Archive for December, 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens (2015)

Director: J.J. Abrams

Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong’o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, Max von Sydow

Praise be to the most dedicated of “Star Wars” fans whose love for the franchise has never wavered in spite of its many recent wrong turns, nonetheleast of which was the pretty, yet creatively bankrupt prequel trilogy. Those who squealed with glee at the very first images of the trailer for “The Force Awakens” have seen their undying faith rewarded. The seventh entry into the long-running film series, and first chapter in an all-new trilogy, does more than restore “Star Wars” to its former glory. It may well have provided it with one of its greatest chapters yet.

Almost entirely ignoring the prequels, “The Force Awakens” picks things up in a post-“Return of the Jedi” universe essentially in real time (i.e. approximately thirty years later). Although the Empire was defeated back then, they were not completely eliminated. In their place is the First Order. Also not extinguished is the Dark Side of the Force. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) found this out the hard way when his Jedi-in-training were slaughtered by the one Dark Side-leaning pupil among them. Feeling responsible, our favorite Jedi has chosen exile. Even his closest friends and family are uncertain of his whereabouts, and it is the search for Luke which drives the plot of “The Force Awakens.”

Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Luke’s student gone bad, is among those who would like to learn the location of his former master, albeit only to destroy him. To this end, the leader of the Knights of Ren tracks the movements of a droid named BB-8 to the desert planet of Jakku (a dead ringer for Luke’s former home of Tatooine). BB-8 is carrying one half of a map to Luke’s supposed location There, the droid is aided by a Stormtrooper gone AWOL named Finn (John Boyega) and a spirited young girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley). The pair find the Millennium Falcon… a ship known to both of them through tales of the war between the Rebellion and the Empire from a generation ago… and flee the planet. It isn’t long before Rey and Finn run into the Falcon’s former pilots, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who join and assist the new generation of heroes on their journey.

In one of the film’s more heavily criticized moves, the villains once again have an ultimate weapon,  a planet-sized monstrosity that dwarfs either of the two Death Stars. Its main firing mechanism is powered by draining the energy from a nearby star, hence its name: “Starkiller.” Also, as with both Death Stars, the Starkiller conveniently has an overlooked weak spot for the good guys to exploit. This is only a problem if you get too nitpicky about the similarities between the original “Star Wars” and this movie. I didn’t mind so much because my attention was focused more on the new characters of “The Force Awakens,” in particular Rey and Kylo Ren.

Kylo Ren, being a follower of the Dark Side, is a Darth Vader worshiper. Alone in his quarters, he sometimes seeks counsel from Vader. As Vader did, Kylo Ren faces inner conflict. But, while Vader was a good man seduced by the Dark Side, Kylo Ren is an evil soul struggling with the temptations of Light. He is very much like his idol in one respect: Kylo Ren is in the hearts and minds of all the other characters even when he is not present. His betrayal of Luke had a ripple effect, ending the marriage of Han and Leia (Carrie Fisher) and sending the former back into a life of piracy.

Although we find Rey on a world similar to where we found Luke Skywalker on Tatooine, Rey appears to have been leading a life of greater hardship. Whereas Luke grew up with an aunt and an uncle, no such family structure appears evident for Rey. She’s got it so bad that she scrounges through the wreckage of old Empire starships just to have enough to exchange for food rations. You’d think she’d jump at the first chance to get off that rock but, in her naivety, Rey is waiting for whomever originally left her there. While we exit “The Force Awakens” having gleaned a bit of Kylo Ren’s history, there’s a lot about Rey’s story which… while strongly implied… has been left up in the air for Episodes VIII and IX to expand upon, and that’s how it should be. One thing we do know is that, as Vader once said of Luke: “The Force is strong with this one!”

When this movie was first announced, my lack of faith was disturbing. My attitude had been affected by the disappointment I’d felt (and still feel) as a result of the prequels, and a complete indifference towards all other “Star Wars”-related material released in the last ten years. But, the more I was seeing and hearing about this movie, the more it reached out to that part of me that still remembers the excitement of seeing the original three films for the first time. “The Force Awakens” is the “Star Wars” movie I wished I had gotten in my late teens. At the risk of being accused of a knee-jerk reaction, I’m calling it my second favorite “Star Wars” film behind only the flawless “Empire Strikes Back.”  If I can find anything to gripe about, it’s the lack of memorable new tracks in the John Williams score (something that “Empire” had in spades). So what if the plot is a little derivative? It captures the essence of “Star Wars” in ways which the prequels never could. It has awakened in me a new hope for the future of the franchise.

