Monday, December 21, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

-->I adore the original Star Wars films and absolutely despise the prequels (you can read my venom filled review of Revenge of the Sith by clicking here), so when word that we would get a sequel trilogy hit I was highly skeptical and not all that excited. Not even when I heard that George Lucas, who ruined Star Wars with his inept bullshit prequels, was stepping aside to let a new generation of filmmakers take over.  Not even when J.J. Abrams, who revitalized the Star Trek film franchise, was announced as the man taking the reigns. Not even when I saw that 90% of the original trilogy’s cast was returning or that there would be a focus on practical sets over CGI ones. Not even when I heard that Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back (my absolute favorite Star Wars flick) and Return of the Jedi would be scripting the first and possibly the second films in this new series.

Like I said, the prequels did a lot of damage to this once beloved franchise in my eyes and it was going to take a lot wipe those shit stains from my memory and put Star Wars back on top like it once was. But at some point during the long wait for the seventh film in the franchise, The Force Awakens, I started to accept the fact that this new adventure might be the one to do just that - make Star Wars cool again. The trailers looked rad, seeing the returning characters made me feel warm and fuzzy and I felt the same sense of wonder as I did as a child. Don’t get me wrong, my expectations were in check, but I was no longer expecting The Force Awakens to flat out suck. I was ready to become a Star Wars fan once more.
That’s not going to happen anytime soon as I felt The Force Awakens was extremely disappointing.

This will be a spoilerific review, so you have been warned…

SPOILERS TO FOLLOW
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and out of the ashes of the defeated Empire the First Order has arisen. With their newest weapon, the Star Killer Base, they plan to wipe out the rebel Resistance once and for all. The future of the galaxy’s freedom rests in the hands of the young Rey (Daisy Ridley), former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford), his trusty sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and the droid BB-8 (voiced by Bill Hader) when they come across a piece of a map that will lead them to their salvation… the location of Luke.

That sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it? So then why did I find the film so disappointing? Read that description of the plot again. Sounds awfully familiar, right? Where I was expecting The Force Awakens to take us into new territory within the Star Wars universe it turns out that we were led back to the beginning. This is less a sequel and more a remake of the original film. Every beat, every plot point, every character archetype, every development, every location… E-V-E-R-Y-T-H-I-N-G. The subtitle for this film should have been A New Hope 2.0.
So where did it go wrong? Well, Disney and Abrams decided to play it safe. Instead of going off in a new direction for the sequel trilogy they decided to stick to what was already established by basically giving the audience a film that is a retelling of A New Hope and a little bit of the sequels for good measure. I understand why they did it. They wanted to re-introduce Star Wars to the world by showing them that they are following what the original trilogy laid out and that they had learned from the mistakes of the prequels. But did they have to follow it so closely?! This flick follows the outline of the original almost scene for scene. They both start on a desert planet with a young person who yearns for something more, finds a droid (or droids) that carries a secret message, get caught up in the Rebellion while trying to find the person the message is addressed to, meet up with a charming smuggler and his walking dog companion, come face to face with their enemy on their base that can destroy planets, manage to escape and track down the rebels, find out the villain’s base has a flaw they can exploit and formulate a plan to take it out in the most ludicrous way possible, main character dies in the process, Rebels manage to eek out a minor win but the main villain escapes and cue end credits. I’m not kidding. This is the story progression from both A New Hope and The Force Awakens. Lazy, lazy, lazy.

