Star Wars: The Force Awakens – J. J. Abrams rights the wrongs of its predecessors

Star Wars: The Force Awakens has set a new box office record, introduced an ensemble of likable contemporary characters and has won over a new generation of fans who will now be seeking out the originals. Why has all of this happened? There are, of course, several reasons but none as strong as the man himself; Mr J. J. Abrams. The director has every practical method up his sleeve in order to revitalise tired franchises. He did it with Star Trek and now he has done it with Star Wars. This is the installment for an audience that dismissed Episodes 4, 5 and 6; it’s Star Wars for the naysayers, for everyone.

The Force Awakens has rejuvenated the franchise and Abrams has taken the narrative back to its 1970’s roots. As the iconic titles arrived on screen I had a sudden (and entirely belated) realisation as to why there was such anticipation around this new film, even following the utter panning of the early 2000’s efforts. It’s the nostalgia of the cult series, and it seeps out from every pore of the movie. From scene transitions that echo The Empire Strikes Back to witty conversation between Han Solo and the beloved Chewbacca – Abrams and George Lucas have collaborated to pin point what fans love, and develop that for a modern audience. Written by Lawrence Kasdan, Abrams, and Michael Arndt the script is seemingly a dream. Cliched and trite, The Phantom Menace – and the following two features in that particular series – had scripts that were hard to handle, The Force Awakens has improved ten-fold and this is a witty and intelligent movie that spends time reminiscing on the good ol’ days while still propelling the narrative forward.

daisy ridley as ray in star wars: the force awakens

daisy ridley as ray in star wars: the force awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens takes place thirty years after The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader is long gone and The Republic is under threat from a new malevolent group known as The First Order. Leia leads The Resistance and Han has returned to his smuggling days with best pal Chewwy. While old favourites return, new faces arrive. Fresh talent Daisy Ridley and John Boyega lead the story as Ray and Fin; their chemistry is electric and the duo echo in a new phase for the franchise. There is a bright future for Abrams’s take on the popular story, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren – the new Vadar of the piece – is a young and genuinely scary antagonist, yet he holds an underlying naivety that makes him real. To welcome Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher and Mark Hamill is ingenious, too. The trio were what made these films so beloved for it was their original story that captured the hearts of cinema-goers and while Ford is the star of the veteran actors, they’re all welcomed back gleefully. The arrival of a new droid, BB-8 is a superb move. For a robot that doesn’t have any understandable dialogue, he has so much personality, one that inspires a connection between him and his audience.

The battle scenes are perfectly paced and timed just right, the visuals of these scenes are backed up by new-age effects that are never questioned. Old meets new but in a way that is measured correctly. This new movie, the seventh in a series that is loved by many, will sit as a classic. Sitting in the cinema, watching The Force Awakens, I noticed the quiet beauty of the story that takes place in a galaxy far, far away: here, on Earth, it unites the young and the old, people of all backgrounds and histories. We all love this tale that takes place somewhere in the stars and this initial magic has been captured once more. Well done Abrams, you did us all proud.

 

 

Big Hero 6, review

Managing to successfully combine humour with emotion, and targeting the difficulty of grief in the process, Big Hero 6 is a true gem. Animation has become a little tiresome, with dozens released each year that don’t quite capture the spirit of the classics like Toy Story, Beauty and the Beast or UP. The latter being one of the first to truly captivate adult audiences with it’s frank and rather imaginative storytelling. Don Hall and Chris Williams’ Big Hero 6, adapted from a Marvel comic, and brought to the screen by Disney (who here prove their worth) is possibly the best animated comedy since, well, a very long time.

