Thursday, December 29, 2016

Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them

     These aren't the hallowed grounds of Hogwarts. This isn't Diagon Alley, bursting with marvelous sights and children pressing their noses against the shop windows to get a look at the newest broom. This is smog-ridden Prohibition-era New York City, where seedy underground speakeasies deal in contraband far more precious than bottles of booze. In this barely pre-Depression NYC, segregation marks the laws governing the lives of magical folks. Not traditional segregation, but strict and unyielding laws regarding No-Maj's, otherwise known as Muggles (or, non-magic folk). An unspoken fear rules over the lives of magical and non-magical folks alike as strange and unexplained accidents populate the headlines. Politics on both sides of things are in a state of unrest. A small but highly vocal movement of puritanical extremists calling for a second Salem to purge the land of witchcraft and wizardry certainly don't help the general uneasiness. And in this grey industrial metropolis, magical creatures are strictly banned; most inconvenient for magizoologist Newt Scamander, who has just entered NYC carrying an ark of magical creatures in his charmed briefcase.

     Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them operates as an excellent world-building installment to the Potterverse, taking the audience to new locations and time periods than were previously shown in Harry Potter. The magical world is indeed a world-- not just pockets in Europe. And true to the design of our non-magical world, things are different depending on where you are. New York City's magic world is an entirely different culture, setting, and tone than what we've seen in London through the years of Harry Potter. As far as we're shown, NYC doesn't have a Diagon Alley equivalent where witches and wizards can move freely and use magic indiscreetly. NYC has its own Ministry of Magic, known as MACUSA (Magical Congress of the United States of America), with its own set of unique protective charms and illusions, but otherwise magical communities are fragmented, meeting in secret jazzy nightclubs and behind closed doors all over NYC.

     Fantastic Beasts was marketed as a story wherein Newt's briefcase of magical animals is accidentally opened, unleashing all manner of untamed magical creatures to wreak havoc upon an unsuspecting NYC, ala Pandora's Box. Naturally this would require an adventure of recapturing the plethora of escaped animals before too much damage is done. In reality, Fantastic Beasts is made up of several overlapping plots, some of which seem entirely disconnected until later in the story. For example, quite a business is made of how the criminal Grindelwald escaped capture by MACUSA's aurors (think elite government-employed bounty-hunters) and how this has concerned the magical community. This really doesn't seem like it could have any bearing on Newt and his magical briefcase, and for the most part, doesn't until much later in the story. For most of the story, Newt is scampering around snatching up his comical animal subjects against a looming backdrop of darker situations unfolding.

      The antagonists of the story are mostly disconnected from Newt, and are more antagonistic to their setting than they are towards the story's hero. Early on in the movie, we're introduced to a soapbox activist archetype named Mary Lou Barebone -- a rigid extremist who is on a mission to raise awareness of the presence of witches and wizards in NYC, and incite a "Second Salem" to rid the land of the poison of magic. Her pamphlet crusades and curbside speeches are not especially effective, but then there's also her perverse mercy mission of taking in orphans and domestically abusing the potential for magic out of them. It's not entirely clear how she came to know about magic at all, but her limited and skewed knowledge makes her a fanatical conspiracy theorist, referring to "secret societies dating back centuries," and blaming magic for all that's wrong with the country.

     The only other obvious antagonist to the story that can be identified without spoilers is the government and its employees. MACUSA is scrambling to maintain the fragile secrecy of the magical world, and enacts inflexible social codes without exception to ensure the security of the community. And since Newt is smuggling illegal creatures into the country, he's bound to have a few run-ins with the law. True to form, even within the strict and unyielding righteous government, secrets and deceptions abound.

      The heart of Rowling's Potterverse work has always been how her heroes are actually fairly ordinary people, at least in their own world. Newt Scamander is a freckly, mumbling, gangling sort of fellow, and not particularly witty or charming; simply dedicated to his work. Tina Goldstein is a plain type of utilitarian working woman, simply attired, demoted at MACUSA to a job below her skills and ambitions. Jacob Kowalski is clumsy, plump, and non-magical. Queenie can't do better than a basic secretarial job, despite her skills at legilimency (mind-reading). Magic might be awe-inspiring if you're a No-Maj, but for the magical folks, their lives have just as much tendency towards the ordinary and mundane as the rest of us who fondly imagine ourselves in their world. This parallel to reality is what has always made the characters of the Potterverse relatable, despite their living in a world that seems so fantastic.

     If you take a good look at Newt Scamander, he doesn't seem like the type to get kicked out of Hogwarts. He seems like the type who would never disrupt class, talk back, or say anything rude to anyone. We know that Dumbledore vouches for Newt, which might be a hint that either his expulsion was an injustice (just like Hagrid later on in the timeline), or that despite deserving expulsion, Dumbledore believes in the purpose that Newt feels called to. Whatever the actual reason, Dumbledore's support of Newt speaks volumes. It's in little tidbits such as these that we build our perception of who Newt is. Dumbledore likes him. He's a magizoologist. He was friends at school with a member of the LeStrange family. If you watched the Harry Potter movies, you may remember Harry's awkward friend Neville Longbottom: that's the type of hero Newt is. He's in just about every way, a likable unlikely hero.

    Newt may be inelegant, but there is more to him than meets the eye; there would have to be in order to catch and control the kinds of creatures he has in his case. When you consider the myriad of beasts and dangers some of them represent, you come to realize that Newt has his own brand of courage, and he is confident in it. Though the scene of Newt performing a mating dance to lure an erumpent (a rhino-like creature with a combustible horn) back into its cage is overwhelmingly comical, it also demonstrates Newt's fearlessness within his area of expertise. Newt strikes you as exactly the sort of person who deals with animals because he understands and connects with them much easier than he does with people. In turn, his creatures seem to understand him better than society does.

     Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them stylishly manages to feel familiar yet new, as is appropriate for a story that precedes Harry Potter by several decades. To the film's credit, references to the later Harry Potter story are restrained, using only a few small mentions of Dumbledore, Hogwarts, and the LeStrange family, but otherwise steering clear of setting itself up as a direct prequel. While this is the same universe that Harry Potter will one day operate in, the stories are only loosely related, which is refreshing. In Newt's time, Lord Voldemort has not yet come to be, therefore the major events that set up and drive Harry Potter haven't happened, and likely won't involve Newt at all when they do. There are a few hints that Newt's story will have some further overlap to Dumbledore's history, but otherwise Newt is free to go and have his adventures with his fantastic beasts, unshackled by convenient and unnecessary presence at major historical events. To force this would be turning Newt Scamander into Forrest Gump, and tragically limiting his character and potential. 

     Turning Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them into a film franchise was a bit of a gamble, but seems to have paid off. Considering that the only written source material that we've ever had on this subject was the textbook that Harry toted around, the filmmakers have been given the rare (and undoubtedly liberating) opportunity to produce a story that can't be judged by its book. Fans of Harry Potter know very little about Newt Scamander, except that he wrote an authoritative textbook on magical creatures. Very little is known about the author of the textbook, or what manner of calamities he endured to research the world's magical fauna, so the fans are free to enjoy the movies without comparing them to previously published material, and the filmmakers need not fear too severe a backlash from the fans.

     As previously mentioned, Newt Scamander isn't really what you'd consider a poster boy hero.  But then again, neither was Harry Potter. Newt is a proactive character in the sense that he's not just a victim of circumstance, but he still doesn't seem to have the makings of an iconic hero. Yet despite his ordinariness, Newt is on track to be a well-loved protagonist. He's likable in his awkwardness, passionate in his obscure pursuits, and loyal to those he calls friends (even if those friends be non-human). As a movie, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them is an excellent world-building piece, as well as a fun story on its own. The creatures are delightful, the music is enjoyable, and the overall return to the magical world is engaging. If the subsequent movies can maintain this level of originality and quality, the next few years will be quite magical indeed.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Finding Dory

     Genie, Olaf, Mushu, Edna, Sebastian. These are just a few of the memorable scene-stealing side characters that have brought stories to life. The charm of the quirky side characters is that it allows our protagonist to focus on their purpose, while the supporting character can be caught up in all manner of mischief and humor, inevitably making them more interesting and lovable than the character they exist to accompany.

