“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

“STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” (2015) Review

During the fall of 2012, the media and many film fans were stunned by news of filmmaker George Lucas’ sale of his production company, Lucasfilm, to the Walt Disney Company. I was flabbergasted. However, this sale led to Disney’s plans to continue Lucas’ “STAR WARS” movie saga with future releases, television shows, novels and comic stories.

One result of this sale proved to be Disney’s new film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS”. The first of three movies for the franchise’ “Sequel Trilogy”, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is set some thirty years after the 1983 film, “STAR WARS: EPISODE VI – RETURN OF THE JEDI”. Some time after the Galactic Empire’s major defeat at the Battle of Endor, remnants of this political force formed a new galactic power known as the First Order under the mysterious leadership of Snoke, a Force user. Within less than thirty years, the First Order has managed to take possession of new worlds and become a powerful force within the galaxy. Although appalled by the First Order’s development, the New Republic government decided to do nothing.

Former Rebel Alliance leader, Leia Organa, managed to form a military organization from the rank and file of the New Republic’s armed forces called the Resistance. Believing that the Resistance need more help, Leia recruited a pilot named Commander Poe Dameron to acquire find a segment of a star map that was in the possession of the legendary explorer Lor San Tekka on Jakku. This map would lead to the whereabouts of her brother, Jedi Master Luke Skywalker, who had disappeared into exile following the destruction of a new generation of Jedi under his tutelage. Unfortunately, the village where Tekka lived was captured by a force of First Order stormtroopers under the command of one of Supreme Leader Snoke’s enforcers, a Force user named Kylo Ren. Ren ordered his troops to kill Tekka and the other villagers, while he took Dameron captive. Fortunately, the Resistance pilot had hidden the map inside his astromech droid, BB-8, which managed to escape. Even more fortunately, Dameron was rescued by a stormtrooper designated FN-2187, who wanted to use Dameron to help him defect from the First Order.

Finn and Dameron stole a TIE fighter plane and returned to Jakku to find BB-8. However, the plane crashed. FN-2187 – renamed “Finn” – by the pilot, encountered a desert scavenger named Rey, who had already found BB-8. Realizing that the First Order was after the droid, the pair made their escape from Jakku aboard the old freighter, the Millenium Falcon, and set out to find the Resistance forces. Along the way, Finn and Rey attempted to evade the pursuing Kylo Ren and met the Falcon’s former owner, Han Solo and the latter’s companion Chewbacca; who ended up helping them with their goal.

Many critics and moviegoers hailed “THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to what the franchise used to be back in the late 1970s and early 1980s. And not surprisingly, it became the top earning movie released in 2015. Lucasfilm, now headed by producer Kathleen Kennedy (who had worked with Lucas and Steven Spielberg for years), turned to producer-director J.J. Abrams to helm this first film. Screenwriter Michael Arndt was originally hired to write the movie’s script, following Lucas’ treatment. But Lucasfilm and Abrams decided to scrap both him and the treatment. Then Abrams and filmmaker Lawrence Kasdan created their own screenplay . . . one that obviously pleased a lot of people. How do I feel about the movie? Well, like many films, “THE FORCE AWAKENS” has both good and bad qualities. I am going to start what I liked about it.

For me, the stars of “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” are actors John Boyega, who portrayed Finn; and Harrison Ford, who reprised his role as Han Solo. Their performances gave this movie an energy that could not be matched by the rest of cast. In the case of Ford, this movie featured his best performance in the four “STAR WARS” he has appeared in. And of the new cast members for the Sequel Trilogy, I feel that Boyega has quickly emerged as the best of the bunch, thanks to his energetic and humorous portrayal of a very complex character. Actually, Finn reminded me of a younger Han Solo. Perhaps that is why he clicked so well with the veteran actor. Come to think of it, he also managed to click well with the other two new leads – Daisy Ridley and Oscar Isaac. I find it unsurprising that John Boyega managed to win the BAFTA Rising Star Award. My only problem with Finn is that his character sometimes came off as some doofus who seemed to stumble his way through life. Two other performances in “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that really impressed me came from Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o, who served as the voice and movements behind a new character called Maz Kanata. She should have received an award for her work. And Peter Mayhew, like Ford, was marvelous as always as the aging Wookie, Chewbacca. In a way, I found this miraculous for both Ford and Mayhew, considering that both suffered health issues during the movie’s production. What else did I like about “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Well to my utter surprise, I enjoyed the new astromech droid, BB-8. When I had first saw it in some of the movie’s trailers, I had dismissed it as a second-rate version of R2-D2 and C3-P0. I was very surprised at how quickly I grew fond of the character.

There were other aspects of “THE FORCE AWAKENS” that I enjoyed, as well. If I have to brutally frank, I did not find most of Dan Mindel’s photography that impressive. But there were a few scenes that did impress me. I found Britain’s Lake District, which served as Takodana, very beautiful, thanks to Mindel’s photography. I was also impressed by his photography of United Arab Emirates and New Mexico, which served as the planet of Jakku. Mandel even managed to include an iconic shot, as shown below:

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One last aspect of the movie that impressed me was Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing. I thought they did a pretty damn good job in the sequence that featured Finn and Rey’s escape from Jakku aboard the stolen Millennium Falcon. But I found their work in the sequence in which the pair, Han Solo and Chewbacca get into conflict with pirates gangs who want to settle a score with Han, while three Rathtar creatures run rampant throughout the Falcon and Han’s other ship . . . to be very impressive. And it lacked the taint of confusion which has hampered many action scenes in the past.

