Spectre (***1/2) is unfinished business, all the time

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Spectre – 2015

Director Sam Mendes
Starring Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Monica Bellucci, Ralph Fiennes, Rory Kinnear
Screenplay John Logan, Neal Purvis, Robert Wade, Jez Butterworth

The Daniel Craig era of James Bond films have been marked with a higher personal stake, more viciousness and aside from Dame Judy Dench’s M, an entirely different cast of supporting players. That we never see Moneypenny and Q until the third film bespoke of a confidence in the star power of Craig and the idea that they had more going on than the same old gimmicks and gadgets that killed Brosnan’s momentum a decade ago.

So now, after one of the most highly celebrated and profitable entrants in the series, we get a Bond with all of the earmarks of comfort and familiarity, and damn if it doesn’t amount to less. There is always the danger in a Bond film where the advertisements overwhelm the substance. If the story is anything less than stellar, if the consequences are anything but insurmountable, it just boils down to how good Bond looks driving a car, wearing a suit, drinking high end booze, etc…

The first entry of the Craig films managed to embrace and subvert the genre, and this continued with the subsequent entries. This time there just isn’t enough to bring us out of that malaise of product moving through the pictures with this most objectified male.

That story starts with Bond in Mexico for the Day of the Dead. He is on the trail of Marco Sciarra at the behest of Dench’s M, who left him a posthumous message to find and kill the target. His doing so prevents a major catastrophe by causing a minor one, and of course this good deed leads to his suspension back home. Back at headquarters, he is apprised of his and M’s (Fiennes) new Boss, C (Scott). This turn of events is courtesy of a new Joint Intelligence Service. This privately backed surveillance movement is brought on with a recent confluence of tragedies that have happened around the world. Of course the fact that Bond prevented one of these in Mexico City will eventually be revealed, but only after Bond ignores his suspension and heads off to Rome.

What happens there I will leave for the viewer to experience. It’s not the deepest of plots, especially the way they try to pull together the bad acts from all of the previous Craig Bond films and make it one concentrated effort. Even though, you know, it wasn’t at the time we were seeing it.

So how is Waltz as a bad guy?  Underwhelming would be a good first impression. Competent seems more appropriate after giving it some thought. Who he is and what he’s got going on is something close to the plot of Captain America: Winter Soldier.  Bond is not nearly as horrified by the concepts as Steve Rogers. For Bond, it’s really about protecting the girl (Seydoux).

The girl is Dr. Madeleine Swann, a psychologist who is the daughter of Mr. White from the earlier entries. How they tie into the plot is not quite as important as that she looks good in an evening gown, can handle a gun and become a captive for Bond to save before the big explosion. Seydoux is one of the prettiest Bond girls thus far witnessed, and they do give her some resonance.  The inexplicable spot they place her in the third act makes her as much a spare part as any of the others.

Dave Bautista is excellent as Waltz’ heavy, if your qualification for excellent be something akin to Richard Kiel’s Jaws. He gives a good fight and exits stage left somewhat painfully, if ambiguously. We may see him again.

Wishaw, Harris, Fiennes and Kinnear all do their best as bit players. They are more cheeky looking than Cruise’s M:I gang, but they have fewer comic lines. They do have as many crucial moments, even if we are sure they are not going to bite it this time since we lost a big player last time. This surety hurts any thoughts of surprise, no matter how good it looks.

The last act plays almost like a video game sequence, which is a bummer, because the setting is kind of cool. The overall effect, much like the film, is cool to look at, but not as epic as the film’s many scribes probably intended.

Mendes does a wonderful job framing each shot with the delicacy of an ad campaign, while still giving way to menace when necessary. If he had more to work with, I am sure it would have been a better product.

If this is Craig’s last film, it is a shame. The series did not reach the status it could have if we had found some connection to the previous Bonds, as was hinted in the making of Skyfall. If Sean Connery could have been there instead of Albert Finney, then we have a brand new ballgame. As it stands, the talk about which finely sculpted form will fill the suit is all of the rage now, and soon this film will be as well remembered as Die Another Day.

(***1/2 out of *****)

 

 

 

Joy (****) – Norma Rae can stuff it

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Joy – 2015

Written and Directed by David O. Russell
Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Robert De Niro, Edgar Ramirez, Diane Ladd, Virginia Madsen, Isabella Rossellini, Bradley Cooper, Elisabeth Röhm, Dascha Polanco

If there is a special ability portrayed by the actors and director of Joy, it’s that none of this feels that much like a movie. This half-fiction portrayal of the life of the creator of the Miracle Mop has way more truth in it than one would expect for something that is laced with this much drama. In contrast to the good but mostly method acting of the leads in The Big Short, when watching mega-star Jennifer Lawrence inhabit the life of the titular working class hero, it is remarkable how much we don’t realize we are watching Jennifer Lawrence.

Much of the first act shows Joy in a miserable state. She is a single mother of two kids with a job that is going nowhere. Her divorced father (De Niro) is handed back to her by his current girlfriend. He moves in downstairs…where her own ex-husband (Ramirez) lives. Her mother (Madsen) inhabits one room, her grandmother (Ladd) another. She does most of the cleaning and repair work.

