The Adam Project

Release: Friday, March 11, 2022 (Netflix)

👀 Netflix

Written by: Jonathan Tropper; T.S. Nowlin; Jennifer Flackett; Mark Levin

Directed by: Shawn Levy

Starring: Ryan Reynolds; Zoe Saldaña; Mark Ruffalo; Catherine Keener; Jennifer Garner; Walker Scobell

 

 

 

**/*****

Shawn Levy’s sentimental time-traveling adventure The Adam Project is a Netflix “original” that stretches the term to its breaking point. The story it tells may be hopeful but from a creative standpoint it feels hopelessly generic.

The Adam Project revolves around the alluring idea of tinkering with the past in order to change an unpleasant future. Like Levy’s previous film, 2021’s Free Guy, the overall experience plays light on logic and heavy on the feels, except here the reliance upon deus ex machina is even more pronounced; this is time travel by way of Sterling Archer, a little more sober and polite perhaps, but no less farcical with the sheer number of things working out at just the right time, on the first try, on the last gasp of fuel.

Adam Reed (no, not that Adam Reed, but the one played by Ryan Reynolds) is a fighter pilot from the year 2050 who crash-lands in 2022 en route to 2018 where he hopes to find his missing wife, Laura (Zoe Saldaña). She’s gone back to terminate an Evil Future Woman from taking over a time traveling device and using it for her own vaguely nefarious purposes. Adam’s plan is complicated when he realizes he has conveniently landed at the very location of his old house, a quaint little pocket in the woods where he encounters his pre-teen self (Walker Scobell).

Less convenient are the circumstances into which he has accidentally plopped himself down. It’s been about a year since the sudden death of his father Louis (Mark Ruffalo), a brilliant scientist, and both young Adam and his mother Ellie (a disappointingly under-used Jennifer Garner) are coping in their own way, which for the former means giving the latter a really hard time and making her worry about his future. Older Adam, nursing a wounded leg and stressing over his wife’s fate, lacks the temperament to deal with his younger self’s so-called problems and his many questions.

Two-time Oscar-nominated Catherine Keener meanwhile has ditched teacup-tapping hypnosis for an admin position at some Skynet-adjacent tech conglomerate. As the movie’s big bad, Maya Sorian, Keener hardly gets to demonstrate her abilities. (Although her character does pull double duty, manifested in the future and past — the “past version” being a poor CGI approximation that makes Rogue One-era Peter Cushing look like the Rolls Royce of digital renderings.)

The Adam Project is a diverting, fantastical adventure that, in its nascent stages, teases something special. In the end, and after so much disaster effortlessly averted, the one thing it cannot escape is its lazy, written-by-committee feel. Moving from one plot beat to the next like a tourist scooted on along by an impatient guide going through the motions, the writers seem more interested in silly song placement than getting serious about the implications of what they have set up. The film is amiable, in large part due to the cast, but it is also forgettable — a creative sin the previous Levy/Reynolds collaboration managed to avoid committing, if barely.

“No gamma rays?”
“No gamma rays.”

Moral of the Story: Steven Spielberg and George Lucas are two names that never appear in The Adam Project, but they’re two names I could not get out of my head all throughout, from certain action sequences to the tonality of some conversations and the sentimentality that is laid on pretty thick. Not a bad movie by any means, but like so many Netflix “originals” there is a lot of potential that goes unfulfilled. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 97 mins.

Quoted: “I spent thirty years trying to get away from the me that was you and, I’ll tell you what, kid; I hate to say it, but you were the best part all along.”

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 

Year in Review: 2018 on Thomas J! (Part 1 of 2)

It has been some time since I went overboard and put together one of these long-winded end-of-year summaries; I think the last time I did anything like this was when I last “hosted” my own little version of the Academy Awards presentation — circa 2016, I think? Long-time readers remember this annual feature as The DigiBread Awards — this was back in the day when the site was Digital Shortbread, a name that I changed in January of 2017, mostly out of a feeling that too many people thought I was trying to start a bakery or confectionery or something.

