Star Wars The Force Awakens 2

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015)

Few pop cultural entities have harbored as much significance as Star Wars. Barring the innumerable reviews and think pieces the franchise has garnered over the course of six feature films and recently renounced expanded universe, I felt the need to air my thoughts on the most recent canonical entry. Redundancy aside, it’s safe to say that Abrams’ heart and mind were in the right place during the inception and subsequent production of something so simultaneously pandering and satisfactory to those who appreciate George Lucas’ brainchild in a palpable capacity.

Set decades after 1983’s Return of the Jedi, The Force Awakens focuses on The First Order’s tyrannical, Empire-esque stranglehold on an oppressed galaxy that’s spearheaded by one of the few remaining practitioners of the force, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). When defecting Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega) morally objects to following said regime’s gameplan, his decision to free ace pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) from Ren’s clutches unexpectedly thrusts him into the company of destitute scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley): a young girl struggling alone to make ends meet, foolishly awaiting the return of the loved ones responsible for her abandonment.

Having just viewed the original trilogy in its entirety roughly a year ago, I’m more or less new admirer of Star Wars as an epitome of longstanding, similarly licensed cinema during this continuing rash of obsessive nostalgia. It’s as much a staple of a more genre-inclined niche as it is an historical juggernaut, spawning a breadth of fanatics that are willing to live or die by the questionable integrity of an increasingly floundering legacy in the wake of ghastly (subject to opinion) prequels. J.J. Abrams has thankfully done the unthinkable in rehashing the allure of this galaxy far, far away, even if he doesn’t reinvent the wheel as he does return the franchise to a desirable form that competently opens the door for expansion.

Furthermore, it’s no secret that The Force Awakens is almost embarrassingly emulative of A New Hope in terms of overarching structure. Ren is the Vader to Rey’s Luke, Starkiller Base a larger iteration of the preceding Death Star(s) and so on – it’s all been discussed and dissected to death following a surprisingly spoiler-free but unsurprisingly record-breaking opening week. Even still, the sheer enthusiasm emitted from series newcomers and the film’s equally giddy sense of self help transcend the weak and stilted trappings of the prequel trilogy. Boyega, Ridley, Driver and the lot are all very much invested in portraying their characters with conviction, of which is particularly important given the series’ adherence to characters and characteristics over that of the overtly thematic. Star Wars has always prided itself on its world-building capabilities and unfettered escapism, and The Force Awakens reinstates this strong suit with aplomb, even as foreseeable nods to its predecessors become increasingly questionable in terms of quality and relevance.

The Force Awakens is merely a retread that thrives thanks to how easily it subverts the low expectations established and sustained from 1999’s The Phantom Menace onward. The action, the charm, the nostalgia – it’s all here and in gleeful abundance as Abrams knowingly employs and borderline exploits the strongest suits of this storied franchise. Key players return with a requisite amount of gusto amid the newcomers’ welcome introduction, and despite the obvious and unavoidable homage paid to legendary predecessors, The Force Awakens is a lively and reinvigorating slice of simple-minded entertainment that does its job and nothing more. It’s a solid chunk of big-budgeted filmmaking that’s aptly self-aware in a way that doesn’t mistake fans’ adoration for weakness, all the while meshing the old with the new in a balanced manner that ensures the earnestness of future installments.

November 2

My November ’15 in Review

The time for to binge catch up with the deluge of awards contenders is upon us. I’ve yet to embark upon this unwieldy endeavor myself, what with other preoccupations detracting enough from my viewing habits to pose a potential problem. I’ll be hunkering down in the year’s remaining weeks, if only to produce my annual year-end list in a timely enough fashion. Here’s to the fruitful twilight of a year that’s passed by quicker than I hoped it would, if only due to a lack of desirable warmth in a region where seasonal depression tends to reek havoc on yours truly.

November

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Creed (Ryan Coogler, 2015)

On paper, Creed seemed like another wave-riding dose of nostalgia meant to reboot the nearly forty-year-old Rocky franchise. It merely places the lovable underdog in the role of mentor to his rival-turned-friend Apollo’s son Adonis (Michael B. Jordan), the latter of whom is unaware of his biological link to this legacy. As he consciously pushes toward establishing himself as a credible fighter without the help of his surname, the touching codependency between Adonis and Rocky yields something more substantial than athletic superstardom alone.

As with Fruitvale Station, Coogler forgoes narrative contrivances in favor of human authenticity and corresponding themes. Creed uses its accessibility to its utmost advantage to epitomize its importance as a truly affecting piece of cinema, from Adonis’ troubled humble beginnings to his tackling his aspirations head-on. The familiarity of his desire to pave his own way notwithstanding, Jordan and Stallone’s chemistry pair wonderfully with the film’s organically evolving, moreover entirely involving trajectory along Adonis’ climb to the top.

