Knee-jerk review: "Rogue One"

1. Best Star Wars movie since 1980's The Empire Strikes Back.
2. Much of the geekdom is up in arms about the CGI recreation of the late actor Peter Cushing, resurrected here to again play Grand Moff Tarkin.  Film nerds (who do love to complain, thereby showing off their own brilliance, you see) are complaining about how horrible the animation is.  We expected some kind of horrible Polar Express-level phoniness.  But to us, the CGI looked pretty flawless.  Ms. Fry had no idea the Tarkin character wasn't played by a living actor.  A lot of sound and fury signifying nothing.
3. It's about as satisfying and big a climax as you'd want in a movie.  We love it when the heroes' plans go wrong in as many ways as possible, forcing them to frantically improvise.  James Cameron's movies (e.g. Aliens, Terminator 2, The Abyss) are the gold standard.  Rogue One aspires to that high bar.  Nothing is easy for our rebels.
4. Add tropical paradise planet Scarif to the list of awesome Star Wars planets-with-memorable-weather (see also: desert plant Tattooine, ice planet Hoth, swamp planet Degobah, volcano planet Mustafar, rainforest planet Endor).
5. A pretty genius premise, don't you think?  The whole franchise begins with the "Help us, Obi Wan" hologram from Princess Leia and the stolen Death Star plans.  Why not rewind to see how those plans got stolen?
6. Also bonus points for offering a completely logical explanation for the Death Star's exhaust port weakness.  It only took 40 years to get one.
7. Star Wars may appear to be simple black and white, good versus evil allegories, but there are always political complexities baked in (the prequel trilogy was essentially a treatise on how dictatorships arise).  One man's freedom-fighting rebellion, after all, is another man's terrorist insurgency.  It's all relative.  Fascinating here that the Rebel Alliance looks down on "extremists" like Forest Whitaker's Saw Gerrera, whose followers like to throw bombs into crowds.
8. Captain Cassian Andor.  If that's not a classic Star Wars name, we don't know what is.  We're sure by now you've seen the Star Wars Name Generator.
9. It always comes down to disabling a forcefield, doesn't it?
10. What happens to two Star Destroyers may be one of the coolest things we've ever seen.
11. If we had to find a flaw, it may be the characters.  Compared to the exuberant charisma of the characters introduced last year in The Force Awakens (Rey, Finn, Poe Dameron - another perfect Star Wars name, Kylo Ren), the new characters here are a little limp.  On one hand, it's nice that Diego Luna and Felicity Jones' characters are platonic no-nonense colleagues, but a little chemistry between them might have added another layer to their interactions.
12. Also a little vague on what turns Jones from reluctant participant to a rah-rah leader.
13. Overall, though, it's pretty fantastic, but it's also quite dark.  It's a war film.  Lots of good guys die.  Lots of innocent people die.
14. You'll love the way this movie clearly ends moments before the opening shot of 1977's Star Wars.
15. It's the Star Wars movie you've been looking for.  Move along.


A few words about the 2016-17 TV season

"American Housewife" (ABC) makes us laugh.  It's "sitcom-my" in that it feels assembled and engineered to crank out punchlines whether the situations all feel completely plausible or not.  But when it's done this well - anchored by a manic, sideways-glancing performance by Katy Mixon - it works.

"The Big Bang Theory" (CBS) offers a textbook example of "habit-viewing" - we watch it because we've always watched it.  The completist in us needs to see it through to the end.  It's mostly enjoyable, often amusing, but rarely hilarious.  [We can say the same thing about ABC's "Modern Family" - a show that does still sometimes hit a home run, but mostly at this point coasts on past success.]

"Black-ish" (ABC) may seem at first like a 21st-century spin on "The Cosby Show."  Upper-class African-American parents try to raise their oddball kids.  But this is a show with satirical bite, an affection for the surreal, and big ambition for social change. Sharp and smart.