Did I have any problems with “THE FORCE AWAKENS”? Unfortunately, yes. A lot of problems. I read somewhere that Lucasfilm/Disney had originally hired Michael Arndt to write the movie’s screenplay, but in the end, Kathleen Kennedy and J.J. Abrams rejected it. Abrams recruited Lawrence Kasdan, an old Lucasfilm veteran to rewrite the script and the result is what ended on the movie screens. And honestly . . . I was not impressed. Not by a long shot. The main problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” is that it shared too many plot points and characterizations with the first film in the franchise, 1977’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Hell, Abrams and Kasdan managed to borrow a bit from 1980’s “STAR WARS: EPISODE V – THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK” and the Prequel movies. It is one thing to lift certain aspects of from other works of art and even history – especially in the science-fiction/fantasy genre. It is another to literally borrow from another movie . . . within the same movie franchise. Just to verify my complaint, I had come across an Entertainment Weekly article that listed eighteen similarties between “THE FORCE AWAKENS” and “A NEW HOPE”that included:

*A droid carrying valuable information who finds himself on a desolate desert planet
*A Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed antagonist who arrives on the scene shortly after the information is handed off, looking for the droid
*A lonely, Force-strong desert dweller who dreams of more
*A cruel military officer who holds a comparable level of authority to his Force-sensitive, masked, and darkly clothed colleague
*A massive spherical weapon that’s used to destroy a planet
*A coordinated aerial attack on the massive spherical weapon that’s monitored from a control room by Leia

Six similarities between the two movies strike me as disturbing. Eighteen similarities seem utterly ridiculous to me. Even worse, I managed to come up with four similarities between this movie and “THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK”. The masked enforcer is revealed to be a member of the Skywalker family, the heroes end up on an ice planet, the roguish protagonist is left in dire straits by the end of the movie and the potential Force user meets an aging Jedi master for new lessons. J.J. Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios might as well stop protesting and admit that their new blockbuster reeks of unoriginality and plagiarism.

Another problem I had with “THE FORCE AWAKENS” proved to be characterization. I had no problem with the idea of characters from the saga’s previous trilogies making an appearance. I had a problem with the new characters being a rehash of other characters – like our desert future acolyte Rey being a remake of the young Luke Skywalker; the First One enforcer Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo being another Anakin Skywalker; Resistance pilot Poe Dameron being another Leia Organa (but without the caustic wit); former stormtrooper Finn being another Han Solo; Supreme Leader Snoke is another Chancellor/Emperor Palpatine; and General Hux is another Grand Moff Wilhuff Tarkin (without the presence). Actually, this video clip from You Tube/Dorkly.com pretty much said it all. The similarities between the saga’s characters strikes me as another example of the lack of originality in this movie.

But some of the characters proved to be very problematic for the movie’s plot. One of the biggest problems proved to be the character of Rey. As a woman, I found it satisfying that a leading STAR WARS character is not only a Force user, but a young woman. Unfortunately, Abrams and Kasdan took this too far by nearly portraying Rey as a borderline Mary Sue. Well, Lucas nearly transformed Luke Skywalker into a Gary Stu (same thing, male version) – especially in the last half hour of “A NEW HOPE” and the first hour of “RETURN OF THE JEDI”. But with Rey, Abrams and Kasdan took it too far. Using her strong connection to the Force as an excuse, they allowed Rey to become a talented pilot who could rival Han Solo and Anakin Skywalker, easily learn how to utilize the Jedi Mind Trick and defeat an experienced Force user with a lightsaber without any training. Without real any experience or training whatsoever. By the way, that last achievement really rubbed me the wrong way. I mean . . . what the hell? What is she going to do in the franchise’s next movie? Walk on water? Now . . . Daisy Ridley gave a nice performance as Rey. But she failed to knock my socks off. Her performance was not enough for me to overlook the ridiculous level of skills that her character had accomplished.

Equally problematic for me proved to be the Kylo Ren character, who turned out to be Han and Leia’s only son, Ben Solo. According to the movie, he was one of Luke’s padawan learners, before he made the decision to embrace evil, kill of Luke’s other padawans and become an enforcer for the First Order. Why? I have not the foggiest idea. “THE FORCE AWAKENS” made it clear that he seemed to worship his grandfather’s role as a Sith Lord. I can only assume that either the next movie or “EPISODE IX” will reveal the reason behind young Ben’s embrace of evil. I hope so. Because the reasoning presented in this film really sucks. It sucks just as much as Ren’s man child behavior. You know, I could have stomach this behavior if he had been around the same age as his grandfather in the Prequel Trilogy’s second and third movies. But Kylo Ren is pushing thirty in this film. He strikes me as too old to be engaging in childish temper tantrums. I can only assume that contrary to Han’s “He has a bit of Vader in him” comment, Kylo Ren is more a chip off the old block – namely his dad, who had behaved like a man child in the 1977-83 films. And why did Han and Leia name their son after Obi-Wan Kenobi, who used the name “Ben” during his years of exile on Tatooine? Leia never knew him . . . not personally. And Han never really clicked with Obi-Wan on an emotional level. So, why did they name him after the long deceased Jedi Master? As for Adam Driver, he gave a decent performance, but honestly . . . it was not enough for me to be fascinated by his character. It was just . . . decent.

Leia Organa seemed to be a ghost of her former self, thanks to Carrie Fisher. God bless Fisher, she tried. She really did. Abrams and Kasdan even gave her a few witty lines. But . . . Fisher’s performance reminded me of the one she gave in “RETURN OF THE JEDI” . . . lacking in any real fire. And I was disturbed by one scene in which Leia rushed forward to hug Rey, following the latter’s return from the First One’s Starkiller Base. Why did Leia ignore Chewbacca, who must have been torn up over Han’s death? Why did Chewie ignore her? Poe Dameron proved to be a real problem. One, he was not an interesting character to me. Frankly, I found him rather bland. And considering that Oscar Isaac portrayed the character, I found myself feeling very disappointed. A talented actor like him deserved a better role than this. Also, why did Poe leave Jakku and returned to the Resistance’s base? His mission was to acquire information leading to Luke Skywalker’s whereabouts . . . information that he had stored in his BB-8 droid before the First Force appeared at that Jakku village. After Finn had rescued him from Kylo Ren and the First Force warship, Poe insisted that they return to Jakku, so he could find BB-8. What did he do after his and Finn’s TIE fighter crashed on the planet? Poe walked away from the crash, found transport off the planet and returned to his Resistance base. Not once did he bother to finish his mission by searching for BB-8. What the fuck? He went through all that bother to drag Finn back to Jakku and failed to hang around long enough to find BB-8? SLOPPY!! As for Mark Hamill . . . why was he even in this movie? He appeared in the movie’s last scene without speaking one word of dialogue. What a waste of time!

