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:

 

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THE LETTERS (2015)

December 3, 2015

the letters Greetings again from the darkness. All we need is one more miracle. Having been beatified with one “confirmed” miracle, it’s that missing second one that stands between Mother Teresa and Sainthood. At times the film from director William Riead plays like a highlight reel for Mother Teresa’s induction into the Catholic Hall of Fame, as the dual emphasis is on all the good things she did for the poor, as well as the surprising sense of isolation and abandonment she felt most of her life.

The film is structured in flashback form as a priest played by Rutger Hauer is charged with researching the case for canonizing the late Mother Teresa. He crosses paths with Father Celeste van Exem (Max von Sydow), who shares the saved correspondence from Mother Teresa that provides the title of the movie. These very personal letters spanned 50 years and act much as a journal of her work and emotions.

Most of the movie takes us through the progression of Mother Teresa’s life. A slump-shouldered Juliet Stevenson portrays the nun as a woman on a mission from God … despite the obstacles from her detractors: jealous and disapproving nuns, many in the Catholic Church, and even some of the local citizens whom she desired to help. Her commitment to assist “the poorest of the poor” placed her in some tough situations and undesirable environments. She seemed to take on the suffering of those she was serving.

Given her proclamation that “It’s God’s will, not mine”, the Vatican approved her plan to go outside the Loreto Order to serve the poor. Two years later, her application for a new order was approved, resulting in the congregation of The Missionaries of Charity. Her mission then had structure and backing, and so began to make real progress.

Capturing the essence of this woman is what the film does best. We absolutely understand how she became “an icon of compassion for all religions” by giving “voice to the poor”. Perhaps, given the times we are in, this ability to serve multiple religions could itself by considered a miracle. As with any person who serves others, Mother Teresa had (and has) her detractors and critics. She (like her Catholic Church) opposed contraception … despite the needs within the community she served. Others accused her of mismanaging the millions in contributions, and spending too much effort recruiting new Catholics. Again, those accusations are not the purpose of the film, which instead profiles a woman who helped so many who otherwise would have been ignored in their misery.

As a Nobel Peace Prize winner in 1979, her commitment to the cause resulted in her most public recognition and brought her full circle from an early line of dialogue: “I may not be wanted here, but I am needed.” Regardless of the Catholic rule book requirements, it’s difficult to imagine a modern day person more worthy of being considered a Saint.

watch the trailer:

 


EXTREMELY LOUD AND INCREDIBLY CLOSE

January 22, 2012

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ten years since the September 11 attack, and it’s still difficult to talk about, write about, or make a movie about … and certainly difficult to critique any of those attempts. Since I haven’t read the novel by Jonathan Safran Foer (who also wrote “Everything is Illuminated”), my comments will be related only to this film directed by Stephen Daldry (The Hours, The Reader) and the script by Eric Roth (Forrest Gump, The Curious Case of Benjamin Button).

Two positive things stand out for me in the film. Young Thomas Horn as Oskar Schell is an interesting and talented newcomer, and someone I enjoyed watching on screen for most of two hours. Approximately 70 years his senior, Max von Sydow is captivating as the speechless “Renter” from Oskar’s grandmother’s apartment. The two are quite an entertaining pairing on their road-trip through NYC.

 The basic story is that Oskar’s father (Tom Hanks) is one of the victims of the WTC attacks. Through flashbacks we see that he was a world-class father to Oskar, who may very well be inflicted with Asperger’s Syndrome. Either way, Oskar is intelligent way beyond his years and possesses quite a curious and analytical mind. When his father dies, Oskar is convinced he can make sense of things by finding the lock that fits a key he found in his father’s closet. He assumes it’s another puzzle his father laid out for him with the only clue being “Black” written on the envelope.

While it is interesting to see how Oskar organizes his mission of contacting the 472 Black’s noted in the NYC phone book, it seems mostly a writing trick to get this unusual youngster mingling with “normal” citizens. When he teams with von Sydow, the energy level picks up, but we can still feel the wheels turning on the machinery to create tear-inducing moments. These moments are EVERYWHERE and include Oskar being oblivious to his hurtful ways with his mom (Sandra Bullock).

