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Not So Far, Far Away Anymore

‘Star Wars’ comes roaring and soaring back in ‘The Force Awakens’

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Starring Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Issac

Directed by J.J. Abrams

PG-13

Deep into the most anticipated movie of the year, two central characters—one old, one new—are on a desperate mission and in a very tight spot.

“People are counting on us,” veteran smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) growls. “The galaxy is counting on us.”

That pretty much sums up the lofty expectations placed on the movie, as well. The first new Star Wars film in nearly a decade, the seventh in the franchise, and the first since Disney bought the rights from founding father-director-creator George Lucas, it comes cloaked in secrecy and with a mothership of baggage. Diehard fans have been waiting for it for years. Speculation has been building for months. What will J.J. Abrams, the director of two Star Trek movies, bring to it—or do to it? It’s expected to be the biggest box-office moneymaker of the year, if not the decade, and maybe of all time.

So people—and perhaps the whole the galaxy—are indeed counting on this new Star Wars, and I don’t think they’ll be disappointed. It’s got everything any fan could want: powerful nostalgia, exciting new characters, rousing action, stirring emotion, spectacular scenery, eye-popping effects, and a plot that threads things that happened decades ago with things unfolding now—and points to things yet to come.

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

Harrison Ford as Han Solo

You probably already know that several iconic actors return. Harrison Ford’s Han Solo is still the coolest space cowboy of all time. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) has become a general. And Jedi legend Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)…well, everybody spends most of the movie looking for Luke, and so will you.

You’ll delight in seeing some very familiar other things again—X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, two particular droids, a tall, hirsute biped and one very special light saber, in particular. And you’ll hear a couple of familiar phrases, too.

And there are some very impressive newcomers, as well. British actress is Daisy Ridley is terrific as Rey, a spunky junk scavenger on a desert planet who becomes a major player on a much larger stage—and provides young female Star Wars fans a rockin’ role model the likes of which they’ve never had before. Newcomer John Boyega makes a fine leading man as Finn, a stormtrooper who defects when his conscience won’t let him continue to fight for a cause he knows is wrong. Oscar Issac plays Poe Dameron, the cocky top-gun pilot of the Resistance.

Oscar Issac is Resistance          pilot Poe Dameron

Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, a disciple of Darth Vader, whose formidable powers were shaped by a treacherous past. Domhnall Gleeson drips evil as the fascist intergalactic general Hux. Lupita Nyong’o is cool but completely unrecognizable as the alien proprietress of a way-out-there interplanetary saloon frequented by a spectrum of crazy cosmic characters.

And the new little bleeping, beeping, cooing, purring “snowman” of a robot, BB-8, is a real scene-stealer.

With composer John Williams’ spectacular, swelling orchestral score once again providing the soundtrack, Star Wars has come roaring and soaring back, a fabulous, bountiful, richly rewarding payoff for anyone who’s been waiting, patiently or otherwise. You’ll cheer, you’ll chuckle, you’ll gasp, you’ll be giddy and you’ll maybe—likely—even shed a tear, or possibly two.

And come next December, when Disney’s eighth installment, Rogue One, hits theaters, you’ll be back in the ticket line again—won’t you?

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Ups & Downs

A herd of actors recreates epic ’90s mountaineering disaster

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Everest

Starring Josh Brolin, Jason Clarke, Jake Gyllenhaal, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley & Robin Wright

Directed by Baltasar Kormákur

PG-13

 

Why climb the world’s highest mountain?

“Because it’s there!” shout members of a group about to head to the top of Mt. Everest in this adventure-drama based on a true story from 1996.

It’s there, all right—all 29,000-and-then-some feet of it, rising into the sky like a giant prehistoric sentinel of rock, ice and snow on the border of China and Nepal. Director Baltasar Kormákur’s film begins with expedition leader Rob Hall (Jason Clarke), his team and his clients converging at the base of the Himalayas to prepare for their trek to the summit.

“It’s not called the death zone for noting,” Hall, a veteran New Zealand mountaineer, warns his climbers-to-be, citing the perils they will face—jet stream winds, altitude sickness, sub-freezing temps, oxygen deprivation, snowstorms, avalanches, icefalls.

