Category Archives: Directed by J.J. Abrams

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019, J.J. Abrams)

It is a dark time for the Star Wars franchise. Although the second highest grossing film franchise of all time, white men really weren’t okay with Kelly Marie Tran getting a lot to do in the last “trilogy” movie, not to mention women telling ostensible alpha Oscar Isaac what to do, and nobody wanted to go see the Harrison Ford spin-off not starring Harrison Ford, so there was a lot of damage control on Rise of Skywalker. Not to mention Carrie Fisher died and instead of letting her rest, the Rise filmmakers instead decided to resurrect her with unused footage and CGI compositing. Suffice to say, none of it works—with Daisy Ridley not believable acting “opposite” the artificial Fisher—seriously, they couldn’t keep doing takes until they got a better one; despite costing a fifth of a billion dollars, Rise often feels like they went way too cheap on things… especially with the rebel base stuff (meaning “Fisher,” Ridley, Tran—who’s demoted to cameo level support staff because Disney, at least the Lucasfilm division, are cowards—Isaac, and John Boyega). There’s one sequence where they really need to make the base shine and the movie can’t gin up any enthusiasm for it. Partly because it can’t gin up any enthusiasm for anything, partly because the sets appear to be way too small.

Rise of Skywalker, despite being really long, feels really reductive. Director Abrams and co-writer Chris Terrio would really rather not get too far into anything in the script, which has one actual big reveal but ought to have two. It turns out Ian McDiarmid’s back (hey, wasn’t Luke originally supposed to defeat the Emperor in Episode IX in Gary Kurtz’s Empire-era series outline), but Abrams and Terrio stick that reveal in the opening crawl. Rise’s opening crawl is so bad, so defeated—where’d all of Abrams’s enthusiasm for this franchise go—it makes you wish they’d brought back George Lucas to cameo write it; he couldn’t do worse. Speaking of cameos, let’s just get the John Williams thing out of the way now.

There’s barely any original music and it’s at best mediocre. But it’s barely there. On one hand, John Williams is 87 years old and he gets some slack. On the other hand, Rise of Skywalker is supposed to be the end of a storied, beloved franchise. You’d think they’d want the best score possible. But they don’t. They want a John Williams score. They want a Carrie Fisher credit. It’s not a question of Abrams and company playing it safe; it’s not like Disney Star Wars has ever taken any real chances because it’s Disney, but Rise is like a capitulation. Even when Abrams is able to hit some good nostalgia moments, it’s because old John Williams music really does work well, it’s because his actors are still taking their jobs seriously, even with the crap script. Ridley’s big reveal, teased since the first Disney Star Wars, somehow manages to result in negative character development. It’s incredible how good Abrams and Terrio are at coping out of narrative decisions. They’re not just inert with it, they actually manage to toggle the tide in reverse. The wind in Rise of Skywalker doesn’t blow, it sucks.

Very low okay direction from Abrams. He’s in way too much of a hurry, especially for almost two and a half hours, though he doesn’t get much help from editors Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube. Everyone seems to have a different pace for the film—Abrams, both as director and screenwriter, the actors, the editors, the music. Rise of Skywalker feels slapped together, like the bad opening crawl is to compensate for the addition of McDiarmid after they started shooting but didn’t have enough time to get any real scenes with him and Adam Driver, who ping pong balls around the film, showing up whenever needed to give Ridley some conflict, sometimes with lightsabers.

What’s maybe strangest about Rise of Skywalker is how well Driver and Ridley make out, performance-wise. Ridley’s got a shit part. Like, she plays second fiddle to Driver even when she’s running a scene—and, ostensibly, the entire plot (buds Isaac and Boyega accompany her on her mission because they’re a family and she needs boys to make sure she’s all right)—but she still manages to turn in an okay performance. She acts better than the script gives ever, implying some kind of character development… within reason. Abrams, as writer and as director, works against her. He doesn’t work against Driver, however, who ends up with a great part. I mean, as great a part as you can have in Rise of Skywalker, but a good showcase anyway. Lots of range. And some of the character development Ridley should’ve gotten.

