Tag Archives: ***½

Arrival ***½|****

Amy Adams in Arrival
Amy Adams in Arrival

The new heady sci-fi feature Arrival is the kind of film that’s difficult to completely take in after the first sitting and having a solidified critical reaction to it in such a short amount of time seems like a bit of a fool’s errand. Having seen it a few nights prior to this writing and also having a couple days for post-viewing reflection, I imagine a second go-round almost seems essential to properly evaluate it but it’s difficult to say which elements would be enhanced or be diminished from repeat viewings. What I can say is that this is one massively ambitious and confident piece of filmmaking that will inevitably divide audiences as they wrestle for specific forms of meaning within the story.

Amy Adams is profoundly affecting as Louise Banks, a linguistics professor who is called in by the US government to attempt communication with aliens aboard an extraterrestrial spacecraft that has mysteriously touched down in Montana. Joining her on the team is the cocky theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and the critical Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), along with other members of the international scientific community who are simultaneously engaging the other eleven ships discovered in equally inexplicable locations across the globe. The remainder of the storyline revolves around Banks’ contact with the new visitors, as she attempts to learn why their ships are stationed at the seemingly random spots and why they have come to our planet in the first place.

I’m obviously playing coy with some of the larger reveals around the plot, as they’re much better for viewers to discover on their own, but suffice it to say that details from Banks’ personal life soon intermingle with her job of decoding these foreign alien messages. The method of communication that they use, a form of circular drawings that is not only brilliantly conceived but visually stunning in its complexity, seems to suggest that these lifeforms have a perception of time that exceeds the ability of humans. When this concept is applied to the narrative, it creates a sort of non-linear chronology that may seem confusing in the moment but seems to click right into place right before the film’s conclusion.

This is the fourth English language movie from French Canadian director Denis Villeneuve, who is responsible for last year’s excellent drug thriller Sicario, and it’s incredibly fulfilling to once again see his unique brand of challenging storytelling fused with a mid-budget, widely-distributed vehicle like this. He’s making the kind of creative leaps and bold narrative choices that someone like Christopher Nolan would incorporate in their films (yes, Arrival does have notes of Inception at its core) but he’s doing it with a fraction of the funds. Seeing him succeed so valiantly in the science-fiction genre is a comforting sign for those who are hotly anticipating his Blade Runner sequel next October, especially given how many franchise-extending films have disappointed in the past.

I would be remiss to neglect the efforts of cinematographer Bradford Young, who also recently shot Selma and A Most Violent Year and is further proving himself to be one of the most visionary DPs working today. His camera is both pensive and personal in its scope; his ability to capture both moments of grandeur and intimacy with the same level of focus and beauty is nothing short of remarkable. At a time when most movies seem to track two steps behind the audience instead of two steps ahead, Arrival is a most welcome arrival indeed.

Sing Street ***½|****

Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street
Ferdia Walsh-Peelo and Mark McKenna in Sing Street

Set in Dublin in the mid-1980s, Sing Street is a coming-of-age tale whose subject Conor (Ferdia Walsh-Peelo) is abruptly forced to transfer to the state-run school Synge Street after his family falls on hard financial times. One day after classes, he strikes up a conversation with an aspiring young model named Raphina (Lucy Boynton) and in an effort to impress her, Conor claims that his band is looking for someone to star in their next music video and that she would fit the bill perfectly. Of course, Conor isn’t actually in a band, so he hastily recruits some members for his new musical endeavor, including multi-instrumentalist and rabbit enthusiast Eamon (Mark McKenna).

With his previous movies Once and Begin Again, Irish writer-director John Carney has kept music at the heart of his work and proves once again that few people capture the spontaneous energy behind music creation on film better than he does. His characters use their instruments and voices to bare their souls but the way they tell their stories through their music also helps the narrative grow organically from their emotions. Songwriters understand that ebullient feeling of putting just the right chords and notes together to make the perfect song and Carney puts that joy on screen for each musical number.

Another emotional linchpin for me in this film was Conor’s endearing relationship with his older brother Brendan, played by Jack Reynor. A college dropout who has seemingly given up pursuing any personal goals of his own, Brendan sees the creative potential in Conor and acts as a sort of musical and spiritual mentor to his younger brother. Sporting an admirable LP collection and various bits of sage advice (“no woman can truly love a man who listens to Phil Collins” was my personal favorite), he makes it his mission to give Conor the kind of education that he could never get from his classes in school.

