Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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The Facts:

Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas and set thirty years after Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi.

Stars: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, Max von Sydow, Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson, Gwendoline Christie, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Anthony Daniels, Kenny Baker, Peter Mayhew, Crystal Clarke, Pip Anderson, Christina Chong, Miltos Yerolemou

Director: J.J. Abrams

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 135 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Hey all you spoiler-phobic Star Wars fans…you’ve come to the right place!  Have no fear, I’m not going to reveal any major plot points or ruin any of the surprises that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek, Star Trek: Into Darkness) has in store for you.  So I’m going to give you two reviews…one that is as spoiler-free as can be and another that will be slightly more descriptive (but still without any key points you aren’t already aware of).  Are you ready?  OK!

Totally spoiler-free review:

The wait was worth it and Star Wars fans finally have the sequel they’ve been waiting for since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.  The effects are marvelous, the script tight, and the score by John Williams returns the sound of the series back to its grandly epic origins.  In short, it’s a film that knows where it came from and has a vision for the future.

Now…for some more descriptive musings on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

There’s a moment in the silent moments before Star Wars: The Force Awakens begins when my heart started to beat a little faster, my breath started catching a bit.  After all this time, a direct sequel to the original trilogy of the operatic space odyssey created by George Lucas was waiting mere frames away.  The time to hold grudges against the weak prequels vanished when those familiar words came up on screen… “A long time ago in a galaxy far far away…” and then…the logo, the music, the opening crawl that lays out what’s been going on since we last saw Luke, Leia, Han Solo, and other creatures great, small, or mechanical.  I gotta admit, I had goosebumps from the tips of my toes to the top of my head.

With the Sith destroyed and the Empire fallen, a new enemy has surfaced that threatens the peace the Resistance has tried to bring to the galaxy.  The First Order has risen from the ashes of the Empire with a new leader (Supreme Leader Snoke, Andy Serkis, Dawn of the Planet of the Apes), a new General (Hux, Domhnall Gleeson, About Time), and a new commander (Kylo Ren, Adam Driver, Frances Ha) strong with the force with ties to Darth Vader.  The First Order is searching for a warrior gone missing, tracking an ace pilot for the Resistance (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) to a planet where he’s meeting with an elder (Max Von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredible Close) who holds a key to the warrior’s whereabouts.

In a nice tip of the hat to the original Star Wars, this important piece of information is hidden within a droid and soon finds itself in the hands of Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), an otherwise ordinary civilian that must travel from her planet via a familiar ship long since left for junk.  Accompanied by defecting Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega) before being joined by Han Solo (Harrison Ford, The Expendables 3) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), all are thrust into an adventure that hops planets and light years.

When Disney bought Lucasfilm Ltd (thereby acquiring the rights to the Star Wars franchise) for a cool $4 billion there was a general discomfort that the House of Mouse wouldn’t do right by the characters.  But Disney has delivered, and delivered in a big way.  The $200-million-dollar film looks amazing with top-notch special effects seamlessly blending with live action to create 135 minutes of thrilling sequence after thrilling sequence.  Not all thrills come from special effects though; just try to stave off the chills of hearing John Williams stirring score or deflect the rousing excitement of Han Solo reuniting with Princess (now General) Leia (a marvelously sanguine Carrie Fisher).  When Ford and Fisher are on screen together the decades absolutely melt away and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt, and J.J. Abrams have wisely kept their banter appropriately campy and fun.  Ford in particular looks like he’s having more fun on screen then he’s had in years, reminding us why he’s a movie star.

Speaking of stars, Abrams has impeccably cast the film’s two leads with Ridley being the clear stand-out.  Reminding me of a younger Keira Knightly, Ridley ably handles the range of her arc which puts her in numerous precarious situations.  Boyega, too, is a welcome presence and while early on the actor tries a bit too hard, he’s redeemed by the end once he relaxes into the role.  Both actors bring an energetic vibrancy to the screen, we’ve just met them yet we’re on their side from the beginning.  They mesh nicely with the returning cast members and other new faces (including 12 Years a Slave Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o as a kind of next-gen Yoda), making this an easily accessible film for longtime fans or those new to the franchise.

If I had one gripe, it’s a small-ish one and it has to do with the Serkis’ realization of Snoke.  The one effect that comes off as too CGI, I wished that the larger than life baddie was introduced on a more practical level instead of being motion-captured to the high heavens into a shadowy evil from the Dark Side.  Still, it’s a small complaint for a film that’s overwhelmingly enjoyable.