     Dory is just such a one. Over a decade ago, the adorably forgetful blue fish's chance encounter with Marlin the clownfish and ensuing adventure made Dory one of the most beloved animated characters of all time. The brilliance of Ellen DeGeneres' voice acting of the supporting character completely stole the show, and Dory has been one of the most recognizable faces of Pixar ever since.

     Dory's incurable short-term memory loss made it inevitable that she would eventually lose Marlin and Nemo, but Finding Dory is not as much about the father-son combo seeking her out as you might think. Finding Dory is as much about Dory finding herself as it is about her being found. While the script is fairly predictable, Dory's journey to discover her identity and home delivered unexpected emotional punch, but sandwiched it between enough comic levity and preposterous peril to keep it from getting weighed down in lengthy sentimentality or heavy-handed pathos. Moments tugged on particular heartstrings, but not in Up style devastation.

     Finding Dory very much feels like a reverse of Finding Nemo. Where Nemo featured a father looking for a son while the son tried to escape the confines of a fish tank, Dory features the child seeking her parents within the confines of a much much larger fish tank-- a conservatory be exact, not unlike Sea World, but with a repeated purpose to rehabilitate and release the animals back into the ocean (a distinction made necessary by Blackfish no doubt). Nemo received help from another fish desperate to return to the ocean, while Dory receives help from an octopus desperate to stay away from the ocean, far preferring his life of captivity.

     Finding Dory is an altogether worthy follow-up to the classic Finding Nemo, being effervescent and full of heart, but also putting a few nicks on that heart. But with Pixar, that's really to be expected by now. Although it doesn't strike me as being on par with its predecessor, nor being quite as memorable on its own, it does well as a sequel.

Image result for finding dory

Friday, November 18, 2016

Doctor Strange

     "Success is determined not by whether or not you face obstacles, but by our reaction to them. And if you look at these obstacles as a containing fence, they become your excuse for failure. If you look at them as a hurdle, each one strengthens you for the next." Dr. Ben Carson, Gifted Hands: The Ben Carson Story

    If you thought Tony Stark was the most arrogant and pompous egomaniac to ever become a superhero, Dr. Stephen Strange may present some competition for that title. Strange is a self-made man whose gifted hands have made him a savior to many hopeless medical cases. His precise skills as a surgeon have brought him wealth, fame, and a proud sense of entitlement to all the worship that his successes have ushered in. Strange has little concern for anyone outside of their ability to further inflate his ego; he is a god in his own eyes.

     In the blink of an eye, the hands that were once so skilled, steady, and precise, are replaced with shaking and palsied hands that can barely clutch a pen in their curled fingers. Broken, devastated, yet unhumbled and unable to accept the failed outcomes of one medical lead after another, Stephen's narcissistic determination drives him to the far eastern lands of Nepal to seek a more unconventional healing for his physical obstacles. But of course, as this is Marvel, he will most certainly find more than he was looking for.

     Benedict Cumberbatch seems to shine most when portraying egotistical social deviants, and Doctor Strange is no exception. Whether it's the knowledge that for better or worse, this is your protagonist, or the inexplicable draw that current audiences have towards less than upright heroes,  you can't help but hope for the best for Strange, despite his persistently mortifying self-importance. He is genuinely pitiful as he unsteadily walks the line between pretentious denial and looming despair. But then again, it's a bit of a pleasure to watch him fumble and trip his way through learning the crafts of the Ancient One. The sharpness of his wit never dulls, but eventually his self-absorption transforms into something more noble, and he even learns to care. More importantly, he learns to regret.

      Dr. Strange stands out as one of the most original and engaging origin stories we've seen from MCU in a while. Every origin story has something unique to it, but Dr. Strange rises above the standard in almost every way. Visually, Dr. Strange is colorful and mesmerizingly psychedelic, but stylishly avoids the empty grandeur and self-conscious pomp of Thor, for example. Instead, the kaleidoscopic visuals bend and fracture hypnotically to serve the story and illustrate the limitless expanse beyond our dimension.

     Furthermore, Dr. Strange does not weigh itself down in obligatory exposition, but concerns itself only with the here, now, and onwards. Did Stephen Strange hail from a privileged family, or did his own determination lift himself out of the ghettos? Refreshingly, we don't know because we don't have to. We know that Stephen had a rather ill-fated romance with fellow doctor Christine Palmer (played with grounded maturity by Rachel McAdams) at some point in the off-screen past, but it takes little imagination to surmise why it ended. Flashbacks would have been too confusing in this mind-bending world of mirroring dimensions, so the chronological story helps to keep things grounded enough to avoid feeling hallucinatory.

     Dr. Strange is full of lively characters and snappy dialogue amidst its celebrated CGI features. Even the characters that initially seem archetypal break the mold. The Ancient One, for example, is a far cry from the sagely Obi-Wan Kenobi, hardened leader R'as Al Ghul, or even the worldly-wise Professor X; the Ancient One is equal parts eccentric mentor and comic relief, while being a fluidly moving warrior herself. Dr. Christine Palmer is no damsel in distress, nor is she the lovesick lady who vows to always love her man. Christine is a strong and independent woman who is kind to Stephen, but perfectly capable of walking away when his behavior becomes inexcusable. Baron Mordo at first seems to fulfill the role of the mentor's butler, or maybe a future sidekick, but if you wait for the famous post-credits scenes that MCU loves to tease with, you'll know that there's more to him yet to be revealed. Really, the villain is the only one who doesn't surprise much. That's not to say that Mads Mikkelson plays his part poorly-- quite the contrary, he fulfills his role excellently-- but that his role is just straightforward.

     A few months ago, I believed that MCU and DC movies were on the decline as the trend of superhero infatuation seemed to be dwindling fast. With most of the major superheroes already covered in at least two movies each if not more, things were starting to feel stale and unoriginal. Dr. Strange delivers a new, fresh, vibrant installment to the MCU, carrying with it a unique superhero and an excellent actor. Whatever future installments may bring, Dr. Strange easily ranks among the best of the MCU, proving that there are a few more tricks yet to be seen from comic book movies.

Thursday, July 28, 2016

The Jungle Book

     "Remake" is not usually a good word. "Live-action adaptation", when the source material is a cartoon, is a risky endeavor that sometimes works and sometimes flops hard. A film wherein the only actor is a child, supported only by the voices of more notable names, is a hard sell. Talking animals in a live-action remake movie is an even harder sell. Yet The Jungle Book rises above these uncertain odds and turns out a surprisingly solid piece of entertainment.

     The Jungle Book adheres closely, but not religiously, to the Disney classic from the 1960's, even throwing in a few snippets of the classic songs. In many ways, it's inaccurate to call this film a "live-action" adaptation, when only the character of Mowgli is in fact live-action, with all the rest being computer-animated to resemble reality. It's really only slightly less animated than its 1960's predecessor, but its imitation of reality is nearly flawless in its execution.

I can remember a time when animated movies contained one, or maybe two at most, recognizable voices, but that seems to be a day long-gone, and now well-known actors are expected to be behind the animated faces. Seemingly strange choices on voice casting turn out to be exceptionally effective here. For example, Christopher Walken's distinct voice works extremely well as King Louie, who is re-imagined into a sort of crime boss (think Jabba the Hutt-- not the main villain, but a dangerous force to contend with all the same). Idris Elba shines as a much darker, more intensely fierce Shere Khan than the 1960's English imperialist portrayal. Scarlett Johansson's brief part as Kaa the python is chillingly effective and significant despite its brevity; a noted departure from the clumsy and comical snake shown in the old version. Every actor featured does a superb job, enhancing rather than distracting from the story and setting. 

