For the moment I'll respond to a few things...
Gabriel wrote:Given he's from the film school crowd from that era, rather than being 'born,' he's a trained filmmaker – we could do with a few more of those! Lynch is another trained art college graduate. There's a lot to be said for proper schooling.
Fair point, and I was using the term "born" rather sloppily I admit especially considering within the same paragraph I speak to how conscious of and excited he was by great filmmakers like Kurosawa! Better to say he's a natural filmmaker, who soaked up many important influences and insights but from all accounts had very strong instincts and ability right out of the gate. The larger point I'm making is that he tends to think in cinematic terms - ideas of specific details or viewpoints he wants to convey, rather than a more general concept whose particular execution isn't so important. From the very little I've seen/heard of JJ Abrams, I get fleeting examples of this (the opening of Lost for example is very strong, and the early passages of Super 8 show a flair for capturing the classical feel of Spielberg with) but for the most part the sense I get - and again, I realize I probably shouldn't be saying any of this without having seen the Star Trek or Mission: Impossible films although I've heard that they are entirely consistent with this impression - he falls back too easily on modern, somewhat lazy tropes like the whirling camera and hyper-montage (for the most part what David Bordwell has dubbed "intensified continuity" I guess).
Overall, I think formal training tends to be overrated although I think it has its virtues. So many great directors emerged without any access to it whatsoever, and plenty of filmmakers got it and still fell into lazy, unimaginative techniques. Overall I think the resultant films have more to do with the core sensibility of the maker than various tips or references they may have acquired along the way (additionally, of course, such tips and references can be picked up other ways as well - either through workplace experience, admittedly not easy to acquire in an age where everyone wants employees who are already experienced, or through independent inquiry).
I'd say he's got as much 'command' as anyone out there. How do you define 'command of film form?' I'm not sure what that means. I mean, he can get someone to point a camera and shoot. He knows how to put a film together.
I'm not saying he's incompotent. By command I mean what was discussed above, an ability or inclination to piece together a movie in entirely cinematic terms, to think about point of view and aesthetic presentation and not simply rely on the easiest way to gather material. What I've seen/heard about Abrams suggests he shows flashes of this ability but generally hasn't pushed himself far enough in this direction, probably because his sensibility is more attuned to the big picture than the particular detail. But that's a hazy guess and I'm probably treading too far into speculation here without having seen any of his reboot franchise work yet.
Lucas in mashing up every matinee serial ever made created Star Wars and Indiana Jones: examples of derivative filmmaking as an art form!
Yes, but he digested it and it came out as something new (no, not like shit, get your mind out of the gutter ). The same could be said of highly-influenced filmmakers like Tarantino or Wes Anderson. For all the criticism they get of being cultural recyclers, you'd be hard-pressed to confuse their work with its influences - in large part because, before them, those influences were never quite mashed-up the way they are now.
Abrams, on the other hand, is literally just taking pre-existing characters and worlds and revisiting them with new techniques (which don't seem to be much of an advance on the old techniques) or narrative twists. This isn't necessarily an awful thing, but it certainly doesn't encourage me to see him as a true original the way I would see Lucas.
The look of Abram's film is mostly superior to anything in the previous six films.
And if the compositions are lacking, then the cinematographer is really to blame.
To my understanding, most times this is the director's responsibility, and ideally it should be, because if the person most concerned with the overall feel of the movie isn't actually paying attention to the basic structure of the images that convey this overall feel, something's wrong. Obviously there are exceptions like Woody Allen, who simply lets his DP take over that aspect of direction (you could almost argue that a film like Manhattan is co-directed by Allen and Gordon Willis) but for the most part, a good director is going to be responsible for the geometry of what's onscreen, either looking through the viewfinder to approve, creating storyboards ahead of time, or communicating sufficiently with the DP to establish the aesthetic sensibility (a pretty risky strategy given the variety of situations that will be encountered). A cinematographer's concern is generally more with the technical qualities of the image: the lighting, the specificity of lens and focus and exposure, etc.
The home video generation has better access to movies than any before.
But the small screen not only shriveled and degraded the image it also altered it in significant ways, chopping off edges and sometimes artificially moving it around. The general sense it conveyed was that the overall concept or feel of the movie was more important than the specifics. And even as someone who grew up entirely within the home video era (much more so than Abrams, who was at least a teen when VCRs became ubiquitous, although maybe he watched a lot of movies on TV), and considers it a crucial component of his own sensibility, I have to admit that this was a big drawback that seems to have made itself felt in the current age of cinema. Now with blu-rays, it's somewhat better but maybe the damage has been done? I don't know, I'm going too far out on a limb here.
The third one is the dullest, most sterile film I've ever sat through. Truly, I would have found reading a two-page plot synopsis more exciting. As a massive fan of digital cinema, its one film I would duck if it was used to challenge me over my enthusiasm for it. At least I can now use the excuse that the film's a decade old, was bad in the first place and digital acquisition got better. Revenge of the Sith ticks every negative box for digital cinema. It's a frustrating watch, especially since all the characters, especially Anakin, are better acted and more likeable in the Clone Wars cartoons.
But all of your criticisms seem to be of the acting and writing. I agree - I think the most damning aspect of the prequels, the one that will provide the hardest hill to surmount if anyone wants to re-evaluated and redeem them - is that the viewers are alienated from the characters. My point, however, was to do with the visual direction of the film. Revenge of the Sith is quite dazzling and well-constructed from a visual standpoint. Take, for example, the montage of Anakin as he considers going to the Dark Side (when for once, Lucas shuts up and stops trying to rely on dialogue that isn't his strong suit). It's evidence that the Lucas of THX-1138 had hit his stride again (Phantom Menace feels very much like someone who had been sequestered from the hands-on efforts of filmmaking and absorbed in running a business, trying to get back in the game once again).
I think this is one of the least appreciated qualities of Star Wars. The films tend to be celebrated or denigrated as larger-than-life myths rather than closely studied in terms of mise en scene (definitions may vary but I'd identify mise en scene as "composition, camera movement, blocking, and shot selection/montage") the way other films would be. The fights are an exception, I guess: they've certainly gotten their fair share of attention. But for the most part people tend to forget that the Star Wars films are, first and foremost, movies.
I will probably see Force Awakens soon and I'll be sure to share my thoughts here.