There were other scenes that rubbed me the wrong way. Critics made a big deal over the Nazi-like speech that General Hux gave the First Order troops on the Starkiller Base, swooning over the idea of Nazi metaphors in a “STAR WARS”movie. Big deal. There have been Nazi metaphors in the franchise’s movies since the first movie in 1977. Only Lucas did not resort to a ham fisted speech, similar to the one given by actor Domhnall Gleeson. I also found Leia’s little military conference rather laughable. She did not confer with a handful of military leaders. Instead, she seemed to be conferring with anyone – commanders, pilots, etc. – who seemed to have made their way to her table. It was like watching a STAR WARS version of a town meeting. What the hell? And what was the big deal over the First Order’s search for Luke Skywalker? So what if he was the last Jedi? According to the Lor San Tekka character portrayed by Max von Sydow, there can be no balance in the Force without the Jedi. Really? Since when is the balance of the Force depended on the presence of a religious order that had not been in its prime for over half a century? With Tekka’s comment, Abrams and Kasdan regressed the saga back to the Sunday School morality of “A NEW HOPE”. And could someone please tell me how the lightsaber that Anakin had first constructed following the loss of his first on Geonosis and which Luke had lost during his duel against the former on Bespin, end up in the possession of Maz Kanata on Takodona? How? And why on earth did Abrams and Kasdan thought it necessary to re-introduce it into the saga? Why? It was nothing more than a lightsaber . . . a weapon. There was no need to transform it into some kind of mythologized artifact.

Aside from the colorful photography and editing, I was not that impressed by the movie’s other technical aspects. One, Lucasfilm and Disney allowed both the Resistance and the First Order to use military technology that was last scene in the 1977-83 trilogy. Why? Why did the Resistance and First Order characters wear the uniforms that members of the Rebel Alliance and the Imperial Fleet wore? How cheap is that? And why have the Resistance and the First Order use technology from the same groups? The only new technology I had spotted was the two-seater TIE fighter for the First Order and the lumbering desert vehicle that Rey used on Jakka. Were Kathleen Kennedy and the Disney Studios too cheap to hire someone to create new designs for the military in this film? Or was this another over-the-top attempt to re-create the past of the first trilogy? As for John Williams’ score . . . uh . . . not really impressed. Mind you, I had nothing against it. The score served the movie’s plot rather well. But there was nothing memorable or iconic about it.

I can see why many critics and moviegoers praised “STAR WARS: EPISODE VII – THE FORCE AWAKENS” as a return to the “magic” of the Original Trilogy. The movie not only utilized many technical aspects of that first trilogy, but also characterization and plot. To be brutally honest, I believe that this new movie had more or less plagiarized the first trilogy – especially “STAR WARS: EPISODE IV – A NEW HOPE”. Many might regard this as something to celebrate. I do not. I regard this “celebration” of the first trilogy as an artistic travesty and a sign of the lack of originality that now seemed to plague Hollywood. From an artistic point of view, I do not believe the Force was with this movie.

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Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1880s

Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1880s:

 

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1880s

1. “Stagecoach” (1939) – John Ford directed this superb adaptation of Ernest Haycox’s 1937 short story, “The Stage to Lordsburg”, about a group of strangers traveling by stagecoach through the Arizona territory. Claire Trevor, John Wayne and Oscar winner Thomas Mitchell starred.

2. “The Four Feathers” (2002) – Shekhar Kapur directed this fascinating adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a former British Army officer accused of cowardice. Heath Ledger, Wes Bentley, Djimon Hounsou and Kate Hudson starred.

3. “Back to the Future Part III” (1990) – Michael J. Fox and Christopher Lloyd starred in this third installment of the “BACK TO THE FUTURE” TRILOGY, in which Marty McFly travels back to the Old West to prevent the death of fellow time traveler, Dr. Emmett “Doc” Brown. Written by Bob Gale, the movie was directed by Robert Zemeckis.

4. “Topsy-Turvy” (1999) – Mike Leigh wrote and directed this biopic about W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan and their creation of their most famous operetta, “The Mikado”. Jim Broadbent and Allan Corduner.

5. “Tombstone” (1993) – Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer starred in this colorful and my favorite account about Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday and the famous O.K. Corral gunfight. George P. Cosmatos directed.

6. “The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes” (1939) – Basil Rathbone and Nigel Bruce starred in this adaptation of William Gillette’s 1899 stage play, “Sherlock Holmes”. Directed by Alfred L. Werker, the movie co-starred Ida Lupino and George Zucco.

7. “The Cater Street Hangman” (1998) – Eoin McCarthy and Keeley Hawes starred in this television adaptation of Anne Perry’s 1979 novel about a serial killer in late Victorian England. Sarah Hellings directed.

8. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945) – Hurd Hatfield and George Sanders starred in this adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel about a handsome young Englishman who maintains his youth, while a special portrait reveals his inner ugliness.

9. “High Noon” (1952) – Gary Cooper won his second Oscar as a town marshal forced to face a gang of killers by himself. Directed by Fred Zinnemann, the movie was written by blacklisted screenwriter Carl Foreman and co-starred Grace Kelly and Katy Jurado.

10. “Open Range” (2003) – Kevin Costner directed and co-starred with Robert Duvall in this western about a cattle crew forced to take up arms when they and their herd are threatened by a corrupt rancher.