     On a narrative level, The Jungle Book successfully gives gravitas to a well-known story that has generally been portrayed with levity onscreen. Jon Favreau's visionary direction of this adaptation walks a bold yet perfect line between a familiar children's adventure story and a coming-of-age tale of survival and responsibility. Mowgli swings from the trees and plays with the animals, but he must also face the reality that Shere Khan will ruthlessly kill him at the earliest opportunity. In this adaptation, there is more at stake than just Mowgli's life should he remain in the jungle-- Shere Khan's wrath also extends to Mowgli's wolf family, and any other animal that helps him.

     The Jungle Book is fairly straightforward plot-wise, but reveals history creatively. In an earlier post some time ago, I gave a tongue-in-cheek piece on villains whose backstory should not be told; among them was Shere Khan. This telling of The Jungle Book undoes that hope, but accomplishes it so well that I hardly mind. And in all reality, in this sort of more serious adaptation, simply setting Shere Khan on a murderous rampage without a reason would have been poor storytelling. The original Shere Khan was regal, elegant, and aristocratic, giving the impression that his hatred of man was innate rather than personal. Elba's incarnation of Shere Khan is fierce, unforgiving, and utterly relentless. Understanding why Khan is this way contributes greatly to the overall tone of the movie, and enhances the maturity of it by several degrees. The realism of Khan's portrayal (and all the animals for that matter) is so precisely tailored right down to every strand of fur and ripple of muscle that the only real indications that this is CGI as opposed to a well-trained circus animal, are the almost human facial expressions (and of course that the animal is talking) and the accuracy of his body language (*see footnote for further explanation).

     Disney has been on a role lately with its live-action adaptations and has a long list lined up to bring old classics to a new generation, with a new spin. If the live-action adaptation trend continues with the level of quality that The Jungle Book displayed, Disney stands a more than decent chance of being taken seriously again apart from its association with Pixar or its production of Frozen. The Jungle Book sets a high standard for future live-action adaptations to follow, being just nostalgic enough for the adults who will remember the original, but also new and fresh enough to not feel too repetitious. The end result is a familiar story told with greater passion and talent than ever before, casting a very great shadow for all future attempts at the story to escape. 

*A predator stalking prey has an unmistakable posture and tension throughout its body. This body language is a marked difference from a trained behavior meant to imitate hunting movements and patterns. If you compared the 1994 live-action Jungle Book to a wildlife documentary for example, you would notice that the movie tiger runs head upright, with a bit of a trot, sort of bouncing onto its prey. Compare that to actual footage of a large cat hunting or stalking, the head is low when running, the body stays low prior to pouncing, and the pounce is erupting with strength. The fact that Shere Khan displays the latter realistic predatory behaviors in this most recent adaptation is proof that a child was certainly not on set with a real tiger. 

Monday, July 25, 2016

Star Trek Beyond

     Somewhere beyond the adventure, beyond the thrill of discovery, beyond the glory of triumph over difficulty, is there purpose?

     The USS Enterprise is three years in to a five year mission, and Captain James T. Kirk is beginning to feel a bit stagnant. In their mission to seek out new life and new civilizations in the endlessness of space, Kirk feels that they are eternally striving for something that is forever out of reach, for there is never an end to the mysteries of the great unknown. Kirk is beginning to feel lost in the great beyond, where there's only himself, his ship, his crew, and the vastness of the borderless final frontier.

     The first Star Trek of this reboot in 2009 was an origin story, bringing all the characters together for the first time. Into Darkness introduced the most notorious enemy and tested the team's bond. Star Trek Beyond deals with the inevitable temptation for the crew to go their separate ways and find another purpose. Although Beyond's main characters are all still young, Beyond is something of a mid-life crisis. Kirk is a well-loved captain of a sterling crew, but is getting lost in the monotony of responsibility. His maturity has progressed enough for him to acknowledge that he actually needs to deal with this personal crisis rather than going for another one-night stand or drunken brawl, which means he is dangerously close to actually changing his trajectory. Spock has decided that his romance with Uhura must be sacrificed for more responsible pursuits (namely, the continuing of the Vulcan race). Although there is not all that much concern that Kirk or Spock will really leave each other-- at least not in any capacity that can't be fixed in a later movie --there is a question as to what will occur to seal the unity of the main crew of the Enterprise.

     Star Trek Beyond is by far the most original of the three movies. Where the first movie introduced familiar names and Into Darkness reimagined Star Trek's most celebrated villain, Beyond is free of the burden of exposition or nostalgia. In fact, Beyond makes decidedly fewer references to the original series, with very few winking remarks that only more hardcore fans will really catch. Beyond's villain Krall is both a new character and a new race for Star Trek, which allows the story a great deal of freedom with the characters' limitations and motives. The movie is more grounded, quite literally, as it takes place more on-planet rather than aboard the Enterprise. Characters are broken into unlikely pairings  (Spock with Bones, Kirk with Chekhov, Uhura with Sulu), giving a brief but usable opportunity to evaluate the characters away from their normal surroundings or chosen company. Ergo, very little about this particular conflict, setting, or plot direction feels familiar. 

     In most ways, Star Trek Beyond is not about any one particular crew member. Had this been the case for either of the two previous movies, it would have felt empty and unfocused, but works here because the movie depends on the audience's investment in the series as a whole. Certainly Kirk and Spock remain focal points among an ensemble, but their personal reflections about their lives quickly become unaffecting footnotes until the conflict dies down. Much of what the Enterprise crew faces in this installment simply would not work in an earlier story, so the level of severity of the conflict feels as appropriate as its unfamiliarity. Truthfully speaking, Star Trek Beyond is not a complex piece of storytelling, but it is executed with fidelity to the humor and action that we expect, and throws a few moderate twists into the wheel to add both intrigue and perspective.

     Star Trek Beyond is not a particularly deep movie except in post-cinematic analysis, but neither did it need to be. Action is exactly the sort of genre where lesser actors thrive by using the excesses of adrenaline indulgences and testosterone highs to distract from mediocre acting. Sci-fi action gets an additional crutch in that no one can criticize an alien humanoid for being acted poorly, because for all we know, that's how aliens behave. In such cases, actors are usually pawns to instigate fantastic action sequences with grand explosions. This is precisely why Star Trek Beyond is actually good-- it is a sci-fi action movie with every opportunity to take the low road and go for cheap thrills, but instead uses its established actors and their ownership of their characters to drive a movie that uses the adrenaline and grand explosions to frame a plot point, rather than the other way around. One notable exception to this, involving the Beastie Boys, is conducted with such grandiosity that the result, however absurd, is more smile-inducing (and head-pounding) than it is eye-rolling.

     If I can make any criticisms, they are fairly minor. As mentioned earlier, there is not all that much concern that Spock might really leave the Enterprise to oversee the founding of New Vulcan. If he did, we'd expect a fourth movie to bring him back somehow. Kirk's enticement to accept an Admiralty is moderately more concerning, but only because Shatner's Kirk did, and then regretted it. Still, the lack of tension that these ends might play out did not lessen the movie as a whole for me, so much as set up a few stakes beyond the usual saving humanity. Otherwise, newcomer Jaylah didn't really bring much to the story other than the cliche "you killed my father" grudge, and providing a way off the planet. She does use some rather fascinating technology, but is herself not a very captivating character.

