Big Screen Streaming: The Force Awakens

Big Screen Streaming: The Force Awakens

-by Roger Market

NOTE: This review/essay may contain spoilers. But everyone has already seen it already. Right?

As expected, Star Wars: The Force Awakens saw considerable profits in its first weekend, despite having a $200 million budget to recoup. In fact, in just twenty days, The Force Awakens became the top-grossing domestic movie of all time (not adjusted for inflation). By contrast, the previous record, held by Avatar, was achieved in 318 days and includes re-release sales. The Star Wars brand clearly has unprecedented marketing power. If you’re a fan of the franchise, you’ve likely already seen the latest entry, so here are a few reasons to take a second look.

As Rey, the female protagonist, rappels down the ruins of a star destroyer in the dessert of Jakku, audiences quickly realize that she is not a lovesick puppy dog or a helpless “girl.” She’s a woman who knows how to take care of herself, a scavenger who earns her living just like any man of similar status; initially, she fights against a broken system, earning enough food to survive while waiting for her family to return (which they may not). One of the running gags in the movie involves the misinformed notion that Rey is a victim, a subservient sex, a damsel to be saved. When BB-8 and Finn enter her life, she faces challenges in the form of a co-dependent robot and a pre-programmed tough guy who can’t help but try to save her. “Stop taking my hand!” she screams at Finn as the two, along with BB-8, try to escape from the ruthless agents of The First Order. In short, she will not be dictated, and she alone will control her limbs.

On a related note, the film would have a difficult time passing the Bechdel test in any significant way, but as evidenced above, it’s OK; it still works. For the uninitiated, the Bechdel test purportedly rates the depth of cinema storylines involving women. For a film to pass, it must include the unlikely and sometimes forced combination of (1) two or more women, preferably named, in at least (2) one scene together in which they (3) discuss something other than a man. That’s it. Sound easy? Go watch your favorite films, and see how few pass.

While this reviewer supports fair, equal, and powerful representations of women in cinema, gender-centered checklists such as the Bechdel test serve to limit the pool of quality storytelling, ironically putting female-led stories into boxes. Which is exactly what many seek to avoid. Remember the infamous golden bikini from The Return of the Jedi? Princess Leia may have been groundbreaking and a firecracker in her own right, but even if she had been in a significant scene with another woman about something unrelated to men or masculinity, she still became embroiled in that feminist’s nightmare—which remains controversial today. Nothing can take that back! Although not perfect, filmmakers have learned a thing or two about gender balance in the last few decades. Female characters in The Force Awakens, therefore, feel more three-dimensional than in any other film in the Star Wars universe, even without Bechdel’s arbitrary test. The scene that comes closest to passing the test may occur at the midpoint, when Rey and Maz discuss Luke Skywalker’s light saber and how it affects Rey’s Jedi destiny. Rey is intimidated by her visions of the future, and she seeks to escape. But this is a feature of hero stories in general, not typically “female stories.” The go-to plot device for female stories (romance) is all but absent in The Force Awakens. While there’s a spark between Finn and Rey, Finn is mostly alone in his romantic pursuits. Rey is focused on her quest, and that’s where she soars. She’s a damn good hero: flawed like the rest of them, but still heroic. Frankly, this is a breath of fresh air. Even with very little dialogue between women, whether it’s about men or not, The Force Awakens offers up an empowering story with women who can pilot spaceships, bypass technology that even Han Solo can’t beat, and effectively master The Force in record time.

And how about the men of The Force Awakens? Finn himself shares much of the spotlight in this movie with Rey, and the two have incredible chemistry. While there’s potential for them to become romantic later on (in which case, let’s hope they’re not related!), this notion is nothing more than a series of jokes for now. In the Force Awakens, Rey and Finn have their individual heroic destinies to focus on, and as they progress toward increasingly difficult odds, their bond becomes deeper and stronger than any romance-heavy storyline could yield. Meanwhile, Finn’s friendship with Po is authentic and sweet, although it derives from a place of darkness: their shared escape from the oppressive grasp of The First Order. Up to now in the Star Wars universe, storm troopers have existed in the background, helmeted, mostly silent, and killing as needed without remorse. The new trilogy breaks new ground with the inclusion of a hard-hitting story about the psychological effects of being a storm trooper . . . and resisting. Indeed, this is perhaps one of the most interesting storylines in the franchise to date. Making something human that was never shown to be before has proven fruitful, and audiences are eager to see what other innovations J.J. Abrams and company have in store.

