Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Movie Review

In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, everyone wants to know what happened to Luke Skywalker. 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Force has gone into hidden and these are the events that trigger its awakening.

Release Date: December 18, 2015
Writer: Lawrence Kasden, JJ Abrams
Director: J.J. Abrams
Cast: Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega

In the seventh episode, the Empire has been replaced by the New Order. A weakened version of the Empire but ready to return to the Galactic stage with its new Starkiller Planet. It’s thousands of times more powerful than the Death Star. In charge is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), his padawan Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), his base commander General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and leader of the troops, Captain Plasma (Gwendoline Christie).

Meanwhile on Jakku, the planet where the Empire lost the war is a girl, Rey (Daisy Ridley) abandoned as a child, who survives by scavenging old parts from downed Star Destroyers, TIE fighters and X-Wings.

Up against the First Order is the Resistance led by General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). They are on the search for Jedi Knight Luke Skywalker who went into seclusion after failing to train Han and Leia’s Son, Kylo Ren. The movie now becomes the search for Luke Skywalker. The First Order wants him found and executed. The Resistance wants his found to help restore balance to the universe.

Paths cross as Rey, former Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), pilot Poe (Oscar Isaacs) and the cutest robot since R2-D2, BB-8 join forces with Han Solo and Chewbacca to find the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker and destroy the Starkiller base.

I came into Star Wars: The Force Awakens with a great deal of excitement. The level of hype was high and could have potentially ruined the movie. Instead, I walked away from the movie feeling like Star Wars was back in my life, but a very different Star Wars.

The first thing I noticed was the look and feel of The Force Awakens was very different from George’s original design. Different is not always bad. Director J.J. Abrams relied heavily on practical sets and practical effects. Very little of the movie was shot in front of a blue screen and more detail was added to set design compared to the lower budget Star Wars: A New Hope. The set of The Force Awakens felt real to me, which was almost a distraction to the fantasy feel of the prequels. As with anything different, I got used to it after about 20 minutes.

It soon became clear to me that Star Wars: The Force Awakens may not have been the best Star Wars movie, which still goes to Empire Strikes Back, but The Force Awakens needed to accomplish a few things before a new story could be told which will be whatever episode eight will be.

Their first accomplishment was to connect the Star Wars of the past to the Star Wars now. It was important to bring back Han, Leia and Luke. They serve as an important bridge to the future and now new stories can be told in their eventually fade away into oblivion.

The second accomplishment was to tell a new story that still feels like a Star Wars movie. In the Force Awakens, J.J. tells a familiar story in a new way. This movie is essentially the introduction of a different Death Star with the Starkiller planet and also the tale of the Resistance destroying said planet.

Finally, the new Star Wars introduced new characters. Daisy Ridley literally came out of nowhere and made the single most exciting impact on the Star Wars universe that could have possibly been made. As Rey, she’s a girl that was abandoned on the desert planet of Jakku and learned to survive on her own and slowly comes to the realization that she may be a Jedi.

As Finn, John Boyega plays a former First Order Stormtrooper that questions the very role he was bred to fulfill. This is new storytelling by focusing on an actual Stormtrooper. Finn soon realizes that even a Stormtrooper has more to offer the universe than being a mere foot soldier to the New Order.

Adam Driver as Kylo Ren plays probably the most complex villain in Star Wars history. The others simply followed the orders of his/her master, but Ren is conflicted about his role. This is the first time we see a Sith Lord, who has not been fully realized and the next movie will spotlight Adam Driver’s character in an amazing way.

Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher return as former lovers, Han Solo and Princess Leia. I don’t think it’s any secret that Kylo Ren is their son. In fact, there are a lot of secrets that were called early into the movie, but still dramatically revealed for full, heart-pounding effect.

The Force Awakens spins a wonderful and familiar tale of the force and the destruction of the Starkiller Planet. It also leaves a laundry list of questions to be answered in the next film. Always leave them wanting a lot more.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens send the Star Wars franchise clearly in the right direction. The film feels like it belongs in the Star Wars universe and tells a masterful story. You’ll leave pining for the next episode, which you won’t have to wait three years, but only two. My childhood has returned.

Sisters – Movie Review

The idea is simple, two adult sisters who have yet to grow up through their last party in their childhood home. Now, let’s add SNL’s Tiny Fey and Amy Poehler and you have yourself an above average movie.

Release Date: December 18, 2015
Writer: Paula Pell
Director: Jason Moore
Cast: Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Ike Barinholtz, Maya Rudolph

The trend is to gather a series of over-the-top moments and connect it together with a personal storyline. Often it is the wild moments, that are written first and then the touching storyline comes second. Sisters feel this way, but fortunately, a lot of thought has been given to the personal story by screenwriter Paula Pell.

Tina Fey and Amy Poehler play Kate and Maura Ellis. Kate and Maura are sisters now in their upper thirties and whose lives are not what they hoped it would be today. Kate is a single mother who works as a cosmetologist out of her friend’s home. Unable to hold a job, mostly because of her temper, her daughter wants nothing to do with Kate. Maura, on the other hand, the supposedly the more sensible daughter, but after her divorce, she is afraid to venture into the world on her own and is happy solving the problems of her family.

