Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

To parallel the dichotomy of  our favorite “hokey religion,” I will address the The Force Awakens from two perspectives. How are you to recognize the good side from the bad? You will know!

The Good
Much of being an effective director comes from solid casting. So from that notion, J.J. Abrams did an excellent job of directing this movie.

Daisey Ridley is a very rare Mary Poppins: she’s practically perfect in every way. She displays the rare thespian gift of physical charisma. This does not speak to her corporeal beauty, but rather to the notion that she carries herself in a believable manner for this universe. For contrast, this was problematic for George Lucas/Hayden Christensen/Natalie Portman (and even someone like Sam Jackson) in the prior installments. Sure, Christensen played the “great warrior” aspect well, but both he and Portman were difficult to settle your eyes upon as they never seemed to appear comfortable. Ridley truly commands a viewer’s gaze within the frame.

Harrison Ford kills the quips. Chewie rocks his best role yet. Oscar Isaac was great. John Boyega was good even though Finn seemed fairly underdeveloped (perhaps befitting of a character raised to be nothing but a stormtrooper). Adam Driver was a very convincing Kylo Ren. A big highlight comes from his sorrowful admission to the anguish caused by the widening spectrum of The Force’s influence. It feels very much akin to the addictive nature The One Ring holds over Frodo Baggins.

But the best new character in Star Wars isn’t played by any actor. I was admittedly very skeptical of BB-8 before seeing the movie, but the droid rolls as a wonderful merging of WALL-E’s mannerisms and color to the voice of EVE.

OBLIGATORY SPOILER WARNING FROM HERE ON OUT

There were maybe three moments that really nailed me with a hard case of The Feels. The first was the reveal of the Millennium Falcon, a character in it’s own right. The second was Rey’s flashback/premonition induced by Anakin’s lightsaber. And though it brought to mind the best scene from all of Harry Potter, my heart skipped a beat when the lower corridors of Cloud City appeared in her vision. The third really great moment involves, naturally, the Son of Skywalker. Having spent the majority of his career as a prominent voice actor, the idea that Mark Hamill wouldn’t say a word during this installment is really quite amusing. The look on his face nearly brought tears to my eyes. Anguish, disappointment, defeat, yet hope and redemption? ¡Increíble!

But again, there were only three moments here for me. Which brings me to…

The Bad

I’ve had several days to sit on this and really mull it over. So now I’m just gonna say it: The Force Awakens ranks #7 out of all 7 Star Wars movies in terms of story strength. That’s right. It’s worse than all three members of the Prequel Trilogy (PT).

Eps 1-3 have MANY flaws (others might use terms that are less sparing). But the overarching story of a prophesied Christ of the Force and his transformation into a principal for genocide remains quite compelling. Additional themes of note include: the dangers of religious dogma, the faults in a merged church and state, and a caution to the strength of deregulated financial institutions. We also received a solid glance at a larger galaxy with a better understanding for how The Old Republic operated in the heyday of the Guardians of Peace and Justice. So on paper, the PT was actually pretty awesome. It was just terribly executed.

Opposite is true for The Force Awakens, a bad story executed reasonably well. Abrams/Kasdan like to talk about how they wanted these new movies to be reminiscent of the Original Trilogy (OT) which is naturally admirable. What they didn’t tell us was that they would take the safest route possible to barf out a lackadaisical fucking reboot of A New Hope. Did they really think that Star Wars loyalists would miss this?

Good guy hides crucial item in droid that’s very important to Leia’s team. Droid evades bad guys. Fresh-faced desert-dweller picks up droid. Leaves planet in Millennium Falcon with new friends narrowly escaping bad guys. Oh and there’s also a bar/opium den involving Han + Chewie + aliens. Later: new friend’s info helps Leia’s team figure out how to blow up a planet-destroying superweapon. Then X-Wings and TIE Fighters fight and the planet-destroying superweapon gets blow’d up.

