Film Review: Star Wars, The Force Awakens

Kylo Ren

This is a spoiler-free review.

I asked my 14 year old daughter if she wanted to see the new Star Wars movie and she said that she didn’t because she hadn’t seen any of the previous ones in the series. I don’t know if that’s a sign of bad parenting on my part or a measure of the cultural schism created by age, but it shocked me to think she’s been blissfully unaware of something that was a part of my growing up. Anyway, I went to see the new film by myself. And she was right in the sense that you really need to have seen at least the first three films in the series to have a fair chance of fully enjoying this most recent entry. That’s in part because the film makers assumed that everyone who will see The Force Awakens is already aware of certain plot points, like Darth Vader’s familial relationship with the series’ ¬†original hero, Luke Skywalker. So, there’s quite a bit of exposition left out, or mentioned only in passing.

That having been said, The Force Awakens is sure to satisfy Star Wars fans, though I suspect that the extent to which they love this film will depend in part on their expectations going in. In my opinion it is the third best entry out of the lot, exceeded only by The Empire Strikes Back and the original Star Wars, which was subsequently titled A New Hope. My opinion may change after repeat viewings. One thing for sure is that it is orders of magnitude better than all the prequels, and that is due in large part to the casting. There are two new heroes, a disenchanted Stormtrooper named Finn, played by  John Boyega, and a scrappy scavenger named Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. There are also old friends brought back from the original series, with a stand out performance by Harrison Ford reprising the role of space scoundrel Han Solo. But the best thing about this film, in my opinion, is the performance by Adam Driver as the villain Kylo Ren. Ironically, his performance is the emotional heart of the film and packs the most punch. There is also a new droid character named BB-8 that is a fine addition to the series.

The plot echoes the original film, which seems like a conscious compromise intended to ground it in Star Wars lore so the stage is set for subsequent installments. It will be interesting to see whether the next film can break out and offer something fresh.

Viewers may be struck by the same feeling I had of consuming the film as comfort food, rather than a fine but perhaps more palette-challenging gourmet meal. There is a lot to like in the visuals, with fantastic vistas and complex battle scenes that seem more real than other installments due to less reliance of computer generated images. There’s also the pitch perfect score by John Williams, which complements the action and keeps things moving along. It also struck me that this film gives itself permission to have fun and pierce the seriousness that over-saturated the prequels.

Another thought I had watching the film is the seeming difficulty the film has creating a sense of dread and menace when it comes to the bad guys, who in this installment are called The First Order. They are presented in a Nazi motif reminiscent of a Nuremberg rally, but in the context of recent events they seem quaint by comparison. Not to say that the Nazis weren’t menacing, but there is a certain lack of explanation as to what is driving their actions, other than a will to power. The film plays more on the eternal balance between good and evil and those forces being functions of each other; one not being able to exist without the other. My guess is that the next film will explore that theme more deeply, but what do I know.

If you like action adventures this should be on your list for holiday viewing. Have fun and may the force be with you.

 

 

 

 

 

Film Review: Birdman

Birdman

I’m writing this as I get ready to watch the Academy Awards. One of the nominees for best picture is Birdman, which I watched on demand this morning.

I tend to like films that are meta, meaning that they are films about the entertainment industry. One of my favorite metas is The Player. Birdman is a meta, as well.

Michael Keaton plays a washed up Hollywood star who suffers a nervous breakdown while trying to launch a Broadway play as writer, director, and star.

I think this movie has a good chance of winning the award for best original screenplay. The writing is bright and crisp, with great dialogue.

I also think that Edward Norton has a good chance of winning the award for Best Supporting Actor. He’s great as a New York stage actor filling in on short notice. Michael Keaton is very good as well. In fact, the whole cast does a great job.

So you’d think with a great screenplay and great acting and the meta aspect that I would love this film. I liked it a lot, but the missing element, for me, is that it lacks emotional punch. The characters in the film have a jaded quality that rings true, but also makes it hard to care about them.