Meet Hero (Ryan Potter) and Tadashi (Daniel Henney); two brothers living with Aunt Cass (Maya Rudolph) in San Fransokyo (gotta’ love the play on words, right?). Hero is fourteen and already graduated from school. He fights Robots for cash in an attempt to cure his epic boredom and is, rather humorously, going through puberty (a particular scene articulating this makes for plenty of light-hearted laughs). Tadashi goes to college, under rule of Professor Callaghan (James Cromwell) and soon Hero enrolls as he creates a Robot capable of doing whatever the human mind can imagine. It’s a simple story coupled with a whole lot of cool. The star is Baymax, Tadashi‘s health-care Bot that becomes a friend to all involved. Armed with a soothing voice, toddler-style walk and an all-round good nature, you can’t help but feel you need a Bot like Baymax in your life.

promotional still for big hero 6

promotional still for big hero 6

With an accompanying soundtrack that mixes instrumental score with Fallout Boy punk rock, the tone is pretty much perfectly balanced throughout. Heart-wrenching without bordering on depressing. Comedic without taking away from the matter at hand. The cinematography is outstanding, with a colourful palette of pinks and yellows juxtaposed by low-key backstreet alley ways and urban ship yards that capture the personality of Tokyo. Thank you Disney for not westernizing this story to the point of no return.

A simple, uncomplicated plot. An aura of comic-book rebellion. An adorable new set of heroes. And aesthetics that capture the imagination. Big Hero 6 is a total triumph and reinvigorates a tired, repetitive and, somewhat, lifeless, style of film-making. This is fun cinema that’s a pleasure to watch.

Inherent Vice, review

Paul Thomas Anderson is a director known for his somewhat baffling approach to society in filmmaking. Bearded oil barons, teenage porn stars and, now, dope fiends and a stoned private investigator. Anderson’s work is often heralded for its use of visceral imagery and vivid color palette (not to mention, vivid imagination) and he has kind of entered cult territory in his position as director. With the trailer release of this year’s Inherent Vice we could be forgiven for thinking we were going to get much of the same quirkiness with his tale of ex-lovers, love triangles and 1960’s America. While the feature isn’t far off what Anderson is now so known for, it generally falls flat. With cinema walk-outs, a pretentiously long running-time and an incoherent plot (although I’m pretty sure that was the directors intention) Inherent Vice is, simply put, just a little bit of a let down.

katherine waterstone and joaquin phoenix in inherent vice

katherine waterstone and joaquin phoenix in inherent vice

Adapted from Thomas Pynchon’s novel (which received acclaim from critics) Anderson’s film follows the convoluted narrative of Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), an ex heroin addict still hopelessly in love with his ex-girlfriend Shasta (Katherine Waterstone, encapsulating the hippy spirit of the decade perfectly) and on the search for Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts, featured in only one scene and sorely missing from the majority).  Phoenix carries the entire film on his own – the ensemble cast is varied, with del Toro, Brolin, Wilson, Malone and Witherspoon all providing support in some sense. They might as well be invisible here. Phoenix as Doc is loveable, hilarious and our journey into his quirky world is at times, pretty damn interesting. Doc is someone who you wouldn’t mind having on your side, and though he may be in a drug-induced haze, he still does pretty well in the bizarre situations he finds himself in. Phoenix’s acting is equaled by Joanna Newsome’s incredible narration as Sortilege. Her on-screen appearance is lacking but her presence as narrator is probably one of the strongest elements in a film riddled with weaknesses. In fact, Newsome’s sultry, thoughtful and engulfing voice is one of the best ever heard on film – no exaggeration.

With all this positivity you’re probably asking ‘What could be wrong?’. The answer to that would be; muffled dialogue (in a plot that’s almost impossible to follow, quiet talking overtaken by a non-diegetic soundtrack doesn’t make it any easier). A running time of 149 minutes is so unnecessary in a film dominated by whimsical conversations about topics that quite literally, make no sense. Anderson’s direction is as indie as is acceptable within mainstream cinema but this becomes over-bearing towards the final scenes with a range of closed-shots used that leave you wanting room to breath (the final scene is dominated by thoughts of what is going on around Phoenix and Waterstone rather than the characters themselves). All focus is basically lost. The film goes nowhere, and you can’t help but feel you just wasted a couple hours, even if you were sat in the comfiest cinema seats around (thanks, Picturehouse).