I would like to take this time to thank my incredible (and patient) readers for staying aboard this choo-choo train, slowly but surely chugging along. This year has been the least active year I have had since beginning the site seven years ago, yet here we are — at the precipice of another. Proud of being able to see things through when the going got tough. And though it saddens me to see so many familiar faces disappearing, that is how life works. There is a thing called change, and while I am not quite ready to move on yet from this, I understand why others have. Blogging is a really time-consuming activity that can easily become a grind.

Now that we have all of the mush out of the way, here is a month-by-month breakdown of what went down on Thomas J in 2018. But so as to not completely overwhelm, I am breaking this . . . break-down into two parts. This post includes reviews posted from January until June. Part 2 will feature reviews done July through December.


January

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Oh yeah, that’s right! I took January off. Writer’s block reared its ugly head early, despite a few pickings that looked quite good (Molly’s Game, the directorial début of the master of walk-and-talk-scenes Aaron Sorkin; the profusely praised Call Me By Your Name expanded wide; also Mom and Dad, a whacko-sounding genre film featuring Nic Cage and Selma Blair as parents who “maniacally turn on their children while in the grip of a mysterious 24-hour frenzy;” and The Insult racked up impressive critical ratings but I never had a chance to seek it out).

February

And now Thomas J shows some signs of life. Two new reviews. A few Oscar predictions. (You can check those out as part of my monthly round-up right here.)

The Commuter: a decent post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller that offered the same kinds of thrills fans have come to expect from the actor-director (Jaume Collett-Serra) tandem, albeit on a more mellow level. You may not get any memorably threatening lines delivered over the phone here, but there is a pretty cool song by Cosima (“Unnamed”) that pops up in a passenger’s headphones/as part of the soundtrack. So that was cool.

 

The Cloverfield Paradox: Man, this thing really wasn’t very good. But you know what? I am just as not-very-good at going back to give things a second chance. I ripped this supposed franchise-expanding chapter a new black hole, but I probably went too hard on it. No, I didn’t? Well that’s good to know. Now I don’t have to go back!

 

March

On the positive side, March was the month that delivered Annihilation*. I was fortunate to catch Alex Garland’s follow-up to his exciting début (the high-concept sci fi trip from 2014, Ex Machina) in theaters. So I thank March for that. Unfortunately, March also saw the passing of iconic physicist Stephen Hawking. I was actually quite saddened by that loss, so I wrote a tribute to him.

Annihilation: from my review — “The best of Annihilation plays upon the deepest recesses of the mind, opening the floodgates for extrapolation and interpretation.” Further, I add (in a typically sensationalist way) that “Annihilation is the reason why I love not only going to the movies, but writing about my experiences with them as well. I felt transformed by this.”

 

 

Unsane: A heady, twisty-turvy psychological thriller that benefits from star Claire Foy’s strong turn. This was my introduction to the British actress, playing a young woman fearing for her safety after her stalker appears to have tracked her down at a mental institution. Given that director Steven Soderbergh decided to shoot the film on an iPhone, I’m sure more people will remember how the film was made rather than what it was about. And while the grainy quality of the picture at times was indeed a distraction, I was pretty impressed with the amount of tension that was wrung out of the narrative.

One and Not Done: With the 2017-’18 college basketball season coming to a close, I thought it would be appropriate to talk about this 30 for 30 film, which explores the career of collegiate basketball coach and gadfly John Calipari. If you consider yourself a college basketball fan, this is mandatory viewing.

 

 

April

April showers bring . . . what’s this? Awesome horror debuts? That’s right, folks. Everyone’s favorite Office drone puts on a brave and bearded face in his very first horror feature. April showers also bring: a bunch of crap. (Rampage; Blumhouse Presents: Truth or Who Cares**; the hilariously poorly titled The Humanity Bureau, etc . . . )

A Quiet Place: narratively taut, effectively tense and occasionally terrifying and featuring an innately likable family doing their best to survive in a post-apocalyptic world overrun by creatures that hunt by sound, A Quiet Place announced John Krasinski as a stud of a first-time horror director. Though I really need to stop using that phraseology. The guy has made movies before, but this one really hit in a big way with critics and audiences alike. Good for him, he deserved it.

