Tag Archives: Disney

The Force Awakens: A Conversation (SPOILER ALERT!)

SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens,” you have no business reading this. Find something else to do.

Not so long ago, in a galaxy not so far away … two lifelong Star Wars fans — Lavender, of lavendervroman.com, and Shawna, of earthtoshawna.com — decided to search their feelings and work out their issues after seeing “The Force Awakens,” director J.J. Abrams’ much anticipated first installment of Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy.

Here is the conversation that ensued …

SPOILER ALERT: Last warning! What follows is a free and open discussion of the many plot points, surprises, twists and other developments contained in “The Force Awakens.” If you haven’t seen the film, this review will ruin it for you. That is all. 

Lavender: What did you love about “The Force Awakens”?

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Shawna of earthtoshawna.com.

Shawna: I loved seeing all the familiar faces — Han, Leia, Luke, even Chewie, C-3PO, and R2. I loved all the funny references to the original trilogy, like the stormtrooper who repeated Rey’s Jedi mind trick commands. I thought the new characters were awesome. Rey’s character was reminiscent of Luke’s; Ren was evil and tragic at the same time. BB-8 was more charming than I thought he would be. I know you loved him even before you saw the movie, but I didn’t fall in love with him until I saw him on the big screen.

And Finn, actually, was my favorite new character. He’s kind of the new Han character. Maybe that’s why I like him. Plus John Boyega is just a great actor. I had never seen him in anything before, but I hope to see more of him.

Lavender: I’m glad you have joined the BB-8 fan club! And I’m relieved this new little droid didn’t turn out to be the Jar Jar Binks of “The Force Awakens.” He’s quite a scene-stealer, in the best way possible.

It was great to see those familiar faces after so many years. I was skeptical about that, but J.J. Abrams reintroduces them very carefully and cleverly. One of the people who made the movie for me, actually, was Harrison Ford, returning as Han Solo with hairy Wookie sidekick Chewbacca in tow. I didn’t expect Ford to play such a large part in the film and after some of his recent, rather lackluster movie performances, I didn’t think he had it in him. But apparently Han is the role he was born to play. He stepped right back into those smuggler duds as if only a few days had passed since he last set foot in the Millennium Falcon. His presence really anchors the movie.

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Lavender Vroman

I think my favorite new character is definitely Rey. She is a heroine for the ages, something revolutionary for a female action hero. Abrams has said that he created Rey in hopes that little girls would be able to look up to her and he has more than accomplished his goal. I love how we first meet Rey as a scrappy, lonely scavenger on the hopelessly sandy planet Jakku. Daisy Ridley is so charismatic and makes her immediately likable. Her portrayal of Rey is so independent, and smart, and goodhearted. I like that Finn is always trying to save her — such a gentleman — but he never really has to because she’s already on the task of saving herself. I like that she has technical aptitude and an extremely powerful affinity for the Force. She and Han Solo are the heart and soul of “The Force Awakens.”

Shawna: Yes! What you said about Rey — she is a great role model. She doesn’t need a man to rescue or save her. It bugs me that we are in the dark about who she is or where she comes from, but I guess they had to save that for future films.

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Lavender: We both found a lot to love about this movie, but I think we both had some issues as well. What didn’t work for you?

Shawna: I loved seeing Han and Chewie again too, but I didn’t like that Han went back to being a smuggler, or that he waited so long to reach out to his son. That scene was a disappointment for me, not because Han dies (I expected he would be killed off, because Ford has said he doesn’t want to be Han anymore) but the way he died. Getting killed by your own snotty kid is a crappy way to go. And it was too predictable. How did he not know that Ren/Ben was about to kill him? I’m pretty sure everyone in the audience knew.

Are you as bummed as I am that Mark Hamill had no lines?

It almost made me think J.J. Abrams wanted the seasoned actor (Ford) to have a bigger part in the movie — that he didn’t have as much faith in “I’m-Luke-Skywalker-I’m-here-to-rescue-you.” I felt a bit indignant on Hamill’s behalf. Plus he had to get in shape and grow a beard, and he was only on screen for about a minute. I assume he will have a bigger role in the sequel. I hope we will see more of Carrie Fisher as well.

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Lavender: For me, that moment at the end where we finally see Luke is when the movie finally comes together. I think I’m more excited about where that moment will lead than about anything that happened in the plot of “The Force Awakens.” Which brings me to my biggest issue with the film.