With all the good The Force Awakens does for Star Wars, it can’t escape some scrutiny. One semi-major plot hole is that Supreme Leader Snoke somehow discovers not only where BB-8 is, but also that he’s with Han Solo. While it’s OK to use The Force in creative ways, this sudden realization, after all this time searching for BB-8, is disappointing. With that said, it’s understandable to try to focus the story on the many more important elements in play throughout the movie. There’s only so much time, after all.

Having broken more records than any other film on, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is indeed a powerhouse, and it will be interesting to watch the remaining Star Wars films fight for records. No movie is perfect, but this is undoubtedly the strongest recent edition to the original franchise. The Force Awakens is funny, family-oriented, and, true to form, a geek’s paradise. With that said, the film is also gripping and emotional in ways that viewers haven’t yet witnessed in this universe. There’s something about a bloody storm trooper helmet that pushes new buttons in viewers from the get-go. If you’re one of the few who haven’t seen The Force Awakens, go now; if you’ve already seen it, give it another look. It’s going to be a while before the next one comes out.


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Big Screen Streaming: The Peanuts Movie

The Peanuts Movie

-Film Reviewed by Roger Market

The Peanuts Movie commemorates the sixty-fifth anniversary of the classic Peanuts comic strip featuring Snoopy, Charlie Brown, and the rest of the gang. This is the first feature-length film in the franchise since 1980 and the first to be released after creator Charles M. Schulz died in 2000. With a screenplay written by Schulz’s son and grandson, Bryan and Craig Schulz, the film employs the 3-D computer animation style made popular by 1995’s beloved Toy Story. While the computerized animation may be a point of contention for some, fans can delight at the rejuvenation of these cherished characters in time for the holidays.

As always, de facto main character Charlie Brown is a shy, clumsy schoolboy who wants to succeed at everything he tries. Life, however, is spiteful. Charlie can’t fly a kite without getting it stuck in a tree. He can’t even strike someone out in a baseball game. As his failures mount in the first few minutes of the film, it becomes clear that Charlie Brown isn’t exceptional at anything except making a fool of himself. When the unnamed little red-haired girl moves in next door, Charlie Brown recognizes his chance to start a new friendship with a clean slate. This girl knows nothing of his failures, and as such, he hasn’t embarrassed himself in front of her yet. He could start out as a hero!

Charlie Brown’s clean slate doesn’t last long. Lacking confidence and refined skills, he endures one humiliation after another on his journey to impress the little red-haired girl. He’s encouraged by her beauty but also by their similarities—not the least of which is the fact that they both chew on their pencils. Charlie Brown turns to his trusty dog and friend Snoopy for help.

Whenever he’s not busy coaching Charlie Brown through life, Snoopy writes the next scene in his novel about his alter ego, an airplane pilot called the Flying Ace. When archrival and fellow pilot the Red Baron captures a beautiful dog named Fifi, the Flying Ace pursues him, making repeated attempts to save Fifi and put an end to the Red Baron’s tricks. Snoopy’s romantic and imaginative pursuit takes him from the top of his dog house to the far reaches of the world, including the Eiffel Tower in Paris, France, but he always manages to come back down to earth and help his friend.

