"Everything is as it should be."

                                                                                  - Benjamin Purcell Morris

 

 

© all material on this website is written by Michael McCaffrey, is copyrighted, and may not be republished without consent

A Very Pleasant Awakening : Thoughts on a Galaxy Far, Far Away by Jeff Boehm

***ATTENTION READERS*** :  I have not yet been able to see the new Star Wars film, Star Wars Episode VII : The Force Awakens. So I have no review to share with you. Instead I have something much, much better.  A great friend of mine, Dr. Jeff Boehm, has agreed to share his thoughts on the film with you. Who is Dr. Jeff Boehm and why should you care what he thinks of Star Wars? Whenever there is a topic of which I am not well-read or well-versed, I always try and get informed by someone who is an expert in the field. Trust me when I tell you that Dr. Boehm is an expert, generally, in all things science fiction, and, in particular, in Star Trek and Star Wars. How much of an expert?  Well, Dr. Boehm has two Master's Degrees from Starfleet Academy University, an M.V.A (Masters of Vulcan Administration) and a Master of Arts in Kobayashi Maru Studies. He got his PhD in Galactic Travel with an emphasis on the Kessel Run from the University of Kashyyk at Kachirho. Add to that his "Duel" Degree from the Jedi Academy and,  YES…you can say he's an expert. Now sit back, relax and enjoy the very well informed musings of our guest writer, Dr. Jeff Boehm!!

(In "reality" Jeff Boehm is a great friend of mine, a fantastic actor and a terrifically smart, insightful and interesting guy who also happens to be a huge (maybe the hugest?) fan of all things Star Wars. So I am proud to share his thoughts on the new Star Wars film with you. That said, it is time for a DISCLAIMER : Jeff Boehm's views are his own and may or may not be shared by me…we won't know until I see the movie!!)

****WARNING : THIS POST CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS!! ****

 

For the geek & fanboy/girl cognoscenti, there is a fine line between homage and sacrilege. The consensus is that J.J. Abrams’ 2009 Star Trek was the former while its sequel, Into Darkness, was firmly the latter. With Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, Abrams and co-writer Lawrence Kasdan (with Michael Arndt also getting a credit for his early draft) do a tremendous job satisfying fans’ thirst for nostalgia while introducing a new generation of characters and adventures into Star Wars lore.

While the original heroes with whom we are so familiar are integral to the story (with varying amounts of screen time), Abrams and Kasdan smartly put a new young trio of protagonists front and center. And the three are a wonderfully diverse triad – both in character and race, not a white male among them. Along with scavenging loner Rey (Daisy Ridley), we meet Finn (John Boyega), a fallen stormtrooper, and Poe Dameron, an ace pilot (the always excellent Oscar Isaac). Poe plays a smaller, though vital, role here but no doubt will play a larger role going forward. The new trilogy rests in good hands with these three.

Much has been made of the film’s many similarities to the original Star Wars (Episode IV: A New Hope). In my opinion, this was the right way to go: give audiences something familiar while also ushering in the new. The idea of a “soft reboot” works. Besides, the first film – Luke Skywalker’s story – closely follows the Hero’s Journey as laid out by Joseph Campbell. And there is just one hero’s journey, as it were, so of course there will be some similarities with our new hero’s path. Mythological archetypes abound, but this is a strength of the film, not a weakness.

 

Daisy Ridley is a revelation as Rey, our new hero. She is a strong, self-sufficient protagonist who is a survivor and has the skillset to reflect that. Ridley’s Rey is tough but relatable and easy to root for. There are hints of her ancestry throughout, though we are never explicitly given her familial connections. Pieces of the whole…

As for the Dark Side, there is new blood, as well. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is one of the more intriguing and complex villains in recent memory. The filmmakers were smart not to try to make another Darth Vader. After all, how could there be a more badass Vader? However, there are some very real reasons why Kylo admires and aspires to be the famous Dark Lord of the Sith. 

