Thursday, February 4, 2016

Pride + Prejudice + Zombies



Were she able to witness it, Pride + Prejudice + Zombies may leave Jane Austen aghast, but then she'd probably be one of the undead anyway. In PPZ, writer-director Burr Steers, working from the novel by Seth Grahame-Smith, who was working from a little known, obscure tome by Jane Austen, fuses Austen's timeless and beloved tale of class warfare and romance with healthy injections of zombie horror. It is, in the final account, a gnarly but delightful mishmash. As narrated by Mr. Bennet (Charles Dance, Tywin Lannister of Game of Thrones), a horrific zombie plague arrived on England's shores from the New World, plunging the country into a full-scale war with the ever-growing army of the undead. A Great Wall was erected to protect London, while a massive moat that can be crossed by only one bridge protects the rest of the island. The remaining section where the vast majority of the zombies lurk is a dead zone called the In-Between, a region rather routinely and perhaps ill-advisedly visited by the zombie-fighting five Bennet daughters: prized beauty and pick of the litter Jane (Bella Heathcoate), Lydia (Ellie Bamber), Mary (Millie Brady), Kitty (Suki Waterhouse), and rebellious Elizabeth (Lily James of Downton Abbey and Cinderella). 

The business of finding suitable husbands for the Bennet daughters and securing their futures if the elderly Mr. Bennet passes is made infinitely more complicated by the seemingly endless war with the zombies. While the obscenely wealthy and handsome Mr. Bingley (Douglas Booth) woos Jane, Elizabeth finds herself constantly at odds with her unwanted attraction to the gloomy, severe Colonel Darcy (Sam Riley), a raspy-voiced zombie killer of the highest order. Well, you know how the story of Pride and Prejudice goes. Its romantic twists and turns and misunderstandings are accounted for. As Elizabeth, the radiant James is a ferocious firebrand, heedlessly throwing herself into battle with the same gusto as when she rejects suitors for her hand in matrimony. Every zinging joke about how Jane is the most beautiful of the Bennet sisters but Elizabeth is a perfectly acceptable runner up and consolation prize lands with the impact of a boot stomping a zombie's bloody head into squishy syrup.

What PPZ brings to the table is a terrific dose of zombie-fighting horror. The class warfare of 19th century England receives a new twist; in a nation where nearly everyone must become proficient in fighting zombies, where you send your brood to be trained in zombie-killing denotes your status: the privileged upper class send their children to Japan, the lower classes to the shaolin monks of China. Darcy's haughty rank and ever-present samurai katana sword gives away his Japanese-honed status, while Elizabeth and her sisters proudly know kung fu and routinely strap blades to their garters when venturing into the In-Between, such as the glorious occasion of the elegant ball thrown by Mr. Bingley. Together, the five Bennet sisters are a formidable fighting force and PPZ giddily shows them off as they luridly slash and smash and decapitate zombies in slow motion. Elizabeth's fighting skills are routinely placed to the test; even the revered zombie killer Lady Catherine de Bourgh (Lena Headey) pays her bravery and abilities the highest compliment. 

Nearly everyone wants Elizabeth either married to them or dead. Along with Colonel Darcy, Elizabeth hilariously deflects the intentions of Darcy's insidious rival George Wickham (Jack Huston), who has a personal history with Darcy that now directly affects the safety and future of England. But PPZ is routinely stolen wholesale by Matt Smith as Parson Collins, a whirling dervish of pure comedy who livens up the proceedings every moment he's on the screen. We know that Darcy and Elizabeth must end up together in the end, but they themselves do not. James and Riley, each playing a version of Elizabeth and Darcy that has never existed before, are at their best sparring with each other both verbally and physically. When Darcy, whose methods of zombie detection include releasing carrion flies into the air because they can detect zombie bites, unleashes his flock to test whether Jane, who had fallen ill, had been bitten, Elizabeth snatches each fly out of thin air with her fingers in a feat that would make Mr. Miyagi snap his chopsticks in pure rage. This is topped by the inevitable fight between Elizabeth and Darcy, Mr. and Mrs. Smith-style, as they tear apart a room in Mr. Collins' home (his reactions to the damage done is priceless), Darcy snapping her bodice with his blade, while Elizabeth pummels him with fists and feet. The undercurrent of sex in their sparring is palpable, one of the advantages of adding an element of action to Pride and Prejudice that PPZ takes full advantage of. In PPZ, Elizabeth and Darcy are made for each other in a brand new way, and when Darcy admires Elizabeth for saving his life in the end, he now means it literally. 

