Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Movie Review (with Spoilers)

starwarstheforceawakensmovieposterAlong with the rest of the world (except for droids, because “no droids allowed”), I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens weekend. To put my opinion in a nutshell, the newest addition to the Star Wars Saga is enjoyable thanks to the compelling Star Wars mythos coupled with lightsaber action and a touch of humor, but the film is decidedly not great thanks to excessive parallels with the original. Read on for SPOILER-laden, geeky explanations.

Action hero humor a la Kasdan.

When think of the funnier moments in The Force Awakens, what comes to mind is Finn (John Boyega) bumbling over his lies, drawing a laugh from the entire audience. I found Finn to be some combination of Han Solo’s cool-guy comedic presence (though not as cool as Han) and Luke Skywalker’s boy scout heart, and it totally works for me.

Though it’s based on an shaky inference, I’d attribute these jokes to Lawrence Kasdan. Kasdan wrote Episodes V and VI of Star Wars films as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark which has similar humor delivered by Harrison Ford (of course, Ford and Boyega’s performances are vital parts of the formula; and maybe it was other writers or actors who wrote and improv’ed these lines).

Blasters, X-wings, TIE fighters, and lightsabers—hard to go wrong there.

The action, as expected from Star Wars, is fun to watch.

There was a hiccup for me when Finn picked up a lightstaber and started swinging away; the movie established Finn was a natural with shooting, but wielding a lightsaber without Jedi reflexes seems like it’d result in lopping off your own arm. If Finn ends up becoming a Jedi in a later film, that would explain his instant proficiency, so until then—

Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) skill with the lightsaber, on the other hand, was believable. She grew up fending off scavengers and thieves with a stick, and she is strongly in tune with the Force; it’s no surprise she can stand toe-to-toe with an injured and poorly trained Dark Jedi (who, notably, isn’t awesome enough to be a Darth).

Speaking of the wannabe Sith, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) stopping a blaster slug in midair was a cool moment. It seemed impressive at first ’cause I’d never seen any Jedi do this before, but then I remembered Darth Vader slapping blaster shots away like flies in Empire which makes Kylo Ren’s feat look like child’s play.

Gaps and loose ends.

The young characters are all somewhat interesting, but not developed much. We have a scavenger with abandonment issues, a Stormtrooper who’s too kind to shoot people (unless his target happens to be another Stormtrooper), and a Dark Jedi with an inferiority complex. That’s what we learn about them in the first third of the movie and that’s all we know about them by the end (well, we learn that Rey is Jedi material, but that’s an assumption 99.9% of the audience made before the opening crawl). It’s obvious they’re saving some major character revelations for the later movies, but I would have liked a tad more closure within Episode VII. Just tell us whose Rey’s parents are.

As for the returning characters, we’re given little of what they’d been up to in the last thirty years. It’s nice to know that they were happy for at least ten years—raising kids and training new Jedi, but there’s so much left to the imagination.

One thing we don’t have to imagine is that the heroes of the original trilogy, along with the other leadership of the New Republic, sucked at their jobs. After the fall of the Empire, the New Republic secures almost no peace or military dominance in the galaxy. The First Order just showed up and started slapping people around almost as easily as the Empire. It’s also weird that New Republic’s military is called the Resistance instead of the New Republic Navy or something less pathetic than the Resistance. I suppose the name helps the audience feel like they’re rooting for the underdog, but I don’t think it was worth sticking us with this name.

Han Solo: Gandalf (not dead) or Boromir (super dead)

My rule concerning deaths of beloved characters for any series: If you don’t see the body, there’s a good damn chance they’re still alive. This goes for Game of ThronesThe Walking Dead, and now Star Wars.

Considering Han Solo is impaled through the torso, falls into a bottomless pit of some facility, and said facility explodes into smithereens minutes, it seems a bit hopeful to think the notorious scoundrel is still alive. However, I can’t believe the director and writers would give Han Solo such an anti-climactic death. The emotion of the scene relies almost entirely on a sense of nostalgia built up over decades of being a pop culture icon rather than rely on the character development and pacing of the actual movies.

Speaking of nostalgia—

There were a bunch of moments which relied on nostalgia to make the scene interesting. Now I’m wondering how those scenes work if I were to re-watch the movie. Are there a awkward pauses when Han or Leia show up? Or does it flow naturally? I guess I’ll probably see in the near future.

