I have opinions about the new ‘Star Wars’

tl;dr It was okay and most people will like it, but it offered virtually none of the fresh ideas and visuals that make sci-fi interesting.

So: “The Force Awakens!” I plunked down my $17 to see this in 3-D, and everything went as well as you could hope, with good friends arriving on time to sit together and two of said friends going in on a large popcorn. But I left in a sour mood, partly because I had to wake at 5 am for a flight, partly because, to paraphrase Brian Wilson, it’s so sad to watch a sweet $200 million squandered on old ideas.

Things Which Were Good

BB-8. It’s cute. Slightly disturbing to see copies of this droid celling in electronics stores for a year, based on the strength of that first trailer, but we all know that “Star Wars” is in large part a toy-flogging record.

The new cast members. We were programmed to like them, of course, in that masterful 18-month ad campaign. (Remember the first cast photo was a black-and-white “candid” of a read? Remember the instant debate and hot-takery, a dark Force nightmare of what Internet was to come?) But I’ll be damned if they didn’t live up to it. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are perfect, like the character traits of Luke Skywalker split into two British people who can actually act. (Okay, Mark Hamill got better over time.) Adam Driver, whose “huh?” factor was apparently a worry for marketers, finds a perfect use of his play-doh looks and oddly threatening shape. Speaking of:

Kylo Ren’s tantrums. Something we hadn’t seen before: A villain with Force powers who, instead of taking defeats in stride, starts flipping out like a kid who got Madden 2K15 instead of 2K16 for Christmas. If the filmmakers were committed to rebooting Darth Vader (and it worked, if the number of kids I see in Kylo Ren masks tells us anything).

That big death scene. An indescribable asshole on Twitter — but I repeat myself — spoiled it for me. That I felt myself getting weepy anyway is a testament to how well it was handled.

The action, in general. To appreciate it I’d point you to a copy of the prequels, which I still refuse to hate. In his dotage, George Lucas was a strange and coma-inclined director, whose idea of an action scene was two people (or one person and a CGI droid) standing in a frame, jumping around each other, as the audiences’ eyes wandered to the obvious green-screen scenery. JJ Abrams, for all his lack of imagination, makes this action move, with characters conquering the frame and skirting what looks to us like actual danger.

Things which are bad

World-building (or lack thereof). Did you want some haggard character to sit down and explain the last 30-odd years since the defeat of the Emperor? No, neither did I. But in the words of Sonny Bunch:

An attentive viewer is left wondering why the victory at the close of “Return of the Jedi” led, 30-odd years later, to a fascist empire that looks to have inherited all of the old toys. Dig around online and you can kind of figure out that the Republic got cocky and disarmed, but there’s no sense of how the First Order arose. Speaking of…

The First Order. Oh, the potential of this idea. The Empire collapses, and a younger, meaner, more capricious fascist force rises. These villains are obviously aware of what brought the Empire low: Boondoggle super-bases that had weaknesses their enemies could exploit and explode. So what do the new villains do? They re-use the resources of the Empire, from troop armor to war ships, and they… build a boondoggle super-base that can be blown up if its weakness is exploited.

Music. If I say “hum ‘Duel of the Fates,’” or maybe more helpfully refer to it as “the Darth Maul song,”

Few people argue that the new movie’s music is memorable; maybe they argue that Williams did something warm and subtle with “Rey’s Theme.” But the dominant argument seems to be that the music is forgettable because it doesn’t have to overcompensate for stupid filler scenes. Eh.

Deux ex machinas (machinae?): Like Ryan Vogt asks, what caused R2D2 to wake up from stasis, other than the fact that the movie was about to end? Like Sonny Bunch asks, how did Rey know what Force suggestion was — not how to do it, but what it was — given that she’s skeptical the Force even exists? There’s a larger metatextual problem here, and it’s that science fiction imagined space travel advancing with much more ease than it imagined communication technology advancing. So, in a galaxy where ships can travel light years in seconds, nobody has the ability to google (or flibbertiwock, or whatever it would be called here).

Nothing new to look at. This was the problem that left me lowering my rating of the film. Even the weaker George Lucas-verse properties put in effort to create weird new worlds. We never saw an undersea Star Wars city until “The Phantom Menace.” We never saw a clone factory until (ugh) “Attack of the Clones.” We never saw a lava planet until the genuinely great final battle of “Revenge of the Sith.”

Abrams’s “Star Wars” just gives us the best of what we saw and liked already — a cynic might think they adapted the toys and playsets that sold the best. If this wasn’t Lucasfilms approved, you’d call it plagiarism.

