Monday, 21 December 2015

Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens/War Room (2015)

Of any film that I’ve seen this year, along with the few that are still scheduled for the rest of the month, this is easily the one I was looking forward to the least. Partly because, all year, this film has been built up like a cinematic Second Coming and the advertising for it has been beyond obnoxious, both officially and through word-of-mouth. But also partly because I fall right in the middle in terms of my opinion on the Star Wars films. I don’t love the original films: They’re still (mostly) good and Empire has definitely earned its place in sci-fi canon, but I don’t see them being quite as good as the rest of the world does. However, I also don’t hate the prequels: They definitely have their issues but, in terms of action and even some of the more dramatic moments, these all have their good points that have been widely ignored by history. Hell, as much hate that has been thrown at Jar-Jar Binks over the years, I still maintain that C-3PO is far more irritating and, as a racial stereotype, he pales in comparison to the wise old sage with squinty eyes that speaks in broken English that the world seems to kindly disregard. With all this in mind, I’m not exactly the best person to be seeing this movie; if I wasn’t obligated to watch everything that shows at my local, I probably would have just ignored this entirely. However, since I wouldn’t be doing my job with looking at easily the biggest release of the year, here I am. This is Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The plot: After the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) sends out ace Rebellion pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) to find a map that may lead to his current whereabouts. After a run-in with the newly established First Order, led by Sith Lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the map finds itself in the hands of scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) who, while trying to return the map’s holder BB-8 to its master, runs into former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega). The two end up embroiled in the war between the Rebellion and the First Order, as they both discover their own connections to the Force.

The cast is full of amazing performances, both in expected and unexpected ways. Harrison Ford is his roguish self again and, together with Fisher, makes for some surprisingly emotional moments. Hamill’s role is a lot smaller than I was expecting but, without going into spoilers, he still makes for one of the most powerful moments of the film… even if it went on a little too long. Ridley carries on the series tradition of strong female leads, both in acting and in character, as her portrayal of the self-sufficient scavenger is really damn good. Isaac has built a handy reputation for cocky but likeable scumbags that does him well here, as he comes across like exactly the kind of guy I would fly with if I had to take down a planet cannon. Boyega is probably the strongest of the entire cast, balancing being the comic relief and audience avatar with some legitimately hard-hitting moments when he talks about the First Order. Domhnall Gleeson… okay, after seeing him in About Time and Ex Machina, I had no idea he was even capable of being this intense. When he gives his speech to the Stormtroopers, he projects both an extremely charismatic leader and the kind of guy who would slit your throat with his bare hands if you disobeyed him; either way, you’re going to follow him. Speaking of surprisingly effective villains, Driver could have so easily fallen into the trap of only being good on-screen when keeps his mask on, and admittedly he does lose a bit of intimidation when he does. However, what lacks in intimidation, he makes up for in sheer danger with how well he plays this very emotionally unhinged character.

While the special effects in the original trilogy were definitely ground-breaking for their time, they definitely haven’t aged all that well. The effects in the prequels may create an okay visual aesthetic but they certainly aren’t all that great, and the special edition additions are… confounding and only look worse in comparison to the actual footage. The effects work here isn’t just good; this is the kind of stuff that I am genuinely expecting to stand the test of time. Abrams’ approach to the visuals is something to seriously be commended, as he chose to make everything look as practical as possible. Normally, that’d be a no-brainer, except in something with as strong a design aesthetic as Star Wars, it’s probably one of the few times that it can be forgiven for going after the CGI-heavy route. Here, the action happening on screen ends up having greater impact because so much of it is actually happening on screen. Not only that, the CGI work is really well-integrated as well, particularly with the lightsaber effects.

One of the big/only complaints currently in circulation about this film is how it feels too similar to A New Hope and, in a way, they’re correct. The plot carries a lot of the same beats and the new characters Rey/Finn/Poe can easily be compared to the old characters Leia/Luke/Han. However, this is weirdly not even that big an issue when it comes to the overall film. Firstly, the elements that do feel reminiscent of the original are changed around enough that it doesn’t feel like a total rehash. Secondly… I’m sorry if I have to break this to people, but A New Hope isn’t even all that good on its own. The plot developments were weak, the characterization was stock and would frequently come out of nowhere and the action is rather bland. Here, the plot feels like more effort was put into the particulars, the characterization is solid and the action is solid as hell. The dialogue may feel a bit out-of-place with its higher technobabble quotient than Star Wars is used to, which I’m guessing is because Abrams is still getting used to not doing Star Trek, but other than that we also don’t get any of the writing gaffs of the rest of the series. No awkward one-off remarks, no insipid ‘romantic’ dialogue and only a couple of cheesy moments. If this is going to be called a glorified remake, then it’s a remake in the style of David Cronenberg’s The Fly.

