Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

The first thing I want to say about Star Wars: The Force Awakens is that it is a very good movie. More than that, it is a very good Star Wars movie. These two things may not necessarily always go together. J.J. Abrams is clearly a talented filmmaker, but what makes this film a particularly triumphant return for the venerable sci-fi franchise is that the talent he has assembled both in front of and behind the camera have a true love and passion for the Star Wars universe. That’s not something you can fake.

The balancing act the film pulls between calling back to the series’ past and setting up its future is nothing short of remarkable. Films like this are supposed to be messy: new characters and conflicts have to be introduced while old ones have to be given their due beyond glorified cameos. But Abrams and company make it seem effortless.

Part of the reason for that is the very wise decision to recruit original franchise screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan. The screenplay he has crafted along with Abrams and co-writer Michael Arndt is surprisingly witty and fast-paced, eschewing the more methodical pacing of the original trilogy and the almost suffocating self-seriousness of the prequels.

The story, set about 30 years after Return of the Jedi, starts by telling us that Luke Skywalker has gone missing. In the shadow of the Empire a new sinister organization called The First Order has risen up to take its place. Their goal is to eliminate Luke, who is said to be the last remaining Jedi. Under the watchful eye of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), hotheaded Sith-in-training Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) scours the galaxy for a map that is said to lead to Luke’s whereabouts.

The Resistance is also looking for Luke, in hopes of saving him. Their best fighter pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) is sent along with his trusty droid BB-8 to find the map and bring it to the Resistance before the First Order gets its hands on it. Along the way, he runs into a fleeing Stormtrooper with a conscience (John Boyega’s Finn) and Rey, a scavenger searching for a better life. The ragtag group soon runs into the legendary Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his wookie pal Chewbacca. Together they determine to complete the map and rescue Luke in hopes of training a new generation of Jedi to take down the First Order.

The production design of The Force Awakens can’t be praised enough. Star Wars has always had a certain feel to it, and this movie gets it all right. From costumes to the subtle use of CGI and highly touted use of practical effects, there were times I felt like I was stepping back into the original trilogy. A scene set inside a cantina illustrates this perfectly. It’s filled with all manner of alien lowlifes, and a band that recalls the cantina band from A New Hope. I felt like I had gone back through time, in the best way possible. But the film is not content to remain in the past. While it calls back frequently to its predecessors, nothing is ever quite the same. Thirty years have passed, after all, and everything from light sabers to spaceships to blasters and droids has changed in subtle yet obvious ways. The slick chrome of the First Order is contrasted with the harsh desert landscape of the planet Jakku, highlighting the tremendous variety on display. Everything about the visuals is a home-run.

The Force Awakens is a thrilling labor of love, one with a deep respect for both the past and the future of the Star Wars saga.

The Force Awakens is a thrilling labor of love, one with a deep respect for both the past and the future of the Star Wars saga.

A movie can feel like Star Wars and still strike out if it doesn’t contain characters we care about. Thankfully, all of the new additions are good ones. The journey of Finn from terrified soldier to (slightly more) confident warrior is an engaging one, as is Rey’s discovery of some truths about her destiny and place in the grand conflict. Poe is given less development, but he fits in well as a confident and assured leader of the Resistance. BB-8 is a marvelous creation, more visually interesting and even emotionally engaging than R2-D2, which is something I never thought I would say. But the most intriguing new character is Kylo Ren. Although he worships the legendary Sith Lord Darth Vader, Kylo is a much more hotheaded and inexperienced Sith. This makes him initially less calculating but also much more unpredictable (his main general, played by a great Domhnall Gleeson, even pushes him around a bit). He reminds me more of Anakin in Revenge of the Sith, but his character is much more conflicted, and his path to the dark side is less abrupt and ultimately more believable.

Of course, a major joy of the film is seeing the old characters we know and love. Han Solo gets the most screen time and development, which is a wise choice. He and Chewbacca add a great deal of fun to the proceedings, and it’s awesome to see them bickering in the same way they always have. We get appearances from all the other major players, but it’s best not to dive in too deep for fear of spoilers. Safe to say, these original characters are given a great tribute here; nothing betrays them, and they’re actually given more depth than I would have expected.

The story could still use a bit of polish, however. Sometimes, it’s difficult to tell whether looming questions are plot holes or are simply being saved for answering in the next episode. I’m hoping it’s the latter, but the fact that it’s hard to tell the difference comes off as a little bit lazy. But the movie easily passed the franchise “mid-quel” test of being both a satisfying self-contained story and making the audience unbearably excited for the next installment.

And that’s what ultimately makes The Force Awakens such a satisfying experience. For a movie that has so much on its shoulders, it never forgets to tell an entertaining and emotional story of its own. It never feels like it simply exists to set up future movies. This, along with its expert pacing, its willingness to celebrate the past without becoming mired in it and its brilliant use of characters both new and old make it a must-see experience for both casual and die-hard fans of the franchise. Consider my expectations shattered.

The quiet revolution of A Charlie Brown Christmas

On December 9, 1965, nearly half the population of the United States tuned in to watch the premiere of the first Peanuts special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Christmas, and in particular holiday specials, would never look the same. Rightly looked upon as a holiday classic, the animated special is even more of a marvel due to the fact that it very nearly never happened.