Though Ridley does get friends. Driver doesn’t not just get friends, the movie sets him up having sidekicks and then he never interacts with them. And he’s barely got any time with fellow Imperial baddies Domhnall Gleeson and Richard E. Grant. Grant has the closest thing to fun in Rise. Gleeson’s got what should be a fun part (finally) and he manages to screw it up. Whatever. At least he’s not an E.T. or something.

Isaac and Boyega get to continue their bromance, albeit neutered and straight-coded thanks to romantic interests (name cameo Keri Russell who might only actually be in one shot and the rest a voice performance for Isaac and more… mainstream appropriate Naomi Ackie for Boyega). Now, funny thing about Boyega—who gets no time with previous movie love interest Tran—and Ackie… while the script plays it like they have chemistry, they don’t have any chemistry. And they don’t play for it either. Boyega’s interested in Ackie as a comrade with shared history, but there’s no attempt at sparking. Isaac and Russell’s disembodied voice are at least cute together.

Isaac’s effortlessly charming and not much else. Boyega’s a lot of forced smiles and enthusiasm. Though even his enthusiasm runs out.

What else….

Billy Dee Williams is back for a glorified cameo—seriously, if Carrie Fisher hadn’t died he wasn’t going to be in the movie, was he—and it’s nice to have him around. He’s really not in it enough.

Anthony Daniels has a story arc, but it gets dropped in the third act. So much for the droids being the Saga constants.

All production problems aside, the film relies way too heavily on the scale CGI can provide. Rise of Skywalker tries to supersize its threats and just makes them more and more absurd, which isn’t a bad thing because it covers a lot of what would otherwise just be plain stupid.

Rise of Skywalker is a disappointing conclusion to a forty-two year-old story. But it’s a far less disappointing conclusion to that story than the one Disney Star Wars started for Ridley, Driver, Boyega, and Isaac four years ago. Though it still manages to be a more disappointing sequel to the previous entry two years ago. Abrams succeeded faster at failing Star Wars than even George Lucas. It took Lucas sixteen years to chooch the franchise with the first prequel. Abrams did it in two.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Chris Terrio and Abrams, based on a story by Derek Connolly, Colin Trevorrow, Terrio, and Abrams and characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Dan Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Stefan Grube; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Kevin Jenkins; costume designer, Michael Kaplan; produced by Abrams, Kathleen Kennedy, and Michelle Rejwan; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), Adam Driver (Kylo), John Boyega (Finn), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Anthony Daniels (C-3PO), Joonas Suotamo (Chewbacca), Keri Russell (Zorii), Naomi Ackie (Jannah), Kelly Marie Tran (Rose), Billy Dee Williams (Lando), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux), Richard E. Grant (Pryde), and Ian McDiarmid (Sheev).


Super 8 (2011, J.J. Abrams)

Sometimes special effects are just a little too much, especially with CGI composites letting director Abrams set so much of Super 8 in gigantic action sequences. The film’s about a bunch of tweens in 1979 Ohio making a Super 8 zombie movie when they witness a train crash. The train crash, with train cars flying through the air and the kids running through showering debris, is the first time it seems like Abrams might have a little too much confidence in CGI composites. Especially when cinematographer Larry Fong can’t match the kids in the foreground. Actually, other way around, the CGI compositers can’t match Fong’s lighting of the kids pre-composite.

Then Abrams takes a little break from it and concentrates on the story. He’s already got most of the ground situation done. Abrams’s script is real good at brevity when it needs to be (which makes all of Noah Emmerich’s evil Air Force colonel a little much). By the train crash sequence, Abrams has established lead Joel Courtney (his mom has just died), his sidekick Riley Griffiths, the girl they both think is cute (Elle Fanning), and their second tier pals (Ryan Lee is the pyromaniac in training, Gabriel Basso is the scared one, Zach Mills is the one you forget is in the movie). Kyle Chandler plays Courtney’s dad; he’s a sheriff’s deputy who eventually has to take charge in a crisis situation. Abrams spends some time establishing the strain between Chandler and Courtney because the mom died. It’s effective stuff without ever being particularly… good. Both Chandler and Courtney give good man tears.