Inevitably, the war with the zombies take center stage as it must. We learn England is nearly bankrupt by the war and the zombies can multiply faster than the living can possibly create more soldiers to fight them. ("It takes 9 months to make a baby and 16 years to train them to become a soldier. It takes one second to make a zombie.") The zombies of PPZ themselves are a novel version of the undead, able to run like the zombies of World War Z but also retaining intelligence, speech and personality. Only in Pride and Prejudice's England can zombies remain polite and dignified. PPZ's can be docile towards humans if fed only animal brains, but once they taste of human flesh, they become unrelentingly murderous towards human beings. When the duplicity of the evil George Wickham is revealed, the full scope of the zombie war and the peril England faces seem truly daunting and hopeless, but PPZ cannily manages to find its hope in the love between and collective marriages of Elizabeth to Darcy and Jane to Bingely. Pride + Prejudice + Zombies doesn't quite set up a happily ever after for the newly-married Mr. and Mrs. Darcy, but if they are indeed destined to meet their maker (not Austen), at least they'll do so fighting bravely alongside each other. That, in its way, is quite romantic indeed.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Revenant



Alejandro González Iñárritu's stunning and brutal The Revenant poses and answers the question audiences have pondered since Jack Dawson followed the bulk of the Titanic and sank deep into the North Atlantic: How much agony can Leonardo DiCaprio take? So much. SO. MUCH. In the American wilderness of 1823, a ravaged-looking DiCaprio stars as Hugh Glass, a navigator for a company of burly and desperate fur trappers lead by their loyal captain Domhnall Gleeson. After a savage attack by the local Native American tribe, who are hunting for their chief's daughter "stolen by two white men," Gleeson's company is decimated, the handful of survivors left to their own devices in the wilderness. Then, while scouting a safe passage through the woods, a grizzly bear kicks the ever-loving hell out of DiCaprio.

Leonardo DiCaprio vs. the grizzly bear is probably the most visceral and shocking movie encounter of 2015. Iñárritu puts us at ground-eye level with DiCaprio as the bear mauls him, rips his flesh, mounts him and pounds him into submission in one ghastly, unbroken shot. That DiCaprio manages to kill the bear with his Bowie knife is pretty astounding, though when they tumble off a cliff and the hundreds of pounds of dead bear land on top of him, one must ponder how DiCaprio possibly could have survived. Gleeson and company find DiCaprio, who is all but a corpse, and try to save him but trying to keep him alive and transport DiCaprio to safety across the hostile wilderness proves all but impossible. Taking the company forward, Gleeson leaves DiCaprio and his half-Indian son in the care of Tom Hardy, a scheming, opportunistic sleazebag (literally - the remaining hair on his once-scalped dome is riddled with fleas). Hardy soon becomes the bane of DiCaprio's existence when he decides to abandon DiCaprio, murders DiCaprio's son, and trundles off to fend for himself.

Instead of joining his son and his Native American wife in the sweet, warm, welcome embrace of death, DiCaprio is reborn as The Revenant. Willing his broken body onward, step by step, with a lot of sleeping in snowy caves to help himself recover, The Revenant forces himself on a harrowing, seemingly impossible journey to find and exact revenge on Hardy. Clad in the bear skin of his vanquished foe, The Revenant encounters more Native Americans, one of whom becomes a friend who tends to his festering wounds and shelters him in a makeshift teepee in a blizzard, and more rotten Europeans, like a cadre of scummy French fur trappers in possession of the Native American girl who was kidnapped. All the while, The Revenant is haunted by the spirit of his dead wife, reminding him of a parable about the sturdiness of a tree's trunk in comparison to its branches swaying in a storm and leading him to a giant teepee of skulls. What does it all mean? The Revenant doesn't say. Or maybe The Revenant doesn't know.