Top Ten Favorite Movies Set in the 1890s

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Below is my current list of favorite movies set in the 1890s:

TOP TEN FAVORITE MOVIES SET IN THE 1890s

1 - Sherlock Holmes-Game of Shadows

1. “Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows” (2011) – Guy Ritchie directed this excellent sequel to his 2009 hit, in which Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson confront their most dangerous adversary, Professor James Moriarty. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

2 - Hello Dolly

2. “Hello Dolly!” (1969) – Barbra Streisand and Walter Matthau starred in this entertaining adaptation of David Merrick’s 1964 play about a New York City matchmaker hired to find a wife for a wealthy Yonkers businessman. Gene Kelly directed.

3 - King Solomon Mines

3. “King Solomon’s Mines” (1950) – Stewart Granger, Deborah Kerr and Richard Carlson starred in this satisfying Oscar nominated adaptation of H. Rider Haggard’s 1885 novel about the search for a missing fortune hunter in late 19th century East Africa. Compton Bennett and Andrew Marton directed.

4 - Sherlock Holmes

4. “Sherlock Holmes” (2009) – Guy Ritchie directed this 2009 hit about Sherlock Holmes and Dr. John Watson’s investigation of a series of murders connected to occult rituals. Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law starred.

5 - Hidalgo

5. “Hidalgo” (2004) – Viggo Mortensen and Omar Sharif starred in Disney’s fictionalized, but entertaining account of long-distance rider Frank Hopkins’ participation in the Middle Eastern race “Ocean of Fire”. Joe Johnston directed.

6. “The Seven Per-Cent Solution” (1976) – Nicol Williamson, Robert Duvall and Alan Arkin starred in this very entertaining adaptation of Nicolas Meyer’s 1974 novel about Sherlock Holmes’ recovery from a cocaine addiction under Sigmund Freud’s supervision and his investigation of one of Freud’s kidnapped patients. Meyer directed the film.

Harvey Girls screenshot

7. “The Harvey Girls” (1946) – Judy Garland starred in this dazzling musical about the famous Harvey House waitresses of the late 19th century. Directed by George Sidney, the movie co-starred John Hodiak, Ray Bolger and Angela Landsbury.

6 - The Jungle Book

8. “Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book” (1994) – Stephen Sommers directed this colorful adaptation of Rudyard Kipling’s 1894 collection of short stories about a human boy raised by animals in India’s jungles. Jason Scott Lee, Cary Elwes and Lena Headey starred.

7 - The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

9. “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” (2003) – Sean Connery starred in this adaptation of Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s first volume of his 1999-2000 comic book series about 19th century fictional characters who team up to investigate a series of terrorist attacks that threaten to lead Europe into a world war. Stephen Norrington directed.

8 - The Prestige

10. “The Prestige” (2006) – Christopher Nolan directed this fascinating adaptation of Christopher Priest’s 1995 novel about rival magicians in late Victorian England. Christian Bale, Hugh Jackman and Michael Caine starred.

10 - The Four Feathers 1939

Honorable Mention: “The Four Feathers” (1939) – Alexander Korda produced and Zoltan Korda directed this colorful adaptation of A.E.W. Mason’s 1902 novel about a recently resigned British officer accused of cowardice. John Clements, June Duprez and Ralph Richardson starred.

“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

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“LITTLE DORRIT” (2008) Review

In my review of the 1998 miniseries, “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND”, I had stated that I was never a real fan of Victorian author, Charles Dickens. But I was willing to give the author another chance with a second viewing of the miniseries. However, I have yet to watch “OUR MUTUAL FRIEND” for a second time. Instead, I turned my attention to another miniseries based on a Dickens novel – the 2008 production of “LITTLE DORRIT”.

Based upon Dickens’s 1855-1857 serialized novel, “LITTLE DORRIT” is basically the story of a young late Georgian Englishwoman named Amy Dorrit, who spends her days earning money for the Dorrit family and looking after her proud father William, who is a long term inmate of Marshalsea Prison for Debt in London. When her employer’s son, Arthur Clennam returns from overseas to solve his family’s mysterious legacy, Amy and her family’s world is transformed for the better. And she discovers that her family’s lives and those of the Clennan family are interlinked. Considering that“LITTLE DORRIT” is a Dickens tale, one is bound to encounter a good deal of subplots. Please bear with me. I might not remember all of them. I do recall the following:

*Arthur Clennam is initially rejected by Pet Meagles, the daughter of a former business associate, due to her infatuation for artist Henry Gowan.

*John Chivery, the son of the Marshalsea Prison warden, harbors unrequited love for Amy Dorrit.

*A mysterious Englishwoman named Miss Wade, had been jilted by Henry Gowan in the past; and has now extended her hatred and resentment towards his wife, Pet Meagles and her family. She also notices their patronizing attitude toward their maid/ward, Harriet Beadle aka Tattycoram.

*Amy’s older sister, Fanny, becomes romantically involved with the step-son of wealthy businessman Mr. Merdle.

*Mr. Merdle becomes the force behind a fraudulent speculation scheme that impacts the London financial world.

*French criminal Rigaud/Blandois not only stumbles across the Clennam family secret regarding the Dorrit family, but is also recruited by Miss Wade to accompany Henry and Pet Gowran on their Italian honeymoon.