What is now the second-longest holiday special following the Rankin-Bass production of Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer, the special was originally commissioned by Coca-Cola. Peanuts creator Charles Schulz, director Bill Melendez and producer Lee Mendelson mapped out the feature in a handful of hours, and were put on a tight five-month deadline to have the animated short ready in time for Christmas. Musician Vince Guaraldi had already written his famous “Linus and Lucy” piano piece, but he was also commissioned to write the rest of the music for the special. Opening song “Christmastime is Here” was recorded just four days before the premiere.

The sponsors were not impressed. “They thought having jazz music on a Christmas show didn’t make much sense,” Mendelson recalled in a recent USA Today article about the making of the special. “They didn’t like the (voice) actors being kids, and they just didn’t like the show in general. They said: ‘You made a nice try. We’ll put it on the air, obviously, but it just doesn’t work.’ ”

Viewers disagreed. The show was a ratings smash, pulling in 15 million viewers. Last year, 6 million people across the country still tuned in to participate in what has become an annual holiday tradition. There are many things that make the show a true classic: it’s laid-back pace, its typically strong cast of characters, its childlike sense of innocence as well as its themes exploring the true value of Christmas in the wake of corporate consumerism.


A Charlie Brown Christmas is considered a classic for many reasons, but its greatest legacy is the purity, simplicity and strength with which it conveys its message.

Nowhere is this charm more evident than in the always riveting moment where, responding to Charlie Brown’s question about the true meaning of Christmas, Linus gets up on stage and starts reciting from the Gospel of Luke. Everyone was worried this scene would scare off sponsors, but not Schulz.

“He said, ‘If we’re going to do a Christmas special, we’ve really got to do it the right way and talk about what Christmas is all about,’ ” Mendelson tells USA Today. “Bill and I looked at each other, and I said, ‘There’s never been any animation that I know of from the Bible. It’s kind of risky.’ Then Schulz said, ‘Well, if we don’t do it, who will?’ ”

The rest of the crew was wise to trust Schulz. This scene is the heart of the special; without it, the message would not have the same impact. Christopher Shea, who was 7 when he voiced Linus for the special (all of the child characters were voiced by actual children), noted this when he discussed the legacy of that scene in A Charlie Brown Christmas: The Making of a Tradition.

“At the time, being just 7, I didn’t realize the depth and perception of what I was reading, even though our family did have deep religious values. From a very early age I remember our whole family listening to the Messiah every year as a holiday tradition. But as I grew older I came to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas as it was told on the TV show. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience I will always treasure.”

If reading from the Bible on national television was controversial 50 years ago, how much more so would it seem to be today? And yet, households around the country will tune in each year to hear its message, even if they celebrate the season for reasons that have nothing to do with baby Jesus in a manger.

I think that’s probably because this scene so brilliantly goes against two major social streams of the last 50 years. One is consumerism; certainly an issue in 1965, it’s even more prevalent today. With the advent of commercials and targeted advertising, we schedule our lives around the “shopping season,” with Black Fridays (and Thursdays), cyber Mondays and the mad rush to spend before the year is over. In comparison to that, Linus’ one-minute consolidation of the Christmas story is positively quaint. In that way, it is also a great relief. If this is what Christmas is about, it sounds a lot less stressful than all the other stuff I’ve been running around doing.

The speech also seems to fly in the face of the last 50 years of Christian history. The church has a lot of mud caked on its shoes for choosing to bed with politicians, rising with the “moral majority” of the 1980s and continuing today with presidential candidates like Ted Cruz proposing some sort of terrifying theocracy where Christianity functions more like big brother, regulating everything we say and do. Theologically, we find ourselves mired in legalism once again. It’s icky stuff, but Linus comes to remind us all that Christmas is a time where we can get back to the fundamentals of why Jesus came and what it looked like when he did.

It’s the clearest, most pure distillation of the Christmas message I can imagine hearing. No political agenda, no asking for money, no attempts to shame viewers or scare them into religion. “You’re sick of consumerism? Let me tell you a story. This is what Christmas is all about.” We westerners have managed to muck up the clear and concise gospel message almost beyond recognition, but Linus is not guilty of this. He’s just sharing a pretty awesome story.

And what a witness! Linus doesn’t say “this is what Christmas means to me,” or, “this is how I celebrate during this time of year.” He, and by extension Schulz, is making a stand to say “this is what Christmas is all about,” what everything else we love about this time of year stems from. It’s a bold stance, especially today, but it’s one of the reasons the scene still holds so much power. This may be the only time any part of the gospel message is heard in a household all year. And the secular and spiritual alike welcome it with open arms.

The great television critic Matt Zoller Seitz summed up what truly makes this special, well, special, even to modern audiences, in an article he wrote for the Newark Star Ledger upon the show’s 30th anniversary in 1995.

“Television today favors fast, frequent, exaggerated bursts of action and confrontation. In comparison, A Charlie Brown Christmas is almost unnervingly reflective, dependent on words, emotions and small grace notes rather than speed, glitz and noise.”

A Charlie Brown Christmas finds beauty in simplicity. Ice skating upon a lake. A sad looking tree that needs a little love. A baby boy, born in a manger, who would one day be the savior of the world. Christmas is a stressful time of year for many, and the special doesn’t shy away from that. Charlie is frustrated with the holiday too (“My dog has gone commercial! I can’t stand it!”), which is why the ultimate message is so inspiring. We change along with Charlie, slowly moving away from cynicism to appreciation for home and heart, friends and family and the God who came down as a man to bring us all together. It’s hard to hate the holidays after being exposed to it.

After an initial staff screening of the special, animator Ed Levitt saw what Coca-Cola didn’t. He stood up and declared, “A Charlie Brown Christmas will run for 100 years!”

We should all be so lucky.