Everest

Jake Gyllenhaal

By the mid-1990s, the commercialization of Mt. Everest had created some major traffic jams on the slopes. As guides such as Hall returned season after season to lead paying customers toward the heavens, thousands were trekking where, just decades before, only a relative few had ever dared.

But the monumental mountain remained a far cry from an amusement park. You could still die up there.

Everest

Josh Brolin

A monstrous storm moves in, trapping the climbers. Who’ll survive, and who won’t? It becomes an epic drama of humans facing ancient, immutable forces of nature. Sometimes it looks spectacular, but too often the emotions of Everest feel forced and hokey, and much of the time there’s just too much going on, and too many people jostling around.

For an adventure movie, it doesn’t have near enough action, and when things do get going, the scenes of peril and danger don’t have the breathtaking, gut-wrenching wallop you’d expect from a movie about people pitting themselves against the highest peak on the planet, at inhospitable altitudes where airplanes fly, helicopters falter, eyeballs can explode and bodies fall into places where they’ll never be recovered.

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Robin Wright

Everest is a modern throwback to classic disaster movies of the 1970s, when a gaggle of actors would be plunked into collapsing cities, raging infernos, sinking ships or doomed airplanes. Here the populous cast includes Josh Brolin, Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael (House of Cards) Kelly, Jason Hawkes, Emily Watson, Keira Knightley, Robin Wright, Elizabeth (The Man From U.N.C.L.E.) Debicki and others, all in roles based on real people, headed up, staying below or waiting anxiously on the other side of the world when things take a turn from bad to worse.

But there’s one star in Everest that tops them all, and that’s Mt. Everest itself. Even though some of the scenes were filmed elsewhere, you’d never know it, and the world’s most iconic peak still has the power to awe, inspire and draw people to risk, and sometimes lose, their lives.

Why would anyone want to do it? And why bother trying to explain, anyway? In any discussion, as one character puts it, “the last word always belongs to the mountain.” In Everest, and the tragically true tale behind it, indeed it does.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Head Trip

Latest Pixar gem gets plenty of laughs but also goes deep

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Inside Out

Starring Amy Poehler, Bill Hader, Mindy Kaling & Phyllis Smith

Directed by Pete Doctor and Ronaldo Del Carmen

PG

At some point or another, every parent has wondered what—if not what in the world—his or her kids were thinking.

Pixar offers an answer—or at least some exuberantly fanciful, wonderfully imaginative, wildly creative, richly emotional speculation—with Inside Out, which takes place mostly inside the head of an 11-year-old girl, Riley.

Since Riley’s birth, the five emotions in the command center of her noggin have been working together as she interacts with the world, sending the proper signals down her neural pathways, keeping her safe and trying to make her happy—and storing away her memories at the end of every day in a vast memory bank. The emotions are all “characters” themselves, with their own (literally) colorful personalities: Perky, effervescent yellow-glowing Joy (voiced by Amy Poehler), the leader of the cranial crew, is joined by the geeky, purple all-phobic Fear (Bill Hader); blue, depressed Sadness (Phyllis Smith); prissy green young maiden Disgust (Mindy Kaling); and blustery red hothead Anger (Lewis Black).

INSIDE OUTWhen Riley’s young life hits some major growing-up turbulence, the emotions spring into overdrive to help her through it. But a snafu separates Joy and Sadness from the rest of the emotions, whooshing them out of Riley’s command center and marooning them in the deeper recesses of her conscious and subconscious—and leaving Fear, Anger and Disgust to call the shots. Soon things begin to fall apart, both inside Riley’s head and outside in the real world.

The magic and wonders of Inside Out, steered by directors Pete Doctor (Up and Monsters, Inc.) and Ronaldo Del Carmen, are wide-ranging as the inventive initial setup expands to become a rollicking adventure for Joy and Sadness, especially after they encounter Riley’s imaginary childhood friend Bing Bong (Richard Kind), who’s part elephant, part cotton-candy, part cat, part dolphin—and all delight.

INSIDE OUT

The brain, science tell us, is one of the most complex things in all of creation, and the movie’s depiction of it is a thing of ingenious splendor, a mix of fantastically cartoonish sight gags and sublime comedic riffs, all of them connected to the emotional rollercoaster ride being experienced by Riley—and, by extension, any of us, at some time or another. (There are some terrific side trips, especially during the credits, into the heads of other characters, where we meet their emotions.)

Pixar’s best films, like Toy Story, Up, Finding Nemo and The Incredibles, have always worked on double levels, entertaining kids and moving grownups—often to tears. The exceptionally well-made Inside Out is no exception: Kids and adults will both laugh, and plenty. But the movie’s underlying themes about how Sadness and Joy “work together” in more ways than one, and how some memories—and parts of childhood—fade away forever will resonate on a profound, deeply moving level with adults who can relate in ways that many younger viewers can’t…at least yet.

Settle in early for Lava, a heartwarming, all-musical Pixar short about a Pacific volcano looking for love. Then get ready for another Pixar gem that starts in the head, but ends up settling into somewhere much, much deeper.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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From Bad to Worse

Things go wrong in ‘Horrible Bosses’ sequel, in more ways than one

Horrible Bosses 2

Horrible Bosses 2

Starring Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day

Directed by Sean Anders

Rated R

If you got a chuckle out of the first one, you’ll probably get a chuckle out of this one. But just because you might doesn’t mean you should. And why don’t you save your titters for something that’s not such a waste of talent, a lazy roll over retreaded gags, and a smutty stroll down a street full of racist, sexist and homophobic jokes?

The first Horrible Bosses, in 2011, set up an initially amusing, over-the-top, screwball comedy: Three hapless schmucks (Jason Bateman, Jason Sudeikis and Charlie Day), each so exasperated with their individual employment situations, were driven to an absurdly extreme measure: a plan to murder their bosses.

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Jennifer Aniston

Their bosses were pretty bad—especially the crooked, conniving business owner (Kevin Spacey) and the rapacious sexual-predator dentist (Jennifer Aniston). Awful, yes—but sometimes awfully funny.

Horrible Bosses 2

Christoph Waltz

Both Spacey and Aniston, as well as the knucklehead trio of Bateman, Sudeikis and Day, are back in Bosses 2. This time, the disgruntled employees have become entrepreneurs—they’re the bosses now—striking out on their own with a prototype for an all-in-one bathing accessory. But when an unscrupulous distributor (Chrisoph Waltz) makes a play to bankrupt them and take over their operation, they devise their own plan for payback—by kidnapping his insufferably spoiled adult son (Chris Pine) for ransom.

Things go “horribly” wrong, of course—in more ways than one. The plot follows the same basic course as the first movie, down to some of the same exact gags. (Hey, they got a laugh the first time, right?) The humor is beyond bawdy—it’s super raunchy, and so blatantly offensive on so many levels, it almost seems admirable the filmmakers tried so hard to maintain such a consistent tone of tastelessness.

To call it “bathroom” humor demeans a lot of bathrooms, especially in one particular scene with a toothbrush, and in another when the discussion in a sexaholics support group turns to a topic that would be shocking even if it didn’t involve underage children.

Any guffaws these jokes get depend on just how far you think it’s OK to go for a laugh, and how closely you care to look at what you’re really laughing at. I’m not sure in what context a reference to the sexual assault of a hospital patient in a coma, for instance, would come off as funny—but here it’s played just that way.  

Horrible Bosses 2

Jamie Foxx

Jamie Foxx returns as a shady career criminal whose obscenity of a nickname can’t be printed in a newspaper but is repeated dozes of times in the movie, and whose flawed advice the would-be kidnappers once again seek.

The first time around, the bosses were terrible, but the movie wasn’t so bad. This time, the “new” bosses turn out to be awful, too, the movie is a disappointment, and the jokes may make you laugh…but you should feel guilty about it when you do.

-Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Hungry For More

‘Hunger Games’ semi-finale is light on action but heavy on build-up

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The Hunger Games: Mockingjay—Part 1

Starring Jennifer Lawrence, Josh Hutcherson, Philip Seymour Hoffman & Liam Hemsworth

Directed by Francis Lawrence

PG-13

Fans of The Hunger Games will be thrilled because the latest installment—the next-to-last movie, the result of splitting the final book of author Suzanne Collins’ smash trilogy into two movie parts—has hit the screen. But that excitement might be tinged by some disappointment in watching the feisty, girl-power heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) sit out much of the drama on the sidelines.

