Tag Archives: Harrison Ford

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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True Confessions: I Defended ‘Phantom Menace’ in Print

This is kind of embarrassing.

But I’m going to let you read it anyway.

One of the first things I wrote after I started my job as a copy editor at the Antelope Valley Press was a passionate defense of “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace,” which was receiving almost universally scathing reviews.

Ironically, this opinion piece helped land me a position as an entertainment reporter for the Showcase section, so I look back at it with a certain fondness, no matter how misguided it may be.

Keep in mind that it was penned almost immediately after the release of “Phantom Menace” and many of us were still basking in the glow of a Star Wars revival and the fact that we had just seen Jedi spinning and leaping in the air, twirling their lightsabers, like we’d always dreamed it could be.

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Lavender Vroman with her Princess Leia buns and tickets to “The Phantom Menace.”

And we had yet to see the other two chapters of the new trilogy. I think many of us were willing to give “Episode I” the benefit of the doubt until the abysmal “Attack of the Clones” came out.

While I do not agree with almost everything I wrote back in 1999, I’d argue that some of the points about the original trilogy and its greatness, despite its lack of conventional “greatness,” still ring true.

I think my youthful journalistic folly can also serve as an object lesson as we anticipate the arrival of the first part of yet another Star Wars trilogy.

Only time will tell if the intense hype and euphoria surrounding “The Force Awakens” is warranted, and if there’s any greatness to be found in it.

Let’s not leap to judgement or praise. Let’s give J.J. Abrams’ incredibly risky new venture a chance to become what it’s destined to be. Hopefully, it won’t be something we later wince at and try to forget.

Below, the full text of my defense of “The Phantom Menace,” originally published in the Opinion section of the Antelope Valley Press. (Please don’t hate me.)

Critical Defense of Much-Hyped Star Wars Film

To cranky film critics everywhere — lighten up! As Darth Vader would say, “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

You promptly pronounced the long-awaited, much-hyped “Star Wars: Episode I — The Phantom Menace” a disappointment. You cut the film down with strokes as swift as a lightsaber’s. You blasted the plot and dialogue with the heartlessness of a battle droid. Your annoyance with the comic character Jar Jar Binks had you bellowing like Wookies. You scoffed at the actors’ performances with scorn to rival the evil Emperor’s. Sinister villain Darth Maul’s lack of screen minutes made you rave like Tuscan Raiders awakened prematurely from an afternoon nap. You argued that computer animation and special effects smothered any attempt at spiritual, artistic or moral substance.

One of you went so far as to compare George Lucas to Darth Vader, in an amusingly ridiculous extended metaphor. You said the writer-director-producer of the great Star War series had finally gone too far, taking himself, and his new film, too seriously. And you didn’t even realize that you were guilty of the very thing of which you accused Lucas.

In “Episode IV,” Yoda says that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” And everyone knows that these things inevitably lead to the Dark Side of the Force. And so, I suggest, do self-seriousness and the loss of a basic sense of wonder. Somewhere in that 15 year dry spell between “Return of the Jedi” and “Episode I,” you must have forgotten what made the original series so delightful  and successful.

Were “Star Wars,” “The Empire Strikes Back,” and “Return of the Jedi” so remarkable because of fabulously constructed , original and flawless plots? Because of eloquent and layered dialogue to rival Shakespeare’s? Because of superb acting and deep philosophical content? Of course not.

Plot and dialogue have never been George Lucas’ strengths. He’s a storyteller on the most basic level. The original Star Wars trilogy was built on the most simplistic of plot lines, borrowing heavily from well-worn myth and fairy tales. It’s the story of an everyday hero who goes on an impossible quest and finds himself and something greater along the way. The stuff all good tales are made of. It’s cliche, it’s hokey, and people everywhere still love it.

As for dialogue … audiences in 1977 seemed to have no objection to such cheesy gems as Han Solo’s line, “Either I’m going to kill her, or I’m beginning to like her.” If nobody minded then, why should they now?

They shouldn’t, and that’s because the power of Lucas’ science-fiction epic has little to do with the spoken word. What makes him a good director is that he communicates effectively at the level that all films inherently operate on — the visual level. It is precisely Lucas’ vision of space, the things we saw when we first saw “Star Wars,” that have so captivated millions of people. It is what we saw of the characters, not only what we heard them say, but the visual impression they made on us, that endeared them to us. Who would actually say that Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher astounded audiences with their great thespian skills?