Too much A New Hope, not enough new.

The Force Awakens goes out of its way to make itself parallel to A New Hope. There are, of course, substantial twists in the details, but the overall story arc is too similar. Rey, like Luke, is a mechanical engineering genius sensitive to the force. Finn, like Han, is a blaster-totting source of comedy who lies almost as often as he gets shot at. The youngsters are accompanied by Han Solo, a wizened father figure much like Obi-wan Kenobi in the original film.

The major plot points remain the same: Good guys hide secret data in a droid which flees to a desert planet; droid is found by a goody two shoe person sensitive to the force; said force sensitive person goes on an adventure with a father figure who tells them the Force is real, a comedic guy with a blaster, and Chewbacca; they get caught by the bad guys and escape; they blow up the bad guys’ planet-destroying weapon; high fives all around.

What changes the plot slightly is Rey. She takes Leia’s role as the woman in distress, but is capable of rescuing herself before anyone else lifts a hand (whereas Leia at least needed Luke to open her cell door).

Star Wars finally gets diversity and feminism (outside of video games, anyway)

The twist of The Force Awakens is that it’s politically correct by modern standards. The ranks of the Resistance are slightly more diverse with the pilots played by actors of various races and sexes, including ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who’s of Guatemalan and Cuban descent, and seems to be the #1 contender as the new Han Solo). I also recognized two of the ranking Resistance officers as Ken Leung and Greg Grunberg from Lost and Heroes, respectively.

In line with recent popular novels and films, Rey is a female warrior who manages to save herself and other people on more than one occasion. What I find refreshing about her is that she seems to have 20 or 30 more IQ points than certain other YA heroines (not smarter than Hermione, though).

Kylo Ren brings to mind J.P. from Grandma’s Boy

kylorenandjp

Kylo Ren and J.P.: Medium-length hair, long black coat/cloak, and nerd rage.

I didn’t notice this while watching the film in theaters, but it was pointed out to me soon after: Kylo Ren bears a passing resemblance to J.P. from Grandma’s Boy, primarily due to his hair and all-black outfit. He looks like a socially awkward guy in cosplay and, as such, he is the least menacing Dark Jedi to have graced the silver screen.

I’m assuming the social awkwardness was intended; Kylo Ren is supposed to be an angsty guy with an inferiority complex and father/grandfather issues, not a bad ass Sith Lord. Notably, rather than murder the subordinates who fail him like Darth Vader, Kylo Ren uses his (poorly made) lightsaber to destroy inanimate objects. Vader’s actions demand respect and fear, and all Kylo Ren manages to do is make the Stormtroopers feel awkward and walk the other way (giving the audience a few laughs).

Rather than having suffered through real loss and PTSD like Anakin Skywalker, Kylo Ren seems to have succumbed to the dark side simply because he wants power to compensate for his lack of self-esteem. Sure, his parents seem to have dismissive attachment personality disorder and probably weren’t very good at showing him love and support, but that’s no reason to become a Dark Jedi. I hope the later movies make him more sympathetic and somewhat justified in going dark.

Well, that’s my two cents on the mountain of pennies that is the internet. The Force Awakens is good but not great, and I have hope that the following movies are better.

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Annie Hall – Movie Review

Annie Hall

I don’t think she ever wears this outfit in the film.

I finally got around to seeing Annie Hall (1977) and I was not disappointed.

The film follows Alvy Singer (Woody Allen) through several romantic relationships, from what seems to be his mid-twenties to his forties, focusing on his relationship with the titular character, Annie Hall (Diane Keaton).

It reminded me a bit of Seinfeld; not just because the male leads are Jewish comedians in NYC, but because much of the humor draws on the protagonist’s mild dislike of other people and certain occurrences in everyday life. The dialogue and rants in Annie Hall are entertaining to watch, nicely bolstered by the neurotic mannerisms of the lead characters.

Having seen numerous references to this movie growing up, I was unable to detach myself from said references while watching the film. My mind kept going back to How I Met Your Mother (there’s an episode in which Ted determines how cool his dates are based on whether they like Annie Hall; the HIMYM writers, inadvertently or not, also draw a parallel between Ted and Alvy who both spend years upon years figuring out and finding love) and That 70’s Show (which sort of “parodies” a particular scene). Continue reading

Liberal Arts — Movie Review

liberal arts josh radnor elizabeth olsen“Everything is okay.”