Sure, Anderson’s script produces laughs (but mostly from dialogue featured in the trailer) and the soundtrack is killer – if you grew up in the 60’s you will be transported back to your youth with an up-beat tempo that produces plenty of toe-tapping. There are so many different components that could propel this film into greatness, but at no point do they come together to form one strong, coherent – and enjoyable – piece of cinema. Cult? Yes. For the majority? Definitely not. Even fans of the director’s more out-there works such as Boogie Nights will struggle with this one.

 

 

Whiplash, review

Damien Chazzelle’s (seriously, where has this guy been hiding?) Whiplash is a piece of cinema for true film fans. While not for everyone, Chazzelle has masterfully created not just a feature film, but a cinematic experience. The director is  believed to of said that he wanted Whiplash to be a film that did for music what Scorsese’s Raging Bull did for boxing. He succeeded. Shot in nineteen days and edited in just ten the film looks aesthetically pristine and carries with it an edgy atmospheric tone that gives way to this sense of, well, you never really know what, but something pretty meaningful.

Miles Teller (the new actor on the block, who performed all of the drumming scenes himself – seriously, that talent?!) and J. K. Simmons are at the centre of Chazzelle’s masterpiece and individually stand out as a force all of their own. Simmons was just graced with the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actor and boy, was it deserved. As Terrence Fletcher, the actor exudes a sense of self-appreciation and pigheadedness as he demands excellence and absolute perfection (his version of it, anyway) from his jazz students at the New York Shaffer Music Academy. Teller’s Andrew becomes Fletcher‘s new student when spotted working his magic on the drums and the pair embark on a tumultuous teacher-student relationship.

Simmons’ Fletcher is ruthless and unforgiving and the extremes to which he pushes his students is at the focus of Whiplash. The physical extremities that the conductor puts Andrew through time and again garners a genuine reaction from those watching and by the final moments you find yourself experiencing a kind of unfeigned hope that the young student can overcome the brutal methods of Fletcher‘s teaching and demonstrate his gift as a drummer. Both Simmons and Teller, who differ in age by about thirty years, exhibit what power each possesses as an actor and its incredibly exciting to see what comes next for both. More importantly, they work well as a duo, representing different morals and divergent views on life.

j. k. simmons as terrence fletcher in whiplash

j. k. simmons as terrence fletcher in whiplash

While generally a strong feature, there are one or two weaknesses. The background story of Fletcher is seriously underdeveloped and a scene or two explaining how he came to be this way (which the current running time would certainly allow) would of been welcomed. Similar to this, Melissa Benoist as Nicole is featured prominently in the trailer yet is present in only three scenes, and her dialogue is limited. Benoist is clearly a natural and to see more of her and Teller together would of added a new dimension to a male-dominated, masculine film.

Its actually pretty hard to articulate what you experience when seeing Whiplash, and its taken me two days to finally write this review. Chazelles direction is faultless, and his editing of the drumming sequences are some of the best this genre has seen in years. The diegetic score is a treat all of its own, and the final scene (which lasts around fifteen minutes) is the stand out – Teller beats the drums at incredible speed, the sound of the jazz beat is immensely enjoyable and the added elements of sweat drops on the symbols and blood splatters on the drums make it all the more authentic. While not a whole lot happens, and you are never sure if you are particularly inclined to like either Fletcher or Andrew, Whiplash still manages to finish with the thought in ones mind of what a treat that viewing just was.

A considerable portion of the mainstream viewing audience will undervalue Chazelle’s film, unable to see beyond the narrative of a drumming student and his tutor. For the section of theatregoers who appreciate cinema for all of its unique and life-changing quirks Whiplash will swiftly be placed in the top ten. A second watch is needed, and further contemplation on this work of art will continue for some time, but for now all you need to know is that this is probably one of the best films you will see all year. And its only January.