“The Phantom Menace” isn’t, and never was, intended to stand on its own. It’s a part of a whole, and to do it justice, it must be considered along with its other parts. The important elements, the things that branded the original three films into popular consciousness, are there in “Episode I,” and they make it a joy to watch.

Yes, Jar Jar Binks is annoying. Yes, it probably wouldn’t have hurt to give creepy Darth Maul more screen time. And no, Han Solo wasn’t there to grin his rascally grin and crack up the audience with his, “I’ve got a bad feeling about this.” Get over it.

The first of the prequels isn’t perfect, but it succeeds in the same way the other three did. For, once again, Lucas takes us places we’ve never been, fills our eyes with sights never before seen — the Venice-like, regal planet Naboo, the metropolitan, silvery city of Coruscant and the underwater bubble village of the Gungans. He introduces us to a sad and beautiful queen arrayed in costumes Madonna could only dream of and Jedi in the midst of duels so full of motion and power they make our heads spin. We meet an innocent boy named Anakin with an arrogant streak, foreboding a downfall to come. Even Darth Maul’s short but memorable appearance hints of a greater evil awaiting us in the next episode.

“Episode I” is only the foundation for the remainder of three prequels and as a start it will do just fine.

So, all you film critics — I sense that there is still good in you. See the film again, this time on the lighter side of the Force.

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Jar Jar Binks photo: zap2it.com.

Before ‘Force Awakens,’ Boyega Starred in Alien Invasion Flick

Just as George Lucas cast unknowns Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford in his original Star Wars trilogy, director J.J. Abrams enlisted some intriguing new faces to appear in “Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”

One of them in particular, British actor John Boyega, seemed to come out of nowhere to snag the pivotal role of Finn, a mysterious young man who appears to be a disillusioned Stormtrooper and possible Jedi in the making.

Although many details about the character remain under wraps, the trailers show Boyega wearing a Stormtrooper uniform, before shedding it for an extremely cool leather jacket, interacting with Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Poe (Oscar Isaac), and wielding a lightsaber.

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American audiences may be unfamiliar with the London performer but “The Force Awakens” isn’t Boyega’s first foray into sci-fi.

The actor made his debut on the British television series “Being Human.” But his big break came when he starred in a quirky little B-movie called “Attack the Block,” written and directed by Joe Cornish, a collaborator of filmmaker Edgar Wright.

A hilarious, playful, extremely British twist on classic alien invasion flicks, the movie is an excellent showcase for Boyega’s considerable talents. Almost immediately, the actor proved himself a charismatic, effortlessly cool, self-assured up-and-comer.

If you’ve seen the film, it isn’t a surprise that Abrams chose him to shoulder the burden of a new Star Wars chapter.

If you haven’t seen the film, you should stream it this weekend.

Not sold on the idea yet? Read the review below.

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Attack the Block, 2011
R (creature violence, drug content, pervasive language)
88 minutes

If you liked the nostalgic kids-meet-extraterrestrial vibe of “Super 8” or the shameless sci-fi-Western mash-up of “Cowboys vs. Aliens,” you’ll want to check out “Attack the Block.”

Writer-director Joe Cornish’s fun, intentionally campy, surprisingly slick adventure flick pits a London street gang against inky invaders from the sky with glow-in-the-dark fangs.

Released in October 2012 on DVD, it arrived with the tagline “inner city vs. outer space,” which pretty much sums up the film, a not-so-guilty pleasure for sci-fi geeks and anglophiles alike.

Set in the sort of shady South London housing project Cornish grew up in, “Attack the Block” opens with a scary but realistic scenario — walking back to her apartment at night, Sam (Jodie Whittaker) is mugged at knife point by an awkward group of young thugs.

After Sam escapes, sans phone and purse, the boys witness a bright, meteor-like object fall from the sky and encounter a vicious beast that is clearly not of this world.

Following the creature to a playground, the gang’s leader, a troublemaker named Moses (John Boyega), easily slays the outer space visitor, resulting in a lot of macho posturing that is quickly cut short when more lights begin descending from the sky.

As the gang’s beloved block comes under siege, it’s up to these wayward street kids to save the day, a task that reunites them with the reluctant but resourceful Sam, who will have to overcome her resentment to become their unlikely ally.