Jesse Fischer (Josh Radnor) is 35 years old and working as in admissions for some college in NYC. As if his chronic ennui wasn’t enough, at the start of the film, some jerk steals Jesse’s bag of dirty clothes from the laundromat and his girlfriend leaves him.

Ennui (noun): a feeling of dissatisfaction due to being super-bored (generally caused by reading one too many literary novels).

Coincidentally, Jesse is invited to return to his beloved alma mater for his second-favorite professor’s retirement dinner where he meets a nineteen-year-old drama major named Zibby (Elizabeth Olsen), and then the rest of the movie happens.

I enjoyed this film written by, directed by, and starring Josh Radnor.

And into *SPOILER* territory we go—

Ted Mosby's even-more-somber twin brother, and Wolverine's cousin.

Ted Mosby’s even-more-somber twin brother, or Wolverine’s cousin?

The character of Jesse Fischer is a less fun version of Ted Mosby (Radnor’s character from How I Met Your Mother). They’re both somewhat pretentious and are dissatisfied with life, and both seem to ward off that sense of dissatisfaction by courting women. However, Jesse Fischer’s final growth in Liberal Arts is more internal than it is external (Teddy Westside’s need to find “the one”).

For the most part, Jesse attains new stages of growth throughout the film by being pushed by another character. As such, I’ll discuss the film by focusing on these characters.

Hippy Zac Efron

Jesse meets Nat (Zac Efron) while wandering the college campus at night (as we alum tend to do). Nat is not a student at the school, but a hippy-drifter who seems to be there for no reason other than to remind Jesse that everything is okay. He does so by actually saying, “Everything is okay.” The script makes a self-referential nod toward Nat’s role by having Jesse say aloud that he’s not even sure Nat is really there.

Though I initially found Nat off-putting, I eventually took a liking to him and his stupid hat.

Better than the Scarlet Witch and whatever her name was on Godzilla

Elizabeth Olsen - Zibby - Liberal Arts

How can you say no to this face?

Zibby, perhaps my favorite Elizabeth Olsen performance to date, is Jesse’s nineteen-year-old love interest. With Jesse’s nostalgia for his college years and Zibby’s disenchantment with men her age (who, let’s face it, generally aren’t the greatest), these two begin their relationship with a platonic guise which inevitably gives way to romance. Jesse is understandably reluctant to start the relationship due to the age gap, but after some math (e.g., “when I’m 86, she’ll be 70”) he decides to go for it. When he learns she’s a fan of an unnamed series of vampire novels, however, cracks begin to show.

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Horns – Movie Review

Horns Promo Daniel RadcliffeDrugs, alcohol, sex, violence, overt biblical references, and Daniel Racliffe.

I watched Horns (2013) with absolutely no expectations. Somehow, I’d gone without hearing much about the film and didn’t bother checking others’ reviews. Overall, I was pleasantly surprised.

Coincidentally, I’d just watched Bruce Almighty (2003) before watching Horns, so there was a bit of a contrast between the two films: in one, God takes a rather direct hand in helping a protagonist figure out his problems, and in the other, He seemingly has delegated the job to Satan.

In Horns, Ig Perrish (Radcliffe) is suspected by nearly the entire town for the murder of his girlfriend (Juno Temple). Having been on a drunken bender at the time, he’s not quite sure himself whether he did it. Being treated like the devil incarnate, Ig eventually also looks the part when he sprouts horns on his head and finds people confessing their sinful desires to him because of it.

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All Is Lost – Movie Review

All Is Lost (2013) was written and directed by J.C. Chandor and stars Robert Redford as an unnamed sailor.

Redford’s character’s just lying in the cabin of his boat minding his own business when he notices water getting into parts of his boat where you wouldn’t normally want water to be. Stupid water. Upon inspection, the sailor finds a big hole on the side of his vessel where it struck a freight container that happens to be floating in the middle of the ocean. That’s just the beginning of his troubles.

Netflix describes the movie as one “which has no dialogue,” which isn’t entirely true. Mr. Redford gives us a few sentences right at the start and utters a single curse word somewhere in the middle. Other than that, though—yeah, there’s no dialogue. Unlike a certain other film about survival (which I previously ragged on in my review of Moon and the comments), you don’t need expository backstory to understand the desire to live and the temptation of giving up.

