The Conjuring (2013)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: July 19th, 2013 (US); August 2nd, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Vera Farmiga, Patrick Wilson, Lili Taylor, Ron Livingston

After months of heightened anticipation built up through posters and trailers, The Conjuring hit cinema screens accompanied by scares more in tune with a series of pithy jabs rather than any fully blown knockouts. Even though it does hit the mark on a number of elements, the film is deceivingly weak on the horror side of things.

Set in the early 1970s, The Conjuring is based on a case undertaken by real-life paranormal investigators Ed and Lorraine Warren. It relays the events the husband and wife pair experience as they attempt to assist the Perron family in ridding their new Rhode Island home of an evil presence.

Directed by the imaginative and twisted mind behind horror hits Saw and Insidious, James Wan, The Conjuring surprisingly relies heavily on drawn out sequences of tension-mounting silence. So much so that by the fifth time the spike in music arrives to signal a scare, the impact is lost on the viewer. In fact, any potential hair-raising moments brought upon through tension have already been screened in the trailer. The objective of any horror film is to frighten its audience, but there are other ways to do so as opposed to relentless attempts at jump-scaring (that is, solely depending on giving the audience a momentary and sudden fright). In fact the few times The Conjuring does deviate from this and instead opts for creepy imagery, it works very well and evokes that sense of fear and dread every horror film should strive for.

Another problem The Conjuring faces is the moments of incomprehensible decision-making by some of its characters. There is something about walking into a dark room which seconds before boasted a demented-looking ghost spewing eerie dialogue that does not exactly scream out as the most sensible option for somebody to take. This is not an obstacle exclusive to The Conjuring though, and is often an unfortunate nuance found in other horror films every year.

However, even when taking the aforementioned concerns into consideration, The Conjuring is still a very well-crafted, aesthetically on point film. Vera Farmiga and Patrick Wilson star as the Warren family and strike up a well-oiled dynamic as the piece progresses. Both are enjoyable to watch and Farmiga in particular stands out as an anxious-yet-determined mother and investigator who has suffered some sort of psychological attack, and who also holds the safety of her daughter close to her heart. Ron Livingston and Lili Taylor play the heads of the Perron family and both do a more-than-adequate job as a slightly sceptical father and an utterly confused and worried mother, respectively.

James Wan has a tremendous eye for developing encapsulating visuals, as proven in his previous work. This time, everything from the Amityville-like house which looks and sounds like it could collapse into a pile of wood within seconds, to the wonderfully hideous make-up splattered across the ghoulish faces of the demons, adds to the somewhat diminished fear-factor the film possesses. The very short and ominous title sequence also deserves a mention, as the blend of screeching instrumentals and a menacing yellow text font provide an introductory chill worthy of a scarier film. Wan does capture the essence of most of the essentials needed to create a fully-fledged horror spectacle, but disappointingly misses out on consistent spooks.

It is probably true that The Conjuring has fallen victim to too much hype (an account “too disturbing to be told”) and it also places too many of its eggs in one basket as far as focusing on the true story element of the film goes. Otherwise, it ticks all of the boxes required to be an entertaining film and it succeeds on the few occasions James Wan does get the horror aspect correct.

Credit: The Times
Credit: The Times

The Campaign (2012)

★★

Director: Jay Roach

Release Date: August 10th, 2012 (US); September 28th, 2012 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis, Jason Sudeikis

Released in the midst of the 2012 Presidential Election in the United States, The Campaign struggles to reach the lofty heights set by Jay Roach’s previous work. More often than not the jokes are without any real substance and by the time the credits finish rolling, the film has cemented its place as a forgettable one.

The Campaign follows the naive Marty Huggins’ introduction into politics as he is propelled into the normally competition-scarce race for election in North Carolina’s 14th District. His opponent, Cam Brady, has spent the previous four terms as congressman of the district due to nobody running against him. However, two corrupt businessman use Brady’s involvement in an indecent incident to install Huggins into the race, with their motives less than noble and their focus solely on using Huggins to strike a profit-blazing deal with a Chinese company.

The film is at its best and funniest when it gets the political satire elements right (pointing out how far politicians will go to expose each other, for example), but too often these attempts fall flat and instead come across more like parody sketches on politics. When the events begin to enter the parody realm, the film veers dangerously close to Meet The Spartans and Epic Movie territory (although not quite as bad as either of those). This is unfortunate as the few times the writing does work the film is very funny, particularly with the added bonus of Will Ferrell and Zach Galifianakis who are fully versed in successfully delivering humour with the correct material put before them.

