Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Posted on December 16, 2015 at 3:01 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for sci-fi action violence
Profanity: Mild language
Alcohol/ Drugs: Scene in a bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive sci-fi action-style violence with guns and explosions and many characters injured and killed, sad death
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: December 16, 2015
Date Released to DVD: March 27, 2016 ASIN: B018FK66TU
Copyright Disney 2015
Copyright Disney 2015

The force is strong in this thrilling new chapter in the story set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. Fans will get goosebumps right from the start as the familiar logo and musical theme are followed by a scrolling summary to bring us up to date — without a single mention of a tariff or bureaucratic squabbling. Instead, it has words of near-incantatory power: Luke is missing. Leia is a General. An old ally has provided a clue to Luke’s whereabouts and the best pilot of the rebel forces has been sent to retrieve it.

That pilot is the irresistibly dashing Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac, who finally seems on the brink of the superstardom he has long deserved). Like Leia in “A New Hope,” he stashes the information in a droid, the adorable B-88, and then he is captured by stormtroopers representing the dark side of the force.  Now called First Order, it is a group that has risen from the ashes of the Empire and threatens to take over again. And we know they’re evil because they mostly have plummy British accents and when they give speeches they dress like they’re appearing in a Leni Riefenstahl recruiting video.

Stormtroopers are indistinguishable in their white armor and helmets, but in the attack on a civilian village one stands out. He seems dazed and disoriented. He shows compassion for a downed member of his battalion.  After returning to the ship, he is ordered to reprogramming to make sure he will never again fail to carry out an order to kill and destroy.  He decides to run away. He does not know how to fly, but there is a prisoner who happens to be the best pilot of the rebel forces, our new friend Poe.  “Why are you helping me?” Poe asks with understandable suspicion.  “Because it’s the right thing to do.” Our Poe is not fooled.  “You need a pilot,” he wisely responds.

Whatever. They both want to get the heck out of there, and that is good enough for the moment. Plus, the defecting stormtrooper speaks with an American accent (even though he is played by British actor John Boyega), so he must be okay.

Meanwhile, a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, yes she has an English accent but is so obviously honorable and kick-ass great that it just sounds elegant, not evil) encounters B-88. And some old friends from the original trilogy show up for call-outs, tributes, and variations on beloved memories.

Co-writer/director J.J. Abrams has a deep understanding and respect for the original characters and themes going back to the very first episode, now chronologically chapter IV and retitled “A New Hope.” He co-wrote this film with Lawrence Kasdan, the screenwriter of Chapter V: “The Empire Strikes Back,” generally considered the strongest in the series.  They seamlessly bring the story forward with new characters who are vital and engaging. The special effects and mechanics are superbly designed and the action is brilliantly staged.

I wish I could tell you more but I can’t spoil the wonderful surprises, so just let me just say that this is the “Star Wars” you’ve been looking for. Be sure to check out the deleted scenes and other extras on the splendid DVD/Blu-Ray

Parents should know that this movie has extensive sci-fi peril and violence with many characters injured and killed and a very sad death. There are issues of totalitarianism, loss, and betrayal.

Family discussion: Why didn’t Finn have a name? How are Ren and Hux different? Who do you think Rey’s parents are?

If you like this, try: the original “Star Wars” trilogy

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The Next Star Wars Films: Locations

Posted on August 29, 2013 at 8:00 am

Director J.J. Abrams is getting ready to begin filming of the next cycle of “Star Wars” movies.  And every studio and location in the world — literally — wants to host them.  Variety quotes Albuquerque Studios president Gary Arnold:

“Every location and facility across the globe and every state in the U.S. must be offering the moon and stars,” Arnold says. “And they’re all willing to offer things on a one-shot basis, everything they can imagine the producers might want, just to be able to say they got the new ‘Star Wars’ shoot. That din is probably the first challenge facing any location or facility that wants to be seriously considered.”

