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Mark Clark reviews Star Wars: The Force Awakens!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is here, and Mark Clark has seen it!  You can read his review below and learn more than you ever imagined about the Star Wars franchise in his book, Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to know About the Trilogy that Changed the Movies

At last.

The wait is over – not just for the start of a new cycle of Star Wars films, but for a Star Wars movie as satisfying as the 1977 original film (retroactively subtitled Episode IV: A New Hope) and its exemplary sequel, The Empire Strikes Back. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, which officially opens today on screens across the U.S., is not only far superior to the misbegotten Prequel Trilogy (1999-2005). In many ways, it’s the picture that Return of the Jedi (1983) might have been.

00122914As I recount in Chapter 19 of my book Star Wars FAQ: Everything Left to Know About the Trilogy That Changed the Movies, screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan, during contentious story conferences for Return of the Jedi, repeatedly pushed for a darker, more mature story – essentially, a continuation of brooding yet lyrical approach he and George Lucas had taken to Empire Strikes Back. Among other things, Kasdan wanted the story to feature the death of a major character, and to climax with a planetary assault (on the imperial homeworld – then known as Had Abbadon, later renamed Coruscant). He was rebuffed at every turn by Lucas, who was adamant that Jedi be a lighter, more kid-friendly, and provide a fairy tale happy ending to his space saga.

Kasdan, who co-wrote The Force Awakens with director J.J. Abrams, resurrects many of the ideas Lucas rejected for Jedi, and grafts them onto a thinly disguised remake of the original Star Wars. Not only does the plot of The Force Awakens – which I won’t recount in detail here – mirror that of A New Hope, but the story hits all the same emotional beats of the original film, in roughly the same order.

None of this should suggest that the new movie is a simple rehash of the original. In fact, the most impressive thing about The Force Awakens is that it focuses almost exclusively on a clutch of new characters – ex-stromtrooper Finn (John Boyega), mysterious scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), and aspiring Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) – all of whom are well-sketched and convincingly brought to life. With the exceptions of Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), the major cast members of the Original Trilogy (even, surprisingly, C-3PO and R2-D2) are restricted to cameo appearances. The story does not revisit any of the familiar environs of the previous Star Wars films. Yet, the rugged, frontier aesthetic of the Original Trilogy returns. In fact, the Star Wars galaxy seems to be an even more ramshackle and unruly place than ever before. Plus, Abrams goes out of his way to make this look and move like a Star Wars movie, rather than a J.J. Abrams film (sorry, lens flare aficionados).

These were, for me, the two things that The Force Awakens needed to accomplish to be successful: Give us engaging new characters, and return to the proper look and feel of the Star Wars pictures (the Prequels missed on both counts). I took for granted that Abrams and Kasdan would deliver top-quality visual effects and stirring action scenes – space battles, light saber duels, etc. – and they do. Those sequences are brilliantly designed and executed, and deliver the thrills audiences expect. Overall, this is the best-written and best-performed Star Wars film since Empire. Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac make an appealing triumvirate, and worthy successors to Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fisher. Composer John Williams delivers another rousing score, one that leans heavily on his cues for the Original Trilogy but incorporates some major new themes which figure to recur through this Sequel Trilogy.

The Force Awakens has its limitations. There are lapses in story logic, but (as I cover in Chapter 24 of Star Wars FAQ), these have dogged every film in the series. At times the story hews perhaps too close to the original movie (Kasdan and Abrams seem to recognize this, and try to mitigate it by having Solo crack inside jokes). In general The Force Awakens spends a great deal of time establishing characters and plot lines that clearly won’t be resolved in this movie. It feels, a bit too overtly, like the opening chapter of a longer story and that’s a minor letdown, even if everyone on the planet knows Episodes VIII and IX are in the works. Also, be warned that this movie is rated PG-13, rather than PG, for a reason. Some content is unusually strong for a Star Wars film, and may be too intense for younger viewers. (I regret taking my son, who just turned 7, to see it.)

Bottom line: If Star Wars was never your thing, The Force Awakens isn’t going to convert you. But if like me (and millions of other people) you love Star Wars, The Force Awakens is the movie you’ve been hoping for, and a promising restart for the franchise.


Catching Fire Review

Guest Blogger: Dale Sherman, author of Armageddon Films FAQreviews Catching Fire, the second installment in the hugely popular Hunger Games series.