 

Isle of Dogs: who can resist a Wes Anderson movie — one rendered in stop-motion and about man’s best friend, no less? I adored Isle of Dogs. It was exactly what I expected — even if there is a bit more of that ” . . .as well as for worse” starting to subtly creep in. Anderson is an incredibly visually inventive storyteller, but comedy-wise he is rather predictable. (I say that now; he could prove me wrong by making something entirely different in his next film. Somehow I doubt it, and I will welcome it all the same. Charming is Wes Anderson’s middle name.)

May

Another mini blogging vacation. This was a planned break. I barely saw any movies this month***, however I did manage to see Tully, a sweet but hardly sentimental drama about a single mom trying to make ends meet. While it featured a great Charlize Theron as Marlo, alongside an equally fascinating Mackenzie Davis as the title character — a night nanny named Tully — the film, written by Diablo Cody, concluded in such a bizarre way that I thought took a lot away from the authenticity that made the rest of the film so engrossing.)

June

Found me playing a little catch-up.

Deadpool 2: did you see Deadpool 1? There you go. (At least I was able to prevent Ryan Reynolds from dominating my review this time.)

 

 

 

Solo: A Star Wars Story: not everyone wanted a Solo spinoff. But we got one, oh boy did we ever get one! Alden Ehrenreich bravely stepped into the cynical shoes of Harrison Ford’s bad-boy space cargo pilot, and while it wasn’t the performance of the decade — I realize no one’s hanging posters of Ehrenreich on their bedroom walls — he surprised me with his confidence. This movie was really a lot of fun and you’re just a party-pooper if you resisted the Force on principle. Come on! Like this thing as much as me!!!!!

Tag: a fairly inconsequential movie but far from a waste of time, this based-on-a-true-story action/comedy finds a group of adult friends wildly devoted to perpetuating their favorite childhood game. From my review — “A bromantic occasion in the vein of The Hangover, yet somehow even less “culturally, aesthetically and/or historically significant,” this is the kind of entertainment that goes down GREAT with buttered popcorn (or even unbuttered . . . if you’re weird).”

Stay tuned for Part 2 . . . 


* correction, March was actually when i published my reaction. The film came out February 23, and given its really limited run in theaters, it is highly unlikely I actually waited until March to see it.
** ACTUALLY TITLED TRUTH OR DARE, BUT SERIOUSLY . . . WHO CARES? 
*** FORGOT ABOUT INFINITY WAR, OF COURSE. 

Solo: A Star Wars Story

Release: Friday, May 25, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonathan and Lawrence Kasdan

Directed by: Ron Howard

Though Ron Howard is among my favorite directors I wouldn’t have pegged him as a candidate to helm a Star Wars movie, even a spinoff. But this is good news people — no longer do you have to suffer through The Dilemma to find Howard trying something new. While he has been into space before, sacrificing full autonomy in the franchise setting is unfamiliar territory for this director. His entry into the Star Wars universe may not bear any essential canon material and it isn’t his best work but his reliable craftsmanship ensures this new chapter is both entertaining and worthwhile.

In a plot twist no one saw coming the stand-alone Solo film details the coming-of-age of Han Solo. Specifically, this is the part where you get to see your favorite space smuggler learning how to space smuggle in under 12 parsecs, coming into contact for the first time with some of the iconic personalities and essential gadgetry that have helped identify franchise creator George Lucas as someone doing financially better than you. And yes, much of Solo is unabashedly just for you, the fan. Or at least it was supposed to be. The experience is less contingent upon the strength of its narrative than its sister spinoff Rogue Onewhich detailed the Rebels’ desperate last-bid attempt to recover the Death Star schematic. Of course, that 2016 film also had great timing and was every bit the beneficiary of resurgent new energy created in the big bang that was Episode VII, the long-awaited return of Star Wars to the big screen the year prior.

By comparison, the major developments in Solo feel less urgent and aren’t as concept-driven. Don’t mistake a lack of originality for a lack of excitement or intrigue however. Solo is technically a heist film, the great tilting train robbery and later the harrowing Kessel Run arguably its most distinguished features — with the latter sequence in particular acting as a crucial test of character (or is that of ego?). The narrative develops episodically, stitched together as a series of not-so-chance encounters and mischievous escapes that never feel universe-shaking but are plenty entertaining on the virtue of the surprisingly solid performances and undeniable team chemistry.