Says Arnold: “The irony of ‘Star Wars’ is there won’t be a single location that is identifiable. We had one of the biggest-grossing films in history, ‘The Avengers’ shoot here, but ‘Breaking Bad’ has more impact on tourism than anything we’ve ever done in New Mexico. Identifiable locales are what drives tourism.”

According to Variety, they will be shooting at the legendary Pinewood Studios in London.  The original “Star Wars” script for what is now chapter IV was set in a jungle environment, but that was switched to desert for budgetary reasons.  I wonder what factors will enter into the decision about the settings for this one, especially now that so much can be done digitally.

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Behind the Scenes

Star Trek: Into Darkness

Posted on May 16, 2013 at 9:36 am

Lowest Recommended Age: Middle School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of sci-fi action and violence
Profanity: A few s-words and a couple of other bad words
Alcohol/ Drugs: Drinking, bar
Violence/ Scariness: Extensive sci-fi/action violence including acts of terrorism, characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Diverse characters
Date Released to Theaters: May 16, 2013
Date Released to DVD: September 9, 2013 ASIN: B00AZMFJYA


This time, there’s crying in “Star Trek.”  And some very significant time on Earth as well.  This story is in the most literal sense, close to home.

Writer-director J.J. Abrams, who rebooted Gene Roddenberry’s original “Star Trek” saga with a rousing 2009 origin story prequel now takes us closer to the place where the original series began.  There’s just a touch of the famous soaring theme song and some references the old-school Trekkers (don’t call them Trekkies) will love.  A tribble plays a key role, and there’s a mention of a certain Ms. Chapel, who is studying to be a nurse.  A character from the original series appears to give us some more of his backstory.  And we get to hear Uhura speak Klingon.

But the primary focus is on the relationship between the main characters, Uhura (Zoe Saldana), Scotty (Simon Pegg), Bones (Karl Urban), and especially the cerebral half-Vulcan Spock (Zachary Quinto) and the impetuous Kirk (Chris Pine).  We rejoin the story mid-chase on a remote planet with a massive volcano about to explode and the Prime Directive (the Federation observes and reports but does not interfere with other civilizations or alter their destiny, even by being seen by them) is about to be jettisoned once again.

As in the original series and its sequels, “Star Trek: Into Darkness” takes on moral dilemmas and geopolitical allegories with the same full-on gusto with which the characters engage with the adventures of the universe.   The issue of the few weighed against the many and the personal connections weighed against the larger world (or galaxy) comes up several times, in increasingly complex variations.  And, of course, there’s a ton of action.

It is impossible to say much more — including some minor quibbles — without some serious spoilers, though I will object to the under-use of the talented Alice Eve, who is playing a brilliant scientist but for no reason whatsoever has to appear in her underwear.  As for plot, I will just say that a terrorist-style attack in London leads to an interplanetary chase into Klingon territory.  But as so often happens in the allegorical Roddenberry universe that gives all of “Star Trek” its resonance, the real enemy may be ourselves.  The performances are all superb, including Benedict Cumberbatch of the PBS series “Sherlock” bringing terrifying power and ferocity to the role of the villain with the English accent.  They go where many, many men and women have gone before, but they do it right.

Parents should know that this film includes constant sci-fi/action violence including chases, explosions, fights, guns, terrorist-style attacks, characters injured and killed, brief disturbing images, some non-explicit sexual references and situation, drinking, and some strong language (s-words, etc.).

Family discussion: Several characters have to make choices about who is more important — the people they know or the larger group of strangers. What are some real-life situations where people have to make similar decisions? What factors should they consider? Why does Pike think that Kirk deserves a second chance? How do you know when to break the rules? Is it because there are other rules that are more important?

