He SAID: The Force Awakens

Scott F. Evans

I’ve always been a Star Wars fan. The original film way back in 1977 stoked my interest in both science fiction and cinema. I grew up with the franchise. The second film, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back is a much more mature entry than the first. It has a darker tone that’s almost chilling in some scenes. Unfortunately by the third film, 1983’s Return of the Jedi, creator George Lucas was clearly becoming more influenced by merchandising than by story. Half of the film is pretty good, but you can see the infantilism, creeping to the surface.

Then came the prequels, all of them written and directed by Lucas himself. These three disappointing releases, beginning in 1999 with The Phantom Menace, followed up in 2002 with Attack of the Clones and finally ending with 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, are almost textbook examples on how to destroy a popular series. Each entry was poorly written, barely directed and overly concerned with FX technology. Lucas got three strikes and I was done with Star Wars.

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When Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012 and announced a new sequel coming in 2015, I was underwhelmed. Between the prequels and constant barrage of kiddie cartoons, my interest in the franchise had waned. Star Wars was still one of my favorite films, but I’d been burned too many times by this property. So I maintained a healthy skepticism. J.J. Abrams being hired to direct didn’t help to assuage my apathy either. Abrams is an adequate director, but after rebooting the Star Trek franchise with wildly uneven results, he seemed an uninspired choice. He wasn’t bringing along his usual cadre of screenwriter collaborators so that was a positive, but I remained fairly indifferent. I was of course going to give the movie a fair watch. I am a professional after all. But it was going to take a lot to win me back to this series.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a solid piece of sci-fi entertainment. As an apology/course correction from the prequel trilogy, it’s brilliant. As a sequel to Return of the Jedi it’s a definite improvement. On its own, it’s no game changer. That moment passed thirty-eight years ago. Star Wars was the only thing of its kind back in ’77. In 2015, The Force Awakens has to compete with its own offspring. Every superhero film, and action oriented sci-fi/fantasy flick owes its existence to Star Wars. So after almost four decades of larger than life heroes, incredible creatures, and amazing technology, there’s nothing new here. However, it is a good film that works on nearly every level.

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I may be lukewarm on Abrams as a director, but he brings some badly needed elements back to this series and introduces a visual freshness sorely needed for the aging property. First and foremost, he and screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt bring some genuine humor to the film. Not the cheap, juvenile humor based on slapstick and casual racism introduced in Menace, and not the forced comic moments in both Clones and Sith. The lighter moments here grow organically from character interactions and dialogue.  Abrams was also unafraid to inject a vital dose of maturity into the mix and he pulls it off with assurance. There’s real poignancy here. He’s willing to put his characters through emotional wringers. To be fair, Lucas tried, but it came off unauthentic and contrived.

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Visually, Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel nail it. These two are frequent collaborators and it shows. They bring modern cinematic language to The Force Awakens. Abrams likes to move his camera, but not so much that it disconnects this film from its predecessors. Thankfully, the intrusive handheld work and lens flares are not present. Unfortunately, Abrams still tends to edit his scenes too quickly. There are several beautiful shots here that deserved longer takes that end up looking like cutaways.

The Force Awakens main strength is with its casting. The old crew is (mostly) back. Carrie Fisher, reprising her role as Princess Leia, is ok, but looks a little bored. To her credit though, she’s not given much to do beyond stare at screens and give pep talks. Harrison Ford is back as Han Solo and he gives one of his best performances in recent years. He’s present and seems enthusiastic, like he’s genuinely glad to be back. But our three newcomers really carry this film. Adam Driver stars as Kylo Ren and although he’s styled similar to the classic villain Darth Vader, that’s where the similarities end. Driver infuses Ren with a faux swagger that recalls Vader but hides immaturity and a deep seated petulance. John Boyega shines as Finn, the heart and soul of the movie. Boyega’s having a ball here. He dives fully into the character. Sometimes the script takes Finn to the brink of being the standard black comic relief character, but pivots just before crossing that line. Instead, they give him agency and he’s an essential character. But newcomer Daisy Ridley owns this movie. She’s perfect as the defacto lead Rey, giving the character more energy and spirit than any other female lead in this series. She’s definitely molded after the original trilogy’s Leia but is far more active and miles ahead of the drab Princess Amidala of the prequels.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens does exactly what it’s supposed to do. It satisfies older viewers by resuscitating many of the elements we fell in love with from the originals, while not completely alienating the youthful fans of the prequels. It hits straight down the middle by being neither too adult or too childish. I was skeptical of Abrams, but he brought me back. It didn’t make me feel like a kid again, and I’m glad for that. I’ve passed that time in my life. But it did entertain me as an adult and former die-hard fan. I’m looking forward to the next one.

