Movie Review ~ Annihilation


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Stars: Natalie Portman, Oscar Isaac, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Tessa Thompson, Gina Rodriguez, Tuva Novotny

Director: Alex Garland

Rated: R

Running Length: 115 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: Until last week when Black Panther was released, movie going in 2018 was lacking any real spark. There were some nice family films (Paddington 2, Peter Rabbit) and the final nail in the Fifty Shades coffin (Fifty Shades Freed) but January was mostly a chance for audiences to catch up on the awards favorites they missed during the holidays. With the arrival and phenomenal success of Black Panther and now Annihilation (not to mention the upcoming Red Sparrow), I’m wondering if we’re moving into a nice groove where entertaining, hyper-intelligent films designed to challenge audiences get their day in the sun.

I’ll say right off the bat that Annihilation is going to divide a lot of people. Your mileage may vary at how much the movie speaks to you or if it even works at all in your mind, but I found it to be a dazzling bit of sci-fi that gets pretty close to becoming a modern genre classic. Based on the first novel of Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach trilogy, it’s hard to classify, let alone describe, what goes on in Annihilation but my advice is to go in as blind as possible. My review of the teaser trailer was the last bit of footage I saw before the screening I attended and I’m positive that added to my overall enjoyment of the film.

Director Alex Garland (Ex Machina) adapted VanderMeer’s book with a bit of a loose interpretation of the set-up. I confess I only got halfway through the short tome before the movie screened but what’s onscreen clearly doesn’t follow VanderMeer’s cagey narrative. There are some facts that remain. Three years after a comet crashes into a lighthouse on the Florida coastline, the smartest minds in the world can’t figure out why a strange amorphous cloud has started to slowly envelop the surrounding land known as Area X. Dubbed The Shimmer due to its transparent yet colorful form, people may enter The Shimmer but they mysteriously never return…until now.

Mourning the loss of her husband who disappeared on a military mission nearly a year ago, biologist Lena (Natalie Portman, Jackie) is dumbfounded when he returns without fanfare not remembering where he’s been or how he got there. Something’s not right, though. Kane (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) looks the same and while Lena can’t put her finger on it is clear something’s off in her husband. How Lena winds up at Area X and enters The Shimmer is best left for you to discover but know that it’s important to pay attention to Garland’s informative but tricky script.

Accompanied in her journey by Dr. Ventress (Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight), Anya (Gina Rodriguez, Deepwater Horizon), Josie (Tessa Thompson, Creed), and Cass (Tuva Novotny, Eat Pray Love), Lena is plunged into an upside down world of mutated life that holds unseen dangers. With several detours into dreams it becomes harder to tell what is real and what The Shimmer is conjuring up to confuse the women, but the end goal is never clear and absolutely not foreshadowed. It’s refreshing to find a film that doesn’t let you get too far ahead of the plot and allows you a fair amount of surprise along the way.

The experience of watching Annihilation is harrowing, with Garland revealing only the bare minimum of information and allowing careful viewers to pick up his not very generous hints at the end game. We get time to know the women, which makes it all the more difficult to endure along with them the hell they go through the deeper they get inside The Shimmer. There are several terrifying sequences that give way to profound sadness, cinematic kicks to the stomach after the film has already delivered a debilitating punch to the throat.

I can’t imagine another actress taking on Portman’s role. The Oscar winner is notoriously choosy about projects and while at the outset I scratched my head at the thought of Portman as an ex-military biologist hauling her gun around a deadly jungle, she more than justifies her place at the top of the cast list. Leigh is another actress with curious but not universally loved gifts but I was taken by her quirky approach to the role of a psychologist possibly harboring a dark secret. Her voice is pitched higher than normal but that same dour expression is classic Leigh. Rodriguez may have won acclaim in her comedic role on television’s Jane the Virgin but she makes a compelling case for her star continuing to rise as a tough medic slowly unraveling in this new world. Thompson’s role is the most difficult for viewers to navigate because it’s so esoteric but it’s Novotny that leaves a lasting impact thanks to her delicately nuanced performance.