What we do know is: it's hard out there for The Revenant. In his quest to finally capture that perpetually elusive Best Actor Oscar, DiCaprio willingly and heroically endures every terrible hardship Iñárritu dreams up to put him through. Iñárritu must also be a big fan of Star Wars because he peppers The Revenant with a couple of canny homages: After riding a stolen horse off a cliff to escape the French fur trappers out to kill him, The Revenant, who miraculously survived the plummet, hacks open his dead horse, pulls out its organs, and climbs inside it to spend the night, just like Han Solo did to Luke Skywalker's Tauntaun on Hoth. The Revenant also receives a vision from his wife's Force Ghost; though after what he went through with that bear, the last thing The Revenant probably wants is to party with a bunch of Ewoks. Not to mention Domhnall Gleeson plays the villainous Commander Hux in The Force Awakens

After what feels like an eternity to The Revenant and the audience, The Revenant finally finds his way back to the wilderness fort where Gleeson is, only to learn that Hardy, who heard The Revenant was alive and coming for him, skeedaddled with all of Gleeson's cash. So with hardly a moment to rest his scabbed-over, weary body, off into the wilderness again goes The Revenant and Gleeson, for a fateful, bloody, knife-swinging, finger-slicing final encounter with Hardy where The Revenant learns that revenge is not the right thing to do**, which feels weird after everything he went though. It felt weird when James Bond learned that same lesson at the end of SPECTRE too.

Visually, The Revenant is truly spectacular. Shooting various parts of Canada and South America as a stand in for the early 19th century pre-developed United States, Iñárritu captures absolutely breathtaking imagery and some provocatively dreamy sequences, juxtaposed to the unrelenting, wanton brutality of nature and the ignoble acts committed by Native Americans and white men to each other. Iñárritu is also now Hollywood's foremost expert at getting his actors to do the most miserable things, like actually eat raw buffalo meat (when there are huge fires burning right next to them -- cook the meat, you savages) or getting Tom Hardy to dunk his head in a freezing river and play dead so Iñárritu can get the shot he needs. Where in America The Revenant takes place is a bit fuzzy. The Native American tribe is referred to as the Pawnee, so one can only conclude that The Revenant is set in Indiana and is a prequel to Parks and Recreation. Which must mean Leonardo DiCaprio plays Ron Swanson's great-great-great-great grandfather. If The Revenant actually survived the end of the movie, one hopes he gets to go to whatever early version of the Eagleton Mall exists and treats himself.

** DiCaprio looks right into the camera in the last shot of the movie. He should have said something like: "Don't do drugs" or "Stay in school." You know what else would have worked?

Monday, January 11, 2016




In Agora, director Alejandro Amenabar's 2009 historical drama of religious tumult between Romans, Jews, and Christians, the city of Alexandria circa 391 A.D. just ain't big enough for the three of them. Amidst a hotbed of fanatical strife over whose god is the god who ought to be God, a luminous Rachel Weisz stars as Hypatia, a mathematician, scientist and philosopher who teaches at the Ptolemic School in the fabled Library of Alexandria. Hypatia, an equal opportunity instructor, counts among her students Roman nobles and slaves alike. Her three prized students are Orestes (a young Oscar Isaac), the future Roman Prefect of Alexandria, Synesius (Rupert Evans), a future Bishop of the aggressively growing Christian faith, and Davus (Max Minghella), Hypatia's deeply conflicted personal slave. Orestes and Davus both clearly love Hypatia, though she rather grossly rejects any attempt to woo her by offering up a rag stained with her menstrual blood. Still, Hypatia's "trying to prove the heliocentric model of the solar system (does the Earth revolve around the sun, how and why?)" is a milkshake that brings the boys to the yard. 

