Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 31, 2015 at 2:17 pm | Posted in 2015 | 1 Comment
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Whoever it was who said, “you can’t go home again,” it wasn’t JJ Abrams. His recent career seems to be all about nostalgia. With his two “Star Trek” movies, he simultaneously recreated and reinvented the series he had grown up on as a kid. Now, he has done the same with “Star Wars.” With “The Force Awakens,” Abrams has done everything in his power to recreate the mood and feel of that first film, for better and for worse. This movie has sweeping action, beautiful images, a rich and fully realized universe, an panoply of aliens, courageous heroes and menacing villains. It is, in other words, every bit as epic as those first films. Where the series of the late 90s stumbled with an overly convoluted plot that robbed the central story arch (Anakin’s rise and fall) by diluting it, this story feels much tighter and more focused. Also, the stilted and silly dialogue (which even occasionally plagues the original films) is missing here, as is the awkward, emotionally flat acting. All of which is to say that there is much to recommend in this film, except much originality. It is such a slave to the original formula that it lacks any real nerve. Say what you will about any of Lucas’s films, they pushed boundaries and were daring, even if it didn’t always work. This film is like Abrams went through a check list of the “Star Wars” greatest hits. Desert planets, cute robots, seedy bars, reluctant heroes who get swayed by a beautiful girl, and daddy issues galore. Just because you make a character orange and a woman, doesn’t mean she isn’t still obviously a Yoda substitute. As interesting as she is, I can still see the outline of the original. In fact, the themes were all so derivative that I had already guessed the shocker near the film’s end. What a shame because it’s a great moment, it’s just also the reflection of one I have seen before. I don’t want to sound too harsh. It is, in some ways, an impossible task to follow Lucas (even Lucas couldn’t follow Lucas). At least, Abrams’s film is fun and exciting and left me wanting more. He did a good job, maybe even a very good job, just not a great one. For that, he needs to find his own voice within the Star Wars universe. The young padawan needs to become the master.

Mr. Holmes

December 17, 2015 at 8:21 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This is the second of my two “in-flight” reviews, if you will. Admittedly, watching a film on an 8″ screen is a very different experience than in a darkened theater. Some films suffer on a small screen but I think this one carries through intact; it’s strengths (and weaknesses) all occur on the level of the story and not the image. We are treated to the great Sir Ian McKellen taking his turn at perhaps the most represented fictional character on screen. Has any character, including any of Shakespeare’s, been played by more people in movies and television than Sherlock Holmes? From Basil Rathbone to Benedict Cumberbatch, everyone has had his interpretation, be it the cool moral superiority of Jeremy Brett’s take or Robert Downey Jr’s rollicking action star or the formulaic Jonny Lee Miller police procedural (CSI: Holmes, if you will). This time, McKellen takes on an elderly, retired Sherlock. He’s weak and his memory is fading. He has moved to the country and he’s hiding from something that he just can’t quite remember. However, the intense curiosity and hero-worship of his housekeeper’s young son stirs Holmes and, in the process of engaging this boy, he begins the process of remembering. That process proceeds over multiple flashbacks creating a layered but often confusing narrative. We have Holmes in his present (the last 1940s) with the boy. We have the story he is telling the boy, told in flashback with his voice over narration. Somewhere in there we have Mr Watson’s version of that same story. We have another flashback to a recent trip to Japan that connects only tenuously to the main plot. And, I believe, we have 1 or 2 other random flashbacks. Perhaps our confusion is meant to simulate Holmes’s own confusion with his history. Having not read the book, I cannot know if this is a technique the author employed or if, as is often the case, the director and screenwriters just tried to shove too much of the book into the movie, losing context and clarity along the way. By the end, the story is clear enough and, what is also clear enough, is that the story is not important or interesting enough to matter anyway. The central mystery, once solved, is not that compelling and the Japanese story, once resolved, feels weightless and irrelevant. What does matter is the relationship between Holmes, this boy and his concerned mother. That’s a lovely story about age and youth, wisdom and excitement and how each can gain from the other. McKellen is terrific at playing Holmes as a grumpy old man whose irritability hides fear, sadness and profound regret. This Holmes is strongest, not when he is being the world-famous sleuth, but when he is simply willing to be vulnerable and when he is willing to learn as much as teach. To me, that makes him a pretty good addition to the canon.

