By CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE | Published January 1, 2016
NEW YORK (CNS)—With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Disney), the most popular series in film history resurfaces after a 10-year hiatus.
This is the seventh installment in the franchise as well as the first feature in a planned third trilogy. Like its predecessors, it’s essentially a family-friendly piece of entertainment, with only interludes of peril and combat barring endorsement for all.
At the controls is J.J. Abrams, creator of the television show “Lost” and the man who rejuvenated another iconic science-fiction franchise via 2009’s “Star Trek.” Hiring Abrams was a smart decision, not least because the savvy director—who also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt—could bring a steady hand to the project and allow producer George Lucas to concentrate on selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Co.
Few risks were taken, particularly on the technical side. The visuals aren’t novel or awe-inspiring, but they’re sufficiently well-crafted to transport viewers where they need to go.
The primary objective seems to have been to safely pass a beloved and lucrative property from one generation to the next. This applies to the behind-the-scenes talents (as mentioned above), the fan base and the cast of characters. Abundant humor and the introduction of a pair of compelling new heroes, both portrayed with irrepressible vitality, are the keys to a successful hand-off.
Thanks to an accessible plot, “Star Wars” neophytes, if they exist, won’t find themselves adrift in a forbiddingly alien galaxy, however far away. And there’s enough complexity and allusive layering to satisfy those fully immersed in the saga.
“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last warrior battling on behalf of the chivalrous Jedi Order, has exiled himself.
His twin sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), the general leading the Jedi-friendly Resistance (successor to the Rebel Alliance), wants to find him. So, too, does the First Order, an army in the service of the Dark Side. Masterminded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this fascistic sect is bent on killing Luke and forestalling a Jedi uprising.
Leia sends her best fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the barren planet Jakku to retrieve information on Luke’s whereabouts. When Poe and his droid BB-8 separate during a skirmish, the spheroidal machine meets a young female scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a disaffected First Order Stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega).
With the First Order mounting another attack, Rey, Finn and BB-8 commandeer a familiar looking, rusted-out freighter lying in a desert junkyard. Since this turns out to be the Millennium Falcon, it’s not long before that vessel’s famed commander, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his furry co-pilot, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appear. (Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 make brief appearances later.)
The good guys’ principal antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a descendant of arch-villain Darth Vader and a disciple of Snoke’s who’s so torn between the upright and evil sides of the conflict that he has terrible anger issues. More ominously, First Order has a new, highly destructive weapon that makes the Death Star of earlier chapters look like a child’s toy.
The action builds to a gripping lightsaber duel in a snowy forest that ends all too quickly. Abrams never dawdles, which, as a rule, is a virtue. Yet, because he’s not a great visual stylist, his staging and framing often lack artistic flair.
This makes viewers long for Abrams to linger over sequences that do have more panache. His focus, however, is on lucidity and character development. When it comes to the movie’s look, he sticks to the “Star Wars” template. On balance, that’s a more than acceptable trade-off.
If there are moments you suspect you might be watching the cast-reunion special of an old TV show—John Williams’ majestic music counters that feeling to a degree—it’s largely attributable to how stiff and weather-beaten Ford and Fisher appear.
That’s not ageism. It’s a criticism of the pair’s acting and, more positively, a result of the contrast between their turns and the fresh, energized performances delivered by Ridley and Boyega. The senior duo can’t help seeming superannuated in comparison.
It’s doubtful that a movie has ever been more widely or intensely anticipated. Fueled by marketing ploys, a publicity avalanche and a glut of merchandise, this frenzy can obscure some of the things that have made “Star Wars” such a cherished and enduring cultural hallmark.
They include: entertaining story lines about the perennial struggle between good and evil; lovable heroes and hiss-worthy villains, both drawn with mythic characteristics; an integrated science-fiction vision; riveting chases, battles and action set-pieces; and the celebration of classic values such as courage, honor, and fealty.
Early on, Ray and Finn buck themselves up by repeating the same line, “I can do this. I can do this.” Perhaps an awareness of the utility of self-confidence and the necessity of trying your hardest are the best takeaways from “The Force Awakens.” By displaying these qualities themselves, director Abrams and his team get the job done—and then some.
