Monday, December 21, 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Brooklyn, The Danish Girl, Hitchcock/Truffaut Reviews
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Dir. J.J. Abrams
SPOILER WARNING: Usually I make an effort to keep my reviews spoiler-free, but considering everyone and their mother saw this film, I've decided to write this review only for people who have seen The Force Awakens. If you have not, you've been warned - I will be going over major plot points!
I sense a disturbance in the Force... I'm just going to say right off the bat, before you start reading and getting upset: I didn't much care for The Force Awakens. I'm most likely in the minority here, as everyone seems to be lapping it up. But, as a movie reviewer, I must express my own opinion, and not just cater to my audience, only writing what they want to hear. Kind of like J.J. Abrams. The Force Awakens - for better or worse - is exactly what I thought a J.J. Abrams Star Wars would look like: Non-stop, slickly-produced but not memorable action, an overload of nostalgic references and fan-service moments, and an overall experience that is left intentionally hollow with the promise of sequels to fulfill any holes in the plot. The Force Awakens, unlike a similar space franchise picture Guardians of the Galaxy, feels like a product to me.
For those not in the loop, basically J.J. Abrams, whose film career has pretty much consisted of re-vitalizing/riding on the coattails of popular movie franchises (Mission Impossible III, Star Trek), was hired by head of Lucasfilm Kathleen Kennedy to direct Episode VII, with George Lucas for the first time having little creative involvement. The prequel trilogy was a massive disappointment to fans of the original trilogy, and Disney, having acquired the rights to all Lucasfilm properties, knew they had a golden opportunity. Give fans back the Star Wars they remembered, using this Abrams fella who churns out these remakes like the Amish churns butter, and make billions of dollars in the process. It worked, of course. And all they had to do was repeat EXACTLY, beat-for-beat, what made people love the original film. And the same mouth-breathers cheering on every second of this film will be the same people complaining on Internet chat boards that there are no original ideas left in Hollywood.
The Force Awakens is basically A New Hope with only slight differences. The Maguffin in both films is a droid carrying valuable information (R2D2/BB-8), which ends up on a desert planet (Tattoine/Jakku). Looking for the droid is a black-cloaked, masked villainous figure (Darth Vader/Kylo Ren) that arrives on the scene too late - proceeding to destroy a village looking for it. Happening upon the droid is a lonely, dreaming-of-a-better life young person (Luke/Rey) who is taught about the Force by a grizzled father figure (Obi Wan/Han). Also, there's a spherical planet-destroying weapon (Death Star/Starkiller Base) that the bad guys use for leverage. Eventually, the hero watches their father figure be slayed by someone close to them from afar (Darth killing Obi Wan/Kylo Ren killing Han), a massive attack happens upon the planet-sized weapon, and, exploiting a single weak spot in its structure, the rebels blow it up, saving the galaxy for now, but leaving it ambiguous if the villain is alive. And those are just the basic plot structure ways of how Abram's film parallels Episode IV.
When it comes to the new cast and characters, I really liked them, though I wish they were developed a bit more. Rey (Daisy Ridley), our "main" hero, starts out even more interestingly than Luke, in my opinion. You really get a sense of her struggle to survive as a scavenger of ship parts in this desert world, and based on her rations, it's visually told that she is in danger of starving. I love how she lives in a hollowed out AT-AT and the beautiful cinematography in the actual desert, not a lifeless green screen, helps develop her character. What I hated about her though was how she was a "badass" from frame one. Instead of building her up over a series of adventures, building her strength as she learns about the Force, she seems to be able to perfectly harness it right away, even performing Jedi mind tricks without much hassle. Luke actually had to spend time training with Yoda for a while before he could do anything, making his confrontation with Vader in Return of the Jedi much more satisfying. Here, the untrained Rey is able to defeat Kylo, a soldier who was trained by a Jedi knight, solely by closing her eyes and having a moment with herself.
My favorite new character, not counting the ball-shaped droid BB-8 (who is sure to be the go-to Christmas toy for kids this year), was Finn (John Boyega). He's the only new addition that doesn't directly echo a past character; as a disillusioned storm trooper, he's easy to root for, and brings some nice humor to the picture. My biggest complaint with him though, is that once he leaves the "First Order," he never has any kind of internal struggle. He was literally born and raised in this environment, but when he leaves, he becomes a member of the rebellion with no problems - you'd think his transition would be a little more complicated. Rounding out the new "good guys" is Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), an X-Wing pilot who seems like a cool dude - I mean he knows Max von Sydow for some reason - but is given too little screen time to do anything interesting.
Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is one of the more interesting new characters, at least in concept. He's basically a Darth Vader "fanboy" who isn't quite as badass with the Dark Side as his respirating grandfather. He throws tantrums when he doesn't get his way, lashing out with his hilted lightsaber (which I love the design of - how the light of it is more unstable than normal), and his mask is just an affectation. While I like these ideas, they don't make Kylo Ren as intimidating as any of the previous Darths. One of my least favorite new characters is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), a scar-faced bland alien who presents himself as a giant hologram to Kylo. I hope it's revealed in future films that he's actually Yoda-sized and he's compensating for his height, but here he's totally boring. A vague evil CGI dude with an unclear agenda.
Along with copying the exact structure of A New Hope, there are also a series of specific "callbacks," moments meant only to make fans of the previous films swoon and do nothing to serve the story. I don't outright hate all of the callbacks (one of the best moments of the film is the reveal of the Millennium Falcon; "oh, that piece of junk?"), but moments like the holographic chess board and the "trash compactor" line serve no purpose other than for fans to go "OH I REMEMBER THAT THING!" It's so cheap and the entire film felt that way. Although Abrams did a solid job bringing back the franchise from the dour, lifeless place of the prequels, and set the groundwork for sequels that could go to interesting places, The Force Awakens felt a little too safe and cyclical from the first film for my liking. This is like the Hangover 2 of Star Wars films.
Dir. John Crowley
I can't help but think of Brooklyn as an "old people" movie. It's a relatively fluffy, yet serious, period drama. Whenever I see something like this, like Mr. Holmes, it's all but guaranteed that the next youngest person in the theater will be at least 40 years older than me. The film follows Ellis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan), an Irish immigrant in New York who is torn between her cultural identity on both countries - and love interests on both sides. In New York, she falls for an Italian plumber, Mari- I mean Tony (Emory Cohen), but when she returns home due to tragic circumstances, she's tempted by another man, Jim (Domhnall Gleeson).
It's a very simple story told with beautiful shots around Ireland and New York, and Ronan really shines here, but I honestly was a little irked by her character. Personally I felt like she was not being fair at all to Tony - she ignored his letters he sent to Ireland, and didn't give much resistance to Jim's charms. I love the idea that she is caught up between two separate lives across the ocean, and Ronan sells it, but I wish there was a bit more to it than smiles and sad looks.
The Danish Girl
Dir. Tom Hooper
The Danish Girl is one of those projects that has been in production limbo for years, but finally something in the cultural zeitgeist made it happen. The story is about the first-ever attempt at a sex-change operation in the 1920s. When painter Gerda Wegener (Alicia Vikander) asks her husband Einar to stand in for a female model, Einar begins to unravel a repressed desire to be a woman, and soon thereafter, he begins dressing and living as a woman named Lili. As you could imagine, this puts a strain on their marriage, as Gerda starts questioning if Einar/Lili is the same person she married. Despite this, she supports Lili's decision to undergo a dangerous new operation.
In the wrong hands, this film could easily have been a disaster, but Tom Hooper is one of the best directors working today. The compositions are as beautiful as the paintings we see in the film, and, as could be expected from the guy who directed The King's Speech and Les Miserables, Hooper gets a lot out of his actors. Although I think Redmayne may have over-acted a bit, you truly sense his struggle with his identity here; one of the most powerful scenes in the film has Einar looking through a peep show window at a burlesque stripper on the other side, silently miming her hand movements and realizing that he was born in the wrong body. But while Redmayne may be the central figure here, Vikander absolutely steals the show. Her character just as much goes through a crisis, as her love and marriage are put into question. The whole thing is certainly aiming for tears and Oscars, and I didn't think it was as good as Hooper's last two films, but The Danish Girl is a well crafted period drama on a topic that you just don't see in relatively "mainstream" films.
Dir. Kent Jones
In my opinion, one of the greatest film texts ever written is Hitchcock Truffaut, a series of interviews between French New Wave director François Truffaut and the "Master of Suspense" Alfred Hitchcock, going movie-by-movie through Hitch's filmography and talking about the filmmaking process. It's amazing, and anyone interested in film needs to read it! That being said: how are you supposed to make a documentary about a book? And not really a book, a series of interviews? Kent Jones, instead of making a 1.5 hour film discussing the book itself, pretty much uses it as a framing device to interview a bunch of famous directors about Hitchcock. It's nice to hear people like David Fincher and Martin Scorsese wax poetic on Vertigo, but as a previous fan of Hitchcock (and even a teacher of Hitchcock), most of the information here was common knowledge. Although it could act as a nice primer on the director's work for the interested layman, most Hitchcock fans will know everything in this documentary already.