The Reader’s Digest Version

When I was young my parents subscribed to Reader’s Digest. We ended up with stacks of them around the house. One department I always enjoyed was “Drama in Real Life” which were true stories of heroism. Before I could read for myself, I had my parents read me as a bedtime story one particular article about a runaway train over and over until the magazine basically disintegrated. The articles were long on action and short on characterization – they told what a person did, not so much why they did it. That pretty much sums up the new movie, The Finest Hours.

It’s based on the rescue of the crew of tanker Pendleton during a full-force nor’easter in February, 1952. The gale was so strong it actually split two tankers in half off of Cape Cod. The main boat of the Coast Guard station was sent out to the other ship, the Fort Mercer. When the commander of the station learned of the second ship, he sent out coxswain Bernie Webber, Richard Livese, and two others in a 36-foot motorized life boat to rescue 33 of the Pendleton’s crew. They were faced with blizzard conditions on top of seas with 60 foot waves driven by 70 mph winds. For their efforts that day, Webber and his crew were awarded the Gold Lifesaving Medal, the highest award of the Coast Guard.

While the depiction of the rescue is accurate, the first part of the movie focuses on Bernie (Chris Pine) and his girlfriend Miriam (Holliday Granger) falling in love and getting engaged, just before the storm hits. The production design by Michael Corenblith (Saving Mr. Banks, The Blind Side) along with the art direction by William Ladd Skinner (Pirates of the Caribbean, Public Enemies) and costuming by Louise Frogley (Unbroken, The Monuments Men) is first-rate in depicting small-town Cape Cod in 1952. However, the scenes set up that most stereotypical film device, the man going out into danger while the woman’s left behind to deal with it.

On the Pendleton, engineer Ray Sybert (Casey Affleck) falls into another stereotype, the guy who’s not really liked by anyone but who must save them when they’re in peril. The source of the resentment is never explained. The movie was adapted from the book by Casey Sherman and Michael J. Touglas by three screenwriters: Paul Tamasy is known mostly for the Air Bud series, though Scott Silver did 8 Mile and Eric Johnson worked with Silver on The Fighter. It seems that to tell an old-fashioned story they went with old-fashioned movie tropes. If they were aiming for a Reader’s Digest version of the story, they hit it, but the Digest doesn’t have the readership it used to, and a movie audience today expects much more.

Eric Bana is pretty much wasted as the station commander Daniel Cluff, as is Ben Foster as Richard Livese (whose name is changed to Livesey for some reason). Overall Pine and Granger work hard to be believable in their roles, though the simplistic script doesn’t help. In one of the worse scenes Miriam confronts Cluff for sending Bernie out on what amounts to a suicide mission, but all Cluff does is repeatedly order her out of the station.

The special effects are well done, especially with the depiction of the Pendleton, but these days first-rate digital effects have to be expected in an $80 million production. The days of rear-projection and blue screen are thankfully gone, and even more modestly-budgeted films can have seamless special effects these days. A movie has to be judged by what they do with the effects, not by the effects themselves.

Director Craig Gillespie did the remake of Fright Night with Colin Farrell and David Tennant, which was an improvement on the original. However he was working from a script by “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” writer and producer Marti Noxon. In between Fright Night and The Finest Hours Gillespie directed the pedestrian Disney flick Million Dollar Arm. The Finest Hours is closer to the latter rather than the former, not just by chronology.

It might have been good for Gillespie and the screenwriters to look at a more recent movie rather than trying to capture the style of a ‘50s flick. They could have emulated The Perfect Storm, which had its problems but at least had a well-told story line and clarity of characters that captured your emotions. I’d had hopes that The Finest Hours would at least match Storm, but I was disappointed.

Rising Above

The old cliché is that a movie’s story was “ripped from the headlines,” the predecessor of “based on a true story.” Oftentimes those “ripped” stories involved a prurient element or a sensational slant, and the movies were the B pics of the 1950s, the exploitation films of the 1970s, or the latest offering on Lifetime Channel today. However, movies can rise above that level. Instead of waving around a black-and-white ripped picture, they can create an oil painting that’s richly colored and textured with the nuance of light and shadow. Room is such a picture.

