effort as far as realizing that tonal sweet spot, pinning you somewhere between being entertained and plain horrified.

* the film takes several dramatic liberties with its content, but the biggest edit is the timeline on which the events take place. In the film, Ron Stallworth joined the force seven years prior, in 1972. this was done in observance of the re-election of president richard nixon.

“Yo, what’s good man?”

Recommendation: Spike Lee’s latest is a bombshell that arguably saves its actual drama for the final few frames. While the events of the film are sent up for entertainment purposes, what’s also clear is that this is one of the outspoken director’s most urgent and unmissable works. Powerful stuff. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “With the right white man, we can do anything.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.collider.com

Logan Lucky

Release: Friday, August 18, 2017

→Theater

Written by: Rebecca Blunt

Directed by: Steven Soderbergh

Logan Lucky represents the first film from Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh in four years, since he left audiences divided with a convoluted pharma-thriller whose lingering side effects included, but were not limited to, headaches, confusion and pangs of disappointment. As if trying to course correct, he returns to more familiar territory with an Ocean’s Eleven set in the deep south, where instead of casinos we’re heisting our way out from literally underneath a NASCAR race track.

This may not be a story about Bonnie and Clyde but it is a story about Jimmy (Channing Tatum) and Clyde (Adam Driver). Even with their collective experience these feel like notable roles for actors constantly searching for ways to reinvent themselves. (We’ve seen Tatum do good-ole-boy before, but Kylo Ren with a southern drawl takes some getting used to.) The Logan brothers aren’t wealthy in material possessions and they’ve suffered their share of personal setbacks. Some even say they’re cursed, what with Jimmy’s dreams of playing pro football crushed by a leg injury and his younger brother losing an arm in Iraq.

Yet by the time we’re catching up with them, they seem well-adjusted. Jimmy works a construction job and greatly looks forward to spending time with his precocious daughter Sadie (Farrah Mackenzie) who is preparing for an upcoming beauty pageant. Clyde holds down the local bar at night where he’s mostly bored but occasionally gets to impress the odd out-of-towner — in this case a pretentious British douchebag effortlessly played by Seth Macfarlane — with his bartending “skills.” Tatum and Driver are clearly in no way related but their characters are undeniably cut from the same tattered cloth. They’re kindhearted, simple people who generally don’t go looking for trouble.

That is until the day Jimmy loses even this unsure footing, when he gets fired from his job working on the Charlotte Motor Speedway because of a “preexisting physical condition” that finally gets discovered. Later he is informed by ex-wife Bobbie Jo (Katie Holmes) that it’s going to be more difficult to see Sadie as they’re moving across state lines thanks to her new hubby (David Denman) landing a cushier job.

Pushed to the brink, Jimmy hatches a scheme with the hope of restoring some of his dignity. Money may not buy you happiness but can it at least buy you that? He intends to find out by Robin Hood-ing his way in and out of his old construction site, in the process siphoning off a few dollar bills from the elaborate network of pipes that shuttle money between the site’s vendors and the vault. He’ll be taking from the public and giving back to the very private sector. But he won’t be able to do it alone, so he enlists the one-armed Clyde and their renegade sister Mellie (Riley Keough) as sidekicks.

The framework is familiar and the action routine, certainly by Soderbergh’s own standards, but it’s with whom the director has surrounded himself that really makes the difference. With supporting parts also going to the likes of Hilary Swank and Macon Blair as detectives on the trail, Sebastian Stan as a NASCAR driver representing the aforementioned British bag-with-which-one-douches, and Katherine Waterston as a potential love interest, Logan Lucky boasts one of his most impressive casts to date. Six real stock car drivers appear in cameos — the recently retired Jeff Gordon most recognizable among them. But he’s not as funny as Kyle Busch and Carl Edwards who play state troopers of all things.

That’s not even mentioning the film’s crowning jewel.