     Star Trek Beyond is perhaps not the highest point in the trilogy, nor for sci-fi in general, but it's still a heck of a lot of fun. By the movie's end, the present conflict has been settled and the story wraps with the sort of ending that doesn't necessitate another movie, but certainly dangles the hope that we can look forward to another story in a few years that will boldly go into further adventures in the final frontier.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

In the Heart of the Sea

     It should be noted that if Moby Dick more resembled the grisly story that inspired it, fewer students would be loath to read it. For reasons that become obvious as the story unfolds, Melville used very few elements of the true story in his nautical epic. Rather, he allowed the true story of the Essex to fade over time, while the fictional tale of the ship Pequod has lived on for generations. As In the Heart of the Sea plays out onscreen, it becomes clear that Melville's choice was one of great propriety and decorum, possibly even compassion, ensuring that the heroes and villains of Moby Dick would always be great literary constructs, never immortalizing the gruesome truth of the Essex.

     Nantucket seems to be a difficult place to make one's way in the world, as Owen Chase realizes when his employers deny him a captaincy, despite his considerable experience as a seaman.Young Thomas Nickerson must take a position aboard a whaling ship at 14 years old to make a man of himself. Captain George Pollard, given command of the Essex ahead of Owen Chase, must live up to his established and respected family name. Mr. Matthew Joy is a recovering alcoholic faced with handling an especially stressful second mate position. No one here is singing about the glorious seas, the fathoms below, or the women back home. Whaling is no pretty picture, and no one is waxing eloquently about the magnificence of it. In the Heart of the Sea is no swashbuckling pirate tale, but a bleak and repulsive account of the harsh reality of being a whaler.

     From the very beginning, the Essex seems doomed to some sort of tragedy. First, Owen Chase, the most able person to captain the ship, is relegated to first mate. Second, George Pollard, the person who is given the captaincy, is an insecure man with relatively minimal experience and plenty to prove. Not only are the tensions high between the two men, but both of them have family pressure to contend with. Early in the trip, the inexperienced and pompous Captain Pollard proves himself willing to make foolish choices against better counsel, just to exert his authority. This choice significantly damages the Essex, which in turn harms their whaling practices. One ill turn deserves another, and the desperation for successful voyage drives the crew of the Essex into dangerous waters to hunt whales in a whale spawning ground. But at least one whale will have none of this.

     In a strange but historically accurate turn of events, a great white whale attacks the Essex, ultimately causing it to capsize. The men who survive this incident are then adrift in a few lifeboats, hundreds of miles from a regular whaling course, followed by the demon whale. Eventually, as the men expire from hunger, thirst, and madness, they must resort to eating the bodies of the deceased. On this particular point, In the Heart of the Sea handles the subject most decorously, referring to the practice by dialogue only, and demonstrating properly the repulsion that all the men feel at taking this measure. Most disturbing is not that the men resort to utilizing the dead for their survival, but that one boat of survivors resorts to drawing straws to determine who should be executed for the purpose.

     For all I know, In the Heart of the Sea may have been an attempt to put Chris Hemsworth in a non-Thor role to test his true acting chops. Whether or not Hemsworth shows any talent here not already seen elsewhere is an easily answered question-- no. Is he bad? No, and it's not even that he portrayed his character with infidelity; it's simply that this movie doesn't really present an opportunity for anyone therein to be anything but angry, distressed, confused, or dying/drunk, which everyone does at some point or another, but never in truly extreme demonstrations. Cillian Murphy, always woefully under-appreciated, masterfully presents all these things at once, and then promptly disappears.

     In the Heart of the Sea never stood much chance at being a popular movie; not when its claim to fame is that the story inspired one of the most tedious reads ever to be forced upon resentful adolescents. The producers seem to have understood this, because the movie doesn't bother itself with A-list actors, stunning visuals, or soaring music. It takes the tone of a Verne narrative, embraces its pace and straightforward story, and presents an interesting and moderately accurate portrayal of the time period and the events therein. It's an entertaining watch, but not much of a standout. As a story however, the facts are thought-provoking. In the Heart of the Sea impresses that Melville not exploiting the sordid details of the account of the Essex was an act of strangely generous decency, allowing the only villain we know in association with a great white whale to be the fictitious Captain Ahab. That decency is something that is lost on modern media-mongering audiences, but strikes a chord of heroism to those who will think through its implications.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Mad Max

The delay on my thoughts on this piece of Oscar bait are not for the normal reasons; in this case, I've been genuinely disinterested in Mad Max, and the amount of fanboys about to wet themselves with excitement at the mention of it has only further confirmed my avoidance of it. Nothing in the promotions, Oscar nominations, Oscar wins, and squealing fanboys has remotely peaked my interest, and it seemed that I could never find out what the movie was actually about amidst all of this publicity. All I could glean from the promos is that the movie featured a lot of large vehicles (easily ignitable vehicles at that), in a desert, Charlize Theron, and a horde of mutants.

It turns out that this movie is about a lot of large easily ignitable vehicles in a desert, Charlize Theron, and a horde of mutants. Complex movie, this is most certainly not. It's not that it needed complexity, but even days after the initial viewing of this oddball piece, I still struggle to comprehend how anyone other than a Mountain Dew junkie thought this was Best Picture material. Admittedly, the technical categories for which this movie won several Oscars were genuinely well-executed, but under the explosive surface that would make Michael Bay weep with joy, is nothing but a mental drought. It's not about survival, social injustice, or the perils of the post-apocalyptic government in a world where life is cheap: it's a high-budget two-hour car chase that will forever rank among the finest indulgences of mindless sub-par entertainment ever to grace a Walmart $5 bin.

Mad Max: Fury Road is the kind of movie that should have Vin Diesel or Megan Fox in it, but instead, the producers use Oscar-nominated names to try to get viewers to take the movie seriously. And yet, the basic premise for Mad Max: Fury Road seemed to be initially written by a little boy with Matchbox cars, the story evolving slowly into a premise well-suited for a low-level video game:

Age 6: People in big trucks drive to a place far away in the desert. Vmmmmm....Then, they drive back! Vmmmmmm....

Age 12: Some of the people are gross monsters. Hwuaaaaaaaaaah!

Age 15: There are lots of explosions along the way

Age 21: Women. Women who are... sex slaves. One is like a Victoria Secret model. She's like the alpha sex slave. There's a bad guy called... Rictus Erectus. Yeah, sounds right.

Despite the slight implication for mild potential, if this movie was attempting some form of social commentary, it fails most miserably. "Women are not things" is a great mantra and all, but even that noble concept is lost in this explosive testosterone trip. While much of the violence is perpetrated against the women, and at times instigated by them, any semblance of plot tied up in their story is still just an irreverent footnote in the endless engine roars, explosions, and heavy metal music. Example, a pregnant woman is run over by a monster truck, and a few moments later as she lay dying in the back of a rumbling tank-truck, her dead unborn child is cut from her womb, carelessly handled by the grotesque mutants, and then both bodies are unceremoniously forgotten while the sordid mutants play with the child's umbilical cord. Then we go back to the high-octane road rage.

For a movie called Mad Max, a Max-centric story is strangely absent. His presence seems obligatory rather than useful, and he functions as something of a rogue tag-along rather than a main hero. His participation with Furiosa and the other women is almost accidental, and he has even less character development than his mutant captor-- a character who is almost interesting. Amidst all of the speed and hell-on-wheels, Max has less dialogue than the lead of your average kindergarten play, and delivers most of these lines with all the zeal of Keanu Reeves before his morning coffee. Furiosa is the real hero of the story, the true vigilante, and the one whose actions set up the story; it's Charlize Theron playing Charlize Theron. The characters are neither electrifying nor despicable, which leaves only typical, and they are.