"Blindspot" (NBC) remains completely wack in its second season, packed full of twists and double-agents and ridiculous plot leaps and a computer tech who can literally do anything with a keyboard and a mouse and those dumb tattoos.  It's implausible in so many ways.  But we keep watching it.  [For the record, the two-twists-per-episode screeching melodrama of "Empire" (Fox) and "How to Get Away with Murder" (ABC) are equally insane but we gave up on those shows after the first season.  It was just too much.]

"Code Black" (NBC) offers a spiritual reboot of "ER."  That either excites you or it doesn't.  We didn't realize how much we missed that "ER" mix of strange medical jargon, workplace politics, guest stars looking for Emmys, and shocking medical tragedy packed as densely as possible into 50 minutes.  Plus, Luis Guzman as a worldly nurse.

"Designated Survivor" (ABC) provides a fictional president that some Americans may be desperately craving: humble, measured, thoughtful President Kirkman (Keifer Sutherland) isn't the type to blast people on Twitter at 3:00am.  The show is very well made and very compelling... but thanks to the efforts of a tireless FBI agent, who's all alone (of course) figuring out who blew up the Capitol, the audience is way way ahead of poor Kirkman and his staff.  This is creating some serious narrative frustration.  This is a show that needs to get things out in the open and kick it up a notch.

"The Good Place" (NBC) may not be the funniest show on the air, but it is without question the most creative and inventive show one the air, taking place as it does in heaven and involving a clerical error that sends there an undeserving person.  Genius all the way around.

"Superstore" (NBC) is quickly evolving into a worthy blue-collar retail companion to NBC's brilliant "The Office."  Quirky characters, workplace setting, snappy dialogue, plus those curious little B-roll vignettes.  It's fantastic.

"Survivor" (CBS) continues to deliver the goods, exploring fascinating social dynamics - you're voting people out who will ultimately decide if you deserve the prize - amid ever-changing gameplay and strategy.  The season that just wrapped was particularly strong.  Yeah, we can't believe it either.

"This Is Us" (NBC) delivers manipulative, contrived schmaltz about the everyday dramas of an extended family.  But it benefits greatly from a clever, time-shifting premise and a surprisingly strong cast.  We hate ourselves for liking it as much as we do. 


Knee-jerk review: "Star Trek Beyond"

1. Okay, now this is more like it.
2. We mostly appreciated the 2009 Star Trek reboot, though looking back we may have been grading on a generous curve.  We barely tolerated 2013's trainwreck Star Trek Into Darkness.
3. Amazing what can happen when you get J.J. Abrams out of the director's chair.  Did we say that out loud?  JJ has said in interviews he grew up a Star Wars fan and it shows: The Force Awakens strikes the right Star Wars mood and shines as a labor of love, while his two Star Trek movies mistake giant spectacle to the small character work and big questions that makes Star Trek special.
4. But what is the deal with the ongoing obsession with destroying the Enterprise on film?  The Enterprise name is by now practically cursed.
5. Suggesting that the famous five-year mission might grow boring felt very fresh. Why wouldn't it be boring?  You can't run into Klingons, Tribbles, or green-skinned Orion girls on every shift.
6. We're not sure what to make of Karl Urban, the only actor who's doing a mimic job.  Yeah, his Dr. McCoy sounds just like DeForest Kelley, which is amusing... but shouldn't he sort of try to make it his own?  It feels too much like a bit.
7. As with any good ensemble caper story, all of the characters here get to contribute to the solution and take action to save each other.  No one's left behind, sitting around, opening hailing frequencies or scanning for delta particles.  It's a fun, fun movie mostly because of this element.
8. But we really do need more of Kirk, Spock, and McCoy working together.  These movies still find ways to keep them apart.  They tell everyone how close they are, sure, but we'd like to see that for ourselves.
9. We were mostly unimpressed with the villain Krall (shades of Star Trek's limp, inscrutable Nero) until the final twist.  In fact, we were surprised by a couple of story turns.
10. Bonus points for Kirk tearing his shirt.  
11. Ditto the retro alien planet that looked like the California desert with some spray-painted rocks.
12. The "Sabotage" scene is a real crowd-pleaser.  Goose bumps.
13. But our favorite was the sequence inside (and outside) the crashed ship.  The 11-year-old version of ourself would have loved that.
14. How much do you think it cost to build that Yorktown space station?  And how long did it take?  These are the things we ask ourselves.  An amazing visual, but it was like seven Manhattan islands all strung together... in space.
15. Looking forward to the next one.