Amy

December 17, 2015 at 7:34 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

Well, if there is any joy in flying anywhere, it is in my ability to catch up on a couple of films that came and went from theaters before I saw them. Fortunately, I am not confined by whatever edited version of a major movie the airline feels like showing (remember those days?). With Kindle in hand, I watched this film and the next one I will be reviewing. What a poignant and deeply sad documentary this was. As most would agree, Amy Winehouse was a breathtaking talent, whose death of alcohol related causes at 27 surprised almost no one. The real power of this documentary was in showing how inevitable that outcome was. For a person who so clearly never liked being in front of the camera (she even looked uncomfortable in home movies), it’s astonishing how much of her whole life appears to have been captured on film. In fact, there is so much footage that, for over two hours, Amy is almost never off film. The vast majority of the interviews, even of famous people, are done as voice overs of images of Amy, as though the film makers had so much footage, they couldn’t figure out how to use it all. As a result, the audience sees her self destructive tendencies surface early. Long before fame was even on the horizon, Amy was a fragile soul who sought aliveness in excess. She seemed to want the edge, even when she hated what it did to her. It did not help that the women in her life (including her mother) were passive participants who shook their heads and fretted but never stood up and that the men (including her father) all used her for personal gain. Nobody set the limits that Amy was so desperately seeking, that she even said at one point she was seeking. So she spiraled. And it’s all caught on film. Everything in this documentary has the feel of watching an impending car crash in slow motion. There’s a desperate anxiety as it builds toward the inevitable and, at over two hours, that’s a lot of build up. In fact, I think the same range of emotions could have been captured and the story told with 30 minutes shaved off. It’s moving and it’s sad but it’s a bit of a slog. It also feels creepy and voyeuristic. Toward the end, Amy was worn down by the relentless attention. This feels a bit like one more attempt to pry into her life, to own this very private woman. To, once again, succeed at her expense.

Creed

December 14, 2015 at 10:43 am | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Anyone at all familiar with the previous 6 movies in the “Rocky” franchise, would find nothing surprising in this one at all.  In fact, even if you had never heard of Rocky Balboa, you could likely predict most of where this film is going. However, what is surprising, is how remarkably fresh it all feels. Though, it is wrought with heavy references to every single one of the previous films (particularly the first one), it still has an energy that feels very much like it’s a story of the moment. That is partly a credit to the universality of Sylvester Stallone’s original script and partly due to a powerful performance by Michael B. Jordan (“Friday Night Lights,” “Fantastic Four”). Jordan may well be the best male actor in his age range (acknowledging the likes of Miles Teller, Dane Dehaan and Ezra Miller). Anyone who saw “Fruitvale Station” realizes how raw and honest his performances can be. Here, he is somewhat constrained by the contrivances of the script, but Jordan bursts with a ferocity and vulnerability that has not been seen since the original “Rocky” film. He is especially real (and touching) in his relationship with the aging Rocky (now so like the Burgess Meredith character that it’s bittersweet nostalgia). It’s so clear how well Stallone knows Rocky; this is his defining role and he loves this character the way one loves family. All of Stallone’s awareness of his own aging plays out in Rocky. This is a tired and lonely and vulnerable man. Seeing what the “Italian Stallion” has become is touching and real and one of the best parts of this film. It’s hard not to get drawn into the relationship between these two men, both so guarded but needing each other. It’s that story that gives the film depth and that provides the sort of character development that ultimately allows the audience to care about Adonis Creed when he steps into the ring. That final battle is a glory to behold and a reflection of modern film making at its kinetic best. But it’s Jordan’s visceral performance, both in the ring and before, that sells it. We may know exactly where it’s going but I challenge you to not care how it gets there.