Another problem The Campaign encounters is that there is no clear character to root for (perhaps this an intentional attempt to mirror real life election battles). From the get-go it is clear that the villain of the piece is intended to be Cam Brady (Ferrell’s character). Brady comes across as a cocky, chauvinistic jerk, and Ferrell plays the role to a T. With the introduction of Galifianakis’ Marty Huggins, it is clear that the simple tourism director is set to be the sympathetic character. Brady is obnoxious, often degrading Huggins and taking advantage of the political newcomer’s nativity. However, the film does not even reach the half-way mark before the roles begin to reverse and Brady becomes the brunt of all of the jokes. The influential businessmen we see at the beginning of the film are clearly the puppeteers who are in need some sort of comeuppance, but they do not appear on-screen often enough to develop their nastiness and be paraded as the bad guys — must the audience rely on what they know from previous films of similar ilk to decipher who is playing what role? The Campaign sorts itself out in the end, but by then it is too late as the two main characters are not really worth caring about.

It is not all bad news though. As mentioned beforehand, Roach and the writers — Chris Henchy and Shawn Harwell — do hit the correct notes on a number of occasions and the film does conjure up a couple of genuinely humorous moments. Ferrell and Galifianakis play off of each other well enough, but neither really seem to be completely committed 100 percent to the cause. In fact, Ferrell’s Brady holds a number of similar characteristics to those of his much-loved Anchorman character, Ron Burgundy. However the difference between the two is clear — Burgundy is given both the time and the correct narrative to evolve and become something more than just an egotistical news anchor, whereas Brady must suffice with punching babies and being a horrible father. Galifianakis is essentially playing the same role he has played since starring in The Hangover. It is not that the role is not funny, rather it is just not funny the fifth time around.

The Campaign suffers from one or two glaring problems, namely a weak script and non-existent character roles. Nothing really sticks out: the performances are nothing special, the laughs are few and far between and story is over-played and without inspiration. With that being said, Roach, Henchy and Harwell do get the balance of discreet-yet-understandable humour correct on a few occasions and the film is better for it. Perhaps Roach should have cast Rick Santorum in the role of Marty Huggins — at least then there would have been a consistent cause for laughter.

Credit: Telstar Media
Credit: Telstar Media

Insidious (2011)

★★★

Director: James Wan

Release Date: April 1st, 2011 (US); April 29th, 2011 (UK)

Genre: Horror; Thriller

Starring: Rose Byrne, Patrick Wilson, Ty Simpkins

As far as haunted house tales go, Insidious certainly does not fall into the dud category and for 40 minutes is actually very good. Unfortunately, the high volume of tension expertly built up throughout the first half of the film is let down by an average, scare-lacking second half which delivers a hokey logical explanation of the goings-on.

The film depicts the lives of the Lambert family — husband and wife, Josh and Renai, their two young sons and baby daughter — after the quintet’s relocation to a new house. The parents’ hopes for a new start absent of problems are soon dashed when their eldest son Dalton falls into a coma, triggering a series of weird and unsettling events.

James Wan, whose first directorial role was the innovative Saw back in 2004, is in his primary element when he is establishing trenches of tension and utilising shiver-inducing imagery to impart fear. This is exactly what Insidious offers for the first half of proceedings, as an ordinary family falls victim to a tragedy which bats away any explanation, and are then the subjects of various abnormal happenings, which are also devoid of explanation. The two are obviously linked, but in attempting to uncover how or why this is the case, the seeds of dread and fear for both the Lambert family and the audience are planted. This, along with a variety of common but still efficiently adapted elements of horror (doors randomly opening, figures appearing), ensure that the film sets standards high going into its second half.

When that second half arrives, however, proceedings begin to unravel a little. For every disturbing image in part one, there is a corny one in part two. For every discreet moment of tension built earlier on in the film, there is a disheartening logical explanation later. Delivering a unique, scare-inducing haunted house film is difficult in the present era, and this is mainly down to the vast majority of the tricks and frights being over-saturated year upon year. The ironic aspect of Insidious is that Wan gets the clichéd parts completely right, and even manages to add a twist to them. By the time we reach the end of the film though, it is Wan’s attempts at doing something different that comes back to haunt him. The logical (and I use that term lightly) explanation of events the audience is given is not scary at all, rather it is groan-worthy.

With that being said, the second half of Insidious is not without merit. Again, when sinister, almost maniacal imagery is present on-screen, the film grumbles as it threatens to erupt in a flow of ominous atmosphere. Wan delivers such imagery in the climax, but not nearly frequently enough, causing the scares to be overshadowed by some uninspired plot developments leeching onto Insidious towards the end. The opening 40 minutes does such a good job of building an unsettling atmosphere that it possible the remaining hour’s inability to keep up with what came before exposes the misfire more than the film deserves. Wan can do inventive, as he has proven in the past with Saw, but this time his attempt at originality veers too near to nonsensical logic than spontaneous genius.

Patrick Wilson and Rose Byrne star as the husband and wife pair and are thoroughly effective in their roles. Both come across as believable parents still trying to settle down into a comfortable way of living with their three young children. In line with the film separating into two parts, Wilson and Byrne appear to each take a turn at being the focal point of the piece. Byrne is at the centre of much of the spooky occurrences throughout the first phase of the film, and plays the traumatised, protective mother very well. Wilson on the other hand, sees much of the action in the second phase of the film, and is better than the hand he is dealt. Lin Shaye also makes an appearance as a paranormal investigator who fluctuates between calm and eccentric quicker than a tennis ball switches sides at Wimbledon.