The yard in question is the "agora," the open meeting space in Alexandria which becomes a battleground of religious persecution. The growing and increasingly fanatical Christian population, led by Cyril (Sami Samir) and rabble roused by his number one fanatic Ammonius (Ashraf Barhom), declared holy war on the Romans and their polytheistic belief system, inciting a riot that drives the Romans to take refuge in the Library of Alexandria. When the Roman Emperor abandons Alexandria to the Christian hordes, they sack the Library. All the "pagan" symbols are destroyed and much of the accumulated wisdom of antiquity is lost. A decade passes and Alexandria continues to be a powderkeg. Though all the Romans have converted to Christianity, the Christians continue to consolidate their power and begin targeting the Jews in the city. The Christians and Jews take turns inciting and murdering each other; it's all Orestes, now Prefect and in way over his head, can do to maintain an uneasy peace.  Much like Springfield in The Simpsons, Alexandria can barely go one day without a riot. Inevitably, the Christians, looking for new enemies to target with righteous ire, turn their attention to women, deemed as inferior "as written in the Scriptures." Unfortunately, as Agora has it, there's only one woman in all of Alexandria (not a joke, Weisz is the only woman in the cast). Hypatia, who loves the science-y stuff and has absolutely no interest in religion of any sort, is condemned and branded a witch. Refusing the pleas of her former students still in love with her to convert, Hypatia's fate is sealed, though not before she successfully proves the Earth revolves around the sun. 

Agora takes a withering view of these early Christians, though historically speaking, this depiction isn't unfair. The conversion of people of "pagan" and "heathen" religions to Christianity often happened by violence. Even after converting all the Romans and marginalizing the Jews in Alexandria, the Christians of Agora continue to question the devotion of the converted. Indeed, Cyril, as head of his church, needs to do so in order to maintain the loyalty of his fanatical faithful. Agora boasts exceptional performances from Weisz, Isaac, Minghella, and Evans, as well as sumptuous sets and production design. Also, having Michael Lonsdale, who was once the villainous Hugo Drax in the James Bond adventure Moonraker, play the father of Weisz, who is married in real life to current 007 Daniel Craig, was a neat bit of casting. Agora unfolds in a manner where the characters (and the viewers) can't help but feel they're merely pawns to be sacrificed to a sad end. Amenabar plays God with his vivid cinematography, employing a favorite trick of macro-zooming out into space to regard the entire planet Earth with a "God's eye" view. Inevitability hangs over the brilliant but doomed Hypatia and the well-meaning people of Agora, like a Sword of Damocles poised to drop from the heavens, and does.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Danish Girl



The Danish Girl, director Tom Hooper's painterly pseudo-biographical film based on the novel by the same name which is loosely based on the lives of Danish painters Lili Elbe/Einar Wegener and her/his wife Gerda Wegener, is an elegant tome about one of the first people to undergo male to female sex reassignment surgery. It might have been called Captain Denmark: The First Transgender if The Danish Girl were produced by Marvel Studios. Complex, textured, transcendent performances by Eddie Redmayne as Lili/Einar and Alicia Vikander as Gerda anchor The Danish Girl, which begins with them as a happily and heterosexually married couple in 1928 Copenhagen. He paints landscapes; the same landscape every time of the view of four trees from his boyhood home. She paints portraits. When her female model doesn't appear for a sitting one day, Gerda invites Einar to don women's clothes and pose for her, unwittingly unmasking the great secret Einar has been hiding all his life. 

In the opposite way of Tobias' desires on Arrested Development, there's a woman inside Eddie Redmayne yearning to be free, Lili Elbe, the person she truly identifies as "trapped" in the scrawny freckled form of Einar. Once he begins living life as the she she always felt she really is, tentatively and frightened at first, Lili finds she cannot go back to living the lie as Einar. Lili is also right to be frightened; every doctor or specialist she sees about her "condition" is met with accusations of perversion, mental illness, and men in white coats ready to lock him up in an asylum. Lili and Gerda are forced to flee Copehagen for Paris, where Gerda's career reaches new highs as her devotion to her husband, who has disappeared and been replaced with Lili, is severely tested. Life isn't any better for Lili in Paris; she spends most of her days hiding out in her home and the one time she ventures out, she's accosted and beaten by a couple of French tough guys in a gazebo. Gerda reaches out to art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Shoenaerts), Einar's childhood friend and the first boy Einar ever kissed during his earliest experiences of being Lili. Axgil's is a sympathetic friend, though the mutual attraction between Axgil and Gerda complicates Gerda's shaky, confusing marriage even further. Finally, Lili becomes one of the first-ever patients to undergo sex reassignment surgery, overseen by the kindly Professor Kurt Warnekros (Sebasitian Koch). Lili is free to finally live in the body she was always meant to have, albeit however briefly. 

