Star Wars: The Force Awakens — a review

Who's the leader of the club that's made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Who’s the leader of the club that’s made for you and me? M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E.

Warning: spoilers ahead!

When Uncle George handed over the keys to the Star Wars universe to JJ Abrams, I actually had some hope. Despite the fact that Abrams had just directed Star Trek: Into Darkness, a flaming turd of a movie if there ever was one, I realized that he would be a much better choice to direct a Star Wars film because, like me, he was raised on the original trilogy back in the 1970s/early 80s. Abrams is a Star Wars kid who had a genuine affection for the series–unlike Star Trek, which he stated in interviews that he thought was “too philosophical”. (!!!) And, having now seen the latest Star Wars film (which was something I thought would not be possible for the longest time), I have to say that my initial hope in Abrams was well founded.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place some thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi–and it’s the exact type of Star Wars story, a sequel, that I’ve wanted to see ever since walking out of the theater after seeing Jedi. The prequels, directed by Uncle George, were an interesting failure in that they tried to expand upon on the Star Wars universe by filling in the back story, but Uncle George chose the wrong things to explain about. The scene in The Phantom Menace where Liam Neeson explains how the Force works to baby Darth Vader (“it’s actually made up of little germs”) was soul-deadening to watch. Instead of expanding upon his universe, Uncle George seemed hell-bent on deconstructing it.

I trust this guy with my life, but take this, just in case....

I trust this guy with my life, but take this, just in case….

Uncle George also appeared to have forgotten something very important when making the prequels: that Star Wars is an epic myth, and when telling these stories, they should be treated as such. JJ Abrams gets this, which is why his The Force Awakens is so much better than any of the prequels. In creating young Rey (who’s very well played by the charming Daisy Ridley), we have a new archetype of the hero from the fabled myths that Joseph Campbell told of. Rey lives a humble existence on the desert planet of Jakku, where she earns a living scavenging from wrecked Star Destroyers left behind from a long-ago battle. But she meets up with BB-8, an impossibly cute droid that contains a map showing the location of the missing Luke Skywalker.

And we’re off! After meeting with Fin (John Boyega in another good performance), a Stormtrooper who’s gone AWOL, the trio take off from Jakku using an old freighter they find on the surface…a freighter that just happens to be the Millennium Falcon. What follows is basically a remake of A New Hope, with our heroes tangling with the First Order, the new group of baddies that arose from the ashes of the Empire, revealing some spiffy new Star Destroyers in their arsenal, along with another Death Star.

*GROAN*

A death star…why’d it have to be another death star?

What'd I tell you about talking to strangers? You see what happens?

What’d I tell you about talking to strangers? You see what happens?

The death star this time is known as Starkiller Base, and it’s a hundred times larger than its brethren, with the surface covered with natural landscapes, which is a nice change of pace–but it’s still a frigging death star with a death ray, and its very presence gives The Force Awakens a heavy derivative feel. In what is an otherwise fun and enjoyable film, one that’s joyously pushing the series forward, the presence of the super duper death star feels like a step backward as it forces the plot in the latter half of the film to mimic A New Hope, straight down to scenes of General Leia anxiously awaiting the outcome of the battle back at the resistance base.

Still, despite the remake of A New Hope sprouting up right in the middle of the movie, Abrams keeps aiming high and manages to deliver a rollicking film for the fans and non-fans. He loads the film with many super cool moments that will resonate with the more hardcore fans of the Star Wars series. The humor is also exceptional–I laughed out loud several times during some funny bits–and the characters, both new and old, are sympathetic enough that you care what happens to them. And for once, the main character in a Star Wars film is finally a woman (thanks, JJ)!

Aside from a massive misstep thanks to reviving a plot device that really needed to stay dead, I still tremendously enjoyed The Force Awakens. It vividly recalls the dashing fun of the original trilogy while laying the foundation for another two films to come, both of which I can’t wait to see (just so long as there are no more death stars, please…pretty please?). –SF

Ex Machina — a review

I swear, if you ask me if I'm dreaming about electric sheep, I will punch you.

