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Column Fri Dec 18 2015
Star Wars: The Force Awakens
A lot can be said about the current film culture's emphasis on leaning heavily into the realm of nostalgia — not story, not character development, but simply giving audiences flashes of what we're familiar with and allowing that to pass for something new. Say what you want about his take on the Star Trek franchise, but I was at least happy that, by creating a time travel understory, J.J. Abrams effectively let it be known that anything could happen from this point forward. The possibility of opening up entirely different paths for the crew of the Enterprise was there, even if that's not exactly how it panned out.
In this retro climate, it should come as no surprise that the year's biggest box office hit (and one of the biggest of all time) is Jurassic World, which is so devoted to the original film, Jurassic Park, that it effectively pretends that the two other sequels simply never happened. And perhaps you noticed that Creed is also doing very well with fans of the original Rocky. Hmm...
Which brings us back to Abrams, who has always been devoted to recapturing the experience many of us used to have going to the movies in the 1980s, when you'd typically get a poster, one trailer, a couple TV commercials (none of which were available to watch repeatedly online, mind you) and little to no information about the film beyond the official synopsis. Abrams dares to ask us "Why do you want to know everything before you see the finished film?" A fair question, and he does everything in his power to suppress information leaks. Good for him. But even if you've sequestered yourself for the past few months from all manner of Star Wars details and images and are able to go into the seventh chapter, The Force Awakens, relatively untainted, it doesn't mean the final film is going to be a triumph. I'm guessing most devoted fans' worst nightmare isn't that the film is going to be bad, but that it's not going to be great.
Working from a script by Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has moments of greatness; it approaches greatness at times, but it is not a complete success, largely because it becomes a constant barrage of the familiar that goes well beyond simply having a few of the same characters from the original trilogy. I suppose that since the Star Wars films are technically a single story in serialized form, some will think it's okay for characters to still be dealing with the aftermath of the events of episodes IV, V and VI, even though this film takes places 30 years later.
But even outside of specific plot points, this new chapter is structured in such a way that so much of it feels like direct callbacks to specific scenes in Episode IV in particular. We're dealing with yet another planet/moon-sized battle station, with a single weak point; there's another desert planet open; a droid is entrusted with invaluable plans; familial links play a key part in the conflict; there's a brilliant, reckless pilot; a noble heroine; a masked villain dressed in black who reports to a deep-voiced higher power; a diminutive alien creature that has a special connection to the Force that it's willing to share with one of our new heroes; there's even another cantina scene. Make sure to let your eyes wander around the corners of the Millennium Falcon, and you'll see a few familiar objects. It's actually bizarre how little has changed in 30 years.
The more traditional Empire, despite being decimated in Return of the Jedi, has somehow reformed under the new name The First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (voiced by Andy Serkis) and his primary underlings: the power-mad General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson in full Hitler Youth mode) and the Sith-like Kylo Ren (Adam Driver, especially effective here as the agent of the Dark Side who is still somewhat drawn by his roots in the the Light Side). I was especially drawn to this character's warped vision of the universe. He's a Vader wannabe, with a makeshift mask that he wears for no particular reason other than to give himself an artificial voice that kind of sounds Vaderish. If you examine his mask closely, you'll see it looks like it was slapped together with rivets and poor welding, as it should be. Ren has backstory that I'm not going to dive into, but it deepens his internal crisis in a very necessary and vital way.
I was surprised that the first human face we see in The Force Awakens belongs to Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), a masterful pilot working for the Resistance who has a map that is said to be the key to finding the long-lost Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill, who is absolutely in this film and in the trailer), who went into self-imposed exile after a group of young Jedi trainees was killed by a rogue student, an incident that scarred Luke deeply and drove him to drop out completely. Poe is captured by Ren, but is soon set free by a stormtrooper named Finn (John Boyega), who is appalled by the mass killings of innocents in the hunt by the Order for this map. Before Poe is initially captured, he deposits the map in his droid BB-8 ("voice consultant" credit is given to comedic actors Bill Hader and Ben Schwartz), whom he instructs to find his way to the Resistance.
