Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Thursday, December 31, 2015

Monday, December 28, 2015

And Not A Trace Of Jar Jar Binks

"You changed your hair." ~ Han Solo
"Same jacket." ~ Leia Organa

"Why are you helping me?" ~ Poe Dameron
"Because it's the right thing to do." ~ Finn

"I didn't think there was this much green in the whole galaxy." ~ Rey

"I will fulfill our destiny." ~ Kylo Ren

"There's been an awakening. Have you felt it? The Dark side, and the Light." ~ Snoke

"I was raised to do one thing, but I've got nothing to fight for." ~ Finn

"Hope is not lost today, it's found." ~ Leia

"What are you going to do?" ~ Rey
"Same thing I always do, talk my way out of it." ~ Han

It has been thirty two years since Return Of The Jedi, the last film in the original Star Wars trilogy was released. Since that time a prequel trilogy by creator-writer-director George Lucas came out (complete with a whiny pre-helmet, pre-evil Anakin Skywalker and the most obnoxious comic relief character of all time- Jar Jar, I'm looking at you). Now director J.J. Abrams has helmed a new chapter in the sprawling space saga, catching up with some favourite characters from the original trilogy while bringing us face to face with new heroes and villains. The Force Awakens succeeds, thrills, and entertains, and ends up being a worthy addition to the Star Wars world.

Thirty years after the destruction of the second Death Star and the fall of the Empire, the galaxy has a Republic, but all is not well. A new malevolence has risen up out of the remnants of the Empire, an army calling itself the First Order, seeking to take back the galaxy from the Republic. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher, reprising her role), leads the Resistance, the front line of the Republic against the First Order. Her brother Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the Jedi knight who was busy trying to rebuild the Jedi, has vanished, and is now the subject of more than one search by interested parties. Leia has sent one of her best pilots, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) on a mission to find him.

Poe's search takes him and his droid BB-8 to a desert world called Jakku. The pilot and his droid are separated during an attack by First Order stormtroopers- Poe is captured while the droid flees into the night. One of the stormtroopers (John Boyega), soon to take on the name Finn, is unable to kill for the First Order, has a crisis of conscience, and frees Poe, helping him escape. The droid, meanwhile, encounters a solitary scavenger on Jakku named Rey (Daisy Ridley), and their paths will draw the characters back together, as well as into a meeting with two familiar old Rebels and smugglers, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his sidekick Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew).

George Lucas had sold off Lucasfilm (and the rights to his characters) some years ago to Disney, after the prequel trilogy had been done and over with. He had mused for some time about follow-ups to the original trilogy, though nothing had ever come of it, choosing instead to delve into how Darth Vader became Darth Vader and how the Empire rose up out of the Old Republic. He also spent a good part of the prequel trilogy boring us with things like trade federations, Senate discussions, and tariff disputes. This first chapter of a new trilogy is very much in the spirit of the original trilogy, a sprawling epic across worlds that doesn't get itself bogged down in political machinations. 

Three writers are credited- Abrams and writer-director Lawrence Kasdan appear to have had the bulk of the work in the film, and Kasdan had a hand in a couple of the scripts for the original trilogy, while Michael Arndt is also credited. The story pays homage to the original trilogy in various ways- returning characters, bits of dialogue that nod back to the first trilogy, but also themes. The lone character, restless and seeking destiny on a backwater world, the struggle between good and evil, the dynamics of characters coming together for the right cause- these are themes that play out through the film. The screenplay strongly focuses on characterization and adds a healthy dose of humour along the way.

Abrams, who's had a history of working in television and film on a lot of high profile material, has been also directing that other cosmic franchise (the rebooted Star Trek films, with their excessive lens flare camera techniques, are his work). This doesn't feel like that- the film feels very much set squarely in the Star Wars continuity, not like an unseen corner of the Trek universe. The ships have a familiar look- both X-wings and TIE fighters look like they're upgrades from the earlier films, as do the star destroyers- and it's refreshing once more to see the Millennium Falcon in action. The planets and worlds the film shows feel true to the Star Wars mythos as well- the look of the Starkiller base, for instance, definitely feels like something out of an Imperial nightmare. 

There are creatures and aliens both new and familiar, worlds that seem both familiar and fantastic (the crew filmed on location in many places and added details like ruined Star Destroyers in by CGI. And yet unlike the prequel trilogy, the CGI doesn't feel overwhelming; Abrams' directing technique seems to follow the better strategy of using special effects as a tool rather than let it dominate the story. He chooses instead to emphasize the personalities and relationships of his characters as the bedrock of the film. Wisely he also chooses to have John Williams (still the master of the profession) do the musical score for the film, and Williams gives us a lot of original music that greatly expands his contributions to the Star Wars mythos, while weaving in previous themes.

The casting choices in this case are well made. When I first heard Max Von Sydow was cast in the film, I wondered if he was replacing the late Alec Guinness as the ghost of Obi Wan Kenobi (there is an audio appearance of sorts by the dead Jedi knight, however). That's not the case- the actor plays a new role early on, a wise and enigmatic retired adventurer with connections to Leia and Luke, a resolute sort of man. Lupita Nyong' o appears as a wise alien, a friend of Han and Chewbacca. Her performance is more CGI and stop motion capture, but it's an interesting one, a cantina owner with a sense of humour but an internal wisdom and grace. There's also a priceless cameo featuring a stormtrooper who has a one on one scene with Rey- watch the film before looking up who was beneath the mask.