I swear, if you ask me if I’m dreaming about electric sheep, I will punch you.

If you’ve seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens this weekend, then you’ve seen actors Domhnall Gleeson as the hissable General Hux and Oscar Isaac as the dashing Poe Dameron. But before Star Wars these two actors worked together in another science fiction film, one of an entirely different stripe, Ex Machina. Gleeson stars as Caleb, an office drone who won a special contest that his company was running. The grand prize is to spend a week with the company’s mysterious founder, played by Isaac as a sort of Steve Jobs-type of visionary in his field.

Instead of a piece of my mind, I'm giving you a piece of the robot's mind.....

Instead of a piece of my mind, I’m giving you a piece of the robot’s mind…..

Yet when Caleb winds up at Nathan’s remote mountain hideaway, instead of helping his boss work on computer code, he discovers that Nathan has something much more advanced in mind. Nathan has been building and perfecting a series of human-looking robots, and his latest prototype, Ava, is waiting to hear from Caleb. Nathan wants Caleb to test Ava to see if she truly is an artificial life form with a mind of her own, or if she’s just mimicking what they want to see and hear.

Caleb, realizing that he’s on the verge of making scientific history, is more than happy to dive into the interviews with Ava. Alicia Vikander, who was so good in The Man From Uncle remake, stars here as Ava. Only her face is recognizable here, since her body is just about the single major special effect in the film. Nathan doesn’t hide the fact that Ava’s a robot, leaving her torso literally exposed as a see through glass partition that shows her glowing innards. Despite the SF trappings that she’s literally draped in, Vikander does a superb job at making her character seem very sympathetic.

This could have been my face? It could have been worse, I suppose.

This could have been my face? It could have been worse, I suppose.

Ex Machina was written by first time director Alex Garland, who wrote The fantastic 28 Days Later, Sunshine, and Dredd (all worthy movies you should also check out). He does as good job at building up a steady rise of paranoia that’s still smartly done; he doesn’t have his characters do stupid things just to serve the script, and despite the intimate setting, he still manages to get a good plot twist out of the story here and there. If you’re expecting more Star Wars, you’ll be disappointed; but if you’re looking to see two of your favorite Star Wars actors in something different, you might want to give Ex Machina a shot; it’s highly recommended. –SF

Tiger House –a review

Looks like this lazy Sunday morning has come to an abrupt end!

Looks like this lazy Sunday morning has come to an abrupt end!

In Tiger House, young Kelly (Kaya Scodelario, who’s better known from the Maze Runner series), worried that her boyfriend Callum (Ed Skrien) might have dumped her, sneaks into the spacious home that Callum shares with his mother and stepfather one night. After meeting up with Callum in his bedroom, it turns out that Kelly’s fears were for naught, for Callum is still very much in love with her–he’s just had his cell phone taken from him by his parents for an infraction that he committed, that’s all. Kelly, happy that all is well with her relationship, spends the night with her boyfriend.

But on this very same night, a bunch of crooks break into the house by drugging and then killing the dog. (Note: if you’re going to have a dog, it would be best for all involved (including the dog) to keep him/her in the house with you). They take Callum and his family hostage, tying up the boy and his mother in the master bedroom, while Callum’s stepdad is forced to take a group of them into work with him tomorrow to allow them to rob the depot where he works at.

Whoa! Excuse me while I...uh...go get help. Yeah, that's what I'll do, I'll...um...go get help! You two just stay there, don't go anywhere, and I'll be back!

Whoa! Excuse me while I…uh…go get help. Yeah, that’s what I’ll do, I’ll…um…go get help! You two just stay there, don’t go anywhere, and I’ll be right back!

Neither the crooks or Callum’s parents know that Kelly is there, setting the stage for a nice cat and mouse thriller between her and the bad guys. The problem is that Tiger House stumbles over its own feet almost right out of the gate and falls flat on its face. The first problem is that Kelly finds herself trapped under a bed, lying right above her is Shane, the leader of the bad guys (Dougray Scott, who’s wasted here), who was injured in a fight with Callum. Kelly spends way too much time under the bed, and at one point I wondered if she was going to be stuck under there for the entire film. She finally gets out, but that’s not the end of the problems.