Through no fault of the film, I spent the first thirty minutes simultaneously reading Yelp reviews on my phone. Eventually, I set the phone aside and gave the film 100% of my attention—I might go as far to say it was because the film demanded it of me by being so darn compelling.

Plus, Robert Redford.

I’d highly recommend it.

All Is Lost 2013 Robert Redford

Cool-ish Actors, Annoying Characters

Frodo Skyler Anakin Julie Deadpool Regina

Some actors suck. That’s just a fact. However, there are times where actors, through no real fault of their own, get a bit of flack because of the roles they play. Here are six actors who I’d say are at least pretty good at their craft, but are somewhat marred by the personalities and actions of their characters.

Anna Gunn as Skyler White

Skyler White Breaking Bad Anna GunnSkyler White is a fairly intelligent and strong woman who happens to be married to a teacher-turned-meth dealer. She loves her children, supports her husband more often than not, and generally tries to do the right thing. Yet, because of the few times she doesn’t stand by her meth-cooking husband, many Breaking Bad fans grew to hate her. Some weirdos who didn’t seem to appreciate the fact that Anna Gunn was simply playing a role in a fictional television show actually redirected their hatred toward the actor. Ms. Gunn wrote about this unfortunate phenomenon as the show was wrapping up in 2013.

Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker

Anakin Skywalker Hayden Christensen Star Wars Revenge of the SithI believe the most annoying things about Anakin Skywalker were written into the character. It wasn’t so much Hayden Christensen’s fault as it was the intent of the writers to make Anakin a whiny teenager. While it’s true that Christensen hasn’t really shown us super great talent outside of the Star Wars movies, I don’t think his acting is as bad as people make it out to be.

I liked Christensen in Takers and Vanishing on 7th Street. Yeah, neither movie is great—the former lacked in character development, and the latter had an ending I didn’t care for—but, they’re okay, and it wasn’t Christensen who brought them down. If anything, he helped make those movies better than they would have been without him.

Aimee Teegarden as Julie Taylor

Aimee TeegardenFor whatever reason, after the first season of Friday Night Lights, the character of Julie Taylor becomes incredibly annoying: she becomes selfish, unreasonable, and never seems to learn from her mistakes. Well, I suppose she does learn one thing: she’ll never do better than the awesome Matt Saracen.

Before her final good decision at the end of the show, Julie Taylor pulls some pretty obnoxious stunts. She has an affair with a married teaching assistant her first semester at college. Then, to avoid going back to school, she intentionally runs her car into a mailbox and lies to her parents about it.

Yeah, I haven’t seen Aimee Teegarden in anything aside from Friday Night Lights, but from FNL alone I get the feeling Teegarden’s pretty good with the acting thing and probably no where as near as annoying as Julie Taylor (also, she’s adorable, so she’s got that going for her).

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Rules of Writing Fiction – Dual Protagonists, Prologues and Whatnot

Not Quite Verboten

Basic fiction writing advice warns against prologues, dream sequences, flashbacks, adverbs, and dual/multiple protagonists. Over time, these conventions have come to be treated by many as absolute rules, or at least spoken of as if they were absolute rules.

This past weekend at the Southern California Writers’ Conference, some of these “mistakes” made appearances in the writing of attendees. After a bit of discourse, many of us came to the same conclusion: these devices are warned against because of the difficulty in handling them, but with the right amount of talent and hard work, a writer can defy these conventions without shooting herself in the foot.

A quick Google search would lead you to very similar conclusions, which makes it even more peculiar how often people seem to forget these rules aren’t set in stone.

More so than any other writer or SCWC attendee, Oz Monroe acted as a voice of reason in regards to these “rules,” reminding us (on several occasions) that you can break just about any writing convention so long as you do it well (quite a caveat, but still).

Dual (Multiple) Protagonists

June and Day of Legend

Marie Lu’s Legend is considered by many to feature dual protagonists, though for certain reasons Day can easily be construed as an antagonist (e.g., for ease of pitching the novel).

Baseline convention: stick to one primary protagonist. Other major characters must be limited to the role of an antagonist or supporting character. Why can’t we have two (or more) primary protagonists? As I see it, there are two big reasons: (1) the difficulty in fleshing out all protagonists fully while maintaining a compelling narration; and (2) the difficulty in pitching a story with multiple protagonists.

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