In order to physically access the money, the brothers will require the services of a safecracker who goes by the name of Joe Bang (Daniel Craig). Seeing as though Bang’s behind bars, that part is going to be a little tricky. Luckily Soderbergh can make even the most contrived development enjoyable, here inserting country music icon Dwight Yoakam as a feckless prison warden to facilitate a critical plot point. The singer/songwriter/actor is clearly relishing the role he plays in this farce, but it’s 007 himself that really digs in. Ditching the Omega and the Armani suit for striped pajamas and bleached hair, his presence alone is worth the price of admission. It’s the kind of role that tells me that James Bond may well need Craig more than Craig needs James Bond.

The characters define Logan Lucky, perhaps in a way that no other cast Soderbergh has been gifted has before. His early-2000s adaptations of the Rat Pack classic weren’t exactly high concept, but by comparison Danny Ocean made you really work for your entertainment. This is a familiar heist thriller executed with a level of enthusiasm that’s just as familiar, but unfortunately an adherence to a certain formula leads Logan Lucky into a snag not even the well-prepared Jimmy could anticipate and/or avoid. A subplot at the end needlessly rehashes details of the heist as the detectives attempt to identity the culprits — a sloppy construction that causes an unwanted momentum shift and a pair of talented actors to come across rather amateurish.

In fairness, the Tatum-Driver-Craig combo is one tough act to follow. They’re the gift that keeps on giving, keeping this rural farce on the wrong side of the law but just the right side of ridiculous.

Recommendation: With colorful and unforgettable characters, the lackadaisical plotting of Logan Lucky is more easily forgiven. Even as the buzz wears off significantly towards the end, this is one of the more purely enjoyable flicks of the late season — a cold and refreshing <insert the name of an American pilsner here> on a hot race day. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 119 mins.

Quoted: “Did you just suck off his arm?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

Silence

silence-movie-poster

Release: Friday, January 13, 2017 

[Theater]

Written by: Jay Cocks; Martin Scorsese

Directed by: Martin Scorsese

Marty’s new film is so tonally different from what he last put out it made me feel like I was atoning for all those good times I had with Jordan Belfort and company in his Wall Street-based bacchanalian. Silence is such a brutal watch I left the theater pining for them good old days of Leo snorting coke off of Margot Robbie’s chest. Fortunately Scorsese finds a way to make the suffering not only worthwhile but essential viewing.

The customarily near-three-hour running time (which is totally justified and passes by in no time at all) encapsulates a journey the auteur has been wanting to share with the world for some time — nearly 30 years as a matter of fact. Silence is no doubt a passion project for a director renowned for depicting complex morality tales fueled by themes of guilt, corruption and redemption and it carries the kind of weight that suggests this is what he has been building towards throughout a protracted and distinguished career. Whether it’s the director’s crowning achievement is debatable, but there’s plenty of evidence to suggest Silence is no ordinary theatrical release. It’s a transcendent experience that will haunt you long after viewing.

Scorsese adapts his material from the 1966 novel of the same name by Japanese author Shūsakū Endō, who identified as a Roman Catholic. Endō’s sprawling saga told of the life-altering journey undertaken by two Jesuit priests who travel to Japan from Portugal in search of a mentor who goes missing and supposedly apostatizes under extreme duress. The book has inspired two other cinematic adaptations over the years but it’s hard to imagine either of them achieving the same magnitude of emotional and psychological discomfort the noted (and self-confessed lapsed) Catholic has here.

In 1600s Japan Christianity is outlawed, yet small factions still practice in secrecy in the mountainous regions surrounding colonial Nagasaki, where the Spaniard Saint Francis Xavier had decades earlier attempted to plant the seeds of Catholicism in a country that already had an established national belief system. Father Cristóvão Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has for all intents and purposes vanished. Scorsese wants to know what kinds of forces would be necessary to shake a man of his beliefs.