And once again the story is all about random yet epic coincidences with the characters. In the original film Luke ends up befriending the person who trained his father, teams up with his long lost sister and finds out his nemesis is his Dad. The galaxy is a big place. The chances of this actually happening are probably about a trillion to one. But it’s all in the name of fun. The fact that it all happens again in The Force Awakens is really pushing it. All the new characters end up on the planet where the Millennium Falcon has been junked so when Rey and Finn need to get off planet they steal it. Han happens to be in the same area looking for the Falcon so he hooks up with them and manages to get them to the people they need to find. Rey ends up in a bar where Luke’s lightsaber is in storage and she finds out she’s a Jedi. We find out Kylo is Han and Leia’s son (and Rey may or may not be their daughter), so the family politics are back in play. Ugh. The fact that all these people are finding each other or end up in the exact place they need to be like this is flat out dumb and made my head hurt.
There’s another fucking Death Star! Sure it’s called the Star Killer Base, but it’s the same thing, only more amped up. Instead of blowing up one planet at a time it can blow up 5 or 6. Shit, there’s even a scene where the Rebels are talking about how to take on this thing via a hologram and one dude screams out “It’s like a Death Star?” and Han Solo brings up a picture of the Death Star and compares it to the Star Killer Base, which is like 20 times the size of it. He then screams, “This is a Death Star, THIS is the Star Killer Base” as if he’s trying to quell any dissent from the fans that the writers had reused this same device for the third time in seven films. Shut up Han, you’re not fooling anyone.

The whole movie is filled with moments like these. It’s like the writers thought they were being clever with all the throwbacks to the original material, but instead it all came off as an easy way out of having to create a whole new story to tell. I found it infuriating that critics and audiences are eating it up like it was the second coming of Christ or something as I watched it. As much as I hate Episode I, I will at least say that its story was not a rehash, but went off into new territory. It was stupid and childish territory, but wasn’t reused from a previous film. Remember this, as that’s the only praise I will ever, EVER give that back alley abortion of a film.
Speaking of throwbacks… C-fucking-3PO. He basically pops up, says "remember me from all the other movies?", and then steps back into the shadows. His bi-polar nature is amplified here in his two scenes where in one he slaps the shit out of R2-D2 for calling him a bad name in Astromech, and a second later is praising him with “I’ve missed you good friend”. WTF?! That's an abusive relationship if I ever saw one. And having R2-D2 be comatose for the whole film, only to awaken with an out of nowhere vital piece of the map puzzle really irked me in the extreme. Deus ex machina anyone?!

Another issue I had was with the villains. Was it just me or were they the most incompetent, idiotic bad guys in any of these films? They have this gigantic battle station that can wipe out entire solar systems in one go, and they only use it once. Sure it has to perform a BJ on a sun to power it, but still. The Hux character acts all supreme and all that, but his tactics are whack and he has a childish rivalry with Ren. And what was up with Captain Phasma? Her character has been hyped up to no end, but she turns out to be the Boba Fett of this film in that she does ABSOLUTELY NOTHING!  She’s in like two scenes and that’s it. What a waste of a chrome-plated costume.
Ren is a whole other issue. While I liked him at the start of the film, the longer he was on screen the more I realized that he (as a friend of mine succinctly put it) had zero charisma. His wearing of the mask, while making sense as he is trying to mimic Darth Vader, should have been earned. Once he takes the mask off halfway through the film I felt that he became kind of a whiny brat who has temper tantrums on the regular (although those two troopers that silently turned around and walked away when they heard him having a hissy fit cracked me up). When he (SPOILERS AGAIN FOR THOSE THAT HAVEN’T SEEN THE FILM YET) kills Han in order to fully embrace the dark side and sever his family ties for good, that’s the moment when he should have first put the mask on. It should have been sitting there taunting him for the whole movie. But when he straight up mercs his Pops that certainly qualifies. I’d have bought into that completely. Nope. They use it for reverse shock value as if he has to be a freak of nature under there to want to cover himself up (like Vader), but he turns out to be some goth Abercrombie & Fitch model. LAME!

