(On Blu-ray, April 2016) It’s not that The Force Awakens is un-reviewable—it’s that there’s so much to say that a full review would take a few pages, encompass the recent business state of Hollywood, meander on commodified nostalgia, indulge in insufferably nerdy nitpicking, and yet deliver an assessment not that far removed from “wow, competence!” This is a capsule review, so let’s start cracking: My first and biggest takeaway from The Force Awakens is that I’m not 7 years old, watching Star Wars on French-language broadcast TV and being so amazed that I can’t say anything bad about it. The Force Awakens is far from being perfect, and it doesn’t take much digging to find it crammed with problems. Even on a first view, I’m not particularly happy that thirty years later, The Rebellion hasn’t managed to establish a workable government and seems stuck in an endless echoing battle against evil. (Heck, they still haven’t changed their name, apparently.) My mind boggles at the economic or political absurdities of what’s shown on-screen, and the moment I start asking questions about basic plot plausibility is the moment I start making a lengthy list of the amazing coincidences, contrivances and plain impossible conveniences that power the plot. The jaded will point out that director J.J. Abrams has never been overly bothered by plotting logic and The Force Awakens certainly bolsters this view. Worse, perhaps, is the pacing of the film, which often goofs off in underwhelming ways rather than go forward. Then there’s the way this return to the Star Wars universe seems unusually pleased in echoing the first film’s elements, all the way to another who-cares run through a Death Planetoid’s trench. On the other hand, echoing is forgivable when the point of this film is to reassure everyone that the soon-to-be-endless Star Wars franchise is safe now that Disney took it away from George Lucas. In that matter, The Force Awakens is a success: it feels like classic Star Wars, from the visuals to the music to the elusive atmosphere of the first three films. Sometimes, a bit too much so: The decision to shoot the movie on actual film introduces film grain issues that sometimes vary from shot to shot, which is enough to drive anyone crazy. (Witness the Rey/Finn shots in the cantina…) Star Wars clearly isn’t as much about story than characters and set pieces, and that’s also where The Force Awakens succeeds: Harrison Ford seems timelessly charming as Han Solo, while John Boyega, Daisy Williams and Oscar Isaac are also easily likable in their roles. (Boyega and Isaacs are effortlessly cool, but Daisy Williams has a more delicate role as a stealth superhero.) Adam Driver has a tougher job as the intriguing Kylo Ren, riffing but not copying the series’s iconic villains. Then there are the set pieces, which often work despite shaky logic, implausible premises and nonsensical engineering. Coring a new planet-killer out of a planet may not strike anyone as the best plan, but it’s good for some fantastic images and at some point, that’s what really counts. Especially when, in the end, we’re left satisfied that this seventh Star Wars film is better than the prequel trilogy, and are left looking for more. Mark these words: There will now be a Star Wars movie every year for at least a decade and probably more. This one’s special, but don’t be surprised if it doesn’t age well once the sequels start piling up.
(In theaters, June 2011) The best homages aren’t as much about faithful imitation as much as they’re about the understanding of what made the original click and working from the same assumptions and methods. So it is that Super 8 is a gleefully good throwback to some of the great summer blockbusters of the eighties, from E.T. to The Goonies to Gremlins and more. Set in 1979 and featuring half a dozen kids stumbling upon a big mystery while shooting their own amateur film, JJ Abrams’ authorized Spielberg pastiche is a solid filmmaking accomplishment: It balances mystery, action, terror, laughs, spectacle and sentiment in a deft fashion, constantly evoking pure joy at every moment. It’s a highly satisfying film, in part due to how Abrams focuses on the basics even with the latest digital tools at his disposal. (This being said, Abrams should really give up his addiction to lens flares –they were bad enough in Star Trek, but they’re getting ridiculously intrusive here). The SF elements are restrained but effectively used, and the nostalgic glance at 1979 is sincere and fascinating without being overpowering or condescending. Worth noting is the absence of any name actors (the best-known being Noah Emmerich), allowing the picture to take place without the distraction of any familiar faces. The kid actors are very convincing, and Abrams never forgets to spend time with his characters –even though some emotional moments are carried just a bit too far, especially toward the end. Individual set-pieces include a terrifying attack on a bus where a few characters are imprisoned, a spectacular train derailment and the amazing sight of a small Midwestern town taken over by a befuddled military attack. It all amounts to a comfortably enjoyable summer film –easily the kind of film that a whole family could go enjoy in theaters.