Mad Max: Fury Road is a strange sort of movie that excels in certain elements of movie-making (cinematography, special effects, sound editing, even makeup), but fails to actually be a good movie. I keep describing this movie as a fiery and high-adrenaline trip, yet for all of the action sequences, the obscurity of the movie itself distracted from there being any real tension. At no point was I really on the edge of my seat or worried about anyone in the movie. The few moments that seemed designed to deliver some sort of emotional connection fell flat due to lack of character development. Mad Max: Fury Road is a visual orgy of excessive vehicular violence, reveling in its own smoke and fumes. It's the kind of movie that only makes sense when you don't want sense.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

Bridge of Spies

 As a relatively major fan of Tom Hanks, my delay in seeing Bridge of Spies is woefully overdue. By the time this piece of art graced my home from the Redbox, the movie had already taken home one Oscar, and boasted five other nominations, including the highly-coveted Best Picture.

It's now April-- I've been waiting to see this movie since it came out in October. At least I got around to it eventually, and am even writing about it, which is more than I can say for some of the other worthy movies I've seen in the last year or so. Sometimes something is lacking: the fire, the words, maybe even just the time, take your pick. My apologies to Saving Mr. Banks, Inside Out, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Mockingjay Part Two, and I'm sure many others.

But anyway, Bridge of Spies. I don't remember the last time I saw a Cold War movie, so Bridge of Spies gets points right off the bat for taking on a lesser explored but still significant era. I could be wrong, but I think the last Cold War movie I saw was Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Back on topic though, it's nice to see a movie where the Soviets as the enemy is historical rather than archetypal. The late 1950's setting depicts men in fedoras and long coats, families who say grace before dinner, and children learning to "duck and cover" in school in case of a bombing. Despite high anti-Russian sentiment, the movie portrays even this time of fear as a simpler and relatively peaceful time in the United States. Even the spy Rudolf Abel calmly boards the subway, paints in the park, and picks up hidden messages without violence or harm to anyone. Abel is a far cry from the glamorized type of spy you would see in most movies today. He doesn't wear a tux, probably couldn't handle a gun, and most certainly wouldn't consort with sultry women. He's a rather simple man; gangly, balding, looking more like a lonely history professor than a spy.

Tom Hanks as James Donovan is thoroughly in his element here. So much so in fact, that at no point did it seem like Donovan's character was much of a stretch for Hanks. Hanks' characters have often demonstrated courage, nobility, and integrity in movies such as Saving Private Ryan, Captain Philips, or Road to Perdition. It would be fair to say that Hanks' excellence in acting has become such a basic unsaid expectation for his movies, that even a perfect performance like this one that captures every element of character with precision and conviction, does not particularly stand out. Donovan is a character that you admire for his lonely stand on behalf of an enemy of the country, and you can't help but be impressed by his logic and intelligence. Yet as a movie character, Donovan is unlikely to be as strongly idolized as Atticus Finch, for example, even though there are multiple parallels.

Going in to Bridge of Spies, Mark Rylance had already won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, so I was watching him with more interest than I might have done otherwise. Being completely unfamiliar with Rylance's work in general, I can't comment on how unusual or surprising his role as Abel was. I think he did an excellent job as Abel, but I actually find his Oscar win somewhat surprising after having seen Bridge of Spies. Certainly he played the part well, was likable as a character in how he showed respect and admiration for Donovan, but his performance was fairly straightforward with no real surprises or arcs of emotion at any point. Throughout Bridge of Spies, Abel remained steady and balanced through every turn, even when given the death sentence. 

When it comes to range of skills, spectrum of influence, and passion-driven quality, few directors could compare with Steven Spielberg. While Spielberg is widely celebrated for his genre-defining pieces like Indiana Jones or Jurassic Park, it is in contemplative and character-driven movies like Bridge of Spies that Spielberg's passion shines through in a way that feels meaningful, rather than merely entertaining. Saving Private Ryan, for example, became a defining WWII movie, gracefully blending history and fiction into a tapestry of visceral, heartfelt, and unforgettable art. Bridge of Spies, while packing fewer emotional and visual punches than Saving Private Ryan, and utilizing less fiction in its story, is of a high enough caliber to be to Cold War movies what Saving Private Ryan is to WWII movies (albeit less revered). 

Every frame of Bridge of Spies pays homage to its setting and characters, faithfully delivering a broad perspective (such as the building of the Berlin Wall and the capture of the American pilot) while skillfully maintaining a close and personal look at the relationship between Donovan and Abel. Very few moments feel truly tense, yet the stakes of the story seem so high that even in its slowest moments, Bridge of Spies is simply captivating.

Sunday, April 3, 2016

Mr. Holmes

What happens when a character as timeless as Sherlock Holmes succumbs to time? When an ageless entity ages? When the very person who defines critical thinking and deductive reasoning, struggles to think?

These are the heartbreaking questions that Mr. Holmes explores. Detective Sherlock Holmes has long since departed Baker Street, is no longer accompanied by Dr. Watson, and is no longer a detective. Instead, the elderly Mr. Holmes spends his days tending to the bees at his country cottage, tormented by the forgotten details that led to his retirement. He knows that some private choice or failure must have motivated his decision to resign himself to a quiet country living, friendless and un-bothered, but ... what happened? He simply can't remember the truth of the situation, and every passing day he finds it more and more difficult to remember even the simple names of people, places, and events of his everyday life.

A truly sterling performance by Ian McKellen as the aged Mr. Holmes is simultaneously sympathetic and unsettling. His wit and genius are harder to discern through his sagging jaw. His once tireless powers of logic flicker weakly under his failing memory. Certainly Sherlock Holmes may have rather died at Reichenbach Falls as he once pretended, but Mr. Holmes instead travels the hobbling path of age, walking slowly and helplessly to his twilight years in an overwhelmingly ordinary way that Sherlock Holmes probably would have despised.

Yet for the dementia and senility that Mr. Holmes sometimes falls victim to, there remains a glimmer of the old sleuth, and his housekeeper's son Roger is determined to bring it out. The spunky young boy's inquisitiveness impresses Mr. Holmes, and the two develop a grandfather-grandson type relationship as the story evolves. Holmes teaches Roger about bees and wasps, and tricks of deduction and observation, while also recounting pieces of the story that eventually drove him to retirement. Piece by piece, the story comes together, and the memories that Mr. Holmes had blocked, connect, bringing long-needed closure.

Complementing Ian McKellen's spectrum of talent is Laura Linney in a stoic but effective role as Holmes' long-suffering housekeeper Mrs. Munroe. Mrs. Munroe is a plain and simple country woman, steady, but quietly desperate to escape being Mr. Holmes' caretaker as his age imposes growing limits. She is a stark contrast to her young son Roger, played with delightful enthusiasm by Milo Parker. Roger is fascinated by Mr. Holmes, and while respectful of the old man, he wants to learn everything he possibly can about the retired detective. This trio of personalities come together as an engaging core cast, while each bringing their own distinctive heart to the quietly paced story.

As is inevitable in a movie about aging, Holmes must contend with regrets. As he pieces together the disjointed memories regarding his final case, the movie raises a stirring question about the necessity of truth over the comfort of a falsehood. Had Holmes handled his final case differently, and perhaps cast a lie to ease someone's pain, the eventual outcome would probably have been quite different. Interestingly, Holmes determines that honesty is perhaps not always the best policy. Although it is too late for Holmes to change his final case, he decides to close one final issue by covering the truth to save a life.

SPOILER WARNING: NEXT TWO PARAGRAPHS ONLY. One of the strengths of the story as a whole is how it tackles two particularly difficult issues that are timelessly relevant, yet presents them in a way that is faithful and unique to the era and its cultural requirements. Holmes' final case regards a young wife suffering from the depression of having lost two pregnancies, and the further hurt of an unfeeling husband who can't understand her need to grieve her unborn children. The pain of miscarriage is one that women have known for thousands of years, and that despair is masterfully portrayed here by Hattie Morahan as Ann Kelmot. While the root issue is universal and timeless, the limits of medical and psychological understanding are unique to the era, particularly in how Mrs. Kelmot is rebuked for her need to mourn her lost pregnancies. Eventually, the harsh aloneness that Mrs. Kelmot finds herself in drives her to suicide, abruptly ending Holmes' career as a detective.