One day while mopping up a mess on his father’s new girlfriend (Rossellini) Trudy’s boat, she cuts her hand on some glass. The effect is an awakening of a long-dormant mechanism in her psyche that provides solutions to problems in the form of inventions. Following her instinct for the first time in years, she goes for it. Through much negotiating with her father and his girlfriend and some fantastic support from her husband and her best friend (Polanco).

This is not without bumps in the road, some of them real, some added for extra dramatic effect. Either way, the journey from her miserable existence to salvation through QVC is one worthy of the document. Russell, Lawrence and Cooper, as QVC executive Neil Walker, do a fantastic job giving voice to the millions of people who spend each day watching their television for community and ideas to make their lives better in some small way.

There is a moment, after Joy arrives to the QVC studios, waits all day and gets an interview where it seems as though it’s another dead end. Walker stops her presentation, takes her on a tour, and explains the importance of his work and how much it matters. Looking in Joy’s eyes, we see that she is buying what Walker is selling. In this moment, we buy in as well.

Don’t ever think that the world owes you anything, because it doesn’t. The world doesn’t owe you a thing.

The performances, for the most part, are sublime. The only time the film goes off course is with the fictional character Peggy (Röhm) and her effect on her father. There is a lot of talk about ‘having ideas too.’ It is a creative miss having De Niro switch back and forth between helpful and a kook that sides with odd suggestions better suited to a Wes Anderson film.  They should have replaced the weak and contrived last act with a bolstered middle act with more depth to the colorful and original supporting characters, we would have perfection.

This is Lawrence’s film though. Understandably, they threw the corn fed dramatic twists in there to give her something more to stand up against, just like Norma Rae. Norma Rae be damned. I always preferred Places in the Heart. Lawrence has enough material here navigating through Madsen, Ladd, De Niro and Rossellini to carry the day. Watching her move back and forth between various problems presented, solutions created, help offered and received is enough to fill one’s heart with the pleasure of knowing people like Joy exist.  Joy will push through, even if the world doesn’t owe her a thing.

(**** out of *****)

The Big Short (****) counts on us not liking bad news

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The Big Short – 2015

Director Adam McKay
Screenplay Charles Randolph and McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling, Brad Pitt, Marisa Tomei, Tracy Letts, Hamish Linklater, John Magaro, Byron Mann, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, Finn Wittrock, Melissa Leo

There are a whole bunch of facts being spit out in The Big Short. Director and writer Adam McKay spent many months consolidating the tons of individual twists and turns into a concise set of basic facts. In short, it boiled down to this: the con job that started back in the late ’70’s and continued right on through the Obama administration boiled down to the mirage that Wall Street finance is all too complicated for regular people. What’s more, people don’t like bad news, so the bad guys are more than willing to relabel it as AAA good news.

It takes someone looking honestly at the numbers to figure out that each tiny little bad deal, when bundled together with a bunch of other bad deals can lead to a very bad place. And if one is paying close attention and has no compunction, they can profit from this.

The Big Short is four stories of such a thing happening just in front of the 2007-2008 financial collapse that changed the world and found another way for the little people to pay for the folly of the 1% with the help of the government.

The first one to notice is reclusive hedge fund manager Michael Burry (Bale). In 2005, he notices a growing instability in the U.S. housing market. He sees the trend of high risk subprime loans resulting in fewer and fewer returns. After trying to explain this to those who want to imagine that it is more complicated, he goes in both barrels and creates a credit default swap market in order to cash in on the likelihood of the housing market collapsing in 2nd quarter 2007.

The swath he cuts through the New York banking industry gets back to bank trader Jared Vennet (Gosling). Soon it occurs to him that Burry understands something that no one else is even contemplating. He uses this knowledge to place his own wager on the credit default swap market and convinces Mark Baum (Carell) to join in on the effort. Baum and his team further uncover that the sale of collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) are exacerbating the pending collapse.

Two young investors, Charlie Geller (Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Wittrock) stumble across some of Vennett’s information and quickly decide to follow suit. Their lack of gravitas in the market leads them to pull in retired and reclusive banker Ben Rickert (Pitt) to back them.

How all of them fare in their efforts is up to the viewer to experience. It can be said that this film is a surreal experience in light of the fact that most certainly everyone who watches will have known someone who has been horribly affected by this tragic swindle. We are literally watching groups of people race to the feeding trough to gorge upon the misery of others. McKay does a good job of disguising the distaste, however, by putting these despicable characters in the company of even more despicable characters.

The acting is strictly method. Everyone pushes caricature to the limit. Carell is the one that is too honest. Bale is the one that is too eccentrically smart. Gosling is the sleaze with no regrets. Pitt is the brilliant recluse who admonishes others from being too excited about profiting off the misery, but goes right on and helps them to do it.

The real star here, though, is McKay. He acts as though there is no fourth wall, but what’s more, he busts everything down to the point where it’s easy to see how everyone was duped:

They took the Emperor’s cash that he was taking from the people and they gave him back an empty wardrobe. Then the Emperor took more cash from the people.

McKay’s direction and script breaks it down brilliantly and with unconventional guest appearances. He makes the material as palatable as possible, and funnier than one would think could be possible. He gets the most out of his undercard of actors, especially Magaro, Wittrock, Linklater, Strong and Spall. This movie moves best with the actors aren’t as familiar with, even if the leads do a decent job of holding their own.