While there have been stories in the papers about situations similar to the one in Room, this film carries no “based on a true story” line. Instead it was based on the award-winning 2010 novel by Emma Donoghue, and Donoghue also did the screenplay for the film. It’s not easy to capture the complexity of a novel well on the screen – another too-often true cliché is that the book’s better than the movie – but Donoghue has done a sterling job.

Room is essentially told from the viewpoint of Jack (Jacob Tremblay), who is about to have his 5th birthday. To him, the room where he lives with Ma (Brie Larson) is his world; to start his day he walks around and greets the bed, the wardrobe, the stove, and the other elements of the room as if they are fellow inhabitants. There’s no window, only a skylight, and while they have a television Ma has told him that the programs are all made up things, not real. She created the fiction to hide the truth from Jack that for 7 years she has been imprisoned by a man she calls Old Nick (Sean Bridgers). For the first part of the night, Jack sleeps in the wardrobe, so he can’t see what happens when Old Nick comes into the room. As time goes by, though, Ma begins to fear that Old Nick may intend to harm Jack. She devises a plan to get them out, but first she must destroy the fantasy world she’s created for Jack.

Normally for a “ripped from the headlines” movie, it would end with the escape. With Room it’s only the first half of the film. Just as compelling – in some ways even more powerful – is the struggle of both Ma and Jack to integrate into the world outside of Room. Donoghue looks at how Ma’s parents Robert and Nancy (William H. Macy and Joan Allen), whose marriage dissolved after Ma’s abduction at 17, deal with both her return as well as having a new grandson under those circumstances. Where does Nancy’s new husband Leo (Tom McCamus) fit in with these dynamics?

Brie Larson had done an excellent job earlier in 2015 as Amy Schumer’s sister in Trainwreck, but that was just an hor d’oeuvre while Room is a seven course meal. She has to flow through a massive range of emotions within multiple scenes and she nails it each time. It is a fierce performance, and last weekend Larson won the SAG award for Best Actress in a Motion Picture for the performance, beating out both Cate Blanchett and Helen Mirren, among others. It was richly deserved.

Even more vital to the success of the movie, though, is Jacob Tremblay’s performance as Jack. It is without artifice, wonderfully natural. There are times he’s harsh and judgmental, just like a normal child can be, but you also see the indelible bond between Ma and Jack. Room may be their physical world, but emotionally they are each other’s world.

Director Lenny Abrahamson has mostly worked in his native Ireland in independent films and television. He guides the story with a fine sense of balance and understanding of the characters. Filming inside the room so that the audience feels the claustrophobic world would have been a challenge for any director, but Abrahamson also imbues the filming with Jack’s sense of wonder and innocence.

Room has been nominated for Best Picture, and also was tagged for Best Director, Adapted Screenplay, and Best Actress. This is an incredibly powerful, raw, and in the end life-affirming film. It goes beyond the surface of the horrifying situation and refuses to sensationalize it. Instead you care for Ma and Jack as people, not plot points. In the end this is a story of human resiliency, and also of grace.

When Black Comedy Attacks

In 1964, at the height of the cold war, Stanley Kubrick released Dr. Strangelove: or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb.  The black comedy portrayed those who had control of the nuclear arsenal as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual. Now in 2015 comes The Big Short which is one of the brightest and most energetic examples of black comedy. In this case it portrays most of the people in charge of the financial markets as delusional, insane, myopic, and/or ineffectual, though it also adds criminal frauds to the mix. There’s one big difference though between the two films: The Big Short is based on actual events.