But instead of being cold, calculating and controlled like Vader, Kylo is impulsive, imprudent, and immature. He is arrogant, but insecure. Powerful, but easily frustrated. As we begin to learn about his background, these personality traits and internal conflicts start to make sense. I’m very excited to see where this character goes.

 

Anytime something is successful (commercially, especially), there is an inevitable backlash; it suddenly becomes hip to be contrarian. And the response to The Force Awakens is no different; Monday Morning Quarterbacking and criticism already abound on the interwebs.

Likely the most seen – and dimwitted – of the bunch was the HuffPost’s “40 Unforgivable Plot Holes in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.” “Unforgivable”?? By a guy who then claims, “I loved the film.” Hmm… Rather than getting red-faced and spending several paragraphs responding, I will leave this post HERE, where a man named Matty Granger, though a bit vitriolic, quite adroitly addresses most every “plot hole” mentioned in the HuffPost piece.

Conveniences! Unanswered questions! Gaps in narrative logic! Oh my!  It is especially funny – and ironic – when these claims come forth from “superfans” of the original Star Wars movies. Those classic movies had all these in spades: 

Just like those wonderful films, The Force Awakens is a 2-hour science fiction space opera, and there is an all-powerful Force making things happen in the universe; a little suspension of disbelief is needed, and an ability to connect-the dots is essential. I don’t think that’s too much to ask. Plus, using your imagination to fill in some of the blanks is part of the fun – How did Maz Kanata come to possess that lightsaber last seen tumbling down a shaft in Cloud City?

The Force Awakens laid a solid foundation for a new trilogy; while some goals were achieved, so many questions ARE left unanswered, details not put right out in the open, many loose ends not tied up. But for me, that does not detract from the movie. Instead, it adds to my appreciation, encourages me to re-watch, and makes me look forward to future episodes, anticipating what might be revealed next…

Especially with the gigantic weight of 40 years of Star Wars devotees and mythology on his shoulders, I think Abrams came through with a funny, entertaining, nostalgically sound adventure.

One more thing to mention about J.J. Abrams’ deft touch with this material: he excels at working with actors and directing for comedic timing (things his predecessor, George Lucas, was not known for). Both these skills are on fine display in The Force Awakens. And, in tandem with Abrams’ and Kasdan’s clever writing, they are most apparent during the key moments of levity sprinkled throughout. These scenes, sometimes just lines or actions, fit perfectly within the narrative and reveal much about the individual characters. The laughs are earned and welcome. 

A word about the movie’s commercial appeal – Box Office isn't everything certainly, but it can be used as a barometer for a movie’s reach and resonance. In setting a new domestic box office record in less than three weeks with great word of mouth, scoring many returning customers, and earning a 93% fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes, one could reason that Abrams and Kasdan did a pretty bang-up job of giving the people what they want. That's an art that has been pretty stale in Hollywood (save for Marvel) since that magical time from the mid 70's to the mid 90's, when Spielberg reigned supreme.   

Lest I be accused of seeing the film only through rose-colored glasses, I must admit that I did have a few minor quibbles with the film. One scene in particular - involving alien beasts and bounty hunters soon after Rey meets Han Solo - doesn't seem to fit the tone of the movie. Also, Captain Phasma struck me as giving in a little too easily, and I wouldn't have minded a bit more backstory during the Maz Kanata sequence. but any tiny issues were far outweighed by the propulsion of the grand adventure and the moments of sheer joy I experienced watching X-wings coming in hot over the water ?! A lightsaber battle in a snowy forest?! Yes, Please!

Screen-Shot-2015-04-16-at-2.54.41-PM.png

The Force Awakens might not have been perfect, but I was not disappointed at all. That in itself was a great relief after the pain of the prequels (and another more recent slap to the face of my youth, Indiana Jones and the Crystal Skull). Indeed, I was walking on air as I left the theater, feeling like an 8-year-old kid once more, ready to go back and see it again. 