Of course, what Peanuts movie would be complete without Sally, Marcie, Peppermint Patty, Lucy, Linus, Pig-Pen, and Schroeder? While these fan favorite characters do appear in the film, Sally and Lucy are the more prominent secondary characters, and the others are relegated to the background. In keeping with the franchise, Sally is an antagonist for Charlie Brown, repeatedly making fun of his failures, but she’s also a friend who provides him with psychiatric help at her roadside booth—for the low, low price of five cents. Sally, Charlie Brown’s sister, means well but often proves herself a nuisance too. For example, when Charlie Brown finally has a chance to impress the little red-haired girl (and everyone else) with a magic act at the school talent show, he sees his sister making a fool of herself on stage. Sally’s props aren’t cooperating, as the “bull” (made of boxes and cloth) that she is trying to lasso falls apart. The audience laughs at her, and she’s on the verge of crying. Charlie decides to show his brotherly love by dressing up as the bull for Sally to lasso, thereby sacrificing his slot in the show. He’ll have to find another way to impress the little red-haired girl and prove himself a hero. Of course, he fails to realize at first that giving up his needs to help his sister makes him a hero by default. The Peanuts Movie is packed full of positive lessons for both young and old audience members.

Long-time fans of the Peanuts franchise may scoff at the modern animation style of The Peanuts Movie. Some may also be disappointed to know that The Peanuts Movie is essentially a reboot that recycles classic plots and gags from the comic strip, movies, and television specials. In other words, it’s not particularly original, and the sequences often feel more like disconnected shorts than a cohesive feature-length film. However, the new film’s themes and subject matter are in keeping with the Peanuts of yore, and the nostalgia factor alone may be a draw for many viewers. Good old Charlie Brown is still as compassionate, honest, brave, funny, and gullible as ever. Snoopy is still his lovable, imaginative dog. Diehard Peanuts fans who can accept a little change, will enjoy the film. Likewise, parents hoping to introduce their children to the family-friendly world of Peanuts will delight in the new animation and friendly characters. Who knows? This film may pave the way for a resurgence of the franchise with original—and likely more modern—plots to come.


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Big Screen Streaming: Back to the Future

Big Screen Streaming: Back to the Future

-In his monthly column, Roger Market explores the magic of the Back to the Future Trilogy-

On October 21, 2015, fans of the Back to the Future trilogy will be able to watch the films in select theaters for one night only. This event commemorates the 30th anniversary of the first movie’s release. The date was planned to coincide with an event from the series: Back to the Future Part II’s destination date when our heroes travel from 1985 to 2015. Why does a thirty-year-old movie have so much staying power and influence? A time travel story on the surface, Back to the Future is really more about taking control of one’s destiny, making something of yourself, and not letting the world get you down. Most viewers can relate to these themes. Short, teenage Marty McFly (Michael J. Fox) is decades younger than the white-haired Dr. Emmett Brown (Christopher Lloyd), but they are a compatible duo whose constant friendship takes the film to new heights. And the writing, at least for the first movie in the franchise, is downright inspiring.

The creative team behind Back to the Future makes expert use of foreshadowing throughout the movie. During the intro, viewers are treated to a video tour of Dr. Brown’s lab, complete with hundreds of clocks, various inventions that fail to work properly, framed photographs of inventors, a car commercial on the radio, and a TV news report about plutonium theft. As those who have already seen the film know, all of these elements will be important.

The setups keep coming, oftentimes with comedic effect. Marty strolls into Dr. Brown’s home to use the guitar amplifier and sound system. A hopeless fan of loud 80’s music, he ramps the volume, unintentionally destroying the speaker in the process. Moments later, he receives a phone call from Brown. “That reminds me, Marty,” Dr. Brown says after a brief initial exchange, “you better not hook up to the amplifier. There’s a slight possibility of overload.” As Marty stares at the irreparably damaged sound system, he says he’ll “keep that in mind.” When the clocks in the lab all strike eight o’clock at once, Dr. Brown reveals that they are exactly twenty-five minutes slow, and thus begins the movie’s infatuation with time and disobedience: Marty is late for school, and his principal has it in for him. Guess who gets detention?