Poe and Finn manage to escape in a TIE Fighter, but crash on the desert planet of Jakku and are separated, with Finn retreating to a nearby town where he meets a scrap dealer named Rey (newcomer Daisy Ridley), who is now in possession of BB-8. Without going into anymore detail, from this point forward in The Force Awakens, Finn and Rey essentially enter into an intergalactic road movie, getting to know each other, traveling to strange new worlds, and meeting all manner of interesting creatures, including Han Solo (Harrison Ford, slipping right back into it) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have returned to a life of smuggling and dirty deals after a falling out with Leia (Carrie Fisher) drove him away from working with the Resistance. But Solo eventually agrees to help the young pair deliver BB-8's map to the former princess.
Not surprisingly, everything is building to big conflicts both in the air (the Resistance is attempting to destroy this new Starkiller Base using X-Wings) and on the ground (heroes both old and young clash with Kylo Ren, other First Order soldiers, stormtroopers, you name it). We get brief visits from old friends — R2-D2 and C-3PO show up briefly, feeling slightly wedged into the story — and new acquaintances, including the badass stormtrooper superior Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), who is only on screen a couple of times briefly, but makes an impression that leads me to believe we'll be seeing more of her in upcoming segments. I love that Phasma is at her angriest when she catches Finn without his helmet.
I was so impressed with the new performers in this film that I believe it wouldn't have been crazy to try and make The Force Awakens without any old characters on hand. I'm not saying that's a better idea, but Ridley, Boyega, Isaac and Driver are so good here, they could have carried a film on their own steam (with a little kick in the pants from John Williams' still-inspiring score). But of course, we need our old friends on hand to make the transition, to pass the torch onto the new generation. Ford is the primary member of the old guard on screen here, and he slips right back into Han Solo so easily, he really makes its seem like no time has passed at all. The hair is a little lighter and the wrinkles a bit deeper, but it's the same scoundrel who absolutely would have and does shoot first.
Also impressive is how Abrams' film doesn't really look like any other Star Wars film. While it has its glossy moments, most of The Force Awakens is told from the perspective of an outsider looking in. It's rougher around the edges, dustier, more banged up. The use of hand-held cameras at times adds an immediacy to the battle sequences and fight scenes. It feels more like real war. And I believe for the first time, we see a stormtrooper bleed after being shot by a blaster (no, not Finn). I love the Rey and Finn are so young that names like Han Solo, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader are almost mythological to them, and they aren't even sure these people are real. They are of a generation that was raised on tales of war and bravery and sacrifice. It's a adds a completely different tone to the storytelling, one that is, at once, lived in and like something born out of a book of legend.
The simple truth is that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has too many references — specific and big picture — to what came before for its own good. It doesn't kill what is so damn good about it, but it tarnishes it a bit, only because it isn't necessary. And after about a dozen of these in the first 30 minutes, I started to wince as they continued to roll in. I realize for some fans, there can never be enough, and for those of you who think that way, you'll be crying and shaking and visiting your therapists by the millions. That being said, it's still a terrific film that keeps things moving, forwards a story I'm still very much interesting in continuing, and sets up what could easily be an even better sequel in the hands of writer-director Rian Johnson. I'm rather desperate to see where this ship takes us.
I know it seems unfathomable that you would see anything but the new Star Wars movie this weekend, but on the off chance that you didn't buy your tickets early enough, all the shows are sold out, and you are committed to seeing something new this weekend, the other big studio option is Sisters, the latest pairing from perpetual awards show hosts and former "Saturday Night Live" co-stars (as well as Baby Mama leads) Amy Poehler and Tina Fey. Directed by Jason Moore (Pitch Perfect), this is the story two dysfunctional adult sisters, Maura (Poehler) and Kate Ellis (Fey), who discover that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) are about to sell their childhood home in Florida and decide to throw one last bash, as they regularly did in high school.
As shocking as it might seem, apparently the Ellis sisters are the only ones from their high school who moved away, so when they send out invites to their "Ellis Island" party (that name seems so wrong for some reason), all of their old high school pals all still live close enough to make it. Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. While the lives of these once party-centric friends have slowed down considerably, once the party gets rolling, the old self-destructive behaviors come right back out, as one might expect. In fact, the screenplay from longtime SNL writer Paula Pell is about the dangers of nostalgia for bygone times (which seems appropriate this weekend especially) and reminds us that sometimes the past wasn't as much fun as we remember.