Garland hasn’t shied away from the darkness in his sci-fi tales before (he also penned the screenplays for Sunshine, 28 Days Later, and the traumatizing Never Let Me Go) but he’s gone to an even darker place here. Gorgeously shot by Rob Hardy (Endless Love) and featuring an omnipresent creepy score from Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury, the film easily manages to land its ending, which is largely without dialogue and surprisingly sustained suspense. You may walk out of Annihilation or you may crawl…either way, you’re in for a hell of a ride.

Movie Review ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

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The Facts
:

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Stars: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Andy Serkis, Benicio Del Toro, Laura Dern, Kelly Marie Tran

Director: Rian Johnson

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 152 minutes

First Trailer Review: Here
Second Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (9/10)

Review: If there’s one feeling that governed 2015’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it was nostalgia. Fans had toiled through the dark despair of the Star Wars prequels and were holding out hope that director J.J. Abrams (Star Trek) would bring them salvation in the continuing story of the sci-fi fantasy epic. So when The Force Awakens opened and was actually good, if not wholly great, most audiences that received the film well left the theater floating on a cosmic wave of good feelings of the old school charm that kept the original trilogy preserved so well over the years.

I count myself as one of those fans and gobbled up the film hook, line, and sinker. However, in hindsight it’s best to admit in the spirit of friendship that I fully recognize The Force Awakens was largely a remake of Star Wars: A New Hope. Sure, it wasn’t a paint-by-numbers carbon copy but the familiar themes of the original didn’t go unnoticed. I wasn’t as big a fan of 2016’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story as many were, that film didn’t have anywhere to go so it remained flatter than a pancake to this viewer. Now, with the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi the producers and filmmakers would really be put to the test. Would they continue to pull from the past to create something to please the fans, or would they dare to try something different?

Well, The Last Jedi is a little bit like walking forward while cinematically rubbernecking to spot where you were coming from. It’s immensely entertaining when it wants to be (which is most of the time) and a little lackluster in laying the groundwork for future installments and whenever it gets too cerebral. Writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) ably picks up the reins from his predecessor and does more than just keep his seat warm before Abrams returns for Episode 9. There’s a forward thrust but it does take time to reach warp speed.

It’s always a special thrill to hear John Williams score announce the start of the film and a bit of excitement reading the opening crawl. The first fifteen minutes are classic Star Wars, with a group of rebel fighters including Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) protecting their cavalcade and fearless leader (the late, great, Carrie Fisher, This is My Life) from an attack waged by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson, Goodbye Christopher Robin). It’s here were a strange comedic chord is first heard, one that made me wonder if Johnson had decided to inject his film with more Spaceballs (Mel Brooks’ brilliant send up of the Star Wars films) than was appropriate.

We last saw young orphan Rey (Daisy Ridley, Murder on the Orient Express) traveling with Chewbacca on the Millennium Falcon to find Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, Kingsman: The Secret Service) who was in a self-imposed exile. While Poe and Leia continue to evade the monstrous Hux, Rey tries to sway Luke to return and help the resistance defeat The First Order and their leader, General Snoke (a CGI creation that looks better here than in The Force Awakens, once-again voiced by Andy Serkis, Breathe). There’s also the matter of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, Frances Ha), Leia and Han Solo’s son who turned to the Dark Side and is still smarting from the butt-whooping he received from Rey and Finn (John Boyega) at the end of the previous film. He’s out for revenge…but does he have more secrets up his well-armored sleeve that will change the course of The First Order and the resistance?

Juggling several storylines at once, Johnson keeps the 2.5 hour film moving a good clip. A race against the clock rescue mission involving Finn and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran, an excellent addition to this male-heavy world) manages to remain engaging even when it’s broken up and interspersed with the goings-on of other characters. The movie has a few endings but manages to justify them with ease.

