Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

starwars In 2012, when it was originally announced that Disney had purchased Lucasfilms and all of the Star Wars properties along with it there was rejoice and there was opposition. Soon after news broke that not only did Disney now own the beloved franchise, but they were working on new movies immediately. Fast forward to 2015 and the wait is finally over for the next entry to the space opera franchise. Many are wondering if it will be ultimately disappointing or will it reignite old fans and newcomers alike to create a new generation of Star Wars nerds. Well I am here to tell you that the torch has been lit. Star Wars is back, and no one is happier than I am to write that.

Taking over the franchise is sci-fi veteran, J.J. Abrams. After leaving the moderately successful reboot of the Star Trek movie franchise, he takes on a Herculean task in making a movie not only for mainstream audiences but for hardcore fans as well. Abrams is able to create a film that feels like it was created 3 years after Return of the Jedi and is far more inline with the original trilogy than the CGI mess that were the prequel films. Bizarrely enough, for 135 minutes Abrams put on a masterclass of how to do these movies right in the modern era. After about 5 minutes I had a sigh of relief that The Force Awakens was going to be fine, but it wasn’t fine...it was better than that, far better.

The film concentrates on two characters overwhelmingly, the young stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega) and a scavenger on the planet Jakku, Rei (Daisy Ridley). The two meetup in the classic Star Wars way of extenuating circumstances of a coming adventure. The famed jedi, Luke Skywalker has been missing for many years and due to that reason the film is off to the races. Luke’s absence has allowed a group called The First Order to thrive across the galaxy. They too are on the hunt for Skywalker, and of course to dominate the galaxy while they are at it. In a lot of ways, The Force Awakens is a mixture of many of the classic Star Wars stories but it still forges its own path. As I mentioned before, the film feels very much in line with the original films and the new story connects us back to A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi seamlessly. When Finn and Rei eventually find the infamous Han Solo and Chewbacca the story really starts churning fast for these newcomers. The team works desperately to not only find Luke but to stop the First Order from using a new planetary weapon, the Starkiller. The First Order is controlled by a man named Kylo Ren who has a very Darth Vader like presence in the film, and for good reason. As the trailer showed, Ren aims to finish what Vader started so many years ago.

The amount of moments of fan service, and I don’t mean that in a negative way, is fantastic. Instead of just doing cheap tricks to amuse fans the film just recreates a similar atmosphere of the original Star Wars. Through character personalities, set pieces, background elements we just feel at home again. This review is incredibly difficult to write because I don’t want to spoil anything, as nothing was spoiled for me. So I will end it here by simply saying: If you are a fan of the original movies you will be extremely pleased with the direction that the franchise is headed in. After so many years, you will get those movies you always wanted. For casual fans and newcomers, welcome to what it felt like when the hardcore fans tell you about the first time they saw the originals. The laughter, the goosebumps, the emotional feelings, the pure aww at times, and the absolute joy when you know that there is more to come; that’s what Star Wars has always felt like to me and to many fans and now you get to experience that first hand.

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Review: Ender's Game

Ender's Game

Based on the famed story of young soldiers pushed to their limits to pursue an enemy that the don’t fully understand has been brought to life by director Gavin Hood. A story steeped in moral conundrums of what it means to fight for your government, and what that says about us as a society is a rather thought provoking premise. The film stars young Asa Butterfield as Andrew “Ender” Wiggin on his pursuit to answer questions that someone his age should never have to consider.

The film starts off with Ender being put through the ringer as a young kid in school by his peers. He seemingly has few friends and suffers at the wrath of a bully. Fighting back comes to Ender surprisingly naturally and he makes a choice to take on this bully for strategic reasons. This decision and many others are monitored and examined by Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis). Graff seems to have a bit of an obsession with Ender and for good reason. The Colonel sees Ender as the best hope for the possible future invasion of the Formics, an alien race that attacked the Earth in the past. The military has decided that child soldiers are their best bet due to their ability to absorb information. After his “strategic choice,” Wiggin is rushed off to the famous international battle school. This is where the story goes from rather run of the mill to a full scale sci-fi flick.

After a few sequences with getting acclimated to space and meeting his peers we watch Ender get promoted, develop as a formidable strategic genius, and become the leader he was always thought to be. Colonel Graff pushes Ender to the brink to mold him in the proper image. Their father and son dynamic is rather obvious but still endearing. As Ender goes about advancing his career he is met with similar hostile kids as he has dealt with in the past. Always a strategist first and a brute second, Ender is able to talk his way out of most things. Asa Butterfield does a great job in making you believe that Ender Wiggin is a full character.