The late night listening sessions in Brendan’s room serve as a bit of a respite for the brothers, with the boisterous sounds of the record player masking the shouting matches between their acrimonious parents. Elsewhere, Conor faces cruelty from both bullying schoolmates and oppressive teachers that threatens to extinguish the creative spirit he has worked so hard to cultivate. Carney adds these bits of real life anguish and torment to temper the typically cheery musical scenes and remind us that even though these characters find joy in creating and performing, it’s often in response to the less-than-ideal conditions of their personal lives.

Of course, the quality of the music itself is key to appreciating this kind of film and the songs here are as catchy as the 80s  pop tracks that inspired them. The band’s first hit “The Riddle of the Model” has a stabby synth lead right out of an A-ha single and the group’s best song “Up” has an infectious chorus that reminded me of Men At Work’s peak material. It’ll be a shame if none of these get nominated for Best Original Song next year but even if they don’t, Sing Street will still stand as another charming and vibrant victory for John Carney.

Kubo and the Two Strings ***½|****

Art Parkinson in Kubo and the Two Strings
Art Parkinson in Kubo and the Two Strings

Portland-based animation studio Laika conjures another stop-motion marvel with Kubo and the Two Strings, which evokes the mysticism of ancient Japanese forklore as a backdrop for a timeless tale about the unbreakable bonds between family and the value of courage under increasingly trying circumstances. As its main character is a storyteller himself, the film also serves as a commentary on the importance behind the stories, both big and small, that we pass along to one another. From the self-referential opening line (“if you must blink, do it now”) to its poignant closing shot, this is a strikingly original piece of filmmaking whose story will no doubt be passed on again in the future.

Our young protagonist Kubo (Art Parkinson) spends his days entertaining townspeople with origami figures that spring to life with every pluck of his magical shamisen and recreate scenes of valor and victory from the village’s collective history. At night, he returns home to his ailing mother to avoid the evil spirits that lurk about but while caught in the forest one evening, he is confronted by the apparition of his mother’s twin sisters and is subsequently driven out of his town. With the help of new friends Beetle (Matthew McConaughey) and Monkey (Charlize Theron), he sets out to find the father he never knew while also avoiding his treacherous grandfather known as the Moon King (Ralph Fiennes).

Put simply, Kubo and the Two Strings is the best looking stop-motion film that I’ve ever seen. Behind each frame rests the realization that every single detail on screen –every movement, every facial expression– was crafted by hand. Even a shot of wind blowing through a wheat field is enhanced by the knowledge that someone had to carefully move each strand of wheat to create a realistic effect. Sure, this is technically the case with every stop-motion feature but the scale here is unlike anything we’ve seen before.  It’s one thing to animate two people talking in a room but it’s quite another to animate hundreds of flying leafs to come together to form a massive sailboat.

The fluidity of this process is the biggest selling point, as this movie firmly progresses past the stilted look that has plagued previous entries in the genre, but the pure artistry behind each of these creations is dazzling in its own right. From the tiny, multi-colored origami birds that fill the sky to the 18-foot skeleton puppet that allegedly took the production team 6 months to build, the gorgeous design work is filled to the brim with endless creativity and detail. Embedded in these images are artifacts from Japanese culture that give the settings both a sense of realistic depth and mythical transcendence.

On a more personal note, this is the first movie that I’ve seen in 3D since 2010’s How to Train Your Dragon and I was as underwhelmed with the overall effect this time around as I was 6 year ago. While Kubo isn’t egregious in its use of the format, very little is gained from it either and a layer of vibrancy is unquestionably removed with the dark tint of those tacky and inexplicably unchanged 3D glasses. Whether you see the 3D version or what I would imagine is the brighter and crisper 2D iteration, I can recommend this as a vital stop-motion masterwork, no strings attached.

Hunt for the Wilderpeople ***½|****

Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople
Julian Dennison and Sam Neill in Hunt for the Wilderpeople

It seems New Zealand director Taika Waititi is on a roll after following up the funniest movie of last year, the vampire mockumentary What We Do In The Shadows, with this utterly charming and heart-warming adventure comedy. Unlike most animated movies released these days, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is a rare family entertainment that actually feels like it was made to work for every person in the family, regardless of how young or old they may be. It has the kind of intelligent storytelling and emotional framework that will earn the respect of the parents but also has plenty of sight gags and silliness to keep kids engaged too.

