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.

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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.

A Most Violent Year (J.C. Chandor, 2014)

Set during 1981 in New York City’s titular and ill-fated stretch of history, A Most Violent Year properly if less-than-excitingly chronicles the struggle of self-made tycoon Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac). As one of the city’s leading providers of oil, Abel, his wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and their daughters have been afforded a hard-earned life of luxury, that is until competitors’ shady behind-the-scenes business practices threaten to upend Abel’s very livelihood. Determined to maintain the integrity he’s trademarked throughout years prior – and with an earth-moving real estate deal hanging in the balance – the man’s pacifist options become increasingly limited as “Nice guys finish last” begins to hit entirely too close to home.

Although the film’s overall resonance diminished almost immediately after I left the theater, there’s at least something to be said about A Most Violent Year‘s subjective originality, if nothing else. While I thought I was in for something a little gritter and over-exaggerated, what Chandor’s script provides for is a heaping dose of nigh-procedural laced with barely tangible conflict. It’s quite bizarre given the weight of what’s placed on Isaac’s Abel’s shoulders, his refusal to succumb to basic retaliatory measures ringing sillier and sillier as things get worse and worse (and worse). It’s easy to respect the man for putting his principles on a pedestal – the practice is the easiest way of living honestly. Putting your family and entrepreneurial legacy at risk via ham-fisted stubbornness though? Foolish indeed, Mr. Morales.

Another grievance I feel the need to air has to deal with the film’s overall lack of narrative urgency. Despite the direness of what’s at stake, tension never remains prominent outside of when a minor character pops off a round or two from their god-forsaken firearm. Key individuals, events and torturous circumstantial nonsense are constantly at-play, yet the ordinary conveyance of it all fails to reinvent or reinvigorate a formula benchmarked by similarly-focused re-tellings of “lost” sects of history.

Chandor definitely displays his fast-blossoming chops as a storyteller, that’s for certain, however the manner in which his latest is presented lacks the gravity promised by an agreeably hyperbolic title. It certainly deserves credit in the realm of personal filmmaking, what with its notably unexplored subject earning points for being presented and nothing more. The performances are fine despite Chastain’s present-enough but ultimately thankless supporting turn, monotony’s broken up when it has to be and details surrounding the overarching bane of Mr. Morales’ existence are coherent – it’s just a shame that the proceedings don’t amount to anything substantial.

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.