The film’s tremendous box office returns have meant that Insidious: Chapter 2 has been scheduled for release later this year, and looks certain to be the autumn horror hit of 2013. James Wan will return to direct it and if he focuses on delivering a sequel more in tune with the first half of Insidious than the second, Chapter 2 will be as much of a critical hit as it will be a monetary one come September.

Credit: BoxOffice9
Credit: BoxOffice9

Spring Breakers (2013)

★★★★★

Director: Harmony Korine

Release Date: March 22nd, 2013 (US); April 5th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson, Rachel Korine, James Franco

Touted shortly after its release as a cult classic in the making, Spring Breakers delivers a unique blend of boisterous partying, melancholic musings and rhythmic tones. Following the exploits of four college students desperate to escape and experience spring break, we see two well-known former Disney stars averted from their origin and instead fuelled by drugs and desire.

The most prominent and intriguing question going into Spring Breakers was always going to be how Harmony Korine, the man behind the curtain, would be able to portray Vanessa Hudgens and Selena Gomez in particular as anything but two ‘teen queens’ idolized for their roles in the High School Musical franchise and Wizards of Waverly Place, but to focus solely on that aspect would be doing the film a huge disservice. It is to the trio’s credit that they manage to pull it off to the degree they do (the characters, and the film, are both hard-hitting), but the success of Spring Breakers is also down to the inclusion of many more elements.

From start until finish, Spring Breakers boasts a mesmeric quality (much akin to that of Drive) which amplifies the hauntingly idyllic narrative the film follows. This is partially down to the score, which blends hip-hop, synth and a surreal-yet-effective use of Britney Spears’ “Everytime”, to create a diverse audio backdrop to the story. However, the trance-inducing nature of Spring Breakers also owes a debt to just how well-edited the piece is. Although the film follows a linear structure, certain events are replayed in various different forms — such as in slow motion or from another character’s perspective — and these events are often interlaced with unassuming dialogue — such as phone calls to home. Every time an event or a piece of dialogue is repeated, it evokes a more fulfilling meaning than the last time, and so the film delves deeper into the characters’ psyche as it progresses.

Even as all of the beer-swigging, party-going and bikini-wearing (or otherwise) is playing out on-screen, Spring Breakers consistently retains and gradually develops its primary message: when somebody wants to escape, just how far are they willing to go? For each of the four women the answer is different, and their realisation, or lack thereof, varies in extremity. Although ‘spring breakers’ signifies the age-old clichéd representation of college students and their annual partying and alcoholic exploits, the real spring break is the one that the four females encounter, which is far from clichéd yet remains very real in terms of the power of persuasion, desire and accountability in society.

Vanessa Hudgens, Selena Gomez, Ashley Benson and Rachel Korine are all very good in their roles, and even begin to amalgamate into a single being as the story progresses. The abnormality of seeing Gomez and Hudgens portraying the characters that they do only adds to the overall bizarre and peculiar feel the film has to it (which is by no means a negative point). With that being said, perhaps even further astray from his comfort zone is James Franco, whose character Alien is a rapper who delves into a number of unconventional activities. Franco has never been more distant from square one with his performance here, and he is on full throttle from the get-go. His charisma and unconventional charm are in effect throughout, and by the end of the film Franco is almost entirely unrecognisable (not just visually). Whatever mindset James Franco had going into filming Spring Breakers was the correct one as he pulls the character off, cementing an excellent casting choice.

Spring Breakers is very vibrant and colourful, and at just over one and a half hours long does not overstay its welcome — another 20 minutes would probably have hurt this. The combination of many of the aforementioned devices (integration, repetition, colour etc.) come together to produce a film similar to that of a relentlessly meandering piece of art. There is more than a hint of beauty in the madness. Even without the use of special on-screen trickery such as CGI, Spring Breakers remains a spectacle in every manner: visually, audibly, and in relation to its narrative. The film has divided opinion since its release and will probably continue to do so, but Harmony Korine does something daring and provocative, and it works.

Credit: Cohorte
Credit: Cohorte

Synecdoche, New York (2008)

★★★★★

Credit: IMP Awards
Credit: IMP Awards

Director: Charlie Kaufman

Release Date: October 24th, 2008 (US); May 15th, 2009 (UK)

Genre: Drama

Starring: Philip Seymour Hoffman, Catherine Keener, Samantha Morton, Michelle Williams

From the eccentric mind of Charlie Kaufman comes Synecdoche, New York, the story of a debilitated theatre director who, fearing his impending death and the loss of his identity and legacy with it, decides to create a grandiose production based on his life in order to leave something behind.

Synecdoche, New York is like a Chris Nolan film blown way out of proportion. Which, by the way, is not necessarily a negative thing. Philip Seymour Hoffman takes a turn at a man, Caden Cotard, who is slowly losing his grip both on life physically and mentally, as his perceived reality becomes something of a concoction of what is real and what is not real. Suffering from numerous ailments which are taking a toll on his health, Caden’s decision to devise an out-of-this-world (literally) theatre production in a massive warehouse in the theatre district of New York strikes up a number of questions about life, both for himself and for the audience (or, myself at least).

