REVIEW: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

20 12 2015

J.J. Abrams is perhaps the chief nostalgist of our time, and he often executes this fascination with such panache that we might as well call him a classicist. The reverence he pays to the films that inspired his own work serves to elevate those movies to a higher cultural plateau. And, as if anyone had not noticed the influence of “Star Wars” on a generation of moviegoers, they have definitive proof in the second relaunch of the franchise, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

Abrams, working with original trilogy writer Lawrence Kasdan, finds that sweet spot between paying homage to the old and forging ahead with the new. The film’s action is primarily driven by two new heroes – the orphan girl Rey (Daisy Ridley) soon to discover extraordinary powers and ex-Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) who gains a conscience after witnessing the slaughter of innocence. They go up against a new sinister antagonist in Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who works in tandem with the eerily fascist politician General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Yet for all these new characters, there are also the old ones there in supporting roles – Han Solo, Luke and Leia Skywalker, Chewbacca, C3PO and R2D2 are all back. John Williams’ score livens up the film. The Millennium Falcon is back. Heck, Abrams even maintains the distinctive wipes and editing transitions from the original Lucas films. Anyone who feared drastic change in the series with the passing of the reins ought to be more than reassured by “The Force Awakens.”

The coexistence of the old and the new provides every bit as much tension as the plot, which I will continue to avoid discussing in any depth lest I reveal a spoiler. (I kept my head in the sand as much as possible regarding “Star Wars” news in order to experience the film with as fresh of eyes as possible, and it paid off.) Yet even with Rey and Finn as the primary engines of action in “The Force Awakens,” the film feels practically like a mirror image of the original 1977 “Star Wars.” This was no doubt intentional, I assume, but the amount of bowing Abrams performs before the mythology of the franchise keeps his film from standing as tall as it could.

Certainly future installments in the new “Star Wars” will go deeper and bolder, making an even greater case for the series’ relevance and importance. For now, though, this served its purpose to reawaken the vanguard of longtime fans and excite a new generation. I must say, I am on board for what comes next. B+3stars

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REVIEW: Maps to the Stars

28 02 2015

MapsI have spent extended periods of time in Hollywood, and I really wish I had David Cronenberg’s “Maps to the Stars” by my side then to confirm all my suspicions and misgivings.  Director David Cronenberg and writer Bruce Wagner do not merely depict the shallowness and the narcissism dominant in the local culture so much as they diagnose it.  The film pinpoints a number of endemic ills in a town built on deception with the accuracy of a pathologist.

This saga of shameless self-promoters caught in a tangled web of ego bashing may not quite cohere in its explosive third act, yet it hardly detracts from the pleasure of simply watching them exist for an hour or so.  Cronenberg gets his cast to deliver performances tuned to the perfect channel: exaggeratedly hilarious without ever veering sharply into parodic or burlesquing territory.

Nowhere does this approach find better expression than in Julianne Moore’s brilliantly demented Havana Segrand, which – all due respect to “Still Alice” –  is the kind of work that should have netted the actress her first Oscar.  Nonetheless, she has the statue now, and we have this performance to relish forever.

Havana is Moore’s Norma Desmond, the fading and aging screen icon vividly realized by Gloria Swanson in “Sunset Boulevard.”  In an obvious attempt to jumpstart her career again, Havana tries desperately to land a coveted part in a remake of a movie that originally starred her late mother.  To settle her neuroses and ease her pain in the meantime, she hires a new “chore whore” at the suggestion of Carrie Fisher (playing herself, in a brilliantly ironic insertion by Wagner) – the mysterious burn victim Agatha (Mia Wasikowska) who recently arrived in town.

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