If there is one thing I can say about “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is a beautiful looking production. Four of the Emmy Awards that the miniseries won were in the technical categories. Production designer James Merifield, art director Paul Ghirardani, and set decorator Deborah Wilson all shared the Emmy Award for Outstanding Art Direction in a Miniseries or Movie (they shared the award with the art direction team for HBO’s “GREY GARDENS”). And honestly? They deserved that award, thanks to their outstanding re-creation of both London and Italy in the 1820s. Owen McPolin, Alan Almond and Lukas Strebel, who won the Outstanding Cinematography Emmy; contributed to that re-creation of 1820s Europe with their sharp, colorful and beautiful photography. Costume designer Barbara Kidd and costume supervisor also won Emmy awards for the beautiful, gorgeous costumes created for this production. Not only did I find the costumes beautiful, but also a perfection re-creation of the mid-1820s fashions, as depicted in the images below:

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I could go on and on about the many subplots featured in “LITTLE DORRIT”. But honestly . . . I am too exhausted to do so. The only plots that interested me were the fortunes of both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam, Mrs. Clennam’s secret about her husband’s past, and Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes. I thought that Emmy winning screenwriter Andrew Davies and directors Adam Smith, Dearbhla Walsh (also an Emmy winner for her direction of Episode One), and Diarmuid Lawrence did a very good job in handling these plot lines. Or tried his best. His adaptation of the rise and fall of the Dorrit family’s fortunes was probably the best thing about “LITTLE DORRIT”. This was especially effective in plot lines that revolved around Amy Dorrit’s inability to adjust to her new status as the daughter of a wealthy man and especially, William Dorrit’s inabilities to move past his memories of the Marshalsea Prison. The subplot regarding the Dorrit family’s ties to the Merdle family also struck me as very effective. Fanny Dorrit’s relationship with Merdle’s stepson, Edmund Sparkler proved to be one of the funniest and more satisfying subplots in “LITTLE DORRIT”. And the subplot regarding Mr. Merdle’s financial schemes not only effected both the Dorrit family and Arthur Clennam’s fortunes in an effective way, it also strongly reminded me of the circumstances that led to the international community’s current economic situation.

However, there were subplots that did not strike me as that effective. I wish I could solely blame Charles Dickens. But I cannot. Davies and the three directors have to take some of the blame for not making some improvements to these subplots, when they had the chance to do so. The subplot regarding the Meagles family, their servant “Tattycoram” and Miss Wade struck me as a disaster. I found it poorly handled, especially the narrative regarding the fate of “Tattycoram”. In the end, nothing really came from Miss Wade’s resentment of Henry Cowan, the Meagles and especially her relationship with “Tattycoram”. I am also a little confused at the financial connection between the Clennam and Dorrit families. Could someone explain why an affair between Arthur’s father and some dancer would lead to a possible inheritance for Amy Dorrit? Many critics have tried to explain Dickens’ creation of the French villain Monsieur Rigaud. No explanation can erase my dislike of the character or its addition to the subplots involving the Clennam/Dorrit connection and the Gowans’ honeymoon. I realize that Rigaud was Charles Dickens’ creation. But it seemed a pity that Davies and the three directors did nothing to improve the use of Rigaud . . . or eliminate the character altogether. Aside from killing Jeremiah Flintwinch’s twin brother, intimidating other characters and blackmailing Mrs. Clennam, he really did nothing as a villain.

If there is one thing I have no complaints regarding “LITTLE DORRIT”, it is the excellent performances found in the production. I honestly have no complaints about the performances in the miniseries. I can even say this about those characters, whose portrayals by the writers that I found troubling. And yes, I am referring to Andy Serkis and Freema Agyeman’s performances as Rigoud and “Tattycoram”. Both gave excellent performances, even if I did not care how Dickens, Davies or the directors handled their characters. Emma Pierson, an actress I have never heard of, gave a superb and very entertaining peformance as Fanny Dorrit, Amy’s ambitious and rather blunt older sister. I would have say that Pierson’s performance struck me as the funniest in the miniseries. I was amazed at how intimidating Eddie Marsan looked at the rent collector, Mr. Pancks. Yet, Marsan went beyond his superficial appearance to portray one of the most compassionate, yet energetic characters in the production. I was also impressed by Russell Tovey’s portrayal of the love-sick John Chivery, who harbored unrequited love for Amy Dorrit. Tovey managed to give a very intense performance, without going over-the-top. And I found that quite an accomplishment.

However, there are a handful of performances that really impressed me. Two of them came from the leads Claire Foy and Matthew McFadyen. On paper, the characters of Amy Dorrit and Arthur Clennam struck me as boring and one-dimensional. They were simply too goody two-shoes. But somehow, both Foy and McFadyen managed to inject a great deal of fire into their roles, making them not only interesting, but allowing me to care for them a great deal. Another outstanding performance came from Judy Parfitt, who portrayed Arthur’s guilt-ridden and cold mother, Mrs. Clennam. But instead of portraying the character as a one-note monstrous mother, Parfitt conveyed a good deal of Mrs. Clennam’s guilt regarding her husband’s will and inner emotional struggles over the memories of her marriage and what Arthur really meant to her. Another outstanding performance came from Tom Courtenay, who portrayed the vain and insecure William Dorrit. In fact, I would have to say that he gave the most complex and probably the best performance in the entire production. Courtenay managed to create contempt I felt toward his character with skillful acting, yet at the same time, he made William Dorrit so pathetic and sympathetic. I am amazed that he did not receive a nomination or acting award for his performance.

I now come back to that earlier question. Did “LITTLE DORRIT” improve my opinion of Charles Dickens as a writer? Not really. Although I cannot deny that it is a beautiful looking production. Some of the subplots not only struck me as interesting, but also relevant to today’s economic situation. And the miniseries featured some outstanding performances from a cast led by Claire Foy and Matthew McFayden. But some of the other subplots, which originated in Dickens’ novel struck me as either troubling or unimpressive. So . . . I am not quite a fan of his. Not yet. But despite its flaws, I am a fan of this 2008 adaptation of his 1855-1857 novel.

The Celebration of Mediocrity and Unoriginality in “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

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“THE CELEBRATION OF MEDIOCRITY AND UNORIGINALITY IN “STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS”

Look … I liked the new “STAR WARS” movie, “THE FORCE AWAKENS”.  I honestly do.  Heck, I feel it is better than J.J. Abrams’ two “STAR TREK” films.  But I am astounded that this film has garnered so much acclaim.  It has won the AFI Award for Best Picture.  It has been nominated by the Critics Choice Award for Best Picture.

