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Director: J.J. Abrams
Screenwriters: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, and Michael Arndt
Cast: You know who is in this! Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Oscar Isaac
“Star Wars! Nothing but Star Wars! Gimme those Star Wars…don’t let them end!” Bill Murray’s lounge singing character from Saturday Night Live will be happy to know that thanks to writer/director J.J. Abrams, Star Wars will not be ending any time soon! The record breaking blockbuster Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a spectacular step forward for the franchise and establishes Abrams as the true geek-legend that we all hoped he’d be.
The Force Awakens is the seventh episode in the space opera and takes place 40 years after the events of Episode IV: A New Hope. The Republic’s victory after Return of the Jedi has prompted a new imperial force to rise from the ashes of the Empire, known as the First Order. The goal of the First Order under the command of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and Commander Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is to take advantage of a basically disarmed galaxy and enforce rule. Ren, a force-sensitive human, leads the charge colonizing planets with throngs of storm troopers at his heels. Fortunately, the Republic did not quite disarm the entire galaxy and a resistance under another force-sensitive human, General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), continues to spar against the increasingly strengthening First Order.
But that’s all big picture, behind the scenes stuff. The main plot of Episode VII actually should feel quite familiar. When a young aspiring pilot named Rey (Daisy Ridley) with dreams of fighting for the Resistance happens upon a small droid with important information, she enlists the help from a know-it-all pilot named Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and a renegade storm trooper (John Boyega) to deliver the information to the resistance before it falls into the hands of the First Order. Familiarity is, however, not a liability for this film; it is a “force.” Abrams and company do the right thing in giving us a familiar story that introduces a host of new characters who must deal with the sacrifices, aftermath, and consequences of the generation before them. Boyega’s storm trooper Finn is especially fascinating. His inability to slaughter innocent citizens under the orders of Snoke and Ren lead him to team up with a Resistance pilot named Poe (Oscar Isaac), offering one of the most intriguing perspectives of any film in the franchise. His duality and sense of integrity to reject all he’s been raised to believe because he knows it’s wrong echoes the inner conflict of another Finn named Huckleberry, which I can’t imagine is a coincidence (Yes, this Star Wars film has layers!).
Honestly though, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a delight. It is exciting, it is insightful, it is nostalgic, and it is beautiful. Expectations and standards were at nearly insatiable levels for this film, and yet somehow it delivers. The new cast represents the finest acting that any Star Wars film has ever seen and the returning characters are not wasted or used for superfluous purposes. While it is joy to see Harrison Ford hold a blaster again, I could not get enough of Boyega, Ridley, and Isaac. Easter eggs abound for serious fans, but The Force Awakens plays to even those who have never seen the previous films. In fact, this film puts the final nail in Episode I: The Phantom Menace’s coffin. The best lightsaber battle in any Star Wars film used to be the one between Darth Maul and Obi-Wan Kenobe; it was the only reason to even watch that film. However, that distinction may now have to go to the spectacular climactic battle in The Force Awakens.
It is likely that you weren’t waiting to hear what The People’s Critic had to say before going to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a $500 million global opening weekend speaks to that pretty loudly. Still, it is my duty to report that those $500 million dollars are not wrong, and this is the one fans have been waiting for. For the first time since 1983, you can go in and not “have a bad feeling about this.” A
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 15 minutes.
Director: Ryan Coogler
Screenwriters: Ryan Coogler and Aaron Covington
Cast: Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, and Phylicia Rashad
The first Rocky film premiered in December of 1976 and went on to be nominated for 10 Oscars, winning three including Best Picture. Several sequels of varying quality would follow and now nearly 39 years to the day of the original’s release, we have the seventh and latest film in the series, Creed.
Unlike the previous films, Creed is not so much a sequel as maybe a “spin-off.” A product of the foster system and juvenile corrections, Adonis “Donny” Johnson (Michael B. Jordan) spent his youth unaware that he was the illegitimate son of world champion boxer Apollo Creed. When the late Apollo’s widow Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad) manages to track down Donny, she adopts him with the hopes of removing the chip on his shoulder and giving him the opportunity and life that he deserved. As young Adonis grows up, he becomes fixated on the famous matches between his father and Rocky Balboa, sometimes shadowboxing to the projected image of his father’s classic fights. As the resentment towards Apollo grows, so does the fight inside of him. As much as he wants to please Mary Anne, Adonis cannot ignore the desire to make a name for himself in the ring, a name separate from his newly appointed surname, Creed. With that, Adonis packs his bags for South Philadelphia and under the name Donny Johnson, he tracks down famed fighter and rival to Apollo, Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone) in the hopes that Balboa will train him to be a professional fighter.
