Tuesday, March 15, 2016

movie review: star wars.

Two things I rarely, if ever do: go to the movies, and review a movie that I saw at the movies.

This blog post is not about meat or music or fishing.  It's about a movie, and is probably the only post of this type that you will ever see written by me.  I don't typically see movies unless they have superheroes, lightsabers, or black Trans Ams in them.  This one had lightsabers.

Last night I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens for a second time.  And I have some thoughts on it.  While expressing these thoughts, I will probably get silently critiqued by readers to both extremes; getting really nerdy, to the point where the casual Star Wars fan will laugh and egg my house tonight...and then not nerdy enough, meaning I may not use the correct nomenclature--or nerdenclature--that the over-the-top diehard fans that take it so seriously that they tend to pick it apart until they lose all enjoyment of a wonderfully nostalgic film may read.

So what you will read--if you choose to continue--is the honest thoughts of a fan that has seen all seven films several times at the theaters, starting in 1977 at the drive-in when I was 3 years of age.  And keep in mind, I haven't been influenced by too many outside sources, be it friends or colleagues, nerdy social media, or other opinions or takes.  This is just me, and whatever meaningless thoughts I may have.  And I will not warn you of any "spoilers".  If you haven't seen it yet, God help you.

The Force Awakens was very good.  I'd go as far as to say it was great.  While I understand that there may be some disappointment due to the movie mirroring the first trilogy (meaning Episodes IV, V, VI)--especially A New Hope, it's clear to me that this was the intention.  I believe that this movie was meant to bring the franchise back to its roots while still creating a new (or continuing) storyline and giving it a life of its own.  And for the record, those episodes were an immense part of my childhood and I continue to watch them time and time again.

With that said, this movie had stark contrasts to the latter three prequels (Episodes I, II, III), which I did not care for.  The reasons are probably fairly obvious and across the board for most Star Wars fans, but I'll elaborate a bit anyhow.  

The prequels for me, in a nutshell, were entirely too busy visually, and had excessive plotlines and poor characters.  All three prequels lacked a more palpable, realistic feel compared to the original three, and relied entirely too heavily on CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) which in turn cluttered our imaginations and negated any artistic attempt.  The ships, the cities, the backdrop, and the characters and creatures; all essentially cartoons with Ewan McGregor prancing around in the middle of it all.  Reminded me of Dick Van Dyke dancing with the penguins in Mary Poppins.  It was way too cartoony and unrealistic.  Sure, Ewoks are goofy, but you can touch them.  And aside from the atrocity that was Jar Jar Binks, let's please not overlook quite possibly the absolute worst character to ever grace a Star Wars film: Fode.  I had to look that name up, actually.  But you may remember his character from Phantom Menace as the announcer of the pod race, being voiced by Greg Proops.  Just fucking terrible.

The reason I'm berating Episodes I-III (other than it's fun and easy) is to outline a contrast for you.  Up until now, the last new Star Wars movie we saw at the theater was an overly-busy, CGI-vomiting film that relied on absolutely nothing from the three OG films that we all love so much.  It uber-humanized our beloved villain to the point where it was difficult to look at him as a badass anymore because all we saw was a whiney millennial with great hair.  And not to mention, Vader's villainy was fueled by lost love which is mushy and dumb.  So, that's the taste we were all left with in our proverbial mouths.  A bad one.  We all hungered for something more similar to the simply artistic visuals and storytelling that we experienced years before.

With The Force Awakens, I believe we got it.

Sure, we had some CGI.  In this day and age you have to for a sci-fi flick.  But to me it was a comfortable balance of CGI and tangibility.  There were real trees, real sand, real prop ships were built, there were puppets.  And although I'm no visual effects expert, they seemed to blend the CGI with these tangibles really well.  We weren't shown an entire cartoon universe that was created on a computer screen.  It seemed more real, like the old films.

Speaking of the old films, once again it was difficult not to compare this film to A New Hope.  Lots of similarities and feel.  But I didn't mind at all.  It made me feel like they decided to take us all back to square one and get a feel for the franchise again.  For me, the familiarity was comforting.  Personally, bringing back all the major characters and supporting them with terrific new ones was the perfect recipe.  It felt like a homecoming.

