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





REVIEW: Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close

27 03 2012

I absolutely love the Oscars, and despite the cries of many naysayers, I believe they are overall a very good thing for film artistry and industry.  As tone-setters and taste arbiters, they have enormous influence over how and when movies get made.  This ability is not without a downside, though.  It may have scored a Best Picture nomination, but Stephen Daldry’s “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” as a piece of art is a victim of the Academy process.

The framework is there for the cinematic adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s incredible novel to be equally as compelling and emotionally moving.  But Daldry, who was still shooting a new scene for the movie on December 1 (yes, just weeks before the movie opened!), leaves us with merely a glimpse of what could have been.  He shows us how much potential the movie has, yet we are constantly left seeing the rough edges that should have been ironed out in post-production.  Tonally, it has some very rough swings, too.  If he had taken a few more months, really wrestled with the material, and released it in 2012, “Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close” would have been a deserving Best Picture nominee – and dare I say it, a formidable threat to be a winner.

At a certain point, though, I have to stop mourning a movie that doesn’t exist.  Daldry made the movie that he made, and it does have some remarkable moments sprinkled sporadically throughout that really hit home.  He gets fine performances out of Sandra Bullock and Max von Sydow; Thomas Horn has flashes of brilliance every now and then, but his precociousness often errs towards the side of a grating whine.  Nevertheless, there were a number of scenes that just don’t work as well as they should, and knowing the source novel, I would periodically cringe.

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Classics Corner: “The Exorcist”

31 10 2010

I know that the technical cutoff for classic movies is 1968, but I’m making an exception for 1973’s “The Exorcist” seeing as it’s Halloween and I’m still trying to atone for missing this column back in August.  I know I said that I never wanted to see this movie, but given the season, I was a little curious.  And as a movie buff, how could I not see a movie that was for a time the highest-grossing film ever?

I’m not a fan of horror, particularly the Satanic sub-genre.  I have just begun slowly introducing myself to these movies, largely because I feared them so much even into my teenage years.  At first, I discovered I wasn’t really that scared at all.  I thought it was a fluke, so I watched a few more.  Turns out, I’m really not that affected by horror unless something jumps out of nowhere and the volume shoots up.

“The Exorcist” is really no different.  It’s eerie and creepy, particularly Regan’s transformation from a sweet, innocent child to the Devil incarnate, complete with a tattered face and green vomit.  But on a scare level, it really isn’t very frightening.  The movie doesn’t give any indication that anyone we know could become the Devil at a moment’s notice, so what reason do I have to fear?

Perhaps I speak as the product of a dulled, jaded generation.  In my lifetime, horror has two camps: ultra-sadistic blood and guts to the point of excess, or subtle haunting.  There really is no middle ground, yet that is exactly where William Friedkin’s Oscar-nominated horror tale seems to fall.  The demonic child scenes are about as close to horror porn as I imagine the 1970s could produce, and everything else (including the exorcism) seems to be the movie’s subtler side.

I think my biggest issue with the movie was the enormous amount of exposition provided.  We get the characters set up and learn their situations for about an hour.  Usually the tacit contract between filmmakers and moviegoers states that if you give a lot of exposition, the movie needs to vamp up to a climax that much more.  “The Exorcist” doesn’t really build much, and for all we sit back and wait for the action to come, the payoff isn’t all that satisfying.

The movie all leads up to, you guessed it, the exorcism of the demonic child.  The word gets tossed around so much nowadays, and the ritual has certainly lost some of its mystical power with each haphazard exorcism movie thrown into production.  Regan’s exorcism, however, lasts for a disturbingly and unsettlingly long amount of time.  If it doesn’t affect you at first, it will after the ten millionth time the two priests shout out “the power of Christ compels you!”

As a a sort of origin for a lot of horror movies that have frightened audiences for the last 30 years, “The Exorcist” proves to be an interesting watch.  An Academy Award nomination for Best Picture, though, seems a little bit much.  This is a good movie, don’t get me wrong, but just because a horror movie has a plot, good performances, and a few chills doesn’t mean it deserves a shot at Hollywood’s highest honor.  Maybe it’s all the crummy rip-offs that the movie inspired that make feel so nonplussed by the movie, but according to Tim Dirks, “its tale of the devil came at a difficult and disordered time when the world had just experienced the end of the Vietnam War … and at the time of the coverup of the Watergate office break-in.”  Times have changed, and it could be a good sign that I can’t match the devil to any current events.