Elsewhere in the story, Holmes encounters a Japanese man, a Mr. Umezaki, who believes his father died honorably after having supposedly received advice from Holmes to stay in England to help with the war effort. Holmes knows that he never met or advised Umezaki's father. He knows that the truth is that the man abandoned his family out of cowardice, and contrived a story about having been advised by Holmes to remain in England, as a cover to save the family honor. Ultimately, Umezaki's father is just another father who walked out on his family, leaving them to wonder if he would ever come back. Once again, while his reasons may be more specific to the era, the basic issue of a father fleeing his family is relevant to every generation in some way or another. Having learned from his failure with Mrs. Kelmot, Holmes determines that in order to save Umezaki's honor (and possibly his life), he will allow Umezaki to believe a lie rather than contend with the shame of knowing his father was a coward and a deserter. END SPOILERS

Mr. Holmes is by no means an exciting movie, but is the sort of movie that is perfect for a snowy day next to the fire, when we as the audience are most receptive to tender stories about age, grief, regrets, and closure. It is difficult, at times, to watch as the famous detective is reduced to a forgetful and hobbling old man, but ultimately Mr. Holmes gives a satisfying finish that feels genuine, but also hopeful. In piecing together the events he had long suppressed, he brings himself closure and self-forgiveness, allowing the once extraordinary Sherlock Holmes to live out the remainder of his now-nondescript life in the sweet respite of peace.

Monday, March 14, 2016

The Martian

"In the face of overwhelming odds, I'm left with only one option: I'm gonna have to science the s--t out of this."

On Mars, Mark Watney doesn't exactly have the option to set up a signal fire, hunt for food, or collect rainwater. The simple act of continuing to live and breathe requires genius-level intellect and determination. At any moment, Watney could die a sudden and violent death.

     "If the oxygenator breaks down, I'll suffocate. If the water reclaimer breaks down, I'll die of thirst. If the hab breaches, I'll just kind of implode. If none of those things happen, I'll eventually run out of food and starve to death."

And so, science the s--t out of it, he does.

Mark Watney is delightful as a protagonist, being the sort of everyman with just enough genius and nerdiness to be relatable. He's generally calm, cool, and extraordinarily resourceful without being pompous. Even in his darkest moments, Watney never caves to despair, but clings to his will to live with determined ferocity, padded with sarcasm. Indeed, hope itself is Watney's cruelest and yet most valuable resource, never allowing him the resigned release of giving up. The inhospitable planet constantly reminds Watney that the smallest thing going wrong could end his life abruptly, unceremoniously, and unknown, yet he keeps a remarkably steady outlook on his dire situation, punctuating his moments of genius with humor and self-aggrandizing wisecracks.

Matt Damon portrays Watney with seamless ease, his dialogue seeming to be effortlessly dictated by Damon's own whims. Watney has an appealing sort of magnetism driven by his off-handed humorous pondering, his ingenuity, and his optimistic tenacity to survive. With no one for company and no entertainment except the music and TV shows that the crew left behind on their laptops, Watney keeps video logs to discuss his plans, his efforts, his failures, and his opinion of disco music. These video logs work as an excellent narrative and comedic device, providing both explanation for Watney's ideas and action, as well as giving some buoyancy to the peril of Watney's situation.

Off Mars, the crew of the Hermes demonstrates unflinching loyalty and selflessness to one another and to Watney. Back at NASA, most of the folks on the ground are tirelessly dedicated to rescuing Watney from Mars, in some cases well overstepping boundaries to ensure that it happens. Every character onscreen is perfectly cast in their respective roles, turning out a movie that simply overflows with character and personality, even in its more somber moments. Even barely-featured characters have a clearly established individual presence that brings extra life to the story.

Ridley Scott's sensitive touch on this film, a noted departure from his sometimes heavy-handed epic styles, is a breath of fresh air that at times causes your heart to pound. The sweeping landscapes of Mars and the vastness of space are beautiful, but appropriately serve as backdrops to the real story. The Martian is a Robinson Crusoe story about survival that just happens to be in space, and less about space itself like Gravity or Interstellar. The Martian still maintains a scope of grandeur that doesn't celebrate itself, but rather guilds the perfect performances of its actors. Scott does an excellent job of balancing the movie with tension, tenderness, and comedy, while still keeping a steady course.

The Martian is the kind of movie that almost anyone should be able to enjoy. With excellent acting, beautiful music, perfect directing, captivating writing, and plenty of comedy and suspense, The Martian is quite simply, a movie that excels in almost every area. Very shortly into Mark Watney's exile, the audience is already rooting for him right to the end, hoping with the rest of the world onscreen that NASA can bring him home. Matt Damon's sterling performance makes this journey one well worth traveling.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Character Profile: Rey

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, newcomer Daisy Ridley portrays Rey, the main hero of the new stories. Rey is smart but sweet, and independent without being masculine. One of the things I think I enjoyed most about Daisy Ridley's performance as Rey, is that she was easy to like and identify with as a leading character. In many ways, she seems like the perfect combination of Emma Watson and Pirates of the Caribbean era Kiera Knightley. She exhibits Watson's girl-next-door charm, wit, quick-thinking, resourcefulness, and independence, while also embodying Knightley-type ferocity, survival skills, athleticism, and occasional pluckiness. She's petite, fierce, and fun.

Looking at the idolized "strong female characters" of recent years, Rey is the character who finally hit the bullseye for me. Yes, we've always had Angelina Jolie to equalize and even conquer male counterparts, but how many people can really identify with Jolie? Even in her most down-to-earth roles, her dusky femme fatale aura and star-power grossly overshadow her relatability. More recently the world of feminism bowed to Elsa of Frozen, which still missed the mark for me because Elsa's independence and embrace of her true self are entirely destructive. Even by the movie's end she still hasn't really learned the importance of asking for or accepting help, having found it all within herself. A smattering of other movies and actresses demonstrate female strength as being as macho as possible, once again missing the mark.

Rey is not a smoldering and curvy Jolie-type butt-kicker, but nor is she a helpless damsel in distress, or a dark and tortured woman. If it seems like this makes Rey boring, that's certainly not the case-- she's just more normal, and much easier to understand. In fact, my only real beef with Rey is that she seems too perfect. She's tough but not macho, kind yet not weak, she seems to be a perfect judge of character, she never questions her mission, she's quick in a jam, she has a thorough understanding of mechanics, grasps the power of the force pretty quickly, and her biggest flaw is that she's too loyal, and would hop a ship back to the wasteland Jakku at the earliest opportunity to wait for the family that will never return.

Like Princess Leia before her, Rey is not waiting on a man to rescue her, and she does pretty well rescuing herself most of the time. However, Rey also doesn't give the impression that to accept help, or maybe eventually fall in love, would be a betrayal of her being. For all that independence, when she does need help, it's not shown as weakness. In fact, when Rey and Finn are reunited after Rey's capture, her acceptance of Finn and Han's dedication to saving her is a tender moment showing that her heart is growing to accept friendship.

In many ways, The Force Awakens sets up Rey to be the absolute equal and opposite of Kylo Ren. The two are about the same age, and neither has complete training in the ways of the force, but both are already powerful in their seemingly natural force-sensitivity. Ren has had training that is incomplete, yet he has a firm grasp of telekinesis and mind probing. Rey, having had no training, quickly masters mind-control tricks, resistance of mind-probing, and summoning a lightsaber-- all by lucky experimentation. By the time the credits roll, Kylo Ren has returned to his master to complete his training, and Rey has found her master to presumably begin her own. Both are under the tutelage of more powerful force-users, and eventually Rey and Ren will meet again to pit their powers against one another.

