Tag Archives: Movies

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens – Review

star-wars-force-awakens-official-posterThere are Spoilers in this review.

2013 was a massive year for the Star Wars franchise as George Lucas sold Lucasfilm to Disney for four billion dollars. Yet the biggest surprise from the deal was the announcement of more Star Wars films in the Skywalker Saga, meaning the long rumored sequel trilogy would finally come to fruition. Since that time, fans have excitedly and trepidatiously awaited December 17th, 2015 for Episode VII. Anticipation built throughout the year as the movie’s coming was heralded by soup cans and action figures alike. The film’s release has seen a maelstrom of emotion from fans and critics as The Force Awakens has become the best reviewed Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back, but the question is, “Is it really that good?”.

Themes and Story

As I have gotten older, one of the joys has been the realization that the Star Wars saga is about more than just good and evil, it was George Lucas’ way of giving a history lesson about freedom. The Original Trilogy was about how freedom is won back from a dictatorship, the Prequel Trilogy was about how freedom is lost as bureaucracy and corruption undermine a democracy and now the Sequel Trilogy looks to be just as timely.

It has been thirty years since the Return of the Jedi and the galaxy has seen the end of the Empire and the beginning of the New Republic. As the Republic has taken hold and a new generation has been brought up in relative peace, the idea of vigilance against evil has gone out of fashion. The Republic keeps it’s fleet close to home and the loss of the Jedi to Luke’s nephew’s turn to the dark side has left the galaxy vulnerable. It has given rise to the First Order, a regime even more fanatical and bent on completing the failed mission of Darth Vader and the Emperor, bringing “order” back to the universe.

The New Republic, unwilling to acknowledge the threat of the First Order, secretly sponsors the creation of the Resistance, lead by Leia, while publicly denouncing them. Leia is a child of war, understanding the price of freedom and is willing to sacrifice again for it’s continuation. Unfortunately there is resistance to seeing the First Order as more than a phantom menace in the senate and the correlation could not be clearer to the situation we face in the real world with ISIS, which has challenged the entire western world yet certain world leaders refuse to acknowledge the full threat.

starkiller base scifidriveAnother correlating theme is that of recognizing evil and facing it. Maz Kanata, the thousand year old bartender says to Rey and Finn, “The only fight: against the dark side. Through the ages, I’ve seen evil take many forms. The Sith. The Empire. Today, it is the First Order. Their shadow is spreading across the galaxy. We must face them. Fight them. All of us.” She sees the First Order for what it is and calls it out, it is evil and it must be apposed. What a timely message. We live in a world that is unwilling to call out evil for what it is and confront it, but Maz is absolutely correct that it must be named and fought. In this way, The Force Awakens proudly upholds the tradition that George Lucas began in A New Hope.

Pacing 

As wonderful as the themes are in the story, they are not all completely fleshed out in the film. To get the full picture one must dive into The Force Awakens novelization, Before the Awakening or the Visual Dictionary to get everything I mentioned above. Director J.J. Abrams has made a Star Wars film that is truly faster and more intense. It flies at a breakneck speed and barely slows down to let the character breathe. Unfortunately this leads to some scenes that would have fleshed out the political landscape as well as the motivations of the villains on the cutting room floor. Honestly, it seems like an over-reaction to the Prequel Trilogy and it’s frustrating since the politics here are a crucial story point and resonant theme for the times in which we live. It’s still the thing I have the biggest issue with in the movie.

Cyclical Nature 

Star Wars has always referenced and mirrored itself as Lucas would use themes and motifs in both trilogies to create the saga’s tapestry. As this new trilogy beginnings it’s clear that the same thing is happening, yet it’s not as well done as before. Regrettably The Force Awakens is much more than a homage or layer of the tapestry, it is a remake of A New Hope. Plot points line up almost perfectly as you think about each film and exact beats from Star Wars are repeated in The Force Awakens. Frustratingly this means that there is absolutely nothing surprising in the new movie, if you have seen A New Hope then you will pick up on exactly where this story is going including the death of a major character as well as the use of yet, another super weapon. The movie is clearly more worried about appeasing fanboys than truly inspiring the next generation of fans.