3 rules of karaoke etiquette

We have been known to partake in the dark art of karaoke, living out secret dreams of music stardom, revealing pop culture song savvy, wondering if we sound as good on a microphone as we do with the shower water running or our car idling at a stop light.  For a while there in our late 20s and early 30s, every few months or so featured some house party involving the rental of a 1000-song karaoke hard drive from a mom-and-pop party outfit east of downtown Los Angeles.  Our return to Texas has sent us to a Little Korea bar with private karaoke rooms.  Five visits so far and counting.

But there are rules, people.

1. If you can't sing it, don't request it.  Before you punch in the song number, think it over.  Sing the song in your head.  Can you do it?  Really do it?  Plenty of memorable choruses also feature impossibly obscure verses (Exhibit A: Third Eye Blind's "Semi-Charmed Life").  Avoid the "gong" - that sad moment when the group collectively overrides your choice and moves onto the next song.  Yeah, it's all in good fun but a little part of you will die a slow death inside.  Bottom line: develop a group of "go to" songs that you can nail.

2. Choose only popular songs everyone can enjoy.  Karaoke isn't the time to display your affinity for Garth Brooks B-sides or British heavy metal (exception: Def Leppard).  No one cares about those songs because no one's heard of those songs.  (That these karaoke catalogs have those ridiculous choices available, but don't have half of the top-40 hits you're seeking, remains an enduring unsolved mystery.) Karaoke should be a communal experience of inclusion.  If more than half of the room isn't singing along with you, you chose poorly.

3. Give everyone a turn.  This doesn't just mean refrain from hogging the song book, which you should never ever do.  It also means not turning into guy who stacks the queue with a string of songs.  This isn't a classic rock station and you're not Johnny Fever.  Pick your song, plug it in, then wait until you perform that song before selecting the next one.  Like the crowded on-ramp merge, everyone gets a turn.

Knee-jerk review: "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates"

1. Someone we know who works in Hollywood as a studio marketing executive often reminds us that if the trailer (or TV spot) for a comedy isn't funny, be wary.  The producers should be putting the funny stuff - assuming they have funny stuff and not every comedy does - in the advertising.  We found the trailer for Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates to be utterly hilarious.  So we cashed in a  grandparent babysitting chit to go see it.
2. We laughed a lot.  Some funny bits, for sure.  Like the ATV accident, the "happy ending"massage , the sauna.
3. But was it a good movie?  Maybe not so much.  It's in the R-rated raunchy vein of Wedding Crashers or Superbad or Neighbors.  But it's not nearly as clever or memorable as those movies.  Although we must give it some credit for trying to make the female characters act just as crude and horrible as the male characters.
4. Good performances, yes.  Adam Devine is always funny.  And Audrey Plaza predictably does that quirky snarky thing she does.  But we were surprised how good Anna Kendrick was playing a dimwit.
5. That said, we get the feeling everyone involved thought everything was a little more hilarious than it actually turned out to be.

6. Pretty unimaginative title, too.
7. Selling liquor to hip bars in New York City.  Another of those phony, only-in-movies jobs that 20somethings often have.  And you should see the groovy, giant apartment Mike and Dave share.  We all could use a Hollywood production designer to decorate our homes.
8. We understand now why the set-up (two screwballs are forced by their family to bring dates to a Hawaii family wedding so they won't ruin everything; their hunt for dates goes viral; two screwball girls decide to play "nice girls" to get a free vacation) is so forced and strained - it's supposedly based on a true story.  Seems like there would be an easier way to get the two couples together since that's where the story really takes off.
9. A perfectly placed f-bomb can be hilarious.  But less is more.  This is one of those movies where every other word is the f-bomb.  It's too much.  You become so numb that the word loses all meaning.  Or is that the point?  (And does it make us sound old and cranky to make this complaint in the first place?  Probably.)