Shot the old-fashioned way, in 35 mm, on a reported budget of $13 million — modest for a sci-fi flick — “Attack the Block” boasts cheesy special effects, which are sorta charming at the same time, and a skimpy but satisfying story.

It takes a gritty, gory approach to street life that crackles with unexpected realism.

The highlight of the film is its youthful cast, most of them inexperienced actors, ranging in age from 10 to 17, and adept at slinging the sort of indistinguishable, quick-witted slang that baffles American audiences.

Boyega, in particular, has the confident yet vulnerable quality of a potential leading man.

British comedian Nick Frost pops up as a pot grower who gives shelter to the kids when they most need it.

“Attack” was executive produced by Frost’s frequent collaborator, “Shaun of the Dead” director Edgar Wright.

Cornish is best known in the UK as half of the comedy duo “Adam and Joe” and co-wrote “The Adventures of Tintin.”

“Attack the Block” may be a modest feature film debut but it’s certainly memorable.

Photos: spinoff.comicbookresources.com; youtube.com.

The Night Han Solo’s Blaster Came to Visit, or My Life With the Force

When I was 13, my dad came home with a surprise.

He was working at a hobby shop on Avenue I, where regular customers would bring unusual collectibles for show and tell.

One day, a film industry guy stopped by with a movie prop he thought my dad would be interested in.

My father convinced the man to let him take Han Solo’s blaster home for the night so he could impress his kids.

I don’t actually know if the fictional gun came from the set of George Lucas’ famous trilogy or whether Harrison Ford ever touched it or if it was just a convincing replica.

It didn’t matter. It was like Christmas at our house when my dad came strolling through the door with one of the coolest looking pieces of hardware in cinema history.

My siblings and I spent the rest of the evening posing for photos with the coveted weapon in the backyard, make-believing we were slumming it at Mos Eisley Cantina or caught in the thick of battle on Endor.

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My dad, Gordon Kemble, with the purported Han Solo blaster. 

My dad was always very sweet about bringing me whatever Star Wars items he came across at the shop — books, role playing games, whatever odds and ends he could find.

It was six years after the release of “Return of the Jedi” and merchandise from the trilogy was scarce. Lucasfilm had yet to fully capitalize on the franchise’s marketing potential and souvenirs were difficult to find.

I became a disciple of Star Wars in a vacuum of sorts. I was 12 when I saw “A New Hope,” not in a theater, or on Blu-ray, or on a 60-inch flat-screen, but on the old television set in my great-aunt’s den.

Despite the humble presentation, I was awestruck by Lucas’ space opera. I remember the sight of C-3PO and R2-D2 shuffling down the shiny corridors of the Death Star, the thrill of Han Solo and Luke Skywalker’s rescue of Princess Leia, who was no damsel in distress, the hilarious suspense of the trash compactor scene, the mysticism of Obi-Wan Kenobi, the allure of the monk-robed Jedi, and of course, the brilliance and majesty of the lightsaber.

I really did think that someday the lightsaber would exist.

I saw the trilogy out of order. My sixth-grade teacher showed “Return of the Jedi” as a reward. Surrounded by classmates who had all seen the movie long ago, I marveled at Luke’s transformation from restless farm boy to noble Jedi warrior. By the end of the film, I was doing the “Yub Nub” dance right along with the Ewoks.

I then convinced my parents to rent “The Empire Strikes Back.” We took it to my grandparents’ house because they had a VCR. Finally, I was privy to the full mythology and the darkest and perhaps richest chapter of the trilogy, which was a little over my head at the time.

I wouldn’t see Star Wars on the big screen until the great re-release of 1997, a joyous occasion despite Lucas’ infamous tampering with his original imagery.

And I wouldn’t experience the heady, comforting rush of communing and commiserating with other Star Wars fans until 1999 when a certain prequel fanned the flames of frenzy over the franchise once again, for better or for worse.

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Camping out for tickets for “The Phantom Menace.”

Since then, I’ve enjoyed living in a Golden Age of Star Wars fandom, largely thanks to the efforts of Disney.

Merchandise is readily available, discussion is lively, and new developments are constantly on the horizon. It’s more than I ever dreamed of as a little girl, pretending to fly through the trenches of the Death Star in my very own X-wing starfighter.

This Golden Age will hit an unprecedented high on Dec. 18 with director J.J. Abrams’ new chapter in the franchise, “Episode VII — The Force Awakens.”