The movie is based on the book by Michael Lewis, who also wrote “Moneyball” and “The Blind Side,” and details how a couple of fund managers figured out that the housing market was a huge bubble that was about to pop. The book was adapted by Charles Randolph, who took a deservedly jaundiced look at Big Pharma with Love and Other Drugs, and Adam McKay, who also directed. McKay seems on the surface to be an unusual choice for this project, since he’d made his name co-writing and directing Will Ferrell’s best movies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights, and The Other Guys). Last year he did Ant-Man, which managed to blend both comedy and action/adventure in a balanced way – not an easy accomplishment. With The Big Short he’s made a quantum leap into an area usually occupied by Aaron Sorkin and Edward Zwick.

He’s aided by a sterling cast. You have the first person to discover the bubble, Michael Burry, played by Christian Bale. Burry is a one-eyed doctor who changed careers to become a fund manager. He’s painfully awkward interacting with people, but he’s completely comfortable with numbers and analysis. The next person to catch wind of it and recognize the implications is Jared Vennett, who’s played by Ryan Gosling with swarthy makeup and dyed hair. Gosling also provides narration for the story. Later, two Young Turk investors from Colorado discover the bubble. Charlie Geller (John Magaro) and Jamie Shipley (Finn Wittrock) decide to go all in, betting against the housing market, but they don’t have the capital to get a place at the big boy table. However, they have an ace in the hole: Ben Rickert (Brad Pitt), a former investment banker who turned his back on that world out of disgust.

However, the person through whom the audience comes to truly understand the crisis is Mark Baum (Steve Carell). Baum has a large reservoir of righteous indignation for companies that screw over their customers, and expects the worse in banks. But even he has trouble believing the scope of what has happened and the cupidity of the banks and the bond traders.

If you think that a movie about banks and the financial crisis would be about as enjoyable as a root canal done without anesthesia, you would be completely wrong. McKay uses three cameo appearances to explain the workings of the bond market. They feature Margot Robbie in a bubble bath, Anthony Bourdain cooking in a kitchen, and Selena Gomez at a blackjack table. When Vennett makes his initial presentation to Baum about the coming crisis, he illustrates his points with a Jenga game.

McKay also breaks the fourth wall multiple times in the course of the movie and has the actors address the audience directly. It happens most with Gosling, since he is also narrating the story, but others do it as well. Sometimes it’s to explain that what’s shown on the screen isn’t what actually happened, but even more often it’s to say that some plot points that seem completely unrealistic are in fact exactly what took place. The device is as old as Greek theater, and recently it’s been used in both the English and American version of “House of Cards.” There’s a danger that it can be self-indulgent, but here it works beautifully to illuminate and expand the story.

McKay gets powerful performances from his cast, in particular Carell. Several excellent actors fill roles that have only one or two scenes, including Marisa Tomei, Karen Gillian, and Melissa Leo. The film has received 5 Oscar nods – a well-deserved nomination for Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor for Bale, Best Direction and Best Adapted Screenplay (so McKay is up for two), and finally Best Film Editing.

With black comedy, horrible things can sneak up on you while you’re laughing and deliver a sucker punch to your solar plexis. Think of the end of Dr. Strangelove where the world blows up to the tune of “We’ll Meet Again Some Sunny Day.” There’s a similar explosiveness to the end of The Big Short, but this is a true story. Everyone should watch this movie, if for no other reason than to prevent the country being manipulated again by the delusional, insane, myopic, ineffectual people who are also criminal frauds. Remember, fool us twice – shame on us.

A Brilliant Light

True-life scandals have been fodder for motion pictures for years. There was Karen Silkwood, the plutonium plant employee who raised concerns about health and safety at her plant before she died in a suspicious accident. She was portrayed by Meryl Streep in Silkwood, while her story likely inspired parts of The China Syndrome. More recently Julia Roberts won the Best Actress Oscar in 2001 for her performance as Erin Brockovich, the paralegal who wins a multi-billion dollar lawsuit against PG&E for poisoning a town’s water supply. The Insider, Quiz Show, Good Night and Good Luck, all were based on actual events. But the granddaddy of them all is All the President’s Men. It managed to turn the Woodward and Bernstein investigation of the Watergate conspiracy into one of the best political thrillers ever, and is at least partially to blame for every supposed scandal since having –gate added onto it, as if the suffix could give gravitas to the situation all by itself. Currently in the theaters is Spotlight, the story of the Boston Globe’s investigation that blew open the Catholic Church pedophile scandal. It’s not too much to say that Spotlight is this generation’s All the President’s Men, but in some ways it’s even better.