I absolutely hated Snoke. HATED! This Emperor wannabe is a goofy looking motion captured CGI creation played by Andy Serkis that is merely a hologram of the character… and is thirty feet tall for some reason. Why couldn’t this have been done with make-up on an actor? The character’s look was not all that radical that it couldn’t have been created practically. Laziness again. This was the Jar Jar of The Force Awakens for me as I inwardly groaned every time he was on screen.
And the last nail in the coffin – the musical score by John Williams. Sure the main themes are there and are still epically iconic. But there is no new material that stood out. There was no “Duel of the Fates” or “Battle of the Heroes”. The new material sounded generic and like so many modern day “filler” scores. Maybe Abrams should have brought in his usual composer, Michael Giacchino instead. At least he managed to give the Star Trek reboot a fun new theme.

But The Force Awakens wasn’t all bad. I may make it sound like this was a total bust on the level of The Phantom Menace, but its not. I was disappointed in the (lack of) direction the story took. Everything else was pretty solid for the most part. 75% of the new characters were kind of amazing. I loved Rey and her non-whiny way of being proactive toward the Resistance (unlike Luke). She was fierce as well as vulnerable and I totally bought into her. I especially liked the way her character gleaned all the Force knowledge she needed by reverse scanning Ren as he tried to pull some info out of her head with his abilities. She also gets the majority of the best scenes of the film (love that moment she pulls the lightsaber to her past Ren and then proceeds to wail on his bitch ass). It’s her movie and for good reason. She’s interesting, somewhat mysterious and extremely likable.
The same goes for Finn. I absolutely adored the way he couldn’t stand the atrocities in which he was participating (in the opening scene his regimen is ordered to wipe out an entire village of innocent people) and goes AWOL because of his guilty conscience. He’s instantly sympathetic and likable, and does it all with a surprising amount of self-deprecating humor. His “I’m kind of a big deal” line cracked me up, as did his “We’re really doing this?!” when participating in a big action scene. But his traitorous nature could have been a hindrance because it could have all been an act of cowardice. Thankfully he’s written as one of the bravest characters in this entire series of films. He has no problem going up against the troopers he once called friends and going all out to save his new family. He’s not even a Jedi, but picks up that lightsaber and not only whoops ass with it, he takes on Ren in the finale knowing full well that he’s outmatched and will most likely die. That went a long way with me even though he’s basically this trilogy’s Lando Calrissian. Not that he’s the only black character (which is something that this series still hasn’t corrected… c’mon, it’s 2015 people), but that his arc is basically the same (he did some effed up stuff and is going to atone for it any way that he can).

Poe Dameron was fun too! He is the Han Solo of this trilogy and his cocky banter and sense of humor evoked that lovable scoundrel and then some. His interplay with Finn was super enjoyable and even though he disappears for a good chunk of the film, the bromance he’s got going on with Finn didn’t change at all. I look forward to seeing what the writers have in store for this character in the future.

And BB-8 didn’t turn out to be as annoying as I though it would. He’s no R2-D2, but he’s adorable, uber resourceful and charming as can be. And his droid thumbs up is classic!
The acting is head and shoulders above any film in this franchise, bar none! Well, mostly. Daisy Ridley is a revelation that came out of nowhere and knocked my socks off with her determined, yet vulnerable take on the lead character. John Boyega looks like he’s having the time of his life playing Finn and it’s contagious. He’s great in every scene, from the dramatic to the action to the comedic. He’s the goods. Oscar Isaac is tops too even though we don’t get to spend a lot of time with him. Harrison Ford once again goes for broke as the roguish and charming Han Solo. For someone who had sworn off these movies for as long as he has, to have him come back for one final appearance in this franchise and absolutely kill it really won me over. He knows what made the character so appealing in the first place and takes it to the next stage since he’s aged considerably since he last played the part. I felt the same about Carrie Fisher. Sure she doesn’t get the same amount of screen time as her on screen ex-hubby, but she makes the most of what she’s given. Mark Hamill, well, he gives good eye fuckery. However, Lupita Nyong’o rocked as the CGI motion capture character Maz Kanata. She had a very Yodaesque quality to her performance mixed in with a fun sense of humor (“Han Solo, where’s my boyfriend?” “Chewie’s working on the ship.”). Seeing Max Von Sydow was awesome too. He still has that effortless gravitas after all these years.