His inability to sustain a relationship with any woman plays an integral role in throughout film. He has three significant relationships during its course: his wife at the beginning who moves to Berlin to pursue her career in art, Adele Lack (Catherine Keener); an actress who is part of his cast and who becomes disenfranchised with Caden’s obsession about his production, Claire Keen (Michelle Williams); and Caden’s long-time assistant and box office manager, Hazel (Samantha Morton). Caden also has a less than productive relationship with his therapist Madeleine Gravis (Hope Davis) and a non-existent to heart-wrenching affiliation with his misguided daughter, Olive (Robin Weigert). Perhaps this lack of a consistent connection and commitment mirrors Caden’s loss of a base in real life — he seemingly cannot sustain a healthy absolute existence — thus prompting him to focus all of his energy into an epic-scale production where his life, and all of those around him, he is able to view from the outside, as if it were fiction.

“Does anyone have any idea what the hell is going on?” Credit: Yahoo! Movies

Having only watched Synecdoche, New York once, I am absolutely certain there are a number of elements I missed whilst viewing the film, but one that definitely stuck out was Caden’s seemingly bleak view regarding his own life. For example, he is left almost angered at his original wife’s success over in Berlin, so much so that he continues to increase the scale of his own production, as opposed to Adele’s dedication to miniature art-work. Caden does not feel the world he lives in notices him (his wife and daughter have left him, his health continually deteriorates) and the only time it does muster something up for him — a MacArthur Fellowship — he takes that as a sign to build a legacy that he believes will have to be noticed and highly regarded when he inevitably passes. As the film progresses, so too does Kaufman’s direction and informal misdirection, as Caden’s life becomes increasingly blurred and entangled with the lives of his and his casts doppelgängers, with each doppelgänger hired to portray significant players in his own life as a part of his production. As a viewer, it is often difficult to distinguish between what is actually happening in Caden’s life, and what is a part of the production — even his actors often need to ask Caden to halt proceedings in order to talk in reality — adding to the overarching trench of mind-numbing facets on display.

Hoffman is exceptional as the lead character, forcing Caden’s anguish down the viewer’s throat, leaving a lump in it and generating total empathy for the character. At this stage in the game, average performances are not on the menu when it comes to Hoffman, who seems to be churning out one gourmet dish after another. The supporting cast all provide the necessary emotion and disconnection towards Caden, with Samantha Banks in particular standing out as Hazel, who seems not to share Caden’s fear of impending death as she decides to live in a burning house where death crackles along every wooden beam. Michelle Williams, pre-Blue Valentine fame, effectively acts as a fountain of sympathy towards Caden, before her disillusionment evokes the eruption of a fiery side. Charlie Kaufman certainly deserves praise for successfully carrying out the seemingly unenviable task of progressively directing doubt and fictitious elements into the film, without going overboard and turning proceedings into a complete mesh of insincerity.

“Not a clue.” Credit: The Film Stage

In the midst of all the gloominess and lack of clarity, Synecdoche, New York boasts characters who are crying out (again, literally) for sympathy and who, regardless of their faults — of which there are many — deserve sympathy from the audience. After being left speechless at the contents of the film itself, the emotion followed through like a ton of bricks for me. Although much of the film is based on deciphering what is real from what is not, there is a distinct element of something present which is grounded in everyday life. At its very simplest, the film is a portrait of a middle-aged man who is struggling through his job when we first see him on-screen, whose health is continually threatened and whose relationship(s) is crumbling. Okay, so it is not grounded in my everyday life (I am not quite middle-aged yet), but it certainly provides a commentary on a potential and very realistic life.

This is without doubt the most challenging review I have written, and it probably does not make a whole lot of sense if you have not seen the film (it might not even make any sense if you have), but to me that is in fitting with the surreal, but equally rational, thought-provoker that is Synecdoche, New York.

It will make you think, and then it will make you think again.

Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith (2005)

★★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 19th, 2005 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman, Ian McDiarmid

Three years after the onset of the Clone Wars, Revenge of the Sith sees the galaxy ravaged by fighting. With Jedi dispatched all over battling the Separatist droid army, Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) is assigned to exterminate their leader, General Grievous, while at the same time a now more powerful Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) becomes drawn ever closer to Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Fearing the loss of his wife Padme (Natalie Portman) and their child, seen through his visions, Anakin goes to extreme lengths to prevent such an event taking place, with disastrous Sith-related consequences.

