Reel Reviews

‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’

A-II – adults and adolescents


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Hey, it’s just a movie – but a good one

With “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (Disney), the most popular series in film history resurfaces after a 10-year hiatus.

This is the seventh installment in the franchise as well as the predecessors, it’s essentially a family-friendly piece of entertainment, with first feature in a planned third trilogy. Like its predecessors only interludes of peril and combat barring endorsement for all.

At the controls is J.J. Abrams, creator of the television show “Lost” and the man who rejuvenated another iconic science-fiction franchise via 2009’s “Star Trek.” Hiring Abrams was a smart decision, not least because the savvy director – who also co-wrote the script with Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt – could bring a steady hand to the project and allow producer George Lucas to concentrate on selling Lucasfilm to the Walt Disney Co.

Few risks were taken, particularly on the technical side. The visuals aren’t novel or awe-inspiring, but they’re sufficiently well-crafted to transport viewers where they need to go.

The primary objective seems to have been to safely pass a beloved and lucrative property from one generation to the next. This applies to the behind-the-scenes talents (as mentioned above), the fan base and the cast of characters. Abundant humor and the introduction of a pair of compelling new heroes, both portrayed with irrepressible vitality, are the keys to a successful hand-off.

Thanks to an accessible plot, “Star Wars” neophytes, if they exist, won’t find themselves adrift in a forbiddingly alien galaxy, however far away. And there’s enough complexity and allusive layering to satisfy those fully immersed in the saga.

“The Force Awakens” takes place 30 years after Episode VI, “Return of the Jedi.” Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the last warrior battling on behalf of the chivalrous Jedi Order, has exiled himself.

His twin sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher), the general leading the Jedi-friendly Resistance (successor to the Rebel Alliance), wants to find him. So, too, does the First Order, an army in the service of the Dark Side. Masterminded by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), this fascistic sect is bent on killing Luke and forestalling a Jedi uprising.

Leia sends her best fighter pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), to the barren planet Jakku to retrieve information on Luke’s whereabouts. When Poe and his droid BB-8 separate during a skirmish, the spheroidal machine meets a young female scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley), and a disaffected First Order Stormtrooper called Finn (John Boyega).

With the First Order mounting another attack, Rey, Finn and BB-8 commandeer a familiar looking, rusted-out freighter lying in a desert junkyard. Since this turns out to be the Millennium Falcon, it’s not long before that vessel’s famed commander, Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and his furry co-pilot, Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), appear. (Droids C-3PO and R2-D2 make brief appearances later.)

The good guys’ principal antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), a descendant of arch-villain Darth Vader and a disciple of Snoke’s who’s so torn between the upright and evil sides of the conflict that he has terrible anger issues. More ominously, First Order has a new, highly destructive weapon that makes the Death Star of earlier chapters look like a child’s toy.

The action builds to a gripping lightsaber duel in a snowy forest that ends all too quickly. Abrams never dawdles, which, as a rule, is a virtue. Yet, because he’s not a great visual stylist, his staging and framing often lack artistic flair.

This makes viewers long for Abrams to linger over sequences that do have more panache. His focus, however, is on lucidity and character development. When it comes to the movie’s look, he sticks to the “Star Wars” template. On balance, that’s a more than acceptable trade-off.

If there are moments you suspect you might be watching the cast-reunion special of an old TV show – John Williams’ majestic music counters that feeling to a degree – it’s largely attributable to how stiff and weather-beaten Ford and Fisher appear.

That’s not ageism. It’s a criticism of the pair’s acting and, more positively, a result of the contrast between their turns and the fresh, energized performances delivered by Ridley and Boyega. The senior duo can’t help seeming superannuated in comparison.

It’s doubtful that a movie has ever been more widely or intensely anticipated. Fueled by marketing ploys, a publicity avalanche and a glut of merchandise, this frenzy can obscure some of the things that have made “Star Wars” such a cherished and enduring cultural hallmark.

They include: entertaining story lines about the perennial struggle between good and evil; lovable heroes and hiss-worthy villains, both drawn with mythic characteristics; an integrated science-fiction vision; riveting chases, battles and action set-pieces; and the celebration of classic values such as courage, honor, and fealty.

Early on, Ray and Finn buck themselves up by repeating the same line, “I can do this. I can do this.” Perhaps an awareness of the utility of self-confidence and the necessity of trying your hardest are the best takeaways from “The Force Awakens.” By displaying these qualities themselves, director Abrams and his team get the job done – and then some.

The film contains much stylized fantasy violence. The Catholic News Service classification is A-II – adults and adolescents. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John P. McCarthy, Catholic News Service

‘In the Heart of the Sea’

A-III – adults


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Before Ahab was

With “In the Heart of the Sea” (Warner Bros.), the real-life events that helped inspire Herman Melville’s classic 1851 novel Moby-Dick become the basis for a polished and exciting adventure directed by Ron Howard.