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Mitchell (1975)

Director: Andrew V. McLaglen

Starring: Joe Don Baker, Martin Balsam, John Saxon, Linda Evans, Merlin Olsen

A movie about a cop who champions the side of law & order by working slightly outside the confines of both shouldn’t be that hard to pull off. Clint Eastwood did it, turning 1971’s “Dirty Harry” into a classic and reprising the role four more times. But, while Harry Callahan’s methods were at times questionable, he was always a likeable character. Joe Don Baker did it with 1973’s “Walking Tall,” likewise playing a sympathetic hero. The title character of “Mitchell,” also played by Baker, is anything but that. The end result is less surprising than it is (unintentionally) amusing.

Mitchell, an out-of-shape plain-clothes detective, begins investigating the shooting death of a burglar at the home of Walter Deaney (John Saxon). Mitchell belives that Deaney did not kill the man in self-defense as is his testimony. We know that Mitchell’s suspicions are correct, because we see the unarmed trespasser being shot by Deaney in the film’s opening scene. However, Mitchell is discouraged from pursuing the case any further due to Deaney being under the watchful eye of the FBI. Naturally, Mitchell is bullheaded enough that he prefers to continue his pursuit of Deaney, but he reluctantly takes a stakeout job at the home of James Arthur Cummings (Martin Balsam), a smuggler of various illegal items (including drugs). While all of this is going on, Mitchell is also fooling around with Greta (Linda Evans), a “hooker with a heart of gold,” who looks less like a hooker and more like a centerfold for one of the many porn magazines in Mitchell’s home. Once Cummings is introduced, the only real contribution to the film that Deaney has left is to be the guy paying Greta’s bill before he unceremoniously disappears from the movie.

On the condition that Mitchell would allow him to go free, Cummings opts to use Mitchell as a chauffeur in a drug trade so that Mitchell can arrest Mistretta (Morgan Paull) instead. However, the sly Cummings pulls a double-cross on BOTH men, alerting Mistretta to Mitchell’s true identity and replacing the heroine shipment with chalk. After Mitchell fights off and kills Mistretta and his men in a gunfight, he goes after and kills Cummings and his bodyguard on their boat.

Filling the requirements of a movie set in December with the inclusion of a decorated tree in one scene and two other mentions of the word “Christmas,” there is very little about the original release of Mitchell to recommend it unless you’re a John Saxon fan who just has to see everything the man’s been in. The story itself is boring as hell. Joe Don Baker is certainly no help, playing a complete swine of a lead character. Nope, when a movie is as lame as “Mitchell” is, you have two options left available. Either you can eject the video and forget you ever tried to watch it, or you can stay the course and laugh your way through the grueling experience. That’s where “Mystery Science Theater 3000″(MST3K, for short) comes in.

Picked as the subject for the twelfth episode in the fifth season of MST3K, “Mitchell” becomes not only watchable, but downright hilarious as Joel Hodgson and robot pals Tom Servo and Crow T. Robot riff the hell out of it, much to the chagrin of its lead actor. It’s been too long for me to remember which movie wound up as my introduction to MST3K, but I know that “Mitchell” was definitely one of the first. It would probably be advisable to sample a few others first before seeking this one out, though. “Mitchell” is also notable as the episode in which series creator Joel Hodgson handed the reins over to head writer Mike Nelson, who would continue watching crappy movies with his robot companions throughout the rest of the series’ run. To this day, “Mitchell” remains one of my favorite MST3K episodes, and is the ONLY way that one should EVER watch this Christmas turkey.

Ghostbusters 2 (1989)

Director: Ivan Reitman

Starring: Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Sigourney Weaver, Harold Ramis, Rick Moranis, Ernie Hudson, Annie Potts

When I was a kid, the Ghostbusters were just about as cool as anything else in popular culture. You had the 1984 classic movie, the cartoon series, and you had the line of toys which were connected with said cartoon. (I had just about all the toys, which have since been passed on to the next generation.) The trouble with all of that is that it creates high demand for “More! More! More!” regardless of whether or not anyone involved actually wanted to return to the project. Now, I was at the age where I was still unaware of all the behind-the-scenes crap that goes on. Probably wouldn’t have cared one way or the other. All I knew was that, in the summer of 1989, I was getting another “Ghostbusters” movie.  This news had me very excited.