You either will or won’t fall victim to the film’s more rudimentary charms as an entirely emotional experience, but Creed‘s merits extend beyond its wonderfully realized characters to a staggering uniqueness of presentation. The oft-discussed single-take fight sequence comes to mind, of which is brilliantly staged on account of this conceit and the physical commitment put forth by Jordan’s Adonis and his opponents. Rarely has boxing looked this good onscreen, not to mention how Coogler’s touch bolsters a climactic sequence characteristic of this sporting niche, elevating the bout above predecessors’ frequently rote finales.

Creed is above all an emotionally resonant revival of the canon Stallone attempted to close out with 2006’s agreeably entertaining Rocky Balboa. It coasts amiably along thanks to the superb chemistry on display that’s often the crutch on which a uncomplicated narrative rests. Adonis and Rocky’s joint journey upward, although nostalgic on account of the latter’s association, doesn’t lean too heavily on nods to the franchise’s past to instead establish a singularly functional branch of Stallone’s brainchild.

October 2

My October ’15 in Review

I’ll begin by apologizing for my tardiness as festival fatigue has finally worn off following its conclusion. I saw a total of fifteen films at this year’s Philadelphia Film Festival, most of which were well worth seeing barring a couple of duds. This sheer volume of viewing paired with my continuing obsession with comparing my opinions with others’ yielded something fruitful, more specifically an overarching moment of self-reflection regarding my personal tastes. I’ve further distanced myself from past fears of harboring dissenting opinions, and thankfully, I feel much more confident in ironing out the criteria to befit my growing canon of personal favorites. Catching up with wide-release fare I’ve missed throughout the festival’s duration will prove tiresome, but I plan on eliminating a few blind spots in between these viewings whenever possible. Feel free to check out my ranked list of everything I saw at PFF24 here.

October

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PFF24: Love (Gaspar Noé, BEL/FRA)

Gaspar Noé is an anomaly among his contemporaries. His sparseness of output notwithstanding, his ability to effortlessly subvert both expectation and formula through explicit means has inevitably earned him the title of provocateur in a niche all his own. In keeping with tradition, Love aggressively charts the dissolution of Murphy (Karl Glusman) and Electra’s (Aomi Muyack) relationship in the wake of the latter’s mysterious disappearance. Through a series of flashbacks we’re offered insight into their respective proclivities and just why their love hit the rocks.

Love‘s front-and-center presentation of its naturalistic sexual encounters have inevitably garnered the misnomer “pornography” from the film’s fervent detractors. This is partially due to an obvious lack of precedence, but it’s safe to say that those unfamiliar with Noé’s tendencies will be shaken to their core. Wanton provocation isn’t what this focus aims for, the film instead opting to explore all aspects of Murphy and Electra’s relationship and the strength of each. It’s made clear that – while not without their flaws – this couple has been founded on carnal as well as intellectual attraction that’s persevered and torments Murphy to this day.

The omnipresence of the amateur performers becomes a little grating based on their questionable abilities, and a rudimentary script fails to delve as deep as you’d like in terms of emotionality. Noé’s technical prowess remains Love‘s strongest attribute, employing 3D in a manner that lends itself well to the filmmaker’s exquisitely composition-driven aesthetic and a means of, er, accentuating a particular sexual climax. Singularity of presentation has been far-and-away Noé’s trademark, and Love‘s case is no exception as banality is often overshadowed by its ceaselessly unique visceral intensity.

Love is undoubtedly the most divisive film of the year in terms of content. Noé admirably refuses to steep his tendencies in anything even remotely conventional, this time examining the messiness of love throughout every aspect of a particularly toxic relationship. Murphy and Electra may not have been the perfect couple, but then again, not many are. Even though the quality of the performances and stilted interactions prevents Love from being the full package it could’ve been, it’s still elevated by an unprecedented boldness in approach that’s bolstered by Noé’s captivating sense of style.

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PFF24: The Treasure (Corneliu Porumboiu, ROU/FRA)

Costi (Toma Cuzin) is husband and father of one living happily and humbly despite a looming economic crisis. When propositioned by neighbor Adrian (Adrian Purcarescu) for cash, Costi politely turns him down out of necessity. When Adrian returns with a rumor of buried treasure on his family’s revolution-era estate grounds, intrigue sets in and the duo agrees to satisfy their joint curiosity. Barring the inherent absurdity of digging for treasure, Costi and Adrian set out with hopeful skepticism and a metal detector to get to work.