The story follows a rabble-rousing orphan boy named Ricky (Julian Dennison) as he is assigned by child welfare services to live with his foster Aunt Bella (Rima Te Wiata) and Uncle Hec (Sam Neill) out in the New Zealand countryside. After an unexpected tragedy, Ricky learns that he will soon be taken back into government custody and in an act of defiance, he chooses to run away into the dense forest. Uncle Hec eventually finds Ricky in the woods but with both missing for a substantial amount of time, the public soon begins to fear that Hec has kidnapped Ricky and a national manhunt is undergone to retrieve the two.

Hec and Ricky are a classic pair of comedic opposites: the former is a quiet and reserved countryman focused solely on survival instincts while the latter is a troubled hooligan who compensates for his insecurities with a boisterous swagger and “gangster” affectations. As the straight man, Sam Neill has the perfect level of incredulity in each of his deadpan reactions and Julian Dennison’s antics are outrageous without veering into full-on obnoxious territory. The way that these two play off one another and eventually grow to understand each other resembled a more extreme version of the kind of relationship Carl and Russell had during the middle section of Pixar’s sublime Up.

This movie has a similar level of pathos and tender moments but it also packs in plenty of laughs along the way. There’s a certain strange, off-kilter quality to Waititi’s sense of humor that I personally find to be infectious and oddly inviting. Characters often use silence and “dead space” for longer than it seems like they should and those breaks give an unexpected timing to the punchlines when they do hit. When Bella sings an ebullient impromptu birthday song for Ricky, it’s Hec’s visible signs of discomfort and Ricky’s admirable show of support that keeps the ridiculous song from seeming tedious and needlessly drawn out.

With its playful tone and its rustic nature setting, I also found parallels to Wes Anderson’s coming-of-age movie Moonrise Kingdom, in which Tilda Swinton played an antagonist literally named “Social Services” who mirrors the hilariously unrelenting social worker played by Rachel House in this film. Flight of the Conchords favorite Rhys Darby even turns up briefly in the third act as a zany survivalist who isn’t quite as well prepared for sudden contingencies as he thinks he is. No matter what age you are, Hunt for the Wilderpeople is delightful entertainment through and through.

Love & Friendship ***½|****

Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship
Kate Beckinsale and Xavier Samuel in Love & Friendship

Jane Austen’s work has been brought to the screen countless times before but this adaptation of her posthumously released novel Lady Susan brings a new level of comedic prowess that may surprise those going in expecting another period costume drama. Love & Friendship does maintain Austen’s most prevalent themes of propriety and prosperity in 18th century England but does so with a savage wit and a cheeky playfulness to match. What’s more, this story also centers around a character who seems diametrically opposed to the morally virtuous heroines that have long been a trademark of Austen’s most iconic novels.

Kate Beckinsale gives what may be her best performance ever as the newly widowed Lady Susan Vernon, who wastes no time trying to find a new suitor and wishes to accomplish the same goal for her modest daughter Frederica (Morfydd Clark) in the process. While visiting the estate of her in-laws, she is pursued by the young and naive Reginald (Xavier Samuel) while Frederica is ineffectually paired with the hilarious dimwitted yet inexplicably wealthy Sir James Martin (Tom Bennett). During her pursuit, Lady Susan has intermittent conversations with her American friend Alicia (Chloë Sevigny), who offers her own perspective on Susan’s affairs.

This is admittedly the first film that I’ve seen from director Whit Stillman, who previously directed both Beckinsale and Sevigny in 1998’s The Last Days of Disco, but I’m eager to discover some of his previous work. Beyond his expert handling of the characters and a consistent mood of whimsy, he also has stylistic touches that add just the right amount of personality without drawing too much attention to themselves. I was particularly fond of the unconventional way that characters were introduced towards the beginning, with a sequence of shots that feature each main player posing above captions that reveal their name and most notable characteristic.

Some of these more theatrical touches are accompanied by a looser and more modern feeling screenplay that’s both whip-smart and filled with plenty of dryly humorous moments.  There are a host of clever one-liners and pointed bits of wordplay, primarily spoken by Lady Susan, that are capable of cutting characters to their core before they even realize what’s really being said to them. Beckinsale delivers these lines with a sort of polite viciousness that not only feels appropriate for the milieu but also underlines the manipulative and casually cruel nature of her character in a way that still makes her oddly likeable.

While Stillman’s script doesn’t touch on much in the way of character development and complex storytelling, it more than makes up for it with a crackling sense of verbosity. In a just world, we’ll be talking about this movie again next February for the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar. If anything, the dialogue is so packed and often spoken so deftly that I don’t doubt a re-watch or two (preferably with subtitles) would help me enjoy the film’s brilliant brand of banter even more. There’s something wickedly satisfying and utterly delightful about Love & Friendship that should allow both avid Austen fans and casual movie goers to effuse its accomplishments.