Mockingjay—Part 1 begins where last year’s Catching Fire left off: Katniss, the victor of the first two movies’ kill-or-be-kill games, has become a refugee from the totalitarian regime’s brutal President Snow (Donald Sutherland), living underground with a group of rebel insurgents and their leader, President Coin (Julianne Moore).

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Philip Seymour Hoffman and Julianne Moore

A revolution is brewing, and the rebels want Katniss to become its poster girl. “We have to have a lightning rod,” says Coin. So Katniss is recruited to make a series of propaganda videos—or “propos”—to spark a rebellion in the miserable masses of Snow’s repressed citizens.

“It’s the worst terror in the world, waiting for something,” Coin tells Katniss. A lot of Hunger Games fans might agree, given that so much of the movie feels like waiting around for the real excitement to start.

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Liam Hemsworth and Jennifer Lawrence

Katniss, the rousing action figure around which the entire franchise is based, appears in only one scene that would quality as an action scene, in which she gets to actually un-sheath an arrow from her quiver and fire it from her bow. But then it’s back to the bunker for more plotting, more prep, and hanging out while other people get down to the nitty-gritty. There’s other action—a big dam blows up, a bunch of forced-labor lumberjacks turn the tables on their “Peacekeeper” guards, and a daring nighttime rebel raid on President Snow’s compound looks like a mash-up of Mission Impossible and Zero Dark Thirty. But Katniss sits it all out.

Director Francis Lawrence (no relation to Jennifer), who also steered last year’s Catching Fire, keeps things looking drab and dreary, to match the mood of repression, doubt and dread. Obviously, he’s holding back, saving the story’s knockout punch for its final act, the big show. OK, I get that—but frequently this warm-up seems like it’s huffing and puffing without generating a lot of real heat.

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Josh Hutcherson

The movies’ main cast returns: Woody Harrelson, Elizabeth Banks, Stanley Tucci, and (the late) Philip Seymour Hoffman. Josh Hutcherson and Liam Hemsworth are back as Peeta and Gale, the two hunks competing for Katniss’s affections, although the storyline puts them in very different places and situations.

There’s a lot here for Hunger Games fans to digest—political undertones, the drumbeat of war, public executions. And it’s got another great performance by Lawrence, who makes almost everything she does (even playing a bad actress, who struggles to get her propos lines right) fun to watch. She even breaks out in song, a haunting, dirge-like ditty called “The Hanging Tree.” There’s some real dramatic tension, a good deal of emotion, and one heck of a setup for the next movie.

But as for a big, “fiery” showdown that fans have been waiting, and waiting for, well, they’re just going to have to stay hungry a bit longer—until next November.

—Neil Pond, Parade Magazine

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Going Pop

A guide book to the history of pop music, and where it’s headed

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!

By Bob Stanley

Hardcover, $29.95 / $14.16 Kindle edition (W.W. Norton & Company)

 

How and when did pop music start, and where is it headed? This engrossing, encyclopedic, information-packed rundown, spanning the past 50 years, hits all the high notes—from the first “singles” chart, through the rise of radio and other technological innovations, and tracing an arc from the Beach Boys and the Beatles through punk rock, boy bands, Michael Jackson, Madonna, Nirvana and Katy Perry. An authoritative, genre-spanning guide book to the artists and soundtrack of fully half of the 20th century, it’s an indispensable read for almost any music fan.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Super Cool Spies

Box set has all of Robert Culp & Bill Cosby’s ’60s secret-agent series

I Spy 3D with Discs

I Spy: The Complete Series

DVD, $129.99 (Shout! Factory)

The folks at Shout! have gone to the archival-TV well once again and come up with another winner. This 18-disc set contains all 82 episodes of the award-winning 1965-’68 series, about a pair of super-suave secret agents (Robert Culp and Bill Cosby, making his TV-acting debut) posing as a tennis pro and his trainer as they globe-trot to one exotic mission after another. If the witty banter, the international, James Bond-esque locales, and dapper derring-do aren’t enough to keep you engaged, you can keep count of the guest stars who pop in and out of action, including Gene Hackman, Jim Backus, Ron “Opie” Howard, Boris Karloff, Don Rickles, and Eartha “Catwoman” Kitt.

