Saturday, January 23, 2016


Apparently, "Star Trek" and "Star Trek into Darkness" director J.J. Abrams adopted the strategy 'If it ain't broke, don't fix it' for Disney's revival of George Lucas' "Star War" franchise. "Star Wars: The
Force Awakens" (*** OUT OF ****) qualifies as an uninspired but entertaining science fiction/fantasy saga with spectacular CGI special effects. Unfortunately, it suffers from half-baked villains and a shamelessly derivative script. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt must have cherry-picked their favorite scenes and characters from earlier "Star Wars" epics, retooled them for this reboot, and then placed them in similar order to comply with the formula. Originally, George Lucas hired Kasdan to rewrite "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," while Arndt wrote "The Hunger Games 2: Catching Fire" and "Toy Story 3." Despite this gifted talent, Abrams and company don't awaken as much as recycle the Force. "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" duplicates the formulaic narrative of the original trilogy without a flaw, but Abrams cannot conjure up Lucas' buoyant spirit of feel-good spontaneity. Nevertheless, unless you're a nit-picky franchise aficionado, you'll have four reasons to appreciate this melodramatic franchise reboot from the House of Mouse. First, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" is a full-fledged sequel instead of a prequel. (Mind you, the prequels weren't entirely ponderous, and each chronicled Anakin Skywalker's walk on the dark side.) Second, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Luke Skywalker return after a 32-year hiatus. Mind you, C3P0 and R2-D2 are back, but they linger on the periphery. A new droid designated BB-8 replaces R2-D2 as comic relief. Third, Harrison Ford gives one of his strongest performances as Han Solo. You'll enjoy his shenanigans with the 'rathars,' tentacled, carnivorous, alien predators aboard his spaceship. Abrams confines Carrie Fisher to the sidelines, while Mark Hamill appears at the last minute. London-born Daisy Ridley, whose character draws on both Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia, is the fourth reason you'll want to see the seventh movie again. You won't take your eyes off this scrappy waif until Solo emerges to challenge her dominance. "Attack the Block" actor John Boyega plays the most interesting new character but his character appears to be given the short-shrift, Combat fighter pilot Oscar Isaac of "The Bourne Legacy" emulates Han Solo with his daredevil aerial skills. At the least, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" amounts to a swiftly plotted, larger-than-life, crowd-pleasing space opera with dialogue that propels the plot.

The fourth sequel unfolds on the desolate, sun-scorched planet of
Jakku. A lone girl named Rey (Daisy Ridley of "Scrawl") survives by
scavenging parts from a crashed Empire starship. She lives alone in the
desert. Eventually, Rey rescues an adorable little droid BB-8 from
another native scavenger. BB-8 is an insufferably scene-stealer.
Meantime, the infamous First Order regime has risen from the ashes of
the defeated Empire. These imperialist minded maniacs are no different
from their draconian predecessors. They've been scouring the galaxy
like bloodhounds for the last surviving Jedi knight, Luke Skywalker
(Mark Hamill of "Kingsman: The Secret Service"), and they've finally
located a lead on Jakku. Simultaneously, the rebel Resistance, led by
Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), has dispatched a pilot, Poe Dameron
(Oscar Isaac of "Ex Machina"), to retrieve information from Lor San
Tekka (Max von Sydow of "The Exorcist") about Luke's whereabouts. No
sooner has San Tekka confided in Poe than the First Order, led by
wannabe Dark Vader lookalike Kylo Ren (Adam Driver of "Lincoln"),
arrives with squads of Stormtroopers. One of those armor-clad soldiers,
FN-2187 (John Boyega), suffers a crisis of conscience and deserts from
the ranks when he is ordered to massacre innocents. FN-2187's superior,
Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie of "The Zero Theorem"), keeps him
under close scrutiny because he refused to fire his blaster. Although
the First Order rounded up Poe, FN-2187 sticks around long enough to
rescue him. He pretends to take him at gunpoint into the hanger. They
steal a TIE fighter but crash on Jakku. Eventually, a lost and
wandering FN-2187 befriends Rey. When maurading Stormtroopers invade
Jakku, our heroes stumble accidentally onto Han Solo's long, lost
Millennium Falcon and steal it to escape. Han intercepts them while
engaged on a mission to deliver exotic but carnivorous alien wildlife.

Despite a fresh crop of new characters, including Rey, Finn, Poe
Dameron, Kylo Ren, and Snoke, "Star Wars: The Force Awakens" imitates
virtually everything in the six previous entries as well as the title.
Han Solo's cliffhanger confrontation and the finale with the new Death
Star situated in a planet recalls the original. Helmer J.J. Abrams
directs with slick but soulless efficiency. Rarely does he let the
breathless momentum abate. When the momentum does slacken, however, you
realize that this is just a glossy facsimile. Of course, unless you
have seen the first six films, you may not recognize the rampant
similarities since you'll be too swept up in the whirlwind of heroics.
Happily, Rey emerges as a tenacious but sympathetic female version of
Luke. The charismatic Ridley radiates personality galore, and casting
her as the no-nonsense heroine was a stroke of genius. She shares two
scenes with Luke's old lightsaber, and she wields it with surprising
familiarity the second time. It should be obvious that Rey is Luke's
daughter, but we'll have to wait for Rian Johnson's "Star Wars: Chapter
VIII" to confirm this matter. Rey makes a greater impression on-screen
than either Finn or Poe. Finn and Poe received some of Han Solo's
attributes. Finn cannot tolerate the amoral regimen of a Stormtrooper,
and Poe rivals Han's superior skills as a pilot without his mercenary
impulses. Kylo Ren resembles Anakin Skywalker, but Ren emerges as far
more murderous. Although Kylo Ren is every bit as dastardly as Darth
Vader behind the helmet, he doesn't dredge up adequate dread to match
him as an adversary. Meanwhile, the holographic Snoke pales by
comparison with the evil Emperor. Altogether, "Star Wars: The Force
Awakens" doesn't depart from the classic formula, but provides a few
surprises, like Daisy Ridley.