Aside from Benicio Del Toro (Inherent Vice) as a code-breaking thief and Laura Dern (Jurassic Park) showing up with purple hair as Leia’s second in command, it’s largely the same old gang we first sparked to in previous installments. While certain players take more of a backseat in glorified cameos (12 Years as Slave’s Lupita Nyong’o is a mere hologram here), Johnson has introduced a few memorable creatures like the cute Porg’s, Crystal Foxes, and Luke’s island-dwelling servants that one critic hilariously dubbed “the fish nuns”. They’re not going to replace Chewie or R2D2 in your heart but they do rally a convincing bid for you to make some room.

The second movie in a planned trilogy can often feel a bit flimsy as a bridge between the first and final chapters but The Last Jedi avoids those pitfalls. Depending on your knowledge of the Star Wars universe, it could easily stand on its own. It makes you look forward to the next installment rather than feel desperate for answers that you might not get by the time the credits roll. The effects are top notch, the score from Williams sounds as glorious as ever, and try not to get a little choked up every time Fisher’s on screen.

Movie Review ~ Suburbicon


The Facts
:

Synopsis: A home invasion rattles a quiet family town.

Stars: Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, Noah Jupe, Oscar Isaac

Director: George Clooney

Rated: R

Running Length: 104 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (7/10)

Review: You should thank your lucky stars that the trailer for Suburbicon was so terrible. When I first watched it and reviewed it, I was unsure if I’d even be interested in seeing what should have been a slam-dunk from a bunch of talented A-Listers in front of and behind the camera. Though I often turn my nose up at the thought of seeing a movie with a lousy trailer, there’s really no way I was going to miss one directed by George Clooney, co-written by the Coen Brothers (Hail, Caesar!), and starring Matt Damon, Julianne Moore, and Oscar Isaac.

So…into the screening I went with low expectations and a general puzzlement as to what was in store. Thankfully, here’s a rare example of a good movie with a stinker trailer…as we all know it’s usually the other way around. While Suburbicon definitely has its drawbacks, this dark comedy is one of the few films I’ve seen in recent memory that feels like it has a brainwave and not just a faint pulse.

Opening with an ad for the community living offered by the Suburbicon development, audiences will be quick to spot something missing. There are ads boasting the quality of the house of the future, the robed choir, the supermarket, and the shopping mall. Pictures of families with gleaming white grins from all over the country that have flocked to the suburbs are on display. The one thing we don’t see? Minorities. This point is driven home in one of the first scenes that show the neighborhood aghast when a black family moves in and that’s when all kinds of heck breaks loose.

Well, actually that’s what is happening in one part of the neighborhood. The new family shares a backyard with the Lodges and they’re really the main focus of the movie. While the concerned citizens of Suburbicon rally themselves into a frenzy to try to oust the peaceful newcomers in increasingly violent protests, they aren’t privy to the deadly dealings developing in the Lodge house. Husband Gardner (Damon, Promised Land), his wheelchair-bound wife Rose (Moore, Wonderstruck), their son Nicky (Noah Jupe), and Rose’s twin sister Maggie (also Moore, Still Alice) are terrorized one night by two men Gardner seems to know. In true Coen fashion, there’s a dark secret beneath this evening meeting that sets into motion sundry dealings that will impact each member of the Lodge family. Saying more might reveal more of the tricky workings of Suburbicon’s third act so let’s just say when a curious insurance agent (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) starts poking around, it spells trouble for Gardner and company that can only be solved by copious bloodshed.

Where this movie feels so strong is in the fact that everyone involved with Suburbicon seems to understand what movie they’re in. Not only is this evident in the period setting (with its Formica tabletops, gingham aprons, and rolled dungarees) but in the way that deception and anger were allowed to boil just beneath the surface. Never belying the cheerful façade painstakingly put on by the men that went to work, the women that stayed home, and the kids that wanted to grow up to be just like their parents, Clooney (Tomorrowland) and his actors play it largely straight and let the material do the work for them.