The title comes from the name of the paper’s investigational team. Three reporters – Mike Rezendes (Mark Ruffalo), Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams), and Matt Carroll (Brian d’Arcy James) – work under editor Walter “Robby” Robinson (Michael Keaton). Spotlight is set up to take on stories that might take months to develop and require deep digging into records as well as wearing out plenty of shoe leather. The team is under the overall supervision senior editor Ben Bradlee Jr. (John Slattery), the son of the Washington Post editor who oversaw Woodward and Bernstein. In 2001, Marty Baron (Liev Schrieber) is brought in from Miami as editor-in-chief, amid concerns of staff cuts. When Robby meets with Baron, rather than talking of cutbacks Marty brings up a case that’s been mentioned in a column about a lawyer pursuing a suit against a priest who’d abused children in six parishes over a couple of decades. The lawyer, Mitchell Garabedian (Stanley Tucci), claims to have proof that Cardinal Law (Len Cariou) knew about the abuse but did nothing. However, the documents in the case have been sealed. Baron thinks this is a story that would be perfect for the Spotlight team.

Movies already have the challenge of making us suspend our disbelief so that what we see on the screen seems real. With Spotlight, there was also the challenge to suspend prior knowledge of the story and simply watch it play out. The sex abuse scandal in the Catholic Church has become a huge scandal that has shaken the church from the local parish all the way up to the Vatican. The excellent script by Josh Singer and Tom McCarthy (who also directed) makes us want to watch it play out. It recreates the world of Boston prior to the scandal where the status quo could be counted on to hide many sins. Singer wrote for “The West Wing” and also did the script for The Fifth Estate in 2013, while McCarthy wrote and directed The Station Agent (with Peter Dinklage) and Win Win (with Paul Giamatti), as well as providing the story for Up. Given the quality of Spotlight, it’s to be earnestly hoped that they work together again soon.

The cast is outstanding and they well deserve their nomination for a SAG award as the best ensemble. They may not nail the Boston patois – the movie makes its own joke about it when Stanley Tucci learns that Ruffalo is from South Boston and comments, “You don’t sound like it” – but they do nail the characters. Keaton, Ruffalo, McAdams and James show their character’s individuality, even as they work together. Schrieber gives a restrained performance as Baron that highlights his intelligence and observant nature. But every single actor in the film turns in performances of diamond clarity and sharpness, from the main cast through Billy Crudup, Paul Guilfoyle and Jamey Sheridan in key supporting roles, through to the smaller roles – in particular those who portray the victims. They honor those they embody.

Howard Shore has composed a subtle but effective score for the film that touches your emotions without hammering you over the head. Stephen H. Carter’s production design is first-class; it makes you feel like you’re walking around Boston neighborhoods, even though the movie was partially filmed in Toronto.

A powerful takeaway from this film is the absolute necessity of local papers and journalists. No TV reporter could have uncovered this story, nor could a blogger working on his own. If it weren’t for the Globe’s investment in investigational journalism, this story might never have broken and the institutionalized abuse would have continued. McCarthy and Singer make that clear, particularly in one scene between Ruffalo and Tucci near the end. It’s a gut-punch of a scene – when you see the movie you’ll know which one I’m talking about – that makes an eloquent plea for this type of reporting. In the credits, a website address is given where you can go to pledge support to investigative journalism, but something everyone could do is subscribe to their local paper, even if it’s the electronic version.

When the lights go dim in the newsrooms of this land, abuses of all kinds can play freely in the darkness.