Before seeing this seventh episode of the Star Wars saga, I was planning on re-watching all of the films (which I hadn’t seen in, gulp, nearly a decade) to bone up on the story up until this point.  Time constraints made that impossible and in a way I’m glad that I hadn’t inundated myself with previous installments because it helped me take in The Force Awakens for what it was, the beginning of the next chapter of Star Wars.  And what an impressive beginning it is.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens

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Synopsis: A continuation of the saga created by George Lucas set thirty years after The Return of the Jedi.

Release Date:  December 18, 2015

Thoughts: If you’ve been following this blog for any length of time you’ll know that I love a good, old-fashioned teaser trailer.  Lately, a “teaser trailer” has been more along the lines of a 2:30 (or longer) appetizer to share rather than the kind of amuse-bouche executed so skillfully during the late 80s/early 90s.
Blessedly, our first look at the hotly anticipated next chapter in the Star Wars franchise harkens back to those fondly remembered days of yore when brief glimpses whet the whistle of movie audiences everywhere.

Directed by J.J. Abrams (who successfully rebooted another Star franchise with Star Trek and Star Trek: Into Darkness) and co-written by Lawrence Kasdan (continuing his long history with the franchise after scripting The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi) it’s an understatement to say that whatever countdown fans have had for a new outer space adventure has officially started now that this satisfying peak has been released.  My only concern as of now is that with Abrams on board it will look similar to the Star Trek films and rely too much on the director’s flare for the, well, solar flare camera work he’s become infamous for.

Grumble grumble quibble quibble…right?  When all is said this, along with Jurassic World, are two of my most anticipated films of 2015.

Down From the Shelf ~ The Exorcist

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The Facts:

Synopsis: When a teenage girl is possessed by a mysterious entity, her mother seeks the help of two priests to save her daughter.

Stars: Ellen Burstyn, Max von Sydow, Linda Blair, Jason Miller, Kitty Winn, Lee J. Cobb

Director: William Friedkin

Rated: R

Running Length: 132 minutes

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review:  I remember when I was finally allowed to rent The Exorcist on VHS from our local video store after several months of asking (aka begging) my parents to see it.  When they finally relented, my dad delivered the caveat that it was the ‘scariest film ever’…which only made me hop on my bike faster to make it to Home Video before sundown.

I have to admit that my first impression of The Exorcist was disappointment because I found the film more funny than scary.  I mean, a girl pees her pants, swears a blue streak at anyone that gets near her, and she pukes a green soupy rainbow over a priest.  In my defense, at the time all I was interested in when it came to horror were masked killers, marauding sharks, and the gorier the film was the better.  While The Exorcist had its fair share of icky moments, there wasn’t enough of the red stuff to make it worth my while…I actually laughed more at the crazy swears coming out of the young and possessed Linda Blair.

Now thankfully over time my taste for subtle horror has developed and my understanding of cinematic technique has increased so The Exorcist means something very different to me now.  Though I never saw the film during its theatrical run (I wasn’t born yet, thank you very much) the film did show on network television, albeit heavily censored, the night I was born…coincidence?…my babysitters wouldn’t think so.

It’s next to impossible to watch the film without having its many spoofs and rip-offs influencing your enjoyment so it’s best to just acknowledge that the film inspired a whole demonic possession streak of films and countless other moments that populate the cultural lexicon of our understanding.  Once that’s taken care of, you can take the film for what it is…a true genre classic that takes its sweet time to unfold until it finally unleashes some lasting moments of terror that will stay with you throughout the night.

William Peter Blatty won an Oscar for adapting his hit novel surrounding a Georgetown pre-teen (Blair, Hell Night) that becomes possessed by an ancient evil.  Her actress mother (Ellen Burstyn, Interstellar) runs out of options and finally calls on the services of the titular character (Max von Sydow, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Never Say Never Again) and a local priest (Jason Miller) to cast out the force that’s destroying her daughter.

Though the film jumps continents, director William Friedkin (Killer Joe) stages the film almost like a play (it actually was adapted for the stage in 2012) with the majority of the action taking place in the bedroom of the young girl.  Also winning an Oscar for sound (it was nominated for 10 total), all the elements come together to put the audience through the wringer and I can’t imagine how scary the movie must have been to viewers in the early 70’s just coming out of the hippy dippy peace movements.

Watching the film recently I was reminded at how level Friedkin and Blatty keep the movie, rarely straying into cheap scares or overly effusive dialogue.  The entity of evil is treated with an aura of respect and understanding which makes it all the freakier when the youngster is subjected to its grisly whims.  I’ve always found the ending of the film to be the tiniest bit of a letdown when you consider all that came before it…if you happen to look away for a moment (no one would blame you), you may miss a key wrap up development that influences the rest of the picture.