As the main hero of the new saga, Rey has an intriguing and mysterious appeal. Earlier, I mentioned that in many ways she seems a little too perfect, but I'm confident that eventually, Rey will be tempted by the Dark Side and be forced to reckon with her own potential to cross over to the Dark Side, deepening her character. There is also the question of Rey's parentage, which is currently a hot point of fan speculation, wherein the inevitable revelation of why Rey was abandoned on Jakku will create even more character-building moments. Until that time however, Rey's progress as the protagonist promises to be an engaging ride.

More on Kylo Ren

     With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started. It is not entirely clear what Ren believes it is that his grandfather started, unless it's the annihilation of the Jedi.

     From a story-telling perspective, revealing Ren's hesitations and showing the face under the mask is bold, but risky, as it creates various connections to the person that we're meant to perceive as the villain. Knowing that Kylo Ren is actually Ben Solo is the first emotional connection that the audience will make to the character. There's a sort of obligation to hope that Han and Leia's son could surely be swayed to goodness, even before Leia gives a classic Skywalker line about knowing there is still good in him. Once Ren removes his mask, the audience can no longer deny that there is a flesh and blood young man under it all, which is the second connection. When the audience can look into his eyes and study his face, he becomes less of a force of evil, and more of a person, which gives the character the potential to be sympathetic. The third and final connection is that the audience already knows that Ren occasionally wrestles with his path, so there is still a glimmer of hope, even after his most heinous act, that he may come back around. Perhaps it is only a vain hope that wants this to be true because he is a Solo, and the son a hero should be redeemable. One of Star Wars' most prominent themes is the power of love and family, and Kylo Ren is not only a Solo, but also a Skywalker, and that is a compelling argument to root for his redemption.

       The casting of Adam Driver as Kylo Ren works excellently here, even if he doesn't look like the son of Han and Leia, or much like a scary villain. Particularly effective is the design of Ren's costume. Unlike Darth Vader's armored suit and more akin to Darth Maul's samurai-inspired attire, Ren's costume excellently compliments his fluid motions, giving him a sort of medieval assassin look. This imagery is probably enhanced by the classic sword design of Ren's lightsaber. Even Ren's fighting style is different than we've seen before, from a Sith or Jedi, which further emphasizes his dominant presence.

     Ren does not need his mask for any of the medical reasons that Anakin had, but he wears it to mimic his grandfather Vader. While this imitation may be to make himself as symbolic as Vader, later moments make one wonder if the purpose of Ren's mask is merely intimidation to compensate for his being young and having incomplete training. Several Ren scenes reveal underlying juvenile instability that are highly reminiscent of Anakin circa episode III. Though Ren's tantrums are played for comedy more than an attempt at unsettling the audience, he has much of his grandfather in him. Considering that Kylo Ren's training is incomplete, his abilities in wielding the force are certainly impressive, having already mastered skills that we've never seen onscreen before. Yet despite having considerable power and the favor of Supreme Commander Snoke, there is no doubt of General Hux's derision towards Ren. Unlike Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, who seemed to share a mutual respect, General Hux and Kylo Ren have a mutual dislike, and seem engaged in a power-play against one another and only tolerate one another because Supreme Commander Snoke has use for each of them.

     Neither Kylo Ren nor his master Supreme Commander Snoke carry a Darth title. While it is possible that Snoke will indeed be a Sith lord with a Darth title, it is clear that Snoke is experienced in the dark side, with or without the formal title. There is also the possibility that Kylo Ren's incomplete training accounts for his lack of recognized Sith rank, and that this will be bestowed in future installments. But then again, maybe not. Rey and Ren both have a fairly functional use of the force without complete training, so it is possible that this new generation will take a more unconventional approach to the force. Also interesting, Ren leads a company of followers known as the Knights of Ren, though at this point it is uncertain who these followers are in terms of origins or motives, or what their powers are. However, if they all were once pupils of Luke's who turned evil, the fact that Ren is leading them in a group breaks the ancient Sith "rule of two" which states that there is always no more or less than a master and an apprentice. This is significant to the moderate to hard-core fans because it may have serious implications on the future direction of the Sith and Jedi orders, and therefore the story. Judging by Ren's attempt to tempt Rey to become his apprentice, it seems a safe bet that the cycle of the apprentice overthrowing the master is still active, but if Sith conventions are being broken, there could be other reasons entirely for Ren's attempt to convert Rey.

     Kylo Ren's path to fully embracing the Dark Side is still ahead, but it is clear that Ren may yet follow in his grandfather's footsteps, though perhaps not in the way that he may intend to. Ren's struggle against the "call to the light" lays a hope that however dark Ren may become, he may indeed, like Vader before him, come back to the light. The road to this hopeful end is certain to be a long one, but with the story only just beginning, it is sure to be an interesting and heartbreaking journey.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Be still my heart....

     The franchise that defines science fiction as we know it is in new hands, with new faces, and a new story. Last time the name Star Wars appeared on a theater screen, the tragic result was The Revenge of the Sith. The movies that were icons of movie history and paragons of the sci-fi genre suddenly shared their golden name with a trilogy worthy of the Razzie Awards. With a new studio, new director, and a complete divorce from the volumes of literature based in the galaxy far far away, could the franchise ever be restored to its former glory? With baited breath, that is the question that all the fans have been asking.

Could Star Wars be good again? 

The answer is... yes. Finally, yes. In the words of the first spoken lines of the movie, "This will begin to make things right." 

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a distant echo of A New Hope, with new heroes and enemies, a few familiar faces, but still the same heartfelt story in its soul, following in many of the same steps as the very first Star Wars movie that began it all. The Force Awakens is at once a new story and an old one, a reborn conflict and yet a continuation of a familiar one. The newly introduced heroes mingle seamlessly with the classic names, and the new faces of evil are but a new generation of the Empire.  

     The original Star Wars changed movies, but not entirely because of revolutionary special effects; plenty of movies with more ground-breaking technology have come since. Star Wars, amidst its innovative effects and bold setting, managed to touch people in a very personal way, despite being set a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Worlds named Tatooine, Yavin IV, and the moon of Endor somehow felt familiar, and people like Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and Han Solo felt like friends. The fantastic stories were miraculously relatable, because at the core of Star Wars is a story that appeals to every dreamer who wants to believe that they are part of something bigger; something noble that has no chance of succeeding, but will anyway. That is the heart of the epic known as Star Wars-- that ordinary people with ordinary fears step up and triumph against extraordinary odds.

     In this new installment to the story, a new epic begins with equally identifiable characters, bringing back some of the old as well. Taking Luke's place as the nobody-turned-hero is Rey, a scavenger on a desert planet. Her origins are mysterious, seemingly unknown even to herself, but she waits patiently for her family to come back for her and rescue her from the desolate wasteland where she has made her home in the ruins of an AT-AT. As such, the young woman is no stranger to sweat, sand, greasy mechanic work, and defending herself from the scum and ruffians of Jakku. But like Luke Skywalker before her, her destiny is completely redirected (or possibly fulfilled?) by a chance encounter with a special droid.

     Continuing in the tradition that George Lucas began, most of The Force Awakens features a cast of relative unknowns, which allows the audience to enjoy this adventure with a clean slate, mostly free of expectations from any of the actors. Daisy Ridley as Rey is engaging, relatable, and ultimately just likable. Ridley brings a range of expression, humor, ferocity, and dignity to the character of Rey without being overly macho or appearing weak. Even in her scrappiness, she has an essence about her that is noble and dignified, while avoiding being aristocratic or entitled. Rey is a post-modern Princess Leia, with admirable moxie and independence, yet still exhibits real emotions and fears, and could use a hand every now and then. She's not untouchable or made of stone, but she's no pushover. Ridley's telling facial expressions and intensely expressive eyes contribute to a strong performance that brings Rey to life. Her story grabs your attention so fully that you can't help but feel invested in the same way that audiences were enthralled with Luke's journey from farmboy to Jedi so many years ago. Rey is a sweet and attractive leading character, which is explored further in a separate post.