Now we watch as Fathers Sebastião Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Francisco Garupe (Adam Driver) similarly attempt promulgation as they are led deep into the mountains by an alcoholic fisherman named Kichijiro (Yōsuke Kubozuka), a Judas-like snake in the grass who vacillates between denying his Christian roots and wanting desperately to repent. He is an enigma not worthy of our trust, unlike the rest of these “hidden Christians,” who simply yearn for a conduit through which they can confess their sins to God.

Scorsese’s meticulous, methodical direction complements an altogether brilliant screenplay that barbarically strips away hope and conviction from those who find themselves at the center of a bitter ideological conflict. Co-written with three-time collaborator Jay Cocks, Scorsese’s appropriately expansive treatment deals with some upsetting material in a refreshingly blunt but unbiased manner, as emphasized by the numerous observational shots taken at a distance from the violence visited upon the innocent by merciless shogunates like Inoue The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata). As the story unfolds we are challenged to question how much suffering is too much suffering. At what point does a cause become lost?

Several conversations take place that delineate the fundamental disagreement between practicing Buddhists and Catholics. These conversations are simultaneously fascinating and devastating to behold. Whereas Buddhists believe the individual can liberate himself from the perpetual cycle of ‘rebirth’ and ‘death’ (samsāra, which shouldn’t be literally translated as ‘suffering’ but rather a state of bliss that can never last) by choosing not to become obsessed with the material world, Christianity teaches that man can achieve salvation by governing their lives in a manner congruous with that of Jesus Christ. Of course, we all know how complicated it becomes when interpreting what is meant by following in his footsteps. All bets are off when what we’re arguing is whether or not being on Earth is merely another train station or the final destination.

Those conversations are largely what make Silence such a tough watch. Sure, the movie is violent and cruel in ways that you probably have never imagined, but it’s the stalemate we arrive at time and time again when neither party can convince the other. When no concessions can be made. What fuels emotional devastation is a combination of our steadily accrued respect for the priests and the narrative’s balanced perspective. It neither vilifies the Japanese nor glorifies Western influence. No party is entirely right and no party is completely off-base. We listen, we observe. We try to understand both views, though ultimately we are meant to empathize with one side more than the other.

Garfield, on the back of his portrayal of a similarly beleaguered soul in Mel Gibson’s tribute to real war-time hero Desmond Doss, essays a role for the ages as the Christ-like Father Rodrigues. Perhaps it’s worth noting how good Scorsese is in bringing out the absolute best in his actors, lest I lay too much at the foot of the budding British actor. Still, this is Garfield like I’ve never seen him before and it is an utterly heartbreaking performance that almost assuredly promises a nomination. Long gone it seems are the days of slinging webs in Manhattan.

If his co-star occupied the same amount of screen time, he too might’ve found himself on the ballot. Perhaps he still will. Driver’s contributions to the story, in particular that first third, are invaluable. Even though neither actor can quite convince us of their Portuguese descent — accents most notably slip when emotions run high — Driver in particular is good at reminding us of the flesh that lies beneath the cloth. He exudes self-doubt and vulnerability, at least more readily. Indeed, these are just men caught up in some extraordinary circumstances.

The mortality of these priests is what challenges us to really embrace the existential crisis at the heart of Silence. Scorsese of course is not asking the audience to do anything crazy like renounce their faith in a movie theater but he is challenging us to ponder ‘what if.’ That almost assuredly is the direction he gives his two leading men. What if what these priests are doing is actually causing more harm than good? What if you surrender everything you have known to be true for the sake of sparing others of their pain? Does self-doubt mean you have compromised everything? Does a simple physical act confirm what you feel in your heart?