I will watch this again. Because, really, I still don’t know if I completely understand it, even with all of McKay’s help. I can’t say I will put it up there as a completely enjoyable experience. Maybe if I didn’t realize how much it really is just bad news that will likely affect us all the rest of our lives.

(**** out of *****)

Sicario (****1/2): The depth of darkness

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Sicario – 2015

Director Denis Villeneuve
Cinematography Roger Deakins
Screenplay Taylor Sheridan
Starring Emily Blunt, Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Victor Garber, Daniel Kaluuya, Maximiliano Hernández, Jon Bernthal, Bernardo P. Saracino

Easily the one of the top films of 2015, Sicario pulls you in from the first moments of Roger Deakins amazing camera work and does not let go until everything fades to black. The story is a labyrinthian journey for FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) into the world of the CIA in the never ending battle against Mexican drug cartels. Her CIA counterparts, Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (del Toro) sense an opportunity with her and she volunteers to work with them to further her efforts at investigating her own case.

That the CIA plays by different rules is a given. Their motives never do seem to be the same. After discovering that Gillick has a past in Mexico, they surprise her when they perform a bloody extradition of the cartel’s top men. Having the chance to prosecute a heavyweight in the states, Kate is overruled.  Eventually the two to let her know their true goal: to mess up cartel operations until the U.S. cartel head of operations Diaz (Saracino) is called back home to Mexico.

Everything works in this film. All the actors are completely absorbed into the sequence of events to the extent that it really feels like a much more complex story than it is. Leading the way are Blunt and del Toro. Both performances would be the best in just about anyone else’s career. del Toro in particular holds the viewer with a gravity that rivals his Oscar winning performance in Traffic.

Villeneuve is one of the best directors alive. He his streak is 3 near-classics and counting. His sensibility is one of quiet observation. He allows the viewer to draw his own conclusions on what they are seeing, without pushing even subtly in any direction. His work brings Fincher to mind, with a sense of humor dry as the Arizona desert. His work is given it’s most depth to date in the lens of Deakins. So much to look at with every shot, it would be a pleasure to watch even if there were no plot.

The plot is serviceable, but pushed to greatness with the aforementioned talents. Sheridan is Sheriff Hale from Sons of Anarchy. This is his first published work and he’s planning on working with Villeneuve and del Toro on a follow up. My interest in the sequel will hinge on their continued partnership.

(****1/2 out of *****)

The Revenant (***1/2): It’s mostly true…mostly

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The Revenant – 2015

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Hardy, Domhnall Gleeson, Will Poulter, Forrest Goodluck, Grace Dove, Paul Anderson, Brendan Fletcher, Melaw Nakehk’o, Duane Howard, Lukas Haas
Screenplay Iñárritu and Mark L. Smith based on the novel by Michael Punke
Cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki

There is something off-putting about The Revenant. The violence, the beauty and the acting is remarkable. The story upon which it is based is remarkable, even if it has less to do with revenge and more a desire to get one’s gun back. The cinematography is without peer. Somewhere, though…somehow, someone forgot to tell someone about the process of hypothermia.

Just about everyone takes an inadvertent dip in freezing water in this story in the dead of winter along the “…ascent of the river Missouri.” Some characters spend a good deal of their time in the rivers and streams, even those who are battling rot from various wounds obtained in a variety of ways. Fires are small and hard to build. Still, everyone just sleeps on through the night and moves out each day; even if they have a big load to carry. For a movie that features perhaps the most shockingly real bear attack I have ever seen, I could not get it out of my head how easily everyone seemed to dry up between scenes.

The story is expounded from the tale told about Hugh Glass (DiCaprio), a  scout, trapper and tall tale teller among those who followed Lewis & Clark out across the lands Jefferson bought from France. These men were the hearty sort. Rugged, bearded and dirty as hell. Each version of Glass, historical and cinematic, acted as a scout for General William Henry Ashley’s corps of some 100 fur traders. Leonardo’s Glass brings along his half-Pawnee son as a fellow scout Hawk (Goodluck) and all-around punching bag for the less enlightened of the crew. Since it is the beginning of the story, we know that his son is the flashpoint for the action. Sure enough, as fast as one can say “where is the mother of those cubs?” Leo is in a position that renders him helpless to protect the boy.

It is no secret to anyone who has seen the cover of the novel or any of the commercials for the film: this is a story of revenge. That Tom Hardy’s Fitzgerald is the one being sought after for said revenge makes sense because he shares billing. That Will Poulter’s Jim Bridger is the other guy around when the shit hits the fan should tell you that he is safe from vengeance. I mean, come on: Jim Bridger.

Leo has many rivers to hide and fall in before he gets his chance at revenge. He also is embroiled in a subplot added to the film about some native and noble Arikara tribesmen who seek one of their daughters who has been kidnapped by some lousy French trappers. We understand: white people are bad, but the French…they are French.

There is a particularly annoying moment in the film that serves to undercut a remarkable sequence that led up to it. Nearing starvation and all sorts of other bad stuff, Glass comes across a wise, noble and gentle Pawnee. The man shows compassion for Glass over many days, giving him food, comfort and medical assistance. Then, one day, Glass wakes up from a cocoon like structure to discover his new friend is gone.