Captain America: Civil War ***½|****

Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War
Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. in Captain America: Civil War

Captain America: Civil War, the latest offering from the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, is technically the third film in the Captain America series but given its inclusion of so many of the studio’s other superhero characters, it plays more like a semi-sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron (The Avengers 2.5, let’s say). As such, it’s the most narratively dense and potentially overwhelming Marvel movie to date but it’s also the most morally ambiguous and dramatically ambitious entry thus far. The important part is that despite the heaviness of the story and its themes, there are also counterpoints of levity and dazzling action setpieces that strike up a sound balance of enlightenment and entertainment.

The story picks up after the disastrous events in Sokovia from Ultron and following a more recent incident in Lagos that left unexpected civilian causalities, the actions of the Avengers are being scrutinized more thoroughly than ever before. The United Nations puts forth an act that calls for more oversight and regulation for those with “advanced abilities”, which Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.) views as a sensible guideline of personal responsibility but Captain America (Chris Evans) sees as an oppressive measure of over-regulation. This ideological rift, among other factors, leads to a showdown between Team Captain and Team Iron Man (involving too many superheros to name here) that threatens to permanently tear the Avengers team apart.

Those uninitiated with the MCU and the events of the preceding films will likely be completely lost within the first 10 minutes of Civil War and even if you are a more-than-casual fan like myself, you may still find yourself misplacing certain characters or trying to recall previous plot points during its lengthy runtime. What’s important here is that directors Anthony and Joe Russo tell their story with respect to the intelligence of their audience regardless of how familiar they are with each facet of the Marvel world. Of course rigorous superfans will likely get the most out of the experience but even first-time viewers should find plenty to enjoy among the well-choreographed fight sequences and the reliable acting talents of the impressive ensemble cast.

One of the most refreshing elements of this film is the emphasis of accountability that has been breached in several other superhero movies before but not to the degree to which it’s examined here. On the basis of entertainment, we continually watch these characters lay waste to one major city after another but Civil War tactfully explores the residual effects that these catastrophes have on the ordinary people who occupy those affected areas. When the mother of a son who died in the Sokovia incident confronts Tony Stark after he gives an impassioned speech, it reaches a level of poignancy and groundedness that is uncommon among other films of this genre.

Without delving much more into the elaborate storyline, I should mention just how happy I was with the ultimate villain of this film. Between Age of Ultron‘s Ultron to Ant-Man‘s Yellowjacket (not to mention whoever the villain of Guardians of the Galaxy was), Marvel has been seriously lacking in the compelling bad guy department but Civil War brings about the most satisfying antagonist since Loki in The Avengers. In the words of Roger Ebert, “each film is only as good as its villain” and I’m happy to report that both are first-rate.

Only Yesterday ***½|****

Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday
Daisy Ridley and Alison Fernandez in Only Yesterday

Over the past 30 years, renowned Japanese animation company Studio Ghibli has produced several of the Japan’s highest grossing anime films ever but since its co-founder Hayao Miyazaki announced his retirement in late 2014, the studio’s future has been in limbo. Fortunately, fans in the US have a new reason to be excited, as one of Studio Ghibli’s seminal works is finally being made available for American audiences. First released in 1991, Only Yesterday is director Isao Takahata’s follow-up to the devastating war film Grave of the Fireflies that serves as a ebullient and life-affirming counterpoint to the overwhelming tragedy of his previous work.

We begin in 1982, where 27-year-old Taeko (Daisy Ridley) finds herself yearning for a more simplified way of life after having lived in the non-stop hustle and bustle of Tokyo her entire life. She decides to take a trip to visit relatives in the rural countryside but during her overnight train ride, Taeko is overcome with vivid memories from her schoolyard days that cause her to reflect on the purity and innocence of her childhood. The film wistfully tracks between this time period in 1966, where 10-year-old Taeko (Alison Fernandez) is just starting in the fifth grade, and the “present” time in 1982 that finds her helping her relatives harvest their seemingly endless fields of safflowers.

One of the artistic techniques that Takahata uses to differentiate between these two time periods is to depict the past with a sort of hazy glow around the edges of the frame but it’s not done in a way that calls too much attention to itself. Besides being a clever way to visually distinguish the story’s timeline, this also serves as a subtle commentary on how we tend to overly sentimentalize stories from our childhood when the memories become blurred and fuzzier as time goes on. The sharp, crisp animation style of urban Tokyo shows a world with clear limitations but the bright and dreamlike scenes from Taeko’s childhood suggest a largely undiscovered world with infinite possibilities.

