Archive for December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

December 27, 2015

20151227-163802.jpg
Scene for scene, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is as heedlessly entertaining as anything that’s emerged from the franchise. As a whole, though, its relentless pace resolves in memory as a blur. A great many things happen, and the movie scarcely takes a breath to register the import of the events. It’s enjoyable in the moment but leaves us little to chew on, to dream on. Even the much-ballyhooed final shot is needlessly goosed by the camera chasing itself around a cliff, as if director J.J. Abrams had handed the keys over to the 360-addicted Peter Jackson. “Stay calm,” says defected stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). “I am calm,” says Finn’s new buddy, hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). “I was talking to myself,” Finn says, and the movie likewise seems to be checking its insecurity.

Calmness is in short supply here, which is a shame, because I got a welcome sunshiny vibe from much of the film. Here, after the tone of George Lucas’ prequels, which darkened and sickened into a saga of the degradation of a hero, is once again a Star Wars film full of goodness and optimism. Finn, kidnapped and trained from childhood to be a foot soldier in the bloodletting of the First Order (the new update of the evil Empire), finds himself unable to kill, and leaves his post. Which brings me to wonder how many other stormtroopers have second thoughts about their line of work but don’t get a chance to nope out of the corporation. They remain targets, as always, brainwashed or not. But never mind.

Some of the film meditates, albeit in rushed abbreviated form, on what it takes to become a reformed blackhat versus a fallen angel. The latter is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a masked baddie with a fixation on Darth Vader that will go unexplained here (we are in spoiler-free territory). Unmasked, Ren looks as much “just a kid” as the unmasked Michael Myers did in the original Halloween. He is torn, and chooses the dark side, as Finn opts for the light. The inherited royalty of the Force takes something of a back seat here; I didn’t hear the word “midichlorian” once, thank the Force. Whether or not one has the Force, what matters is the choice one makes in the crunch: will you use your power, whatever it may be, for good or for its opposite?

J.J. Abrams mostly uses his for good. Mostly. The movie has a nice, warming devotion to filling the screen with non-white-males, not only among its leads but in bit roles everywhere you look. At times, though, The Force Awakens is like an omnibus of favorite bits of business from the original trilogy, and Abrams drags the old hands on whenever possible, including General Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C3PO (Anthony Daniels), and of course Han Solo (Harrison Ford). The gravitas in the reunion of Leia and Han is due to these actors as these characters, not due to anything in the script, really. Ford seems awake and engaged, and can still get his voice up to a lion’s roar in the din of battle. Where’s Luke Skywalker? Well, he “has vanished,” as the opening crawl tells us, and most of the film is a chase after the map that may lead to his doorstep. This quest doesn’t seem as urgent as simply avoiding the clutches and blasters of Kylo Ren and his cadre of fascists, and when Finn just wants to run, we can understand why.

The movie’s restless motion can sometimes produce not heat but a kind of coldness that doesn’t take the full measure of death (although there’s a strong moment when Daisy Ridley’s Rey, the film’s emergent heroine, plugs a stormtrooper and then pauses a second — this is, after all, the first life Rey has taken). The new kids are fine: Boyega afraid but bravely pressing forward, Ridley vital and amusingly impatient at times, Isaac as uncomplicatedly moral here as he was complexly amoral in Inside Llewyn Davis and other films. Abrams more or less leaves his actors to their own considerable devices; as Richard Brody has pointed out, Abrams is a nostalgist and pastiche maker, not a visionary. But for the first time in at least a decade, this old Star Wars skeptic felt not resentment at more star wars but a sense of gratitude for the return of a corporate concern that at least gestures towards the possibility of altruism and redemption.

Advertisements

A Very Murray Christmas

December 6, 2015

20151206-124000.jpg
In the Netflix Original holiday special A Very Murray Christmas, Bill Murray exists in a weird holiday-special reality where some celebrities appear as themselves and others are playing roles. Chris Rock, for instance, exists here as himself, but Amy Poehler and Maya Rudolph don’t; neither do Rashida Jones or Jason Schwartzman. There seems to be no rhyme or reason for this, just as there wasn’t in most star-studded holiday specials since the dawn of TV. If it’s funny for you to be up there playing yourself, as with George Clooney or Miley Cyrus or Bill Murray, you play yourself. Everyone else acts, although the milieu here is dark and artsy enough that even those playing themselves can be said to be playing fictional roles.

The special was directed by Sofia Coppola and written by Coppola, Murray, and Mitch Glazer. It plays like an off-market continuation of Scrooged, which Glazer cowrote, and Lost in Translation, which Coppola wrote and directed. It has the vague form of the former (we gotta put on a Christmas show!) and the ennui of the latter (what does it matter if we put on a Christmas show or not?). The two moods conflict entertainingly. Murray is stuck in a swank New York City hotel while a blizzard batters the metropolis. Nobody can make it into the city to join Murray for the live holiday special he’s obligated to host. Then the power goes out and there’s no more pretense of a show within the show. There is now only the show we’re watching, full of bored people who congregate around Murray to sing tunes both holiday and non-holiday.

Murray never had much of a singing voice; his Nick the lounge singer got by on sheer Vegas brio, and his karaoke crooning in Lost in Translation spoke volumes with its self-aware sadness. His performances here don’t have those Nick quotation marks around them — the joke isn’t that Bill Murray is the one singing these songs. The Murray we see here seems to want to discover some truth in the melodies, particularly the opener “Christmas Blues.” Accompanied by Paul Shaffer on piano — oddly, the only SNL veteran here from Murray’s era as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player among several other SNL-ers from later years — Murray brings a melancholy dignity to the music. What he lacks in technique (he wouldn’t make it far on The Voice, but then neither would Tom Waits or Warren Zevon) he compensates for in open emotion.

The special is light on narrative and wants to come across as tossed-off, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a lot to unpack here. The bluesy, mildly sardonic tone will make A Very Murray Christmas a welcome perennial for those who resent the season’s omnipresence, its commercialism, its bullying insistence that everyone celebrate in the same way. After Murray has had too much brandy and passes out, he dreams that George Clooney and Miley Cyrus ride in on a sleigh to save the show, and they bring some razzle-dazzle (Clooney more or less hilariously Dean Martins his way through “Santa Claus Wants Some Lovin'”). After that, though, Murray is more or less left alone again in his hotel room, albeit with Paul and the room-service guy. He looks out his window at the city, embodying the cliché of being alone among millions of strangers, same as in Tokyo.