That’s also where the movie shows a bit of weakness. Trusting the material this implicitly leads some actors astray and not everyone is successful in their time-warp back to Suburbicon. Damon feels like he’s coasting here, probably because he’s played this type of flawed family man a few times already. Moore definitely knows her way around a period costume and plastered on smile and manages to make both her characters distinct without drawing them too broadly different…they are twins after all. Jupe is a real find and often steals the movie right out from under his co-stars that have already been showered with awards for their previous work. If there’s one person that gets it note perfect it’s Isaac as a complex investigator who susses out something is up in the Lodge house. As usual, Clooney fills out the supporting players with a wacky variety of kooks of all shapes and sizes.

I went into Suburbicon thinking that it would drown in Clooney’s apathy toward this “simpler time” but he doesn’t treat anything with a wistful eye. The story being told here just happens to be set in the ‘50s but there’s nothing saying it couldn’t easily have taken place in present day and been able to suggest the same inequalities in society. Clooney and his producing partner Grant Heslov worked on the script with the Coens so it’s easy to see where one group started, and one group stopped. While the Coens love a good shot of cynicism, leave it to Clooney to inject some emotional honesty right alongside it.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi (Trailer #2)

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts:

31 Days to Scare ~ Annihilation (Teaser Trailer)

Synopsis: A biologist signs up for a dangerous, secret expedition where the laws of nature don’t apply.

Release Date:  February 23, 2018

Thoughts:  Here’s another interesting project to look forward to in 2018.  Oscar winner Natalie Portman  (Jackie) stars in this adaptation of Jeff VanderMeer’s 2014 novel, the first in a trilogy.  Portman has had some high highs and low lows in the years since she won her Oscar for Black Swan but add director Alex Garlad (Ex Machina) in the mix and I’m officially intrigued to see how this one plays out.  Paramount seems to have thrown a bunch of money at Garland, though in the past he’s been known to do a whole lot with very little.  This first look at Annihilation is a nice teaser trailer that hints at some of the horrors that await Portman and her crew sent to investigate an abandoned zone disconnected from civilization known as Area X.  Co-starring Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year), Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight), Tessa Thompson (Creed), and Gina Rodriguez (Deepwater Horizon), all eyes will be on this one to see if VanderMeer’s two other novels will get a similar Hollywood shine.

The Silver Bullet ~ Suburbicon

Synopsis: This is a tale of very flawed people making very bad choices. This is Suburbicon.

Release Date:  October 27, 2017

Thoughts: Oh goodness, what to say about this weird little trailer?  Though it boasts an appealing array of stars in front of and behind the camera, I’m just not sold on moving to Suburbicon at first glance.  As is the case with most previews lately, too much is given away in the trailer, apparently leaving very little to entice audiences to want to know more.  Director George Clooney (Tomorrowland) and writers Joel and Ethan Coen (Hail, Caesar!) are going to have to bank on more than just fans of Matt Damon (Promised Land), Julianne Moore (Still Alice), and Oscar Isaac (A Most Violent Year) to get the word out about this tough sell.  To me, it looks too much like it will feature the worst of the Cohen’s back of tricks and Clooney’s strange directorial missteps.  While I’m always intrigued about films set in this era, it already feels like it’s going to be a chore to sit through this one.

The Silver Bullet ~ Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Synopsis: Having taken her first steps into a larger world, Rey continues her epic journey with Finn, Poe and Luke Skywalker in the next chapter of the saga.

Release Date: December 15, 2017

Thoughts: Star Wars, Luke Skywalker, OMG, Amazing, Laura Dern, December Get Here Soon!, Why are you still reading my thoughts…watch the first teaser trailer now!

Movie Review ~ X-Men: Apocalypse

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The Facts:

Synopsis: With the emergence of the world’s first mutant, Apocalypse, the X-Men must unite to defeat his extinction level plan.