Knee-jerk review: "Everybody Wants Some"

1. Touted as the "spiritual sequel" to one of our favorite movies ever - Richard Linklater's 1993 masterpiece Dazed and Confused.
2. While Dazed and Confused explored a gaggle of high school students on the last day of school in 1976, this film looks at college student exploits in the three days leading up to the first day of school in 1980.  Nice symmetry.
3. Someone smarter than us coined this sort of format for TV shows like "Seinfeld" and "Friends" - the "hangout show."  The fun isn't what happens so much as watching it happen to these funny characters.
4. Seemed like smaller, limited-release movies like this would play for weeks in Los Angeles.  But here in Texas, if you don't move fast you'll never catch one.  We drove 40 minutes to see this.
5. It was worth it.
6. As we all know by now, Linklater has an ear for quirky, naturalistic dialogue and an uncanny knack for casting unknowns.
7. There's not much plot (as expected in a hangout), but it certainly feels like a documentary-like immersion in the subculture of male athletes - how they waste time, how they pursue girls, how they joke with each other.  Linklater, like the characters, played college baseball on a scholarship.  It shows.  The little details pop.
8. Some interesting background stuff here that points to the cultural transformation of the late 1970s/early 1980s music as our guys spend time pursuing girls at a disco, a honkytonk, a punk club, and a New Wave-infused house party.  The times they were a-changing.
9. Note also the way the film draws a clear distinction between the empty-headed patter of girl-chasing in the clubs and the way hero Jake has quiet, meaningful conversations with the girl he likes.
10. Glen Powell shines as psuedo-intellectual Finnegan, a part that would have gone to Owen Wilson 15 years ago.
11. Guess everyone in Texas in 1980 drank Schlitz or Lone Star.
12. The setting helps steep the story in nostalgia, but it's a familiar situation to any college student.  You may have been the big shot in high school, but now you're in a group of 10 other high school big-shots.
13. Gold star for the final visual of the movie: a teacher scrawling on the chalkboard one of the themes of the movie: "Frontiers are where you find them."  Take advantage. Carpe diem.  Yadda yadda.
14. We loved it.

Shows on our DVR (Winter-Spring 2016)

Here's a list of shows we spent the last few months recording on our DVR.

Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. (ABC) - This is a strange one, if only because it's reinvented itself several times partly to line up with the Marvel movies.  That degree of narrative turnover is admirable, but it can be a little alienating (no pun intended).  Sometimes we think it's a show we keep watching just because we always have.

The Americans (AMC) - Soviet spies living in 1980s American suburbia.  What a premise.  Best drama on television.  Period.  If you're not watching it, you're making a big mistake. 

The Big Bang Theory (CBS) - It's always amusing, but never really hilarious.  Comfort food.  The wife/girlfriend characters are usually funnier than the male leads.

Blackish (ABC) - This is our new favorite.  Everyday family foibles reflected through the lens of an African-American family, all of it energized by a jolt of the absurd.  Top-notch.  Bonus points for some important racial/cultural discussions.

Blindspot (NBC) - It's a loud, dumb show full of clunky exposition, ridiculous coincidences, and credulity-stretching plot holes.  But... it's also a whole lot of fun and benefits from a cast that completely sells the crazy.  Guilty pleasure.

Fear the Walking Dead (AMC) - The ocean setting is novel and actor  Ruben Blades is magnetic.  But it's a show that's mostly needless.  The only people eager for this sequel show were AMC executives.

The Good Wife (CBS) - Just ended its run as probably the best network drama on TV.  It jumped the shark a couple of years ago when the show inexplicably wasted one whole season on Alicia Florick running for office.  But when it was good, it was HBO good.  Layered, quirky, plush, smart.

How to Get Away with Murder (ABC) - We're losing interest fast.  Probably shouldn't even be on this list.  There's something fascinating about the way the show burns through twists and plot turns that other shows might milk for a whole season, but storytelling tricks like that aren't enough when the entire cast of characters are this skeevy.

