STAR WARS: THE RISE OF SKYWALKER (2019)

December 18, 2019

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ending the final trilogy of trilogies that covers 42 years of storytelling, was never going to be easy. And, given the rabid fan base’s backlash from the penultimate episode, the ending was unlikely to appease all (or even most?).  Keeping respectful of the sensitivity associated with this franchise, no spoilers are included here, certainly nothing that hasn’t already been dissected and debated after the trailers were released.

As I approached the theatre, it was impossible not to chuckle at the irony of seeing the life-sized marketing prop for KNIVES OUT in the lobby. Of course, that current release is directed by Rian Johnson, who caused such an uproar with the aforementioned STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI (Episode VIII), a franchise entry that happens to be one of my personal favorites. But we are here for Episode IX, the wrap-up of George Lucas’ masterful vision. JJ Abrams (STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS) is back in the director’s chair, and knowing what a fanboy he is, it’s not surprising to see the familiarity and tributes to the franchise interjected throughout.

In fact, this finale leans heavily on nostalgia and humor, while tying up most loose ends – as well as some that weren’t even all that loose. Writers Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow (originally slated to direct), Chris Terrio, and Abrams seemed intent on giving each beloved character their moment, as a sign of appreciation for their contributions to a legacy that covers a period longer than the lifespan of some of the biggest Star Wars fans. As one who stood in line in 1977, it’s an approach that I respect and have no problems with – knowing full well that some will.

Any attempt to tie up previous threads must focus on the odd, mystical relationship between Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) and Rey (Daisy Ridley). Both are still conflicted and attempting to come to grips with who they are. Rey especially is struggling with her identity and roots. One of my favorite elements from The Last Jedi was inner-head conversations blended with cross-dimensional physical interactions between Kylo and Rey, and it’s used beautifully here.

So, the biggest complaint from me is that despite its nearly two-and-a-half hour run time, there is simply too much crammed in. Too much story and too many characters and too many things that get a glimpse or mention, but no real development. This movie is jam-packed, and ‘convoluted’ would not be too strong of a word to describe. There are times we aren’t sure where the characters are or what they are doing or why they are doing it. We do know that everything good is dependent on ‘this mission’, a mission that seems to change direction about every 12 minutes. In fact, the “new” players – Rey, Poe (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) – spend very little time together on screen. And really, Finn is given almost nothing to do except look worried most of the time. On the bright side for characters, Chewbacca (Joonas Suotamo) and C3PO both get their own sub-plots. Anthony Daniels (as C3PO) becomes the only actor to appear in all 9 episodes, although R2D2 joins C3PO as characters appearing in all.

There are many old familiar faces, both good and evil. Some of these play key roles, while others are brief cameos. Much has been speculated about how Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia will be handled. Archival footage, combined with special effects and camera angles, allows her to be present throughout, and yes, she gets the send-off she deserves. There are even some new characters/creatures introduced, including a cute new droid (never underestimate or under-market a droid) that is already for sale in Disney stores.

No matter one’s feelings or expectations, an area that surely will not disappoint is the visual effects. Somehow, this one is even more impressive and awe-inspiring than the others. In particular, a couple of scenes filmed in and around an angry sea left me dumbfounded, mouth-agape. However, what’s most amazing is the consistency of the visuals throughout. It’s just a stunning film to look at.  Some of the story may be a bit confusing or cheesy, but some parts of the film are truly great. Cinematographer and Special Effects guru Dan Mindel deserves special mention, as do Production Designers Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins. Of course the visual effects team is without peer – and take up about 5 minutes in the closing credits.

Lastly, composer John Williams gets to add his well-deserved personal stamp on this final chapter with new work added to the already iconic score. Very few moments compare to the opening notes blasting away on the theatre sound system as a Star Wars film begins. And as much as we’d like to treat this as the end, we all know Disney will find a way to keep us interested in a galaxy, far far away.

RIP: Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher

watch the trailer:

 


STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

December 23, 2015

star wars Greetings again from the darkness. In what can justifiably be termed a cultural event, director J.J. Abrams brings us Episode VII in a film franchise (developed by George Lucas, now owned by Disney) that date backs almost 40 years. While I was one of the lucky ones who waited patiently in line to see the first Star Wars on opening day in 1977, I can only be described as a series fan rather than a Star Wars geek. My bond is with Han Solo and Chewbacca, so I’m not here to debate the minutiae of costumes, timelines and weaponry.