I will leave it to you to find out what the French trappers do to him. Iñárritu doesn’t have them playing scrabble. If he did, it can be assured that the highest scoring words would be “man,” “inhumanity.” “to” and “man.”

This does take away from much of the beauty in Lubezki’s peerless cinematography. Almost each moment of this film feels fresh and makes one feel that they are inhaling crisp, clean air. Sure, there are a lot of scroungy looking guys wearing dead animal carcasses filling up the screen with blood. Beyond that, it’s all so nice and natural looking.

DiCaprio does some of his best acting here. It’s nearly undone by endlessly meandering dream sequences meant to give the already dreary story an even more immense feeling of dread. Somewhere in all of this rich symbolism, a great story turns into an average one.

If I fail to mention much about Tom Hardy, well, he does some decent work here. He’s been better, but he’s rarely been better liked than this year, what with Mad Max making a crazy comeback. His efforts here recall the charisma of Bane in The Dark Knight Rises. In case you are wondering, that’s not a Hans Gruber or Hannibal Lecter range of charisma. It’s closer to say, Robert Duvall in True Grit.

Movies that push reality as an artistic concept are a bit much for this reviewer. People back then ate meat. People in this film pretend to eat meat, and throw it up. It makes things harder to be in the moment when one pictures the actors, directors and their staff all having a lunch back in their decked out trailers that consists of a vegan salad with kale as a highlight.

Maybe that is where they get warmed up and dry before the camera rolls the next remarkable shot.

Let’s not get crazy, though. This is a good movie. It has distractions that keep several aspects from greatness, but it’s worth a once through.

It would be one thing if the story played a little closer to Hang ‘Em High and a bit less artificially constructed as A Beautiful Mind. The Academy never gave any awards to the first movie, though. The original Glass just wanted his gun back from Fitzgerald. DiCaprio’s Glass has to have a victim-class son to avenge. If that’s not enough, he gets caught evaluating the meaning of revenge at a crucial moment. This is not exciting. This is theatre in the woods.

The Hateful Eight (Roadshow Edition) ****1/2 is a study of balance

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The Hateful Eight – 2015

Written and Directed by Quentin Tarantino
Starring  Samuel L. Jackson, Kurt Russell, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Walton Goggins, Demián Bichir, Tim Roth, Michael Madsen, Bruce Dern, Lee Horsley, Zoë Bell, James Park, Gene Jones, Dana Gourrier

That actors save their best performances for Quentin Tarantino is certainly not a surprise. That he continues to pull new good actors from the fringes is even less of a surprise. Samuel L. Jackson is consistently the best actor in the world when he boldly announces Tarantino’s words, even the one that Spike Lee doesn’t want him to use. This movie is no exception on that front, but he gets a lot of help here, too.

The genius within The Hateful Eight is that one never does secure a sense of balance. Even though the film takes place in a small, rickety inn for much of its three hour running time, there is nothing in the film that amounts to a sure thing as the eight of the title becomes seven, six, five…etc.

The bare essence of a story that only exists as bare essence is Kurt Russell as bounty hunter John Ruth, also known as “The Hangman.” Give you two guesses and a biscuit if you can figure why he has that name. When he comes across Jackson’s Major Marquis Warren just ahead of a blizzard, they have a discussion about their shared trade of hunting bounties. Warren, sitting atop a pile of dead bounties when we see him, first prefers the more certain thing of carrying the dead. Russell, for philosophical reasons, but really more as a contrivance of plot, prefers to watch them hang.

John ‘The Hangman’ Ruth: No one said this job was supposed to be easy.
Major Marquis Warren: Nobody said it’s supposed to be that hard, either!

But hard it has to be, so onward they go, until the blizzard stops them from getting to their destination of Red Rock. Instead, they land at Minnie’s Haberdashery. They find that Minne (Gourier) and her constant, lazy companion Sweet Dave (Jones) have left a Mexican named Bob (Bachir) in charge while she went to visit her ill mother. Most people will be able to piece together the chances of this being true, especially since it takes place in the third of six chapters. There is still a long way to go, but don’t start patting yourself on the back yet, genius.

That we find the rest of the eight there helps us to settle in with the characters to wait out the storm as tensions rise inside. The best scene in Tarantino’s last film, Django Unchained, takes place in the dining room. The terseness of the dialogue is matched only by the thoughts running through everyone’s head, made delightfully obvious by their demeanor and their faces. For anyone who enjoyed that scene, The Hateful Eight should be an utter delight.

The last two acts of the film take place like a vise slowly increasing its grip on the viewer. Every time one thinks they have sure footing on what’s going on, Tarantino yanks on the rug just enough so it’s necessary to reestablish footing. Some of this is predictable, yes. Some of this is built on plot holes and gaps in logic by the characters.  None of this matters because when you are experiencing the journey from Tarantino’s script to his camera lens, it’s easy to get caught up in the rapture of the process.

The cast is remarkable. There is not one bad or even mediocre performance. If I have a blind spot in movies (who’s counting?) it is definitely Samuel L. Jackson. He’s the only reason I even watch Star Wars Episode II Attack of the Clones anymore. The Tarantino / Jackson movie marriage is one of the best things I have ever experienced watching film. It’s more than Jules Winnfield by a longshot. Here is no exception. Jackson captures the movie with his wise and ruthless Warren. It pays to keep your eyes and ears trained to the Major, but not at the expense of watching his surroundings.