Rocky’s still hanging at Adrian’s, the restaurant he built and runs in honor of his late wife who passed away ten years earlier. The eye of the tiger is more or less a thing of the past as Balboa leads a relatively calm and simple existence. Adonis’s appearance complicates things for the ex-champ, and once Johnson reveals who he is, Rocky can’t refuse training the son of his old rival and friend. With the help of Rocky, Adonis catches the attention of the world light heavyweight champion “Pretty” Ricky Conlan (Tony Bellew), who is being forced into retirement by an impending seven-year prison sentence and looking for one final challenger before hanging up his gloves for good. Much like in the original film in the franchise, a young up-and-comer is selected by an established champ to face off in a battle for glory, legacy, self-respect, and in this case identity.
Writer/Director Ryan Coogler’s Creed is outstandingly successful both creatively and technically. Jordan showed great skill in Coogler’s previous film, Fruitvale Station, and here he takes another step forward. His performance puts Adonis Creed’s drive, determination, and principles all on full display and allows a real connection to emerge between the character and the audience. This punctuated by Stallone’s transformation from fighter to mentor creates the most character driven film in the series since the original and of 2015 so far. The introduction of Bernice (Tessa Thompson) as Adonis’s love interest is also very well crafted, allowing her character to build as one with her own hopes, dreams, and individuality, not as simply a corner girl/leg-weakener for her man.
The film is also technically impressive. Rocky films have to deliver in the ring but that can be difficult to do seven films in. However, Coogler manages to shoot at least one of the most notable fight scenes the genre has ever seen using a steady-cam to capture a multi-round fight seemingly in one shot with exquisite choreography. Other fight scenes in the film are also drenched with intensity, but the extended shot sequence is remarkable.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, films about sports are as old as the modern screen narrative gets. It seems most movie fans have a favorite sports movie (Rocky may be it!), even people who hate sports. The reason for this is that a great sports movie is often not really about the game. A great sports movie is about life, passion, talent, and determination. Creed is a perfect example of this. I expect we’ll see Michael B. Jordan donning the red, white, and blue trunks again soon. A-
Creed is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 2 hours and 3 minutes.
The holiday season is finally upon us. With Thanksgiving in the rear-view mirror, I’ve been asked to re-post the list of the top holiday films. This year, the list is getting a bit of an overhaul. Some great holiday films have come to my attention over the past year, so this year is not only new and improved, but expanded to included 12 must-see holiday themed films!
At this festive time of year, people need guidance on how to make the most of the precious hours they will spend watching holiday movies. Unlike Halloween movies, holiday movies suddenly feel weird once January rears its ugly head. Thus, here is your guide to assure that you make wise choices for your holiday entertainment. I have pain-stakingly devised a secret list of criteria designed to assure a reliable systematic ranking. (And yes, I am aware that I neglected to include A Christmas Story, The Polar Express, and a host of classics and musicals – if you don’t like it, make your own list. Merry Christmas! Where’s the Tylenol?)
12. Arthur Christmas – It’s taken three years of this film worming its way into my heart, but now in my 35th year of life and at the end of my first full year as a father, Arthur Christmas cracks the top 12. This film is representative of two things: 1. It successfully knocks last year’s controversial #10, Edward Scissorhands off the list, and 2. It is a sign of slightly brighter and more festive list than last year’s, which included numerous films abundant with dark humor and cynicism. Feel free to visit that list now, if a merry list of cinematic cheer is not what you’re up for this year. Arthur Christmas is a brilliantly fun and cleverly told story about Santa’s son, Arthur (voiced by James McAvoy) who must deliver a lost toy before Christmas morning. The film also expertly provides the answer to the question, “How does Santa deliver presents all over the world in one night?” Beware though, this film often relies on British humor; if the joke, “What do you get if you eat Christmas decorations?… Tinselitis!” does nothing for you, move on to #11.
11. The Ref – Dropping from number 9 to number 11 this year year is Denis Leary in The Ref. Here Leary strives for the main stream in director Ted Demme’s hilarious film about a cat burglar who takes the wrong couple hostage as he attempts to evade the police on Christmas Eve. Leary finds himself the victim as his husband/wife hostages continuously drive him nuts with their bickering and fighting. Kevin Spacey and Judy Davis are delightfully venomous as the couple and Leary is in fine form as the tortured criminal! The Ref is a rare callback to last year’s list of darker humor, but worthy of its place.
10. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles – It’s John Hughes with the film that made Uncle Buck possible, which in turn made Home Alone possible. Although I’m sure the pitch meeting went something like this: “So John Candy and Steve Martin – SOLD!” the movie gives the two comedy icons plenty of material as they must reluctantly travel together to get home for Thanksgiving. This film fell from number 5 to number 10 this year, but I don’t care who you are – if you don’t tear up the first time you see the final scene, you’re not human!
9. Gremlins – one of the few remaining “dark” Christmas movies takes a dive from number 7 to number 9. “No bright light, don’t’ get him wet, and whatever you do – don’t ever feed him after midnight.” These are the three rules that are sure to be broken when Randall Peltzer brings his son Billy home a strange new pet for Christmas! In no time Gremlins are unleashed on Kingston Falls. This film dances the line between horror and comedy with great results. A classic!
