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 

Gimme Shelter

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Release: Friday, January 24, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

Gimme Shelter finds Vanessa Hudgens and Rosario Dawson playing down their beauty profoundly as Hudgens goes from literal rags to riches in this powerful and emotional drama about life on the streets.

The High School Musical starlet ditches the cute smiles and glitzy performances at the behest of writer/director Ron Kraus and the considerably somber true story upon which this film is based. Twenty-five-year-old Hudgens takes on the challenge of overhauling her unreasonably good looks with her lead performance as Agnes “Apple” Bailey, daughter to abusive mother June (a virtually unrecognizable Dawson) and absentee father Tom (Brendan Fraser).

The film opens with a visibly troubled young girl giving herself a radical haircut, and barely escaping an apartment building with her life after being violently attacked. She manages to flee in a cab but has very little money so the driver throws her out onto the highway. From there, her journey only becomes more desperate and lonely as she attempts to find some way to escape the hostile streets of northern New Jersey. Her goal is to track down her father and seek refuge for a little while until she can, as she puts it, “get back on her feet.”

Her father, a big-time Wall Street executive, doesn’t know what to do when Apple (don’t you dare call her Agnes) shows up in his life suddenly. She’s hostile, perpetually morose, and somewhat confrontational, which might be expected given the fact that she’s bounced from orphanage to orphanage for virtually all of her sixteen-year existence. She is the definition of a walking tragedy. Even if Hudgens at times overplays the part, she’s never less than convincing and despite her prickly outer shell, we feel compelled to sympathize for her. . .although that’s not really what she seeks from anyone.

Feeling unwanted at Tom’s house after she reveals that she’s also pregnant, she again takes to the streets in an effort to. . . who knows. There’s little hope for sanctuary at this point in the story, and the complaints lodged against Gimme Shelter‘s stifling melodramatics start to seem justified.

This is the painful journey of a young girl hurting on a level few are going to be able to comprehend. Hudgens’ portrayal of Apple is like holding up a mirror to reality. What she represents is a truth for thousands, perhaps millions of youths who wander around in our midst, continually struggling to rise above their current circumstances. Hudgens’ performance (not to mention, a disturbing turn from Dawson) is compelling and cannot be ignored. However, despite the genuine passion of all involved, where things become a little unstable is in Kraus’ handling of the third act.

Given the substantial amount of time we spend watching her suffer, it stands to reason we are going to experience some sort of upswing. Something must surely go her way. Kraus certainly thinks that in order to offset the hopelessness experienced throughout the majority of this film, we’re going to need a soap opera-like finale. He is seeking balance, but it hardly comes across as such. What should feel like awakening from a nightmare, turns into something of a dream; an equally dramatic twenty minutes of Hollywood idealism on how this situation should always be resolved. The saddest thing is that so often it does not go this way.

In short, one of Apple’s largest personal issues is her inability or disinterest in cooperating with others; that all changes in the space of a movie minute. Granted, a few developments in this scene occur that drastically would change her outlook on life, but the time she spends with her latest caretaker (Ann Dowd) seems rather contrived and unrealistic. Considering her disdain towards all foster homes, her newfound joy in this place is random and doesn’t feel earnest.

None of this is to say that Apple (and the girl upon whom she is based) doesn’t deserve happiness but given the backstory, these kinds of struggles aren’t the kind one easily “puts behind them,” as Tom suggests in an earlier scene. Apply this to our moviegoing experience: we can’t exactly put all of what happens to the embattled girl behind us as easily as Kraus would like us to.

On the whole, and omitting some of the major design flaws in the story, Gimme Shelter packs a heck of a punch. It features some terrific performances that are going to be overlooked, simply based on the release date of this film. January is a month not known for quality releases, and while this film isn’t award-worthy by any means, it’s certainly not deserving of the critical backlash it has already earned. It’s hard to believe that this is Hudgens here, and ditto that to Dawson’s June Bailey. Her inexcusable behavior exemplifies Dawson’s dramatic abilities. Brendan Fraser factors in nicely as well, as does the iconic, booming voice of James Earl Jones.

He may have admitted to being Luke’s father, but he sure should be Apple’s as well; he’d make for a far better one than Tom.

gimme-shelter1

3-5

Recommendation: It’s not a movie of subtlety. Gimme Shelter uses a girl’s troubled youth as a platform to spread anti-abortion sentiment (a fact that I personally have no issues with, but you need to know it is there), and a need to start finding ways to serve the nation’s (and the world’s) underprivileged youth better. Moving beyond the B.S. of politics, there are wonderful performances contained herein that you should not allow yourselves to miss. It’s not a perfect film, but it’s a pretty moving one.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 100 mins.

Quoted: “I’m okay; I’m not scared.”

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