 

Chi-Raq

December 8, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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Crackling with the sort of defiant energy that is Spike Lee’s hallmark, this film reminded me more of “Do The Right Thing” than any of his other works. This time, Lee exposes the violence that occurs within Black communities and does so brilliantly through the lens of Aristophanes’s “Lysistrata.” In the classic Greek play, Queen Lysistrata convinces all the women of Sparta and Athens to hold out sex until their husbands make peace and end the Peloponnesian War. Lee brings this satire to the Chicago streets, where two rival gangs (the Spartans in purple and the Trojans in Orange) are killing each other and plenty of innocent children along the way. The edginess in this film lies in its ability to stay true to the Greek form while still feeling relevant today. Samuel L Jackson takes the role of chorus and much of the dialogue comes in the form of poetic verse. The brilliance here is in understanding how much modern rap and classic verse have in common. Writers Lee and Kevin Willmott created beautifully dense dialogue that managed to both have immediate meaning and be chock full of deeper references, from pop culture to philosophy to current events and Karl Marx. Sometimes the references and insights flew by so fast, I wished I could replay them. Lee was saying a lot here and he was saying it with a frenetic boldness that was dazzling. The intensity of the visual and linguistic assault was grounded by stunning performances. None more surprising than Nick Cannon in the title role. The name “Chi-Raq,” which is a blending of Chicago and Iraq, has been popularized in rap music as a way to refer to the intense violence currently occurring in Chicago’s urban areas. Cannon play’s a hip-hop artist named Chi-Raq with such ferocity that it’s impossible to see the affable clown he plays as host of “America’s Got Talent.” He lights up the screen with every look and word. However, the real power of the film lies in Teyonah Parris’s (“Dear White People,” “Mad Men”) performance as Lysistrata. The film centers around her and it is her performance that lifts this from parody into satire. Often, this story is accused of being sexist and can certainly be played that way. In Lee’s version, with Parris at the helm, it is anything but. In this version, men are damaged little boys, at their best, and buffoons, at their worst. Women are wiser and stronger and must step in to save them from themselves. It’s also worth noting that Wesley Snipes, who I first saw in Lee’s “Mo’ Better Blues,” givens a terrific performance during his brief times on screen. Likewise, Jennifer Hudson (who has lost her own family to gun violence) gives a heart-wrenching performance as a young mother who’s child was killed. This is a film-lover’s treat on every level: the language, the visuals and the acting. If I have any criticisms at all, it is that the medium of this play and Lee’s approach create such a shock and awe pallet that the seriousness of the message can get a little lost. The audience will laugh and feel dazzled but will they connect? Perhaps in an attempt to compensate for that, Lee get’s a bit heavy handed in the last few minutes, trading rage for sentiment and a chance at catharsis (and trading a hip-hop soundtrack for one straight out of a standard Hollywood movie). “Chi-Raq” is a scream into the dark: raw, angry, viseral and offensive. It needs to be.

 

Brooklyn

December 6, 2015 at 1:32 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It would be hard to find anything bad to say about this well-crafted period piece. Saoirse Ronan (“Hanna,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) plays Ellis, a young woman who leaves Ireland for New York in the mid-1950s. Ellis struggles with homesickness but is just beginning to fit in when a tragedy forces her to return home. She then finds herself torn between the two worlds. That description (which could be right off of a DVD case) makes the film sound both worse and better than it actually is. It is not nearly so heavy-handed and cliche; nor is it particularly exciting. The film is gorgeous, with both Brooklyn and Ellis’s small Irish village beautifully rendered. Clothing, cars, telephones, the china they eat off of, the things they say all feel very real. Likewise, all of the characters are rich and believable. Even small background characters have a depth to them that is unusual in most films. It also has a gently humor to it, never more so than around various dinner tables as these characters banter in a good-natured way. Nick Hornby (“About a Boy,” “High Fidelity”) developed the screenplay from a popular Irish novel. Both he and director John Crowley (“Boy A”) clearly love these characters, most of them strong women. At the center, Ronan shines as Ellis. She is able to capture Ellis’s slow transformation into a strong, more self-assured young woman. The changes are not big ones (nothing in this film is) and they take a deft hand to portray well. This is a simple story about love in many forms: the binding love of family, the supportive love of friends, compassion toward strangers and, most of all, romance. It explores Ellis’s relationship with each of these without ever sensationalizing or trivializing. All of it feels real. In fact, everything in this story feels real but, just like in most real lives, only small things happen. This is a simple, undramatic story of a young woman’s love of two places. It’s touching and sweet but not earth shattering. There are no revelations here, just unadorned truths.

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