The flashbacks play like extended vignettes that aren’t meant to relay specific sets of plot-relevant details but rather convey the feeling of longing that the main character is consumed with during her later years. These stories seem to come about in an almost random order but nonetheless cover a wide range of emotional territory: some are bittersweet, some are heartbreaking and some are quite amusing as well. An awkward first exchange between Taeko and her first childhood crush, during which the two share a hilariously unproductive conversation about whether they prefer cloudy or sunny days, perhaps best captures all three of these sentiments within one scene.

The coming-of-age material is very effective on its own but ultimately, this is a story of a young woman coming to terms with her past and deciding to break free from the burdens and expectations of her friends and family. The movie’s originally title translates roughly from Japanese to “memories trickle down” but it turns out that Only Yesterday is an even more evocative and appropriate title after all. It not only captures this film’s signature brand of charming nostalgia but also serves as a potent reminder that the past can be rendered inconsequential for those willing to overcome it.

Deadpool ***½|****

Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool
Ryan Reynolds in Deadpool

With underwhelming, status quo entries like last year’s Avengers: Age of Ultron and Ant-Man, superhero movies have been in need of a shake-up and it seems that Marvel found just the man for the job. Production history for Deadpool dates back to 2004 but after VFX footage “leaked” online 10 years later, the project took off quickly and generated a healthy amount of buzz among comic book fans online. Now we have the finished film, which succeeds as both a hilariously vulgar send-up of the genre it inhabits and an engaging action movie with a deft visual style that’s all its own.

Ryan Reynolds is perfect in the title role: a wise-cracking, foul-mouthed mercenary with a pension for breaking the fourth wall and a never-ending supply of self-referential in-jokes. He begins the story as Wade Wilson, whose terminal cancer diagnosis brings a prosperous, year-long relationship with his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) to a screeching halt. Desperate for answers, Wilson agrees to enlist in a shadowy genetic research program under the supervision of a mutant named Ajax (Ed Skrein) with the hope of a cure. The experiment causes Wilson to be permanently disfigured and when Ajax leaves him for dead, he takes on the alias Deadpool and vows vengeance on his malicious captor.

That may seem like a downer of a setup but make no mistake: Deadpool is hands down the most comedically successful superhero film that I’ve seen so far and it will likely go down as one of the year’s best comedies. With the exception of his ill-conceived inclusion in the dreadful X-Men Origins: Wolverine (during which his mouth was inexplicably sewn shut), Deadpool was a character of which I had little foreknowledge when going into this movie. Together, Reynolds and first-time director Tim Miller have created what feels like a zero-compromise realization of everything that makes the comic book character special.

Beyond achieving an admirable level of cheekiness throughout the film, Miller also manages to tell a compelling superhero origin story and portray a convincing romance at the same time as well. In addition to the narrative elements, he also excels at shooting breakneck paced and yet visually comprehensible action scenes that benefit greatly from his previous work as a visual effects artist. He gets off to a great start with an opening credit sequence that not only has some hilarious, self-aware bits of humor but also works as a richly detailed, labyrinth style tableau that weaves effortlessly through a convoy car mid-crash.

Still, Reynolds deserves so much credit here for his commitment to this character and to the project as a whole, for which he also served as a co-producer. So much of this film rides on the personality that he provides and his winning combination of deadpan sarcasm and razor-sharp wit prove to be a formidable foundation upon which Marvel will likely look to build a new franchise. Its success may spawn inferior sequels that quickly wear out their welcome but for the time being, I’m comfortable saying that not since The Avengers has there been a more entertaining superhero movie than Deadpool.

The Revenant ***½|****

Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant
Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant

The power of film is in its ability to create a totally immersive experience unique to any art form. We sit in a dark movie theater, aware that what we’re about to see costs millions of dollars and took hundreds of people to make, and the filmmaker’s chief task is to essentially make us forget all of that. Some may call it suspension of disbelief but it runs deeper than that: there’s an undeniable magic to those films that effortlessly transport us from time and place. Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu’s The Revenant follows this tradition with a rare kind of cinematic conviction and steadfast authenticity that will likely render it timeless.