Catching Fire and the Reluctant Hero: a Review of the Movie

By Dale Sherman

 In my new book, Armageddon Films FAQ (Applause Books; available in bookstores and through online outlets), there is a chapter about dystopian societies in movies and audiences’ assumption that they have to be either pre or postapocalyptic.  For example, the 1975 film Rollerball starring  James Caan deals with a dysfunctional future where societal order is centered around corporate-sponsored deadly games that pacify the public and keeps them in their place until one lone player begins a revolution by defying the game.  (Why, yes, fans of The Hunger Games will believe I’m trying to set up a “Battle Royale gotcha” here, but that’s not my intent.  And if you’re not sure what I mean by that – read onward.)  Yet, although there are signs of a crumbling society in Rollerball, there is no clear indication that an apocalyptic event created this world; in fact, it appears that corporate and political factors came into play instead.  Yes, it is a dystopian society, but one cannot look at it and say that an “End of the World” event leads to or created from the events seen in the movie.

Naturally, one of the movies discussed in that chapter is the 2012 adaptation of Suzanne Collins’ book, The Hunger Games.  In that case, there is some basis of a nuclear event, and while that past event does not conclusively make the film a postapocalyptic one, subsequent events lean the series more towards fulfilling the requirements.  Certainly more so than its oft-comparison, Battle Royale – a Japanese novel (1999) and film (2000) dealing with a group of school children being sent to a remote island to kill each over by a government.  With the topic of The Hunger Games vs. Battle Royale discussed in more details within Armageddon Films FAQ, I’ll only state here that kneejerk reactions of Battle Royale fans to treat The Hunger Games as second-rate ripoff has made Hunger Games fans a tad touchy about criticism over time.  In my views, as much as I love Battle Royale and admire its exceptional dreamlike quality, I believe The Hunger Games series pays off in greater dividends as to character development and resolution.  Even so, the arguments continue.  Add in that fans of the series (like those for Harry Potter and Twilight) are dedicated, as well as it starring a popular young actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who is considered an icon in my home state of Kentucky, and you can see why I feel the need to walk on eggshells a bit when talking about the films.  No point in making enemies of strangers.

Even so, when my publisher suggested I review the second film in the series, Catching Fire, I was a bit hesitant, for I came out of the theater after the first film feeling disappointment.  It is not so much that I had a problem with the concept of the film (there have been far too many movies and books with the same theme over the years, after all), but rather the execution.  As much promise as there was in producing the film based on the popular book series, there seems something slapdash about the first movie, as if not enough care was involved.  Namely, heavy-handed visual shorthands done in the sense of both costumes and set designs distracted from my enjoyment of the first film.  We see a futuristic society full of several poverty-level “districts” that produce material for the Capitol, which is full of rich, spoiled people.  No harm in that – it’s a classic dystopian setup for science fiction (and a classic cliché of SF television shows, such as Star Trek (“The Cloud Miners”) and even Gallifrey on Doctor Who was hinted at being setup in such a fashion, and those were the “good guys”).  Yet, instead of finding an intriguing way to show a futuristic form of poverty, we get clichés of the Great Depression and images straight out of Coal Miner’s Daughter with Lawrence as a bow-hunting version of Loretta Lynn.  Meanwhile, those who live in the Capitol are merely 18th Century French Aristocrats by way of Ziggy Stardust and Space: 1999.  There’s no sense of a real world, merely pieces of these other words thrown together in order to evoke emotions geared from earlier films and television shows.  In doing so, the images are too thick; too brash; with a general feeling of someone hitting over the head with a message instead of wanting to articulate a truly unique vision of the future.  Thus, such a great opportunity missed. The topper for me occurred in the scene where the heroine, Katniss, was preparing in the locker-room to be sent up the tube for the game.  The room is spacious, with plenty of lockers for other contestants, but there is only one player.  The scene is about her last-minute preparations and concerns before the game starts, but instead all I could think about was the need for this very large room for one player.  Did the games used to have forty members on each team?  Is other training done there and that’s why they need so much space?  Thus, instead of concentrating on the emotion of the scene, the set-design instead makes us focus on just how really, really big it is and hurts the impact of the scene.  Nor was it the only scene like it that, in trying to place viewers inside this world, merely took them out.  Who can guess how many times we saw the gamemaker and drifted off to wondering about how he shaves every morning with that goofy beard of his?