RATING: Need I even say it? Theater.

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She SAID: Travel Light

Terri Kennerson

‘Tis the season to hop on the first thing smokin’ and head to friends, family or wherever else for the Holidays. Once upon a time, it was chic to shove an entire home into as many suitcases as possible. Fortunately,holiday travel those days are long gone. The more one travels, the more necessary it becomes to pack light, multitask, and eliminate anything that doesn’t serve a specific purpose. The ultimate goal might actually be to fit everything into a carry-on, no matter how long the stay away from home.

The Rose Cleansing Stick from SUM:37 might be the most convenient cleanser we’ve ever used. With 90% natural ingredients, including fermented damask rose, this formula manages hydrate and smooth skin even as it removes dirt and oil. And because it comes in its own built-in case, there’s no messy residue to deal with from traditional bars, or spillage with liquid cleansers.

This Laundry Bag from The Container Store does holiday travel 2a stylish job of separating your dirty clothes on the road. Even with laundry services at hotels (and the washer/dryer at a relative’s house), it’s nice to have the holiday travel 3option to stack your laundry before you have to actually address it.

If we’re being completely honest, of the hardest things to do while on the road is to stay in shape. We promise to go to the local/hotel gym, maybe do a little yoga… but in our heart of hearts we know it’s all smoke. Add to that the inclination to eat everything in sight and the result is almost always unwanted pounds by the time we touch down at home. Commit to a couple of minutes with a TRX resistance cord, which will both lengthen and strengthen muscles. No gym membership required.

He SAID: The Big Short

Scott F. Evans

Let’s get this out of the way: The Big Short is not a ‘date’ movie. It is not a crowd pleaser. You cannot allow distractions while watching. You certainly cannot ‘turn off your brain’ and expect to get anything out of this film. It’s a demanding sit that requires a familiarity with recent economic events, and at least the big shortrudimentary knowledge of the financial world.

Adam McKay and co-screenwriter Charles Randolph don’t exactly hold your hand as they tell this complicated story, but they don’t leave us in the dark either. The Big Short tells the story of a small group of financial players who predicted the 2007-2010 housing market crash, and got rich by betting against it. As such, the script requires a lot of exposition for those of us that don’t work on the fringes of Wall Street. So if you don’t really understand what credit default swaps or collateral debt obligations mean, don’t worry. McKay’s and Randolph’s witty script will guide you through it.

Mostly.

Instead of trying to simplify the finance-speak, characters break the fourth wall and explain exactly what’s going on at that moment. Surprisingly, this very theatrical gimmick works. And it doesn’t hurt that the script isn’t afraid to be profanely funny while breaking this stuff down into basic layman terms.

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McKay, known primarily for broad comedies like Anchorman and Step Brothers, trades in his normal conventional style for a slightly dated quasi-documentary approach. His handheld camera is busy and intrusive. It zooms and panTHE BIG SHORTs around scenes so frequently that it is initially asdistracting as some of the lead actors’ wigs. But McKay and company are able to pull you past it as we’re introduced to the characters and the story unfolds.

The Big Short boasts a stellar ensemble cast with Christian Bale, Steve Carell, Ryan Gosling and co-producer Brad Pitt all putting in solid work. Bale particularly plays against type as Dr. Michael Burry, an eccentric financial analyst who first discovers the impending the big short threecollapse. The character is full of afflictions (he’s got Asperger’s Syndrome as well as a glass eye) and could have easily turned into a standard comic figure. But Bale keeps it reigned in, turning in a believable (if showy) performance. Carell and Gosling, as money manager Mark Baum and trader Jared Vennett are excellent in roles almost tailor-made for them. Pitt is subdued but convincing as retired capitol investor Ben Rickert.