The Lion in Retirement

The character of Sherlock Holmes has often been used by other authors, so much so that different Holmes stories have become a cottage industry over the years. Along with hundreds of lesser works, in the 1970s there was Nicholas Meyer’s excellent “The Seven-Per-Cent Solution” – the title referring to how Holmes took his cocaine as related in Conan Doyle’s original stories. Recently Holmes has been bigger than ever outside of print media, with two theatrical features starring Robert Downey Jr. as the detective, as well as the contemporary CBS series with Holmes (Jonny Lee Miller) recovering from his addiction in New York City. Best of all though is the BBC version with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman as Holmes and Watson that comes closest to recapturing the feel of Conan Doyle’s original stories. But mixed in with these is a small gem that’s now available to stream or on DVD: Mr. Holmes.

It’s 1947, and Sherlock Holmes (Ian McKellan) has been retired for years, living on the coast of England where he keeps bees. Watson has predeceased him, as has Mycroft. Holmes is attended to by his housekeeper, Mrs. Munro (Laura Linney), who lives on the property with her son, Roger (Milo Parker). After years of astounding people with his brilliant deductive powers, Holmes is now faced with early-stage dementia. He’s drawn back to his final case, where a husband (Patrick Kennedy) asks Holmes to investigate his wife (Hattie Morahan). Holmes can’t remember what happened during the case and why it caused him to give up detective work. At the same time, he finds that young Roger is very much a younger version of himself.

The screenplay by Jeffrey Hatcher, from the novel by Mitch Cullin, has flashes of Sherlockian mystery, though the main thrust is a fascinating character study. McKellan is brilliant as always, here portraying a man who realizes he is slowly losing himself but who determines to fight his way through the night that’s encroaching on him. But along the way, he finally connects with his human side. Linney submerges herself in the role of Munro, so much so you’ll forget she’s wasn’t born in England. The surprise, though, is Parker, who delivers a nuanced and prickly performance with a surety that one doesn’t usually see in a person so young.

The movie puts Holmes in some interesting situations. A sub-plot deals with his final long trip out of England, where he goes to Japan shortly following the end of WWII – including a stop at a memorial for the dead in Hiroshima. In pursuit of information about that last case, Holmes attends a movie theater to watch an adaptation of Watson’s story about the case, though his finds it of little help because of Watson’s penchant to embellish Holmes’s investigations. The central focus though is the relationship between Holmes, Munro, and Roger, and it leads Holmes to solve one final mystery.

While we think of Holmes rooted in gaslights and hansom cabs in 1890s London, Conan Doyle actually set the scene for this movie. He published the final Holmes story, “The Adventure of Shoscombe Old Place” in The Strand Magazine in 1927, the same year he gathered together the last dozen stories into the collection “His Last Bow.” It includes two stories that are narrated by Holmes himself, “The Adventure of the Blanched Soldier” and “The Adventure of the Lion’s Mane.” “Lion’s Mane” features Holmes in retirement on the coast of England, solving the death of a teacher at a nearby preparatory school. Mr. Holmes actually plays off of that story to an extent.

Those who’ve discovered Holmes through the Cumberbatch incarnation may not enjoy Mr. Holmes, for it has more of a melancholy, reflective feel rather than sharp, brisk wit of the BBC TV series. But for those who have lived with Holmes for years, it gives a satisfying resolution to one of the greatest characters in literary fiction.

The Force Awakens: Discussion with Spoilers

Last week I published a review of Star Wars Episode 7: The Force Awakens though I worked hard to not give away any major plot points. One response I received, though, asked for the chance to discuss the movie, so I decided to do another post with the freedom to discuss the full film, spoilers and all, for those who have seen the movie. SO, IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE MOVIE DO NOT READ THIS! Really – trust me. You want to experience this movie without any hints.

Now, for those of you who’ve seen the movie, I’ll outline several aspects of it that struck me. Please feel free to interact in the comments sections about your own reactions to The Force Awakens.

Right from the opening scenes, you could tell this wasn’t a Phantom Menace. That one began with almost a leisurely scene between Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon (even when they’re fighting droids), and then it goes downhill as soon as Jar Jar Binks enters the scene. Instead Force matches A New Hope with the dark Star Destroyer sliding across a moon until it completely blots it out. The dark side has come. Abrams had a perfect casting moment when he had Max Von Sydow do a cameo appearance as the person who gives Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) the clue to the location of Luke Skywalker. Von Sydow is about the only active actor left who was a contemporary of Alec Guinness. Abrams also echoed the introduction of Darth Vader with Kylo Ren walking down the ramp from the space ship.