Soon, Maura receives a call from her parents (James Brolin and Diane Weist) that they are going to sell their childhood home in Orlando and move to a seniors village nearby. They ask Kate and Maura to clean out their bedrooms. Upset about the move, Kate convinces Maura to throw a final Ellis Sisters party for their old high school friends.

What follows is the reason this movie was made: what if middle-aged sisters threw a high school party as adults. This movie is constructed around a series of gags. The main premise follows adults carrying the emotional high school baggage. This involves a rivalry with Brinda (Maya Rudolph), the nerdy jokester, Alex (Bobby Moynihan), who still has to prove he’s funny and of course extensive use of drugs, alcohol and an innocent house that has to withstand the shenanigans of a late night rager.

Sisters can only be judged on two levels, how good is the story of sisters and how funny are the party gags. Add them together and you get a funny movie, but without any real stand-out laugh-out moments.

Starting with the story, Kate and Maura are semi-estranged sisters. Kate feels like a failure and avoids the judgment of her parents. Maura is the insecure sister that needs to fix constantly her family causing her parents to want to avoid her. It is this party that ultimately changes the sisters for the better. Kate is desperate to find a solid home to show her daughter that she is a solid mother.

Tiny Fey is likable as the out-of-control sister. For some reason, it was fun to listen to Tina Fey swear and tell dirty jokes. Amy Poehler has the nerdy little sister down pat as she plays a girl uncomfortable with intimacy. Her moments flirting with James (Ike Barinholtz) are touching and funny.

The party humor of sisters pitted two gangs against each other: high school party jokes and adults acting as high schooler jokes. There were a lot of good jokes but nothing that stood out as jokes you talk about at the water cooler. The only negative is the old bad drugs joke. Bobby Moynihan’s character, Alex, takes some bad drugs and acts over-the-top wacky. Most people would usually OD, but that’s not funny.

Sisters is a good, solid comedy, but not a great movie. Great performances by Poehler and Fey but no stand out funny moments that will have people talking at the end. You’ll most likely watch it when it shows up on cable, and you are looking for a good laugh. Sisters is bound to find its rightful place amongst countless other comedies.

The Big Short – Movie Review

If anything The Big Short is a lesson in Economics and Finance. Based on the book, The Big Short: Inside the Doomsday Machine by Michael Lewis, Director Adam McKay manages to take the complex idiocy, that brought down the housing market in 2007, and makes it understandable. How by putting Margot Robbie in a bubble bath.

Release Date: December 11, 2015
Writer: Charles Randolf based on the book by Michael Lewis
Director: Adam McKay
Cast:  Christian Bale, Brad Pitt, Steve Carrell, Ryan Gosling

In 2007, the Housing Market bubble burst to send the U.S. and world economies into a tailspin. The Big Short follows a hand full of savvy investors, who saw the evitable economic disaster and bet everything against America.

The movie starts by following Dr. Michael Burry (Christian Bale), who left his medical practice to start a highly successful hedge fund. Burry was the first to see the inevitable failure of the housing market and convinced the major banks to let him bet against the real estate market by creating the Credit Default Swap. Even I was told during this time that nothing bad could ever happen to the real estate, so the banks were more than willing to take his money. All Burry had to do was make the initial investment and then make monthly premium payments for the life of the investment. Everyone thought Burry was crazy, even the investors in his hedge fund.

Next we follow trader Jared Vennett (Ryan Gosling), who catches wind of what Dr. Burry was doing, and convinces hedge fund manager, Mark Baum (Steve Carrell) to provide the money he needs to invest in the Credit Default Swap. Even Baum is skeptical of Burry and Vennett and Baum needs proof that the housing market is inevitable going to crash. Baum is somewhat of an economic activist, his team of investors are always looking for corruption and greed in the banking industry.  Baum’s team goes to Florida to inspect million dollar homes in foreclosure, interviews real estate agents and brokers about the incentives they receive to sign no check, no income verification loans and then attends a mortgage bankers conference. After realizing the entire industry is managed by greedy idiots, he immediately invests in the Credit Default Swap.

Then there’s young small time investors, Charles Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock). They stumble across Vennett prospectus and look into investing as well. Because they are small time investors, no one will allow them to invest. They decide to hook up with former investor Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), who has the clout to make the investments for them.

Writer Charles Randolph and director Adam McKay should be commended for taking on a subject that would go over the heads of even the best investor and explain what was happening in a language that the average movie audience can understand. For example, he uses Margot Robbie to explain subprime loans and its contribution to the market crash. Then chef and world traveler Anthony Bourdain to explain what banks would do with an excess inventory of bad mortgage loans. And finally, pop star Selina Gomez to explain how banks could spend billions investing in bad loans and not care.

Initially, I thought The Big Short was an indictment of the evil capitalist system, but instead, it’s an honest account of what exactly happened to the housing market, why it happened and the people to became rich betting against America.

Like any movie based on a true story, there are over-the-top moments that were created to make a dramatic point in the movie. Most of the over-the-top moments in The Big Short happened in real life. There is the moment that Mark Baum interrupted the keynote speech at the American Securitization Forum in Las Vegas.

The Big Short, if anything, is not a warning but more an account of how insane finance in the world operates. What is even scarier is that this world will never learn from its mistakes.