Way too much takes place off screen. From the fight that Callum has with Shane to the heist at the depot, we either hear about it afterwards, or listen in on it over a phone. It would be nice to actually SEE some of these important events. And the tone of the film also changes weirdly towards the end: it starts out with a high school kid trapped in a house with a band of killers, and it ends with with Kelly practically swearing vengeance against one of the bad guys and then brutally taking him down and killing him. What happened to the shy high school kid and when did she become the daughter of Rambo? While I enjoy a good cinematic cat and mouse chase every now and then, it’s probably best to stay out of Tiger House. –SF

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation — a review

Take back what you said about the White Queen, you stinking bastard. Take it back right now....

Take back what you said about the White Queen, you stinking bastard. Take it back right now….

Tom Cruise teams up with his Jack Reacher director Christopher McQuarrie for the fifth installment in the unstoppable Mission Impossible series. A huge hit when released to theaters in the summer of 2015, Mission Impossible: Rouge Nation deals with Ethan Hunt (Cruise) who tries to stop a criminal mastermind from ruling the…wait, that’s basically the plot of all these films.

I have to admit that I was never a big fan of the Mission Impossible series of spy movies starring Cruise. I believe I already mentioned this in a previous review, but to recap, I loved the original TV series as a kid, and didn’t care for how the first MI movie wiped out the Impossible Mission team all so little Tommy can play James Bond.

Traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway is pretty light today.

Traffic on the Santa Monica Freeway is pretty light today.

But then along came MI: Ghost Protocol, directed by Brad (The Incredibles) Bird. Ah, Brad, you magnificent bastard…you’ve managed to make Tom almost as tough and cool as Bond (almost, but not quite. Tommy boy can’t hold a lighter, much less a candle, to Daniel Craig’s Bond, IMHO). But aside from Cruise’s deficits, GP was a lean, mean thriller that was immensely fun to watch. It even brought back the teamwork aspect that set the original series apart from other spy series. Overall, Ghost Protocol was an immensely satisfying action/spy flick.

With Rogue Nation, I was hoping for more of the mojo that GP packed. But, alas, Rogue Nation was a disappointment. Yes, it’s got plenty of high caliber action scenes that are very well done, like Cruise hanging onto the side of a plane, or riding a motorcycle in a super high speed chase on the side of a mountain, but it just feels like a series of spectacular stunts strung together in lieu of a cohesive story. With no real story here, you’re just waiting for the next big stunt set piece–which, admittedly, are worth the price of admission.

Wait, I forgot my cell phone!

Wait, I forgot my cell phone!

Another problem is that Sean Harris (Prometheus) plays the villain with a voice that sounds like a whispering frog (at least that’s what it sounded like to me). At one point in the film, he has Benjy (Simon Pegg) hostage, and is speaking to Hunt through Benjy via an earpiece in Benjy’s ear, and I was so grateful for this, because this was the first frigging time I could understand what Frog Voice was saying.

Whoa! Is that thing supposed to explode like that?!

Whoa! Is that thing supposed to explode like that?!

The one saving grace of Rouge Nation is Rebecca Ferguson, who plays a super spy who allies herself with Hunt–or does she? There’s some question throughout the film as to where her loyalties lie, which is part of the charm of her character. Ferguson kicks ass brilliantly, and even Cruise is smart enough to just stand back and let her steal the film from him (this would not be the first time Cruise has done this; he’s also allowed Emily Blunt to steal the vastly underrated Edge Of Tomorrow from him, as well). While Rouge Nation isn’t as good as Ghost Protocol, Ferguson’s presence alone makes it worth watching, along with the incredible stunt work (and with most of the stunts, like the airplane bit, they’re performed by Cruise himself). Rouge Nation may not be the best of the MI series, but it’s still a fun popcorn film. –SF