I’d enjoyed John Boyega in Attack the Block and was pleased to see him as Finn. Finn adds nuance and depth to the story. The Imperial Storm Troopers have always been as anonymous as they were bad shots. Their aim has improved a little in Force Awakens – emphasis on “a little” – but Finn gives them a humanity they’ve never had before. Instead of blind obedience, Finn’s inner decency asserts itself when he refuses to shoot during the village massacre. He at first wants to run away – as Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) sees in his eyes – but he’s honorable enough to seek to get Poe’s droid back to the rebels. And after Ren grabs Rey, he switches from running away to running toward the danger.

Rey (Daisy Ridley) takes her place alongside Sarah Conner and Ripley (among others) as sci-fi’s kickass women. Abrams has always been talented at writing strong women, such as Sydney Briscoe in “Alias,” but he’s gone beyond that with Rey. Leia had a bit of this in the original trilogy, but she wasn’t as compelling as Luke, Han, or Darth. Here, though, Rey is front and center, and the final duel with Kylo Ren pays off the build of the plot.

Speaking of Ren, I was pleased that Abrams didn’t try to tease out his identity. From early in the film we know he’s Ben Solo, son of Han and Leia, but he’d been seduced by the dark side like his grandfather Anakin. Having the partially melted Vader mask is a great piece of imagery. The moment when he reveals his face to Rey was a shot of adrenalin. You expect the disfigurement of Anakin, but instead you have a handsome young man. It underlines that the scars of the dark side are not outwardly visible.

Using motion capture for Supreme Leader Snoke and Maz Kanata was a much better choice than the computer-generated Jar Jar Binks. Andy Serkis, who plays Snoke, is the leading actor for this effect, so it wasn’t surprising to have him cast as Snoke. Interestingly, the communication scenes that Ren and General Hux (Domhnall Gleason) have with Snoke mirror Darth Vader’s interview with the Emperor in The Empire Strkes Back, with the hologram image being enormous. As Serkis was expected, Lupita Nyong’o as Maz was a choice out of left field. You have one of the most beautiful women in film play a diminutive alien with fish-eye goggles, but she nails the character. Her scene with Rey also means that Force Awakens is the first Star Wars film (and one of the few sci-fi movies ever) that passes the Bechdel test.

There’s an interesting connection with the cast in that Oscar Isaac and Domhnall Gleason were two of three main actors in Ex Machina earlier this year. If you want to see how good they are, take a peek at that movie and then compare it to Force Awakens. Here, though, they never have a scene together.

I did enjoy BB-8, who is a worthy successor to R2D2 – and also a much faster droid. With all the running in the movie the stately pace of R2 wouldn’t have worked. A great moment was when Finn flashes BB the thumbs up sign and the droid responds with a lighter flame.

Abrams referenced the original trilogy in ways that both paid tribute to it as well as twisted our expectations. The first appearance of Kylo Ren, the removal of his mask, the attack on the planet killer, all mirror earlier scenes, but nowhere was that used to better effect than Han’s final scene with Ren. It takes place on a bridge over a chasm, just like the scene in Empire where Darth reveals he’s Luke’s father. Instead of the perverse paternal plea of Vader – “We can rule the universe side by side” – you have Han pleading for the restoration of his son. When Ren runs his lightsaber through his father, it’s a gut punch for Star Wars fans.

The very end of the movie could have been trimmed a bit – how many steps can a person climb and keep the interest of the audience? – but the wordless moment of connection between Luke and Rey is perfect. The indicators in the script point to Luke being her father, which means Rey experienced a similar fate as Luke, being separated from her family for most of her young life. (There are other theories out there about Rey, but until the next movie is released I’ll go with this one.)