Abrams does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of the original trilogy, especially “A New Hope.” From the exotic planets populated by weird alien species, to the old-fashioned wipes and cuts that George Lucas used to evoke the adventurous serials of old, everything is dead-on and totally authentic, in stark contrast to those cold, soulless prequels.

This is good, but at times “The Force Awakens” is so much an homage to “A New Hope” that it almost feels like parody. I especially felt like this whenever Domhnall Gleeson’s over-the-top Hitler-esque General Hux came strutting onto the screen.

The plot of “The Force Awakens” almost plays like a reboot of “A New Hope,” complete with a climactic X-Wing/TIE fighter dogfight and an attempt to blow up yet another Death Star. I’m thinking from this point, all Death Stars should be banned from future installments. I mean how many of those things can there be?

I get what Abrams is doing here — he’s courting the fans who remember the prequels with a wince of pain, while introducing new generations to Lucas’ universe. He accomplishes this as well as can be expected, but I found myself wishing for a little more from the plot.

I wanted more character development, more time to see relationships simmering — especially between Rey and Finn, and Finn and Poe — and I wanted a little more urgency, danger, darkness. There wasn’t really ever a moment where I felt like everything was lost or that our heroes wouldn’t be able to save the day.

It’s funny you should mention the Han Solo death scene because, while of course as a fan I didn’t want to see that happen, I was kind of relieved. That was the moment I knew Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) was a dastardly villain of epic proportions. Before that, I didn’t find him all that intimidating.

I get your gripes about what Abrams did with Han in this movie, but I think it was necessary from a narrative standpoint and in keeping with his character, as hard as some of it was to stomach for those of us who always wanted to see Han and Leia live happily ever after.

Shawna: Yes, it did start to feel like parody, and I agree the worst offender was the jumbo Death Star. That was a “you’ve got to be kidding me” moment for me too. And Hux was too much, blech. I also agree with you about the weaknesses with the plot — it got to be too close to the plot of the first film. I actually didn’t mind that “OK, this person is the new Han, over here is the new Yoda … ,’ but really, must we also have the same plot?

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Lavender: You mentioned you’d like to see more of Luke and Leia in “Episode VIII.” What else would you like Abrams to do with the sequel?

Shawna: I absolutely would like to see more character development as well. I think they did a great job with casting (there were hits and misses in the prequels). I also think the CGI was more successful in this one than in the prequels. Maz felt more real to me than some of the CGI characters in, say, “The Phantom Menace.” Actually, she was more convincing than some of the non-CGI characters, now that I think about it.

I would like to see some questions answered. I thought it was kind of a cop-out when Maz said something like, “That’s a story for another time.” I felt like I was hearing the writers saying, “We’ll figure that out in time for the next movie.”

I want to know who Rey really is. On the one hand, it would make sense if she’s Luke’s kid because of the similarities between them, but also because why would they send some stranger to find Luke? After all they went through to get the map, especially. Why wouldn’t Leia go to him? If Rey is his daughter, why was she dumped as a child on a desert planet, alone? At least Luke was placed in the care of his aunt and uncle. We already have one estranged child in this movie.

If Luke is Rey’s father, then I guess we are just supposed to think Han and Leia and Luke are just really epic failures at parenting. With this being so close to “A New Hope,” I feel that’s where they are going with this — toward a Part 2 declaration of “I’m your father. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.”

And I want more backstory. How exactly did they raise such a stinker as Kylo Ren? He’s a bit of an entitled brat. He is a lot like Anakin. I am interested to see what happens with him in the next movie.

And if we could actually see Gwendoline Christie’s (Captain Phasma) face next time, that would be nice. That is, if she survives the trash compactor.

I am interested to hear your thoughts on Poe. I heard he was originally supposed to die in the TIE fighter crash, but Abrams changed his mind. And who is Max Von Sydow supposed to be? Do you have any theories on that?

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Lavender: I wonder about Max Von Sydow as well. I’ve heard many theories, including that maybe he’s Boba Fett, but that doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. Abrams has left us with a lot of questions, which is what I’m sure he intended. It’s going to be a long wait for “Episode VIII.”

I would have liked to see more of Oscar Isaac as Poe. He seems like a scoundrel and we need more scoundrels in our lives. Just as we were beginning to like him, he went missing for half the film. And I agree that Phasma is the Darth Maul of “Force Awakens.” Such a cool villain and a woeful lack of screen time.