I wasn’t a fan of Domhnall Gleeson. He seemed to really be going overboard in his deliveries as Hux and was kind of out of place tonally. I already mentioned why I wasn’t sold on Kylo Ren, and part of that is because Adam Driver looks like he’s asleep most of the time and lets the vocoder in his helmet do all the acting. He’s playing what is supposed to be the big, flamboyant villain, yet he looks like he’s bored and in need of a double espresso. I can’t say anything about Gwendolyn Christie as Phasma because we barely saw her. Serkis did nothing for me either. The villains were not well represented here at all.
The action scenes are fun and well presented. We can actually see everything that’s going on at all times. Kudos to cinematographer Dan Mindel for not falling into that extreme close-up trap. The fight scenes are brutal and non-flashy unlike the prequels. This was a nice touch to link this new trilogy with the original. The violence quotient was up there. The Stormtroopers can actually shoot, main characters are maimed severely and there’s a “we’re not fucking around” vibe that permeates the whole film. The humor comes from a natural place instead of forced comic moments or flatulence jokes. The cinematography and CGI is gorgeous. It took a while before the CGI character of Maz Kanata grew on me, but she’s a better looking and realized character than Snoke, that’s for damned sure.

J.J. Abrams really wants this to look and feel like the original trilogy. He goes to great lengths to give everything a lived in look, made sure his actors put their all into their roles (some of that didn’t pan out) and you can definitely tell he’s a fan of the material. He gives everything, no matter how reminiscent of the previous films they may be, a sense of immediacy and fun. I may have not liked his need to constantly throwback to the original trilogy, but I will admit that I enjoyed some of them no matter how unnecessary I felt they may be. He knows how to make a film move without feeling rushed, keep things light when dark stuff is going on and make an enjoyable film out of a very flawed screenplay. He is talented, no doubt. He just seems to make movies by committee and doesn’t really have a voice of his own. Once he moves past that I’m pretty sure he can step up and become the Spielberg of the new generation of filmmakers.
And the absolute pair of brass balls that it took to kill off an iconic character such as Han Solo. I saw it coming a mile away, but I was still shocked that they went through with it. And Leia’s reaction to feeling it happen… priceless. It very nearly choked me up (Leia’s reaction, not the death itself).

With all those positives being said, the fact still remains that the whole movie just had this sense of staleness to me. I couldn’t shake it. I have seen it all before, except this time it was a lot more polished and impressive looking. I don’t hate this movie. Far from it. I found it to be as enjoyable as I found it to be frustrating. It’s like we received half a new movie in the form of the wonderful new characters, the way they interact and are being developed. The other half is all recycled plot points and moments that used to be classic but are now just sort of meh. I was as disappointed with The Force Awakens as I was enthralled by it. That’s more than I can say about any of the prequels.

I will say this – I am excited to see where it all goes from here.

2.5 out of 5

P.S. Was it just me, or were there a lot of the rad moments in the trailer missing from the actual film?

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

"Dominion Jar" by Mary O'Reilly

I love a good ghost story, and when I learned that an acquaintance of mine had actually written one of her own I was immediately intrigued. It took me a little while to get around to ordering my copy off of Amazon (I can be scatterbrained sometimes), but eventually I did. I recently had some car trouble which required me to use public transportation to get to and from work for a little over a week. It was a perfect opportunity to read Mary O’Reilly’s “Dominion Jar” as I don’t have much time to read at home. 

Now I know what you’re thinking… this review will be biased. That’s where you’d be wrong. I am actually more critical when it comes to the creative works of people I know. Case in point - my brother directed a feature film back in 2007 called Farewell Darkness (of which I was an executive producer as I donated a few thousand dollars toward its production), and I had absolutely no reservations about telling him that I found it painfully boring and pointless. I keep it real.