HOLY SHIT ARE YOU SERIOUS? This is is the exact same fucking story as Ep 4! I can forgive many many things but a DEATH STAR for the third time in four sequential chapters reflects incompetence at every level. Disney/Kennedy/Abrams/Kasdan had EVERY SINGLE RESOURCE at their disposal yet this was their Plan A. Did the backroom monkeys look at the numbers and go “well it worked twice before. So let’s just…use…it…again?” COME ON!

 

“But dude, it played to the nostalgia just so well.” I’m sorry, but that’s just unacceptable. If you want nostalgia, go pop A New Hope into your VCR. Bringing the OT’s characters back should be enough to fulfill your sentimental quota. Giving the characters funny one-liners that reference a former era does the same job. A sequel to Return of the Jedi with the same cast should already be a shoe-in for success yet NOTHING these writers could derive from the Lucasfilm Holocron inspired a new course. Instead, Disney chose a plot device that was too dated for even their own amusement park ride. Do you feel insulted yet? Because all they did was sell you the original Star Tours.

“I know audiences feed on crap, but I cannot believe we are so lacking that we cannot dish it up to them with some trace of originality.”-Darryl F. Zanuck.

Star Wars is the great American Hollywood success story. It set the standard for rewarding innovation. So where Disney/Kennedy/Abrams/Kasdan had the chance to take bigger risks with broader unseen concepts, they instead chose the safer road akin to The Avengers (which was totally forgettable other than the one moment).

 

“Well most people don’t seem to agree with you. Look how much money it made.”  I clearly do not share their optimistic appraisal of the situation.  The large majority of real Star Wars fans are grown adults that should be able to tell the difference between an homage and a blatant hackjob ripoff. Take a peak out the Star Wars window there and tell me what you see. Because there’s a 42.9% chance of a fucking DEATH STAR!

Disney/Abrams thought they could separate themselves from the PT with the inclusion of familiar characters while touting the construction of practical sets/effects. The critical praise seems to reflect success there. But I am most displeased by their apparent lack of progress because they half-assed the most important part of a movie, the story.

I gave pause back in November to the idea that George Lucas’ influence would no longer have any bearing on the future films. And it turns out my suspicions were valid. You know what this movie could have used? Someone behind it with an original thought in their brain. I’m not saying Lucas needs to actually pen the dialogue. But Kasdan clearly wasn’t capable of bringing a relevant new concept to the forefront.

“But Han Solo died. That was unexpected and fresh and dark and cool and stuff.” I can admit that I enjoyed the moment and dialogue between Han and Ren. But the death was all-but-assured as soon as Episode 7 was announced. The concept of a combo Solo death/Luke disappearance dates back to ROTJ. Harrison Ford has talked about his Solo death wish for years.

“Well what more could you really want? J.J.’s a real fan that made a movie for the fans.”

Part of me wonders if Abrams and Kasdan actually watched the original trilogy again prior to shooting this pic. In Awakens, Rey questions whether the Falcon was the “the ship that made The Kessel Run in 14 parsecs?” Ford petulantly responds with “12 PARSECS!” The audience laughs. But it’s not a funny moment. It’s sad. Because The Falcon didn’t make The Kessel Run in 12 parsecs. It made it in “less than 12 parsecs.” And while that may seem like a small detail, how hard could it have been to get right? Again, they have EVERY POSSIBLE RESOURCE available to them. “Sorry Harrison, the line is actually ‘LESS than 12.'” Or “Harrison, can we do it again but where you yell-out ‘ELEVEN-AND-A-HALF’ instead?” Strive for excellence goddamnit. And since I’m on a Nerd Rant, did Incom and Sienar Fleet Systems get exclusive military contracts that forced all other ship designs from commission in the 30 years since Return of the Jedi?  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills here.