On the shipbuilding world of Corellia, orphans like Han (Alden Ehrenreich) are kept in line by the very wormlike Lady Proxima (voice of Linda Hunt). In exchange for shelter, food and protection the various inhabitants of this miserable planet are forced into a life of crime. Han has a plan to escape once and for all, but when his beloved Qi’ra (Emilia Clarke) gets captured he is forced into a Plan B that finds him joining the Imperial Army, anxious to become a pilot and for the next opportunity to return for what he has left behind.

Yes, I forgot to mention this is also a grand romantic drama, one made all the more romantic by the various inconveniences Han must endure en route to fulfilling what he believes to be his destiny. He gets expelled from the Academy for insubordination, finds himself temporarily on the wrong side of a raging Wookie — thank goodness for Han being bilingual — to eventually link up with a group of criminals posing as soldiers in a war zone led by Woody Harrelson‘s Tobias Beckett. He hopes to curry favor by offering to help on a mission transporting some precious cargo to the ruthless crime lord Dryden Vos (Paul Bethany). Oh, the things we do in the name of love (or, perhaps, out of misplaced faith).

This brings us to another set of revelations — and yeah, okay, maybe ‘revelations’ is too strong a word to throw around here given that we not only have experienced these things before (and if not these exact elements/characters then variations thereof) but we anticipate the pieces fitting into this puzzle. Because coaxium — a rare kind of fuel that enables ships to jump to hyper speed — makes driving down the galactic interstate rather complicated, the crew, which includes Tobias’ wife Val (Thandie Newton) and the alien Rio Durant (Jon Favreau), need a ship that can get them from Point A (Kessel) to Point B (Savareen) very quickly, not to mention the pilot that can navigate cosmic storms the size of the Milky Way. The Millennium Falcon would do nicely, but Han must negotiate with one Lando Calrissian (Donald Glover) for the keys first.

Howard, who was brought in to replace original directors Christopher Miller and Phil Lord who were let go over “creative differences,” has always considered himself a fan of history with successes behind him like the survival drama Apollo 13 and the American political scandal detailed in Frost/Nixon. His inclusion in the Star Wars fraternity has given him the opportunity to play a role in the history of one of the most famous cinematic franchises. Solo isn’t exactly cutting-edge stuff, and he didn’t write the script. That job was wisely left to Lawrence Kasdan, a Star Wars veteran (joined by his son Jonathan). Despite all that and more besides, this proves an accessible film for viewers like me. Viewers who find it best to enjoy it as a product of Ron Howard rather than the soulless cash grab many are no doubt viewing it as.

Going for a Kessel Jog

Recommendation: As a Ron Howard apologist, I took flight with Solo in a way that was exciting and unexpected. Disregarding all the fan service, I found Alden Ehrenreich a solid and stoic revelation and even if he doesn’t have the gravitas of a Harrison Ford, he proves he has certainly more range than a heartbroken cowboy. And when it comes to the romance, if you’re looking for a typical damsel-in-distress story you’re better off looking elsewhere. This is Emilia Clarke we’re talking about after all. She’s better than that. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 135 mins.

Quoted: “If you come with us, you’re in this life for good.”

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

Month in Review: April ’18

To encourage a bit more variety in my blogging posts (who are we kidding — this has become quite repetitive, hasn’t it? Are you even still reading this part?) and to help distance this site from the one of old, I’m installing this monthly post where I summarize the previous month’s activity in a wraparound that will hopefully give people the chance to go back and find stuff they might have missed, as well as keep them apprised of any changes or news that happened that month.

Let’s see what we have here. Do we have anything? Well, put it this way: out of the month’s highest opening weekend grossers, I saw two (2) of them. I missed a chance to Feel Pretty, blocked myself from seeing Blockers, failed to Rampage, skipped this round of Truth or Dare (I feel like I won on that), and I did NOT see the point in Super Troopers 2. So I passed on that grass too. Meanwhile, I am accumulating a backlog of unfinished reviews so long that it has all gotten to a point where I might need to get paid just to contribute content to my own blog.