Leigh’s role as prisoner Daisy Domergue is rife with opportunity, and of course she makes the most of it. Her performance is less a victim and more catbird. She comes across more powerfully than the man that has her in chains. She’s funny and menacing both. Her increasing number of ailments throughout only add to the thought of the punishment that would be inflicted once she is unbound.

That Russell is the one delivering the punishment with her in chains makes it somewhat certain that at some point that circumstances will change. His job here is a tough one, because no one ever expects the prisoner at the start of a story to stay one throughout. He chews almost as much scenery as Jackson and Leigh, however. The camera still, after all of these years, loves that aged denim countenance.

That Tarantino misses some spots in his storytelling is obfuscated by his talent for tension building. For every moment one wonders how in the heck a certain character missed a certain clue, we are treated to incredible dialogue and a penchant for human observations one will not find anywhere else. He is not my favorite filmmaker, but his quality is ever constant and never diminishing. He long ago shed the wunderkind moniker and moved into the role of auteur. His energy is fresh as ever, even as his imitators have long ago stopped getting budgets for new projects.

The Roadshow aspect of the film is an example of his obsessive love for movie history. If it seems like overkill to some, it seems a fitting tribute to the art for others. I know I will be keeping my program, since it might be the last one we see in 50 years.

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Is The Hateful Eight his best?  No, that will always be Jackie Brown, I think. It’s right there near the top. They are really hard to rank after #1. They all seem like different parts to the whole. If you are a fan or just appreciate the art, give this one your attention as soon as you can find a 70mm screen. It’s worth it.

(****1/2 out of *****)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (***1/2) There’s always another weapon

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Director J.J. Abrams
Starring Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow, Gwendoline Christie
Screenplay by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, Michael Arndt

Everyone wants Star Wars to succeed. Heck if I had never seen the first film (Episode IV) at age 7, this blog wouldn’t exist. That would only cause the small ripple in the force. Really tiny. Teeniny. In one fell swoop George Lucas blew the doors off of theaters and changed the landscape of our cinematic future. This, like the rest of his journey, is part of the cultural fabric of the world, even if each film after The Empire Strikes Back lessened its impact. None of this being news, the history stops here.

The future began today. It is hopeful, bright, awkward, and full of good intentions. That it fails almost a third of the time is of little effect to the power of that other two-thirds. The best thing possible arrives in this new package, and that is the hope of new and unfamiliar faces in a familiar, lived in world.

The film makes a bold statement by giving us no one we recognize for the first 30+ minutes. The Stormtroopers are new, their commanders are new. The hotshot pilot (Isaac) and his cute little robot is new. Two other new heroes emerge from the events.

Finn (Boyega) is a Stormtrooper who, in the midst of action, finds his conscience. This does not go unnoticed by Kylo Renn (Driver) and Captain Phasma (Christie). Their suspicions are not acted on quickly enough, though, and soon he is on the run with some valuable cargo.

Something even more precious, BB8, comes across a young scavenger named Rey (Ridley). It takes a while, but the two become aware of one another when Finn recognizes the droid, just before a good portion of The New Order (read: “Nazis…I hate those guys…”) comes down to the planet Jakku and forces them to fly off in garbage.

This is as far as I go in this spoiler free review. From here I will discuss the intent, execution and effect of the film on this lifelong fan.

The point of this film is to re-establish a universe familiar to most people past voting age. I could go earlier, but that depends on your parenting style. The purpose of this story is to open doors that our mind has wanted to see ever since the last Ewok sacrificed his life to bring down the Empire. In this, the filmmakers succeed.

The worlds – even the new ones – are all comfortably familiar, and it’s inhabitants seem to feel the weight of gravity. This is an important touch overlooked in the prequels and it does much in the way of restoring the viewer’s sense of the world of Luke, Leia and Han. The new characters have talent, power and they have flaws. They start here, but we have the sense that they are going to grow…fast.

We need the older cast to act as a bit of a salve to smooth over the rougher, unfamiliar parts. Think of it as Bill Shatner in Star Trek Generations. Maybe with a little less horseback riding and wood chopping.

The biggest success of The Force Awakens comes in the form of the characters of Rey and Finn. Both have big questions in their background that the film wisely avoids lingering on. We get it, there is something more. Both actors feel raw, but are deceptively polished. For the first time since A New Hope, we have an infusion of energy.

Ridley is an absolute find. Her character Rey is given the best storyline and she acts the hell out of it. As a father of two girls, I am overjoyed that there is a heroine for them to rally behind in this story. She completely captures the wonder, the despair and the sense of duty with an absolute minimum of cheese. Star Wars at its best has always been about true hearts and they found one here. She is not without her complexity, however. There are some delightfully big gaps in her history. For no other reason than this, The Force Awakens succeeds.Rey

There is another reason: John Boyega as Finn. The thought of bringing one of the guys out from the daunting white suits and making him human is an inspired one, and they got his reasoning behind it right, for the most part. The way he plays off of the original cast feels much like the way anyone could imagine when working with a legend. He provides intensity and a klutziness that works with the best traditions of the franchise. Finn is buoyant, terrified and bold all at once. That he knows what type of enemy they are facing is a benefit, even if they use that point to create unnecessary drama later. The chemistry between Rey and Finn is palpable and I hope the friendship blooms.