I agree with you completely about Abrams’ use of CG imagery. He was obviously very conscious of the pitfalls of the CG-saturated prequels. I loved the blend of motion capture, puppetry and other practical effects. It felt right. And when he did use computer fx, they looked fantastic. The scenes with the Millennium Falcon were breathtaking, as were the aerial dogfights. And I, too, thought Maz was a great character. A little bit Yoda, a little bit Edna Mode.

I think your instincts about where Abrams is going with the sequel are correct. It will be interesting to see what director Rian Johnson does with it. After “Looper,” I really trust his vision.

I hope there will be more risks taken with “Episode VIII.” I can’t fault Abrams for playing it safe with “The Force Awakens.” Playing it safe is much better than totally destroying the Star Wars legacy. So overall, I’m satisfied and looking forward to what’s next.

Shawna: Yes — so many great characters introduced, but so little time. I was more than satisfied with the film, despite all my griping. I had chills when the opening crawl came up and the John Williams score started playing, and I was still thrilled by the end of the movie.

“Episode VIII” can’t come soon enough! We will have to content ourselves with watching “The Force Awakens” a hundred times while we wait.

Photos: Courtesy of Shawna, earthtoshawna.com; Fawn Kemble; makingstarwars.net; http://www.carolina.cl; http://www.comicbooknews.com; wall.alphacoders.com. 

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Leia, the Disney Princess with a Blaster

BY FAWN KEMBLE

Before Merida and Mulan, back when I was a girl, there was only one badass princess in my life.

While Disney princesses of the time lay passively awaiting their prince, or whined to their fathers, or cleaned house, we strong little girls could dream of being more than just the romantic interest of the main character. We too could be Jedi princesses, powerful forces in the Rebel Alliance.

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Fawn Kemble

When we meet Leia, she is on a mission to save her entire planet, not prancing around in a ball gown or sweeping up. She risks her life for the greater good. She is an active member of the team in the Star Wars trilogy (What? There were only 3, right?).

Yes, she is rescued by Luke and Han, but Han ends up frozen for a bit and Luke needs help all the time. She, just like them, has the opportunity to grow as a character and to have greater concerns than who she’ll end up with. In fact, she ends up in an intellectually stimulating relationship, on equal footing with Han.

I know she is not the perfect feminist icon (don’t even get me started on the gold slave Leia bikini), and most of her Jedi powers aren’t developed until later, in the book series.

Still, as a little girl, I never felt like I couldn’t run around with a blaster or lightsaber with the boys, they never said girls couldn’t be Jedis, and she has some of the sassiest lines to quote and requote.

Now, I call my lovely, feisty, intelligent little niece my Jedi Princess and I hope that when she’s a bit older, she’ll want to go to Disneyland with Leia buns and a blaster as her Disney Princess outfit.

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Fawn Kemble, dueling with nephew Graden.

Fawn Kemble lives in L.A. and gets to be a professional feminist, helping pregnant women. She got sucked into that Star Wars life at a young age by her oldest brother and her sister, Lavender Vroman. She didn’t choose the Lucas life, it chose her.

Photos: en.wikipedia.org; courtesy of Fawn Kemble. 

Is ‘Jurassic World’ Director One With the Force?

He’s got a way with dinosaurs but does he have a way with the Force?

Thanks to a little movie titled “Jurassic World,” we’ve all seen what director Colin Trevorrow can do.

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The filmmaker, who shepherded the “Jurassic Park” reboot to a billion dollar box office — it’s the third highest-grossing movie in history — has been entrusted with an even greater challenge, directing “Star Wars: Episode IX.”

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Colin Trevorrow

Trevorrow has certainly proved his ability to deliver action and adventure on an epic scale, oversee a massive production involving intricate visual effects, and successfully overcome the risks of reintroducing a favorite franchise to moviegoers new and old.

But is he up to the task of delivering the final installment in Disney’s new Star Wars trilogy?

Strangely enough, it is Trevorrow’s little-seen first feature that inspires confidence that he just may be the man for the job.

A weirdly irresistible sci-fi rom-com with a wildly satisfying twist, 2012’s “Safety Not Guaranteed” demonstrates that the director is resourceful when it comes to low-budget special effects, but more importantly, he’s a big geek with a firm grasp of story and character, and tons of heart.