While Asa Butterfield did moderately well here, lacking on some moments of needed emotion, that can not be said for some of his actor counterparts. Harrison Ford absolutely phoned in his performance here. Viola Davis, for her small role, was serviceable. She was able to ask the “why” questions that the audience could connect with. Frankly, an actress of Davis’ caliber was rather wasted here. Hailee Steinfeld who played Petra Arkanian, Ender’s teammate and slight romantic interest, had little to nothing to grab onto here. I would categorize her as a wasted talent here as well. One of the few stand outs was Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham, a pilot who saved Earth from the Formics’ first invasion. While he was over the top in his performance to a degree he made the time memorable in a good way. The film is largely dull, Kingsley adds a spice the moment he is introduced. The stakes in this movie are meant to feel high, they don’t. As we build ever closer to the final battle with the Formics I just found myself not caring. There are very few moments of tension if at all. The robotic and calculating nature of Ender’s personality seems to permeate the entire cast. Everyone seems too busy secretly plotting that they forgot to emote. Pensive looks are simply not enough for a movie like this. One tremendous upside to the movie is the way its presented. The movie looks beautiful. The color palette and sweeping shots of space battles were very fun. Sadly this movie was not presented in 3D, which is a real shame because it would have greatly benefited from that treatment. At the end of the day, Ender’s Game is passable treatment to a famed story. Little to no stakes, decent acting performances, and great visuals but ultimately a hollow movie going experience.

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Review: 42

42MoviePoster Brian Helgeland hasn't directed much, but he has written some modern classics. From Man on Fire to L.A. Confidential Helgeland has been able to weave tremendous stories. As the writer and director on this film, 42, his job was not an easy one. The task of telling the story of Jackie Robinson takes a considerable level of skill. How does one tell his story without alienating certain audiences? Viewers who are interested in the sports aspect and not the racial one or vice versa are the concern. It’s a hard road to run keeping the audience informed of difficult times in American history and keeping them thoroughly entertained. 42 goes about it in a fashion that I think can be a lesson for tackling civil rights in films. Don’t bother backing down from the rough topics, embrace them and make it a human moment. This movie is a 2+ hour lesson in the human experience.

The movie opens with a montage describing life for black people after World War 2 and into the film’s present (1946). This scene helps lay the foundation for people not quite familiar with history or the black American experience. I found it rather forgettable, but in hindsight I see its value. The true beginning to the film is a conversation between Branch Rickey (Harrison Ford) and his two employees. As the owner of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Rickey has the plan to add a black man into Major League Baseball (a.k.a. white baseball) for the first time. What gave Rickey’s character instant credibility for me were his motives. They weren’t heartfelt out of the pure love for equality. Rather Rickey knew that it would generate him more income. I have to begrudgingly respect his level of honesty. What I didn’t want was some white knight (no pun intended) that rides into town to save all the black folks just because. Human beings are greedy creatures by nature and I’m glad Rickey was portrayed honestly. When Jackie Robinson (Chadwick Boseman) is introduced to Branch Rickey the two begin a journey with each other that feels more like father and son than a mentoring relationship. I was very appreciative of their interaction. There was an instant level of respect from both sides that made things seem more genuine. The other relationship that is looked at in 42 is the one between Jackie and Rae (Nicole Beharie), his wife. This relationship dwarfed any of Jackie’s other interactions, with Branch Rickey’s being no exception. Jackie and Rae were the first onscreen black couple I’ve seen in a very long time that were simultaneously powerful, loving, and true. Robinson’s successes on and off the field were just as much his doing as it was Rae’s. She was no shrinking violet and was given several opportunities to shine in her own right; something not seen to often in roles like this. As I think back to many other black films I am not so sure I can name a better-portrayed couple than these two.

The majority of what I loved about 42 was its ability to take on racism head on. I compare it directly to last year’s abysmal Tuskegee Airmen action/drama Red Tails. While Red Tails shucked and jived (yeah that’s on purpose) to avoid as much uncomfortable moments as possible to make a movie for everyone, 42 went the opposite way. While I think 42 is a movie for everyone I think the director accomplished this by not being afraid to trust his audience. There are signs of hard stares, talks of lynch mobs, and flat out grade A racism. One such moment being when Jackie Robinson has to deal with the manager of the Philadelphia Phillies, Ben Chapman (Alan Tudyk). There is no way after watching those scenes does anyone think Brian Helgeland was too fearful to tell this story. Your sympathy with Jackie during those moments makes his triumph all the better. The film even takes the time to show the audience how racism is taught so quickly to the younger generations, and how it can be stopped. Once again the movie is a profound lesson in understanding the human element.

The performances in this film were far better than what I expected. First and foremost, Chadwick Boseman was visually a perfect choice for Jackie Robinson, and frankly you can level that comment across the board to all the major characters. Boseman’s portrayal of Robinson was a nice balance between raw emotion and an ability to keep it at bay. I thought he seemed genuine and conveyed the proper sense of pressure that lay on his shoulders. Harrison Ford hasn’t had a meaty enough role to sink his teeth into in quite a while, this was his chance, and he nailed it. Nicole Beharie did a wonderful job being an equal to Boseman’s Robinson. Never seeming forced or weak, she exemplified the strength needed for this historical moment. The last character I will mention specifically was Alan Tudyk’s Ben Chapman. While not on screen a lot in the film, his impact was tremendous. Chapman was such a vile human being in this film (and I am sure in life) that he might make Stephen from Django Unchained blush. Seeing other work by Tudyk made this performance all the more impressive. For a moment in time, I truly hated Alan Tudyk and that says a lot.

In conclusion, take your mom, wife, kids, grandparents, or anybody else to see this movie. Its an important black film, an important American film, and just a plain old important film. While not everyone will understand fully Robinson’s real life experiences, the cast of 42 will make you sympathize. Go see a true telling of an American legend.

Look for Black on Black Cinema's in depth podcast review this upcoming Monday.

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