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.

While We’re Young (Noah Baumbach, 2015)

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In admirably sticking to his guns, Baumbach’s latest slice of incisively observational serio-comedy shines the spotlight on a married couple’s joint midlife crisis. Spurred by their fascination with an archetypal hipster couple nearly half their age, Josh (Ben Stiller) – a documentarian – and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) find themselves envying and subsequently adapting the youngsters’ lifestyle quips and quirks – if only out of an unhealthy longing for what they think they’ve missed out on. What seems at first like a mutual match made in heaven, said hipsters Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried) transition from harmless and amiable stereotypes to toxic as the former’s documentary film project remains an indefinite hindrance to Josh’s stagnant latest endeavor. As details surface and the rabbit hole deepens, it’s up to Josh and Cornelia to revert back to aging responsibly or remain steadfast in their newfound pursuit of arrested mid-adulthood.

It goes without saying that admirers of or those familiar with Baumbach’s previous work will find a lot to like here. Although it walks an avenue comparable to 2010’s Greenberg by way of thematic resonance, the timely implementation of ever-expanding hipster culture is quite admirable as a sort of conflictual impetus. While We’re Young infuses Jamie and Darby’s generational allure with well-informed subcultural tropes, i.e. misguided self-employment and making the old new again a la fedoras and vinyl records. Depending on your opinion of these types, the characters in question may or may not prove unbearable despite their purposefully being rendered so. Either way, the palpable devolution of Josh and Cornelia leads them down some very interesting avenues that breed an altogether involving experience.

While We’re Young also sports Baumbach’s penchant for insight and wit over anything particularly dense or melodramatic. The film’s sense of humor is intelligent and entirely effective and the conclusive epiphanies satisfying if familiar, all the while banking solely on the audience’s feelings toward the individuals on display. Josh and Cornelia’s downward spiral into childless abandon does ring authentic however, even if it all amounts to the same amount of intermittent self-loathing and discovery present within nearly all of Baumbach’s struggling central characters.

For those not turned off by the simplicity of While We’re Young‘s cross-generational commentary, the film sports enough intelligence, humor and intrigue by way of its third act narrative shift to keep things entertaining. It’s not so much a step forward for Baumbach as it is spinning his personal brand of character-driven filmmaking in a noticeably nuanced manner. As flaccid and devoid of cautionary commentary its final resolution is, While We’re Young is a solidly crafted portrait of a couple struggling to age gracefully.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel & Ethan Coen, 2013)

While there’s no cure for the human spirit, everything on singer-songwriter Llewyn Davis’ (Oscar Isaac) rocky path toward uncertain celebrity is intended to break his. Penniless and newly solo following the tragic loss of a good friend and collaborator, Llewyn makes his rounds throughout the fumbling early-’60s folk scene, alternately targeting his boss for royalties on a new album and crashing on whichever couch is available. As the latter becomes increasingly limited on account of a malevolent fallout with a former flame (Carey Mulligan), Llewyn’s admirable if rapidly deteriorating creative drive is all he has left to steer him toward some semblance of a desirable lifestyle.

Agreeably mesmerizing and thematically explicit, Inside Llewyn Davis‘ unwaveringly downtrodden and humorous examination of the titular artist is precisely what the – well, at least my – doctor ordered. Benefiting at once and endlessly from a simply killer soundtrack, the film’s folk revival-era trappings are a welcome departure from what we’ve come to experience and expect. Even stronger still are Llewyn’s benchmark contributions, his skillful but polarizing implementation of human suffering in his music complimenting the Coens’ excellently illustrated feel.

Music aside, the Coens’ characteristically singular narrative tells an engaging tale like no other I’ve seen this year. In addition to the individual’s undying devotion to his craft, Llewyn Davis wholly exemplifies the man’s flaws and latent good-naturedness. Exacerbated by the frustrations brought on by obstacle after obstacle, Llewyn’s periodic outbursts aren’t so much acerbic as they are warranted. From alienating the last of his almost nonexistent support system to many an unaffordable financial setback, you can’t help but sympathize with him despite moments of contempt.

As an inspired, musically-inclined and tonally flawless character study, Inside Llewyn Davis is more than merely another modest triumph for the brotherly duo of auteurs at its helm. Rife with era-specific charm and general engagement, this deservedly lauded entry into 2013’s canon is accessible, relatable and even timely in the best of ways. Although he’s noticeably his own worst enemy, there’s no denying our inclination to join Llewyn on his less-than-fruitful pursuit of the slightest semblance of fame.

TIFF 2012: Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, USA)

A gleeful, mildly charming throwback to the French New Wave, Noah Baumbach’s black-and-white Frances Ha is the simplest of pleasures, but a pleasure all the same. Greta Gerwig’s titular Frances is essentially an aimless New York City-grounded dance apprentice that shares a comically absurd friendship with hetero-life mate Sophie (Mickey Sumner). Existential woes get in the way as the two undergo an unceremonious falling out, prompting Frances to reexamine her life as she bounces from place to place looking for a sense of purpose.

As a character, Frances is far from unlikable despite her self-deprecating hesitance to make something of herself. She’s bubbly, witty as such and a genuine pleasure to frequently watch interact (often hilariously) with a perfectly implemented cast of charismatic supporting characters. In fact, Frances Ha is more about the people at its core than anything else, priding itself on fast-paced, moreover engaging exchanges between each and every one of them, even if the conflict that drives Frances and Sophie apart is discernibly familiar.

Structurally, the film loses some steam as it enters its latter act while it tends to bounce between locales, partially redeeming itself through artistic usage of David Bowie and company to compliment Frances Ha‘s giddier sequences. All in all, you can’t knock Baumbach for doing what he wanted to do with his own material. The film is equal parts endearing and hilarious, honing in on the relationship between Frances and Sophie with great ease whenever it so chooses and never losing sight of its bare-bones intentions. Its minimalism and quirkiness may turn off some viewers, but for the easy-to-please, Frances Ha is a particularly straightforward delight regardless of its primary shortcomings.