That’s just what “Episode IX” will need.

If you haven’t seen “Safety Not Guaranteed,” you’re seriously missing out. In case you’re still not convinced, here’s a glowing review of the film.

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Safety Not Guaranteed, 2012
R (language including some sexual references)
86 minutes
(The movie is available to stream via Amazon.)

The weird and whimsical “Safety Not Guaranteed” is a pleasantly oddball romantic comedy with science-fiction undertones designed to appeal to the secret — or not so secret — geek in all of us.

It’s one of a line of films by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (the siblings helped produce the movie and Mark stars in it) that are irresistibly sweet-natured, completely devoid of cynicism, and surprise us by going in wonderfully unexpected directions.

“Safety” is laced with quirky, subtle, slightly awkward humor and it’s unabashedly guileless when it comes to its time travel plot, even though it isn’t really about time travel.

The comedy is a great showcase for Audrey Plaza, of TV’s “Parks & Recreation,” who employs her signature deadpan sarcasm to full effect as Darius, a disillusioned Seattle magazine intern who always expects the worst in life.

When we first meet her, she’s in the middle of a job interview at a chain restaurant and her cluelessly frank answers to the questions the manager throws at her tell us this is a woman incapable of anything but painful honesty.

Darius gets a break from the monotony of her existence when she’s assigned to help a reporter named Jeff (Jake Johnson of Fox sitcom “New Girl”) track down a Washington man who placed an eccentric classified ad seeking a companion to go back in time with him.

(“Must bring your own weapons. I have only done this once before,” it reads.)

The two head to the coastal town of Ocean View with another intern, the shy, bespectacled Arnau (Karan Soni), and Jeff promptly sets about his real business — paying a visit to his former summer-fling dream girl — leaving his assistants to do all the detective work.

Darius throws herself into the story and discovers the ad was written by Kenneth (Duplass), a peculiar grocery store employee with a penchant for talking physics and a paranoid conviction that he’s being followed.

Is Kenneth crazy or could he really be on to something? Darius is intrigued and sets about trying to win him over in an attempt to find out. Improbably adorable time travel training montages ensue.

Director Colin Trevorrow and writer Derek Connolly — New York University grads who met as interns on “Saturday Night Live” — apparently based the film on a real-life classified ad placed as a gag to fill space in a magazine.

They’ve taken this novel idea and allowed their imaginations to run wild, but their story is more character study than sci-fi epic, exploring the universal longing to return to that one happy moment in childhood before innocence was lost.

In a script populated by characters who can’t seem to move past childhood, Duplass and Plaza display a warm, low-key chemistry that makes their part of the story a lot more interesting than the subplots involving Johnson’s sleazy journalist and Soni’s lonely nerd.

Duplass once again proves himself to be a lovably scruffy everyman in a film that requires him to sing and play the zither, wear a ridiculous Rambo headband, bust out questionable martial arts skills, brandish a gun and break into a lab in a hilarious spoof of Hollywood infiltration scenes. He makes us like a guy who is undeniably crazy on some level.

Trevorrow’s no-frills directorial style is unobtrusively low budget with pretty scenery shot in rainy Ocean Shores, Wash., which can look alternately gloomy, creepy or romantic.

“Safety’s” ending is virtually guaranteed to get people talking, but I loved it. It’s “Back to the Future” crossed with “Sleepless in Seattle.”

Photos: movieweb.com; www.starwars.com.

 

Fight the Dark Side With Countdown to ‘The Force Awakens’

The Force has awakened with a vengeance.

For the first time in 10 years, a new Star Wars movie will open in theaters — on Friday, Dec. 18, to be exact.

(If you’re a prequel denier, you might say it’s the first new Star Wars movie in 32 years.)

In this age of social media and relentless Internet coverage, the impending arrival of “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens” has provoked obsession, curiosity and controversy, the likes of which have never been seen before.

Everyone has watched the trailers. Footage has been analyzed and reanalyzed and given rise to theories and speculation.

It’s difficult to get through a conversation without talk turning to the absence of Luke in the trailers — Is he dead? Is he the bad guy? What’s up with that robot hand? — or whose children Rey, Finn or Poe could be.

Everyone has fallen madly in love with a rotund little droid named BB-8.

You can’t set foot into a store without being confronted by shelves of plastic lightsabers, Kylo Ren action figures, and T-shirts. Oh, the humanity — the T-shirts!