What I can happily report is that Mr. Abrams (he’s also directed Star Trek and Mission Impossible films) has found just the right blend of nostalgia, science-fiction, and geeky gadgetry to appeal to the widest of all audiences. The film is an honorable tribute to the previous six in the series, yet it’s more than entertaining enough to stand alone for new comers.

As we expect and hope for, the screen is filled with fantastical visuals that somehow push our imagination, while at the same time, feel realistic to the story and action. The aerial dogfights are adrenaline-pumping and spectacular in their vividness, and the more grounded action scenes feature Stormtroopers who have clearly had lots of target practice since the previous films.

You need only watch the trailer or read the credits to know that some of the old familiar faces are back: Harrison Ford as Han Solo, Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker, Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia, Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca, and of course, our old pals C-3P0 and R2D2. Also back is the remarkable composer John Williams – likely to receive his fiftieth (yes, 50!) Oscar nomination for his work here. In addition to the familiar, new faces abound: John Boyega as Finn, Daisy Ridley as Rey, Adam Driver as Kyle (don’t call me Ben) Ren, Oscar Isaac as Poe, Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, and Domhnall Gleeson as Captain Hux. There is also the magic of Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke, and an all-too-brief sequence featuring Max von Sydow. Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o voices Maz Kanata, and there is an impressive list of other cameos available online if you are interested (Daniel Craig being the most eye-raising).

Abrams along with action cinematographer extraordinaire Daniel Mindel take full advantage of all available technical aspects in creating stunning visuals and spine-tingling sound. It’s a film made to be watched on the biggest screen with the best sound system, so ask around if you aren’t sure. If you are a long-time fan of Han and Chewy, you’ll enjoy catching up with old friends. If you are unfamiliar with the Star Wars galaxy, this latest will hook you into the force.

watch the trailer:

 


SHOWRUNNERS (2014, doc)

October 30, 2014

showrunners Greetings again from the darkness. It’s simultaneously “the best job and the worst job”. While not a definition of a TV Showrunner, that is certainly the best description. With the recent renaissance of TV, and the competition between networks, cable and the internet, an incredible level of creativity and freedom has produced a more cinematic effect on the small screen. Whose broad shoulders are responsible for what we watch? The Showrunners, that’s who.

This is a behind-the-scenes look at the process of getting a show to air, and then struggling to keep it there … it takes an enormous amount of talent and a ton of good luck. We learn that 84% of new TV shows fail, and it’s important to note that good shows often fail – not just bad ones. Director Des Doyle presents an extremely impressive succession of interviews. These are the writers, producers and showrunners of some of TV’s most innovative shows: JJ Abrams (“Lost”), Joss Whedon (“Buffy the Vampire Slayer”), Terence Winter (“The Sopranos”, “Boardwalk Empire”), and Janet Tamaro (“Rizzoli & Ives”) just to name a few. This who’s who of showrunners generously share their insight and observations on the business that more than a few call “a grind”.

Especially interesting is the concentration on the writing process. We go inside the writer’s room and hear discussions on the importance of looking at the entire season, rather than a specific episode. We learn the importance of “quality scripts on time”, meaning the writing must be good and must come fast – episodes frequently air within a month of filming. Joss Whedon advises writers to focus on moments, not on moves. Collaboration is crucial, and while nothing beats an actor who embodies a particular role (Michael Chiklis in “The Shield”), never lose sight that writing is the heart of TV shows.

Discussion of the various outlets (networks, cable, internet) leads to an explanation of how TV writing has evolved. Some shows are now designed for the increasingly-popular “binge watching”, while network shows are still in the business of “selling ads”. Another significant shift is due to Social Media. TV is described as now being like the theatre – immediate feedback is available (Twitter, Facebook). While ratings are still important, interaction between the industry and viewing public is now standard operating procedure.

It’s not often we are allowed behind the curtain in the entertainment business, but this one should be mandatory viewing for anyone with an itch to become a TV writer. You should know the stress and insecurities that accompany the talent and ego. You should understand the time pressures and the lack of recognition that often follows even those who prove successful. You should also know that for those who have it in their blood, nothing else compares. This is truly “the art of running a TV show”.

watch the trailer:

 


STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013)

May 31, 2013

star trek1 Greetings again from the darkness. There is always a bit of uncertainty when discussing or reviewing anything Star Trek related. So many rabid fans are more knowledgeable and keyed in to all the details. I am not. While I enjoyed the Gene Rodenberry TV series, and the subsequent movie versions, obsession never hit me. Because of this, my views will vary from those Trekkies and sci-fi experts.