“THE FORCE AWAKENS”???  Really?  It did not take long for certain fans to point out that the movie’s plot bore a strong resemblance to the first “STAR WARS” movie, “A NEW HOPE”.  In fact, I am beginning to suspect that J.J. Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan had more or less plagiarized the 1977 film, along with aspects from other movies in the franchise.  Worse, it has some plot holes that Abrams has managed to ineffectively explain to the media.  In other words, his explanations seemed like shit in the wind and the plot holes remained obvious.

Then I found myself thinking about “THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.”, Guy Ritchie’s adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series.  I will not deny that the movie had some flaws.  Just about every movie I have seen throughout my life had some flaws.  But instead of attempting a carbon copy of the television series, Ritchie put his own, original spin of the show for his movie.  And personally, I had left the movie theater feeling impressed.  And entertained.  It is not that Ritchie had created a perfect movie.  But he did managed to create an original one, based upon an old source.  Now that was impressive.

But instead of having his movie appreciated, a good deal of the public stayed away in droves.  Warner Brothers barely publicized the film.  Worse, the studio released in August, the summer movie season’s graveyard.  And for those who did see the movie, the complained that it was not like the television show.  Ritchie had made changes for his film.  In other words, Ritchie was criticized for being original with a movie based upon an old television series.

This is incredibly pathetic.  One director is criticized giving an original spin to his movie adaptation.  Another director is hailed as the savior of a movie franchise for committing outright plagiarism.  This is what Western culture has devolved into, ladies and gentlemen.  We now live in a world in which the only movies that are box office hits are those that form part of a franchise.  We live in a society in which glossy and mediocre shows like “DOWNTON ABBEY” are celebrated.  We live in a world in which a crowd pleasing, yet standard movie biopic like “THE KING’S SPEECH”can receive more acclaim than an original film like “INCEPTION”.

In regard to culture or even pop culture, this society is rushing toward conformity, familiarity and mediocrity.  God help us.

“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” (2015) Review

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“THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” (2015) Review

The Marvel Cinematic Universe, which first began back in 2008, edged closer to the completion of its second phase with the release of “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”. This second film featured the return of the team of superheroes that saved Earth from an alien invasion in the 2012 film, “THE AVENGERS”.

In reality, the movie began with the “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.” Season Two episode, (2.19) “The Dirty Half Dozen”, in which Phil Coulson and his team managed to infiltrate a HYDRA base led by one Doctor List and discover the location of the secret base of the evil organization in the fictional country of Sokovia. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”opened with the Avengers in Slovakia, attacking the HYDRA base. Despite Clint Barton aka Hawkeye’s injury and the team’s encounter with HYDRA’s new superhumans, Sokovia natives Pietro and Wanda Maximoff aka Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch; the Avengers prevail by arresting HYDRA leader Baron Wolfgang von Strucker and obtaining the Chitauri Scepter used by Loki in the 2012 movie. However, Tony Stark aka Iron Man has an encounter with the telepathic Wanda Maximoff that leaves him with visions of the entire Avengers team dead (except him).

Upon the team’s return to Tony’s Manhattan penthouse, which is being used as their headquarters; he asks fellow Avenger Thor Odinson if he could examine the scepter before the latter can deliver it to Asgard. Thor acquiesces and both Tony and Bruce Banner aka the Hulk discover one of the Infinity stones (Mind Stone) within the scepter. They also discover that the stone has an artificial intelligence. Tony decides to use the stone complete his idea of an “ULTRON” global defense program – an artificial intelligence that controls robotic armor to protect Earth from future danger. Unfortunately the ULTRON program becomes sentient. He believes that he must eradicate humanity in order to save Earth. So ULTRON eliminates Stark’s A.I., J.A.R.V.I.S., and attacks the Avengers at their headquarters. ULTRON escapes with the scepter and uses the resources at Strucker’s Sokovia base to upgrade his rudimentary body and build an army of robot drones. After killing Strucker, ULTRON recruits the Maximoffs, who hold Stark responsible for their parents’ deaths by his weapons. Once the Avengers learn what Tony and Bruce had created, they set off to track down ULTRON and prevent the latter from carrying out his agenda for the destruction of humanity.

I might as well put my cards on the table. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” is not as good as its 201 predecessor. I fear that writer-director Joss Whedon may have gotten a little sloppy with the execution of his story. The first problem I had with the movie is its use of the HYDRA organization. Since 2014’s “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER revealed that HYDRA leader Baron von Stucker was in possession of the Chitauri scepter, it is obvious that Whedon used HYDRA for the Avengers – especially Tony Stark – to get their hands on it and the Mind Stone. More importantly, he wanted to use the Mind Stone for the creation of both ULTRON and the newest Avenger team member, Vision. But after the movie’s opening action sequence, Stucker was captured and later killed by ULTRON, making his appearance in the film a complete waste of time. In fact, it seems as if the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) has been hellbent upon the misuse of HYDRA since Season Two of “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Personally, I wish that producer Kevin Fiege had allowed the HYDRA/Chitauri scepter plot line to be used for the third Captain America film and allowed both ULTRON and Vision to be created without the Mind stone. And why on earth did Whedon allowed the Mind stone to contain artificial intelligence? Was this an attempt by him to remove a possible supernatural or spiritual aspect of the Infinity Stones, due to some lack of religious beliefs?