Few of these questions come with answers. If we’re to pursue them, we’re better off trying post-viewing. That’s assuming answers are to be found at all. That kind of open-endedness could prove frustrating for some viewers, but I found it cathartic. Silence is a monumental achievement you have to experience for yourself, no matter what your beliefs are.

hero_silence-2016

5-0Recommendation: Whether you identify as devout, agnostic or atheist you owe it to yourself to see Martin Scorsese’s historical/religious epic. It is going to be one of the hardest movies you’ve ever tried watching but come the end of it you’ll be glad for the opportunity. As for replay value, however, Silence might prove less successful. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 161 mins.

Quoted: “I pray but I am lost. Am I just praying to silence?”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.rogerebert.com 

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Star Wars The Force Awakens movie poster

Release: Friday, December 18, 2015

[Theater]

Written by: J.J. Abrams; Lawrence Kasdan; Michael Arndt

Directed by: J.J. Abrams

It’s admittedly difficult to resist feeling giddy when the familiar yellow text starts scrolling into the distance against a background strewn with stars. As John Williams’ iconic score trumpets the arrival of a new era in perhaps the only franchise that seems to matter, excitement slowly gives way to anticipation; anticipation to expectation; expectation to . . . well, this is where the path surely divides.

J.J. Abrams has found success on multiple fronts with his helming of George Lucas’ most lucrative creation. Never mind the fact he managed a dubious transition between both Star-themed universes. His film manifests as a surprisingly efficient blend of fan service and sound judgment. As canon-expanding as it is reverential but without indulging so much it becomes impenetrable to the outsider looking in. The Force Awakens also benefits from the work of a casting director who knows how to put the right pieces in place. On a project of this scale no aspect is unworthy of mention.

POE AND THE MAPQUEST MAGUFFIN 

The Force Awakens grafts nicely together with the story arcs presented in the original trilogy. Set approximately three decades into the future the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker, has gone missing following a failed attempt to rebuild Jedi forces that ended in death and destruction thanks to dark warrior Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, for some reason).

The shadows of its predecessors are never far behind, though much to the franchise’s credit, there’s a lot of comfort in familiarity.

Rising out of the ashes of Darth Vader and his Death Star comes Ren and The First Order, suitably villainous nomenclature for the second coming of the Galactic Empire. Resistance Forces, into which Oscar Isaac’s skilled pilot Poe Dameron fits like a Skywalker into cinemythology, carry on the burden of the fallen Republic. There are hauntingly beautiful shots of alien sunrises, strange-looking-people montages, and compulsory (but still pulse-quickening) light saber duels. There’s even a repurposed AT-AT.

Early on Poe comes into possession of a digital map detailing the whereabouts of the apparently self-exiled Jedi. In an effort to keep the secret from falling into the wrong hands, he hides the file in his droid BB-8. Call him the R2-D2 of 2015. After a few close encounters and a chance run-in with defecting Stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) that ends in Poe’s crashing back into the very planet he was trying to escape, the bot proves to be an indispensable asset. BB-8 becomes the target of both the Resistance and the First Order, and the task of protecting it at all costs falls to Finn (née Stormtrooper FN-2187) and the orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley), who represents another of the year’s resilient, beguiling, tough leading ladies.

The trio eventually encounter an aging Han Solo and his co-pilot Chewie, whose loudly applauded first appearances surely won’t prove to be unique to my screening. They meet after crashing a ship following an escape from heavy Stormtrooper fire on the planet Jakku; a ship that turns out to be none other than the Millennium Falcon. Once Solo learns of the precious information the others are sitting on, he volunteers assistance all while Finn is still trying to escape to an entirely different star system, fearing the repercussions of his actions. And he wants to take Rey with him, but she has her heart set on returning home.

YOU AND YOUR SHINY NEW TOY

There’s nothing wholly original about the Abrams/Kasdan-revised script (originally written by Michael Arndt) but above average turns from newcomers Ridley and Boyega make the film easily accessible and a great deal more fun. They’re also unburdened with any sense of forced-awkward intimacy that, if things were different, could’ve earned Lucas a possible Golden Raspberry nomination.