And because everything is about Money, I’ll just leave this here. On Tuesday, April 10, my dad and I went into the city to see the British cover band Brit Floyd on their 2018 Eclipse World Tour as they played at the world-famous Radio City Music Hall. Pictures are before the show and during the cover of Money. As impressive as the lead singer (Damian Darlington) was, proving himself an uncanny Roger Waters/David Gilmour imitator, the laser show was truly mind-blowing. At various points in the show, from where we sat I swear you could walk out on those colored beams like it was a solid floor of light.

Meanwhile, here is what has been going on on Thomas J during the month of April.


New Posts

New Releases: A Quiet Place; Isle of Dogs

Movie News  

Well, Deadpool Deuce drops like a dookie in a couple weeks (May 18), but you already knew that. You didn’t need the visual, but I bet you needed the extra reminder to get you that much more pumped up. I can’t wait either.

It is true, the universe is expanding, and rapidly. At least when it comes to all things Star Wars. Han Solo has, for some reason that remains unclear beyond money (what’d I say earlier?), gotten his own solo film, and it drops May 25. And it will be called Solo: A Star Wars Story. No kidding? I have to say, I am struggling to muster the enthusiasm for this one. What about you?

As far as sticking up for the little guys this month I am really hoping the new Ethan Hawke drama/horror First Reformed makes its way to local theaters. It is in limited release beginning May 18, and tells of a middle-aged, solitary pastor (Hawke) who experiences a crisis of faith when he is asked by a pregnant parishioner to counsel her radical environmentalist husband. From writer-director Paul Schrader comes a gripping thriller that is at once personal, political, and planetary.

Blogging News

As the 2018 Hot Docs Film Festival continues, the excellent writers over at Cinema Axis (another gem of a blog that you should explore if this is the first time you’ve heard of it) have been busy keeping us up to speed with what’s been hot this year. Check out their plentiful reviews here (or find them in my blogroll).


“You should have gone for the head.” 😦 

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

rogue-one-movie-poster

Release: Friday, December 16, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Chris Weitz; Tony Gilroy

Directed by: Gareth Edwards

Gareth Edwards (Godzilla; Monsters) has been given the none-too-enviable task of linking two of cinema’s most iconic trilogies. Rogue One: A Star Wars Story predicates the ultra-classic original space opera and follows on the heels of the considerably less classic trilogy that kicked off circa the turn of the millennium. With such weight on its shoulders it’s a small miracle the production doesn’t fully implode in on itself. Given what’s at stake and the immense hype building up to it, the “spin-off” saga still can’t help but feel like a comedown, especially when it stands in such close proximity to The Force Awakens.

This is a review from the point of view of a decided non-fanboy. Let us not get that confused with me not being a fan of the anthology at all. There are a lot of things I like about the universe George Lucas envisioned some 40 years ago — not least of which being the immense sense of scale and (cringe) epic-ness that has been established year in and year out. The mythos of Star Wars also brilliantly manifests as a thinly veiled critique of the way we earthlings perpetually endeavor to coexist on a single chunk of rock. Perhaps most critically, Lucas has established characters and character arcs that will forever live on in the annals of not only science fiction but in all of cinema. While you will never find me in a packed house fully dressed in Star Wars attire, I will always have time for Darth Vader. And if you have no interest in Luke Skywalker, Chewie, or Han Solo you basically have no soul.

Rogue One, not without a sense of urgency in its precursive structure, manifests as more a tale of two halves where one goes heavy on the exposition and the other overcompensatory with action. It is a decidedly unbalanced epic, unable to maintain momentum or genuine intrigue from start to finish. And it’s a damn long sit, clocking in at well over two hours. The film only seems to achieve greatness down the back stretch, where shit really hits the fan as a small cadre of rebels led by Felicity Jones‘ Jyn Erso finally puts into action a bold plan to recover the design schematic for the Empire’s megaweapon, the Death Star.