During Phantom Menace, which was the first film released since the original trilogy in 15 years, I got goosebumps when we first saw (and heard) lightsabers again.  It was, for me, the best part of all three movies; simply seeing lightsabers again, and the choreography used to represent early Jedi Knights and Sith Lords (see: Kenobi, Jinn, Maul).  It was "old meets new", and done well.  We got our lightsabers, which we all love so dearly from the OG trilogy.  But now we see how it was done in the old days when Jedi were abundant and bad ass.  Flipping around like ninjas & shit, using the Force to throw an army of Battle Droids down a damn hallway like nobody's business.  Made Luke kind of look like a chump.  In contrast...I didn't get the same goosebumps when we finally see Darth Vader at the end of Revenge of the Sith, because I didn't think it was done well.  Although we finally see our favorite villain again at the end of an agonizing trilogy, we now know he was just some asshole kid that cried a lot by this point.  Add in the fact that there's a dramatic, drawn-out "Nooooooo!" fully equipped with hands in the air and dropping to his knees when he hears that Natalie Portman's died.  C'mon, man.  Vader don't care about no chick.

Now, with The Force Awakens, "old meets new" was done exceptionally well.  When we first see the Millennium Falcon, half covered with a ragged tarp, sand blasted and crusty, I got those goosebumps back.  It is pure artistry how a make-believe spaceship can be such a major character with such personality.  It's part of Han & Chewy.  It's like BAN-ONE is with Burt & Sally.  And the familiar faces kept coming; Han, Chewy, Leia, Tie Fighters, X-Wings, R2 & 3PO, Admiral Akbar, Nien Nunb, Stormtroopers, Vader's mask, Boba Fett's slave flag..  Even seeing the battle-ravaged and defeated Star Destroyer and AT-AT made me grit my teeth and grin.  And then at the end: Luke Skywalker.

Rumor has it they "suggested" to Carrie Fisher that she lose some weight for the movie.  Guess Hamill didn't get that memo.

Of course, the main take-away from this film is all the unanswered questions.  The glaring one being, who the fuck is Rey?  Is she a Skywalker?  Is she a Kenobi?  Is she a Solo?  Is she just some rando that lucked out and got some Force?  That's the beauty of these movies, and I believe that's a reason the OG3 were so popular; because it had some soap opera drama to it.  Look at the end of Empire; we find out that Luke and Leia are brother and sister AND Han gets frozen in carbonite.  How in the hell were you NOT going to see Jedi three years later?  And the cool thing about Awakens is that we don't have to wait three years.  One year.  Disney's not fucking around.

Okay, so you know I like the movie, for whatever that's worth.  My favorite part, you ask?  Visually, Rey positioning the Millennium Falcon in a perpendicular position in order for Fin to shoot the last Tie Fighter with a jammed laser cannon.  Pure brilliance.  That scene cemented the badassery of Rey, Finn, and the Falcon.

A close second is Kylo Ren stopping Poe's blaster shot in mid-air using some Dark Sided Force.  It's those things that make me wish that Luke would've had some better Force in the old flicks.  He threw a rock at a control panel to kill the Rancor.  Ooooooh.

And although I love the sound of lightsabers, nothing in cinematic history has a better sound than a Tie Fighter screaming through the screen.  That sound is right up there with upright jazz bass accompanying piano, urethane skateboard wheels on a sidewalk, and a coyote two fields over with a backdrop of a crackling campfire alongside a babbling brook.  Tie Fighter, man.

And my favorite character was a toss-up.
* I love Chewbacca's noble and loyal demeanor, plus the nostalgia of an original character.  In this movie, he had a great balance of "little kid" and "loyal dog", along with absolute strength and rage.  Then, similar to when he was commanded by Han to "Take care of the Princess" at the end of Empire, he takes control of rescuing the kids and later flies them to Luke's island on the Falcon...like a soccer dad.
* Rey's character cannot go unapplauded.  These films sorely lack another strong woman--especially one that is a Force-weilding main character.  Daisy Ridley was the perfect cast for Rey.  She is intimidatingly independent and vulnerable at the same time.  She was adapting the entire movie, struggling internally with her mysterious past and taking chances in order to do the right thing.
* But what about Poe Dameron?  The coolest Star Wars character since Billy Dee.

At the end of the day, The Force Awakens does in fact lean heavily on A New HopeEmpire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi.  The characters, the story, the locations (an ice planet, a bar, a forest base...), and the colors were all reminiscent of the movies most of us grew up with.  Is that a bad thing?  I don't think it is.  And I do think the next installments will move farther away from the first three and become it's own trilogy.  I'm looking forward to it.

How's that for nerdery?

The Force Awakens was my second favorite movie in the seven-part series, right behind Empire Strikes Back.  So it's got that going for it...which is nice.