Little time for that though, when you’re trying to take the production (and yourself) a little more seriously. Pride is most definitely at stake here. There’s an unshakable sense Abrams feels compelled to stay to a safe and conventional narrative arc, one that is largely predictable from beginning to end; that he knows and is quite possibly intimidated by how much is at stake with this production. But Episode VII doesn’t play out mechanically or with a sense of cautious restraint. There is restraint being exercised — imagining forty-five minutes having been cut from the opening action sequences and a few other significant confrontations isn’t very hard to do — but if anything the slightly more somber and straight-faced approach suits the drama.

I’ve never been able to categorize any of the installments as drama and yet, for the first time, there is a kind of gravity to proceedings that not only demands but earns attention. That’s not to say the film completely lacks humor, though. And I’ll spare details about what looms in the shadows but I will say this: unfortunately this film hasn’t been immune to Weak Villain syndrome. You’ll need to look elsewhere if you’re to get to the heart and soul of a body soon to be excoriated by dissenters.

Rather the reason, any reason to care about what happens rests upon the shoulders of the embattled Finn and Rey, the newcomers to a saga that clearly has territory left to be explored. Ridley might be the most impressive of the lot, optimizing her natural beauty with a strong, confident persona that betrays her apparently tragic past and fairly impoverished life on Jakku. She also might be the most compelling character. Boyega maintains an easy charm throughout, affording a humanity to the iconic, conformist Stormtroopers that will never be looked at the same way again.

And Lupita Nyong’o receives a sweet supporting role as Maz Kanata, an inquisitive but kind-hearted alien who proves helpful in protecting BB-8 from the First Order. Completely rendered in CGI I didn’t even realize it was Nyong’o until credits rolled, yet she offers a character that will be as difficult to forget as some of the main players.

At times it’s painfully obvious how much Star Wars relies on recognizability rather than its content. It will be interesting to see how many repeat viewings a select few character introductions will hold up to before they start feeling a little too protracted. A little too flashy. And the admittedly imposing Kylo Ren bears more than a passing resemblance to the series’ arguably most familiar character. That ain’t coincidence, all familial backstory accounted for and acknowledged. But let’s be honest, the flashiness can’t be avoided; it’s a new chapter in a major story spanning decades, and everything feels new and shiny again. Perhaps more importantly for me than for others: the new toy isn’t all shine and gloss. It has real functionality, too.

Screen Shot 2015-12-19 at 4.20.18 AM

Recommendation: Once again a fairly redundant section of the page here; The Force Awakens doesn’t exactly need my endorsement but for what it’s worth, as a decided non-fan of the series, I really had a good time with this movie. More entertaining and diverting than something I can take really seriously, I was expecting to not like the film. So . . . that is . . . that is kind of neat. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “That’s not how the Force works!”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.business2community.com; http://www.imdb.com 

While We’re Young

while_were_young

Release: Friday, March 27, 2015

[Theater]

Written by:  Noah Baumbach

Directed by: Noah Baumbach 

As the tagline suggests, life never gets old but can the same be said for aggressively hipster, disingenuous characters and convoluted stories?

Noah Baumbach is a director I should have written off already. What I’ve been able to gather through only two films (this and 2013’s Frances Ha) is that he’s all about some hipster shit. From what I understand, his back catalog has this tendency to be a bit off-putting. If he weren’t such a brilliant writer with observations so keen on actually making me think people really can reinvent themselves from the inside out — that’s much cornier now that I say it out loud (let’s face it: most movies fail to change us in any way that’s discernible) — I probably would have given up.

Baumbach’s talent for plucking characters and situations from reality and surrounding them in a cinematic environment is on display in While We’re Young. So is his penchant for working with difficult-to-like personalities. I have to get over that. I really do. It’s either that, or I don’t have to. I could go on eager to embrace only that which makes me comfortable and engages on all levels, pretending that the world exists for my sensitivities. I’m an idealist and it kind of sucks. That goes far beyond selecting what films appeal to me and what do not. I’m a little like Ben Stiller’s documentarian Josh who demands purity and absolute truth in the films he makes. (Me, lacking his film-making ambition.)