Stars: James McAvoy, Michael Fassbender, Jennifer Lawrence, Oscar Isaac, Nicholas Hoult, Rose Byrne, Tye Sheridan, Sophie Turner, Olivia Munn, Lucas Till, Evan Peters, Kodi Smit-McPhee, Alexandra Shipp, Josh Helman, Lana Condor, Ben Hardy

Director: Bryan Singer

Rated: PG-13

Running Length: 143 minutes

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Dear readers, it’s OK if you are in the throes of Superhero Movie Fatigue. I’ve been suffering symptoms of SMF for over a year now and I’m sure it’s helpful to know that you’re not alone if you suddenly find yourself recoiling at the first whiff of a CGI created villain or needing to lie down from exhaustion when you try to tie all of the various multi-film storylines together. While I don’t see a cure for SMF in the near future (both the Marvel and DC universe are mapped out for the next several years), I think we’ll learn to adjust to an onslaught of comic book adaptations that will eventually start to compete only with films from their own franchises until a death rattle finishes them all off.

In the meantime, 2016 has brought forth the good (Deadpool, Captain America: Civil War) and the misunderstood (Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice) and judging from early reaction you might feel inclined to add X-Men Apocalypse to the miscalculated pile. I’d caution you to see for yourself though because this eighth X-Men movie is big (BIG!), rather exciting, and sets the stage for a new era with a careful hand and a gentle nod.

Admittedly, I’m not the biggest X-Men fan in the world. I was slow to warm to the series and never really had much of an interest or stake in the opinion of the overall quality or the consistency that true fans seemed to find the most fault with. The first movie was decent but half-baked, the second addressed the major concerns and righted a listing ship only to have the third one stank up the joint. Venturing into solo territory, Hugh Jackman (Les Miserables) tried to get a Wolverine series off the ground but fans weren’t interested. A prequel reignited the flame and led to another Wolverine film (which I enjoyed more than most) and the 2014 time-hopping head-scratcher X-Men: Days of Future Past.

I didn’t think the franchise could stuff more into its running length but X-Men: Apocalypse is the stone soup of the bunch…it’s got a little bit of everything. It’s going to divide many a fan/critic/movie-goer and maybe I was just in the right mood for it because I found myself highly engaged and, yeah, emotionally invested in the continued adventures of Professor X (James McAvoy, Trance), Magneto (Michael Fassbender, Prometheus), Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence, Joy), and their mutant co-horts that go up against their most formidable enemy yet.

His presence was teased at the end of X-Men: Days of Future Past and an energetic prologue in Egypt shows how Apocalypse (Oscar Isaac, A Most Violent Year) came to be buried under a pyramid until he’s uncovered in the ’80s by a faction of his descendant followers. Luckily, Moira Mactaggert (Rose Byrne, Spy) is there to see it all take place and sound the alarm that something big is about to go down.

Meanwhile, Mystique is spending most of her time sans blue skin (you can just hear Lawrence negotiating ever y second she has to be in full Mystique-garb), watching out for mutants being mistreated the world over. Rescuing Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee, ParaNorman) from a cage match with Angel (Ben Hardy), she brings him back to Professor X’s school where he falls in with Beast (Nicholas Hoult, Warm Bodies), Cyclops (Tye Sheridan, Mud), and Jean Grey (Sophie Turner). It isn’t long before the mutants find themselves under attack in their own home, culminating in a most impressive rescue sequence (it took the longest to film) led by Quicksilver (Evan Peters, The Lazarus Effect) who happened to be in the area looking for personal answers of his own.

With Apocalypse freed and intent on bringing the world back to square one by wiping the human population out, he gathers his four horsemen to assist him in his end of days plot. One will remain secret here but a young Storm (Alexandra Shipp) and Psylocke (Olivia Munn, Magic Mike) are part of the mix. Scenes of massive destruction and special effects threaten to overtake the picture but those that complain about director Bryan Singer (Jack the Giant Slayer) focusing more on computer generated mayhem instead of human heart must not realize they bought a ticket for a movie about superhero mutants fighting a doomsday villain.