©2016

 

 

Whiplash : A Review

**WARNING: THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS!! THIS IS YOUR OFFICIAL AND FINAL SPOILER ALERT!!**

Whiplash, written and directed by newcomer Damien Chazelle, and starring Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons, is one of the best, if not the best film of the year. The film tells the story of 19 year old Andrew Neiman (Teller), an aspiring and ambitious jazz drummer in his first year at the acclaimed Shaffer Conservatory, and his relationship with the school's infamously demanding conductor, Terence Fletcher (Simmons). 

The film is nearly impeccable in all areas. First time director, Chazelle, masterfully creates and maintains a palpable tension throughout the entirety of the story. The storytelling is so streamlined and efficient that there is not one wasted scene or even a wasted moment. Every single moment is built upon the previous and builds toward the next. 

The performances by Miles Teller and J.K. Simmons are unquestionably brilliant. Both actors deserve, at a minimum, Oscar nominations, as does Chazelle for the script and his direction. Watching this film and their performances in it, reminds me why I love cinema and acting as much as I do. This is one of those films which gives me hope that exquisitely sublime acting can still matter, and that artistic films of tremendous quality can overcome a business model and public that more often than not discounts them in favor of mindless big-budget retreads and sequels.

Miles Teller as Andrew

Miles Teller as Andrew

Miles Teller as Andrew, plays the awkward teenager, struggling to fit in and make his way in the world, so perfectly that it is, at times, uncomfortable to watch. There are no seams to Teller's performance at all, he simply inhabits Andrew in all his discomfort, desperation, need, ambition, sweetness and ugliness. Teller never makes a false step by veering into sentimentality or manipulation. He so thoroughly brings Andrew to life in such a genuine and organic way that Andrew feels familiar to us and so we recognize him from our own lives, as maybe our son, a brother, a desperate friend or God forbid…ourselves. The skill and power of Teller's performance binds us to Andrew so that we cringe with him, celebrate with him and deflate with him through all of his ups and downs. 

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher has an energy that is so concentrated and direct that it is palpable. He pulsates with a focused ferocity and cutting brutality that is as magnetic as it is repulsive. His performance is, like Miles Teller's, the work of a master craftsman. It is specific, precise and distinct yet irresistibly dynamic. When Simmon's Fletcher unleashes his wrath, those around him only pray that he doesn't direct that energy at them, and when he directs it at someone else they put their head down, keep their mouth shut and thank the good Lord that it's the other guy getting it and not them. Fletcher is a cruel bully who emotionally, physically and mentally abuses all around him, but by the end of the film he is proven to be not only vindictive and vicious…but effective. Simmons makes this ferocious and callous man Fletcher a real person, so that even in his remorseless brutality to those around him, we never feel he lacks passion or doesn't care…it is just what he cares about and if it's too much, that is in question. Fletcher is interested in transcendent greatness, and will do most anything to see it form before him, including destroying those who lack the skill, and more importantly, the will, to be great.

"The Destroyer of Worlds"

"The Destroyer of Worlds"

The Fletcher character reminds me of the quote from the Bhagavad Gita, "Now I become death, the destroyer of worlds." Fletcher is death, the destroyer of Andrew's world and the world of all artists who aspire to exalted greatness. Fletcher is destroyer to Andrew's ego, his self-image, his worldview, his hopes and his dreams. All those things must be destroyed in order for Andrew, and all artists, to complete the hero's journey and become, not just a man, but a god who walks upon the earth. Andrew must leave his father, and his father's approach to the world (settling for 'good enough') and embrace Fletcher's (the unrelenting search for greatness), even if it is through spite and vengeance toward Fletcher, in order to complete his hero's journey. Andrew must be emptied in order to find the greatness that lives deep with him. Fletcher is the one who destroys Andrew's self and leaves him bloodied and broken in front of the world, and in that naked humiliation, at his lowest point, devoid of everything, Andrew is able to discover the greatness that was hidden within him all along. It is his anger and hatred at Fletcher that at first brings the needed vitality to birth this newfound greatness, but once it breathes the air of life and becomes manifest in the world, Andrew's anger and rage towards Fletcher fades and he is left in a state of near religious ecstasy as he becomes one with his drums in musical precision, passion and perfection. 

