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.

PFF24: Brooklyn (John Crowley, IRL/UK/CAN)

Brooklyn is an unfathomably mawkish period drama centered on Irish immigrant Eilis Lacey’s (Saoirse Ronan) life anew in the titular New York City borough. She remains reasonably unburdened by everything until the handsome young Tony (Emory Cohen) – a suitably attractive Italian local – almost instantaneously sweeps her off her feet. Eilis continues to battle waning homesickness in the coming days until an unforeseeable tragedy brings her back to her native Ireland and a potential new suitor, forcing her to inevitably make a firm decision about an increasingly uncertain future.

Please believe me when I say that Brooklyn‘s tidy disposition borders on disgraceful. In giving credit where its due, Nick Hornby knows just how to pander to a particular audience to staggering success, as in the man sitting to my immediate left wept uncontrollably at several key latter act moments. The film’s entirely saccharine nature works to its advantage in this regard only, failing to captivate those like yours truly once any semblance of mid-century reality is taken into consideration.

I’m not trying to dog the film for being decidedly idealistic in its telling of Eilis’ story, yet for her to remain this completely unhindered by anything but seasickness in the midst of uprooting her life is hard to overlook. Barring the forced sympathy card that serves as Eilis’ return trip impetus, Brooklyn as a mere love story set against a timely situational backdrop is still glaringly rote. Girl meets boy and the two hit the ground running toward a very serious relationship, of which is rendered just strong enough to tug at your heartstrings when the two are separated.

It isn’t out-and-out unbearable as a lavishly rendered slice of young love in a particular time and place, but Brooklyn is only a cut above similarly stilted sap that streamlines itself to accentuate its elementary-level sentimentality. The desired result is one that’s partially shameful in intention even if the film’s earnest production values suggest otherwise, leaving me mostly disappointed in pondering what could’ve been should the narrative not have steeped itself so fervently in conventionality. Brooklyn is a steadfast tearjerker for sure, meaning it already has and will continue to find its intended audience as countless comparable efforts have proven time and again.

Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015)

An absorbing and incisive tale of timely technophobia, Ex Machina places us in introverted coding prodigy Caleb’s (Domnhall Gleeson) shoes following a recent workplace lottery win. The prize? A week spent at his billionaire employer’s boundless woodlands estate. Upon arriving, one Nathan (Oscar Isaac) informs Caleb of his latest endeavor – a striking female A.I. named Ava (Alicia Vikander). Promptly fulfilling the role Nathan intended him to, Caleb’s initial hesitance turns to obsessive enthrallment as burgeoning ulterior motives threaten to upend the experiment.

We’re all familiar with the perils of advanced artificial intelligence. Whether it’s apocalypse or heartache-inducing, we as viable consumers of the medium have been subjected to numerous examples of tech-gone-AWOL – a borderline subgenre that breeds more discomfort within us than we’d care to admit. Alex Garland’s Ex Machina, although palpably bill-fitting largely transcends tropes with alternating bouts of genuine intelligence and character-spurred suspense.

For as enigmatic as Isaac’s Nathan is, his surface-level charisma is enough to disarm and lull Caleb into an unassuming role as Ava’s interviewer. As Caleb’s contest “win” is shadily rendered negligible, Nathan’s quirks aren’t offputting, nor are his insights into the steadfast purpose of his experiment and penchant for imbibing. He’s a friendly and relatable recluse for all intents and purposes, and it’s this aspect of the character that discernibly panders to our muddy suspicions as Caleb’s daily sessions with Ava yield increasingly alarming results.

Barring the uniqueness of its three core subjects, Garland’s script also emanates an evocative layer of intelligence that’s effective despite overly-explanatory exposition. Said details are offered as if it’s assumed we’re entirely ignorant of the concepts touched upon, from the Turing Test’s front-and-center employment to the prominence of search engine profiling. It’s a necessary evil that becomes entirely forgivable as tensions mount and motives evolve; aspects that are doubly important in Ex Machina‘s sustained equilibrium.

Even though it backs itself into a somewhat foreseeable corner, Ex Machina effortlessly engages in the moments preceding the looming blowup suggested throughout. With excellent performances to compliment Garland’s intelligently tailored substance, the film breezes past familiar thematic trappings thanks to inherently captivating interplay, voyeuristic uneasiness and adherence to detail. You may find it hard to concretely sympathize with anyone in particular, yet this works in Ex Machina‘s favor as the murky morality card serves to leave a lasting impression.