The Big Short is like The Wolf of Wall Street’s conscious younger cousin. It shows you all of the rampant corruption. But where Wolf wallowed in the excess, Short is sickened by it all. It’s a smart film that’s definitely worth seeing.

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But don’t go looking for a breezy time at the movies. Buckle up: it’s going to be an interesting ride.

RATING: Theater

She SAID: Haute Mess

Shahada Karim

We all know that more expensive doesn’t automatically mean better. But that doesn’t stop millions of people from collectively shelling out billions of dollars in hopes of capturing the ultimate ‘haute’ experience in skin care and makeup. From serums to finishing powder, it’s easy to get taken by the fancy packaging and life-changing claims. But in the end, a high price tag does not guarantee a high-end experience. In fact, alternative brands are doing more with less, and easily deserve to be at the head of their collective class.

SK-II Facial Treatment Essence

Actress Cate Blanchett (she of the flawless skin) made this brand uber-famous. But honestly, it just doesn’t live up to its claims of boosting the skin’s renewal process. The idea of pressing a fermented sake derivative into your skin sounds great, but the results aren’t nearly enough to justify the price. With the smallest bottle going for $100 and largest demanding a whopping $290, it simply needs to perform better.

ALTERNATIVE: May Coop Raw Sauce

Sunday Riley Start Over Active Eye Cream

There is no reason on earth that an eye cream should burn. None. I don’t care what miracle ingredients are in the formula, if it burns then it should be discarded. This is such a fundamental requirement that I remain baffled that Sunday Riley has not reformulated this eye cream. It smells fantastic, and it feels amazing going on. But within minutes the burn kicks in. The ingredient list offers no clues about why, but something is definitely funky in the formulation.

ALTERNATIVE: Tata Harper Restorative Eye Cream

Glycelene Lip Remedy

This little pot of balm claims to moisturize and renew the lips upon application. But the first thing it actually does upon application is turn your lips white. Plus, the long term effects mean more peeling than healing. No one likes peeling lips. No one.

ALTERNATIVE: By Terry Baume de Rose

La Prairie Skin Caviar Foundation & Concealer

La Prairie is known for making the most out of this world claims about their skin care, and this product is no different. At a whopping $215 a jar, you’d think that it would do more than maximize pores, sink into fine  lines and wrinkles and (in my case) trigger a horrifying bout of cystic acne. But there it is for the world to see, and you don’t even need a magnifying mirror for proof. On the up(?) side, the concealer is excellent, if a bit ‘flat’ (I wonder if they missed the memo about undertones) in color. They’d do better to market the concealer separate, and go back to the drawing board with the foundation.

ALTERNATIVE FOUNDATION: Givenchy Teint Couture

ALTERNATIVE CONCEALER: Charlotte Tilbury Retoucher

NARS Audacious Mascara

I don’t even know where to start. Is is possible to demand the person responsible for this fiasco seek employment elsewhere? The obnoxious red brush assaults the lashline with its plastic prickly texture. The formula requires about 10 coats just to look like there ‘might’ be something on your lashes. In the end, your run of the mill drugstore mascara is head and shoulders above this one. NARS has never done mascara particularly well, but the Audacious variety might be their worst yet.

Honorable Mention goes to Chantecaille’s Faux Cils Longest Lash Mascara. The formula is lovely, but certainly not life changing. And the biggest crime is, it dries out very quickly. The formula begins to thicken and clump within weeks of purchase, making it even more expensive to keep than its initial $70 purchase price.

ALTERNATIVE: Too Faced Better Than Sex Mascara

YSL Rouge Pur Couture Kiss & Love Lipstick

We’ve come too far in the land of lipsticks to have a  highly pigmented matte that feathers within minutes… MINUTES of application. I cannot imagine what they did to this lipstick to make it so subpar. It is possible to get a creamy matte finish that doesn’t dry the heck out of the lips;  MAC releases some version of their mattes every five minutes and that formulation is much better (and much cheaper). Bottom line: it can be done. This latest offering from YSL simply doesn’t make the grade.

ALTERNATIVE: Burberry Lip Velvet Lipstick