Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

(…and my thoughts on the Star Wars saga films in general…)

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So I’ve now seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens four times. The movie gets a little better each time I watch it. When I first saw it, on opening weekend last December, I kinda-sorta liked it, kinda-sorta didn’t like it: It was well-made, certainly, but too derivative, with its plot copying, beat-for-beat, elements of the original Star Wars trilogy.

Second time around was in a super-crowded movie theater, several weeks after release night, at one of those late-night screenings that bring out the soccer moms (sans kids) who couldn’t make time during the day, and fans dressed in Jedi robes and fake laser swords, picking up the movie for the 11th time. This time I liked Force Awakens more, but not enough to recommend it, generally, to anyone.

Finally, my third time with the movie made me start to appreciate it. It involves leaving your brain at the door. If you ignore the elements that, again, are lifted wholesale from the original trilogy (especially the original 1977 Star Wars movie, A New Hope), and just appreciate Force Awakens on its own merits (which requires one to actively forget that it’s really just a glossy remake of A New Hope), it plays a lot better. It is on that level that I can finally recommend it.

My fourth time watching the movie involved the home-video version (on Blu-ray); this time I could stop and replay certain scenes–and it’s obvious a lot of care was put in to the script to explain why so many battles in the film take place at very low altitude levels, and other things that nagged at me my first three times through it.

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All things considered, Force Awakens probably falls in the middle, somewhere, quality-wise, of all seven yet-released Star Wars “episode” movies. I rank A New Hope as the best: it was the first, is still the freshest, and tells a self-contained story. Empire Strikes Back is a very close second; it’s so good that sometimes I think of A New Hope and Empire as one long, great, sprawling, sci-fi/fantasy/space opera epic.

This is where Force Awakens comes in. For my money, FA can duel it out with Revenge of the Sith for third best in the series. Sith is the best of the prequels and it has its moments, especially in the second half of the film when things really get going.

The final three movies in the series (Return of the Jedi, Phantom Menace and the most forgettable, Attack of the Clones) all exist in middling levels of mediocrity: Jedi has some compelling material toward the end when Luke Skywalker duels Darth Vader and contemplates joining the Dark Side. Phantom Menace has Darth Maul, which somehow makes it not as bad of a movie as you remember. Attack of the Clones: does anyone even remember that one?

So here I will end my half-baked semi re-review of Force Awakens. It has improved with time, ranks somewhere in the upper half of the seven yet-released live action Star Wars “episode” films, and plays better each time I see it. Now, if Rian Johnson can cobble together something more creative and original in the forthcoming Episode VIII

My rating for each movie:

A New Hope: four lightsabers out of four.

Empire Strikes Back: four lightsabers out of four.

Revenge of the Sith: 3.5 lightsabers out of four.

Force Awakens: 3 lightsabers out of four.

Return of the Jedi: 2 lightsabers out of four.

Phantom Menace: 2 lightsabers out of four.

Attack of the Clones: 1.5 lightsabers out of four.

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My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2 (2016)

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Here’s the deal: if you liked 2002’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding, you’ll probably like 2016’s My Big Fat Greek Wedding 2. However, if you weren’t in love with the original, you probably won’t find yourself enjoying this sequel.

I hate to admit it, but Wedding 2 just isn’t as good as the first movie. The jokes are stale; the characters haven’t really moved beyond their quasi-sitcom personalities. Everyone looks a little older, but nothing–including the Dancing Zorba neon sign that flashes over the family’s Greek restaurant–has changed.

Wedding 2 makes the surprise decision to focus mainly on the characters of Gus Portokalos (essayed by a droll Michael Constantine) and Paris, the teenage daughter of the last movie’s married couple. In a sincere performance by newcomer Elena Kampouris, Paris is the emotional center of Big Fat Wedding 2. Constantine and Kampouris give, far and away, the best performances in Wedding 2, and also lend to it a great deal of its emotional heft.

But, the movie is talky and stagey, what with the the extended Portokalos family popping up here, there and everywhere. At a volleyball game; at the restaurant; at the NYU college dorm: the “we’re a big Greek family and we do everything and go everywhere together” gag wears thin pretty quickly.

I was surprised to see so many returning cast members from the original movie–even the great-grandmother is the same actor. YiaYia is silent in the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding, but here she gets one line–advising the young Kampouris to leave Chicago (actually, as in the original, Toronto) and go away to college in NYC. It’s one of those emotionally touching scenes, which, along with a sequence set at a high-school prom, are few and far between.

In the best of movie sequels, the characters grow and change and are different than when we first met them. Mostly nothing has changed in the fourteen years between 1 and 2, and that’s to the detriment of these charismatic actors, their characters and ultimately, our enjoyment of the movie.

My rating: 2 out of 4 slices of baklava.