Having not familiarized myself with Porumboiu’s purposefully deadpan style, I found myself enamored with The Treasure‘s steadfast manner of presentation. Fueled by subtle commentary on Romania’s floundering economy, the transpiring treasure hunt can be aptly described as absurdly innocuous. Punctuated by an equally subtle sense of humor, the slightness of narrative transcends banality thanks to the assured personality Porumboiu injects into the proceedings.

The Treasure is a breezy exercise in exemplifying the filmmaker’s subjective and tonal proclivities. For as “uneventful” some may deem Costi and Adrian’s sole tribulation, the film is all the better for remaining decidedly uncomplicated in the employment of its central themes. It also culminates in what I consider to be one of the most uplifting scenes featured in anything I’ve seen this year, and the smile it helped plaster across my face alone speaks volumes about how simply entertaining Porumboiu’s latest is.

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PFF24: 45 Years (Andrew Haigh, UK)

A blissfully wedded couple lives a modest life in a comparably modest suburban town. On the cusp of their 45th anniversary, a mysterious letter addressed to the husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) details the unthinkable: a former flame thought forever lost in a tragic hiking accident has been found, preserved in an icy tomb. Despite the length of time separating the present from his last memory of her, Geoff and his wife Kate (Charlotte Rampling) become increasingly affected by this startling turn of events to little gain. Only a mere week will tell if this formerly idyllic marriage perseveres or is steadily upended by undisclosed truths.

Andrew Haigh’s sophomore feature is a discernible departure from his preceding Weekend in that it forgoes burgeoning romance in favor of longstanding marriage and singular complexity of scenario. 45 Years finds strength in its beautifully restrained trappings, echoing Kate and Geoff’s quiet existence with a calculated method of storytelling that avoids melodrama while remaining undeniably moving. The film thrums with a slow-burning uncertainty that unsettles but not in a traditional sense, taking care in examining Geoff’s existential turmoil in the wake of receiving the news at the film’s forefront.

There’s an assured sort of procedurality to 45 Years‘ progression as both Kate and us as viewers question the validity of the relationship that’s defined a bulk of her life. Haigh’s focal acuity in employing something as simple as Kate’s thousand-yard stare to convey inner anguish is stellar, as is 45 Years‘ avoidance of hammy dramatic tropes that procure easy answers. Kate and Geoff’s situation is uniquely oppressive in scope, the delicacy of which is handled via deft subtlety that packs as much of a wallop as anything louder and overwrought could and assuredly has.

Decidedly plodding as it is, 45 Years‘ sensitivity in dissecting this couple’s newfound hardship is at once excellently rendered and quietly devastating. Haigh’s refusal to bash us over the head with emotional bombast establishes the film’s laudable sense of self at frequent intervals, remaining effectively contemplative of the situation in play and how dire Kate and Geoff’s predicament really is. 45 Years is undoubtedly a modest triumph in purely humanistic storytelling that has no trouble in finding and maintaining its footing in terms of scope.

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PFF24: Entertainment (Rick Alverson, USA)

In consecutively subverting convention, Rick Alverson has tacked his absurdist singularity onto his latest feature for better but mostly for worse. Entertainment follows bitter middle-aged comedian’s (Gregg Turkington) tour through the desolate American Southwest. Performing for almost no one in between failed attempts at reconciling with his estranged daughter, the man’s dwindling sense of purpose as loneliness silently crushes him becomes more oppressive on an increasingly bizarre journey from venue to venue.

Alverson’s follow up to 2012’s rather excellent The Comedy forgoes offbeat humor and incisiveness for something decidedly plodding and self-indulgent. In following The Comedian throughout a fruitless journey across abyssal landscapes, Entertainment struggles to combat the simplicity of its themes with increasingly surreal set pieces. It’s hard to imagine things going anywhere but up from the film’s opening prison sequence, yet this assumption is quickly squashed as Turkington’s squirm-inducing onscreen persona traipses to and fro, much to our mounting discomfort.

Entertainment isn’t entirely without merit as The Comedian’s live act remains unfailingly hilarious. These performances are an almost too-sharp departure from the film’s more startlingly abstract moments – of which disturbingly culminate in a rest stop restroom – but do enough to elevate what’s ostensibly a self-aggrandizing character study devoid of imitators to its own detriment. Whether this reads as either misguided or reductive, there’s no arguing that the film’s singularity is decidedly black-and-white in terms of accessibility and broad appeal.

Entertainment is worthy of note thanks to its acutely subversive personality and not much else. Its darkly comedic sensibilities remain effective as the dissection of The Comedian’s crumbling offstage existence remains more disconcerting than sympathetic in scope. Many may argue in favor of Alverson’s vision and the end result it’s yielded, yet Entertainment remains too hard to recommend to those not enamored with The Comedy or the divisive manner in which he fleshes out his films’ core subjective through lines.