During that opening-scene phone call, Dr. Brown asks Marty to meet him at the local mall later that night. When Marty finally arrives, Brown reveals the reason for their meeting, blowing Marty’s mind: He has created the world’s first time travel device—from a DeLorean, a “classy,” though somewhat impracticle automobile that runs on plutonium. The source of fuel? Brown has stolen the radioactive material from a group of Libyans who wanted him to build them a bomb. Suddenly, all of the setups from the opening scene fall into place. When the Libyans show up to kill Dr. Brown, a distraught Marty takes the DeLorean as his getaway vehicle and inadvertently disobeys the laws of nature, traveling back to 1955, the year his parents first met, kissed, and fell in love.

Now, the movie begins to employ dramatic irony for both suspense and comedic effect. When Marty accidentally disrupts his parents’ courtship, he shifts his teenage mother’s attentions from his father, George McFly, to himself. Thus begins Marty’s seemingly never-ending quest to get his parents together. To track his progress, Marty inspects a photograph he brought back from the future. His siblings, pictured in the photograph, are slowly disappearing, evidence that he has disrupted the time-space continuum. If Marty can’t get his parents together, as they were destined, eventually he too will start to disappear from the photo and then from reality. Luckily, he has contacted the 1955 version of Dr. Brown to explain his predicament. Doc, elated to learn that he has finally invented “something that works,” promises to help Marty fix history and get “back to the future!”

During Marty’s quest, he continues to disobey the rules, putting him in hot water at every turn and earning him an enemy in local tough guy, the young Biff Tanner. One of these early confrontations is the now-classic chase scene in which Marty zips along on a “board with wheels” while Biff follows in his car. In the end, Biff eats Marty’s dust—along with some other organic matter. Marty’s mother, Lorraine, looks on with unknowingly incestuous admiration.

Failing to get his parents to fall in love initially, Marty hatches a Hail Marry plan to take his young mother to the high school’s Enchantment Under the Sea dance, at which he’ll “take advantage” of her so that George can step in to defend her. With any luck, George will win her love, and they will have their first kiss at that same dance, just as they are supposed to (the present Lorraine recounts this story back in 1985 to the annoyance of Marty’s sister, who had already heard it “a million times”). Meanwhile, Dr. Brown works on a plan to transport Marty safely back to 1985. The last act of the film is an incredible example of cinematic suspense, with Marty, George, and Dr. Brown thwarting each new obstacle only to find another one in its place.

The epic time gap that allows Marty to meet his parents as teenagers contributes to the film’s popularity both on its release and thirty years later. Lea Thompson, Crispin Glover, Thomas F. Wilson, and Christopher Lloyd turn in stellar performances as Lorraine, George, Biff, and Dr. Brown, respectively, in both 1955 and 1985. The movie’s twist ending is fun, too, allowing these actors to shine once again. Adding to the popularity of Back to the Future is the film’s fantastic soundtrack. The track list includes “The Power of Love” and “Mr. Sandman,” as well as a performance of “Earth Angel (Will You Be Mine)” at the school dance by the fictional band Marvin Berry and the Starlighters. The pièce de résistance, however is Marty McFly’s anachronistic and shocking rendition of “Johnny B. Goode” when the band needs an emergency guitarist. Although Fox did not record the vocals himself, his stage presence is legendary, and the performance is unforgettable.

While Back to the Future became a classic for many reasons, viewers will especially remember the movie’s lightning-struck clock tower and, of course, the comically souped up time-traveling DeLorean. Indeed, the fate of these two iconic symbols is yet another example of the screenwriting mastery at work in the film: Several early references to the clock tower’s 1955 demise eventually lead to the lightning strike itself, which the 1955 Dr. Brown identifies as the only way to generate enough power to send Marty back to the future in the absence of plutonium to fuel the time machine. It’s easy to see why stakes this high and writing this entertaining could never be contained in only one movie. Consequently, dedicated fans of the Back to the Future franchise will be in for a long night on October 21, when the exciting triple play hits theaters for a limited engagement.

Check back in early October for my reviews of Back to the Future Part II and Back to the Future Part III, just days before the anniversary screenings!


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