The Artists Struggle.

The Artists Struggle.

Whiplash works not only as a straight forward story of a young man coming of age as an artist and overcoming obstacles to do so, but it is also a great mythical tale of the hero's journey into the sacred ground of the gods and the gatekeeper who protects that sacred ground. Andrew is, of course, the hero on the journey, and Fletcher is the gatekeeper, be it the dragon, or Cerberus or the Sphinx, who puts all initiates to the test, and only those who pass his grueling gauntlet will be allowed into the inner sanctum of the gods where the treasure of golden music resides. Andrew must answer all questions posed to him, and survive all tests Fletcher-dragon puts to him, in order to even be considered for entry into the revered ground. And even after passing the tests, it isn't until Andrew releases his old self, symbolized as his being son to his father, and he walks away from his father and takes the offensive against the tyrannical Fletcher-dragon, is he able to prove his courage and worth and gain entry into the sacred land of the gods, where Apollo, Greek god of music, or Saraswati, Hindu Goddess of music, or Dionyssus, god of religious ecstasy and ritual madness, is conjured and made manifest in Andrew's playing. He then stops playing the drums, and the drums start playing him, the music and Andrew, are in the hands of the gods now, and the music that is a result of this mystical and supernatural intercourse is gloriously divine.

Blood must be spilled as a sacrifice to the gods of greatness.

Blood must be spilled as a sacrifice to the gods of greatness.

The hero's journey that Andrew embarks on is the same journey that all artists, be they musicians, actors or writers must go through. In my experience as an acting coach and teacher, the struggle I most often see is that of aspiring actors being unable to truly empty themselves and lose their old self in order to embrace the new self that is waiting for them if they only would have the courage to make the leap towards it. In working with actors, I am often reminded of the 'oedipal' section of The Doors song "The End" in which Jim Morrison sings of killing his father and fucking his mother. So many actresses I have seen need to kill their father, symbolically of course, to free themselves from the fear of his judgement, in order to become great. Actors need to kill their mothers (and fathers) in order to stop being sons, in other words children, and start being men.  Like Andrew, sons are always on the defensive, but when they 'kill their fathers', like Andrew did in walking away from his father, they are then free to go on the offensive, which is where freedom lies.  It has been my experience that the overwhelming majority of both actors and actresses lack the courage and the will to symbolically kill their parents, and their work suffers as a result of it. Parental judgment, whether real or imagined, can, and almost always does, destroy the freedom needed for artistic greatness to flourish, and leaves in it's wake the lesser choices of entertaining and performing. Thus all artists who strive for greatness must at some point kill their parents, again symbolically, in order to be free and empty enough to enter the hallowed ground of the gods where true greatness lies. Only once an artist kills their parents will they be able to complete their hero's journey by slaying their own personal Fletcher-dragon. This is the story of Whiplash, and it is the story for all of us who answer that most divine of calls, the sacred call to be an artist.

© 2014

FOR REVIEWS OF OTHER FILMS RELEASED DURING THE HOLIDAY SEASON, PLEASE CLICK ON THESE LINKS TO THE THEORY OF EVERYTHING , BIRDMAN OR (THE UNEXPECTED VIRTUE OF IGNORANCE) , FOXCATCHER , WILD , AMERICAN SNIPER , THE IMITATION GAME , A MOST VIOLENT YEAR , NIGHTCRAWLER , STILL ALICE , INHERENT VICE , SELMA , MR. TURNER , CAKE .