The story revolves around young Andy Rast who has recently moved to the secluded town of Donndub Lake in order to escape her tragic past. History begins to repeat itself when a group of locals induct her into their band of amateur ghost hunters and uncover an otherworldly force within an abandoned mansion. 

Let’s get the negatives out of the way first. The story is a mite slow and nothing of note really happens for the first half of the book. Some of the character building goes nowhere for long stretches and to be completely honest I didn’t care for a few of the secondary characters due to this. For example - when the main character’s mysterious past is constantly brought up over and over again as if there will be a big reveal as to why she is the way she is or knows what she knows and we get next to no explanation... well, I gotta call bullshit. Most of the other characters suffer the same fate; there’s lots of set-up to something in their past, like Pegs, but no payoff. This sort of vagueness was more than a little frustrating to me.

Also, when it comes to books I have the same issues that I have with the state of current day movies in that I absolutely hate being set-up for an obvious sequel. I like my entertainment to be self-contained with a beginning a middle and an end. If an author or screenwriter finds a way to organically spin off the story into a follow up, fine. When there are handfuls of threads left dangling when I reach the final page that will lead into a part 2, 3 or 4... grrr. It bugs me to the extreme. Just like I said in my review of Terminator: Genisys, “Don’t anticipate you’re going to have a massive hit on your hands until the money says you do.”

And the book just ends. Finale, boom, Special Thanks. Alrighty then.

With all that being said, I actually found “Dominion Jar” to be quite entertaining. Even though I was having issues with it I was willing to overlook them due to how engrossing the story eventually became. There are sequences that I could visualize in my head as vividly as if I were watching my BluRay of Poltergeist as some of the set pieces were thrilling and eerie as fuck. 

There's a morbid atmosphere that Mary manages to sustain for nearly the entire novel that I find lacking in some of the more mainstream horror fare I usually gravitate toward. I became addicted to it and found myself looking for excuses to sit down and read another chapter or two. Kudos. That rarely happens to me as I normally only read while using the toilet. Crude, but true.

Sure there are some issues I have with the characters, but I really liked the interplay between Andy and Andrew and the awkward flirtatiousness of their dialogue. I also liked the way the Tabitha character was written as an aloof loon that no one in the group can stand whenever she opens her mouth. The characters that work at the diner are a lot of fun too.

Even though I felt the book got off to a slow start, once we get to the mansion where the bulk of the ghostly events take place things pick up considerably with some seriously fucked up shit going down. Everything is described in such striking detail that it was hard to not get caught up in it all. There were times when I was genuinely creeped out. No joke.

And once the finale rolls around… damn! I won’t spoil it for those of you that have yet to read the novel. Just know that it will get under your skin.

I won’t go into any more detail to avoid spoilers and all that jazz.

“Dominion Jar” is far from a perfect novel and I may have sounded like I tore it a new asshole earlier in this review, but when I say that I am looking forward to the next adventure involving these characters I really mean that. I don’t frivolously waste my time and money on things that I don’t want. I want the sequel. I want it now, dammit! If that isn’t high praise I don’t know what is. Just remember that this is the work of a first time novelist. That’s a pretty impressive feat.

4 out of 5

You can order your own copy of Mary O'Reilly's "Dominion Jar" by clicking here.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2

If I wasn’t on hiatus at the time, I would have given The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 1 a 2.5 out of 5. While it was a competently made film that featured some great moments of both drama and suspense, it felt way too drawn out for its own good and spent a good portion of its runtime going nowhere fast. Obviously this was because the book in which Mockingjay, Parts 1 and 2 are based was split in half to get more of that crazy young adult cash. In doing so there was barely enough story left in the first half of the novel to fill out one movie. So how does the follow-up fare?