In other words, it’s a wonderful time to be alive if you happen to be a Star Wars fan. Maybe the most wonderful time in all of history.

In celebration, we’re launching a month-long countdown to the theatrical debut of “The Force Awakens.” Beginning tomorrow, new Star Wars-related content will be featured on this blog almost every day.

We’ll have essays by fans about what the franchise means to them, stories examining the actors and filmmakers behind Disney’s ambitious new plans for George Lucas’ sci-fi universe, and photographic trips down memory lane.

You’ll also find links to some of our favorite Star Wars stuff online, as well as lifestyle features, including Christmas gift guides, essential swag for midnight screenings, and other helpful tips to make the month-long wait a little easier to bear.

This experiment in Lucasfilm love wouldn’t be possible without the many fascinating writers and Star Wars junkies who contributed their talents, words and memories.

We’re hoping this little tribute to “The Force Awakens” sparks lively discussion and participation, so please comment, post, share. Chime in enthusiastically and often with your feedback, ideas and thoughts.

The Force is calling to us and we’re gonna let it in.

 

Welcome to the Movies, Baby Girl

It’s a time-honored right of passage in the modern age — a child’s first movie.

Dad’s got the booster seat and popcorn. Mom’s praying they’ll make it to the end credits without a meltdown. The kid is simultaneously awestruck, bored and overwhelmed by the need to pee. It’s a beautiful thing.

I have hazy but evocative memories of my early cinematic experiences — the horror of Maleficent in “Sleeping Beauty,” the trauma of “Bambi,” unimpressed by “Annie,” bewildered and fascinated by the stop-motion monsters of “The 7th Voyage of Sinbad.”

My daughter is nearly 9 months old and far too young to go to the movies, let alone watch them in earnest at home. But this movie-loving mama is dreaming of the days when she’ll be old enough that I can share my favorite films with her.

In anticipation, I’ve penned this letter.

Dear Baby Girl,

You may think now that the world is a pretty wonderful place, but wait until you discover a little thing we like to call the movies. Your life will never be the same.

Here are the movies I can’t wait to show you, just as soon as you’re old enough.

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The Original “Star Wars” Trilogy,” 1977-1983: A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away … there was “Star Wars,” and the Force was with it and it changed your mommy’s life. At the late-blooming age of 14, your mama saw “Episode IV — A New Hope.” It wasn’t even in the theater. It was on TV, but the spectacle of this galactic battle of good vs. evil sparked in your mother an enduring awareness of the power of the movies.

It’s gratifying to see that, all these years later, kids are still discovering and loving George Lucas’ little space opera. If I had my way, you’d never hear a word about those so-called “prequels,” but for better or worse, “Star Wars” lives on, and on, and on, and on … . There will soon be yet another “Star Wars” trilogy for your generation, my dear. I hope it’s worthy of you.

(And once you’ve met Han, Luke and Leia, there’s a certain fedora-wearing archaeologist I’m dying for you to meet.)

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“Beauty and the Beast,” 1991: Child, let me tell you a story. You know how everyone feels about “Frozen”? How they can’t stop singing the songs, can’t stop talking about Anna and Elsa and Olaf, how they get excited every time they hear “Let It Go”?

Well, child, that is how your mama feels about “Beauty and the Beast.”

For some of us, it remains the quintessential Disney animated classic, having hit theaters at that pivotal point in our childhoods when we believed in magic and true love and happily ever afters. Gorgeously animated with unforgettable music — Idina Menzel’s got nuthin’ on Celine Dion and Peabo Bryson — and a peasant-turned-princess who is smart, compassionate and loves to read, this fairy tale can’t be topped.

I hope you adore it and want to be just like Belle. The end.

Except that’s not the end because there are dozens and dozens of other Disney classics I can’t wait for you to experience, from “Snow White” to “The Little Mermaid” to “Tangled.” And then there are the Pixar movies, and the Disney-Pixar movies, and the live-action Disney movies, like “Mary Poppins” and “Pete’s Dragon.” Thank Walt — these movies will bring you joy for a lifetime.

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All the Miyazaki Movies, 1984-2013: Once you’ve seen the Disney movies, baby, it will be time to graduate to the beautiful, dreamlike world of Hayao Miyazaki and Studio Ghibli, films like “My Neighbor Tortoro,” “Spirited Away” and “Howl’s Moving Castle.”