These types of things represent a lack of commitment and sincerity that Disney should have been capable of handling. I get that at the end of the day it’s about money and generating additional revenue streams from an expanding fan base. So I’m not even gonna discuss TFA’s other weak points like Carrie Fisher’s awkward delivery (hurts to say that because she’s my first bae) or the unnecessary CGI MIB/Prometheus tentacle monsters. Shall we skip my tirade on the picture’s inability to explain anything that’s happened since ROTJ? But bro, it’ll all be explained in a future movie.” Shut the fuck up, Donnie. Just because it’s part of a series doesn’t mean you get to treat it like a television episode. There are rules. It should still be able to stand alone and yet now I feel compelled to read the novelization (let’s be real, we all know I was going to anyways).

George Lucas took us to a galaxy far, far away. Disney takes us shopping with Basic Bitches on Main Street, USA. I wanted a story from someone with a PHD in Star Wars, not something written by a 100-level course showoff. The ball has now been firmly passed into Rian Johnson’s court. And while I don’t particularly care for Brick, Brothers Bloom is tremendously under-appreciated and Looper’s obviously sick. So my faith remains unwavering in a delivery from the repetitive evil found in The Force Awakens. That’s some unoriginal ratchet shit right there.

 

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How Much Will The Force Awaken at the Box Office This Weekend?

Quite a few people have been asking me how much I think Star Wars will make domestically in its opening weekend. “The largest opening ever” is my answer.

Though the industry loves to talk about how high their box office take is, actual domestic attendance is still trending in decline. Ticket prices continue to inflate at a rate higher than they should (3D/PLFs partially to blame). As such, there’s only one movie (Avatar) in the new millennium that can be counted in the Top 20 of all time, adjusted for inflation. This make Star Wars a little tricky to project, especially because of the December release. Holiday movies generally don’t have the opening weekend strength that summer releases do (for a variety of reasons) yet they tend to have longer legs.

But Star Wars has the largest & most intensely devout following of any fan group in existence. They are the Catholic Church of Geek’s Christianity. Nerd/comic/game culture retains its contemporary popularity BECAUSE of Star Wars (also perpetuated by the internet…a convo for another day). The idea that ONLY 67.8% of tickets sold are for men truly astounds me. That is, I’m quite impressed with the female showing. Speaks volumes about Nerd Culture’s coming-out. 16 years ago, I’d estimate Ep. 1’s opening week was maybe 80%+ male.

The most comparable opening in my mind would be The Avengers which, adjusted for inflation, snagged $218,123,365. And this year’s Jurassic World grabbed an unacceptably large $208,806,270 despite bursting with mediocrity (I’m being kind). 

So with great 95% and an 8.2/10 on Rotten Tomatoes (to go with a 91% and an 8.3 by the Top Critics), The Force Awakens should easily stomp both. I think anything below $220 million would be a sore disappointment. $228,783,492 is my guess.

Spotlight: Leading the Best Pic Race?

Don’t get me wrong. Spotlight doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it is: a poignant investigative drama featuring a flawless ensemble performance. Yet it still runs as monochromatic as a newspaper feature.

There are complaints that Steve Jobs took too man creative liberties. Which means Spotlight stands on the opposite side of the spectrum. An audience could believe that the series of events surrounding the 2002 Boston Globe feature played out exactly as depicted on screen. So any sense of shock or discovery I though I might feel had already been spent back when the stories first broke. That doesn’t mean the movie’s boring. It just feels too familiar.

Following the recent less-than-perfect reviews for Revenant (it’s still gonna play hard) and questionable (or bad) reviews for JoySpotlight seems to be out-front in the Best Pic race. But should it be celebrated as the year’s definitive apex of our finest art form? I’d say no. A Best Pic nom? Certainly. And I expect the cast (particularly Ruffalo) and screenplay team to see continued recognition.

I still need to see check out Brooklyn and Carol. And, as mentioned in an earlier feature, I get the sneaking suspicion that Anamolisa could make a late surprise surge (if enough word gets out). But at this point, Steve Jobs and Room are the more vibrant, enthralling, and imaginative prospects to stand atop the best of film in 2015.