Characters

rey__bb_8_star_wars_the_force_awakens-HDThe true salvation for this film is the casting. Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, Oscar Isaac as Poe and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren are all phenomenal. They are the key to the success of this film as they immediately bring you into the story and it’s their performances that cover a multitude of cinema sins. By the end of the movie you will care about each of them and be so invested as to what will happen, you’ll be wishing Episode VIII was next month.

Alongside the new characters there are old favorites that have returned, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Peter Mayhew are all back. Ford has not been this engaging on screen in years and it seems he is firmly invested in doing justice to Solo, especially in light of his character’s demise near the end of the film. Carrie Fisher brings an understated grace to Leia which is a relief to anyone that’s seen her on the talk show circuit and Hamill has little more than a cameo, whetting the appetite of fans to know exactly what happened to Luke Skywalker.

Interestingly for me, it’s not the old characters or their stories that captivated me, it was the new. Sadly the meta knowledge of Ford’s desires for the Han character robbed me of the emotional impact it was suppose to have. The film’s adherence to the formula of A New Hope and The Phantom Menace where the old, wise character meets their end does the same since you can see his death coming for miles. There is also something that just does not seem earned in Han’s death, story wise it makes sense for the character of Han and Kylo, but it’s just lacking something for me personally. I find myself much more invested in the character of Rey and where she will go next. Daisy Ridley has cemented herself as a star with this performance which is good news for the rest of this trilogy.

Real Sets, Practical Effects

11895123_1007878895930378_4624932683842585912_oThis has been the mantra of this movie since it’s inception. It’s a dig at the Prequel trilogy even though Abrams has praised the fact that without Lucas’ breaking every rule in his work on the Prequels, the new trilogy would not have been possible. Where this idea works best is in the character of BB-8. The result is astounding. I challenge anyone not to fall in love with this new droid and struggle to not name him their favorite as credits role. The way in which the onset effect and the sound effects work to create a fully realized character is incredible.

Where it did not work as well is with some of the creature design. The Happabore that drinks next to Finn on Jakku looks like a character from a Disneyland ride and the luggabeast that Teedo rides, lumbers at the pace of a desert turtle, making it the most impractical mount ever. In both places CGI would have been more effective in my opinion and more “real”.

With all of the incessant chatter about the practical effects, one of the best new characters in the film is CGI. Maz Kanata is an outstanding achievement in character design in the same way Gollum was in The Lord of the Rings. You truly feel like the character is on screen with Harrison Ford and it’ll leave you longing to know more about her history.

Strangely the CGI work at the end of the film is not as sharp as one would expect. The X-Wing battle above Starkiller base seems like an afterthought and looks muddled. The editing lacks the Lucas clarity in the geography of the setting and it’s one of the clearest examples of the magic he brought to the films truly lacking.

Another important piece that is missing from this new movie is the addition of exciting new ship designs. All the ships here are just variations on Star Destroyers, Tie Fighters and X-Wings and the new ships like Ren’s shuttle or the Resistance transport are either forgettable or just plain awful.

Sadly, there are also no fun alien cameos in the movie. Abrams seems preoccupied with creating new alien designs, which is fun but the lack of anything familiar in this area is a regrettable lack of connective tissue to the rest of the saga.

Conclusion

This is not the best Star Wars movie, that honor still belongs to The Empire Strikes Back, but it is a better one than I initially thought. It has some problems in the pacing, lack of clarity in the story and themes as well as a death that still leaves me numb. Furthermore, the movie lacks a score that is as strong as John Williams other work in the saga. There are a few nice cues and Rey’s Theme by far the strongest new musical motif, but you won’t find yourself humming anything as you did with the Imperial March, Duel of Fates or the Forrest Battle.

Seeing the movie four times has helped me to overcome a lot of the problems I still see and the performances of the new cast have me sold on this new trilogy. I would recommend seeing the movie more than once, since the first time can be a little jarring with it’s fast-paced nature and important story points almost glossed over because of it.  I’d give the movie 3.75 lost lightsabers out of 5.