The touching and daring performances by Redmayne and Vikander as they struggle to navigate the heartbreaking confusion of Lili's painful but liberating acceptance of her gender identity are elevated by The Danish Girl's breathtaking cinematography. Director of Photography Danny Cohen composes scene after scene of stunning imagery, shooting the actors against sumptuous sets and gorgeous production design. As a film about painters, the cinematography of The Danish Girl is a fine art museum-quality visual delight. Cohen's tantalizing shots are a welcome relief from the film's torpid pace and abstruse subject matter. There's literally one lighthearted jest in The Danish Girl, when Axgil tells Lili "There are few people I've ever liked, and you've been two of them," a clever bon mot which lands with a big laugh in a film sorely lacking in a release from its stifling solemnity. A moment when Redmayne stands nude in front of the mirror and hides his genitals between his legs hits so close to Silence of the Lambs that one wonders whether Einar Wegener would have been a serial killer and patient of Hannibal Lecter if The Danish Girl were set 70 years later.

Sunday, January 3, 2016




There was little joy in Joy's life until she invented a mop. In Joy, writer-director David O. Russell's parable inspired by the women who were empowered to become successful to escape their dreary lives, Jennifer Lawrence plays the title character, an Eastern Airlines customer service rep burdened by unfulfilled dreams she hardly remembers and an atrocious family sucking the life out of her. Her father (Robert De Niro) is an apologetic loser dating a cruel-tongued shrew with money (Isabella Rossellini), her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a shut in addicted to soap operas, her vindictive half-sister (Elizabeth Rohm) plots against her, and her supportive ex-husband (Edgar Ramirez) still lives in her basement. She does have two nice young kids. Joy is literally the mop cleaning up after her family's spilled lives. So one day, in a flash of genius, she invents a new and better self-cleaning mop, the Miracle Mop, and manages to get it on the burgeoning QVC network. Nothing is easy for Joy, and Joy puts Joy through the wringer, emotionally and in her business, always keeping Joy on the precipice of bankruptcy and failure.

Stylistically, Joy looks and feels like a muddled attempt at a Wes Anderson picture, with Joy's emotionally crippling family seeming like a blue collar, disagreeable Royal Tenenbaums. David O. Russell even shoots in a faux Wes Anderson-style, with fanciful voice overs and lots of mounted camera, straight-ahead shots of Joy and her rotten family. Business does pick up as Joy's business picks up, when Lawrence fully takes center stage (literally on QVC) and all but wills the Miracle Mop to be a million-seller on the network, thanks to the head of QVC played by a subdued, soft-spoken Bradley Cooper. Joy's screenplay puts Joy up a tree and throws rocks at her for two hours, until a too-pat solution finally saves Joy's business and rockets her to the incredible success she rightfully deserves.  Joy is agreeably the Jennifer Lawrence Show, as, at the ripe old age of 25, she is once again tasked with playing a mother aging up to 15 years older than she is. It takes all of her magnetic movie star abilities to hold the screen against the trials and tribulations the movie, which feels like a warmed over Erin Brockovich, pits against her. But boy oh boy, does Joy have a horrible family; it would have been nice to see Joy beat De Niro, Rossellini, Madsen, and Rohm over their heads with a Miracle Mop.

Friday, December 18, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens



Star Wars: The Force Awakens welcomes us all back to the summer of '77. Everything old is new again, especially that feeling audiences have craved for thirty years that the maligned prequels only fleetingly touched upon. The feeling that can only come from the Force. Director J.J. Abrams and his co-writer Lawrence Kasdan gleefully take us on a lightspeed ride on the Way Back Machine straight to the first Star Wars (also known as Episode IV - A New Hope). Once again, and stop me if you've heard this one before, an evil galactic army (this time known as the First Order), led by an evil warrior strong in the Dark Side of the Force named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), threatens the Galaxy. Opposing them is a ragtag band of rebels (this time called the Resistance), led by General Leia Organa. Caught in the middle are new heroes, discovering their destinies while joining in this epic struggle of good vs. evil, walking nearly identical paths as the generation that came before them, but with intriguing new twists and a few answers to pivotal questions purposely withheld. 