By far the best of the prequels (and from what I have read, the best of the four Lucas directorials), Revenge of the Sith has a variety of positive things going for it. For me, of the blemishes held by the previous two instalments, the main falter of both was the fairly shoddy dialogue and script-writing. In fact, Lucas has even admitted in the past that writing has never been his strongest asset. This time around, however, there is a vast improvement. Partly, this is to do with Revenge of the Sith driven more-so by action and battle scenes, as opposed to the number of pure dialogue scenes slowly bulging out of the previous two instalments (around half of Attack of the Clones‘ main plot-line was dreary dialogue between Anakin and Padme). With that being said, to Lucas’ credit, I also think there is a general overall improvement in writing here. Yes, portions of that clichéd dialogue pop up every now and again between those two aforementioned characters, but on the whole the quality of interaction is much better and much more meaningful in Revenge of the Sith than before. Scenes between Anakin and Palpatine in particular stand out, which leads me deceptively impressively to my next point…

Something in your eye?

Hayden Christensen is much better here. So much better, in fact. I mentioned in my review of Attack of the Clones that he comes across as stale at times, but his efforts this time around pretty much put the reasoning behind that to bed — he was simply not given good enough material to work with. In Revenge of the Sith, on the other hand, he is given vastly greater material and his depiction of an increasingly misguided Jedi and seemingly helpless husband is very good. By no means does he put in an Oscar-worthy performance (nobody does), but it is one worthy of the platform he finds himself rooted to. The ‘best performance in the film award’, without a doubt, lies with Ian McDiarmid as Chancellor Palpatine. He exudes vileness, but at the same time remains engrossing and delightful to watch as the manipulative Darth Sidious (it is not a spoiler if it is in the trailer). His calm-yet-menacing tone during scenes with Christensen actually remind me of Alan Rickman as Professor Snape in the Harry Potter films — which is a very good thing. Again, Ewan McGregor is solid here and probably puts in a trilogy-best performance, which all of the cast do to be fair.

The best aspect of Revenge of the Sith, and the aspect which makes it Lucas’ best directorial performance out of his three prequels, is the character development throughout. The unravelling of Anakin into Darth Vader is the primary focus of the film and everything else fits in nicely around his capitulation. The seeds of self-doubt, originally planted in Attack of the Clones, come to fruition in a harrowing nature here and, as I mentioned before, Christensen does a fine job at portraying the evolution of one of the best and most well-known villains in cinematic history. Obviously, it is fairly straightforward to keep a character on a consistent path throughout a number of films when the films are prequels and therefore his (or her) fate is already known by both director and audience. But what I would absolutely commend Lucas on is the way in which he delivers the consistency in Anakin’s transformation — from his resultant actions after discovering his beaten mother in Attack of the Clones, to the outcome of his duel with Count Dooku and their subsequent dialogue, both Lucas by way of direction and narrative and Christensen through his delivery on-screen ensure that the birth of Darth Vader is an appropriately emphatic one.

“Is it just me, or is it hot in here?”

To have Anakin pulled in a number of directions here is the key to the film, and this actually makes me sympathise (and, I guess, empathise) with the character. Having visions of his wife and unborn child dying, feeling unappreciated by his master Obi-Wan and being shut down at almost every opportunity by influential Council member Mace Windu — I do not like that guy, and I am still not sure if I am meant to or not — certainly provides a substantial basis for reason to go off the rails. And that is not even taking into account his manipulation at the hands (and speech) of Palpatine/Sidious. Natalie Portman plays a necessary and potent role in generating much sympathy for Anakin, and the simultaneous sequence of the two towards the end is rightfully one bursting with emotion.

Having blabbed on about the content of film itself, it would be unjust for me to ignore the sheer visual spectacle that is Revenge of the Sith. The improvement from film to film to film between the prequels is tremendous, and by the time Revenge of the Sith comes around, the magnitude of visual achievement is protruding the pinnacle of the scale (bearing in mind that the film was released in 2005, over eight years ago). The final battle scene between Anakin and Obi-Wan (in the trailer thus not a spoiler) is the most visually enticing of the entire trilogy in regards to battle sequences, and those in the CGI department deserve a huge amount of credit for their creation of a number of stunning set-pieces (at its absolute primitive, the whole saga is one massive, impressive set-piece after another). From the first scene until the last, the effects are on point and, for a film which is more or less dominated by fight scenes, I was encapsulated throughout and this is not only a testament to the stunt people, but also to the actors themselves — for the battle scene at the end, Christensen and McGregor choreographed the sequence for the most part on their own, and did not use stunt doubles at any point. Well-played.

Revenge of the Sith is everything that modern cinema is all about: intelligent film-making with a clear, effective narrative, emotionally-investable characters and awesome visuals. I would even go as far as saying that Revenge of the Sith makes both The Phantom Menace and Attack of the Clones better films, whilst remaining an outstanding piece on its own.

*Reading this in 2015 hurts.

Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002)

★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 16th, 2002 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Ewan McGregor, Hayden Christensen, Natalie Portman

Set 10 years after the events of The Phantom Menace and in the midst of a Separatist rebellion, Attack of the Clones sees an older Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) undertake a mission to discover who is behind the assassination attempt on former Queen and now Senator Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman), whilst a talented-yet-over eager Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) is tasked with protecting Padme, whom he has strong feelings for. Meanwhile, the creation of a massive clone army and a potential conspiracy at the head of the Republic both threaten the beginning of a destructive and uncontrollable war.