Fanning’s dad is town drunk Ron Eldard, who Chandler hates. Eldard doesn’t want Courtney around his daughter. Fanning’s outstanding and Courtney’s likable, so their gentle tween friendship stuff is nice. It’s not so deep it should take over the plot, which Abrams lets it for a while, but it’s nice. Abrams and Fong know how to go for emotional gut shots and they deliver, lens flares and all. And the emotional gut shot music from Michael Giacchino is a lot better than his eventual action and thriller music. Giacchino’s score by the third act is like a TV movie version of John Williams. Oh, right–Steven Spielberg is one of Super 8’s producers. The movie plays like an homage to some of his seventies and eighties films, most often Close Encounters.

The homage, while unnecessary, is kind of cute.

Turns out the Air Force is shipping something top secret and monstrous on the train and they come to town trying to reclaim it. Enter evil colonel Emmerich. None of the Air Force guys are good, however. They’re variations of evil.

For a while, the movie’s about Griffiths trying to integrate the train crash into his Super 8 project while Chandler deals with Emmerich. Then dogs start running away and people’s electronics are getting stolen. Then there’s a quarantine–sorry, not a quarantine, an evacuation. Abrams checks way too many homage boxes on his list, letting Super 8 get away from its stronger elements.

The kid stuff is good. Besides Fanning, not of the performances are great–Courtney’s good, but he’s got fairly predicable narrative tropes to work through–and Abrams’s banter material is what makes Griffiths and Lee’s performances.

Chandler’s investigation stuff is okay, not great, but it mostly runs concurrent to the better kid stuff. Their Super 8 movie, which runs over the end credits, is awesome.

When the evacuation hits, however, is when Super 8 slips. Abrams’s direction is all right just never quite good enough to get the action stuff done. Especially not with all the composited action nonsense going on around the kids. Everyone has a somewhat chill reaction to misfiring tanks, broken legs, and giant monsters, kids, adults, and soldiers alike. There’s this tedious crashed bus sequence at the beginning of the third act; it ought to be excellent, instead it’s artless. There’s no choreography to the frantic action, just CG tying everything together.

Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey’s editing, seemingly to keep things as PG–13 as possible, doesn’t help in that one bus sequence. They’re choppy instead of frantic. Otherwise the editing is undistinguished, sort of like Fong’s photography, or–at its best–Giacchino’s score. The film’s technically competent without ever excelling at anything. Abrams doesn’t need anyone to excel to get Super 8 done.

The finale is a little long, with Abrams going from set piece to set piece to set piece–not forgetting to tug at the heartstrings when he can. The heartstring tugging is the most effective–next to the humor–because the cast is so strong. Super 8’s biggest problem is Abrams not being able to balance between the characters and the plot. It’s too bad.

But Super 8’s still pretty good. It’s just nothing special… which Abrams seems to understand. His enthusiasm, for something he’s writing, directing, and co-producing, is a tad too muted.

Artificial lens flares aren’t enough.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Written and directed by J.J. Abrams; director of photography, Larry Fong; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Martin Whist; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, and Steven Spielberg; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Joel Courtney (Joe Lamb), Kyle Chandler (Deputy Jackson Lamb), Elle Fanning (Alice Dainard), Noah Emmerich (Colonel Nelec), Ron Eldard (Louis Dainard), Riley Griffiths (Charles Kaznyk), Ryan Lee (Cary), Gabriel Basso (Martin), Zach Mills (Preston), David Gallagher (Donny), and Glynn Turman (Dr. Woodward).


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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, J.J. Abrams)

It’s very easy to talk about Star Wars: The Force Awakens as an event. Or maybe just talk about returning stars Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher and even Peter Mayhew (who gets actual scenes with Ford this time, for the first time ever). But those avenues aren’t the most interesting, because the window dressing–all of it pretty good looking (with real sets), a lot of it sounding good (John Williams’s score is successful forty percent of the time)–just distracts from what director Abrams accomplishes.

He hands off the franchise. Not just from Ford and Fisher to Daisy Ridley and John Boyega, but from George Lucas Star Wars to Walt Disney Star Wars. Abrams is making the latter, but in the style of the former. The script, credited to Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan (presumably writing all of Harrison Ford’s dialogue to get the cadence) and Michael Arndt (who scripted a version for Lucas, pre-Disney), is a bit of a disaster. The movie flows great. It goes very long, but only because there needs to be a cliffhanger and a bit of audience pay-off. Abrams knows how to play for the viewer, whether they be sixty-five, thirty-five, twenty-five or five. He certainly should show off more than he does, given that accomplishment.