This film is similar thematically to Black Swan, starring Natalie Portman. It asks the question of whether an artist has to be borderline crazy to create great art.

I have no idea which film will win Best Picture this year. I haven’t seen all of the ones nominated and I enjoyed all the ones I did see for different reasons.

My only rooting interest is for Bradley Cooper to win Best Actor for his portrayal of American Sniper Chris Kyle. He was great in that film, has been nominated twice previously, but hasn’t won yet. By the way, Kyle’s wife is being interviewed on the red carpet right now. She looks like she could be one of the movie stars.

Film Review: Boyhood

Boyhood

I missed seeing the film Boyhood in theaters so I rented it through U-Verse. It’s done about $25 million at the box office as of today, which is why it’s been relegated to video rental.

Despite it’s relative lack of commercial success, I recommend seeing it. Boyhood is a unique film that traces the lives of a family over an actual period of twelve years, using the same cast. The film was written and directed by Richard Linklater.

The film has an interesting narrative arc, since Mr. Linklater could not have written the whole story in advance. For example, there’s a whole riff about the impact of personal electronics and social media that rings very true and could not have been predicted with such precision were it written twelve years ago. Also, as you watch the film you will probably wonder whether or to what extent the events in the script echo things that happened in the lives of the cast members.

Another interesting thing about the film is that the cast ages. This creates a deep intimacy between the viewer and the characters, especially the namesake character of the boy, Mason, who begins the film as six year old in elementary school and ends it as an eighteen year old in his first year of college. You quite literally see him grow up in the course of the film’s two hour and forty-five minute running time.

As I was watching the film it became apparent that there is no antagonist, except perhaps life itself. These people just sort of wander around living their lives. The beginning and end of the film could have been chosen randomly. The director could have started a year earlier in the lives of the characters or ended a year later, in that there are no big events that punctuate the script or create a tremendous sense of drama, other than the type of life events that will seem very familiar to most people. And yet the film as a whole is very dramatic in a quiet way, by pointing out that most people’s lives are like that.

On a personal level, the film’s timeline is similar to the life of my daughter, who is now thirteen, so that resonated quite a bit. The songs used in the soundtrack are time specific as well and it was fun to take a stroll back in recent popular culture and remember what you were doing when your first heard a certain song. Kudos for throwing in one of my favorite songs by the band Wilco.

I’ve never seen another film like Boyhood. Mr. Linklater deserves a lot of credit for sticking to a project for twelve years to create a beautiful and unique work of art.

Film Review: The Imitation Game

Alan_Turing_photo

This is a photograph of Alan Turing, an historical figure who is the subject of the film The Imitation Game. Mr. Turing was a homosexual in England at a time when homosexual conduct was illegal. It seems odd to point that out, given the shift in societal norms lately. I only point it out because it is a plot point in the film.

The film weaves the fact of Mr. Turing’s sexuality into the screenplay, but viewers can watch the film, as I did, and conclude that his sexuality did not define him so much as his quirky, forceful personality, and his genius.

Watching the film, it occurred to me that it must be intended to convey something more than just Mr. Turing’s achievements. It seems intended to focus those achievements through the lens of his sexuality; perhaps to say that what he achieved is all the more impressive if considered in the context of him being a victim of bias and ignorance.

Mr. Turing led a team of cryptologists charged with breaking the Nazi encryption technology known as Enigma during World War II. In the process, Mr. Turing invented an electro-mechanical precursor to what is now commonly referred to as the computer, thereby saving millions of lives by bringing an early end to the war.

I recommend seeing The Imitation Game. All of the performances by the actors are excellent and the screenplay is thrilling when you consider that cryptology could easily be a dry topic.

The only thing about the film that gave me pause is the focus on Mr. Turing’s sexuality. Not that being gay is a bad thing, but the notion of him being a victim seems inconsistent with the fact that he is a hero. Granted, it would have been a different film if Mr. Turing’s sexuality had been kept out of a screenplay that is primarily about his momentous achievements. I can’t help but wonder if he would have preferred it that way.