Those are my thoughts. Please feel free to post your own responses and ideas below, or engage in a discussion. I’ll try to check the blog as often as possible to approve comments to facilitate the discussion. Go.

 

A Renewed Hope

In 1977 I was in Los Angeles for the 4th of July and I went out with a group of friends to a late-night showing of a new movie – Star Wars. It was just before the movie went into hyper-drive at the box office, so we didn’t have to stand in a long line and the huge theater was about half full. The moment when the Imperial Star Destroyer flew over our heads and kept on going and going and going was when I knew the world of movies had changed forever. After the success of the first movie, Lucas said in an interview that he envisioned three trilogies, with the original as the centerpiece (leading to it being renamed Episode 4: A New Hope). When the second trilogy came along, it was a disappointment until the last movie. Revenge of the Sith was enough to make Attack of the Clones bearable, though it still couldn’t improve The Phantom Menace. The best viewing order for the two trilogies is what’s called the Machete Order: 4,5,2,3,6 (so The Phantom Menace becomes the phantom movie).

Because of this, I was concerned when Disney bought Lucasfilm and announced that the final trilogy would be made. The concern was somewhat alleviated when it was announced that J.J. Abrams would helm and co-write Episode 7. He resuscitated Star Trek when it was pretty much dead, and Super 8 was one of the better straight sci-fi movies to come along recently. Abrams also brought back Lawrence Kasdan, who had penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, as well as Raiders of the Lost Ark, to co-write the new movie along with Abrams and Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Hunger Games: Catching Fire). There was a chance that they could capture the magic of the first trilogy again.

Happily, that’s what has happened. The Force Awakens gives you the feeling of the original trilogy while twisting the story so it’s fresh. To prevent spoilers, I won’t go into the plot here, but there are several general points about the production that stood out to me.

Casting: It’s hard to remember that before Star Wars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher were unknowns. Ford had a small role in Lucas’ American Graffiti while Hamill had been cast in a TV series that he got out of after Star Wars took off. Fisher, the daughter of Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, was as a princess of Hollywood though she’d only had a small role in Shampoo (where she seduced Warren Beatty) before she became Princess Leia. The three main newcomers in The Force Awakens are in a similar position, although the career of Adam Driver (Kylo Ren) had taken off in the last three years with him appearing in a dozen movies, among them Frances Ha, Lincoln, and Inside Llewyn Davis. John Boyega (Finn) was in 2011’s Attack the Block, the story of an alien invasion of the council flats in London. Daisy Ridley (Rey) had only done some TV in England and a couple of short movie roles before The Force Awakens. But just like the original three, Driver, Boyega, and Ridley are perfect for their roles and capture the audience – Ridley in particular. It’s so good to see a competent, smart woman who handles whatever comes up before anyone can “save” her.

Favorites: When it was announced that Hamill, Ford, and Fisher would be back (as well as Peter Mayhew and Anthony Daniels – Chewbacca and C-3PO respectively) the first thought was cameo roles, but that’s not the case. The Force Awakens truly is a continuation of the story years after the original, allowing the actors to play their actual ages now. Ford is a main character here, but Hamill and Fisher have their parts to play that loom large in the next episodes.

Revelations: A New Hope and most of The Empire Strikes Back lead up to the revelation of Luke’s father. In The Force Awakens there are several revelations about the characters that are laid out with a wonderful sense of pace and timing. Withholding them until later would have been detrimental and frustrating to the audience. Yet there are still more revelations to come. When the Force does awaken, it pushes the story to a higher level. Abrams balances the story perfectly so the movie is a satisfying story while at the same time setting up the next two films, rather than trying to cram everything into the one movie or tease the story out. He had to walk a tightrope but he stayed in perfect balance all the way across.

The Force Awakens not only rekindles the feeling of the original movie for old fans, it lets new fans share a wonder similar to Star Wars when it first came out. In a way, it’s like fans have been waiting in line for 32 years for a worthy new movie. Now it’s out and it was well worth the wait. Merry Christmas to movie lovers everywhere.