But Abrams’s success comes not from his script (obviously) or his direction. It comes from the casting. Abrams understands how to cast. Ridley, Boyega, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac (the trio model becoming a quartet, what with Ridley actually available to all of her male co-stars). They’re all good, all occasionally great. Driver’s the best. Can’t say why without spoiling, but maybe the neatest “geeky” part of the film is catching where Abrams is playing with familiar, distinct conventions.

Ridley’s really good too. She both does and doesn’t get enough to do; as one of the leads, yes, but not as an actor.

Ford and Fisher are both good, though Abrams can’t figure out how to shoot them. He keeps his distance and looks like he’s keeping his distance. It’s hero worship. And it’s also supposed to look like hero worship. Abrams has to acknowledge it. It’s pandering. But it’s also Abrams just not knowing how to do it. And Fisher isn’t in it enough (the messy pace sacrifices everyone but Ford).

The film is never organic. Everything is forced into place, whether for narrative reasons, commercial reasons, Hasbro reasons, cast reasons. It’s should be a Frankenstein, but it isn’t. Abrams holds it together, because he’s knows how to tell a story, knows how keep characters’ stories simultaneously compelling. Even if he does cheat at it a lot.

The only bad performance is Domhnall Gleeson and it isn’t even his fault. It’s Abrams’s fault, one of the times he tries and fails. He’s wrong about something (but, note, it’s something new, not something retro).

In the end, Abrams knows how to fly Force Awakens casual. Though, really, Williams’s score isn’t okay. They need to either fire him or get him to actually work.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams and Michael Arndt, based on characters created by George Lucas; director of photography, Daniel Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by John Williams; production designers, Rick Carter and Darren Gilford; produced by Kathleen Kennedy, Abrams and Bryan Burk; released by Walt Disney Pictures.

Starring Daisy Ridley (Rey), John Boyega (Finn), Adam Driver (Kylo), Oscar Isaac (Poe), Harrison Ford (Han Solo), Carrie Fisher (Leia), Peter Mayhew (Chewbacca), Anthony Daniels (C-3P0), Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata), Domhnall Gleeson (Hux) and Andy Serkis (Snoke).


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Star Trek Into Darkness (2013, J.J. Abrams)

For Star Trek Into Darkness, J.J. Abrams operates with an “if it ain’t broke” mentality. It serves him–and the film–fairly well. Except Michael Giacchino’s music. While Abrams goes for sensationalism every time, he does it competently. The Giacchino music, however, is never competent.

This Trek tries hard to create mainstream post-modern; it’s a sequel to the first movie, yes, but it’s also a remake of a television series and a movie series. Not to mention Abrams and the writers gleefully wink at the franchise’s more memorable details. Into Darkness does have some serious moments and even tries hard to work arcs for some of its characters (it loses them too often), but it’s all for fun.

So why do Abrams and company get away with it? Usually the acting. Benedict Cumberbatch is fantastic as the villain, a 23rd century terrorist. If he wanted, he could act circles around Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto, but Cumberbatch gives them time to catch up. He’s the very special guest star, after all.

Both Pine and Quinto are good. Pine’s likable and believable but the script coddles him. He doesn’t have to run the movie. Karl Urban’s great as Bones, Simon Pegg’s fun as Scotty. John Cho and Anton Yelchin lack personality–the script doesn’t give them enough to do. Zoe Saldana’s okay, the script giving her too much to do.

Sadly, Peter Weller’s weak. He’s obviously stunt casting.

Into Darkness succeeds. Hopefully the next one will be more original.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by J.J. Abrams; screenplay by Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman and Damon Lindelof, based on the television series created by Gene Roddenberry; director of photography, Daniel Mindel; edited by Maryann Brandon and Mary Jo Markey; music by Michael Giacchino; production designer, Scott Chambliss; produced by Abrams, Bryan Burk, Orci, Kurtzman and Lindelof; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Karl Urban (Bones), Simon Pegg (Scotty), John Cho (Sulu), Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Benedict Cumberbatch (John Harrison), Alice Eve (Carol), Peter Weller (Admiral Marcus) and Bruce Greenwood (Captain Pike).


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