Three Thumbs Up for Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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SPOILER ALERT!

Nearly four decades ago, in this very galaxy, I saw a movie called Star Wars.

I was awestruck. I became an instant devotee, an evangelist. Others might have less kindly described me as obsessed.

“Have you seen Star Wars?”

Friends and relatives started to avoid me because they knew I was going to ask that question. If they answered “yes,” a lengthy, often one-sided conversation about the film would be impossible to duck. If they answered “no,” they found themselves being hustled to the nearest theater still showing the movie. If necessary, I would even pay for their tickets.

By the time Star Wars had left the theaters, I had probably seen it a dozen or more times. Certain that I would never be able to own a print of the movie, I had gone so far as to sneak a tape recorder into the theater to capture the soundtrack.

I memorized virtually the entire dialog. I bought the musical soundtrack on LP. I bought a “black market” copy of the original theater poster.

I authored a 100-question Star Wars trivia quiz. I harassed other fans into taking the quiz, grading them and giving them the results. Most were not pleased. I did have an advantage with my bootlegged audio copy.

Relatives stopped alerting me about scheduled family gatherings. Friends made full use of advancing telephone technology to avoid my calls.

As the years passed, I was a release date regular at all of the sequels and prequels. The sequels were good; the prequels, not so much. None of them lived up to the original.

Thus, it was with tremendous anticipation that I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on Dec. 24. I was nearly a week tardy, but people willing to see a Star Wars movie with me have become sparse. My 7-year-old grandson, Matthew, agreed to become my less than enthusiastic companion after I dangled the 3-D option.

We were not disappointed. I loved it. A tougher critic, he liked it. So, we collectively give it three thumbs up.

My only reservation about the J.J. Abrams offering is how much it shared with the movie that started it all. It’s one thing to be true to an original, but it’s another to be so true that you start to wonder if you’re watching something truly new or a thinly disguised remake. While I reveled immersion in a warm, soothing, 1977 bath of nostalgia, I couldn’t escape the nagging sense of deja vu.

The central character, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is somehow able to harness the Force. She’s living on a desert planet when when she acquires an adorable droid, BB-8. The droid is carrying critical information being sought by both the First Order (bad guy successors to the Empire) and the Resistance (good-guy successors to the Rebel Alliance). So far, Rey seems to be following the Luke Skywalker path.

The chief antagonist is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), Darth Vader’s grandson. Kylo wears a voice-altering masked helmet which apparently does not perform the life-support functions of his grandfather’s equipment. He keeps grandpa’s battered helmet on a table and talks to it. He has issues.

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The new film features another Death Star (quickly shown to be much, much bigger than its predecessors), which may be why the First Order decided to go down that unpromising path yet again. Squadrons of X-wing fighters fend off TIE fighters as the Resistance focuses on the Death Star’s weak spot – once the protective force field has been disabled. As the attack continues, the Death Star is recharging and counting down for another round of planet blasting. The Resistance is only seconds away from destruction.

Finally, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, includes the unexpected death of a beloved character. In the original, Obi-Wan Kenobi was cut down by Vader; this time, the victim is Han Solo. Harrison Ford apparently really, really did not want to be included in the next sequel. It was a shocking and emotional scene, as Han appeared to be on the verge of a breakthrough with Kylo, who is Han’s and Leia’s wayward, Dark Side-seduced son.

The inclusion of all the original main characters enhanced the connection with the original Star Wars, getting an audience response with each initial star’s appearance. The whole gang was there, at least briefly, including Han, Leia (Carrie Fisher), Luke (Mark Hamill), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), C-3PO (Anthony Daniels), R2-D2 (Kenny Baker) and the Millennium Falcon (as itself). It was interesting to see how the actors had weathered the decades, but I was happy to see that minimal effort had been made to make them appear as their 1977 selves.

Abrams has, of course, presented new story lines to extend in coming sequels. Fans, myself included, want to get Rey’s backstory. The leading theory is that she is Luke’s daughter, which would explain her ability to use the Force. Also, does any hope of redemption still exist for Kylo?

The new movie’s close kinship to the original is probably best seen as Abrams’ masterful job of making a successful transition for the franchise. After all, he did have the daunting task of overcoming those three lackluster prequels.

I’ll be happily be standing in line when the next sequel is released.

A Walk in the Woods Baby Boomers Delight

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Redford and Nolte, Baby Boomers in the woods


A Walk in the Woods
doesn’t sound like a promising title for a movie, at least for those unfamiliar with the Bill Bryson book on which the flick is based. Once you know that you’ll be watching a couple of senior citizens attempting to conquer the more than 2,000-mile Appalachian Trail, you might expect that you’re in for some laughs. You are.

Robert Redford, still vestigially handsome at 79, stars as Bryson, who seems to be having something of a mid-life crisis, assuming he will live to be a ripe, old 158 before he expires. A barely recognizable Nick Nolte, 74, plays Stephen Katz, the long-lost travel buddy Bryson had hoped to never see again.

Struggling with the growing perception that he is reaching the endgame of his life, Bryson decides that he is going to hike the trail, which stretches from Georgia to Maine, a daunting endeavor for a physically fit 20-something. That detail is immediately noted by his wife, Cathy (Emma Thompson), who is vehemently not OK with the plan.

Cathy attempts to dissuade her husband. As part of her campaign of discouragement, she provides a collection of newspaper stories describing the gruesome fates that other Appalachian Trail hikers have suffered. Being killed and eaten by bears is among them.

Bryson remains resolute. Cathy eventually relents, on the condition that her husband, whose life she still values, cannot undertake the journey alone. She is fairly certain that Bryson will not find any takers for his insane proposition among his more rational friends and acquaintances.

She is right — until Katz, who was not even on Bryson’s long list of candidates, learns of the plan and volunteers his companionship. With no other options available, Bryson reluctantly accepts.

After the first quarter-mile, both men are huffing and puffing, possibly even seeing their lives flashing before them. Their fortunes quickly go downhill, and uphill, and downhill from there. The Appalachians are not quite the Rockies, but they do qualify as mountains, especially to pedestrians.

Anyone who goes to see this film expecting a deep look at the meaning of life or an inspiring tale of victory in the face of overwhelming odds may be disappointed. It’s a comedy. However, the humor found in it is highly age-dependent.

For those of the Baby Boomer generation, which includes my wife, Mary, myself and just about everyone else in the theater who saw the film with us, the antics of Bryson and Katz are hilarious. We laughed frequently — at times until we were out of breath. We saw ourselves in the characters and in the give-and-take between the Brysons.

Younger filmgoers will not be able to make this connection, and some of the humor may fall flat. Still, if you happen to find the trials and tribulations of your elders funny, you may like the movie.

Shame on you. You should be out there hiking the Appalachian Trail — while you’re still able.