Erso, daughter of the reluctant architect behind said “planet killer” Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen — yay!), has lived a life of oppression and isolation. On her own since the age of 15 she’s the very definition of teenage rebel, but not like the ones you see in Nirvana’s music videos. Her journey to become a Rebel leader is built upon a sturdy foundation — the great Ben Mendelsohn gives us reason to be very, very worried as Imperial Director Orson Krennic — but it’s just not very interesting. The entire affair is dark (literally too dark in places, to the point where I couldn’t see what was going on) and sans humor (also sans Hayden Christensen-levels of schmaltz, to its credit), making that first half a slog for anyone who doesn’t subscribe to the infallibility of Star Wars.

After a brief introduction to Erso’s humble beginnings we are introduced to key role players who vary in personality from completely boring to vaguely inspiring. There’s Rebel officer Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and his android K-2SO (voiced by Alan Tudyk) — sort of a poor-man’s C-3PO; a defecting Imperial pilot by the name of Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed) who has smuggled a holographic message from Galen to present to the Rebel Alliance and a Rebel extremist named Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker) who was the first to “rescue” Jyn from Imperial forces. Also integral to the cause are blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (Donnie Yen) and mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen).

These folks represent an ideological extremism festering within a faction of Good Guys who all have grown tired of being kicked around by the Bad Guys. The Rebels are the ones we should ultimately care about, except in the end we really don’t. (The perspective I’ve maintained throughout this piece has become pretty confused, I admit. Wasn’t this supposed to be from the point of view of a non-fanboy? I’m not intending to speak for all here because I assume my thoughts are not going to be shared by many. But I digress . . .) In the end, I didn’t really feel the feels. But my buttocks did; pins and needles set in circa the 90-minute mark and as I shifted around trying to get comfortable I also started to gain a greater appreciation of what had been accomplished in Episode VII. Jyn = a watered-down Rey; Rook = a not-fun Finn. James Earl Jones barely even sounds like James Earl Jones.

A large part of the problem I have with Rogue One stems from Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy’s conservative screenplay, one in which narrative coherence is favored over character development. I suppose that, since the arc of the story is itself auxiliary to what comes later — most pertinently the events of A New Hope — the lack of personality or the subtly romantic textures we’ve become so accustomed to over the years is almost intentional. This is a very serious saga, and when humor does meekly surface it arrives absolutely when it is needed, and it doesn’t flow so much as spurt awkwardly; much of Tudyk’s input invokes irritation rather than laughter. In other words, character “growth” here feels more defined by action or inaction, rather than what characters say or feel. Simply put, Rogue One lacks the emotional heft needed to make this a truly memorable chapter in the ongoing saga.

It’s not all underwhelming, though. The aforementioned final third is nothing short of spectacular as Erso and her motley crew successfully infiltrate the highly secured Imperial database on the planet Scarif. The plan of attack is brilliantly devised and fascinating to watch unfold. It’s like the Normandy Beach landing set in space — so convincingly rendered we forget this is all being shot on the Maldivian atoll of Laamu. The contrast between the brutality of the attack and the tropical, utopian setting is, in a word, awesome. The sacrifices made herein also emphasize the ‘war’ in Star Wars. It’s surprising there is emotional resonance behind the losses given the characters are so blandly written.

But even this sequence is not entirely satisfying, insofar as what its execution suggests about the film preceding it. The nostalgia it generates for the past future risks making entirely redundant any momentum that was supposed to be generated in the events that precipitated it. Rogue One is kind of a big tease; it titillates through sheer force of association while never managing to become something that will endure the test of time on its own.

rogue-one

3-5Recommendation: Fan service to the extreme makes Rogue One a pandering but occasionally enjoyable outing for those who aren’t diehards. It’s visually spectacular and suitably grandiose, but for those wanting to latch onto classic characters it will leave something to be desired. Not even the great Felicity Jones is a true stand-out. Still, there’s something to recommend about the film — namely its reverence for the ever-expanding universe in which it takes place, and when the action is on — boy is it on. Ultimately I’m confident this will still end up breaking all sorts of box office records. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 134 mins.

Quoted: “Be careful not to choke on your aspirations, Director.”

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

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

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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!”

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