Often regarded as an improvement on The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones certainly lays the foundations for a slightly more sinister Star Wars going forward — which is a good thing in my eyes. We see a number of these more sinister traits come to the forefront as the film progresses: elements of Anakin’s darker side and his ambition to “become the most powerful Jedi in the world,” the introduction of Jango Fett and his son Boba along with all that goes on surrounding them, and the themes of betrayal, conspiracy and abuse of power amongst leaders of the Rebellion. All three of the aforementioned plot-points are positives not only in terms of Attack of the Clones as a film on its own, but also in terms of the Star Wars saga going forward as they provide the basis for key narrative in the future.

No jokes from me this time around, just admiration.

Firstly, I do think that Hayden Christensen is a little bit hit-and-miss here. This is partly to do with the rather cliché-laden script — he is far better at the beginning of the film and towards the end, as opposed to the middle section where both he and Natalie Portman are hindered by, for lack of a better term, soppy dialogue. But his performance is also probably a result of his inexperience on the big stage — back in 2002, Attack of the Clones was only his fourth or fifth film, and his first significant one in terms of scale. Having said that, however, and having seen Christensen in other films later on in his career, I would like to think that his performance, which is a tad wooden at times, is on the whole an unfortunate product of an uninspired script. To clarify, the whole romance sub-plot between Christensen and Portman is absolutely fine, but the execution is poor and this is primarily down to the wishy-washy dialogue between the two. I like Christensen as an actor and am a big fan of Natalie Portman, but it just did not quite work this time for me. Ewan McGregor does well in carrying his half of the proceedings where the goings-on tend to be more exciting and eventful as he is involved in uncovering an assassination plot rather than a romance (just like it would be, right?). Yoda, voiced by Frank Oz, gets a bigger role this time around and, unlike Jar Jar Binks (who thankfully has a minor role here), is a necessary character who adds to the film. We also see Christopher Lee in a familiar bad-guy role, which he executes with charisma and typical bad-guy exuberance.

Although the script is questionable at times, in general, I do think that Attack of the Clones has a better story than its predecessor. More things are happening this time around — exemplified by the two main characters splitting up and following different agendas for the majority of the film, unlike The Phantom Menace — and, although there is more going on, the plot is still easy enough to follow and makes sense on the whole. With neat nuances such as Anakin’s exploits when he goes back Tatooine to look for his mother and Obi-Wan Kenobi’s trip to the ocean planet of Kamino, the key events of the film have not only more meaning than those in The Phantom Menace (we did not really need to see Anakin as a child or pod-racing), but also an increased sense of direction as the eventual intersection of the varying plot-lines makes sense. Although middle films in trilogies are often looked upon as not much more than a device to further the character development outlined by their predecessor and set up events for their successor, Attack of the Clones veers just enough away from this stereotype to be a success on its own — however there is an element of my latter point in the film.

“Gladia- Jedi, are you ready?!”

Again, in tune with The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones is an awesome visual specimen from start until finish. It would even be fair to say that it overtakes The Phantom Menace in the looks department, which is expected considering a lot can happen in three years in regards to image and special effect technology (and evidently did happen, as Attack of the Clones was one of the very first films to be shot entirely on the high definition digital 24 frames-per-second system). Apart from the opening scene with the pod chase — which by all means looks fine, but drags on a little too long — the film moves forward at a decent pace and boasts a fair amount of enjoyable action sequences, with the Gladiator-style battle on Kamino between the Republic and the Separatists towards the end being the pick of the bunch. On that note, I do think Attack of the Clones is missing a really evil villain, and in that sense it does act as more of a buffer between the first and third films in the trilogy. Do not get me wrong, as I mentioned before, Christopher Lee does a fine job as the main villain of the piece, but he does not quite exude that total evilness and heartlessness that Darth Maul did in the previous instalment.

That is all I really have to say about Attack of the Clones. For me, this is perhaps a minor improvement on The Phantom Menace due to the overall more intriguing plot and the introduction/reinforcement of a few key characters, however the clichéd, flat dialogue between Christensen and Portman, which consumes a good proportion of the film, lets Attack of the Clones down slightly.

Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999)

★★★

Director: George Lucas

Release Date: May 19th, 1999 (US); July 16th, 1999 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Liam Neeson, Ewan McGregor, Natalie Portman

The Phantom Menace marks the beginning of the Star Wars saga, telling the story of Jedi Master Qui-Gon Jinn (Liam Neeson) and his apprentice — or Padawan — Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) as they attempt to safely transport Queen Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) from the planet Naboo to the imperial planet Coruscant in order to seek a resolution to trade barriers and disputes between planets. On their travels they meet a young Anakin Skywalker, whom Qui-Gon believes to be the person who will bring balance to the Force, a power threatened by the recently resurfaced dark Sith.