 The support work is excellent and includes John Goodman, Viola Davis and Jeffrey Wright. Young Mr. Horn is best known for his winning Jeopardy during “Kid’s Week”, so he is obviously real-life smart as well as on screen talented. This story is just too preposterous to take seriously. How many parents would let their 11 year old wander the streets of NYC? What reaction would this kid receive as he confronts strangers while jingling his tambourine so as to calm his nerves? Just too much melodramatic storybook stretching to make this a story worth telling in regards to the September 11 events. However, if you are need of a few good cries, this one tees it up for you.

SEE THIS MOVIE IF: you want to see an exciting newcomer in Thomas Horn OR it’s just been too long since you had a good cry (or 3 or 4)

SKIP THIS MOVIE IF: you prefer movie/story manipulations not be quite so obvious

watch the trailer:


ROBIN HOOD (2010)

May 20, 2010

 Greetings again from the darkness. Hard to argue with the box office success when director Ridley Scott teams up with Russell Crowe (Gladiator, American Gangster). Can’t really challenge the resume of writer Bryan Helgeland (Mystic River, L.A. Confidential) or the acting chops of Cate Blanchett, Max von Sydow or William Hurt. And only the most cynical would deny the appeal of the Robin Hood legend … stealing from the rich to give to the poor. So why is it that I feel so cheated and let down by this version?

First of all, it is presented as a prequel to the legend. This is the story of how Robin and his band of merry men (and Maid Marion) came to be united. If it is a prequel, why then is Robin (Russell Crowe) so darn old? There is even a line in the film noting the advanced age of King Richard the Lionheart being 40 or even more! For the times, this was considered old, yet somehow Robin is ready for a career change.

The best parts of the film are the amazing sets and pieces – both the villages and the boats. And we all know that Mr. Scott can film a massive battle scene! There is a touch of Gladiator, Saving Private Ryan and Braveheart in many scenes. All fine, but what I really missed was the flirtatious banter between Robin and Marion. Maybe I am biased, but a Lorena Bobbitt threat doesn’t strike me as light-hearted bed chamber conversation.

My biggest complaint is with the script. It just felt clunky and messy. A couple of scenes were apparently included just so Mark Strong could scowl … and he has a great scowl! Other scenes and lines were seemingly included just to give the film a complex feel. Probably too complex for what it really is.

Oscar Isaac as Prince John was the funniest and most interesting character in the film. The preview made him look like a buffoon, but the film gave him more depth … and a couple of great lines. Danny Huston as Lionheart, Mark Addy as Friar Tuck and Matthew Macfadyen as the Sheriff of Nottingham all add to the luster, but remember this is prior to Robin’s ongoing battles with the Sheriff.

Be cautious with younger kids as it is a strong PG-13. The battle scenes are entertaining, but this is one legend that did not need its roots exposed.


SHUTTER ISLAND (2010)

February 20, 2010

(2-19-10)

 Greetings again from the darkness. Ahh yes, the psychological thriller is my favorite movie genre. Not sure what that says about me. There are so few good ones, at least since Alfred Hitchcock passed on. Director Martin Scorsese often includes some psychological warfare in his films, but with Shutter Island, he leaps feet first into the world of the criminally insane.

This is a very difficult film to comment on because it is crucial that the viewer watch with a clean slate … in other words, don’t let someone toss out some spoilers if you plan to see the film. All I will say regarding the story is that it’s fun to watch and my brain was working non-stop the whole time (that’s a good thing!).  Scorcese uses many different camera angles, close-ups and bright red to go with they island storm.  The film has some of the style of his Cape Fear, but even more darkness to the story, as here, EVERY character is a bit off center.

Scorsese has, as usual, assembled an excellent cast. Leonardo DiCaprio takes the lead as Teddy. His partner is played by Mark Ruffalo and they “investigate” the disappearance of a patient from Shutter Island – a treatment center for the criminally insane. This is no vacation island and at the center is a civil war fort that houses the worst of the worst. The creepy place is run by Ben Kingsley and Max von Sydow, who could both make afternoon English Tea seem downright ominous.

The cast is so strong that Emily Mortimer and Patricia Clarkson are basically limited to one scene each and Jackie Earle Haley continues his resurgence with a wicked one on one scene with Leo. Michelle Williams makes her appearances via flashbacks, visions and sweaty, late night dreams. By the end of the film, her ugly yellow dress was itself a frightening prop.

To cap off the mental and emotional turmoil, Scorsese adds an unusual score that at first seems overbearing at odd times, but later reveals itself to have been “right” all along. My favorite shot of the film is at the very beginning when the ferry first breaks through the fog. Funny enough, it was ME in a fog for the next 2 hours!