The film contains much stylized fantasy violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II—adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Loosely based on the life of Joy Mangano, inventor of the self-wringing “Miracle Mop” and a cable television sensation, this madcap tale about a dysfunctional family hoping to hit the big time is written and directed by David O. Russell. Jennifer Lawrence plays the divorced mother of two who struggles mightily to keep a roof over the heads of four generations of her extended clan. Her father (Robert De Niro), a mechanic and tinkerer, has always encouraged her creative streak, even after splitting from her agoraphobic mother (Virginia Madsen). With the backing of Dad’s latest girlfriend (Isabella Rossellini), a wealthy widow and shrewd businesswoman, Joy lands a segment on QVC, the fledgling shopping channel run by a visionary executive (Bradley Cooper). Thousands of mops are sold and a star is born, but success proves bittersweet. Unfortunately, the heroine’s gadget turns out to be far more interesting than the gaggle of human characters surrounding it. They’re too self-absorbed for their own good—or the audience’s. Domestic discord, mature themes, some crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
“Daddy’s Home” (Paramount)
In a comedy whose intended audience is hard to surmise, brief but sound reflections on the challenges of parenthood bookend a random selection of crotch-level stunts. Director and co-writer Sean Anders has Will Ferrell play another variation on middle-aged fathers facing identity crises. In his case, the meltdown involves a free-spending competition for his stepchildren’s (Scarlett Estevez and Owen Vaccaro) affections kicked off by the extended visit of their muscular and charismatic biological father (Mark Wahlberg). The alpha-male escapades, which also affect wife Linda Cardellini, reach their low point with a leering visit to a fertility clinic. Some nonlethal violence, a frivolous attitude toward human sexuality and reproduction, fleeting rear male nudity, coarse banter, frequent crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is L—limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.
Upset that their parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) are selling their childhood home, two grown but immature siblings (Amy Poehler and Tina Fey) try to relive their glory years by holding a wild party for their friends from high school in the now-emptied house. While one revives her feud with an old enemy (Maya Rudolph), the other, a divorcee, yearns for romance with a neighbor (Ike Barinholtz). Director Jason Moore’s patchy comedy aims to make a point about the need to grow up. But, as Fey’s character fondly recalls her teenage promiscuity, a married couple has concealed public sex and hunk Barinholtz suffers a slapstick accident that might require the attention of a proctologist, the strained proceedings fail to eke out either laughs or enlightenment. Misguided values, including a benign view of casual sex, drug use and artificial contraception, a nongraphic scene of aberrant sexual activity, much sexual and some scatological humor, several uses of profanity, pervasive rough and crude language, obscene gestures. The Catholic News Service classification is O—morally offensive. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
“The Big Short” (Paramount)
The run-up to the financial crisis that began in 2007 provides the backdrop for director and co-writer Adam McKay’s ensemble dramatization—based on the real events recounted in Michael Lewis’ 2010 book—about a handful of individuals who foresaw the collapse of America’s housing market. Despite virtually universal opposition from clients and colleagues, two eccentric fund managers (Christian Bale and Steve Carell), a fast-talking banker (Ryan Gosling) and a pair of small-scale investors (Finn Wittrock and John Magaro) backed by a retired Wall Street powerhouse (Brad Pitt) stake everything on a downturn. Along with interesting characters acting under severe pressure as they wait for the system to collapse, McKay’s screenplay, written with Charles Randolph, offers audiences an amusing primer on the economic factors underlying the crash. Even as it merrily berates the greed and folly its heroes alone seemed able or willing to see, the script carefully reminds moviegoers of the human cost resulting from such widespread corruption. Some brushes with the seamy side of life and persistent machismo-driven swearing may limit the film’s appeal, however, even among grownups. Upper and rear strip-club nudity, a suicide theme, brief irreverent humor, several uses of profanity, relentless rough and crude language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is R—restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.
“Alvin and the Chipmunks: The Road Chip” (Fox)
When the talent manager who has become their unofficial adoptive dad (Jason Lee) takes a trip to Florida with his surgeon girlfriend (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), the singing brothers of the title (voices of Justin Long, Matthew Gray Gubler and Jesse McCartney) fear he intends to propose to her. It’s not the prospect of the doctor becoming their stepmother that troubles the warbling rodents, but the idea of her bullying teen son (Josh Green) joining the family. Since this acerbic lad turns out to be just as anxious as they are to thwart the match, the four join forces and set out on a cross-country journey to put the kibosh on any question popping. Despite a simplistic and recycled plot, director Walt Becker’s lighthearted blend of animation and live action will likely satisfy its diminutive target audience. As for their accompanying elders, they’ll be pleased by a generally positive—though not unblemished—message about family as well as by a lesson about the vulnerability that often lies behind aggressive behavior. Some mild potty humor, a single slightly crass term. The Catholic News Service classification is A-I—general patronage. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG—parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.
“Point Break” (Warner Bros.)
Director Ericson Core’s remake of the 1991 crime adventure, which has bank-robbing extreme athletes in place of the original’s thieving surfers, comes to 3-D life whenever someone in the cast is skydiving, riding massive waves, zooming through the Alps in a wingsuit or clinging to the sheer face of a Venezuelan mountain. But that’s all there is. Anytime a character pauses to announce, or merely grunt, one of the pearls of eco-warrior wisdom with which screenwriter Kurt Wimmer’s dialogue is decked out, the story—which features Luke Bracey as a rookie FBI agent and Edgar Ramirez as the leader of the gang he’s been assigned to infiltrate—stalls, crashes and burns. The rampant mayhem of the first version has been curbed, and the visual thrills to be derived from this iteration are obvious. But viewers will search in vain for any consistent morality below the slick surface—or for much that lingers in the memory. Gun and physical violence, a brief scene of implied sexual activity, drug use, fleeting crude and crass language. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III—adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13—parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.