What other problems I had with the movie? Honestly, I found the action sequences in the movie rather over-the-top. I was not that impressed by sequence featuring the Avengers’ attack upon the HYDRA Sokovia base and their final showdown against ULTRON in the same location. And if I must be brutally honest, I was especially put off by the fight between Iron Man and an enraged Hulk (courtesy of Scarlet Witch’s mind games) in the fictional country of Wakanda (home of the Black Panther). Speaking of the movie’s final action sequence, I was not particularly fond it. I hated the methods ULTRON used to finally destroy humanity. What did he do? ULTRON used vibranium from the old HYDRA base to build a machine that would lift a large part of Sokovia’s capital city skyward and crash it into the ground in order to cause global extinction. And I had to sit inside that movie theater and watch the Avengers battle robots and ULTRON in a city that was rising in the air. There was a point in which I found the whole thing simply fucking ridiculous. Speaking of robots . . . the sight of ULTRON’s killer droids brought back memories of the Sentinels from 2014’s “X-MEN: DAYS OF FUTURE PAST”, a movie that is not high on my list of favorite Marvel flicks. And there was the vision that Thor had received from the Scarlet Witch. One, how on earth did a human managed to force an image upon an Asgardian? Especially one as powerful as Thor? Two, was this vision supposed to be of Wanda’s creation . . . or a genuine vision of the future? I do not recall the Scarlet Witch possessing the talent of precognition. And why was Thor’s dream or vision edited in such a choppy manner? It is a miracle that I managed to understand it in the end.

The movie also featured the death of a major character in the film. Whedon claimed he wanted to reveal the emotional impact of war. Personally, I think he wanted to rectify his decision to resurrect the Phil Coulson character for “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”, who had originally been killed off in “THE AVENGERS”. And frankly, I found it unnecessary. The MCU could have saved a character death for the third “AVENGERS” film. Speaking of characterizations, I was not particularly thrilled by Whedon’s handling of some of the minor characters. As I had earlier pointed out, I thought he had mishandled the HYDRA story line that began in “AGENTS OF S.H.I.E.L.D.”. Which meant he also mishandled both the Baron von Stucker and Dr. List characters and wasted the time of actors Thomas Kretschmann and Henry Goodman. I was really looking forward to watching Kretschman’s portrayal of the HYDRA leader. And what the hell did Whedon to do the James Rhodes aka War Machine character? Poor Don Cheadle! Whedon turned his character into a one-note joke, as Rhodey continuously recalled the time he saved the President’s life in “IRON MAN 3”. Even though he helped the Avengers save Sokovia’s citizens in the final battle, Whedon still decided to make Rhodey a “machismo” joke. Only Cheadle’s skillful comic acting skill made Anthony Mackie made two brief appearances as Sam Wilson aka the Falcon – during the victory party at Stark Towers and in the final scene in which he had joined the Avengers at their new headquarters in upstate New York. That is all. Perhaps he was filming another movie at the time. Who knows? But Whedon really wasted his role in this film. Another wasted performance came from Cobie Smulders, whose appearance and relevance as Maria Hill in the Marvel Cinematic Universe seemed to be shrinking with each film. As for Stellan Skarsgård’s performance as Dr. Erik Selvig, it appearance seemed to be a case of “now you see him . . . now you don’t”. At least Idris Elba’s Hemidall managed to have a stronger impact on the story, due to his appearance in Thor’s vision. And Hayley Atwell’s appearance as Peggy Carter in Steve Roger’s vision had a strong impact on his psyche.

It is a good thing that I actually managed to enjoy “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” very much . . . despite its flaws. Fortunately, the movie possessed a lot more flaws than virtues. The ensemble created for the film seemed strong as ever . . . especially in the sequence featuring the Avengers’ victory party at Stark Towers. Although I was not that enamored of the ULTRON storyline idea, I must admit that overall, Joss Whedon managed to make it work. Whedon did an excellent job of connecting the dots between the HYDRA base attack, one of the Infinity stones and the creations of both ULTRON and Vision. And the two characters that served as the connections to these different aspects of the plot were Tony Stark and Thor. I never understood why Nick Fury sent the Avengers after Baron von Strucker and HYDRA. There were plenty of S.H.I.E.L.D. agents still around who could have done the job. But it made sense that Thor would want to retrieve the Chitauri scepter, since it contained one of the Infinity stones. And knowing Tony’s penchant for curiosity, it made sense that he would want to examine the scepter. Whedon even managed to create connections between Tony and the Maximoff twins – Wanda and Pietro. Missiles created by Stark Industries were responsible for their parents’ deaths.

It was a relief to see that Whedon did not shortchange the major characters. Although previous MCU movies have shown some of Tony Stark’s more unpleasant traits, he really came close to being very unlikable in this film. This was especially obvious in the scene in which Tony refused to acknowledge his mistake in creating ULTRON. Robert Downey Jr. did a great job in conveying Tony’s ugly side and at the same time, still maintain the character’s “hero” status. I feel that “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” also conveyed a good deal of Bruce Banner’s ugly nature as well . . . and I am referring to those scenes in which he did not morph into Hulk mode. Mark Ruffalo gave a sweet performance as a Bruce who seemed to be developing feelings for former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent Natasha Romanoff aka the Black Widow. But there were moments when Bruce did not seem that likable. Some have cited that one moment in which he threatened to harm Wanda Maximoff. I can think of two other moments. He seemed incapable of understanding Natasha’s own personal demons during one conversation between them . . . to the point that he eventually ran off, making their potential romance all about him. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” finally verified that Natasha had been trained in the Soviets’ Red Room Academy, the same organization that Leviathan agent “Dottie Underwood” had been trained in the ABC series, “AGENT CARTER”. Natasha’s visions, along with her conversation with Bruce, made it clear that her training had left scars on her psyche. Scarlett Johansson performance certainly made this clear . . . especially in the scene in which she revealed Natasha’s demons in a conversation with Bruce. It was a truly superb moment in an otherwise first-rate performance by Johansson.