Modern Family (ABC) - About as slickly produced and well-oiled as a sitcom can be.  Dependable, reliable, it's the Volvo of comedy.  But there's only two reasons to watch, really: Ty Burrell and Ed O'Neill.

Orphan Black (BBC America) - It can be impossible to keep straight the many plot twists and knots of conspiracy in this tale of clones and genetic engineering.  But the work by actress Tatiana Maslany - who plays all of the clones - is nothing short of amazing.  You'll forget it's the same actress.  She should be winning Emmys.

The Price is Right (CBS) - There's nothing better to put on when you're washing dishes, making dinner, or folding laundry. 

Supergirl (CBS) - As many others have noted, it's a welcome antidote to the sour bleakness of the Zack Snyder DC superhero movies.  A fun, fizzy show with entertaining villains, cute dialogue, and a fantastic lead performance by Melissa Benoist.

Survivor (CBS) - Since its debut in 2000, we've missed just one edition.  We're just as surprised as you are that it's still compelling and engaging.  The last few editions have been among the very best.  Jeff Probst has the best job on TV.

The Walking Dead (AMC) - A grim show that too often revels in its grimness.  But we're fond of many of the characters and more and more the story has (thankfully) turned more toward community-building rather than zombie-killing.


Essential truths of air travel

Our Texas job has allowed us to spend countless hours in airports and on airplanes.  Since 2013, we've been going to out-of-town conferences about four times a year.  It can be a miserable experience.  

We hold these air travel truths to be self evident:

* There will be turbulence.
* The selfish jerk in front of you will lower his seat into your lap.  The odds of this will increase exponentially if you have less room that usual (i.e. sitting in a middle seat or unfortunately booked onto whatever plane it is that has narrower rows than usual).
* There will be two kinds of TSA workers on duty: the aloof and bored types who scribble on everyone's boarding pass but wish they were somewhere else and the aggressive resentful types who must bark the same orders over and over again ("Put your laptops into a separate tray!") but wish they were somewhere else.
* Lest you think your trip is over once the wheels touch down, be prepared for another 15 minutes of taxiing.
* There will always be someone who's new to the TSA security screening system, gets confused with the process, has to redo everything, and holds up the line.
* The person in front of you in line at the counter - skycap counter, ticket counter, gate counter, whatever - will be require some ridiculously complex set of tasks that will involve numerous consults among the airline staff.
* 95% of all checked bags will be black.  Some half-hearted attempts at personalization will be made on some, usually involving dirty ribbons and/or elastic bands.
* The airlines will continue to insist on creating nonsensical castes and classes among flyers that rivals bad YA dystopian fiction.  "Gold, Bronze, Chrome, and Zirconium level passengers may now board at this time." Remember when it was just first-class and then everyone else?
* Those motion-sensor paper towel dispensers will deliver the smallest possible square of useless paper.  Assuming you can even get them to work properly.
* Scientists will never be able to satisfactorily explain why it takes people so long after landing to get up, grab their stuff, and get the hell off the plane. 
* Your gate will be placed at the location that will make you walk the farthest.
* The airline will pick the dumbest network sitcom on the air to show in its entirety.  Better to try and peer between the seats to watch what that other guy is playing on his laptop.
* You will consider buying magazines at the newspaper kiosks that you'd never even pick up for free in a random waiting room. 
* As soon as is humanly possible after landing, the person next to you will make a cell phone call and say "We just landed."
* Those air-blower bathroom dryers will blast your hands with a deafening roar but do next to nothing to actually make them dry.
* A majority of people on your flight will drag along huge roller bags that barely fit into the overhead bin and pretend they qualify as "carry on."  The airline plays along with a wink.  These people are the devil.  Rule of thumb, people: if you can't carry it (i.e. if you need wheels to transport it), it's not a carry on.
* The lucky people in first class will try very hard to pretend you're not there as you oh-so-slowly shuffle past them in shame to find your seat back in steerage.
* If there is any sort of tarmac delay that leaves you stranded on the plane buckled into your too-small seat, the pilot will do as little as possible on the intercom to explain the situation or provide an educated guess of when the delay might possibly end.
* The self-serve bag check won't be faster, no matter what they say.
* No matter how close the gate may be to baggage claim, there will be an interminable delay before the bag carousel starts to turn.