Amongst the unsettled wilderness of the 1820s American northwest, a band of fur trappers and hunters stave off the harsh elements and Native American aggression to collect pelts for trade. After the party’s scout Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is viciously mauled by a grizzly bear, his severe injuries begin to hinder the group’s progress and their captain Andrew Henry (Domhnall Gleeson) orders three men, including hunter John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) and Glass’ son Hawk (Forrest Goodluck), to tend to his wounds. After a fatal dispute amongst the volunteers, Glass is left for dead and must fight through unbearable circumstances to return to his outpost.

Iñárritu has the poise and confidence of a master filmmaker right from the opening scene, an exhilarating and immensely well-choreographed ambush sequence that reminded me of the similarly stunning D-Day beach raid in Saving Private Ryan. Apart from providing a thrilling action scene to kick things off, he also clues us in early to the type of visceral brutality and natural realism that he goes on to employ throughout the film’s exhausting journey. The story that he tells here is not necessarily a complex one but it’s told with an emotional purity and ruthless honesty that makes the end result as rewarding as the narrative is challenging.

Indispensable to the film’s success is veteran cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, who worked with Iñárritu previously for Birdman and received an Academy Award last year for his work. Not only is the film simply gorgeous to take in (Lubezki reportedly used only natural lighting while shooting), he tempers the overwhelming beauty of the natural landscape with an unflinching eye towards the dangers that spontaneously present themselves. Lubezki also showcases his signature style of close-up here as well, characterized by a low side angle that stays tight on the subject’s face and lends depths of intimacy that the performances may not have otherwise had.

And then we come to DiCaprio. Much has been said of his work here and even more has been said of his chances for winning his first Academy Award after having been nominated four times previously. While the notion that he has been under-appreciated by the Academy throughout his career is just, I fear that the “Overdue Oscar” talk may overshadow just how committed and tenacious a performance he gives in this film. In fact, the same could be said of Tom Hardy, who brings an unrelenting intensity to another memorable antagonistic role that serves as a career-best for him.  The Revenant is bravura filmmaking from a director at the peak of his powers.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens ***½|****

Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

The hype could not have conceivably been higher for the seventh entry in the Star Wars series, the first of a “sequel trilogy” that was launched after Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm in 2012. Amid unprecedented pre-order ticket sales and massive expectations from insatiable fans, it almost seemed as if Star Wars: The Force Awakens was doomed to disappoint audiences before it was even released. Despite these circumstances, director J.J. Abrams has tapped into his most formidable skill set of nostalgia commodification and delivered an immensely entertaining blockbuster that should thrill both hardcore loyalists and newcomers alike.

We pick up about 30 years after the events of Return of the Jedi, where the disappearance of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has driven remnants of the Republic and the Empire, now called the Resistance and the First Order respectively, to find him at all costs. When Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) recovers a portion of a map that leads to Luke, he stores it in a roaming droid unit that finds its way to a parts scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley). After Poe is rescued by a rogue Stormtrooper nicknamed “Finn” (John Boyega), the two travel back to seek out Rey with the First Order and their leader Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) in constant pursuit.

It’s clear that there’s a lot at play here that correlates strongly with the original trilogy but what’s most important is how effective the new material is by comparison. What makes The Force Awakens work so well is that at its foundation, this is a truly character driven movie. The focus is wisely put on the young cast of mostly new faces and rising stars, who provide plenty of personality in their performances and ground their roles in a kind of realism that has previously been lacking in other Star Wars films. The sly bits of fan service and self-referential humor also give things a modern update without alienating the audience or getting too cheeky.

Top-notch special effects have always been a key component to the franchise and the breathtaking visual prowess of The Force Awakens is a testament to how far computer generated effects have come even in the ten years since Revenge of the Sith. This is especially evident in the scenes involving Resistance and First Order spaceships, which move through the air with a kind of nimbleness that can’t be achieved in the same way with miniature models. The X-wing and TIE fighter battles are choreographed at a breakneck pace with thrilling precision and just watching the Millienium Falcon speed through the corridors of a downed Star Destroyer was enough to make me feel like a kid again.

So many filmmakers have tried and failed to capture that feeling in audiences before but Abrams has proven once again how well he can transform the old into something new once more. He and his team have laid the groundwork for an already promising addition to the Star Wars legacy while also leaving unanswered questions and tantalizing cliffhangers for Episode VIII. The already announced writer and director for that film is Rian Johnson, who most recently directed the fantastically imaginative science-fiction film Looper in 2012. Regardless of what he accomplishes in the next chapter, The Force Awakens has already set the bar high for this new trilogy.