Yes, these exquisitely hand-drawn marvels can be dark and strange, but it will be good for you to discover that there are different, more inventive ways to tell stories, that other cultures are full of delights to discover and that imagination is boundless and will transport you to new and exciting places.

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The “Harry Potter” Movies, 2001-2011: You’ll read the books first, of course, and when you do it will be one of the definitive moments of your life. I’m a firm believer that J.K. Rowling’s epic series of heroism, magic and wonder is timeless, a classic any generation will respond to. Warner Bros.’ fine movie adaptations will help you relive the enchantment.

Unlike some parents, I don’t worry that you’ll pick up some witchcraft by watching them. I only hope you’ll learn what it means to be a friend, to be loyal and to choose the light over the darkness.

For that same reason, I can’t wait until you’re old enough to be spellbound by Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” trilogy. These movies brought comfort to your mother and millions of others in dark times. I hope they’ll do the same for you.

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“Casablanca,” 1942, and “Singin’ in the Rain,” 1952: When it comes to classic movies, honey, your fate has been pretty well sealed. It just so happens you were born to a mother who binges on Turner Classic Movies instead of soap operas or the CW.

There are so many old movies I want you to see  — “Bringing Up Baby,” “Roman Holiday,” anything starring Fred and Ginger, everything by Hitchcock. I don’t want you to be one of those kids who automatically dismisses a film because it’s black and white or because it’s too “old-fashioned.”

I’ll start with “Casablanca” because I’d like you to know there is at least one perfect movie in this world. This could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

And I’ll finish with “Singin’ in the Rain” because it is one of the most exuberant, funny, irresistible musicals ever made. I hope you sing “Good Morning” and “Moses Supposes” to me until my ears bleed.

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“Alien,” 1979: If I have anything to do with it, you won’t be seeing Ridley Scott’s supreme sci-fi thriller for many, many years. I don’t want you to have to go to therapy to get over the sight of one of the slimiest, nastiest, scariest movie monsters in cinema history.

But when you’re old enough, there will be a time to watch “Alien.” I want you to know that, like Sigourney Weaver’s tough, resourceful and determined Ripley, you can be the hero of your story.

And here are just a few more, because it’s so hard to narrow down this list:

“The Princess Bride,” 1987: Because someday when you’re no longer a child, this hilarious and sweet fairy tale will help you find that childlike joy again.

“Back to the Future,” 1985: If you don’t see Robert Zemeckis’ ultimate time travel romp, it will cause a rift in the space-time continuum and Marty McFly and Doc Brown will have to go back — or is that forward? — and fix it.

“The Goonies,” 1985: This ’80s classic will inspire you to seek your own adventures. And because the Truffle Shuffle. And Goonies never say die.

“E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial,” 1982: At first, Steven Spielberg’s kid-pleasing gem will scare the living daylights out of you. E.T. is cute, but also creepy in a wrinkly sort of way. Once you overcome those fears — and a possible aversion to Reese’s Pieces — this kiddie classic will teach your little heart how to feel.

“Hugo,” 2011: This film is so lovely and whimsical and tells the story of the movies that mommy loves in a way I think you’ll understand. Besides, this is the only film by the great Martin Scorsese that I want you to see until you’re at least … I don’t know … 35?

All my love,

Mama

What movies were you most excited to share with the kids in your life? What movies are you looking forward to showing them?

This Weekend, See ‘Maleficent,’ Skip ‘A Million Ways’

Maleficent
Two and a half stars (out of four)
Rating: PG (Fantasy action and violence, frightening images)
98 minutes

Angelina Jolie has always kinda scared me. Not because she used to wear vials of blood around her neck and sleep with knives under her pillow, but because she’s always been something of a goddess, so chilly and unapproachable. Maybe that’s why she’s perfect as the iconic villain of Disney’s “Maleficent,” a revisionist history of the studio’s own classic animated film “Sleeping Beauty.”

As a kid, the sorceress and her eerie, horned silhouette struck terror into my heart. Jolie melts into the stuff of my childhood nightmares so effortlessly, with cheekbones Marlene Dietrich would kill for and a purr that’s pure, silky evil. “Maleficent” is a surprisingly sympathetic take on the object of my youthful fears, putting a clever enough spin on the gorgeously animated 1959 “Sleeping Beauty” with a refreshingly feminist twist.

