Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015). As a piece of nostalgic reclamation, the latest “Episode” of the Star Wars saga does its job so efficiently that its hard to get overly enthused about it as cinema. In a strangely fitting turnabout, the film series that fundamentally changed the business of U.S. moviemaking has turned into a follower, adhering closely to the mighty Marvel model. There’s little indication that The Force Awakens is laying the groundwork for vaster, interconnected stories, but it’s all introduction and reassurance, a tapping of the baton before commanding the symphony to life. The sense of perpetual pending is reinforced by the choice of Abrams to lean as close to a remake of the original Star Wars as possible, while still offering a new story, a trick he pulled off far more successfully with his initial Star Trek film, in part because that soft sci-fi playground is more accommodating to trump cards like time travel and multi-dimensional switcheroos. It bears all the hallmarks of its director, qualities that are engaging and flawed in equal measure. He has a gift for dreaming up clever concepts and a cursed inability to develop them into deeper drama or to resolve them in a satisfying manner. There’s no more frustrating example than the character Finn (John Boyega), introduced as a stormtrooper gone AWOL. It’s a great notion that doesn’t resonate in the slightest through the remainder of the character’s journey. Instead, Finn becomes a vessel for whatever Abrams the writer needs in any given scene, mostly the recipient of exposition from others. Those reservations noted, I can’t deny that there’s pleasure to be had in simply seeing this fertile fiction reengaged in a positive, affectionate manner. And the table-setting feel of the film also leads directly to the strongest compliment I can pay it: moving forward, I’m far more interested in the possibilities of the new characters (especially Rey, played by Daisy Ridley) than continuing to see the old ones dragged out for respectful applause.
Spring (Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead, 2014). It only took one tiny plot detail to motivate me to see Spring, a novel horror-romance hybrid from the directorial team of Benson and Moorhead. When an emotionally reeling young man (Lou Taylor Pucci), in Italy on an impromptu escape from the United States, is forthrightly offered strings-free sex by a gorgeous woman (Nadia Hilker), his reaction isn’t eager acquiescence but instead a far more realistic skepticism. This is so thoroughly at odds with currently storytelling convention, which holds that mindlessly horny men are quick to meet their doom, that I needed to see what other worthy innovations Spring might hold. In general, the film is solid and shrewd, tracking through its more fantastical elements with care and developing its metaphors about the various challenges of new romantic relationships, including fear of commitment, in a way that is clear without being pushy or self-congratulatory. It helps immeasurably that both leads are charming and real in their portrayals.
Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015). This biopic about blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is a rickety piece of disingenuous nonsense, displaying none of the commitment to narrative structure and emotional integrity that won the work of its subject two screenwriting Academy Awards during the course of his partially cloaked career. By the evidence here, Roach has no capability of shaping individual scenes, much less entire films. The film skids along through its flummoxed recounting of one of the most regrettable periods in Hollywood history. The tenor of the performances are equally haphazard, with Bryan Cranston’s turn in the title role especially problematic. He regularly lapses into a mildly cartoonish cadence that suggests he’s delivering a stealth audition to play Thurston Howell III in a big screen Gilligan’s Island remake.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (Kent Jones, 2015). This documentary about the famed multi-day interview with Alfred Hitchcock conducted by fellow director François Truffaut, in 1962, manages to be consistently fascinating without really distinguishing itself as a particularly smart or even capable piece of filmmaking in its own right. Jones, who previously worked closely with Martin Scorsese on documentary appreciations of Val Lewton and Elia Kazan, has an expert way with deploying selected film clips to make his points about the delirious creativity of his subjects, a quality in full effect here. With Hitchcock/Truffaut, he’s less adept at building his case with supporting interviews and the archival photographs and recordings of the original interview sessions. Luckily, the foundational work that feeds into the documentary — the interview itself and the films of the two men — is convincing enough all on its own. Jones might not illuminate its collective value, but nor does he obscure it.
Sweet Charity (Bob Fosse, 1969). The feature directorial debut of Fosse understandably springs from a Broadway hit that also bore his fingerprints. Based on the film Nights of Cabiria, with the main character transformed from a sex worker to a dance hall girl (making her more palatable to nineteen-sixties audiences shelling out for a bubbly musical), Sweet Charity offers the melancholy tale of the perpetually unlucky in love Charity Hope Valentine (Shirley MacLaine). Though Fosse had great films in him, his first outing finds him still feeling his way, caving in to some structural uncertainty that the plot’s episodic nature only accentuates. As anyone would expect, the film is strongest in the segments that sit squarely in Fosse’s wheelhouse, notably the production numbers “Big Spender,” “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This,” and the relentlessly marvelous “Rich Man’s Frug,” the last offering the best demonstration of Fosse’s ingenuity with the myriad possibilities of the human form. The handful of numbers staged on location in New York City are the weakest, as the wide open spaces ironically make Fosse’s choreography feel more confined, the rigors, pitfalls and built in time limits that come naturally with shooting outdoors preventing him from driving toward the level of painstaking perfection he usually demanded.