The villains are many in this whole tale. Andy Serkis, the stop motion capture expert actor who gave us Gollum in the Lord of The Rings films, appears as the First Order's supreme leader Snoke. It's another stop motion capture performance- we see the character as a gigantic hologram, someone with a very distinctive look. The actor brings a suitable malice to the role, a character steeped in the Dark Side of the Force. Gwendoline Christie appears as the stormtrooper Captain Phasma,  strict and disciplinarian in her approach to commanding her troops. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is a ruthless officer, commanding armies of the First Order, coming across as a very young alternative to Peter Cushing's commander from the first film. Nonethless, Gleeson plays the part with authority, acting as a kind of counterweight to the main villain of the film. 

Adam Driver plays Kylo Ren, the masked Sith who follows the lead of Snoke, a dark warrior who thinks what he's doing is morally justifiable. He has connections to other characters, seeks to be righting what he sees as an old wrong, and the way he plays the character has multiple facets- ruthlessness, sorrow, malevolence, and the occasional temper tantrum (the reaction of two Stormtroopers hearing his rage from a nearby hallway is strangely hilarious). It's a compelling performance, even if one thinks the character might well be a mad dog that has to be put down.

There are returning characters. Anthony Daniels returns as C-3P0, still as neurotic as ever any droid has been, living among the Resistance and currently an aide to Leia. Kenny Baker, who like Daniels has been in all of the Star Wars films thus far, returns as the more snarky droid R2-D2, though the two droids don't have as much exposure this time out as in previous outings. Nonetheless, it's good to see them. Hamill returns as Luke Skywalker in what's basically a cameo- we'll see more of him in future movies. He's haggard and worn, and certainly looks like a man who's retreated away from the world when we finally see him, and yet he still carries himself like a Jedi. 

Carrie Fisher's return as Leia is very welcome indeed. The character was always a strong willed, stubborn, principled person (a strong contrast to her mother in the prequel trilogy, in which she ended up falling in love with the galaxy's whiniest Jedi student and dissolved into an emotional puddle). Years have passed for the character, and there are reasons why she and Han are where they are, and yet that inner strength and resolve of the character are right there as always, as is the sense that she's still crazy about Han.

Peter Mayhew returns as the wookie Chewbacca (with a double doing some of the action for him, as it turns out). We the audience can't really understand his growlings, though we can make a guess at some of what he says. And Chewie provides both some of the humour and the heart of the film- there's still that dynamic with Han of partnership, two very different beings who snipe with each other on occasion but have a very basic trust of each other. One must wonder, given that Chewie appeared in the third of the prequel films and still doesn't look in this one like he's getting older... just how long do Wookies live?

Oscar Isaac's been doing a lot of different character roles in recent years, and will be turning to another franchise soon as a villain in an X-Men film. Here he plays the Resistance pilot Poe as capable and courageous, a confident man who doesn't cross the line into swagger and arrogance (that can happen with some pilots). Poe is the sort of person who puts others before himself, and Isaac plays to that, as well as conveying the sense of a natural leader.

John Boyega gets a very interesting role as the stormtrooper who turns away from what he's become. Finn finds himself in battle for the first time, and is horrified by what he sees. His conscience gets to him, leading him to do something reckless (First Order types don't seem the forgiving sort, after all). He spends a good portion of the film trying to conceal truths about himself, preferring to find some place to disappear and hide in. And yet as the film goes on, the character reluctantly moves to do the right thing for the right reasons, to stand up against the building darkness. It's a good character arc for Finn, and another compelling character to add to the story. Boyega interacts well with Isaac, Ridley, and Ford in different ways, and I look forward to more from the character and the actor.

This film pretty much establishes Daisy Ridley as the driving force for what is the third trilogy. We meet her eking out a living scavenging wreckage in a wasteland- and yet we sympathize with her because she offers assistance to a wayward droid- and then refuses to profit by an offer for the droid. It shows integrity in the character. She's alone, seemingly abandoned by her family, entirely self sufficient, but ends up caught up in an epic adventure. Ridley brings out a sense of strength, resilience, resolve, and principle in the character- Rey becomes the touchstone character for the audience. It's a performance that leaves one impressed by the actor and the character. 

Harrison Ford does what we might have never expected of him- return once more as the swashbuckling rogue Han Solo. And it's such a welcome sight to see- the audience cheered wildly when Han and Chewie first appeared on the big screen. Han gets a lot to do through the film, and a lot of the best lines. A lot of the rogue is still there in him after all these years. A former Rebel general, Han's gone back into old habits and still has a way of associating with the wrong people. And yet there's that scoundrel's energy in the character that comes right out in Ford's performance, the sense of a guy who can think quickly on his feet. There's also a wisdom we see in him- he sees right through Finn's cover story. I also like that he's a bit reluctant to get back involved in the cause, so to speak, and yet he still does. And of course the sparks are still there with Leia.   

The Force Awakens starts a new chapter in the Star Wars story in a big way, reviving the spirit of the original trilogy. The film successfully blends the older and new generations in a story that feels very much authentic to the history of these tales- every small detail and large planet feels thoroughly tied to Star Wars as opposed to something else. The story gives us strong heroes and villains, a tale with heart, and a status quo that leaves us wondering where they go from here.

And of course, the film does us a favour and doesn't even mention Jar Jar Binks.

Thursday, December 24, 2015

Santa Got Bitten By The Dog

It's my annual Christmas Eve blog today with a whole mess of odd images. Also have a look over at my photoblog, as I'm in the midst of a series of Christmas posts from my city that will be going on for a few days.