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Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a nice, if somewhat underdeveloped character. He is given some good one liners that are not wasted. It would have been nice to see more of him, even if he’s not on the main stage with the kids. An actor the level of  Oscar Isaac deserves some more scenery to chew, and they are wasting him if they don’t do this in the next film.

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His droid, BB8, is an absolute wonder and something very identifiable for all of those that need a parent to accompany them to the movie. The execution of the character as well as the practical application of effects for many of its scenes is remarkable. For those who never thought R2 could be replaced, they are right. C3P-O sure can be, though.

Not as easy is the handling of Kylo Ren (Driver). We want menace, but end up with something bordering on petulant and whiny. He aspires to be Darth Vader, but ends up somewhere below Anakin. Perhaps it would be more effective were he to show a level of competence to approach that of his rage. It’s is understood that he is lacking skill, but his training in the force seems to be at about the level of, let’s say Tom Cruise in Risky Business.  There is a reason for this that is alluded to in the story. In all, Driver has one or two very effective moments. There are more moments to make one wonder if anyone on either side takes him seriously. This is not a good thing for the main villain.

Kylo

Behind the scenes we have the looming figure of Admiral Snoke. His size is distorted by the fact that he is a hologram. He is intended to give us the feeling of menace on the level of Palpatine in Episode I. Not really sure if it works, but at least they leave enough out that there is something to build towards. My personal hope is that he ends up being Darth Plagueis reborn afterall.

The rest of the cast is represented in a sadly predictable way. What have they done after 30+ years of trying to tie the Republic back together? They’ve all gone their separate ways of course. This ties up the “what should we do with these guys?” part of the story by just bringing them back together.

Han is doing what he does best…smuggling and wandering with Chewie. Then, whenever someone needs something, well, Han knows someone…

Seeing Han and Chewie back together is a thrill when one doesn’t get the sense that they haven’t much seen one another lately. There are several moments involving Han’s discovery of his partner’s Bowcaster that make one wonder. How is it after all of this time, this hasn’t happened before? A little too much force applied in the search for a joke.

For his part, Chewie is funny as usual. His timing is sublime and his heart is our heart when it comes to caring for the characters. If all of his moments are not perfect, it doesn’t matter. Chewie will always be there.

Han is not the elder statesman, but he is a vehicle for exposition, and he does this well enough. His interplay with Rey is unique and somewhat thrilling. The time he spends with Finn is not wasted either. The best line about the force happens here. There is one more relationship that is pretty underdeveloped. The lack of chemistry shows and hurts the effort at poignancy.

As Leia, Carrie Fisher is the film’s biggest weakness. She and Ford show almost no believable affection towards each other. Her character, sadly, is essentially the same as we saw in the latter half of A New Hope. When one sees her (try to) act, it’s a wonder she had that many lines. Her ability to show sarcasm and intensity is gone, replaced by a look of weariness. She literally has no range of expression and this really hurts during key moments. Admiral Ackbar shows more range than she can at this point. I can’t see them using her even this much in the subsequent films if they want to keep the mood from approaching moroseness.

Artoo and Threepio don’t add much, and really they don’t need to with BB8 around. The reasoning behind having less Threepio is understandable, and the lines they fed him are more groan inducing than funny. It would have been nice to have the R2-D2 around more and it’s kind of an insult the way they treat him. His utility far exceeded most of the characters in the first 6 films, and it’s apparent that this was forgotten.

This all goes to exemplifying the biggest frustration: the script. What a shame after all of the years they had to make an Episode VII, once Disney got their hands on the property, they didn’t do more to develop the story. They get several elements right, especially when it comes to developing side characters like Maz Kanata (Nyong’o). The story comes off as more a landing pad than an intentional point A to point B thing.

When original writer Michael Arndt told Disney he needed 18 months to develop something, they called it creative differences and put him to the side. They should have kept him. For all the waxing poetic about Kasdan and his magical ability, he and Abrams didn’t do anything special at all with this story except leave some questions to be answered, hopefully by better writing. Kasdan is spoken of like some lost Jedi writer, but if you’ve seen his career since Grand Canyon, you’d think we have Luke Skywalker, the Vegas years. If you don’t believe me, try watching The Bodyguard. Heck, try French Kiss. Just try to get through Darling Companion. I dare you.

Abrams, for his part, shows that his hot streak was definitely over at Star Trek Into Darkness. What he brings to this universe is the same thing he brought to that film: incredible style. His propensity to use practical effects is a definite win for fans of the original series. His intention to give us back the bright, but still lived in Star Wars universe works where his and Kasdan’s ability to rework original ideas into old characters and plotlines fail.

Fans of his first Star Trek reboot will recognize elements of the big weapon here. Fans of the original trilogy will react about the same way Han Solo does when he learns about it. This is not a good thing. Why does there always have to be a big weapon? As bad as the prequels were, at least they didn’t go that route.

The last act of the film really writes itself, Griffin Mill style. It makes all of the effort to build something at the outset feel insincere, even with the last image we see.