Perhaps it was deemed as unnecessary to give the film more of a sense of wonder, as the plot of the first film is more about the emotional value of the fantasy being presented than any realistic concerns about how such a world developed in the first place.  After all, we’re told that all these districts manufacture goods for the millions that live in the Capitol, but each district appears to have roughly 200-300 people each (and evidently all the fuel needed by the Capitol can be performed by a couple of dozen miners with pickaxes).  The most important event of the year that involves the sacrificing of children and only a handful of people can bother to show up?  Or watch on the giant bigscreens?  Surely that can’t be all the people if the game is played up as being something “everyone” is watching.

Even characters in the film run into these clichés, in particular the other tributes, who are nothing more than cyphers with the exception of Rue – the young girl Katniss befriends in the game.  There is nothing to say about the others beyond them being ready to harm our heroes, other than their predestination to make longwinded speeches about murder at inappropriate times.  The only revelation given them comes in the last few minutes of the competition, with the sole survivor outside of the District 12 pair realizing that his entire life of training has amounted to nothing because the Capitol is ready to let the pair in a sense “cheat” in order to win.  For a brief moment – not even a minute – the film plays with becoming a teenage version of Network, with a tribute terminated because he’s “bad television.”  Alas, even for just thirty seconds, his story ends up sounding much more interesting than that of Katniss and Peeta.

The only true success of the first film was the casting.  Jennifer Lawrence turned out to be a perfect choice for the part of Katniss, although she has had little to do beyond appearing shocked and angry at various intervals (this should change in the final two films in the four-part series and a point I’ll get back to in a moment).  Josh Hutcherson, playing Peeta, impressed me with a role that seems simple but is much more complex – he is a character that the audience needs to feel uncertain about for a number of reasons and yet still must be likable.  The rest of the cast also throw themselves into their roles at 100%. Elizabeth Banks sinks so into her role as the vapid Effie, that I never even thought of where I had seen her before until I started this review and was surprised she had been in so many other things I have seen (not to mention that she manages to play the role in such a way that the character ends up being likable, even if she is creepy on the outside).  Meanwhile, Woody Harrelson may be playing to a stereotype he has played in other films, there’s no mistaking that he’s good in that type of role.  Even so, there is the solid casting of Donald Sutherland, who is then given little to do in the first movie.  Thus, even with that casting, there is still a sense that things did not add up to the sum of the parts.

With such thoughts, I went to see Catching Fire not expecting that the movie was going to produce anything startling new for me.  Certainly the plot of the second film had been done before, as the concept of the heroes from the first book / film having to rehash their previous adventure on a bigger scale in the sequel is standard fare.  (To give credit, Battle Royale cut to the chase in its first film by having previous winners who the government had become fed up with forced to “play again” in much the same as Peeta and Katniss do in Catching Fire.)  Catching Fire tries to at first misdirect that goal at first by showing the “victory tour” the two winners go on after the games, only to find that they cannot keep their true anger over the games and what they see on the tour from emerging in their appearances.  It’s an attempt to give the proceedings some gravity – this pair is stuck for life as figureheads for the government or else face causing problems for themselves, their families and even the public at large.  Yet, by doing so, the film stumbles out of the gate, as it is a long opening segment of the film that drags in the wake of audiences’ anticipation of the action they paid their $8.50 to see.  Of course, in having to format an immensely popular book series for the screen, one can forgive the filmmakers for feeling the need to satisfy fans expecting such scenes from the books, but a tighter script could have invested the same emotional impact and made the film a faster, smoother ride.

As one can guess, the growing tension between the Capitol and the Districts due to Katniss’ victory in the games leads to new gamemaker, Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman), proposing a new twist to the game.  Katniss and Peeta will fight in the 75th anniversary edition of the game, along with previous winners.  Thus, the pair along with 22 others arrive at a new location for a new game where they have to fight each other along with computer-generated “natural” events that are designed to wipe out the tributes as time goes by as well.  Katniss then discovers that not everyone is what they appear to be, both inside and outside of the game, while working with a handful of other tributes to find a way to avoid dying.

