Thursday, January 26, 2017

"STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS" (2015) Review




"STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS" (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas' sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney's plans to continue Lucas' "STAR WARS" movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories. 

One result of this sale proved to be Disney's new film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS". The first of three movies for the franchise' "Sequel Trilogy", "THE FORCE AWAKENS" is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, "STAR WARS: EPISODE VI - RETURN OF THE JEDI". Some time after the Galactic Empire's major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order's development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing. 

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic's armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke's enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order. 

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 - renamed "Finn" - by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon's former owner, Han Solo and the latter's companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed "THE FORCE AWAKENS" as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie's script, following Lucas' treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, "THE FORCE AWAKENS" has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of "STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS" are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four "STAR WARS" he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads - Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in "THE FORCE AWAKENS" that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie's production. What else did I like about "THE FORCE AWAKENS"? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie's trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of "THE FORCE AWAKENS" that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel's photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain's Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel's photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey's editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey's escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han's other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with "THE FORCE AWAKENS"? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie's screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with "THE FORCE AWAKENS" is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977's "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE". Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980's "STAR WARS: EPISODE V - THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK" and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history - especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between "THE FORCE AWAKENS" and "A NEW HOPE" that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia


Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and "THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK". The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with "THE FORCE AWAKENS" proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga's previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters - like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga's characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie's plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) - especially in the last half hour of "A NEW HOPE" and the first hour of "RETURN OF THE JEDI". But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise's next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia's only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke's padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke's other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. "THE FORCE AWAKENS" made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather's role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or "EPISODE IX" will reveal the reason behind young Ben's embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren's man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy's second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han's "He has a bit of Vader in him" comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block - namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name "Ben" during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher's performance reminded me of the one she gave in "RETURN OF THE JEDI" . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter's return from the First One's Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han's death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance's base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker's whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn's TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie's last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a "STAR WARS" movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise's movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia's little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone - commanders, pilots, etc. - who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order's search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka's comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of "A NEW HOPE". And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie's other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams' score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie's plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it. 

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised "STAR WARS: EPISODE VII - THE FORCE AWAKENS" as a return to the "magic" of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy - especially "STAR WARS: EPISODE IV - A NEW HOPE". Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this "celebration" of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.




Friday, January 13, 2017

"LOST" RETROSPECT: (1.23-1.25) "Exodus"





"LOST" RETROSPECT: (1.23-1.25) "Exodus"

If one was to ask me what was my favorite season finale of "LOST", I would be prone to answer Season Three's (3.22-3.23) "Through the Looking Glass". But my second choice - and a very close one at that - would have definitely been the Season One finale, (1.23-1.25) "Exodus"

Although I do not consider it to be my favorite "LOST" finale, I can honestly say that I found it to be the most emotional . . . at least for me. Many would say that the series finale, (1.17-1.18) "The End". Mind you, "The End" had its share of emotional moments. But there were many aspects of it that I found very irritating. I found some flaws in the script for "Exodus". But I felt those flaws were overshadowed by some great writing by screenwriters/producers Damon Lindehof and Carlton Cuse. 

I might as well begin with what I consider to be the episode's flaws. The Season One finale featured flashbacks that revealed the castaways' experiences during their last hours in Sydney, Australia, before boarding Oceanic Flight 815. Mind you, I did not have any trouble with most of the flashbacks. Some of them revealed the development in personalities or relationships for some of the characters. This was apparent in Michael Dawson and Walt Lloyd's two flashbacks, along with Shannon Rutherford's, Charlie Pace's and to a certain extent, James 'Sawyer' Ford's. Other flashbacks revealed the personal clouds that hung over Jin-Soo Kwon, Sayid Jarrah and John Locke. Jack's flashback served as an introduction to Ana-Lucia Cortez, who would have a major role in the second season. But there were some flashbacks which I found useless and a waste of my time:

*Kate Austen - Her flashback featured U.S. Marshal Edward Mars explaining his long search for the young fugitive. Basically, all he did was reveal to the Sydney Airport authorities about his cat-and-mouse games with Kate and her infantile bank robbery in New Mexico. Yawn!

*Sun-Hwa Kwon - Her flashback merely confirmed her original secret knowledge of English via her understanding of the racist American couple who seemed to harbor clich├ęs about Asian marriages.

*Hugo "Hurley" Reyes - His flashbacks consisted of a series of minor incidents that nearly causes him to miss Oceanic Flight 815. Was it Lindehof and Cuse's intent for the audience to view Hurley's experiences with the ironic view that he would have been better off by missing the flight? I do not know. Then again, I do not care.

Not only did I find Kate's flashback a bore, I found some of her actions in this episode rather . . . peculiar. Okay, I had no problem with her decision to accompany Jack and Locke to the Black Rock. She wanted to help. Okay. But following Leslie Artz's death, she decided that she wanted to be one of the two to carry the dynamite in her backpack:

LOCKE: It's not smart to keep it all together. So, we split them up. If we need 3 sticks to blow the hinge then we should bring 6 -- 3 and 3 -- failsafe, in case one of us...

JACK: You and me, then.

KATE: No, I'm -- I'm taking one.

JACK: It's not going to happen, no.

KATE: This is why I came.

JACK: Then, you wasted a trip.


I realize that the castaways' leader, Jack Shephard was being controlling. But why on earth was it necessary for Kate to carry some of the dynamite? Why on earth would a woman with the survival instinct of a well-trained mercenary want to risk her life to carry a bunch of unstable sticks of dynamite? Cuse and Lindehof never made Kate's reasons clear. Poor Evangeline Lilly. She really had to put up with a lot of shit from those two. 