The movie imagines a colorful back story for the fairy tale’s famous baddie, envisioning her as the winged, nature-loving guardian of an enchanted forest whose betrayal at the hand’s of an ambitious lover drives her to cast that notorious narcoleptic curse upon an innocent princess. This alternate myth gives Jolie ample opportunity to display many facets of an intriguing character. Clad in leathery black, there’s something of the sexy dominatrix about her but she’s also vulnerable and funny and downright tragic with a magnificent sneer and a killer villain’s laugh.

Unlike co-stars Sharlto Copley, who plays the maniacally paranoid King Stephan, and Elle Fanning, as the simpering Aurora (apparently, it is too much to ask to have two interesting female characters in one movie), Jolie ingeniously underplays what could have been an unbearably hammy performance.

“Maleficent” is heavy on visual effects. It was directed by first-timer Robert Stromberg, a former VFX artist and supervisor. He’s populated the film with an ensemble of obnoxious CGI fairies and cutesy woodland critters. Not all of them are convincing, but Jolie is the only special effect this movie really needs.

A Million Ways to Die in the West

 A Million Ways to Die in the West
One and a half stars
Rating: R (strong crude and sexual content, language, violence and drug material)
116 minutes

There may be “A Million Ways to Die in the West,” but there are only a handful of jokes hilarious enough to send yer whiskey snortin’ out yer nose, pardner.

Writer-director Seth MacFarlane seems to be on to something by playing this Western parody mostly straight. As the title suggests, the film pokes fun at the often lethal living conditions of the 1800s frontier, but the concept proves limited. This ain’t no “Blazing Saddles.”

At first, the sight of villagers in the tiny Arizona outpost of Old Stump perishing in sudden and random ways — getting squashed by a block of ice or gored by a runaway bull —  is mighty amusing, but the well of laughs quickly runs dry. What’s left is a fairly predictable story about a misfit sheep farmer (played by MacFarlane) who befriends a like-minded, sharp-shootin’ cowgirl (a game Charlize Theron), only to run afoul of her outlaw husband (Liam Neeson).

The film’s gags are just as irreverent, raunchy and politically incorrect as you’d expect from the creator of “Family Guy” and “Ted” and the Oscar’s most controversial host. There’s a running joke involving the town virgin (Giovanni Ribisi) dating the town whore (Sarah Silverman) and Neil Patrick Harris does unspeakable things to a couple of dandy bowler hats, but there is a general dearth of laugh-out-loud moments. Even a moustache-themed dance number doesn’t feel nearly as clever or strange as it should.

There’s a reason MacFarlane doesn’t usually star in his own films. He’s just too smug to play the sarcastic but likable everyman. But the ubiquitous Harris is a hoot as his romantic rival, the preening proprietor of the local moustachery. There’s also a priceless joke that almost makes sitting through this overlong, underwritten comedy worthwhile, at least for “Back to the Future” fans.

 Photos by Disney, Lorey Sebastian

 

A Slight Disturbance in the Force: Thoughts on the Big ‘Star Wars’ Casting News

When I first heard the news that Disney had acquired Lucasfilm for $4 billion and planned to make another “Star Wars” film, I sank into a depression for two straight days. Silly, I know, but I just couldn’t wrap my mind around yet another installment spun out of the glorious sci-fi trilogy that informed much of my late childhood and, yes, I’ll admit to it, my adult life as well. “Star Wars” is sacred and every bit of — even George Lucas approved — meddling raises anew the possibility of irreversible desecration.

I like to think that since the announcement early last year, I have moved from denial and anger to acceptance, which is why I can calmly (I hope) offer some off-the-cuff thoughts about today’s big “Star Wars: Episode VII” casting news.

As anyone who lives and breathes and has access to the Internet is no doubt aware, official website starwars.com posted a statement revealing the cast of “Episode VII,” following a year of intense fan speculation. That announcement confirms once and for all that this new installment, part one of a planned trilogy and the first of many, many “Star Wars” spin-offs planned by Disney, will indeed feature returning stars Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill.

Many fans feel reassured by the presence of the original “Star Wars” trio, who have obviously given director J.J. Abrams their blessing. The prospect of wise, old versions of Jedi upstart turned master Luke Skywalker, rogue smuggler turned hero Han Solo and tough Jedi princess Leia initiating a young, new cast into the ways of the Force has some members of the Lucas faithful salivating.