Whether this new entry in the series is spectacular or an epic failure, Star Wars will remain an integral part of my life. It’s sacred to me in a way that will not fade or change.

In a way, I owe my career to Star Wars.

My fascination with the franchise led to an abiding curiosity about cinema. I wanted to know how George Lucas brought the Rancor to life or created the awesome jump to lightspeed.

I subscribed to Lucasfilm Magazine so I could find out. I checked out books from the library on editing and cinematography and sound.

One of my first articles at the newspaper where I spent nearly 15 years writing about film was a well-meaning but misguided defense of “The Phantom Menace,” which was taking quite a critical drubbing.

I’m not going to claim that Star Wars taught me about love, but however weird it may sound, it is a significant part of my marriage.

My husband Nick and I were seeing other people when we camped out in the parking lot of a mall to be the first to snag tickets for “The Phantom Menace.”

By “Attack of the Clones,” we were dating. By “Revenge of the Sith,” we had tied the knot.

Star Wars isn’t the glue that holds our relationship together, but it certainly doesn’t hurt.

Not a day goes by that we don’t find ourselves talking about “The Force Awakens.” Some girls dream of diamonds from their beloved. My fondest gift from my husband is a red Force FX replica lightsaber. I’ll treasure it always.

More importantly, those first, indelible images of Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford  in Star Wars taught me that I didn’t have to conform to what society might expect of me.

Sure, I wanted to dress up as Princess Leia for Halloween. She was, refreshingly, a princess who did much more than waltz about in a ballgown and tiara.

But early on I discovered that I didn’t really want to be Leia. She didn’t get to wield the lightsaber. We never saw her embrace her powers or her path to the Force. What I wanted to be was Luke Skywalker or Han Solo.

Star Wars helped me realize that as a girl I could be a Jedi, I could pilot a starfighter, I could shoot a blaster, I could save the galaxy from the evil Galactic Empire. So why should I limit myself in real life?

As I grow older, Lucas’ universe keeps me connected to my childhood self, the one who stood with Luke, gazing at the setting twin suns of Tatooine, dreaming of what the future might hold.

I hope it will always hold more Star Wars.

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‘Expendables’ Go Out With a Ba-Boom

The Expendables 3
Two and a half stars (out of four)
PG-13 (violence including sustained gun battles and fight scenes, language)
126 minutes

Nostalgia for the 1980s ruled the box office this past weekend as “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” held the No. 1 spot and “Guardians of the Galaxy” followed close behind.

There was little love, however, for another group of ’80s relics. The veteran action stars of “The Expendables 3” saw their sequel flop, opening in fourth place.

Apparently, the gimmick of Sly and his friends assembling to have some fun and make a little movie together has lost its punch. There’s also the fact that, according to Box Office Mojo, a “pristine” version of the film has been available online for weeks. So maybe “Expendables” fans are just a bunch of pirates.

Whatever the reason for the downfall of the aging mercenaries, “The Expendables 3” deserves at least a little better. For those who still miss old-fashioned stunt work, groan-inducing one-liners and the days when men of few words and many muscles dominated the big screen, this third installment is just as cornily entertaining as the first two films.

Although “The Expendables 2” rolled out a crowd-pleasing cameo by Chuck Norris and featured the Muscles from Brussels himself, Jean-Claude Van Damme, as the villain, the third movie boasts an ensemble so large, you can barely pick out their faces on the promotional billboards.

In case you’re wondering, returning Expendables include Sylvester Stallone, of course, as head honcho Barney Ross; cool-as-a-cucumber Jason Statham as Barney’s righthand man, Lee Christmas; perpetually surprised-looking Arnold Schwarzenegger as Trench, Barney’s former comrade and occasional rival; Dolph Lundgren as antisocial but well-armed Gunnar Jensen; Randy Couture as demolitions expert Toll Road; and Terry Crews as heavy weapons specialist Hale Caesar. (Jet Li fans will have to be patient, but don’t worry, he’s here, too.)

When it comes to new additions to the cast, “The Expendables 3” amps up the star power, albeit of the has-been variety, as none other than Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Antonio Banderas and Wesley Snipes grace Sly and the gang with their presence. And then there’s Mel Gibson, showing up in his most substantial big-screen role since his career imploded in a cloud of scandal.