Knee-jerk review: "10 Cloverfield Lane"

1. A lean little story, just three characters in a single location.  But very effective.  It'd work just as well on stage.
2. But that ending... it's a little out there.  It didn't have to go that gonzo to make the story satisfying.
3. JJ Abrams continues to be a little too coy and cutesy for our tastes.  The sly way he's trying to make this film a sort of sideways psuedo-sequel to 2008's underrated masterpiece Cloverfield is a marketing gimmick and nothing else.  It may have helped draw people to the theater, but in some ways putting "Cloverfield" in the title undermines the story and suggests Abrams and his crew didn't have faith in the movie to work on its own.
4. John Goodman looks so unhealthy.  But he always delivers the goods.
5. The title sequence, contrasting loud crashes with chilling silence, is a knockout.
6. Perchloric acid.  Ouch.
7. We're suckers for the is-it-paranoia-or-is-it-really-happening? thrillers.  And this is a very good one.
8. We know it's a great premise when we find ourselves wishing we'd thought of it first.  Elegant simplicity.
9. It's a finely-tuned script (credited to Josh Campbell, Matthew Stucken and Damien Chazelle) that would be great to study in film school.  Audience expectations are continually challenged, the plot takes some surprising left-hand turns that never feel forced, and the story ends with a fairly textbook example of a protagonist arc.  
10. Like we said, we're going to ignore some of what happens at the end.  It's fun to watch, but it doesn't connect with the low-simmer tension of the rest of the movie.
11. Even we could fit, we wouldn't go shimmying in that vent.
12. Worth a look.


A second look at "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" (spoilers)

We've decided that it's impossible for Generation Xers to dispassionately review the new Star Wars movie.  There's too much emotional baggage.  Star Wars is an essential strand in our shared pop culture fabric.  Just as the first three movies electrified our imaginations and the three prequels delivered a devastating let-down bordering on betrayal, this new movie is more than a movie.  It connects to all of us on some weird primal level.  

Critics have been mostly positive in reviewing Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  Many Generation Xers, however, have been less generous, crossing their arms, looking for fault in every frame, shaking their head in disappointment.  You can find entire articles on the internet full of snarky nitpicking that examines the movie with the kind of ruthless scrutiny no film could withstand.  We're not entirely sure of the motivation here because it's not just honest film criticism - some of these people have taken the movie's shortcomings personally somehow.  It's like that guy in the back of the class who makes fun of successful, popular bands to make himself look cooler and hipper by contrast. 

Let the record show that we hated the prequels.  We know a bad Star Wars movie when we see one.  The prequels were pointless and George Lucas' obsession with new technology (and lack of interest and/or ability in directing actors) gave the movies a sterile, flat quality.  We understand the fan outrage.

But The Force Awakens is not a bad movie.  It has flaws, yes.  But it's passionate and tactile and fun and surprising in ways a Star Wars movie hasn't been since 1983.  It may not be a great movie.  But it's certainly a good one.  And one that's very well made.

We liked it the first time we saw it, but had reservations.  To paraphrase a colleague, we spent most of the first hour of The Force Awakens on edge, waiting for it be terrible.  Not the best way to see a movie.

So we decided to go see it again.

Upon further review, we hereby stipulate that The Force Awakens has three genuine problems:

1. Lack of context for Han Solo's death.  In one of the more overt parallels to A New Hope, a Dark Side villain proves his evil bona-fides by killing a beloved mentor right in front of his youthful mentee.  Just as Luke saw Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan, here Rey watches helplessly as Kylo Ren kills Han Solo.  That's a great idea.  The problem is that the moment lacks sufficient set-up.  It's not completely "earned," as they say in Hollywood script meetings.  It's a big moment, but it could have been an even bigger moment.  Remember, we'd spent almost all of A New Hope with Luke and Obi-Wan.  His death mattered.  It packed a punch.  But we don't get to see much of Rey and Han Solo's relationship outside of the nice scene where he offers her a job.  So while we get the sense that she's an orphan who just found a scruffy nerf-herder father figure, further development to clarify that angle would have helped audiences appreciate what she lost.  The movie probably should have gotten Han and Rey together sooner, in other words, so we could get an idea of a future together that Kylo destroyed.