The Force Awakens' greatest triumphs are how powerfully it recreates the sheer exhilaration of seeing Star Wars done well. The Force is a feeling, and The Force Awakens truly feels like Star Wars. When Rey (Daisy Ridley), the plucky scavenger from the desert world of Jakku, pilots the Millennium Falcon by the seat of her pants through the wreckage of a Star Destroyer while her new friend, the ex-Storm Trooper Finn (John Boyega), shoots down the Tie Fighters chasing them, it's practically an out of body experience to witness. The movie's other great triumph are our new lead characters. The Force Awakens belongs to Rey and Finn, along with Poe Dameron and the lovable droid BB-8, all of whom are truly fantastic additions to the Star Wars universe. They are heroes worthy to succeed Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and the former Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), along with Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3P0 (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2, all of whom make appearances, some more impactful, and some frustratingly fleeting. Ford seems to once again be enjoying playing Han Solo, now older and even gruffer, but serving in the Obi-Wan Kenobi mentor role as he reluctantly guides Rey and Finn into the struggle between the First Order and the Resistance. It's been thirty years since the First Galactic Empire fell and Solo and his friends are the stuff of legend to Rey and Finn. "It's true. All of it," Solo assures them, and us. He should know, he was there and he was frozen in carbonite for a part of it.

Ostensibly a quest to find the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker, missing, we're told, since his new Jedi Order was massacred by one of his pupils, The Force Awakens more than homages -- it outright mirrors (too) many key plot points of A New Hope: a droid hiding secret plans the First Order desperately wants. The First Order possessing a super weapon, Starkiller Base, many times bigger than the Death Star (with holograms shown to us helpfully illustrating this) than can destroy several planets at once (the physics are shakier than ever). This time two of our heroes, cool X-Wing jockey Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Rey herself, are captured and tortured by the First Order. Han Solo leads Finn and Chewbacca into Starkiller Base to bring down their defensive energy shield so that a fleet of X-Wing fighters can destroy the base via its one weak spot. ("There's always a weak spot," Han winks to the audience. We know.) A conflict between father and son. And yes, a beloved character tragically dies, murdered by a red lightsaber. Meanwhile, Rey receives a quickie download on the mythology of the Force from Maz Kanata, sort of an alien version of the woman who designed the costumes of The Incredibles, played by Lupita N'yongo. Rey suddenly is haunted by visions of Luke Skywalker she receives after being lured to his ancient lightsaber, as the Force awakens the dormant powers inside her. If we've seen this stuff before, it's because we have, and Abrams colors within the lines too closely. Abrams asks key questions, dazzles us with space battles and lightsaber duels, and then bolts out the door before dropping the answers we wait breathlessly to finally hear.

Who is Rey? The trailer answers that she's "no one" (dialogue not spoken in the movie). But this isn't true in the slightest: she's obviously the most important new player in Star Wars (and thank you, J.J. Abrams for creating a new female hero!). The Force Awakens teases Rey's "classified" (her words) identity throughout. Rey's parents abandoned her on Jakku as a child where she was forced to eke out a meager living waiting for them to rescue her, but she's tight lipped on even who they are. The obvious question: is she Luke Skywalker's daughter? The evidence is there: Luke's (and prior to that Anakin's) lightsaber called to her. She's an expert pilot, good with machines like Luke was. She's clearly powerful in the Force and meant to be a Jedi. But here's another theory: could Rey somehow be a progeny of Obi-Wan Kenobi? These clues are right there in plain sight: she speaks with a British accent (echoing Alec Guinness' Obi-Wan being the only actor in the original Star Wars who had a British accent but wasn't a villain). The color scheme of her clothes echoes Obi-Wan's robes. When she's captured by the First Order, she uses the Force to Jedi mind trick a Storm Trooper to escape, and then she skulks around Starkiller Base echoing how Obi-Wan once skulked around the Death Star. The truly important thing is Rey is wonderful, and Daisy Ridley is wonderful playing her. By the end, Rey deservedly inherits everything belonging to the heroes of the original Star Wars, from Luke's lightsaber to a mother figure in Leia to the Millennium Falcon itself. How frustrating we'll have to wait years now to perhaps find out whether the blood in her veins is Kenobi or Skywalker.