REVIEW: Shutter Island

27 02 2010

Shutter Island” is director Martin Scorsese’s first movie since he floored the Academy (as well as one semi-notable movie blogger) with “The Departed,” which only serves to set the bar sky-high to clear.  It would take another modern classic to surpass “The Departed,” and this isn’t that.  However, this is high-octane, heart-pumping Hollywood entertainment that delivers the chills and thrills.

Keep in mind, though, this is Scorsese we are talking about here.  “Shutter Island” is no Michael Bay movie.  It succeeds largely because of that unique Scorsese vision which has been the driving force behind two of my all-time favorite movies.  It’s important to know that he isn’t trying to make a “Taxi Driver” out of Dennis Lehane’s novel; this is an homage to the classic horror films of Hitchcock and the like.  If you get déjà vu at all, it will probably more to “The Shining” than to “GoodFellas.”

The movie explores the line between insanity and reality as two federal marshals (Leonardo DiCaprio and Mark Ruffalo) investigate the disappearance of a patient at an asylum.  As Teddy Daniels’ (DiCaprio) observations progress, we come to two important realizations.  The first is that Teddy has something more on his mind than merely investigating a missing patient.  The second, and by far the most important, is that there is something more than just lingering seasickness affecting Teddy’s mind.

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What To Look Forward To in … February 2010

7 01 2010

We’re still in some hazy territory in the month of February, but the new decade looks to give this month some much needed energy.  Fueled by two movies originally scheduled for release in 2009, I might actually drop a good amount of change at the movies in February (not just on repeat viewings of Oscar nominees).

February 5

Put “The Notebook” in front of anything and you are guaranteed a flock of screaming girls coming with boyfriends in tow.  Put wildly popular model/actor Channing Tatum in the poster and you can add some more girls aside from the hopeless romantics.  “Dear John” has just that: a super sweet story from author Nicholas Sparks and girl eye candy Tatum.  Thankfully for the guys, the filmmakers cast Amanda Seyfried (“Jennifer’s Body”), who isn’t so bad on the eyes either.

I’m a little weary to endorse “From Paris with Love,” another John Travolta villain movie.  He’s only good at playing subtle ones (“Pulp Fiction”) with the exception of “Face/Off.”  2009’s “The Taking of Pelham 123” was a disaster mainly because of Travolta and his villainy established only by constantly dropping the F-bomb.  Potential redemption here?  I’ll need positive word of mouth before I watch Travolta go evil again.

February 12

“Percy Jackson & The Olympians: The Lightning Thief” is the name given to the film adaptation of Rick Riordan’s kids novel “The Lightning Thief.” Clearly Fox is setting up a franchise with the title, and they picked the right place to stake the claim. I read the book in seventh grade, and it is the real deal. I even got a chance to have lunch with the author, Riordan, who is one of the neatest people I have ever met. Whether they ruin it or not is yet to be known, but the movie is being helmed by Chris Columbus, the man who got the “Harry Potter” series flying. That has to count for something.

If Pierce Brosnan isn’t a big enough star to draw you to the aforementioned movie, you should find solace in “Valentine’s Day,” which features just about every romantic comedy actor ever. Literally, I can’t even list all of the stars of the movie here. The post would just be too darn big. Garry Marshall, director of “Pretty Woman” and “The Princess Diaries,” is in charge here, so I find some comfort in that. But if the movie flops, this will be a high-profile disappointment.

Sorry girls, the werewolf in “The Wolfman” is not played by Taylor Lautner. Academy Award-winning actor Benicio del Toro metamorphasizes in Victorian England into the hairy beast when the moon is ripe.  This werewolf is not based on cheeky teen lit but on the 1941 horror classic.  And this adaptation is rated R for “bloody horror violence and gore.”  Get ready for some intense clawing.

A big winner at Cannes and a contender for the Best Foreign Film at this year’s Academy Awards, “A Prophet” is a foreign film that may be worth a look.

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