And then there's the extra delicious layer of patricide.  Kylo Ren is killing his father with that lightsaber.  Dude.  That's about as dramatic and Shakespearean as it gets, but did the movie undermine that moment by giving such short shrift to the Han-Leia-Kylo backstory?  We get a few lines of dialogue between Han and Leia about their lost son and that great moment when Kylo tells Rey his father was a disappointment, but that's it.  We would argue that - as with the Rey-Han relationship - the movie could have gone further to expand this subplot.  There are plenty of opportunities for this.  Give Leia a monologue about that one time when she tried to go grab Kylo and her strike team all died - even better, let the sole survivor of that strike team talk to Han or Rey about it.  Let Han wax on a little to Rey about his lost son and his feelings.  Give Kylo a scene with Admiral Hux about Han Solo and Resistance.  Or maybe even give Han a beat where it looks like he's not going to go after Kylo when he sees him to show Han's uncertainty.  Small moments like that could have added up to something more.

That said, it's worth noting how effective that catwalk scene is.  Even without much set-up, Harrison Ford and Adam Driver sell the hell out of that moment.  Yes, yes, we figured it was curtains for Han as soon as he walked out there on that catwalk.  But for a moment, we thought maybe it was going to work.  Didn't you?  Kylo Ren says he knows what he has to do, but isn't sure he has the strength to do it.  Driver certainly looks confused and lost.  We assumed (hoped?) maybe he wanted to reject the Dark Side.  To the filmmakers' credit, those lines of dialogue are ambiguous enough to work both ways.  Indeed, it's soon clear what Kylo really meant: he knew he had to kill his father but didn't know if he could do it.  The point is, even hamstrung by a lack of narrative context that mutes the drama, it's still one of the biggest moments in the movie.

Of course, none of this addresses another nagging problem with the scene - the fate of the Resistance hangs in the balance with time running out, and these two are having a father-son moment.  Sigh.  We get it, but sometimes you have to go with the flow.

2. The coincidence that brings Rey to Maz's basement.  The second half of the movie is all about Rey connecting with the Force, kicked off when Anakin's lightsaber beckons to her at Maz's castle.  This is good.  Rey is a fantastic character.  But the only reason she's in that basement was because Han figured Maz could help.  So... if Rey doesn't meet Han and if Han doesn't think to go to Maz, Rey doesn't get the lightsaber.  Hitchcock said that audiences could swallow at least one coincidence early on, but we have a hard time with this one.  You could explain it away with mumbo-jumbo about fate, but we prefer clearer cause-and-effect logic.  The filmmakers could have closed this loophole with something as simple as suggesting that Han heard Maz was one of the last people to see Luke, which would maybe more clearly motivate his need to get Rey and Finn and BB8 to Maz (and might also explain why Maz has the lightsaber in the first place).

3. The repeated callbacks to A New Hope This is the big one.  We want to say it's lazy writing.  But it seems completely intentional.  Disney - the new keepers of the Star Wars kingdom - seemed interested in both stoking the fires of nostalgia with this sequel for the older audiences and resetting from scratch the Star Wars universe for the younger audiences.  And so, in essence, they remade A New Hope.  So we get another planet-detsroying machine, another droid on the run, another loner on a desert planet destined for something more.  There's archetypal "call to action" hero myths... and then there's needless retreading.  Alongside so much in the movie that's exciting and new (the stormtrooper defector, the petulant adolescent villian, the TIE fighter theft, the bad-ass female hero, a lightsaber fight in the snow), the repeated callbacks to A New Hope are a big disappointment.  Why couldn't Rey live on a grassland world to avoid the Luke-Tattooine references?  Why not think of some other sinister machine the First Order's using to control the galaxy so we don't have a fleet of X-wings yet again trying to blow up a little vent? 