Despite some grim plot developments and other material precluding blanket endorsement for any but grownups, Howard’s film will make fit and even valuable fare for most mature adolescents.

In adapting Nathaniel Philbrick’s eponymous history text, published in 2000 and subtitled “The Tragedy of the Whaleship Essex,” screenwriter Charles Leavitt sets out with ambitions as lofty as Melville’s own. “How does a man come to know the unknowable?” the novelist, played by Ben Whishaw, asks in the picture’s opening moments.

To find out, Melville has journeyed to Nantucket, Mass., where he hopes to interview Tom Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson), the last survivor of the ill-fated – and already famous – 1820 expedition that proved to be the Essex’s undoing. But the haunted, alcoholic old salt is reluctant to open up about the harrowing experiences of his youth (during which he’s portrayed by Tom Holland).

The tale he eventually weaves is one of hubris and greed – whale oil was the primary fuel, and therefore one of the most valuable commodities, of the era – as well as deprivation and determination. At its center looms the bitter rivalry between the Essex’s aristocratic but inexperienced captain, George Pollard (Benjamin Walker), and its veteran first mate, the intrepid Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth).

Driven by avarice, and by the mutual desire to be rid of each other, Pollard and Chase recklessly carry their vessel off to the remote, mid-Pacific feeding grounds where the relentlessly hunted whales, already absent from more accessible areas, are still to be found, so it’s rumored, in large numbers. There the ship meets its disastrous destiny as the result of an uncanny encounter with a leviathan of vast proportions and unusual ferocity.

While the picture falls short of its own sublime ambitions, it does reach the level of thoughtful, generally absorbing entertainment. And the imagery is frequently striking, as when a harpooned whale showers his hunters in a rainfall of the blood forcefully expelled from his blowhole. Other scenes evoke everything from a particularly good episode of the 1960s gothic soap opera “Dark Shadows” to an eerie maritime painting.

Howard and Leavitt maintain a light touch as the script deals incidentally with such religious themes as the power of prayer and the benefits of (non-sacramental) confession. Equal delicacy is observed in treating other heavyweight topics, especially a newborn sense of environmentalism voiced through a debate about man’s true status within – and proper stance toward – the natural world.

Although it’s no match for the masterful narrative with which it shares its factual source material, “In the Heart of the Sea” does represent accomplished moviemaking of a high order.

The film contains much stylized seafaring violence with brief gore, mature themes, including cannibalism and suicide, a fleeting bawdy image, about a half-dozen uses of profanity as well as a single crude and several crass terms. The Catholic News Service classification is A-III – adults. The Motion Picture Association of America rating is PG-13 – parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13.

By John Mulderig, Catholic News Service

Monthly List of Recent Film Ratings (June 2015)

CNS classifications: A-I: general patronage; A-II: adults and adolescents; A-III: adults; L: limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling; O: morally offensive.
MPAA ratings: G: general audiences. All ages admitted; PG: parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children; PG-13: parents strongly cautioned. Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13; R: restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian; NC-17: no one 17 and under admitted.

The Age of Adaline, A-III (PG-13)
Aloha, A-II (PG-13)
Avengers: Age of Ultron, A-III (PG-13)
The Awakening, A-III (R)
Begin Again, A-III (R)
Chappie, L (R)
Child 44, A-III (R)
Cinderella, A-I (PG)
The D Train, O (R)
Danny Collins, A-III (R)
The Divergent Series: Insurgent, A-III (PG-13)
Do You Believe?, A-II (PG-13)
Dream House, L (PG-13)
The DUFF, A-III (PG-13)
Ex Machina, O (R)
Far from the Madding Crowd, A-II (PG-13)
Focus, L (R)
Furious 7, A-III (PG-13)
Get Hard, O (R)
The Gunman, L (R)
Home, A-I (PG)
Hot Pursuit, A-III (PG-13)
It Follows, O (R)
Jupiter Ascending, A-III (PG-13)
Kingsman: The Secret Service, A-III (R)
The Last Exorcism Part II, L (PG-13)
The Lazarus Effect, A-III (PG-13)
Little Boy, A-II (PG-13)
The Longest Ride, A-III (PG-13)
Mad Max: Fury Road, L (R)
Marie's Story, A-II (not rated)
McFarland, USA, A-II (PG)
Monkey Kingdom, A-I (G)
Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, A-I (PG)
Pitch Perfect 2, A-III (PG-13)
Poltergeist, A-III (PG-13)
Project Almanac, A-III (PG-13)
The Pyramid, A-III (R)
Run All Night, L (R)
San Andreas, A-III (PG-13)
The Second Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, A-III (PG)
Seventh Son, A-II (PG-13)
The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, A-I (PG)
Tomorrowland, A-II (PG)
The Trip to Italy, A-III (not rated)
True Story, A-III (R)
Unfinished Business, O (R)
Unfriended, O (R)
The Water Diviner, A-III (R)
Woman in Gold, A-II (PG-13)

Copyright (c) 2015 Catholic News Service/U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops