Star Wars: The Force Awakens

By: Kevin Jordan

Reviving the past.

By far, the question I get asked the most is “what do you think the best movie of the year is?”  I like this question because it allows me to rant a little about how the main stream critics would never say a movie like Star Wars is the best movie of the year.  Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has released in theaters, that question has changed to “do you think the new Star Wars is the best movie of the year?”  As much as I loved the movie, and considering how I now believe J.J. Abrams can do no wrong, I can say without hesitation that main stream critics are pretty much dead inside.  However, The Force Awakens is NOT the best movie of the year – that would be The Martian.  However again, The Force Awakens is definitely top three (if you are wondering what the third is, you’ll just have to wait until my Year in Review is posted in a couple weeks).

A much more difficult and interesting question to answer was posed by a friend of mine a couple of days ago – “is The Force Awakens the best Star Wars movie?”  I can’t think of a more loaded question than that.  And the answer, depending on who is asking, might cause diplomatic relations to deteriorate to the point of someone jabbing you in the neck with a homemade light saber.  I’d say we could start by tossing the three prequels out immediately, but even that argument has become vociferous in recent months.  Seriously, there are people out there actually defending those films as really good movies and not doing it ironically or sarcastically.  Those people are also dead wrong – the three prequels are garbage, and no amount of rewriting history in their heads is going to change that.

In the broader argument of which Star Wars film is the best, The Empire Strikes Back is the most often picked movie, but not by me.  As a kid, I watched all three originals dozens of times and Empire was my least favorite.  It doesn’t have enough action, it has the creepy cave scene with Luke and Darth Vader, and it has the kind of ending that a kid doesn’t like.  A New Hope is similar in that much of the beginning part of the movie is slow and the trash compactor scene was scary.  Return of the Jedi was my favorite because, you guessed it, action, action, and more action (side note: even I never really liked the Ewoks and always thought that dropping rocks on a storm trooper’s head and knocking them out was tough to believe).  Yes, the rancor was frightening and the pit of Sarlacc was a thing of nightmares, but the battle on Jabba’s pleasure barge was awesome and the climactic battle where three different battles were happening simultaneously never got old.  And, to answer your new questions – no, I did not have to look up any of those references and, no, I do not own a storm trooper cookie jar.

For me to answer the question of best Star Wars movie, I have to compare The Force Awakens to Return of the Jedi and The Empire Strikes Back.  Why not A New Hope?  I’m glad you asked.  The Force Awakens is almost a remake of A New Hope, which is also the reason I don’t think it’s the best movie of 2015.  Now, if you have not seen The Force Awakens yet and you don’t even want tiny SPOILERS, stop reading now.  I’ve already told you I loved this movie and I’m even considering seeing it again and paying the 3-D surcharge (and you know how I feel about 3-D), so you know what my rating is going to be.  Last warning – very mild SPOILERS imminent.

The Force Awakens and A New Hope both feature a young hero living on a desert planning who is strong with the Force.  They both have a resistance/rebellion fighting against an evil empire, now called the First Order.  They both have a droid containing secret information that everyone is trying to get their hands on.  They both feature a super weapon capable of destroying a planet with a giant laser (this time the weapon is the size of an entire planet).  They both feature the resistance leaders looking at a hologram of the super weapon and determining that the best way to destroy it is to disable its shields and fire at a specific weak point on the globe.  They both feature a villain draped in black, wearing a respirator, and speaking with a modulated voice.  They both feature a secondary villain who is the military leader of the evil empire and doesn’t really answer to the other villain.  The point is that Abrams was most likely creatively restricted by his Disney overlords to ensure that a repeat of The Phantom Menace did not happen.  Again, I was wildly entertained by The Force Awakens, but it was impossible not to notice the volume of plot elements lifted from A New Hope.  But, what makes The Force Awakens better than A New Hope is that our hero, Rey (Daisy Ridley), is not whiny like Luke was, there is an almost perfect balance between the comedic relief and seriousness, the visuals are phenomenal (like I said, I’m strongly considering attending a 3-D showing), and of course, plenty of action.

Getting back to the question of if The Force Awakens is the best, it never asks you to believe that a bunch of primitive fur balls hurling rocks and sticks can defeat a heavily armored infantry wielding laser guns and walking tanks like Return of the Jedi.  Considering the quantity of action is roughly equal, Jedi is out.  As for Empire, thinking about it beyond its level of action (which there is plenty, just not as much as Jedi), could the plot distinguish the two?  The plot of The Force Awakens is essentially – “Where’s Luke?”  There’s a bigger story in the works – new rebellion, new empire, who is Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), what’s going on with the new Republic, why is Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) wearing a mask if he doesn’t need to, to name a few – but the movie itself is really about finding Luke.  The plot of Empire is essentially – “Learn to be a Jedi, Luke.”  Yes, there is the bigger story of rebellion versus empire and Han Solo and gang being chased by the empire for almost the entire movie, but all of that is just setup for Luke to return as a Jedi.

Characters, maybe?  The Force Awakens introduces a bunch of new characters, all of which are well-fleshed-out or intriguing enough for us to wait for more in the upcoming sequels.  We’ve already mentioned Rey, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, but there’s also everyone’s new favorite droid BB-8, storm trooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega), and X-wing pilot extraordinaire Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac).  They also bring back the old gang, though nobody besides Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) do more than scowl or utter more than a couple of lines.  Considering Empire was a sequel, they too brought back the old gang, but also added Lando Calrissian, the Emperor, and, of course, Boba Fett.  Wow – this is harder than I thought it was going to be.

I can’t tell you more without giving away spoilers that would make you want to maim me, so you’ll just have to take my word for it that The Force Awakens is as good as The Empire Strikes Back.  Either answer is defensible, and both should be embraced by both my generation and the younger generation.  But, regardless of which movie you think is better, we can all agree on one thing – thanking J.J. Abrams for resurrecting Star Wars in film and making us remember why we loved the originals so much.

Rating: All this movie needed to be worth every penny was to be better than the prequels.  It’s worth many times that.


By: Kevin Jordan

Scientific evidence backing up what we already knew.  (Or:  DUH.)

If you are an American and own a television, you are well aware of the concussion issue dominating NFL conversations for the past couple of years.  If you are a non-brain-damaged human older than nine years old (perhaps even younger), you don’t need a forensic pathologist to convince you that banging your head into other people’s heads hundreds and thousands of times is probably going to cause brain damage.  But, we live in a country where a large portion of people believe that seven billion of us wandering the Earth have no impact on the climate (we do), another portion of people believe vaccines cause autism (they don’t), and still other people believe Channing Tatum is a good actor, so sometimes the smarter people among us have to spell things out.  Without further ado, I present Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man who discovered chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE), or as some of us like to call it: Duh.

Concussion is the story of Dr. Omalu (played by Will Smith) discovering CTE by examining the brains of deceased football players, then fighting with the NFL to bring that discovery to light.  Unsurprisingly, the NFL knew about the effects of concussions for years, but lied about it to its players in order to continue making as much money as possible and avoid the backlash, inevitable lawsuits, and players quitting.  You see, the NFL isn’t stupid – its leaders and owners also know that brain damage can occur when two large muscular men smash into each other head first over and over and over again.  Like Dr. Omalu says in the film at one point, “It’s common sense.” (This line comes in response to the question “how do you know there will be more cases like Mike Webster” – Webster being the patient yielding the discovery.)

Before you make a judgement about my opinion of football and the NFL, let me tell you about the movie.  Will Smith was awesome as Dr. Omalu.  Smith is one of those actors that is so big that it’s very difficult to separate him from the role he’s playing.  When asked about his performance in any given movie, more often than not you’d say he was playing Will Smith.  The next best example I can give you of this phenomenon is Tom Cruise.  In other words, every role they play comes off as the same character.  But, not this time around for Smith.  He did such a good job of getting into character that you forget that he’s Will Smith.  Dr. Omalu himself commented (and I’m paraphrasing) “it was like Smith borrowed my soul.”  There is no praise higher than that, and Smith earned it.