Let’s talk about Mel for a moment. Like many people, it’s difficult for me to take him seriously after his reprehensible antics over the last few years. I don’t usually hold these things against actors, but in this case, it was nearly impossible not to judge. “The Expendables 3” serves as a strange, almost haunting, reminder of Gibson’s talent. He still looks haggard and doesn’t have much of a part, playing a maniacal arms dealer — didn’t he just do same role in “Machete Kills”? — but considering what he’s got to work with, he’s not half bad. (In stark contrast, Ford never seems to be enjoying himself until he finds himself inside the cockpit of a helicopter.)

It is Gibson’s character, the modern art-collecting Stonebanks, who lures the seasoned but still lethal team of soldiers-for-hire known as The Expendables out of retirement once again. Turns out he has a history with Barney (Sylvester Stallone), one so painful, it causes Sly to clench that Botoxed jaw and get a misty, far-away look in his eyes.

Barney and his men are dispatched by their new CIA contact (Ford, replacing Bruce Willis’ Church) to halt a deal by Stonebanks, but the mission quickly turns personal. When one of their own is threatened — yes, the plot of “Expendables 3” hews closely to that of “Expendables 2” — a shaken Barney attempts to shelve his team so they can enjoy their sunset years without prematurely expiring.

This leads to a hilariously sentimental montage of Barney’s dudes moping around in hotel rooms with no bros to hang with and no one to kill. It also results in the recruitment of a team of rookies including boxer Victor Ortiz, mixed martial arts fighter Ronda Rousey, Kellan Lutz of “Twilight” dreamboat-hood and newcomer Glen Powell.

These young whippersnapper Expendables don’t add much to the film. Perhaps Stallone included them to make the film seem more, I don’t know, relevant? Or perhaps he’s pandering — unsuccessfully — to a younger audience. Maybe that’s also why “Expendables 3” is rated PG-13 instead of the R this action throwback clearly calls for.

Despite the absence of blood and other gory details, this third entry has almost everything you’d want from an “Expendables” movie: shameless testosterone and male bonding, an extravaganza of explosions, machine-gun fire and martial arts, and cheesy quips, although it feels like there are less of these than in previous installments. Still, Stallone finds gags in everything from Snipes’ recent prison stint to Willis’ abrupt departure from the franchise.

Much of the film’s humor can be attributed to Snipes, spry as ever and raring to go as Doc, an ex-Expendable who is dramatically reunited with Barney and friends, and Banderas, stealing scenes as Galgo, a motor-mouthed wannabe Expendable.

Working from a story and script by Stallone, director Patrick Hughes — watch out for this guy, he’s been tapped to helm the American remake of “The Raid” — cooks up some satisfyingly old-school stunt sequences, including a doozy of a prologue revolving around a prison train ambush and a finale in which Stallone leaps onto a choppah (as Schwarzenegger calls it).

It’s probably time for the Expendables to hang up their body armor and shoulder holsters and call it a day, but if No. 3 is the end, at least Sly and the gang go out with a bang.

My Tortured Love Affair With Comic-Con

Dear San Diego Comic-Con,

We’ve had our good times, you and I, but over the last few years, we’ve had our differences too.

I’m not the bright-eyed, energetic pop culture junkie I once was. I’m older. I have a kid. I have responsibilities. I can’t be bothered with noise and crowds and inconvenience. I still consider myself a die-hard nerd, but you probably won’t catch me standing outside movie theaters at midnight with my lightsaber or Harry Potter wand anymore. I no longer have the stamina to part a sea of hygienically challenged fanboys, poster tubes strapped to their shoulders like samurai swords, backpacks full of munchies and Monster Energy Drinks.

I’m not the only one who has changed. You used to be this cool thing that only certain people knew about. Then suddenly, you were popular. You started off as a small gathering of comic book collectors in a hotel ballroom. Now you’re a juggernaut, sprawling all over the San Diego Convention Center and beyond.

Every media outlet, from Entertainment Weekly to the 5 o’clock news, is compelled to cover you. Your latest installment, kicking off tonight, is expected to attract a horde of at least 130,000. Attending used to be a relatively simple affair, as long as one was on the ball and made one’s plans early. It now requires an exhausting scramble for tickets and exorbitantly priced hotel rooms.

So several years ago, after much agonizing, I quit you, Comic-Con. But I have a confession to make.

I still miss you.

