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Star Wars: The Force Awakens — 7/10

STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015, J.J. Abrams)

Finally, they made a good STAR WARS. Okay, I’m being a little disingenuous — THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK was perfectly fine, and I didn’t even seen Episodes II and III, so what do I know. STAR WARS isn’t my thing, so don’t listen to me if you’re a fan.

But if you’re not really into this space opera mythology, FORCE is a pretty entertaining Hollywood popcorn adventure. Like most of Abrams’s filmography, it’s focused on being hyper-competent, well-paced (for the most part — the third act of this drags a bit), disarmingly funny, and a little chilly on the emotional front. His MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE III is not one of the best of the franchise, but it’s rock solid and eminently rewatchable — which can most likely describe FORCE AWAKENS as well.

The single biggest problem with the Lucas-helmed films in the series (and again I haven’t seen a couple of those) is that they were terribly directed. Lucas would screw his camera to the floor and let his actors walk awkwardly into the frame to deliver their clunky exposition. He filmed the droids from human-waist height, so they looked like human waste. Abrams’s camera is the spaceship to Lucas’s junk heap: it soars and glides, and gets down to the floor to gaze up at R2-D2 — the angle from which he should be revered. It catches up with the performers rather than imprison them. And in one damn good scene, John Boyega’s Finn is confessing to Daisy Ridley’s Rey (he’s great in this, she’s fine) and Abrams puts her a step above him. In classic over-the-shoulders, Abrams watches them share a reckoning, and it’s done with Finn looking up to Rey literally and figuratively, with her in a position of strength and judgement. This, my rose-colored-glass-eyed friends of the ’70s, is good directing. George Lucas knows nothing of that.

Structurally, though, this definitely feels like the seventh episode in something. It gives the same story beats we’re used to, and has plot holes galore. And as good as Boyega and Ridley are, there’s also strong supporting work from Adam Driver (a surprise not that he’s good — he always is — but that he’s so good as a pure villain) and an unrecognizable (because it’s a voice/mo-cap role) Lupita Nyong’o. But there’s also Domhnall Gleeson, who’s become an increasingly annoying omnipresence on screen — annoying not only because he’s everywhere being lame (FRANK, EX MACHINA, BROOKLYN) but because watching him is like when you put socks on out of the laundry and they’re still wet. Here he’s a villain, and not only is he the least threatening presence imaginable (perhaps Abrams’s goal), but he inspired outright guffaws. It’s a huge disaster.

He does, however, get the only scene in the film that seems to draw Abrams out of his shallow competence stupor and try to say something relevant — albeit fairly thin, the Gleeson speech to the troops has a distinct air (in the production design, the colors, the response, and staging) of North Korea and Kim Jong-un. And in a movie about an arms race, dictators, and world-destroying weaponry, that’s its one potent piece of imagery. Kids can look the other way, though — this movie was made to sell BB-8 toys, and luckily BB-8 is very cute. Sign me up for Rian Johnson’s Episode VIII.

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Star Trek Into Darkness — 6/10

STAR TREK INTO DARKNESS (2013, J.J. Abrams): 6/10

Technically unassailable (well, except for one bad edit that goes from Scotty with his right hand on a joystick to the same hand flipping a switch above his head), which is something that should not be taken for granted — even when Hollywood just unloads dumptrucks full of money at a summer blockbuster, it doesn’t necessarily translate to cinematic competence (such as with STAR TREK’s producers/writers Orci & Kurtzman & Lindelof’s 2011 debacle COWBOYS & ALIENS). So give Abrams credit for being captain of a beautifully purring ship here, from the photography to the special effects to the sound design. But you know what else is technically unassailable? My iPhone.

In other words, holding the attentions of its viewers — the hordes of Americans who were cattle-herded into theaters this weekend (to the tune of $70 million in ticket sales; an objectively staggering figure despite the proclamations that such a number was a “disappointment” — especially in light of IRON MAN THREE’s $170M+) in order to sit on their asses, shovel popcorn into their faces at a ferocious pace, tear their eyeballs away from Facebook for 140 minutes, and find themselves agreeably distracted by a lot of colors, flashing lights, and high-pitched noises and booms — is an admirable feat but not one that’s going to get me to stand up and applaud. The substance here is spelled out cleanly (the closer Abrams’s camera gets to faces, the more we’re supposed to pay attention), i.e. storylines such as Kirk’s volatile heroism vs. Spock’s seemingly cold rationality, government’s troublesome hawkish responses to terrorist action, sacrifice & teamwork, etc. But that doesn’t make it profound: it still came off as shallow to me, and I couldn’t really overlook it in the context of pretty thin supporting characters (Uhuru plays nothing more than a fiesty girlfriend in this one, Sulu a workhorse of a pilot, and Khan a one-dimensional face of evil). Pine is a rock star, and deserves a better starring role — he has great moments in this film opposite the equally strong Quinto, but Kirk is imagined as a micro-managing superhero, not only serving as captain and ace-sniper, but also sacrificial mechanic and political diplomat. He only delegates when he can’t be two places at once.

But given the shortcomings of the script it’s still noteworthy that the action scenes make such good sense in the midst of the sci-fi ridiculousness, the best of which is Kirk and Khan’s fingernail-biting dive-through-space from the Enterprise to the other ship. Abrams learned pacing, consistency, and spectacle from his mentor Spielberg. But I’m just worried that he only learned how to mimic the appearance of interest in humanity, not embody it.

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