 

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

Winter Break

Will ‘Nebraska’ finally crack the Oscar ice for Bruce Dern?

NEBRASKA

Nebraska

Starring Bruce Dern & Will Forte

Directed by Alexander Payne

R, 115 min.

Bruce Dern has only been up for two Academy Awards. Back in 1979, he was nominated for his supporting role as a stressed-out Vietnam-vet husband in Coming Home. (He lost to Christopher Walken, who played another, even more stressed-out Vietnam vet, in The Deer Hunter.)

Now, 25 years later, he’s back in the running again, this time for a Best Actor trophy, for what might well be the crowning performance of his entire career—as a cantankerous Montana senior citizen on a crazy quest to claim a sweepstakes jackpot across the state line in Nebraska.

Dern plays Woody Grant, who mistakenly thinks that the Publishers Clearing House-style notification/solicitation he’s received means he’s won a million dollars. Woody may have a touch of dementia, might have a drinking problem, and he certainly “believes stuff that people tell him,” according to his adult son, David (Will Forte of Saturday Night Live fame).

NEBRASKAThis “little” film shuffles along at a leisurely pace, without a lot of the frills, thrills or spills that usually mark box-office champs. Yet it’s up for five other 2014 Oscars: Best Picture, plus nominations for June Squibb (Supporting Actress), who plays Woody’s tart-tongued war horse of a wife; veteran cinematographer Phedon Papamichael, whose black-and-white vistas often look like fine-art photographic prints; writer Bob Nelson, who provided the wit, warmth and humanity of the screenplay; and director Alexander Payne (The Descendants, Sideways, About Schmidt, Election), a native of Omaha, whose affinity for the empty, wide-open spaces and deadpan social cadences of the Midwest shows in the authenticity of every scene, every conversation, and every character, and in the way he gradually reveals the details, wrinkles and folds of the story.

It’s a story of a simple road trip that becomes something much bigger, much broader, and much deeper—a tale of fathers and sons and families, of generosity and grudges, of old memories and youthful frolics, of the many shades of grey in the wide spectrum of love.

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“He doesn’t need a nursing home,” David tells his brother (Bob Odenkirk, of TV’s Breaking Bad). “He just needs something to live for.”

It’s got six shots at taking home an Oscar this year. But even if doesn’t, this wonderful, warmhearted winter gem of a film is already a big winner, especially for anyone fortunate enough to see it.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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Bursting With Pride

Country hitmaker Neal McCoy salutes his musical mentor

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Neal McCoy

Pride (CD, $10.97 / Slate Creek Records)

McCoy, whose early singing stardom was forged under the guidance, tutelage and example of Country Music Hall of Famer-to-be Charley Pride in the 1980s, salutes his musical mentor with this tribute album of his songs, including the Pride standards “Is Anybody Going To San Antone,” “Kiss An Angel Good Mornin’,” “Kaw-Liga,” and “Mountain Of Love,” plus “Roll On Mississippi,” “You’re My Jamaica” and five other tunes. Fellow hit-makers Raul Malo of The Mavericks, Trace Adkins and Darius Rucker also lend their voices on this heartfelt project to assist McCoy in “paying honor to not only a wonderful man, but a wonderful family that gave another family a chance to make their mark.”

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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What, Me Worry?

Celebrity guests, staffers celebrate the gonzo genius of MAD magazine

Inside MAD Cover.inddInside MAD

By the Writers and Editors of MAD Magazine

Hardcover, 256 pages ($29.95 / Time Home Entertainment)

To celebrate its 61st rascally year, the irreverent humor magazine asked a host of celebrities (including Rosanne Barr, Ken Burns, Dane Cook, Ice-T, George Lopez, Jeff Probst and John Stamos) to ponder its zany influences on their lives, and also rounded up some of the best work from a host of its hall-of-fame cartoonists and writers (Sergio Aragonés, Jack Davis, Dick DeBartolo, Mort Drucker, Al Jaffee). It’s a treasure trove of “What, me worry?” rediscovery for anyone who ever snickered to MAD mascot Alfred E. Newman’s ever-changing world of skewered pop culture, politics, entertainment and public figures.

—Neil Pond, American Profile Magazine

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