Ink-Stained Wretches

Truth (James Vanderbilt, 2015) and Spotlight (Tom McCarthy, 2015)
As I finish my book about the progressive rock movement — or, more to the point, as I procrastinate by spending 20 minutes writing something else — two nagging demons keep jumping on my shoulder. One says that I need to do a bit more work to get the story right. (That’s for the second draft, asshole.) One whispers the possibility that someone will cover the same subject, and drop it when my book drops, and make me wilt in the shadow.

So: I do not envy James Vanderbilt. Under normal circumstances, in which there are no movies about journalism in theaters, he would have just made a frustratingly bad one. The cruel god of timing cursed him to release that bad movie just weeks before “Spotlight,” probably the best movie of 2015, and one of the best-ever about journalism.

Talking to another friend (a journalist) who sat through both, we found ourselves wondering why Truth‘s story of hubris and failure was so much less compelling than Spotlight‘s story of success. It’s more than the clunky writing or Truth‘s seemingly endless use of slo-mo for effect. It’s that Spotlight is just so much smarter, and finds the darkness, the lack of real satisfaction, even in what seems like success.

It’s a smart movie, is what I’m saying. Truth is most decidedly not. It adapts the memoir of Mary Mapes, the CBS producer who we would remember as the scapegoat of the botched story on George W. Bush’s Texas Air National Guard service, if not for the fact that Dan Rather threw his scalp on top of hers. Cate Blanchett plays Mapes, Robert Redford plays Rather, and both seem to be stretching the thin material into Oscar-shapes. It does not work, because they are trapped in the kind of movie that introduces a heroic veteran with a slow-mo shot of him saluting at a rainy military funeral; the kind of movie where a character warns that “you’ll know it’s bad when they ask to see our source,” then later has a villainous executive ask to see the source, and the same character turn and wryly tell his companion “now it’s bad.”

These are decisions that assume a very stupid audience. Strange, because… who did Vanderbilt think his audience was? The “Rathergate” disaster was compelling enough to inspire a similar story in Aaron Sorkin’s The Newsroom, but the only people who want to revisit it are journalists and partisans who know the basics of the story. They — okay, we — are not permitted to watch a straightforward drama about how ego and speed and outright fraud can throw lives off course. No, no, instead we get Lt. Colonel Roger Charles (Dennis Quaid, who unfortunately is the character I keep citing as example of the cinema sins here) telling a colleague that Mapes wanted to break this story in 2000, but her mother fell ill, and you know, “537 votes in Florida.”

We feel whipsawed between two equally stupid theories. One: The story of George W. Bush skipping out on TANG service was big enough to change the election. Two: The story was true, and repressed by partisans. Both are highly dubious. Add to this a cringe-inducing scene where a reporter on the story, played by Topher Grace, is being escorted out of the CBS News building and rants about how corporations are trying to suppress any news that threatens their power. It’s the sort of thing the whole narrative is implying, and then a character actually vocalizes it, and we shudder at the stupidity.

There is nothing like that in Spotlight. Actually, the only thin criticism it’s received has focused on the lack of character-building. I found that criticism totally misguided. McCarthy’s script perfectly captures how journalists talk, and more specifically how these journalists talk. (I only know one of them, Marty Baron, who hired me at the Washington Post, and anyone who wishes Liev Schreiber’s Baron was more animated or explosive is wishing he got the role wrong.)

Lots of people have heaped praise on the plotting and momentum of this movie. I think the characterization has been underrated. We do not get or need expository scenes of how months of work on the Catholic Church abuse scandal is affecting Sacha Pfeiffer (Rachel McAdams). We get a scene of her struggling with a dishwasher, and a telling look from her husband when another reporter (Mark Ruffalo) shows up late at night and asks for her. We get that reporter, Mike Rezendes, living in a hovel that he says he can’t really move out of what with the story consuming his time. We get that fact when the Boston Globe’s assistant managing editor (John Slattery) shows up with leftovers, because he knows Rezendes doesn’t have time to cook.

I loved everything about this movie, but what stuck with me was the lack of finality. After Rezendes delivers a copy of the paper with the first (of 600+) Catholic Church expose pieces on the front, he walks past two children who have an appointment with the attorney. They’d been molested two weeks earlier. Two weeks — after we’d seen a lengthy legal fight for documents and a six-week reporting delay due to the 9/11 attacks putting demands on the newsroom. We are told this iteratively, not force-fed. Strangely, it’s Truth that sanctifies the act of journalism and Spotlight that clarifies it.