At the beginning of the episode, Danielle Rousseau appeared at the Losties' camp with news that the Others were going to attack their camp. After accompanying Jack's expedition to the Black Rock, she returned to the Losties' camp with the intent to steal baby Aaron in order to exchange him for her long missing daughter, Alex. When Sayid and Charlie finally caught up with her and Aaron, she revealed that she 'did' hear whispering about the Others coming for the "boy". As it turned out, the Others were after Walt. And they snatched him from the raft that Michael, Sawyer and Jin used in their attempt to leave the island. But . . . why did they snatch Walt? More importantly, how did they know that he was special? I doubt that Others spy Ethan Spy had found out. He spent most of his time with the Losties keeping an eye on Claire Littleton, who was pregnant during his stay with them. If Cuse and Lindehof did reveal the details behind Ben Linus' decision to order Walt's kidnapping, they failed to do so in any of the series' 121 episodes. 

Thankfully, "Exodus" was filled with so many memorable scenes and moments that I am willing to forgive Cuse and Lindehof some of the episode's missteps. As I had stated earlier, this episode was filled with some very emotional moments. My favorite included Sawyer's revelation to Jack about his meeting with the latter's now deceased father back in Australia. Superb acting by both Josh Holloway and Matthew Fox. Another great moment featured Walt's decision to hand over his dog Vincent to the greiving Shannon. Neither Malcolm David Kelley or Maggie Grace had ever received any recognition for their acting. Well, perhaps Kelley did once. Yet, both of them gave some of their best performances in this scene - especially Grace. But who gave the best performances in the episode? For me, the honors should have went to Daniel Dae Kim and Yunjin Kim as the castaways' estranged Korean couple. The couple finally reconciled over their matter regarding Sun's secret ability to speak English in a very emotional moment that featured tears, hugs and superb acting by the two. In fact, I am still wondering why the two Kims had never received any major acting nominations for their performances on the show. Both Fox and Terry O'Quinn gave excellent performances in an interesting scene in which Jack questioned John Locke about his penchant for revolving his life around the island's mysteries.

Many fans have claimed that strong characterization has always been the major strength on "LOST". Perhaps. But there have been many times during the series' six season run in which some of the characterization seemed to have declined. Think (2.04) "Everybody Hates Hugo"(3.09) "Stranger in a Strange Land"(4.04) "Eggtown" or (4.06) "The Other Woman". But when it came to action-oriented scenes and story arcs, "LOST" was truly in its element. And "Exodus" had its share of memorable action-oriented scenes and one truly chilling one. 

My favorite action scenes included the expedition to the Black Rock, Leslie Artz's death, and Sayid and Charlie's search for Danielle and the kidnapped Aaron. However, one of the better scenes featured the Black Rock expedition's encounter with the Smoke Monster (aka the Man in Black) and the latter's attempt to drag Locke into some hole. When I think about it, some of the most effective action scenes during the series' first four seasons featured the Smoke Monster. But not even the Smoke Monster's attack upon Locke, Jack, Kate and Hurley was nothing in compare to what happened to the castaways on Michael's raft. In what I believe to be one of the most chilling scenes in the series' history, Walt ended up being kidnapped by the Others. Between the night setting, the violent attack upon the raft passengers and Walt's cries as he was being carried away by his kidnappers still leaves chills within me, even after six years.

My recent viewing of "Exodus" also left me pondering about some of the characters and events. While my family and I were watching those moments leading up to Walt's kidnapping, we found ourselves openly wondering what would have happened if Sawyer and Walt had not convinced Michael to fire that flare gun. Because once he did, the Others managed to find them within minutes. While reading some of the reviews and posts about this episode, I noticed that back in 2005, many assumed that Charlie would resume taking drugs after he found the Virgin Mary statuettes filled with heroin. Considering how Locke "helped" Charlie get over his drug addiction in (1.06) "House of the Rising Sun", I am not surprised that Charlie took one of those statuettes. In fact, I believe that Charlie did the right thing. Only he could really help himself get over his drug addiction. All Locke did was manipulate him into doing something that he had never volunteered to do in the first place. That is not real help.

Jack may be a controlling and doubting ass at times, but I found myself sympathizing with him during his conversation with Locke about the island. The fact that Locke believed that opening the hatch would lead to his "destiny" and his willingness to be dragged away by the Smoke Monster made me realize that the latter had been right in Season Six - Locke was a chump. He had spent most of his time on the island believing that he had to delve its mysteries in order to achieve some kind of destiny and the position of being special. And when Locke told Jack that the late Boone Carlyle had been a sacrifice that the island demanded, I am surprised that the good doctor managed to refrain from shooting him. If I had been in Jack's shoes, I would have shot him. I realize that it would have been the wrong thing to do, but I still would have shot him. I just do not see how Locke could justify Boone's death in that manner. 

"Exodus" has its flaws that I found worthy of a head shake, including some questionable flashbacks and the story arc featuring Kate and the dynamite sticks. But most of the episode featured some excellent writing that included great emotional moments and action sequences, along with first-rate acting by most of the cast. Not surprisingly, it is not only one of my favorite season finales of "LOST", but also one of my favorite episodes period.

Tuesday, January 3, 2017

"FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD" (1967) Photo Gallery

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Below are images from "FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD", the 1967 adaptation of Thomas Hardy's 1874 novel. Directed by John Schlesinger, the movie starred Julie Christie, Terence Stamp, Peter Finch and Alan Bates: 


"FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD" (1967) Photo Gallery