If you like this, try: the “Star Trek” movies and television series, the comedy “Galaxy Quest,” and the documentary “Trekkies”

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J.J. Abrams to Direct the new Star Wars

Posted on January 25, 2013 at 10:10 am

I am delighted with the news that J.J. Abrams will direct the new Disney-produced “Star Wars” movie.  The man behind the “Lost,” “Fringe,” “Felicity,” and “Alias” television series has shown himself to be adept at being true to established franchises while revitalizing them with his films “Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol” and “Star Trek.”  A perfect choice!  Can’t wait to see where he takes the series.

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Super 8

Posted on June 9, 2011 at 6:09 pm

A couple of kids who are deeply in love with making movies have made a movie about kids deeply in love with making movies, and it is one of the most joyously thrilling treats of the summer, a love letter to childhood pleasures that last a lifetime.

Producer Steven Spielberg and writer-director J.J. Abrams may be chronological grown-up, but as this movie makes clear, they could have just as much fun with a super-8 camera and a box of M-80’s.  Representing them in the film are Charles (Riley Griffiths) and Joe (Joel Courtney), middle schoolers in 1979 Lillian, Ohio, who are working on a movie to enter into a competition.  In that pre-digital time, they are making it with a Super-8 camera, on film that is bought and developed at the camera store.  Charles is the writer and director.  Joe is in charge of make-up and special effects.  Cary (Ryan Lee) in charge of explosions and Martin (Gabriel Basso) is their star.  It is a zombie movie.  But Charles has been reading about film-making and realizes that he has focused too much on scares and special effects.  An article explains that the movie works better if there is a reason to feel something for the characters, so he decides that Martin’s detective character will have a wife.  And that is how Alice (the luminous Elle Fanning) joins the group.

They sneak out one night to film a scene at the train station.  When a truck drives onto the tracks as the train approaches, there is a spectacular crash.  The kids run, but the camera keeps filming.  What it shows will be the key to solving the real-life mystery about what was on the train.

As they wait for it to be developed, increasingly disturbing developments occupy Joe’s father, Lillian’s deputy sheriff.  All the town’s dogs disappear.  Engines are ripped out of cars.  The sheriff and a gas station attendant are missing.  The army has taken control of the crash site and will not tell anyone what is going on. The adults are so distracted that the kids are able to pursue their investigation — and their film-making — almost without supervision.

It feels in the best possible sense like a newly discovered Spielberg film from the “Goonies”/”E.T”/”Close Encounters of the Third Kind” era, with its suburban setting and kids’-eye sense of wonder and adventure.  The meta-humor about the film within a film (stay through the credits to see what the final version looks like) is witty and heart-warming.  “Production values!” says Charles as though it is a magical incantation.  Which, in a way, it is.  No one understands the language of film better than these guys and their evident pleasure in the economical story-telling through visuals adds to the dazzle.  A worker silently removes the “784” from the sign that says “safety is our most important goal” and replaces it with a 1.  When we then see Joe sitting by himself outside, we know what happened and feel his loss.  Later, he pins a lost dog notice to a bulletin board and the camera pulls back to show us the entire board is covered with notes about lost dogs.  The camera is in every way a part of the masterful storytelling here.

Like Charles, Abrams and Spielberg know that all the special effects and jump-out-at-you thrills in the world won’t resonate unless we care about the people in the story.  This is definitely a movie about characters.  The themes of parental estrangement are not always gracefully handled, but Abrams’ ability to put us inside the children’s world is breathtaking.  All of the kids are great but Courtney and Fanning are marvels.  A scene where he applies zombie make-up to her face is filled at the same time with longing, amazement, and unspoken understandings and is almost unbearably tender.  Best of all is the way Abrams shows us that it is not just the happenstance of the movie footage that gives the kids the unique ability to solve the mystery and get everyone home safely; it is the way that particular moment poised between childhood and growing up gives them for a brief moment the unfiltered sense of wonder that makes everything in the world a discovery of equal magnitude and a universe of endless possibilities.  It is a privileged moment that he lets us share, and a rare film that makes use of genre without getting overwhelmed by it.  We get all of the popcorn pleasures of the stunts and special effects but we get the deeper pleasures of a great story, masterfully told.

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