On the disappointing side are McAvoy and Fassbender largely sleepwalk through the movie and Munn is totally miscast, mostly because she’s not that impressive to begin with. Isaac gets lost in his big blue bad guy but he does what he can in moon boots under all that make-up. It’s the younger generation that impresses here, with Hoult, Smit-McPhee, Sheridan, and Turner signaling that they have what’s needed to continue on with the franchise. This is reportedly Lawrence’s last spin and her absence will leave a big hole in the emotional core of the film. Even though she’s a top-tier A-List star now, Lawrence never looks down on her role or gives it anything less than her full attention.

For a PG-13 film, the movie has a questionable amount of bloody violence (especially in a sequence that involves a cameo that seems to be standard issue for any film bearing the X-Men moniker). Parents should likely see this one first before bringing young children, it’s not only heavy on viscera but at nearly 2 ½ hours it can start to feel long during its mid-section. It ramps up nicely to a whopper of a climax but even I struggled to stay alert as the film reached the two hour mark.

There’s a lot going on in X-Men: Apocalypse and for those living with SMF you could find yourself stretched thin by the time the credits roll…but if you can hang on it’s highly worth seeing on the largest screen you can get to.

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.

Movie Review ~ A Most Violent Year

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The Facts:

Synopsis: In New York City 1981, an ambitious immigrant fights to protect his business and family during the most dangerous year in the city’s history.

Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Albert Brooks, Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo

Director: J.C. Chandor

Rated: R

Running Length: 125 minutes

Trailer Review: Here

TMMM Score: (8/10)

Review: Fans of the 70s and 80s potboiler crime dramas from the likes of Alan J. Pakula (The Parallax View), Sidney Lumet (Serpico), and Francis Ford Coppola (The Godfather) will want to make time for writer/director J.C. Chandor’s well-constructed look at NYC before it became the Disney-fied commercialized metropolis that it’s morphed into over the last 30 years.

Chandor (Oscar nominated for 2012’s talky Margain Call before going almost dialogue free for 2013’s All is Lost) sets his gritty period piece right on the precipice of the Big Apple exploding into a year of murder and crime the likes the city had never seen. Though strolling through Times Square and the upscale posh surrounding boroughs may seem carefree now, don’t forget there was a time when NYC was not the place to be and violence ran rampant in select (and populous) parts of town.

Oscar Isaac (Inside Llewyn Davis, Won’t Back Down) is in the heating-oil field running a business he took over from his father-in-law. Industrious and looking forward, Isaac’s Abel Morales is pursuing the American Dream and trying to owe as few people as possible in his quest to achieve it. We get the impression that he’s a different businessman than his father-in-law was, as Abel resists the urge to go with the flow but rather to control his own destiny. That doesn’t always sit well with his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain, Interstellar, Lawless) who’d rather her husband assert dominance first and ask questions later.

After a series of violent hijackings of Abel’s fuel transportation trucks as well as escalating threats by his competitors with ties to shady dealings of the criminal underground variety, Abel must choose a path that will help him toward the future he envisions for himself and his family – but at what cost? There’s a lot of moral dilemma going on in A Most Violent Year, not the least of it involving the ultimate price of ambition. We know Abel is one of the good guys so we’re brought to the edge of our seats with interest when everyone around him seems to be nudging him toward ever darker solutions to his problems and wondering when/if he’ll break.

Isaac carries the weight of the film on his broad shoulders with a quiet ease, suggesting the internal struggle more than making a show of it on the outside. The stakes are high and though we never see him break a sweat, inside you know his heart rate is sky-high. With her platinum Dorothy Stratten/Galaxina hairdo and a manicure that wouldn’t be out of place on a Bond femme fatale, Chastain’s the Lady Macbeth of the film. Wise enough to know that the character could come off one-dimensional; Chastain gives Anna a valued aura of mystery so we’re never quite sure what her endgame is.

It all builds to a satisfying and necessary ending, one that rides the razor’s edge of being both too pat and ever so slightly ambiguous. New York wasn’t yet close to getting its make-over so we know what lies ahead for our characters, even if they think they’ve got it all figured out. This is a velvety piece of old-school filmmaking, very worth your time.