Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens ***1/2 (2015)

After a seemingly never ending wait, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is now playing in theaters near you.  Star Wars stirs up a different sort of anticipation you don't get with other movies. Hard to put into words. One may call it nostalgia, but it's a multi-layered nostalgia, not your run of the mill sort.  These movies shaped the imagination of a generation.

In 2012, after George Lucas decided to sell Star Wars to Disney, the keys to the kingdom were given to J.J. Abrams.  Abrams developed several popular TV Shows in the 90s and early 2000s, most notably Lost and Alias.  He graduated into feature films and revived the Mission Impossible and Star Trek franchises.  Of all modern filmmakers, Abrams unabashedly takes inspiration from Spielberg, Zemeckis, and Lucas.

With The Force Awakens, Abrams seems at total ease with the Star Wars universe. They made the right choice for rebooting the series.  There's a wonderful blend of humor, action, character development, and special effects.

Fans of of the original Star Wars film from 1977 will appreciate how the Force Awakens continually pays homage to it.

That is the greatest strength and weakness of The Force Awakens.

I'm thinking J.J. and veteran screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, who wrote The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, desperately wanted to remove the bitter taste of the prequels.  That they did.

Rian Johnson will take over for the next two installments.  He directed some of the best Breaking Bad episodes, as well as the time travel movie Looper.  Now that Star Wars is back on track, Johnson will hopefully experiment and try something more adventurous. We shall see.

I'm not gonna get into plot details.  Force Awakens takes place 30 years after Jedi.  Much has changed and little has changed.  Same old best of times worst of times.

The new cast of characters display great promise, especially Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn.  Oscar Isaac, arguably one of the best actors working today, is a tad under used as Poe.  As for the original trilogy cast- it was great to see them again.  Adam Driver is a moody villain.

It's always awkward to introduce new characters and to reintegrate old ones. For the most part, the screenplay did an exceptional job.

With the release of Creed a few weeks ago and now The Force Awakens, the nostalgia train is running at full speed this year.  And that's not all bad.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Creed ***1/2 (2015)

In Sylvester's Stallone's seventh appearance as Rocky Balboa the epic saga finally comes full circle. Like the original from 1976, Creed relies on old fashioned story telling to magnificent effect. Michael B. Jordan gives a star making performance and Stallone exudes wisdom and quiet strength as an aging Rocky.

I'll provide some backstory, although it's not essential at all to enjoying Creed.  In the first Rocky film (Best Picture Winner 1976) Rocky Balboa is a struggling professional boxer living on the gritty streets of Philadelphia, working as a loan shark on the side. When the reigning heavyweight champ Apollo Creed, based on real life Muhammad Ali, randomly selects Balboa as his next opponent (a previous boxer backed out) for a New Years Eve bout, Rocky gets one last chance to prove himself (the original had a great tagline "His Whole Life Was a Million To One Shot"). Rocky manages to "go the distance" with Apollo and the film ends on a soaring note.

In the string of sequels that followed, Rocky rises to become the Heavyweight champion, gets rich and famous, falls from grace, and is redeemed once again. In Rocky III, after being crushed by a younger and stronger opponent, Rocky's old adversary Apollo Creed trains him and they end up becoming best friends, only to have Creed tragically die in the ring in Rocky IV.

That's where Creed picks up.  Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the illegitimate son of Apollo who was taken in by Creed's widow (Phylicia Rashad) and raised in privilege. Working as a business professional while moonlighting as a boxer in Mexico, Creed leaves a lucrative career to pursue boxing.  He journeys to Philadelphia to look up his father's old friend Rocky, who manages a restaurant.  At first reluctant, Rocky steps into the trainer/mentor role.

The script follows a similar course to the original film: there's a romantic subplot, the mentor and protege iron out their relationship, a young man finds his place in the world. There's humor and pathos, both done with dignity.  The boxing scenes, always a challenge for to put on film, are well shot and edited (minus the absurd sound effects from the previous fights in Rocky).

Ryan Cooglin, writer and director of Creed, coming off the impressive Fruitvale Station (2013), a film composed of poignant moments documenting the beauty and tragedy of everyday life, does much of the same with Creed.  I would not call Creed a "reboot", instead Cooglin crafted a movie well versed in series lore while pointing the way towards the future.

Boxing serves as such a great metaphor, proof of why the sport always makes for dramatic cinema.  There's more here on heroism and human emotion than any of those video game comic book extravaganzas.  Everyone must step into their own ring and fight their own battles. That's the underlying magic of Rocky and why those films will never fade away.