Pick of the Week:
Star Wars: The Force Awakens (Disney)
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the seventh film in the Star Wars series and the first without series mastermind George Lucas, hit theaters a little over three months ago, and now seems like a fine time to reflect on the film with a little distance from the hype. In some ways, director J.J. Abrams and a small army of collaborators had a high bar to clear, picking up where the original trilogy left off, reviving some of its most beloved characters for a new chapter, introducing new cast members, and living up to the nostalgia-clouded expectations of fans for whom Star Wars had become more than just a bunch of movies.
On the other hand, maybe The Force Awakens didn’t have to be that good. More than 10 years after the release of Revenge of the Sith, audiences were hungry for a Star Wars movie, any Star Wars movie. And speaking of the prequel trilogy, ultimately any new Star Wars film had to be better than the prequels, which, well, shouldn’t have been that hard.
So how does Star Wars: The Force Awakens stand up now that we’re past all that? Pretty well, really! The first half works better than the second and it’s probably no coincidence that it’s also the section least dependent on borrowing plot elements from the original trilogy. It’s wonderful to see Han and Chewie on the Millennium Falcon again, sure, but the emergence of Finn (John Boyega), Rey (Daisy Ridley), and Poe (Oscar Isaac) as compelling new heroes provides a different sort of thrill. That said, the gracefulness with which the film mixes the new and the old — which extends to its combination of CGI and practical effects — might be its greatest accomplishment. Charged with overseeing the passing of a torch, Abrams made sure the handoff went smoothly.
Star Wars movies may no longer be able to surprise us. We’ve had seven of them now with many more to come — one a year stretching to infinity, if current plans hold. But with The Force Awakens we’re off to a good start to the next phase of Star Wars‘ existence as an omnipresent movie universe, one that shows that the core elements of Star Wars could be retrofitted for the future, and that the Star Wars universe could stretch to make room for the new alongside the old.
That’s very much the theme of the best feature included on the new Blu-ray and DVD edition of the film, the 70-minute documentary Secrets Of The Force Awakens: A Cinematic Journey, a generously paced behind-the-scenes look at the film, from its inception after Lucas’ decision to sell Lucasfilm to Disney to its release. Highlights include a glimpse at Ridley’s audition — where she demonstrates the ability to cry on command — and footage of Abrams visiting the Lucasfilm archives, considering what from the past to bring with him into the future. Also included: some impressive but inconsequential deleted scenes, more focused looks at elements like John Williams’ score and the effects team responsible for the film’s creatures and a nice, short look at the cast’s first table read of the script that, even with the film behind instead of ahead of us, is sure to bring a lump to the throat of fans both new and old.
The Expanse: Season One (Universal)
It’s otherwise a pretty slow week for home video releases, for the fairly obvious reason that The Force Awakens doesn’t give other films that much room to breathe. But science fiction fans might consider picking up the first season of Syfy’s well-regarded series The Expanse, which adapts a series of novels by James S.A. Corey and weaves elements of mystery and political intrigue into a solar system-spanning plot.
The Black Cat (Arrow)
Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key (Arrow)
The U.K.-based Arrow Video has made some inroads into the U.S. market in recent years, partly through arthouse titles like Jacques Rivette’s long-unavailable Out 1 and partly through reviving the grindhouse films of yore, particularly those from the Italian giallo sub-genre. Italy produced a seemingly endless stream of these always-lurid, often-brilliant school of Hitchcock- and pulp-inspired thrillers in their late-’60s to early-’80s heyday. Some, like the best work of Mario Bava and Dario Argento, are B-movie masterpieces. But even lesser entries often have one element or another — a haunting score, an unforgettable set piece, etc. — to recommend them. Sometimes an awesome title, like Your Vice is a Locked Room and Only I Have the Key, is reason enough to check out a film. Other times it’s the intrigue of the gloriously (and often gorily) excessive Lucio Fulci taking on Edgar Allan Poe, as he does in this 1981 adaptation of Poe’s short story “The Black Cat.” (Both films feature black cats prominently, making them a potential double feature.) Apart from its best-known titles, giallo has often been hard to find in the U.S., so it’s nice to see a label trying to do right by its fans.