When we meet Maura, she's continuing a life of attempting to help others in the most misguided way possible as a nurse. When she was younger, her drive to be a caregiver meant that she always had to be the designated adult at her sister's parties, which meant she couldn't drink and had to make sure the house and those in it stayed more or less in one piece. Kate was the wild child, sleeping with a long list of boys and living only for the moment, a trend that continues into adulthood. She now has a college-age daughter (Madison Davenport) who can't stand her and is secretly spending the summer living with her Aunt Maura.
The excursion to Florida is just what the family needs. In a twist the girls didn't see coming, their parents have actually already sold the house and moved into a retirement community that seems to have rekindled their sex drive. So the house is mostly empty (except for their rooms, which they have been charged with cleaning out), and so naturally the party idea arises, only this time Kate agrees to be the sober one for the evening, and you can probably guess how that turns out.
Sisters is far more hit and miss as a comedy than you might expect. Making Poehler the square doesn't seem like much of a stretch from her days on "Parks and Recreation," and seeing Fey attempt to play and talk like a sex-crazed, irresponsible woman just stretches the limits of my imagination more than it's willing to go. She doesn't wear the tropes of that persona convincingly, which impacts the rest of the film. That's not to say that hearing her swear like a sailor isn't funny at times (this is, without a doubt, an R-rated movie).
Much of the funniest material comes from the film's long list of supporting players, most of whom are quite strong here, including Maya Rudolph, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Kate McKinnon, Greta Lee, Rachel Dratch and Samantha Bee. Fresh from his very funny work in Trainwreck, John Cena is also on hand as a drug dealer who Kate is undeniably attracted to despite his clear preference for freaky sex stuff. The wonderfully charming Ike Barinholtz ("The Mindy Project") is more or less the film's sole straight man, playing a friendly neighbor who Maura is nervously drawn to, so much so that she can barely put two words together to talk to him.
With all of these smart and funny people, Sisters resorts a bit too often to really obvious jokes and gross-out humor. Still, the very funny cast elevates the material and pushes it in directions that extract laughs where once they may not have existed. Also, Poehler and Fey have a partnership that is so strong, it would be funny during a plague. They have throwaway lines that are funnier than some of the more drawn-out, physical-comedy bits here, and I wish there had been more of that.
It's likely a foregone conclusion that many of the conflicts brought up during the film resolve themselves nice and tidy-like by the end, which is slightly annoying. But there's an underlying thread of regret and sadness that permeates a great deal of this movie that, believe it or not, makes it a much more enjoyable viewing experience overall. I'm more torn about Sisters than I'd hoped I'd be, but for the most part, I think there's more here to like than dismiss, so a mild recommendation, especially if you need a break from lightsabers and Wookiees.
The first of many unusual things you'll notice about Spain's official submission for Foreign Language Film consideration is that it's not in Spanish. For reasons are never explained and don't really matter, Flowers is in the Basque language, spoken primarily in a small quadrant of Spain and even smaller piece of France, and while the area on display in this movie is quite lovely in a melancholy way, the choice of filming in a place where Basque is still spoken is a nice surprise, courtesy of directing team Jon Garaño and Jose Mari Goenaga (For 80 Days).
The film opens with Ane (Nagore Aranburu) in her doctor's office receiving word that she has prematurely hit menopause, which both shocks and saddens her. Upon returning home, she finds a lovely bouquet of flowers waiting for her, she things coming from her husband (Egoitz Lasa), whom she has not told about her diagnosis. But the flowers aren't from him, and a mystery begins in Ane's life. The film moves on to another family in the same area, where we meet Tere (Itziar Aizpuru), an elderly woman who wants her son Beñat (Josean Bengoetxea) and his wife Lourdes (Itziar Ituño) to have a child before she gets too old. Even more intriguing, a new bouquet arrives every week, with no note or sense of why they are coming. Ane's husband begins to get jealous, when he can pry himself away from the television, so Ane starts hiding the flowers and taking them to her office job for a construction company.