Picking up directly where the previous film ended, we learn that Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence), Gale (Liam Hemsworth) and a small team of soldiers are going to assist in taking back the Capitol on the orders of the leader of the rebellion, Coin (Julianne Moore). When traversing the Capitol proves to be troublesome they are forced to bring along the traitorous Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) due to his knowledge of the area. Surrounded by Capitol soldiers, thousands of booby traps and vicious muttations devised by the Gamemakers, the heroes find themselves participating in the most deadly Hunger Games of them all.
The answer to my previous question is… about the same. The novel, once moving past the set-up and getting into the grit of the war for Panem, was a non-stop barrage of action and violence. In the film we get an action scene, the characters sit around and whine for 20 minutes, another action scene, 20 minutes of whining, action scene, whining, etc. What was an epic battle on the page becomes a tediously drawn out and somewhat underwhelming finale of a film. Mind you, I don’t bring baggage to films like this (ones based on video games I’ve played, books I’ve read or television shows I’ve seen), but on its own merits this is a very uneven motion picture. Even after watching both films back-to-back.

Sure the acting is top notch from all involved. All the films have excelled in this department. Jennifer Lawrence makes playing Katniss seem effortless, Liam Hemsworth finally gets to shine in a much expanded role and Josh Hutcherson plays the unbalanced Peeta with equal parts earnestness and a surprising amount of menace. Donald Sutherland doesn’t have much screentime this time around, but his presence is definitely felt and he gives his scenes near the end a nice touch of evil desperation. Julianne Moore plays a variation of Sutherland’s character as one whose morals have slipped away the longer she fought for independence. Woody Harrelson and Elizabeth Banks are barely in the film at all and basically show up for one last curtain call and that’s it. The rest of the cast is fine in their respective roles. I wish there were more for Sam Clafin to do as Finnick, but unfortunately the focus shifted away from him in this film.
There was a time where Francis Lawrence (Constantine, I Am Legend) was a great visual stylist in his films. When he took over The Hunger Games franchise he started off strong with Catching Fire and then he seemed to just care about getting the Mockingjay movies made as fast as possible. It shows in how bland the films look and the somewhat generic feel to everything. Scenes are rushed to move on to the next plot point (some of which should have been left on the cutting room floor). Sure he milked great performances out of his large and diverse cast, but he forgot that there are other aspects of the film that needed to be paid attention to as well.

When there is action it isn’t all that great and consists of the characters running away from something chasing them. There is one that stands out and that is where the main players are attacked in the sewers by wave after wave of faceless muttations. It’s very suspenseful and is presented competently when compared to the rest of the action beats.
The script adapts the novel in the most pedestrian way possible and expands what were short moments to break up the action into pointless scenes that seem to drone on forever. I am really not a fan of greedy film corporations feeling the need to compromise the integrity of a feature in order to line their pockets with cash. It didn’t work with Harry Potter (I wasn’t a fan of Deathly Hallows, Part 1 but liked Part 2 just fine) and it most certainly didn’t work with The Hobbit (I couldn’t even bring myself to watch the last two films after the travesty that was An Unexpected Journey). Sometimes brevity is a good thing, and the significantly lower grosses of the second Mockingjay film when compared to the first pretty much speaks volumes about how audiences feel when it comes to this matter. Stop splitting movies into two parts! It doesn’t work!

Regardless, the film (finally) gets to the thrilling finale where some crazy shit goes down (I won’t ruin it for those who haven’t read the books or seen the film yet) before the end credits roll. It’s ballsy and doesn’t take the easy route (which is why I feel most people complain about the novel), so I give it props for sticking to its guns. Outside of that the useless and overly cheesy epilogue still sucks no matter what medium in which it’s presented.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2 isn’t a complete film. I mean, duh. It was broken in half so audiences would be forced to fork up to see a whole movie twice. As its own movie it’s slow and dull, only coming to life a handful of times before ending this film franchise forever. In my humble opinion it did not go out with a bang, but a whimper. There’s nothing wrong with the story, it’s just the way it’s presented to the audience that leaves a lot to be desired. If Lionsgate didn’t get greedy and let this final film exist as a two and a half hour motion picture I think I’d be singing its praises. Sadly that’s not the case.

2.5 out of 5