Director JJ Abrams re-invented the franchise in 2009 with stunning results. That “new” Enterprise crew returns here: Chris Pine as Kirk, Zachary Quinto as Spock, Karl Urban as Bones, Zoe Saldana as Uhura, John Cho as Sulu, Anton Yelchin as Chekov and Simon Pegg as Scotty. The new addition is Alice Eve as Carol, daughter of Admiral Marcus (played by RoboCop Peter Weller). Abrams is wise enough to know that this story needed a great star trek2villain so he revisits Khan and casts a spectacular Benedict Cumberbatch (the sleazy dude from Atonement).

This movie works because of the crew’s chemistry. We believe they like and respect each other … even while breaking orders. The film works even better thanks to a villain that establishes a believable threat. Cumberbatch plays a super-human force with a mixture of Shakespeare and Hannibal Lecter. He delivers lines in a way that you have no cause to doubt his intent. This is a nice contrast to the warm fuzzies coming from the crew members.

star trek3 It can’t go without mention that there is a shocking display of crystal blue eyes on display. Chris Pine, Peter Weller, Benedict Cumberbatch and Alice Eve all flash baby blues that jump off the screen in 3D. The only reason the sea blue peepers weren’t more distracting is because of what I refer to as FXOD … a special effects overdose. It seems as though each summer blockbuster feels the obligation to go bigger on the visual effects to get noticed. As often happens, the effects are just too much. Luckily, the characters and story are strong enough that it stayed on track.

If you are a casual Star Trek fan, this is one that will entertain you. If you are a Trekkie, you have no doubt already seen it twice and have blogged about all the errors. Next up: 2016 for the third entry in the Abrams franchise.

**NOTE: It’s a pleasure to see the great Leonard Nimoy make another appearance as Spock, but it’s a shame that Abrams and William Shatner haven’t been able to come to terms.

**NOTE: While gratuitous sex in movies often draws much attention, it should be noted that a gratuitous shot of Alice Eve in her skivvies seems to be the main reason her character exists.

watch the trailer:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QAEkuVgt6Aw

 


SUPER 8

June 13, 2011

 Greetings again from the darkness. A nostalgic feeling generated by nostalgic filmmaking at the hands of JJ Abrams and classic Spielberg. Yes, I meant to use nostalgic twice … the film has a familiar feel to it, but also entirely new twists and effects. That’s what happens when the master (Steven Spielberg) and the star pupil (Abrams) unite.

Part of the nostalgia is that this is kind of a throwback to the blockbuster era that Spielberg helped create. There are bits and pieces of Jurassic Park, E.T., The Goonies, *Batteries not Included, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Jaws. Spielberg has always had a nice feel for kids and emotions, and in this film the genius of Abrams’ script and special effects make for a spectacular combination.

 You know there is nothing more fun for these filmmakers than a story about smart, outcast kids obsessed with making a movie! Throw in the adolescent battle over the out-of-reach older girl, the somewhat demented kid who just loves explosions, the sensitive kid dealing with the death of his mother, the wise beyond her years girl who is a natural actress, and the chubby, driven boy with a camera … mix it up with a couple of clueless parents and the evil, secretive Air Force, a sci-fi element and you have quite the exciting small town Ohio drama with comedic elements and startling special effects.

Not going to say anything about the “surprise” that was hinted in the trailer, but what I will say is that the first hour of this movie was pure movie magic to me. Unfortunately, the second half was a slight let down, though certainly not horrible. I just enjoyed the pure human elements on display before it became just another …

 The film really rides on the shoulders of Elle Fanning (probably the last time I will reference her as Dakota’s little sis). Ms. Fanning has proved again that she may be the most talented of the acting sisters. She really has a feel for her scenes and clearly melts the heart of young Joe Lamb, played by newcomer Joel Courtney. Also excellent are Riley Griffiths as Charles the movie maker, and Ryan Lee as Cary the demolition “expert”. Joe’s dad is played by Kyle Chandler (Friday Night Lights), but again, this film really belongs to the kids.

The film is rated PG-13 for some pretty intense scenes and some language that many prefer not to hear coming from kids. It’s too bad more films “like” this aren’t made, but that’s probably a factor of not many filmmakers being in the class of Spielberg and Abrams (Lost, Star Trek).

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you can sit back and enjoy a big ol’ blockbuster with a fun script and giant special effects

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer high art that taxes the mind