Someone who certainly has Skywalker blood in him is Kylo Ren. The Force Awakens makes no bones about who he is: the former Ben Solo, son of Han Solo and Leia, who betrayed Luke Skywalker and the Jedi to join the evil Knights of Ren, controlled by the new menace of the Galaxy, Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis). Ren's turn to the Dark Side literally drove her parents apart and wrecked their marriage. Promising the burnt ember of his grandfather Darth Vader's helmet that he'll "finish what Vader started," Han laments that Ren has "too much Vader in him." But it's actually more like Ren has too much Anakin Skywalker in him -- Kylo Ren is an emotional wreck, prone to fits of destructive fury, and it turns out he's actually an enormous puss, losing the  climactic lightsaber duel to Rey, a complete novice just discovering her Force powers. He even just stood there and watched Rey let the Force flow into her and did nothing when he could have finished her off. Sadly, Ren does accomplish what Luke Skywalker could never do and kills his father, granting Harrison Ford a wish he's had since he asked to have Han Solo killed off in Return of the Jedi. Driver plays Ren intriguingly however, conveying the conflict between the light and dark that's "tearing him apart," until he gives himself over to the Dark Side fully by committing patricide. As for Ren's master Supreme Leader Snoke, a CGI-creation witnessed only as a gigantic hologram, after six movies of Ian McDiarmid's fearsomely gleeful turn as the Emperor, Snoke is a rather unsightly letdown who should be trying to kill Hobbits rather than be the new Big Bad of Star Wars.

Perhaps the most relatable of the new Star Wars characters is Finn, formerly Storm Trooper designation FN-2187. Taken from his family as a child and brainwashed into a Storm Trooper, Finn nonetheless rebels against the bloody horrors the First Order makes him participate in and does a sensible thing: he runs. In the process, he discovers his first real friends in Rey and Poe Dameron, and becomes a warrior for good, a part of something greater than himself. He even gets to wield Luke's lightsaber for a while. One can't fault Finn for wanting to get as far away from the murderous First Order as he can. Boyega is fantastic playing a young man who struggles against his fear to become a hero and rescue his friends, and he draws one of the big laughs of the movie when he turns the tables on his former commander, the chrome-plated female Storm Trooper Captain Phasma (Gwendolyn Christie). With the short moments they have together, Finn and Poe Dameron quickly build a fast camaraderie and Poe is right, his borrowed leather jacket does suit Finn better than the white Storm Trooper costume does. Thumbs up, as BB-8 hilariously gives Finn when they abscond with the Millennium Falcon. BB-8 himself was simply amazing, instantly winning us over and upstaging his older Droid brethren Artoo and Threepio when they show up in the movie. 

Upon reflection, in a way, it's almost a shame Rey and Finn met Han Solo and Chewbacca. They were doing just fine on their own flying the stolen Millennium Falcon, and their getting mixed up in the Resistance war with the First Order created the circumstances that directly lead to the loss of Han Solo. The power of The Force Awakens felt strongest when we are hyperspace jumping along for the ride with Rey, Finn and BB-8, the new kids discovering the greatest sandbox in moviedom and playing with the toys of Star Wars for the first time. When Rey and Finn became part of the Resistance, they're a hot new young band ending up in a cover song playing most of the same notes and lyrics we've heard before. At least what happened in the second half of the movie was new to them, if not to most of us. Abrams and Kasdan punched too hard on the nostalgia button to recreate the magic of Star Wars, but for most audiences (especially the older folks still hellbent on "reliving their childhoods," whatever that means) it was a welcome familiar ride. In the grand scheme, this cover is a pretty worthy song on its own right. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the Millennial Falcon, the past lovingly refurbished to be all shiny and like-new for the next generation. But with Rey, Finn, Poe, and BB-8, Star Wars has genuine and exciting new heroes we'll enjoy going on more rollicking space adventures with for years to come.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015