These aren't small problems.  The filmmakers could have done better.  They should have done better.  Even so, we remain surprised by many other complaints and petty fanboy bickering about the film's smaller plot points.  Why doesn't R2D2 wake up sooner to provide his piece of the map?  Why is this the first time Finn decides to defect?  Why doesn't Chewbacca get more angry when Han dies?  Where did the First Order come from?  Who is this Snoke person?  Why is Rey so much quicker at learning the Force than Luke?  Why did Leia hug Rey at the end of the movie, someone she hadn't met until that moment?  To us, these are interesting narrative questions worth discussing, not ironclad exhibits to prove that The Force Awakens sucks.  Every movie has "ellipses"  where audiences are asked to fill in the gaps.  You can't have every little detail spoonfed, lest the movie turn into an unending series of expositional monologues and speeches.  A balance must be struck - keep the audience engaged (and not stepping back and saying "huh?) but keep the story moving.

But about all of those narrative threads left dangling...  If any movie was guaranteed to be a part of a trilogy, it's this one.  Should the filmmakers thus be allowed some latitude?  Should audiences be more patient and wait to see what the next two films bring before arguing about plot holes and unanswered questions?  The old-school film geek in us says no.  If audiences are distracted by plot holes and unanswered questions, then the story doesn't work.  Audiences need to know what they need to know.   But then again... as serialization grows more common in television and in movies (see also: Marvel's Cinematic Universe) and as they become more integrated with comic books and games and novels and websites to tell these larger interconnected stories, are we seeing the emergence of a new paradigm where titles are no longer bound to tell complete, logical stories within their own medium's boundaries?  Okay, we're getting way out there, but you get the point.  Messy narratives with more loose ends may be where we're headed.  How media delivers stories may be slowly evolving, whether us Generation Xers like it or not.

And surely even the most angry Force Awakens detractor would have to admit, when Kylo Ren freezes that blaster bolt with the Force... that's pretty bad ass.


Knee-jerk review: Fox's "The X-Files" revival

1. The ridiculously complicated UFO conspiracy mythology that so clearly excites writer-director-creator Chris Carter has always been, to us, one of the more frustrating and unsatisfying elements of the "X-Files" experience.  We loved the standalone procedural cases, which were often quite brilliant, but to get to those, each season you always had to sit through 3 or 4 ponderous episodes about this byzantine mythology that kept getting more and more convoluted.
2. That's the problem with this first episode of this... whatever this is.  Reboot?  Revival?  Mulder and Scully are immediately and abruptly back drawn into this same world of lies and coverups and aliens and evil government conspiracies.
3. But what's most upsetting is that in this new revival, Carter is now suggesting that the entire "X-Files" mythology that unspooled for all those years on Fox was just a smokescreen, a lie covering up an even bigger, badder conspiracy.
4. Stop it.  Just stop.
5. And all of that vague double-talk dialogue about who's doing what and why and how it's all so important to everything.  It just makes our head hurt.  Bring back the monsters of the week.
6. David Duchovny's Fox Mulder was always low-key, but here it's like he just woke up from a long nap.
7. At least Gillian Anderson is trying.  Kind of.
8. Whoever decided to cast Joel McHale in a serious role... what were you thinking?  Seriously.  What?
9. And big demerits for lending even a little credence to the idea that the 9/11 attacks was committed by the U.S. government.  That's not funny.  A lot of people - fueled by real-life Fox Mulders on the internet where being a crackpot isn't charming but actually dangerous - really believe that nonsense and it's hurting the country.  Not cool, "X-Files."  Not cool.  End of rant.
10. The same vintage opening credit sequence reminds us how far television and pop culture have come since those creepy Friday nights on Fox.  This isn't exactly a good thing for "The X-Files."
11. We also forgot about the incredibly moody score by Mark Snow.  Those mournful electronic strings are just so distinctive.  A big part of the "X-Files" vibe.
12. There are all kinds of ways that the show could have reunited Fox and Mulder and reopened the X-Files unit.  This is definitely one of those ways.  We just don't think it was the best way.
13. Will it get better?  We're hopeful.  But realistic.

Update: the second episode is better.