Five years have passed since the events of “Ghostbusters.” In that time, the team has gone out of business, having been sued by the city for the property damage caused in the act of saving the day, and have become something of a joke to fellow New Yorkers. What a bunch of ingrates! In any event, the foursome have gone their separate ways. Peter Venkman (Bill Murray), ever the shameless shyster, has his own talk show specializing in pseudo-psychology. Ray Stantz (Dan Aykroyd) runs an occult book store, while he and Winston Zeddemore (Ernie Hudson) use their former jobs as a gimmick for extra cash at children’s birthday parties. Egon Spengler (Harold Ramis) appears to be the only one enjoying life as an ex-Ghostbuster, using his time to run emotion-based experiments. It’s his work that the team will need to rely on when the slime hits the fan.

Venkman’s ex-girlfriend Dana Barrett (Sigourney Weaver) has an infant son named Oscar from a recent marriage that didn’t work out. Though things between Dana and Venkman went sour due mainly to his being an immature jerk (surprise, surprise), it is clear that Venkman regrets the fact that he did not wind up as Oscar’s father. Though still a cello player at heart, being a mother comes first for Dana, and so she has taken a job restoring artwork at the Manhattan Museum of Art. You know that feeling we sometimes get about portraits whose eyes seem to be tracking us? Well, Dana actually has that problem, coming from a painting of an ancient, malevolent sorcerer/dictator known as Vigo the Carpathian (Wilhelm von Homburg). Through investigation, the Ghostbusters are able to connect the dots between the painting, an incident on the busy New York streets which put Oscar in danger, and a horrifyingly massive river of slime flowing underneath the city.

Oscar is placed in further peril when Vigo places a spell upon Janosz Poha (Peter MacNicol), charging Janosz with the mission of finding a child to serve as a vessel for Vigo’s resurrection, an event which Vigo has scheduled to take place at the start of the new year. Meanwhile, the Ghostbusters make a breakthrough in their analysis of the sample they collected from the slime river. It seems this stuff reacts differently depending on the emotions it channels from the living. This “mood slime” has been building up underneath the city due to all the bad vibes put out by the citizens of New York. When you get doused in the slime, it causes you to react violently. The opposite is also true. The slime can also react to positive reinforcement and to certain forms of good music, and can therefore be used by the Ghostbusters as another weapon in their arsenal against Vigo. When the evil overlord enacts his final plan, he encases the museum in a seemingly impenetrable slime mold. To get through the roof, the Ghostbusters use positively-charged slime to bring the Statue of Liberty to life (which sounds ridiculous, but looks awesome) and open a hole with the good vibes that Lady Liberty inherently provides. You’d think the sight of this would create a city-wide panic… but I guess that, once you’ve seen a 100-foot tall Marshmallow Man, a mobile Statue of Liberty is nothing to be overly concerned about.

Considering the mortal danger that the guys put themselves in last time against Gozer, which included “crossing the streams,” their battle with Vigo is stunningly anti-climactic. That’s the main problem with “Ghostbusters 2”: It’s one of those been there, done that type of sequels. Because the main cast is unchanged, you know that the laughs will come when and where they should. Because there is a baby involved in the danger, there is a level of terror that the first film didn’t go for. The story that puts all these pieces together, however, is a little too familiar. The music this time is also a bit lacking. A lot of the apparent lack of creativity can be blamed on a studio pressuring director Ivan Reitman and actors Murray, Aykroyd, Ramis and Hudson into committing to a sequel they never actually wanted to do. Not even an amusing set of cameos from the likes of Cheech Marin, Ben Stein, and Bobby Brown (who also contributed the song “On Our Own”) can change that.

Although “Ghostbusters 2” clearly has not held up the way that its predecessor has and always will, I find that I still enjoy it almost as much. Part of it is seeing the talented cast gathered together for a second time (and Peter MacNicol is a welcome, hilarious addition). But I think some of it is due to the memory of having seen it as a kid in the theater. If you weren’t that young in 1989 (or hadn’t even been born yet), I could understand your having much different feelings from my own. I won’t deny that “Ghostbusters 2” deserves much of the criticism it gets but that doesn’t make it a bad movie. I maintain that, as in the context of the story it tells, the good vibes FAR outweigh the bad.