That minor quibble aside, on its 40th birthday The Exorcist is still celebrated for bringing horror stylishly into the mainstream…even being nominated for Best Picture at The Oscars where it was beaten by The Sting (I have a feeling it would have won had the Academy been a bit more forward thinking).

If it’s been a while since you’ve taken it in or if you’ve somehow never seen the film you owe it to yourself to give it a look…just throw away all your cans of pea soup first.

Bond-ed for Life (Bonus!) ~ Never Say Never Again

The Facts:

Synopsis: A SPECTRE agent has stolen two American nuclear warheads, and James Bond must find their targets before they are detonated.

Stars: Sean Connery, Kim Basinger, Klaus Maria Brandauer, Barbara Carrera, Max von Sydow

Director: Irvin Kershner

Rated: PG

Running Length: 134 minutes

TMMM Score: (5.5/10)

Review:  Before the release (and boffo success) of Skyfall, I took the time to go through the previous 22 James Bond films that had come before it.  What I didn’t do in my initial marathon was look at two of the ‘rogue’ Bond films that exist outside of the production company responsible for the 007 films over the last 50 years.  1967’s Casino Royale was a spoof of spy films in general albeit one that featured James Bond and took its title from an Ian Fleming novel.  The second outlier Bond adventure is 1983’s Never Say Never Again and its storied history and journey to the big screen are interesting Hollywood tidbits.

A script was fashioned with writers Kevin McClory, Ian Fleming, and Jack Whittingham that would have laid the basis for Bond’s first adventure.  It eventually was scrapped but Fleming went on to use large parts of it to create the novel of Thunderball.  While the movie of Thunderball was closer to the book, original writer McClory took Fleming to court over his contributions used without his permission and eventually  was granted the remake rights to his script.

As the producers of the MGM Bond films were gearing up to film the 13th Bond film Octopussy  in 1983, they had a big shock when they found out not only would McClory’s script be produced as a big budget summer film from Warner Brothers, but that Warner Brothers had lured none other than original Bond Connery to come back to the role.  The media had a field day with this and while both movies were released four months apart and did respectable business, Never Say Never Again could never fully get out from under the shadow of the big daddy franchise.

It doesn’t help that the movie isn’t that great to begin with.  Even with Connery on board and Moore on unsteady ground in his Bond tenure, Never Say Never Again comes off as a jokey excuse for a James Bond film.   Legally, Warner Brothers couldn’t have many of the Bond trademarks so what’s left is a second rate spy film with several above average action sequences, extremely dated technology,  and a heckuva lot of farcical moments that leave a real bad aftertaste.

Right from the beginning, director Kershner (The Empire Strikes Back) doesn’t do Connery any favors by showing the actor goofily going through the motions of a rescue attempt in some unnamed jungle climate.  Connery looks tentative and, while still a trim gent, seems a bit out of sorts.  Like in Diamonds are Forever, it takes Connery a fair amount of time to find his inner Bond and even then it’s a pale imitation of what it used to be. 

Casting for the film is iffy to say the least.  As Domino, Basinger makes for a dull main squeeze of Mr. Bond and is burdened with two dance routines (one in aerobic gear and one all dolled up with Connery) that are laughably awkward.  Brandauer and von Sydow may have been nice villains in the established Bond franchise but here they are saddled with feelings of déjà vu thanks to more memorable actors that have played bad guys Largo and Blofeld in previous films.  Only Carrera as wicked Fatima Blush seems to understand that she’s in a farce and plays it as an early precursor to Grace Jones in A View to a Kill and Famke Janssen in GoldenEye.  Her final scenes are pretty ridiculous but up until that point she’s over-the-top enough to keep your eyes locked on her.

Special mention needs to go to Edward Fox and Rowan Atkinson as M and Nigel Small-Fawcett, respectively.  With accents that would make Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins look like the epitome of diction, they are absolutely awful and capsize every scene they’re in.  How Kershner and Connery allowed these performances to happen are beyond me.

What Never Say Never Again has to recommend it are several exciting action sequences…thankfully all of them are underwater so you are spared the eye-rolling dialogue.  I’m not sure how the filmmakers created an underwater chase with Bond being pursued by sharks (from what I can tell there weren’t extensive uses of animatronics) but this scene creates the few nifty thrills the film has to offer.

For Bond fans, this is one that may be of interest to you…especially if you are familiar with Thunderball you’ll get a kick out of how similar the movie is but how different it diverges at the same time.  Thunderball wasn’t my favorite Bond film but had it had some of the more exciting moments (and Fatima Blush) from Never Say Never Again, it may have been up there with the more fun Bond flicks.