Be sure to check out The 602 Club’s episode on the film, you won’t want to miss it!

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The 602 Club 61: Faster, More Intense

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

December 17th, 2015 will be a day long remembered, it has seen the end of one era of Star Wars and the dawn of the next. With the sale of Lucasfilm to Disney came the promise of new films in the Skywalker saga and that promise has reached it’s fulfillment in Episode VII.

In this episode of The 602 Club host Matthew Rushing is joined by newly awakened Jedi Bruce Gibson, Darren Moser and John Mills to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. We discuss our Episode VII experiences, the new characters, old characters, Han’s death, abandonment, the villains, the history of a long time ago, what about R2?, humor, one quick thing, music and design, wrapping up with final thoughts and ratings.

 

Forceful Anticipation

I was recently asked to write the feature article in Metropolis Magazine for their Star Wars issue all about the upcoming movie The Force Awakens, which also includes an interview with Daisy Ridley. Here it is. Click the article to enlarge it.

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The 602 Club: Personal El Guapo

tsc-055-th-square-1440SPECTRE.

When one of the longest running and most revered movie franchises releases a new film it’s no question that expectations are going to be high as fans eagerly anticipate what is next for their favorite character, a Bond movie is no exception, especially with a name like SPECTRE and the possibilities brings.

In this episode of The 602 Club host M is joined by OO agents John Champion and Norman Lao talk about SPECTRE. We discuss our first impressions, continuing Bond, it’s all connected, an interesting question, under siege, new characters, Bond in love, the one ring, theme and music, if their were too many spy movies this year, mission evaluation, rankings and listener feedback.

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The 602 Club: Bottom of a Macallan Bottle

tsc-054-th-square-1440Skyfall.

There are few icons that find themselves still going as strongly as James Bond after being in pop culture for over 50 years. His stock skyrocketed on his 50th anniversary with the release of the 23rd film in the series. Bolstered by Sam Mendes as director, Roger Deakins as director of photography and a theme song by Adele that became a monster hit in it’s own right, Skyfall has become one of the most beloved movies in the James Bond saga.

In this episode of The 602 Club host Matthew Rushing is joined by 00 agents John Champion and Norman Lao to talk about Skyfall. We discuss continuing Bond, the 50th anniversary, the shadows, new characters, an enemy that was once on the inside, the music and theme, wrapping up with our ratings.

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Listen here or on iTunes.

Steve Jobs – Review

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Steve Jobs is an enigma. A man with a vision for technology that was as much a work of art as it was functional, he buffeted the system and became one of the leaders of the personal computing age. In the new film Steve Jobs, Danny Boyle and Aaron Sorkin tell his story, framed by his biggest product launches, the Macintosh, NEXT and the iMac. Before each launch everything that can go wrong does as technical issues, unexpected people and bitter arguments threaten to destroy what Jobs is trying to build. It’s a fascinating look at a man who has shaped the look and feel of the future.

Searching for Control

Jobs is a man who is driven, beyond anything else, for control. Growing up knowing that he’d been intended for a family that decided against adopting him profoundly impacted Steve. His desire for controlling everything in his life, including his creations, was forged in the fire of feeling unloveable and unwanted. He takes his quest for control a step further than most people as he lives most of his life within what became known as the “Steve Jobs distortion field”. If Steve thought something was a certain way, that was the way it was.

The film’s version of Jobs offers a clear example of the way we as humans deal with the world around us. We work so hard to control everything. We do this because, like Jobs, we don’t want to be hurt or disappointed. If we can control things, we can find some kind of comfort in knowing and preparing for what will happen to us. If we can keep people at a distance by manipulating or dominating our relationships, we can reduce the likelihood of being wounded or emotionally shattered. Jobs spends most of his life doing his best to make it look as if he cares nothing for what people think of him, when the reality is, that like the rest of us, it means more than it should. It is evident in every conversation that Jobs has with people that he’s working so hard to be above others, to be untouchable. Before the launch of the NEXT, he and Woz have an argument in the orchestra pit, and Jobs tells Woz that what he does is play the orchestra, as a conductor. The metaphor could not be any clearer. Jobs has tried to place himself out of reach emotionally from anyone by creating the world as he wants to see it, the same way the conductor creates the sound of the symphony.