I miss ducking out of work early and rolling into San Diego on Preview Night just in time for badge pick-up. We’d check into our over-priced hotel and stuff our faces with Extraordinary Desserts while marking up the official Comic-Con schedule, formulating our strategy for the long weekend ahead.

After a night of terrible sleep, we’d rise early, tug on our nerdiest T-shirts, and hike the mile to the Convention Center. If we were in a hurry, we’d splurge on a cab so we could join the queue to gain admittance to that wondrous place known as Hall H, the cavernous room where early-bird movie buffs catch a glimpse of Hollywood’s most anticipated future flicks. We were lucky if we got to sit in the very back of the room, where giant video monitors saved us from squinting blearily at the celebrities on stage, whose heads appeared no bigger than pins.

Sure, there was the year we had to sit through the “Twilight” panel and listen to thousands of “Twilight” moms shriek over Robert Pattinson and Taylor Lautner. There was the time the hall went on lock-down after a guy in a Harry Potter T-shirt stabbed another guy in the eye with a pencil. And there was always that one slobbering idiot just waiting to ask Scarlett Johansson an incredibly inappropriate question during the Q-and-A session.

Still, I must admit I miss Hall H. I miss sitting in that massive room from sun-up to sundown, listening to actors and writers and directors talk about their upcoming movies and watching sneak previews, new trailers and footage fresh from the set. Somehow, it didn’t matter that it was going to be up on the Internet by the next day. We didn’t mind subsisting on hot dogs and cardboard cheese pizza or the delirium that kicked in about the fourth hour spent in that windowless prison. There was something electric about being there, about being one of the first people to witness it all.

That time the entire cast of “The Avengers” took the stage was pretty awesome. So was the time Harrison Ford showed up to promote “Cowboys & Aliens” and was absolutely flummoxed by the standing ovation he received. Anything moderated by Patton Oswalt or featuring Guillermo del Toro and his favorite word — it begins with an “F” — is always a good time. Impeccably dressed in a natty suit, Robert Downey Jr. is … well … he’s just the man.

Heck, I even miss standing in that endless, serpentine line for Hall H, which resembles something out of “The Hunger Games.” In that mass of humanity, you are guaranteed to meet a stranger who shares whatever interest floats your geeky boat, whether it be Harry Potter, “Doctor Who,” “Transformers,” “The Goonies,” “Star Trek,” “Firefly,” or some obscure anime series. Communing with like-minded nerds is a huge part of your sloppy charm, Comic-Con.

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Let’s not forget the cosplayers, a brave and astonishing species unto themselves, living out their private fantasies in public in a shameless parade of elaborate finery. Here’s to you, glow-in-the-dark “Tron” pajama guy, chubby Batman, baby Thor, and Slave Leia, bold enough to don the sacred gold bikini. Here’s to you, amateur Tony Stark, builder of the most awesome, fully functional Iron Man suit ever. Here’s to you, Stormtroopers, always kind enough to pose for a picture, and tiny Jawas with light-up eyes, and that dude dressed like Luke in the Dagobah training sequence, a baby strapped to his back, clad in a Yoda costume. You rock.

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As if that wasn’t enough, there is the exhibit hall floor, a veritable wonderland of geek culture, where fans jostle each other shoulder to shoulder in search of that elusive collectible or a must-have surprise — a T-shirt, an action figure, a bumper sticker, a handmade Harry Potter scarf, an indie comic book, a signed poster.

At Comic-Con, there are wonders waiting around every corner. You might happen upon Stan Lee in the hallway or the entire cast of “Star Trek: The Next Generation” — sans Patrick Stewart, of course.

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I think what I remember most fondly about you, Comic-Con, is dragging myself through the Gaslamp Quarter at dusk in search of a watering hole where my friends and I could rehash the amazing events of our day, swapping stories and laughing over newly forged inside jokes. We’d head back to the hotel, dump the contents of our complimentary Comic-Con bags out on the bed and sort through our swag. Most of it would inevitably end up in the trash, but at the time it seemed like the most precious of treasures.

Then we’d settle down for another night of terrible sleep so we could wake up and do it all again the next day. It was the best.

I think that says it all, dear Comic-Con. Maybe one day I’ll return to you. I hope you miss me, too, just a little bit.

Affectionately yours,

Lavender

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Lavender Vroman and Kristy Rivas at the 2010 San Diego Comic-Con.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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?