Jeremy Renner had more ample time to shine as former S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and expert marksman, Clint Barton aka Hawkeye. Not only did we see Renner interact with the cast a lot more, but audiences were allowed an in-depth look into his personal life as a happily married man and father. In many ways, Renner’s down-to-earth performance as Barton served as the film’s emotional backbone. One would think that role should have belonged to Chris Evans’ Steve Rogers aka Captain America. However, I got the feeling that Steve was still reeling from the aftermath of the events from “CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER” and his continuing grief over the loss of Peggy Carter, as shown in Steve’s heartbreaking vision of a possible date with Peggy at a 1940s nightclub. It is amazing how much Evans has made the Captain America role his own after three films. Hell, he made it his own back in the 2011 film. Chris Hemsworth’s role as Thor did not strike me as “major” in compare to the other members of the Avengers team. Without the presence of Thor’s half-brother Loki, I got the feeling that Whedon did not really know what to do with him . . . other than help create Vision. But Hemsworth’s performance was my favorite in the film. That man has such a superb comic timing. And he providing some of the film’s funniest moments, including that hair-raising moment in which Steve nearly lifted his hammer, Mjolnir. Samuel L. Jackson gave a very interesting performance as former S.H.I.E.L.D. director Nick Fury. He seemed rather introspective . . . almost weary. At first, I wondered if Jackson had become tired of the role. But he had made clear his desire to continue portraying Fury beyond his current contract. I suspect that Jackson was conveying the toll of Fury’s worldwide search for HYDRA bases and agents and S.H.I.E.L.D.’s downfall.

James Spader gave one hell of a performance as the voice for the artificial intelligence being, ULTRON. Spader gave one of those memorable voice performances that I believe I will never forget. Since ULTRON is Tony Stark’s creation, it seemed as if Spader was portraying Stark’s personality . . . but with his own particular twist. It was an interesting and brilliant performance to watch . . . or hear. “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” proved to be the first role in which I have seen actor Aaron Johnson-Taylor portrayed an extroverted character – namely Pietro Maximoff aka Quicksilver. And being the first-rate actor I have always believed he was, Johnson-Taylor did an excellent job in conveying Pietro’s impulsive nature, protectiveness toward his twin sister and cockiness – especially in his interactions with Clint Barton. In fact, his ability as a speedster seemed to correlate well with his personality. And who portrayed his twin sister? None other than Elizabeth Olsen, who portrayed his wife in the 2014 blockbuster, “GODZILLA”. Man, the irony! And she gave an equally superb performance as the more serious, yet emotional Wanda Maximoff, who possessed the talents of telepathy and telekinesis. Paul Bettany, who had served as the voice of Tony Stark’s artificial intelligence program, J.A.R.V.I.S., acquired a new role in the MCU. He is now portraying Vision, an organic-based android who eventually became a member of the Avengers. Bettany gave a very skillful, yet ethereal performance. His Vision struck me as a quiet, naive being, with a surprising penchant for wise and occasionally sardonic barbs. The movie also featured solid supporting performances from Linda Cardellini, Claudia Kim, Idris Elba, Andy Serkis and Julie Delpy.

What else can I say about “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON”? Well, nothing really. The movie’s special effects and musical score by Hans Zimmer did not exactly blow my mind. Come to think of it, Ben Davis’ cinematography failed to impress me, as well . . . even if I found his work competent. But I thought it lacked the sharp and colorful beauty of the 2012 movie. In fact, I would go as far to say that “THE AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON” is not as good as “THE AVENGERS”. But . . . it did continue the Marvel Cinematic Universe’s main narrative. And this continuation was marked by Josh Brolin’s appearance as Thanos in the movie’s first post-credit scene. “AGE OF ULTRON” may not have been perfect or even near perfect. But I thought it was still a first-rate film.

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Ranking of Movies Seen During Summer 2015

Usually I would list my ten favorite summer movies of any particular year. However, I only watched ten new releases during the summer of 2015. Due to the limited number, I decided to rank the films that I saw:

 

 

RANKING OF MOVIES SEEN DURING SUMMER 2015

1. “Jurassic World” – In the fourth movie for the JURASSIC PARK franchise, a new dinosaur created for the Jurassic World theme park goes amok and creates havoc. Directed by Colin Trevorrow, the movie starred Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard.

 

 

2. “Ant-Man” – Convicted thief Scott Lang is recruited to become Ant-Man for a heist in this new entry in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Directed by Peyton Reed, Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lily and Michael Douglas starred.

 

 

3. “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” – Guy Ritchie directed this adaptation of the 1964-1968 television series about agents for the C.I.A. and KGB working together to fight neo-Nazis in the early 1960s. Armie Hammer, Henry Cavill and Alicia Vikander starred.

 

 

4. “Tomorrowland” – Brad Bird directed this imaginative tale about a a former boy-genius inventor and a scientifically inclined adolescent girl’s search for a special realm where ingenuity is encouraged. George Clooney, Britt Robertson and Hugh Laurie starred.

 

 

5. “The Avengers: Age of Ultron” – Earth’s Mightiest Heroes are forced to prevent an artificial intelligence created by Tony Stark and Bruce Banner from destroying mankind. Joss Whedon wrote and directed this second AVENGERS film.

 

 

6. “Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation” – Tom Cruise starred in this fifth entry in the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE” film franchise about Ethan Hunt’s efforts to find and destroy a rogue intelligence organization engaged in terrorist activities.

 

 

7. “Mr. Holmes” – Ian McKellen starred in this adaptation of Mitch Cullin’s 2005 novel about the aging Sherlock Holmes’ efforts to recall his last case. Directed by Bill Condon, Laura Linney and Milo Parker co-starred.

 

 

8. “Fantastic Four” – Josh Trank directed this reboot of the Marvel comics series about four young people whose physical form is altered after they teleport to an alternate and dangerous universe. Miles Teller, Kate Mara, Michael B. Jordan and Jamie Bell starred.

 

 

9. “Entourage” – Doug Ellin wrote and directed this fluffy continuation of the 2004-2011 HBO series about a movie star and his group of friends dealing with a new project. Kevin Connolly, Adrian Grenier, Kevin Dillon, Jerry Ferrara and Jeremy Piven starred.

 

 

10. “Terminator: Genisys” – Alan Taylor directed this fifth movie in the TERMINATOR franchise, an unexpected turn of events creates a fractured timeline when Resistance fighter Kyle Reese goes back to 1984 in order to prevent the death of leader John Connor’s mother. Arnold Schwartzenegger, Emilia Clarke, Jai Courtney and Jason Clarke starred.