I still can’t quite get on board this idea. As someone who thrilled at age 14 to the sight of the rosy-cheeked, shaggy-haired Hamill gazing at Tatooine’s setting twin suns, Ford brandishing a blaster in those pants and that vest and Fisher, with her stubborn, tomboy pout, I have no desire to be confronted with an aging Han, Luke and Leia. Though my husband assures me that Hamill is getting himself into tip-top shape for the resumption of his role, I prefer to remember him and the others as they were … you know, when the Force was strong with these ones. And Ford’s appearance in the next “Expendables” movie, Fisher’s reputation for kooky volatility and Hamill’s vigorous but unseen second-chapter career as a voiceover actor don’t exactly increase my confidence.

The real news here, of course, consists of the new additions to the “Star Wars” universe, featuring obscure names, such as John Boyega and Daisy Ridley, mingled with only slightly more familiar monikers, including Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver and Domhnall Gleeson.

Daisy Ridley

Nobody seems to know who Ridley (pictured above) is. Vanity Fair informs us she is a young British television actress who appeared in “Casualty,” “Youngers,” “Silent Witness” and “Mr. Selfridge.” As one of the lone female members of the cast, she’ll shoulder a heavy burden. Here’s hoping she’s up to to the task.

John Boyega

Boyega (above) is certainly an intriguing choice. I saw him in 2011’s hilariously enjoyable inner-city-teens vs. aliens comedy “Attack the Block.” It’s a small, independently produced British film but he made a big impression in it, playing a South London street thug who becomes an unlikely hero after an extraterrestrial invasion.

Adam Driver Domhnall Gleeson

Although Driver (above left) is probably the most recognizable name among the “Episode VII” cast, I’m perplexed by his presence here. I know his participation has long been rumored and this guy is a big deal in Hollywood right now, thanks to his breakout role on HBO’s “Girls.” I just can’t envision how he might fit into the world of “Star Wars.” He seems a little too contemporary and pip-squeaky to me. I hear rumors he might play a baddie, which could make sense, given how easily he evokes smugness. For now, though, I just don’t see it.

Gleeson (above right) has some major nerd cred already, having appeared in the Harry Potter movies as Bill Weasley, one of Ron’s many brothers. Last year, in the Richard Curtis dramedy “About Time,” he revealed a geeky sort of underdog charm, which might suit him to a Luke Skywalker-ish role. We’ll have to wait and see.

Oscar Isaac

I start to feel a lot better when I consider the presence of Isaac (above) on this list. The Juilliard educated actor made an inauspicious debut in 2006’s “Nativity Story” but has proved to be a major talent in such films as “Che,” “Robin Hood” and “The Bourne Legacy.” Last year, he was snubbed by the Academy for his riveting performance as a brilliant but tortured folk singer in the Coen Brothers’ “Inside Llewyn Davis.” Had he been nominated, he would have most definitely been my choice for best actor of 2013. He has a gift for delicately but fiercely conveying inner turmoil.

Von Sydow Gollum

Rounding out the more familiar names in the “Episode VII” cast are Max von Sydow and Andy Serkis.

Von Sydow is, of course, a veteran actor, Oscar-nominated star of such films as “Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close” and “Shutter Island.” He has a rich, smoky voice and the ability to portray sage warmth or profound menace. He could play a wizened, old Jedi or a sour Sith Lord with equal gusto.

Serkis is famous for portraying Gollum, the most convincing computer-generated motion capture creature ever to grace the screen, in the “Lord of the Rings” and “Hobbit” trilogies. His presence suggests we are going to be treated to yet another stunning piece of motion capture performance art and that a CG critter of awesome magnitude is about to be born — hopefully more Yoda than Jar Jar Binks.

 When I start to get nervous about all this, I remind myself that Abrams did an excellent job recasting “Star Trek” when he successfully rebooted his first famous sci-fi series. One must also remember that when Lucas debuted his original trilogy, no one knew who Ford, Hamill and Fisher were either and look how that turned out.

On the other hand, there is the lingering specter of a certain trilogy of prequels that shall not be named. Fans can argue all they like that it wasn’t really THAT bad, but let’s not kid ourselves. That cold, soulless, CGI-saturated, mitichlorian-ravaged slice of stinky cheese was a crushing disappointment and it scars me to this day.

It cannot happen again, J.J. My lightsaber-wielding heart can’t take it.

Do you hear me?