The way the film is cleverly constructed, the audience is the only possessor of the entire truth, and we soon find out that Beñat, who happens to be a crane operator at the same company where Ane works, is the one sending the flowers, and she only figures this out after a terrible roadside tragedy occurs, and the flowers stop coming as abruptly as they started. In the wake of this accident, the deeply mourning Tere awkwardly attempts to bond with the daughter-in-law Lourdes in ways they never did before, and it backfires to a degree that Lourdes insists they never speak again.
Ane is left mournful for a different reason. The fact that this relative stranger was so kind to her for no particular reason has opened her eyes to just how empty and painful her marriage has become, and she reconciles her brand of grieving by going to put flowers every so often on the spot in the road where Beñat accident occurred. It takes Beñat's widow and mother years to figure out just who this mysterious person is leaving arrangements, but they both set out to discover just who she is.
Flowers is partly about the way we grieve, but it's more about the way we keep ourselves from grieving so we don't have to accept that a loss has occurred. But it's also about making connections with other human beings who are clearly in need. The filmmakers make the point that Beñat was not a particularly special man by showing us the jarringly bleak path his dead body takes after it's donated to science. Most of the characters are in desperate need of kindness in their lonely lives, but it really would have helped if the filmmakers had made it clearer why these people were so listless and abrasive in the first place.
Flowers is a minor work that takes full advantage of the gloomy natural setting of its location. The performances are all quite good, with Aranburu being especially poignant as Ane, probably because she rises out of her funk and her bad marriage. The mystery of Beñat as a secret admirer is curious to because I'm fairly certain we're meant to assume that he was never going to do anything beyond flower giving, which makes him a bit of a coward, and the least interesting of all the characters (the fact that he's dead for most of the film probably contributes to that as well). Still, the film is a leisurely stroll through hard times for people who eventually find ways to improve their lives in small but meaningful ways. The film opens today in Chicago at the Music Box Theatre.
Noma My Perfect Storm
I'll admit, I don't track the world of high-end food and restaurants, which makes this essential documentary about the eatery known as Noma in Copenhagen no less interesting, since the venue has frequently and repeatedly been called the Best Restaurant in the World since 2010 — with a traumatic year off in 2013, when it was only No. 2, and this year, when it tumbled to No. 3 — by San Pellegrino (for comparison's sake, Chicago's Alinea often ranks in the Top 10 of this Top 50 list). The fascinating journey of getting Noma off the ground and fine tuning its Nordic locavore cuisine is the subject of the documentary Noma My Perfect Storm, both about the reputation-building process for the restaurant and its chef, René Redzepi, who is shown as both a caring and nurturing craftsman and an occasional tyrant in the kitchen.
Chef Redzepi is great about discussing how his many failures early in creating Noma helped shape what they are today and how he and his partners came up with the idea of creating dishes made entirely of ingredients that are found in the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway, Sweden, the Åland Islands, the Faroe Islands, and Greenland. Now just because the ingredients can be found in these places doesn't mean they were purchased there, a fascinating point of contention for some. Apparently, Noma would go broke trying to purchase only locally grown and harvested components to its dishes, and the local versions of these ingredients aren't always the best. The distinction is small but a great source of debate.
We get to see Redzepi at his lowest points, as he's contemplating losing a Michelin star one year, or dropping from the No. 1 spot for a year, or accidentally food poisoning dozens of patrons one day. But we also get to see him soar and celebrate being a trailblazer in the gastronomic arena, where he is considered the reigning king. We see him berate and belittle his underlings, but they seem to take the verbal beating and come back stronger and sharper and ready to celebrate by Redzepi's side when the honors and accolades return. Redzepi is as much a motivator as he is a dictator.
For someone who knows little about how these dishes are created and composed, the most hypnotic part of Noma My Perfect Storm is watching the intricate experimentation with subtle flavor variations. The cooking and plating of food seems like the easy part compared to the weeks Redzepi spends in his laboratory that resembles a kitchen. The access granted over three years to first-time director Pierre Deschamps (also a chef) is extraordinarily detail oriented, and through that he gives us the opportunity to understand a bit of the complex process involved in the search for perfection. It's an engaging doc for the foodie and non-foodie alike. The film opens today in Chicago for a weeklong run at the Gene Siskel Film Center.