8. Iron Man 3 – Occasionally I hear people ask, why hasn’t Marvel made a Christmas movie yet? Well, guess what? They did, and it was Iron Man 3. Sure it was released in the month of May, but this one truly has a May/December relationship. The holidays play a pivotal role here, whether it’s a scene at a 1999 New Years Eve party or a scene where Tony Stark tests out his new Iron Man suit to a funky rendition of “Jingle Bells” – the holiday spirit is there. Iron Man 3 is a very smartly made film, and while it still addresses comic book staple themes like good/evil, identity, revenge, and freedom, an emergent theme can also be extracted from it – learning from mistakes. This installment is Downey Jr.’s best as he tactfully and authentically balances humor, intensity, and sentimentality without ever missing a beat. I’m sure this choice will give all of you who complained about me putting Edward Scissorhands on this list last year something else to criticize, but put Iron Man 3 on while you’re wrapping presents and tell me you didn’t enjoy yourself!
7. White Christmas – Another new film to the list, but certainly not a new film to the cinema. I think I had seen every part of this film at some point or another, but never really sat and watched it until a year ago. White Christmas is not a pageant musical where story is filler between musical acts. I mean we’ve all heard Bing Crosby’s “White Christmas,” so it’s natural to assume that’s the film’s big draw. Actually, the film is full of life between musical numbers. Set just after WWII, this film captures a wide range of humanity from tangled romantic twists to life-after-war motifs. And then there’s Danny Kaye who is never disappointing.
6. Trading Places – Based on a rather high-brow social experiment, Trading Places finds the lives of socialite Dan Aykroyd and street-bum Eddie Murphy suddenly switched as part of a wager between two rich CEOs. The nature vs. nurture wager revolves around whether Aykroyd will resort to crime when he loses everything and whether Murphy will become a responsible executive when given opportunity. As serious as this may sound, the movie is a triumph of the comedy legends and is moving up the charts rocketing from last year’s number 8 to this year’s number 6.
5. Scrooged – Ok, last year I was told that for my “holiday movie list” Groundhog Day was not an appropriate title as the title “holiday movies” implies films that take place during or around November/December. I will agree to disagree, but fortunately, there’s an easy alternative – Scrooged! Bill Murray plays Frank Cross (“a thing they nail people to”), a TV executive who has let greed get the better of him. This film is a showcase for Murray as it would likely be terrible without him. However, because of him, it’s so good that it’s my #5 holiday film! And with the recent trend of NBC airing live musicals in December (The Sound of Music, Peter Pan and this year’s The Wiz), I have to wonder if NBC president Jeff Zucker keeps this film’s lesson in mind! On a side note – if you are looking for a Christmas-y Groundhog Day, it’s been brought to my attention that ABC Family created an absurd rip off called The 12 Dates of Christmas with Amy Smart and Zack Morris (Mark-Paul Gosselaar).
4. Home Alone – Another cute, fun family-friendly entry is Home Alone, which moves up the list from number six last year to number 4. We all have Macaulay Culkin’s shocked face frozen in our cerebral cortex from when he slapped on too much aftershave. However, John Hughes’s Christmas blockbuster is both a holiday film as well as a solid entry in the Hughes tradition. Even with an 8-year-old protagonist, Hughes doesn’t let up on the youthful angst, creating a coming of age story wrapped up with a nice bow (and a few black eyes for those wet bandits). The sequel is also great, but make sure to stop after 2!
3. Elf – Perhaps the first of the modern classics, John Favreau directs Will Ferrell who plays Buddy the elf who was raised by Santa only to discover he is actually human. Favreau brilliantly balances the tone between silly and genius creating a film that is as enjoyable for children as it is for adults. Ferrell is joined by James Caan, Zooey Deschanel, and Bob Newhart who all contribute to this film’s success and perhaps to its moving from last year’s number 4 to number 3 this year. Also, this film has become virtually unavoidable around this time of year, but it doesn’t mean it’s not good.
2. It’s a Wonderful Life – Not just a great holiday movie, but one of the best films ever made. Frank Capra’s crowning achievement finds Jimmy Stewart playing George Bailey who just can not get out of Bedford Falls. In a film class I took, a professor made a very compelling case for how this film fits nicely in the horror genre in a twisted, Twilight Zone kind of way. Nonetheless, the classic story about a man being shown what the world would be like if he never existed takes Dickens’s Christmas Carol to a new more relatable place where Scrooge is replaced by a nice guy who lets life get him down.
1. National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – Still reigns supreme for two years running. This film has it all: memorable characters, big laughs, emotional moments, and quotable lines. Chevy Chase attempts to host a family Christmas that promises to blow up in his face, even literally! There is no getting tired of the jewel in the Griswold franchise crown; you’ll be sure to have the “hap-hap, happiest Christmas since Bing Crosby tap-danced with Danny F@#kin’ Kaye! (See #7 for reference)”
Honorable mentions that didn’t quite make the list: A Christmas Carol, Love Actually, and Die Hard.
What do you think? Did I get it right or did I miss your favorite holiday film? Let me know!