One of the greatest mysteries in movies is solved in Creed, the newest sequel to the Rocky saga about Apollo Creed's son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan) following in his daddy's footsteps and becoming a fighter: Who won the private third fight between Apollo and Rocky Balboa at the end of Rocky III? When the answer comes, we find we would rather have just kept wondering. Creed is a mixed heavy bag; half an exploration of what it's like to be the progeny of a legend you never met but contain the innate talent of and the other half getting to spend a few more rounds with one of your childhood heroes, Rocky, nine years after his last improbable comeback fight left you cheering for more. Guess what wins the fight between the two? In style and substance, Creed is very much a Rocky movie, endearingly familiar and at times a rousing crowd-pleaser, but shouldn't it really have been more of a Creed movie?

Writer-director Ryan Coogler's love for Rocky and the Rocky series is palpable but largely swallows up poor Adonis. Coogler trades heavily on nostalgia, employing flashbacks, clips of past Rocky vs. Apollo fights, familiar posters of the Italian Stallion 30 years ago, and Rocky's stirring musical cues. Sylvester Stallone reprises Rocky once again, and, no surprise, he is the best thing about Creed. Rocky is even older, sadder, but also wiser and more resigned to being a rock, a survivor, when all his loved ones have passed on, including Paulie. Quick exposition explains his son Rocky Jr. has moved to Vancouver with his wife, leaving Rocky all alone in the restaurant he owns. But he remains a local legend beloved by the people of Philadelphia, and his unique Rocky wit and demeanor remain intact. When Adonis Johnson -- we learn Apollo had an affair and died in the ring against Ivan Drago before Adonis was born -- turns up at his restaurant claiming to be Apollo's son and asking for training, well, as Rocky states, "I've seen this sort of thing before." He reluctantly takes the kid on as his protege and finds much more success than he did training Tommy Gunn 25 years ago. Rocky relishes being the crusty old trainer this time, delving into Mickey's old bag of tricks like making Adonis catch a chicken.

Adonis, a lean, trim light heavyweight, is a curious cat. Orphaned at a young age when his mother died soon after Apollo, he grew up in the system, a violent kid prone to fighting, until he's adopted by Apollo's wife Mary Anne (Phylicia Rashad). Adonis grew up in Apollo's mansion, loved, surrounded by wealth, college educated, but he spends his weekends secretly fighting in Mexico. Adonis throws away a promising business career because he feels the need to fight, so he moved to Philadelphia to seek the tutelage of his father's best friend and greatest opponent. The quest of the son to find and become like his father is a classic and compelling narrative, but Creed muddies the waters by latching too much onto following beats from Rocky's story instead of discovering more about what is/was special and unique about Adonis and Apollo. Wouldn't you know it, after one professional fight as "Adonis Johnson," Adonis' parentage is discovered and he's offered a one in a million shot to go to London to fight the light heavyweight champion of the world because of his name -- just like Apollo once offered Rocky because he loved the nickname "the Italian Stallion."

Adonis' personal crisis becomes whether or not he should accept his father's famous last name and all the pressure that comes with living up to it. Meanwhile, old man Rocky receives truly distressing medical news. When that happens, we and Adonis become much more concerned with Rocky's mortality than with the success of Adonis' career. Adonis spends the entire movie in the shadow of two legends and never really fights his way out from under it. Jordan, a charismatic actor, does his best, though in the ring, he's an angry bull who fights like Rocky -- take hits until you get mad -- and lacks the fancy footwork and charming pizzazz of his old man. But does Adonis have the heart, of Apollo or Rocky? Does he have the Eye of the Tiger? We are forced to ask ourselves, why root for Adonis? He's not an underdog or a hard luck case; he's "Hollywood" Adonis Creed, the rich son of a beloved former heavyweight champion with a beautiful girlfriend (Tessa Thompson) and Rocky Balboa in his corner. He has a long way to go to be as good as his father, if ever, and wearing the stars and striped-emblazoned trunks Apollo and Rocky both wore may speak to a legacy, but Adonis never really becomes his own man. He's certainly not yet a champion. If Creed wishes to go the distance and further continue the Rocky saga, Adonis and the audience will really, truly be lost when the sad day inevitably comes Rocky Balboa loses his final round.