Star Wars is back. This is a good thing. That there is room to improve can also be seen as a positive. A new director and new writers for each successive film is a good thing too. I just hope they eventually find time to fully develop a story worthy of the characters.

(***1/2 out of *****)

Vacation (**) is not fun for anyone

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Vacation – 2015

Written and Directed by Jonathan Goldstein, John Francis Daley
Starring  Ed Helms, Christina Applegate, Skyler Gisondo, Steele Stebbins, Leslie Mann, Beverly D’Angelo, Chris Hemsworth, Chevy Chase

The original Vacation was a work of the upwardly mobile talent of Harold Ramis and John Hughes. It also featured perhaps the last performance of Chevy Chase before it all started going downhill. It’s a classic, even if there were 3 (or was it 4?) subpar sequels with Chase and poor Beverly D’Angelo as the only returning “talent.” Yeah, I know, Christmas Vacation is supposed to be good. It isn’t.

The two recurring actors make another appearance in this attempt at a restarting of the franchise. It’s sad to see Chase reduced to one of his tired routines (the bumbling Gerald Ford), but it’s been sad watching him in anything since Fletch. That’s enough of about Chevy Chase. There are worse things to talk about.

There’s the feces filled hot springs in Arkansas. There’s the stupid European car that is supposed to be a plug in hybrid with two gas tanks and a completely moronic remote that is supposed to run every aspect of it. There is the fight at Walley World. Yeah, they went back to Walley World. There’s the 12 hour flight to Paris. Then there is the line up  at the Four Corners monument. Labored jokes: all of them.

This is not a good film. It’s not a bad film. It’s slightly below average. That is a bad place to be, but the bar is pretty low.  Really, the film can’t help but be better than all of the films post-Ramis and Hughes. There are enough guest cameos to qualify it as a Muppet movie. It’s got Helms and Applegate as Rusty and his wife Debbie and they alone improve things over Clark and Ellen. Poor Beverly D’Angelo.

Ed Helms’ Rusty is a passable paterfamilias. He suffers some of the ways that his own father does, but he puts a slightly different twist on it.  If there is a problem, it’s that most of the Rustys that we saw earlier had their finger on the pulse of cool. Ed Helms doesn’t go that route because, well, it’s not within his range. Singing poorly is within his range. My daughter, watching with me, said she’s tired of his singing. Me too.

Applegate’s Ellen wears discontent in shades that are familiar to me because I have spent enough time disappointing my wife the same way. The little detour that allows us to discover her life before Rusty is a little like the life we imagined Anthony Michael Hall’s Rusty would have experienced. Here we have Ed Helms playing…Ed Helms.

The relationship between the brothers is an attempt to really mix things up, but it comes across as weird in a labored way. Covering one’s head with a plastic bag for a gag is a big risk to take. If you go for that one, the joke better not be average. The younger boy picking on the older one is a perspective that works at first, but when it wears off, it is embarrassing.

Some of the stops along the way have their moments, especially visiting Audrey and her husband Stone (Mann and Hemsworth) and a little bit of the Grand Canyon. Most of the punchlines are lame. And when the physical comedy fails, they are sure to run it into the ground with some lame one liners.

Daley and Goldstein keep getting work, but I can’t tell that they’ve done anything that entirely deserves new work. Horrible Bosses is okay, but really, that is all. They do provide a great example of how hard it is to do good comedy. And now they get to do the new Spider-Man movie. Ugh.

Vacation is not a good way to spend your free time, especially if the weather outside is half-way decent. If you are a shut-in, or down to one good leg, I suppose you could do worse.

(** out of *****)

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse (**1/2): Doesn’t try real hard

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Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse – 2015

Director Christopher B. Landon
Starring Tye Sheridan, David Koechner, Logan Miller, Joey Morgan, Sarah Dumont, Halston Sage, Cloris Leachman, Niki Koss, Patrick Schwarzenegger
Screenplay Carrie Evans, Emi Mochizuki, Christopher B. Landon

Scouts Guide to the Zombie Apocalypse tries to be smart. It tries to have heart. But not that hard.

Its mission is simple: what if three overgrown boy scouts actually found their overripe children’s survival skills are useful in helping them to survive the beginning of the end. We can expect to see a pocket knife, a variety of knots and an attempt to start a fire without matches. Then there should be a creative death or two. Even more creative dispatching of zombies.

The best of the movie is no more than 2 or 3 gags. One involves a toothless Cloris Leachman and the other has someone hanging by a zombie appendage. The best might just be an innumerable number of cat eyes in the dark.

Overall, though, it’s a thoroughly average, if likeable film. The three protagonists (Sheridan, Miller and Morgan) and the woman (Dumont) that they survive with have decent chemistry. They handle the embarrassing parts of the script like good soldiers, so when it’s time to kick some zombie ass, we are happy enough to root them on.

The effects vary from average to bad. The dialogue has its moments  of inspiration (“It smells like Pixie Stix and hope in here.”). Then there is a lame attempt to mock Islamic terrorism by picking the least likely group to seek revenge at this point (the Taliban).

Ultimately, this is nothing that Tye Sheridan or his co-stars will have to erase from his resume. It has that going for it. Koechner is like a more accessible (and sane) version of Randy Quaid. He is willing to put himself in any position for a laugh. I am still waiting for him to take a dump in a urinal. I believe I could watch Halston Sage in anything.