But Smith wasn’t the only one delivering an Oscar-shattering performance.  Albert Brooks (playing Dr. Cyril Wecht, mentor and boss to Dr. Omalu) was fantastic, delivering much of the very necessary comedic relief that keeps the movie from being more depressing than a baby’s funeral.  Then there’s Alec Baldwin, who plays Dr. Julian Bailes (former team physician for the Pittsburgh Steelers), delivering us a character with an internal struggle between loving a game that goes against his instincts as a doctor.  The facial expressions alone throughout the film are worth the price of admission.  Rounding it out are the men who portrayed the real-life players – led by David Morse as Mike Webster – who suffered from CTE and eventually killed themselves.  You will cringe upon learning about Mr. Webster’s last few months on Earth, and Morse brings it to life in full, horrifying, living color.

Besides the characters, the movie’s pacing is near perfect as it moves us along with Dr. Omalu’s progress over the course of a decade or so.  Spliced throughout the movie is archived footage of some of the worst hits and falls captured during football games and this footage is exceptionally effective at hammering home the point Dr. Omalu is trying to make.  It forces you to face the fact that football is a much more violent and destructive activity than some of us would like to admit.  While Dr. Omalu has stated that he isn’t out to destroy football with this research, Peter Landesman (writer/director) has created a movie that, at the very least, leans in that direction by painting the NFL, as an organization, as the villain in this movie.  I may not agree that football should die, but the NFL deserves every bit of criticism (and then some) for their behavior regarding concussions and Dr. Omalu’s research.

(Side note: as I write this, there is a news story about the NFL pulling research funding on concussions because they don’t like the man leading the effort, even though they promised the funding would have no strings attached.  Again, they deserve the criticism.)

Personally, I’m on Dr. Omalu’s side when it comes to the fate of the NFL.  Like him, I think the real point here is to tell the players the truth so they can make informed decisions.  Many a comment board on the concussion story is filled with people saying that players make millions of dollars and know what they are getting into, so we shouldn’t feel sorry for them.  The problem is that, according to many, many sources, the players didn’t know because the NFL commissioned bullshit studies (the movie briefly covers this as well) claiming concussions had no long-term effects on the brain.  The movie does a great job of explaining the actual science around concussions in terms that anyone can understand, as well as comparing the NFL’s actions to that of how tobacco companies acted similarly back in the 1990’s.

But the real problem those commenters ignore are the millions and millions of people who play football, but don’t make it to the NFL to cash in.  I have a three-year old boy who loves to play “football” (he gets in a crouch, then runs at me full speed, chucking a Nerf ball at me at point-blank range).  After watching the film, my wife – who already doesn’t want him to play football – said she doesn’t even want him to play “football” in the living room.  Aside from the trolls who say this is nothing more than the pussification of America (you know – the ‘real men’), who can blame her?  I certainly don’t, because I agree with her – I don’t want him to play football when he is older either; there are plenty of other sports he can play to learn the same positive attributes that people ascribe to football.  And, Dr. Omalu agrees too, stating that he believes children under the age of eighteen should not be allowed to play tackle football, but can decide when they are of age.  To me, that is perfectly logical and reasonable.  The chances of my son making it to the NFL are so slim that the risk just isn’t worth it.  And this movie really slams home the likely consequences that these players face after their careers are over, even if they do make it.

Personally, my problem is with me being a fan of football.  I have been a Denver Broncos fan my entire life and still watch and enjoy the games.  But, how do I reconcile not allowing my son to play football while watching the games as a fan?  You’re right – I don’t know either, but I’m going to have to explain it to him at some point.  Plus, after learning about how the NFL has acted with this topic (and still seeing how two-faced they are about player safety), I simply can’t enjoy the games like I used to.  Maybe you feel differently (especially those people who are so affected by their team’s performance that they will skip work the next day), but this movie is so well done and so poignant that only heartless, callous Neanderthals can dismiss is it as “more liberal political correctness that is making this country soft.”

As I said, I’m not against people playing football and this movie hasn’t changed my opinion on that.  I’m even of the opinion that football has put too much emphasis on player safety – it’s a violent game and pretending that it can be made safe so as to assuage fans from feeling guilty for enjoying it is bullshit.  If the players know the full truth of the consequences of playing football, than we don’t need to feel guilty because we are now assured that they really do know what they are getting into rather than their employer “assuring” their safety.  And that’s the real message of this movie – spreading the truth.

Rating: Do not ask for any money back because you are not a brain-damaged human.