     If Rey is the poster hero for Star Wars now, the orbicular droid BB-8 is undoubtedly the Happy Meal toy. In all seriousness, after having BB-8 bobbing around onscreen, C-3PO and R2-D2 seem comparatively lackluster and somewhat dull by the time they appear. BB-8's spheroid build allows for the droid to be expressive, humorous, and feisty in ways that make R2-D2 look almost stiff. BB-8's attachment to Poe Dameron is not unlike a loyal dog and his master, which is certainly endearing for a sidekick. BB-8 refers to Poe (through beeps and bleeps) as his master, and Poe in turn, calls BB-8 "buddy." Like C-3PO and R2-D2 before him, BB-8 serves mostly comic ends with a few useful moments.

     Speaking of comedy, one of the strongest points for The Force Awakens is probably the excellent comedic timing, which is most often delivered by John Boyega's Finn. Though Finn's origins are dark and his entrance into the story is not exactly bumbling (meaning not like a certain Gungan from a previous film), Finn repeatedly delivers the lighter moments of the movie. Boyega's execution of the character Finn is not only entertaining, but refreshing. While Rey is something of a nobody (though, like Skywalker, is likely to have important parentage), Finn is not much better. Finn is a rogue storm trooper who makes a dramatic escape from the clutches of the First Order, having been kidnapped for the First Order when he was too young to remember anything else about his family or home. Amidst many comedic moments, Finn has more to him than just being the movie's clown. He is a man of conviction and chivalry with moments of vulnerability and fear, but ultimately a good man trying to be on the right side and lend some assistance to a decidedly non-distressed damsel.

     With new heroes should also come new villains to match them, and for this, The Force Awakens presents Kylo Ren. Ren's origins are hinted at and then exposed relatively early in the film, so I don't consider it a spoiler to share that he is actually the estranged son of Han and Leia, and that his choice to follow the dark side was hugely significant to Luke's disappearance. Ren is a different kind of villain, especially for Star Wars. Although the prequels show the transformation of Anakin into Darth Vader, the original trilogy did not labor to explain Vader, and the audience simply knew him as the bad guy, who remained unsympathetic until The Return of the Jedi. However, Ren seems to struggle to stay on the dark side of the force. He periodically speaks to Vader's charred helmet and confesses wrestling against "the call to the light," while vowing to finish what his grandfather started.

     Just as Darth Vader had the Emperor as his master, and Grand Moff Tarkin as the military commander alongside him in A New Hope, Kylo Ren is under the mastery of the cadaverous Supreme Commander Snoke, and must cooperate with General Hux. Who Snoke is or how he rose to prominence is currently a favorite point of fan speculation on the internet at the moment, but not pertinent at this point in the saga. Snoke operates as the overlord who has some kind of force power, though we don't know the extent of it. General Hux functions in the same type of capacity of Grand Moff Tarkin, though younger, and possibly even more ruthless. While Tarkin did not hesitate to blow up the planet Alderaan with the Death Star, General Hux eliminates no less than five planets from a long range, without so much as a wince of moral inclination. Hux, unashamedly modeled after Adolf Hitler, is power-hungry. Ren is dedicated to fulfilling what he believes his grandfather Darth Vader started, though it is uncertain what that means other than wiping out the Jedi. Snoke's motives and goals are unknown. We can safely assume something along the lines of ruling the galaxy and training dark force-wielders, but beyond that, only further movies will tell.

     New characters abound in The Force Awakens, but the now-aged heroes of Star Wars' past are not forgotten. The overarching plot of The Force Awakens centers on finding Luke Skywalker, but it is Han Solo and Chewie who feature most prominently onscreen with the new cast. Han and Chewie are apparently back to their old ways of swindling and double-crossing, having left the glory days of the Rebellion far behind. Even the celebrated Millennium Falcon has been rusting away in a junkyard after being stolen from Han years earlier. Rey and Finn immediately recognize Han Solo's name, but he is resigned to living as a has-been. He's not the hero of the Rebellion anymore or the famed Millennium Falcon smuggler, but a general who stopped being a general long ago. Sparingly used expository dialogue explain Han's regression from Rebellion leader to smuggler, and while his name may still be known, he sees himself as the man who used to be Han Solo.

     Harrison Ford's amusing but appropriately deadpan performance perfectly hits the mark of bringing the character back, while simultaneously carrying a tone of bleak melancholy in the sweet nostalgia. This is both the Han we know and love, and a Han who has been through more than we know. The combination of our familiarity with Han's past self, and the introduction to this new side of him culminate to provide the movie's most poignant moments. Han has always been one who is willing to risk his life for his friends, going in with guns blazing, scorning the idea of possible outcomes. While elements of this young rogue still emerge, Han is also a father, and that has changed him. His heart has been broken, and his defense is to try to be the pilot we met in the Mos Eisley cantina decades ago, even though he can never be that man again. One particularly tender moment involving Han in his father role reveals just how much he has changed as he calmly walks into a battle that he knows he will not win with guns. Ford dons his Solo persona with ease and effortlessness, managing to bring layers of depth to the beloved character while maintaining fidelity to the past. One would never have imagined that Han Solo would take the Obi-Wan role as the mentor in this new addition to the story, but he carries this charge with humor and grace in 100% Han Solo style.

     Moving to the more technical side of things, The Force Awakens brings legendary composer John Williams to the revived franchise, carrying his always-elegant and personal touch to the diverse moments of the movie. Williams wields the power of sentimentality, tension, and heartbreak with a master's wand. Of particular note is an especially tense moment when Rey uses the force in a showdown with Kylo Ren, and as she recognizes her power, a familiar theme that evokes the most heroic moments of the original films swells to the surface, imbuing the moment with nostalgic inspiration. These moments that hearken back to themes from the original scores are the strongest and most memorable musical moments, which is both a compliment and a slight criticism. While the new music for The Force Awakens is fitting and enjoyable, few tracks stand out as particularly distinct. However, just as I expect the next movie to break from following the formula for A New Hope, I expect the next movie to introduce strong new themes.

     Analysis is my personal forte, and truthfully there's just too much in The Force Awakens to get through it all in a reasonable post that you will actually finish reading. There is significant symbolism tied up in the Millennium Falcon, questions raised about the mysterious Supreme Leader Snoke, speculation about Rey's parentage, comments about cinematography, thoughts about the technology advancements, and so on. For all this, there are very few flaws that I can reasonably point out, and even fewer that can't be explained away with little effort. While it's true that The Force Awakens has a few moments that are just a bit convenient (Rey and Finn just bumping into Han Solo in space, Poe Dameron's flight to the rescue at the crucial moment, how Ren escaped the Starkiller base without Star Trek's beaming technology), one has to remember that this is still Star Wars, and those moments have always been part of the movies. If you're looking for realism, Star Wars isn't where you should be looking to begin with. In the way of other flaws, the superfluous use of Captain Phasma comes to mind. One assumes that she will return in future movies to play a greater role, but for the moment, Phasma is disappointing, and whether or not she comes back makes little difference.

     Star Wars: The Force Awakens returns not only Star Wars, but sci-fi itself, to the heights of greatness that loyalists have always believed it was capable of. Great science fiction should first and foremost be great fiction, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens achieves that with dazzling style that is both warmly familiar and curiously novel. The movie has been narrowly criticized for essentially borrowing the skeleton plot of A New Hope and retelling the story, but I can think of no better formula for starting over, especially since the current trajectory for later movies makes it practically and artistically improbable to mimic the rest of the original trilogy. The Force Awakens is a continuation and a new start; a task that director JJ Abrams shoulders with great respect to the old stories, and delicate vision for the new generation. The lightsaber has successfully been handed off, and now we wait with reinvigorated anticipation to return once again to the galaxy far far away.