I really do think this film gets a bad rap. Yes, there are one or two ridiculous characters. Yes, the plot needs sharpening. But at the end of the day, this is only the introduction to the saga and more often than not introductory films are more light-hearted and carry less weight than their successors (take The Fellowship of the Ring and The Philosopher’s Stone as two obvious examples). By the same token, as I mentioned in my prequel (I told you it would get better), I have yet to see the original trilogy and my guess is that that has something to do with my somewhat greater appreciation of The Phantom Menace than those many more committed fans around the globe.

“You think i ruin the movie? Aww, poor you.”

What do I like about this suitably light beginning to the saga then? Well, just that. The films are likely to get darker as they progress (I know the next two do) and thus, for me, Lucas has made the correct decision in starting off in a more jaunty manner. Of course, in doing so he has created one character in particular that is despised amongst many fans. Jar Jar Binks (I always thought it was Ja Ja when I was younger) is the character in question, and I do agree that his presence is unnecessary and hurts the film to an extent. With childish phrases and at times incoherent ramblings, the character seems completely out of place — even in the light-hearted setting, which have mentioned a few times now. Do not get me wrong, childish is not always a bad trait, but in this instance it just does not mesh well enough with the rest of the film and the subject matter. Many believe the character merely represented a marketing ploy at the time of release — in terms of creating action figures etc. — and I think that is an argument worth considering. It could also be argued than the introduction of Anakin as a child here is unnecessary and that he should have just been brought into the saga as the older, talented-yet-cocky apprentice he is in Attack of the Clones. This is not as big an issue for me though and I do not think it hurts Anakin as a key character in any significant way going forward.

In terms of the plot and overall story, the film does come across as convoluted at times — the political background being the main culprit here — but again, that is not a huge deal for me as events were easy enough to decipher and, in all honesty, the political background is not really a significant factor in where the entertainment in this film lies. Parts of the narrative which did baffle me though were scenes such as Qui-Gon Jinn escorting the Queen back to the ship on the outskirts of Tatooine, only to then return to the city for Anakin — why not just take Anakin at the same time and save a trip? I did actually enjoy the pod-racing sequence, but it was a tad unrealistic in the sense than Anakin consistently had enough speed in his apparently lesser pod to catch his opponents. But that is just me nit-picking at things. All in all, the story is not bad as an introductory one.

Two good guys versus on bad guy? Something ain’t right here.

The visuals are tremendous in The Phantom Menace. Everything from the space traversing parts to the pod-racing scene to the final battle between the Gungans and the droid army is delivered with gusto and energy, whilst being visually alert and arresting at the same time. Lucas has become a sort of pioneer in special effects due to his efforts with The Phantom Menace, making use of new technologies and computer-generated imagery combined with traditional, original filmmaking techniques to create the various visuals on screen. The action sequences are also well constructed, with the fight between Qui-Gon Jinn, Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Maul standing out in particular.

This brings me nicely to my final topic of discussion regarding The Phantom Menace — Darth Maul. I really do think Darth Maul is an under-rated on screen villain. Played by Ray Park (a martial arts champion and stuntman beforehand), Maul not only sounds evil, but also looks like someone up to no good — his look was based on that of the devil. He does not speak very often — I would have preferred it if he did not spoken at all — and this adds to his unfaltering poise and heartless demeanour. A very capable villain to go up against the two heroes of the piece, Darth Maul is one of the film’s greatest successes in my eyes. Liam Neeson stands out amongst the remaining cast members, offering a controlled and likeable performance, and the likes of Natalie Portman and Ewan McGregor portray their respective characters solidly. Was I the only one who did not realise that Keira Knightly played Sabe, Queen Amidala’s decoy? The more you know… or something like that.

So there you have it, my thoughts on The Phantom Menace. A very capable and suitably light-hearted beginning to the Star Wars saga, The Phantom Menace offers an energetic and entertaining introduction to the franchise as a whole as well as the now well-known and much-loved characters it encapsulates. Except Ja(r) Ja(r) Binks.

The Great Gatsby (2013)

★★★★

Director: Baz Luhrmann

Release Date: May 10th, 2013 (US); May 16th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Drama; Romance

Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Carey Mulligan, Tobey Maguire

As Baz Luhrmann’s adaptation of the famous F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, The Great Gatsby stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, Jay Gatsby, a very wealthy-yet-mysterious man seeking to rekindle his relationship with the woman he has loved for years, Daisy Buchanan (Carey Mulligan). The story is narrated by war veteran Nick Carraway (Tobey Maguire), who recalls his life living next door to Gatsby whose parties — attended by those from all over the country and overflowing with alcohol, entertainers and fireworks — are products of the Roaring Twenties, where the stock markets on Wall Street were booming and morale was at an all-time high post-World War I.