There is nothing here I will think of in a week from now, when I am at an Imax theater watching Star Wars make it’s triumphant return to the big screen. It’s good enough for a once through.

(**1/2 out of *****)

Creed (****): One step at a time, one round at a time…

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Creed – 2015

Director Ryan Coogler
Starring Michael B. Jordan, Sylvester Stallone, Tessa Thompson, Phylicia Rashād, Tony Bellew, Graham McTavish
Screenplay Coogler, Aaron Covington, Stallone

As a tribute to a classic series, Ryan Coogler could not have taken a better angle. The thought of Rocky’s kid taking the throne was mercifully left in the garbage bin of history with the last proper entry in the Rocky movie series. He’s a guy working in Vancouver now, he’s got a girlfriend, he’s not all that into being a Balboa in the city of brotherly love.

Adonis Johnson (Jordan) is not officially a Creed at the start of the story about his father’s legacy. We don’t see his real mother, and we don’t see any of his half siblings. Instead, we have Rashād taking over the role of Mary Anne Creed from  Sylvia Meals, who passed in 2011, may she rest in peace. The opening act of the story sees Mary Anne adopting the ever-fighting, always angry Adonis. She takes him into her home, gives him the life he deserves, regardless of his out of wedlock conception, and treats him like blood. It’s not enough for him.

Adonis gets a promotion at a financial corporation over a decade later, but he doesn’t even stay long enough to tell his mother what the office looks like. He’s been moonlighting as a boxer over the border in Mexico. Even though he can’t get a whiff at his father’s old gym with Duke’s son, who is also a trainer, he cuts his cords and moves to Philadelphia, to seek out his father’s greatest competitor.

It’s at this point the signals begin to be mixed. Referring to Balboa as “Unc,” Creed wears down the old man into training him. He proves his relationship by sharing old stories. Even if that which is driving him to become a prizefighter is not revealed, Rocky doesn’t need that much convincing to start trading platitudes while making his protege do the hard work.

The story has a similar romantic arc as the first Rocky film, but it has a sweetness that is completely original with a twist that allows the contemporary angle seem more appropriate than coincidental. Thompson’s Bianca is no wallflower, like Adrian. What she is gives both Bianca and Adonis more character within a love story since Rocky convinced Adrian to skate with him so many years ago.

Stallone is remarkable in the same vein as he was in the Rocky Balboa. His touch is remarkably and deftly simple. Either Coogler did a remarkable amount of homework for the script, or he just told Stallone to just do what we all know he can. This is the most vulnerable performance of Stallone’s career. After all the stupid action films (a few of them named Rocky) and so many plastic surgeries, his aging is as graceful as anything I have seen outside of Clint Eastwood. This film should net him a nomination for supporting actor. But then, who the hell knows after they snubbed Samuel L. Jackson for Django Unchained.

It’s not enough, though, to say he’s worthy of accolades. As he nears the age that Meredith reached when he trained Balboa, we see the old champ pick and choose things that worked for him as an amalgam of his own path. It would have been easier to say, well, “Mick did this and Creed  did that.” This is a man who has his own history, some of which we see, much of it we did not. His path has been that of a simple man that many of us can relate to as we age. Inside such a big heart, such a grasp on reality, and always moving one step forward.

Time is undefeated,” says Balboa early on. At least we get the pleasure of seeing Rock enjoy it’s passage. Even through the pain of each loss.

As Adonis “Creed” Johnson, Jordan gives a solid performance. He has many subtleties and layers, as we see him play off of the ghost of a cinematic legend and the shell of another one. The biggest challenge is playing off the anger with the lighter moments, and his performance hits every note it needs to squarely. If he can’t rise up to the challenge of one of the great characters of all storytelling history, it doesn’t affect the film. Creed is, to a great degree, more of a blank canvas than the fully developed Rocky was when we first met him. This gives him room to grow, and he will get there.

There are some awkward elements to the fighting in the story, but there are some moments that outshine many of the fights that precede the ones we see here. “No one ever learned anything while they were talking,” is a mantra that this film takes seriously. We see a wildly furious Adonis get roped in by the gentle approach of Balboa’s advice mid-match, and for once in a Rocky film, the younger man takes the advice and benefits.

There is a tactic discussed before the big fight that does not get employed. After considering the advantages of the opponent, Balboa tells Creed how they should approach it and, after a dramatic shift in the story, completely abandons any talk of the plan. We barely see it in the fight, either. It’s a ways away from the blunt force trauma technique used against Mason Dixon.

Perhaps the only problem with Coogler’s intimate filming style is the with the camera angles within the fights themselves. While handheld cameras provide an immediacy that helps with character within the story, inside of the ring the angles are often off kilter and a little disorienting. It’s a small but crucial element that has an effect in the overall tension.

The ending will not come as a surprise to those who have absorbed the best of this series. It doesn’t diminish the feeling coursing through the viewer when the hero connects, however. Everybody hopes against hope. Except my buddy Cool Poppin’ Taco, sitting next to me. As he facetiously said “Creed 2: The Revenge” towards the climax, I told him he could shove it up the old gazoo.

This film touches greatness, and that is enough. One step at a time. One round at a time. I am ready for round two. Again.

(**** out of *****)

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