Do the NBR’s Best Pics Translate Into Oscar Nominations?

On Monday the National Board of Review teed-off the Oscar season’s playoffs by announcing their 10 Best Pictures of the Year. With more populist pics than in recent years, just how influential/accurate are the NBR’s selections?

While their choices certainly serve as easy marketing decor (“One of the National Board of Review’s Best Pictures of the Year!”), the snowball effect is rather difficult to measure. Do AMPAS members actually look to the NBR list before penning 5 favs for nomination?

While their influence as tastemakers may be questionable, the idea that studios throw resources their way for the occasional screenings/discussion acknowledges that the NBR are at-least the first ones out of the gate.

So where do we draw the line between primary influence vs. simply choosing logical choices? Let’s do some math!

The Oscars expanded the Best Pic field for movies released in 2009 from exactly 5 noms to between 5 and 10 (varying due to the preferential balloting process). Since the expansion, the titles on NBR’s short-list have served as predictors for 34 of the 55 films (or 62%) that would eventually receive top Oscar nominations. And while the NBR’s top pic last year (A Most Violent Year) didn’t even get nominated for an Oscar, the eventual Oscar winner has also made their list 87% of the time over the last 75 years.

But NBR’s overall nomination prediction rate has slipped with the increase in the number of AMPAS nominations. From 2000-2008, the NBR’s list truly missed predicting a nomination only twice (Erin Brokovich and The Queen). The other ten missed picks were likely due to December releases they weren’t given the privilege (read into that however you want) of seeing. This gave them an effective net forecast rate of 94%. Since then, they’ve had 15 blatant misses for a rate of 69%.

So how does affect the field going forward? What’s still to-be-released that the NBR hasn’t seen? The Revenant and Joy are likely sure-things. The Big Short features a heavy ensemble cast, relevant topic, and solid early buzz. And while unorthodox, Charlie Kaufman’s  Anomalisa could squeak in if Paramount plays their screener/screening game TO THE MAX (12/30 release means public buzz won’t exist in-time).

What might have already been released that the NBR’s blatantly left out?  Steve Jobs, while a commercial miss, was expertly crafted on all fronts making it very attractive to the guilds. Carol and Brooklyn have big performances, great reviews, and slow buzz-building distribution models synonymous with the successful arthouse Oscar push. They may be competing with each other for votes though.

Who falls away in these situations? Straight Outta Compton won’t make it. If I have to choose between Mad Max and Hateful Eight (may also compete w/each other for votes), I’d say Eight sits out in the cold but it’s very unlikely that either will represent at least 5% of the Academy’s ballot first-choices. Sicario would make my personal list, but it has too much working against it to stay in the convo. Disney’s Oscar track record is notoriously non-existent and a likely push for Inside Out should also leave Bridge of Spies behind. Creed truly is the darkhorse that may continue to play well enough to stay in the convo.

The NBR’s never missed more than four of the nominations in a single year. Yet if AMPAS nominates 10 Best Pics this year, it may be the first year with 5 misses. But hey, this is a GREAT problem to have for the industry to have. It only means there’s been a larger quota for quality in 2015.

2015: NBR’s Top 10 vs My Predicted Oscar Noms
(For the now. There will undoubtedly be momentum shifts )

National Board of Review Top 10 AMPAS (Oscar) Best Pics Noms
1 Spotlight 1 The Revenant
2 Room 2 Spotlight
3 The Martian 3 Room
4 Inside Out 4 Steve Jobs
5 Creed 5 Carol or Brooklyn
6 Mad Max: Fury Road 6 The Martian
7 Sicario 7 Joy
8 The Hateful Eight *8 Inside Out
9 Bridge of Spies *9 The Big Short
10 Straight Outta Compton *10 Creed

*=Would make list if 10 nominees make it.
-(Yes, I get that I’m cheating with Carol/Brooklyn and I’m still anxious to see both as I’ve heard nothing but amazing things.)