The setup is a bit clumsy – way too many of the tributes are ready to work together when one would think survival would be the key.  Yet, the ending of the film and the plot of the subsequent final book in the series (and eventual two-part movie yet to come) makes clear that there’s more going on here than random chance.  Thus, the focus is not really about a time of “Most Dangerous Game” man vs. man nature, but rather man vs. society or even more so man vs. machine, what with the computer generated creates and weather conditions that are booby-traps for the tributes.  Fortunately, unlike the CGI dogs of the first film (which looks rather silly, to be honest), the animals and such seen in the second film work better.  (Although it does bring up one big question for the series – if those in control can conjure up deadly menaces at every turn, why bother having the tributes kill each other?  Wouldn’t it show more the hopelessness of the situation if every tribute was faced with the same hardships and had to fight the Capitol at a game they cannot win – it only stops when there’s a sole survivor, after all?  We’re supposed to be on the side of paranoia here, however, so the audience is obviously not supposed to think of such things during the course of the movie.)

Even so, the early slow pacing of the film and the subsequent quickness of everyone teaming together are two of the rare places where the second film in the series misfires.  Otherwise, the film is more interesting, with a crisper script and dialogue, than in the first film.  For example, It seems to me that someone realized they had Donald Sutherland in their movie and decided to write dialogue that simply oozes out of the actor in quiet menace that simply wasn’t there in the first film.  One particular character (who I won’t name so as to not spoil it) also is written in such a way that there’s no neon signs pointing to the character to say “Look out!  They are not what they appear to be!”  Points should also be given for allowing Peeta to stand more on his own two feet with ideas of his own, instead of the simple fall-guy of the first film.  (Not to mention that I’m always happy when a filmmaker gives Amanda Plummer another chance to show how good she is in the minor role of another tribute in the game.)

Of course, the film is really centered on Katniss and Jennifer Lawrence’s portrayal of this character, and she is just as good as in the first film, although I feel both films so far limit the actress inside of the role.  Katniss does things that progress the plot – no doubt about that – but most of the actions that affect the outcome are outside of her scope of influence in both films, and it is only in rash last-minute decisions that she triumphs.  Thus, Lawrence spends a lot of time having to stare off, looking at things she can’t control, and being misdirected, rather than showing the inner-workings of Katniss.

However, what looks like a weakness to the character is one that does hit rather hard with the ending of the second film with one of the better cliffhangers for such a series since The Empire Strikes Back.  In making that comparison, it springs to mind that there’s more to contrast between the two with their individual studies of an hero destine for greatness.  Both series deal with a character that discovers that they are a focal point to larger rebellions, but there’s a significant difference between the two.  In the case of Luke Skywalker in Empire, he attempts to break out of what is expected of him and through mishaps realizes that he is part of a greater story and must heed the role he is set out to be.  On the other hand, Katniss thinks of herself as being independent, only to discover at the end of Catching Fire that she is merely a tool for those with a bigger agenda.  At the end of Empire, Luke accepts his fate, is at peace, and ready to be part of what has been preordained for him; at the end of Catching Fire, Katniss finally realizes that she has been a pawn to everyone – even those who she thought were friends – and is ready to leap out of her skin.  And it is in those last seconds of the movie that we get the turn of the character’s arch – Katniss is finally starting to wise up and now will become even more of a wild-card in the conclusion of the series.

With Catching Fire’s ending, the series has redeemed itself a bit in my eyes from being what was essentially a timewaster after the first film to one that has me intrigues to see what they do in the final story.  It is definitely a case of that rare creature, the sequel that is better than the original, and certainly one that those like me who were disappointed with the first film should think about giving a chance.

Armageddon Films FAQ

Mankind has been predicting its own demise through various methods, from fables and religious scriptures to hard-core scientific studies since the dawn of time. And if there is one thing Hollywood knows how to exploit, it is the fears of Things to Come. Movies about the end of the world have been around since the early days of cinema, and Armageddon Film FAQ is a look into the various methods we have destroyed ourselves over the years: zombies, mad computers, uptight aliens, plunging objects from space, crazed animals, Satan, God, Contagions, the ever-popular atomic bomb, sometimes even a combination of these in the same movie!

Armageddon Films FAQ goes from the silent days of filmmaking to the most recent (literally) earth-shattering epics, from cinema to television and even the novels, from comedies to dramas, from supernatural to scientific. It also explores other aspects of the genre, such as iconic but unfilmable apocalyptic novels, postnuclear car-racing flicks, domestic dramas disguised as end-of-the-world actioners, and more – from the most depressing to the happiest Armageddons ever!