The Great Gatsby, or more aptly, ‘The Very Good Gatsby’, has Baz Luhrmann’s influence etched all over it, which by no means is a bad thing. Luhrmann, who had previously worked with DiCaprio on Romeo + Juliet, and whose recent directorial credits have included historical epic Australia and the extravagant Moulin Rouge!, certainly knows how to put on show — and more than anything else, The Great Gatsby is a spectacle. Everything from the acting to the set pieces to the costume design to the cinematography is set to full throttle here, as Luhrmann shows no restraint in his direction. And it needs to be this way: the man whose life the film centres on is an over-the-top, charismatic individual and therefore a film without extravagance would not have worked as well. Luhrmann puts the “Great” in The Great Gatsby, because had this film been anything different, it would probably have just been “Gatsby”.

“Jay Gatsby sure is tall.”

At a fairly substantial two hours and 20 minutes (or so) long, The Great Gatsby never really seems to let the pace drop which is a credit to Luhrmann and the writers, as too many lulls in the proceedings would have turned the film into a less-than-dramatic portrayal of a wealthy individual’s life. Personally, I feel that between the half hour and hour mark, there were a few extra-long party scenes which may have benefited from being trimmed down a little, but as I mentioned beforehand this may have taken a snippet of the excessive nature of the film away, a nature which The Great Gatsby relies on to be a success. The difference between, for example, The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey (which, do not get me wrong, I enjoyed a lot) and The Great Gatsby is that just about every scene Luhrmann directs in Gatsby fulfils a necessary purpose in the plot, whereas An Unexpected Journey includes scenes which are, though entertaining, completely unneeded.

Since last working with Baz Luhrmann on Romeo + Juliet, Leonardo DiCaprio has moulded himself into one of the best actors in Hollywood at present (the best, for my money) and delivers another convincing, flamboyant performance as Jay Gatsby — a man who, on the exterior seems to have it all and lives the picturesque, glamorous life, whereas on the inside is broken and partially empty without the woman he has missed for five years. The mystique surrounding Gatsby during the first twenty minutes to half an hour of the film is very well executed, as he is a man seldom seen but mentioned very often, and spoke about with passion and awe. Tobey Maguire does a fine job carrying the film throughout the opening half hour or so, however as soon as DiCaprio arrives on the screen the film appears to move up another level (if that is even possible in a Baz Luhrmann offering). DiCaprio exudes importance and slickness as Gatsby and, as someone who has never read the book, completely sold me on the character. Tobey Maguire narrates the film very effectively and his voice never seems to make the film drag at any point. His on-screen acting is solid, much like it normally is, with himself and DiCaprio developing an intriguing dynamic throughout the piece (it is cool to see the two share the big screen together, having been very close friends since the early nineties). Carey Mulligan is elegance personified, balancing the correct amount of strength and frailty between her scenes with Gatsby and her husband, Tom Buchanan (Joel Edgerton — who is part of a very strong supporting cast boasting the likes of Isla Fisher).

“Good day, old spore.” “For the hundredth time it’s ‘sport’ – not ‘spore’!”

Much has been said about the modern soundtrack to the film which contains the likes of Jay-Z, Beyoncé and Lana Del Ray. Personally, I did not see a problem with it, in fact it gave The Great Gatsby an extra oomph which 1920s music would more than likely have withheld from offering. Although the film is set over ninety years ago, Luhrmann’s narrative provides modernity and the cinematography creates a classic-yet-fresh vibe throughout. The costume design harks back to the Roaring Twenties (I remember them well) without making the characters look outdated, and this is down to the bright colours — that pink suit Gatsby is wearing is a show-stealer — and the intricate details of each piece of clothing. The set design throughout the film is to the highest standard which helps to create that party atmosphere associated with Gatsby — by contrast, the Valley of Ashes (an industrial works situated between New York City and Long Island) has all the grit, sweat and coal required to reinforce that everything must begin from the bottom and work its way up, echoing the life of Gatsby.

Without giving any spoilers away (yes, there will be people who know nothing about with plot — much like myself beforehand), in a film where hope appears to dwindle throughout — and I stress ‘appears’ — the final few scenes were very well delivered in my eyes, with Tobey Maguire’s narration concluding the film in a seamless manner. The very philosophical final few moments essentially provide the basis for what has gone on throughout the film, which, at heart, is much more about desire and soul than extravagance and dazzling lights.

“Think we get to keep the car?”

One criticism which I do have is that, on a few occasions, the editing seems a touch off (when Gatsby and Carraway are in the car), but this is more of an annoyance than a significant error. Overall, in regards to such criticism as the film prefers style over substance, I do not believe this to be the case and that the substance is in there, just not always as apparent due to the overload of style. For rather than meaning the style completely overawes the substance, it signals that Luhrmann has done a tremendous job in creating a mysterious and distant Gatsby on the outside, who has bolted up his emotion on the inside — much like Gatsby is looking to rediscover that emotion he has long withheld since losing Daisy, the viewer must find the substance in the film for themselves.

Baz Luhrmann has been vindicated in summoning another Gatsby out of the ashes, as The Great Gatsby is a well-directed mesh of extravagance, emotion and booming life throughout the 1920s, all patched together triumphantly by way off Tobey Maguire’s narration as Nick Carraway, and wonderfully acted at the hands of the likes of Leonardo DiCaprio.