But that’s in comparison to the rest of the series; how does it factor on its own? I have to admit that I wasn’t expecting a whole lot in this category. You have Terminator: Genisys to thank for making me assume that we were only going to get the first third of a complete story, since this is another film that has the other two parts of the trilogy already guaranteed for it. Well, despite a few bits of teasing for future installments, this still manages to deliver as its own story, even when removed from the rest of the saga. The character drama works especially well because not only is the acting really well done but the writing knows when not to take itself seriously. Whether it’s making in-jokes about the Force (as this film portrays it, at least) or just making fun of how awkward Finn is because of his upbringing, this is probably the first time in the saga that a film has aimed for comedy. The closest we’ve gotten to this previously is the laughably bad ‘romantic’ dialogue from Clones and Revenge. As a result, we get a film that doesn’t constantly feel like it has to be intense and/or maudlin and can have some fun as well; it embodies the aura of the franchise as a whole, really.

All in all, even as someone who feels burnt out from just how much exposure this film has gotten, both in ads for itself and its use in advertising for completely random companies, this was genuinely impressive. The acting is stellar, the writing probably hits a handful of high points for the series and actively improves on past installments, the action is well-portrayed and the effects work sets a new benchmark for other films to reach. As a whole, I’d probably call this the best in the entire saga, although bear in mind that I’m not the most intense Star Wars fan in the world. Conveniently enough, this film finds itself sandwiched between two other franchise action films on my 2015 film list. It ranks higher than Fast & Furious 7, on the strength of how much more grounded the action and the visuals were. However, out of respect for a film that disappointed me and was still amazing, rather than a film from a series that I ultimately don’t rate too highly, it falls short of Avengers: Age Of Ultron.

It is seriously kind of confounding just how low the quality standards for Christian films are. Of all the sub-genres out there, I wouldn’t have guessed that this would be one of the weakest had I not seen a fair share of them for myself. Is it because of an innate need to endorse anything that shows support for your religion, or is it as a result of just accepting to take what little entertainment you can get out of defeat? Given what I’ve seen of the Australian and American critical circles respectively, and a few choices blogs I’ve stumbled upon, I could easily believe either one of them. I mean, outside of films directly involving Jesus, the only really good Christian film I’ve seen was Danny Boyle’s Millions; that’s a bad sign when the guy behind Trainspotting is leading the pack in terms of good religiously moral cinema. As much as my reviews for God’s Not Dead and Left Behind may argue, I don’t actively want to hate Christian films. Hell, I can easily say that I have had what could arguably be called religious experiences while watching films; I’d give anything to feel that again in the appropriate context. Until the collective decides to pick up their game, it’s up to masochists like me to hold them to task. This is War Room.

The plot: Elizabeth (Priscilla Shirer) is worried that her marriage to Tony (T.C. Shallings) is falling apart. He is emotionally distant from both his wife and daughter Danielle (Alena Pitts), verbally hostile towards Elizabeth and also has a bit of a wandering eye. However, once Elizabeth meets with Miss Clara (Karen Abercrombie), initially to help sell her house, Clara shows Elizabeth that her salvation may come through prayer and she can pray to save her marriage.

This might be the most screwed-up relationship I’ve seen in a film all year; yes, even worse than Fifty Shades Of Grey, since that at least showed some level of compromise at points. Here, Tony is an abusive and lecherous son of a bitch that needs to be put to the back burner quick smart. Elizabeth, rather than putting him directly to task or at the very least asking for marriage guidance from a professional, is told that sitting in a chair in her closet and praying will solve everything. Yeah, the titular ‘War Room’ is just a closet with prayers and goals written on paper and stuck on the walls. Okay, I get the power of prayer; hell, at my lowest points, I’ve prayed for guidance myself. However, I cannot see how endorsing just laying back and letting Jesus solve your problems for you is even remotely helpful. God gave us free will for a reason, and it certainly wasn’t to play doormat to your hateful other. Throughout the entire film, Elizabeth never once directly confronts her husband about her actions; instead, after a miraculous bout of food poisoning just as he’s about to cheat on her with another woman, he comes to her about his misdoings. She ultimately doesn’t do anything, but suitably enough brings me to my next point.

