Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Force_AwakensDirector: 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.

Ender’s Game

ImageThe People’s Critic is back!  Some excellent and major life changes had forced me to put the site on a brief hiatus, but nothing will keep me away from the “critically” important task of telling all of you what I think about recent films!  So let’s get on with the show…

Let me get this out of the way, I have not read Orson Scott Card’s 1985 novel, Ender’s Game.   This review does not reflect quality of adaptation but merely the merit of the film as it stands independent from the book.  That being said, Ender’s Game is intriguing enough and perhaps marks the start of a potentially strong franchise.

Regardless of how you feel about Ender’s Game, it is nice to see Harrison Ford in space again.  Ford plays Colonel Hyrum Graff, a likely pun on the word “gruff” as his characters is certainly that.  Following the common tradition involving child protagonists, this is a film about the future.  Graff and his International Military seek out and train only the most promising children in his Battle School because only children have the potential to master the intricate “war games” necessary to protect Earth from a looming threat from an alien race known as the Formics.  The Formics nearly triumphed over the humans once before and every child grows up learning the story of Mazer Rackham, who sacrificed his life to destroy the mothership.  Now, the humans are preparing to take the offensive and eliminate the Formics forever.  Graff finds his golden child in the form of Ender Wiggins (Asa Butterfield), an introverted yet brilliant young recruit.

Sacrifice is a pervasive theme in the film and it is dealt with in a very provocative way.  The title itself plays the title character’s surname within the colloquial term “End Game,” which suggests the notion of performing actions for the supposed greater good.  Thus, there is always a looming sense of distrust and darkness regarding the motives of Graff and his school.  Graff’s methods are harsh and borderline abusive.  However, this does keep the audience guessing and on edge throughout the perpetual “hazing” of Ender as he single handedly rises through the ranks despite tremendous adversity from his fellow recruits and superiors.

Ender’s Game is a surprisingly bleak and dark look at humanity, but so it is with most good science fiction.  The main hurdle that the film struggles with is its unevenness in developing Ender’s time in Battle School and his relations with family and life on Earth.  The film makes a habit of glossing over details that could have made the film more character driven.  Instead, screenwriter/director Gavin Hood chooses to downplay characterization and simply toss archetypes into moral ambiguity with clever special effects, especially some of the “war game” scenes.  Nonetheless, the moral ambiguity that he does emphasize is palpable and the film’s premise is fascinating at times.

Overall, Ender’s Game is a mixed bag.  It is dark and an interesting concept, but it wants to keep at least one foot in lighter territory in the hopes of appealing to a young audience.  The novel’s fan-base has been young-adult oriented – yet the novel debuted in 1985, resulting in a potentially wide audience appeal.  However, the film’s identity crisis does feel obvious and blunts the film’s overall impact.  This is certainly not a bad movie, and science fiction fans and fans of the book have a very worthy film to watch.  C+

Ender’s Game is rated PG-13 and has a running time of 1 hour and 54 minutes. 

42

ImageFilms about sports are as old as the modern screen narrative gets.   It seems most movie fans have a favorite sports movie, 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.  These films strive to inspire, and the great ones usually do.  42 brings the epic story of Jackie Robinson to the big screen, and if you don’t tear up at this one, there’s something wrong with you.

Robinson’s story is fairly well-known, especially to baseball fans.  What may be a slightly lesser-known facet of Robinson’s story is the role Brooklyn Dodgers GM Branch Rickey plays in it.  Together Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) and Rickey (Harrison Ford) attack the prejudice inherent in post-WW II America by using America’s pastime as a weapon for unity.  This is not unlike the strategic move Nelson Mandela took in terms of using a nation’s love for Rugby as an equalizer in post-apartheid South Africa.  The film opens with Robinson already a star of the Negro League.  He is summoned by Rickey to join the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm organization with the expectation that he would be brought up to the majors, breaking the color barrier and becoming the first African-American ever to play major league baseball.   Rickey senses that Robinson is the potential game-changer that he needs because he has both the talent for the game as well as the personal strength to withstand the firestorm that his presence in the majors will inevitably cause.   Rickey represents a dogmatic, purist love for something that has seemingly been soiled.  His motivation is fueled by love and respect  in a time when both of these qualities are in short supply (in terms of race relations).

Robinson’s story is treated with great respect in 42.  Director Brian Helgeland does not sugar-coat America’s racist past, but it could be said that he stereotypes it a bit.   Nonetheless, he uses the game of baseball as a way to survey the various racial perspectives shared throughout different regions and classes in mid-20th century America.  This helps 42 rise slightly above a standard bio-pic into something of an American culture expose.  Robinson is not simply pitted against “racism.”  He is doubted by timid hypocrites like Rickey’s associate Harold Parrott (T.R. Knight).  He is hated by southern simple-folk who are frightened by change like Phillie’s manager Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk).  He is isolated by skeptical teammates who feel under-valued like Dixie Walker (Ryan Merriman).  He is also anxious about what his presence means to other struggling African-Americans like journalist, Wendell Smith (Andre Holland) and idolizing child-fan Ed Charles (Dusan Brown).  Robinson’s wife Rachel (Nicole Beharie) effectively reveals the source of much of Robinson’s strength against many of these different and difficult stresses.

Consequently,42 is one of the best films of a young 2013, and it is certainly an excellent addition to a long line of great sports movies.  It does rely on stereotype and simplification from time to time, and Robinson is also depicted as a virtually flawless individual.  However, these choices are clearly deliberate, and when an audience analyzes the intentions of the film, these choices make sense.  At the end of 42, we are left feeling a strong sense of history as well as the emotional dynamic between the strength of a team and the even greater power of an individual.  A-       

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