The compulsion for control is something that has been ingrained in humanity since our first act of defiance in wrestling it from someone else. A fruit was taken and eaten to give us that which we were not meant to have, and the control we were promised has never materialized. It is why Jesus implores us with these words,

“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul? Or what shall a man give in return for his soul? For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done. Truly, I say to you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.” (Matthew 16:24-28 ESV).

It is when we realize that it is not we who are in control that we are then finally free to be who we were meant to be. Sadly it’s a peace Jobs would never find in this life.

Conclusion 

This is a thought provoking and moving film. The acting is superb as Michael Fassbender dominates the screen from scene one. Kate Winslet is a force to be reckoned with as Joanna Hoffman, one of the few people able to stand up to Jobs in his life. This movie is worth seeing, and more than once, to take in its themes and the shear magnitude of who Jobs was and what he was able to accomplish in spite of his failings as a person. It’s rated 4 and a half iMacs out of 5.

 

Pan – Review

New-pan-posterThere have been numerous adaptations of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan since his original play in 1904 and novel in 1911. From silent film, to animation, to live action with a real boy, the story of Peter has captivated and enthralled people for generations. Now, Joe Wright, director of Pride & Prejudice as well as Atonement has joined with producer Greg Berlanti to bring us the prequel to Peter Pan, a time when Pan learns who he is and Hook is a friend.

Greed Destroys Neverland

One of the clearest themes of Pan is the way in which greed and obsessive love destroys the things we hold dear. Blackbeard is determined to hold on to his love Mary and to live forever. This leads him to hold Mary as a prisoner on his ship while at the same time destroying the faerie kingdom in search of their pixum (fossilized pixel dust)  which has the ability to rejuvenate one’s life, enabling them to live as long as they are supplied with pixum. This madness leads him to stealing young boys from the WWII era world and bringing them to Neverland to mine for the pixum he is so desperate for. Not only is the faerie kingdom his victim but Neverland itself, as it is slowly being mined into extinction for one man’s greed.

Blackbeard, like Anakin in Star Wars is so obsessively holding on to Mary that it drives her away from him. She’s saved by the faerie prince and their love creates a son, Peter, who is prophesied to bring an end to the terror of Blackbeard. It is Blackbeard’s greed that leads him to hold on so tightly to Mary and his life yet brings utter ruin instead.

pan_teaser_ship_poster_horzLove is Sacrifice   

It is a beautiful thing to see represented on the screen the idea of sacrificial love. Mary, sacrifices herself to protect her son and the faerie kingdom. Hook is willing to sacrifice himself for Tiger Lilley and Peter while Peter realizes that it’s not about being “the chosen one”, it’s about being willing to fight and die for something bigger than himself. In the end Peter will get most everything that Blackbeard is fighting so perilously for, life of eternal youth and the love of Mary. Neither of which come though greed but though true love, sacrificial love. A powerful message indeed.

Conclusion

panPan is a good movie that never transcends to great. The beginning in the orphanage with the evil nuns is an overplayed trope that I find annoying. Also, the scenes at the mine don’t work as well for me, but once the film moves out into Neverland I’m hooked. One of my criteria’s for a good Peter Pan film is that Neverland feel timeless and for the most part Wright’s Neverland has that feeling. Bright, imaginative and yet tethered to yesteryear in a comforting fashion. On top of all this, Levi Miller is absolutely astounding as Peter. The most difficult thing to do is cast young talent who can truly carry a film and he has charisma in spades. The surrounding cast is great, with Adeel Akhtar’s Smee frequently stealing scenes with his delivery. In the end Pan is no where near as dismal as it’s Rotten Tomatoes score of 21%, it’s exactly what I expected, fun and enjoyable yet with surprising themes. Pan is rated 3 and a half mermaids out of 5.

The 602 Club Review