Audie Murphy finds himself in desperate trouble in “Land Raiders” director Nathan Juran’s exciting western “Tumbleweed” (*** OUT OF ****) when he tangles with hostile Yaqui Indians and treacherous whites.  What sets this Murphy horse opera apart is “Red Mountain” scenarist John Meredyth Lucas’ audacious screenplay based on Kenneth Perkins’ novel "Three Were Renegades."  Murphy gets himself mired deeper into danger to clear himself as this adventurous 79-minute oater winds down to its finale.  Initially, our resourceful hero displays benevolence when he comes to the aid of a wounded Yaqui brave in the desert.  Apparently, an unknown white gunman shot the Yaqui in the left shoulder and left him for dead.  Jim Harvey (Audie Murphy of “The Kid from Texas”) digs a bullet out of Tigre (Eugene Iglesias of “Apache Rifles”), the son of Yaqui chieftain Aguila (Ralph Moody of “Reprisal!”) who abhors whites with a passion.  At one point, a hateful Tigre tries to stab Harvey, but our hero manages to deflect this futile effort.  After saving Tigre’s life, our hero accepts a job as a guide for a group of pioneers.  At first, when he meets Harvey in the town of Mile High, wagon train master Seth Blanden (Ross Elliot of “Never So Few”) thinks Harvey is too young to provide them with adequate guidance.  Attractive Laura Saunders (Lori Nelson) is the sister-in-law traveling with relatives.  She likes the sight of Harvey, but Seth’s wife Sarah (Madge Meredith of “Trail Street”) disapproves of a drifter like Harvey.  Sarah wanted Laura to marry Seth’s brother Lam (Russell Johnson of “Gilligan’s Island”) because he is a stable individual. Harvey does a good job as a guide until the Yaquis box them in and try to burn their wagons.  Harvey sends the two women into hiding, and then he rides under a white flag of truce to parley with Aguila.  As it turns out, Aguila doesn’t believe that his son would befriend a white man.  The Yaqui chief ties Jim down between two spears and promises to carve his eyelids so he can watch the sun burn out his vision at dawn.  Tigre’s mother (Belle Mitchell of “Soylent Green”) lets Jim escape.  Afterward, Jim catches a ride back into the town of Borax.  He discovers that he is a persona non grata because the Yaquis scalped and killed the men, but the two women and a baby in the wagon train survived.

Ironically, Sheriff Murchoree (Chill Wills of “Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid”) keeps the townspeople from lynching Harvey when he shows up in town and generates controversy with his unaccounted for presence.  The citizens have a noose around Harvey’s neck and they have Murchoree crowded, so he cannot get to Harvey until one of his deputies, Marv (Lee Van Cleef of “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly”), armed with a Winchester intervenes, and Murchoree can extract his six-gun from his shoulder holster.  Murchoree puts Harvey into protective custody.  Later, during the night, Tigre breaks into the jail where Harvey is being held, stabs the guard that Murchoree left in charge, and the Yaqui explains that the guards were going to let the townspeople into lynch him.  Not long afterward, they are pursued by the townspeople and Tigre takes a bullet and dies.  Before the Yaqui dies, he informs Harvey that a white man had a hand into the massacre.  Eventually, a posse pursues Harvey.  Meantime, he finds himself afoot again when his horse goes lame.  Initially, he tries to steal a horse from a rancher, Nick Buckley (Roy Roberts of “Kid Galahad”), but Buckley’s ranch hand catches him before he can.  Harvey meets Buckley and his wife Louella (K.T. Stevens of “Vice Squad”) and explains his awful predicament.  Buckley takes sympathy on him and loads him calls the decrepit looking horse called ‘Tumbleweed.’ An incredulous Harvey is surprised when the animal displays amazing mountain sense and enables him to elude the posse.  At one point, when Harvey is about to die of thirst, ‘Tumbleweed’ scrapes a hole into the dirt that yields water.  Murchoree catches up with Harvey, but he is dying from thirst, too, when our hero finds him.  Strangely enough, Harvey wants to find Aguila because he is the only man who can clear him.  The revelation as to the identity of the white man who worked with the Indians is a surprise.  Our hero and the villain battle it out with their fists and the fight progresses from the desert floor up atop a mountain where the villain tries to crush Harvey with a rock.  

Lee Van Cleef has a bigger than usual role and he isn’t a slimy villain like he was during his usual 1950s westerns.  “Tumbleweed” qualifies not only as an above-average Audie Murphy oater but a welcome departure from his more straightforward routine sagebrushers.