As the film continues, Elizabeth is encouraged not to keep fighting with her husband and to instead forgive him and pray for his soul. Okay, ignoring the simple fact that every pairing, regardless of how close, will fight at times, the film is basically saying that whatever problems she has with her husband are all her fault. Not in any way his fault because of his infidelity or his shady business practices or even his mannerisms to his wife, but it’s all hers because she “needs” to forgive him. Do I even need to explain how broken and unfathomably sexist this is? If anything, this film only enforces the kind of behaviour it is trying to fight against. By showing that women should hold all responsibility in a relationship, this film is effectively giving a free pass for men to be as douchey as they want to because, after all, it’s not their fault if their marriage fails. I know that there is a lot of issues in the majority of organized religions when it comes to depictions of women, but I didn’t realize that those parts were still being adhered to this closely. “It’s hard being a woman” in-fucking-deed.

There’s also the issue of just how bat-shit everyone is acting in this film, and no that isn’t a back-handed insult to Christians. I mean, regardless of context, this is some truly insane behaviour being exhibited by the majority of people here. Okay, aside from the aforementioned Holy Closet Space, there’s also the supposedly triumphant moment where Elizabeth renounces Satan from her house. While the music keeps trying to convince the audience that this is something to be inspired by, the events on screen just show a woman, rather emphatically, yelling at thin air to leave her house. Coupled with Miss Clara performing gospel prayer alone in her own house, quite audibly at that, and this really comes across like a mentally distraught woman being led further down the rabbit hole by an even more mentally distraught woman. Not this behaviour is weird just to the audience as, once Tony sees Elizabeth’s ‘War Room’, he immediately suspects that she may try to poison her at dinner. 

Of course, it’s not like the women are alone in the unbelievably fantastical actions taken in this film. There’s a sub-sub-subplot about how Tony has been stealing product from his pharmaceutical company to sell on the side. After he gets fired for unrelated reasons, his guilt leads him to admitting to stealing the drugs to his bosses. One of them brings up the most logical notions in the film, like how his job was paying so well that he didn’t really need to sell on the sly, or how him feeling bad because he wants to do right by his wife, his God and now them doesn’t change that he still broke the law. The other one, purely because he admitted to it, says that he isn’t going to press charges. I know that admission of sin leads to absolution of sin, but that’s under the laws of God; laws of Man, on the other hand, don’t work that way.

And then there’s the weird plot moments that were put in to pad this out to two hours. There’s a running gag about Elizabeth having really bad foot odour that gets brought up uncomfortably frequently during the film’s running time. It’s bad when it can’t even aim for decent reaction humour, instead just repeating the fact that her feet stink with no alteration several upon several times. Married With Children, this film is not; hell, even with how screwed up that family is, they at least took the time to talk to each other about their problems and not just calling out celestial hitmen to do their dirty work for them. There’s also a fixation on Danielle and her double-dutch team, leading up to a competition that Tony participates in. As a means to provide some excitement to this film, this film had to resort to jump rope in a vain attempt to try and keep audiences’ attention.

All in all, this is broken in just about every way possible. Its theological message says that we all just lay back and let God solve all our problems, rather than dealing with them ourselves because it “isn’t our job to”, its misogynistic implications suggest that wives should hold all responsibility in a marriage, and the rest of it is just plain crazy. Add to that bad music, bad acting and just plain bad production values, and you have the kind of film that should be hilariously awful but isn’t. I’d rather wage my own war that demands for better product then recommend this film on any grounds whatsoever. It’s worse than Fifty Shades Of Grey as, even with how horrible the main couple was in that film, that was supposed to be dangerous in places even if it went too far with it. That, and this is more actively bad whereas that film was just boring. However, while not being quite as toxic in terms of ideals, Love The Coopers was far more irritating and pissed me off to a greater extent.

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