Currently he’s in the middle of a big project and is having great difficulty keeping it going. Josh has strung together a rather paltry career as a documentary filmmaker and now he finds himself, along with wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts), in the throes of middle-age as the New York couple are seeing friends all around them growing up with their own children, an experience that Josh and Cornelia have longed to share in but haven’t been able to due to infertility. That’s something of a private matter, so where does this concern us, exactly? While We’re Young begins as an evaluation of a couple finding a surprising amount of joy in their childless adult lives, but Baumbach has grander aspirations than suggesting all people who have kids eventually lose themselves to parenting duties.

Josh finishes up another of his lectures at the local college and comes across a young couple, Jamie (Adam Driver) and his wife Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who take an immediate interest in his approach to film. They insist he and Cornelia join them for dinner. Quickly Josh and Cornelia become infatuated with the way these twentysomethings seem to be “so engaged” in everything and anything around them. They have youth on their side, sure, but soon it’s an entire lifestyle that convinces the documentarian and his producer wife they’ve been hanging out with the wrong people for awhile now.

It’s a matter of time and a few awkward scenes before they are miming Jamie and Darby’s nonchalance, shedding everything about themselves save for their few well-earned wrinkles and grey hairs. Stiller looks less silly in a pair of thick-framed glasses and a fedora than Watts does taking up hip-hop dance classes with Darby, unable to disengage the twerk wherever she is for the remainder of the film. (I’ve never been able to describe Watts as a particularly convincing actress and here she really hit some alarm buttons.)

The foursome’s lives are further intertwined when Josh, who has always preferred working by himself, eventually caves and allows Jamie to help steer his long-struggling documentary in the right direction. ‘Right’ is an extremely subjective term, as it becomes clear Jamie is more in it for being able to work his way up the ladder of prestige and success, while Josh merely wants to put out a good story, an important one. Granted, when you listen to him explain his ambition, don’t blame yourself for struggling to stay awake. I certainly don’t. While We’re Young frustratingly finds success in sending up the generational gap that exists between our principal actors while simultaneously detaching us from them with an overindulgence of technical talk about the medium of documentary film and Josh’s convoluted ideas.

As such, a final showdown (that shouldn’t really feel like a final showdown) that occurs between the idealist and opportunist behind the scenes of an award ceremony where Cornelia’s successful father (Charles Grodin) is accepting the top prize for documentary filmmaking, comes across forced and a tad goofy given all the dramatic set-up. Cornelia’s father has been at the center of Jamie’s attention for sometime. Is this why he has been interested in Josh’s work this whole time? It really doesn’t matter; we’ve tuned out for the most part and are awaiting this mid-life crisis to end.

So as I was saying, is it all the hipsters’ fault for While We’re Young not striking a match and lighting the cinematic world on fire? Of course . . . not. It’s a film that astutely observes the pains of life in its many forms — in this case, the advantages and pitfalls of aging and of youth, and how the process of discovery often is more important than the results we find in the end. But the film is unfocused and yes, okay, is made longer by characters that are tough to identify with. The latter is rendered harder to ignore when the former is the larger issue.

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2-5Recommendation: These characters and these lifestyles and these interests are certainly not my cup of tea. Maybe I’m not qualified to write a recommendation for this thing, but I did find a lot to like here. There are a number of excellently crafted and funny scenes but these feel scattershot and overwhelmed by a sea of mediocre ones. Stiller and Watts make a convincing couple, with emphasis on the former. Driver and Seyfried are excellent at the hipster thing. And Baumbach excels at nailing some truths here. It’s a decent outing, give it a go if you’re a fan of his previous work.

Rated: R

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I remember when this song was just considered bad . . .”

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