Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

Star Wars The Force Awakens PosterDirector: J.J. Abrams

Release Date: December 17th, 2015 (UK); December 18th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Fantasy

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Adam Driver

If the mark of a great movie lies in its ability to permanently tattoo a grin across the face of its viewer, Star Wars: The Force Awakens might just be one of the best movies ever made. I couldn’t help but smile profusely throughout J.J. Abrams’ stunning series revitaliser, so much so that by the time the credits began to roll (following arguably the best closing shot the saga has produced to date) my jaw felt like it had been tagged by a fiery lightsaber.

We’re drafted straight into the chaos of war, and we see said chaos unfold from the perspective of both sides. Led by the evil Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), stormtroopers invade a small village looking for information on the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), and the one-sided battle that ensues relays a tangible energy missing from those ill-fated prequels. The scene shifts thereafter to Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger rappelling down an airy, desolate craft hoping to find extraneous junk she can later trade for food. Much like Skywalker in A New Hope, we meet Rey draped in white dusty robes — they’ve turned greyish — on a scorching desert planet (Jakku).

Conversely, Ren’s First Order starship is chrome-like and glossy. When we promptly cut back to the vessel it evokes a sense of austereness, of strictly implemented structure, as if fear has been drilled into the crew by Ren and like-minded baddie General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). By fervently switching between light and dark the film sets out its moral compass and highlights some truly wonderful sound design: the swoosh of lightsabers, the echoes of a vast ship. Ren is a terrific villain, full of dangerous complexity. Whereas Darth Vader would check his true emotion at the sliding door and favour an apathetic exterior, Adam Driver grants Ren an unpredictability that only serves to compound his menace.

Finn (John Boyega) is the link bad and good, having escaped the former only to find himself caught up in latter. We have moved away from the post-Cold War machine landscape into a more sinister, dehumanised age — stormtroopers are no longer artificial clones, but actual human beings, and Finn doesn’t want any part of the cruel conformity. He meets Rey on Jakku towards the beginning, at which point Abrams opts to stick with the pair, relying on their camaraderie and bustling chemistry. She is isolated yet wily and proficient; he functions through a humorous backbone likely installed as a defence mechanism against his shady past.

Ridley sparkles with vibrancy and Boyega is instantly likeable; together, they click into gear like a pristine Millennium Falcon. At times, you feel like you’re watching a buddy road trip venture, only here the sputtering cars have been replaced by sky-scoping jets. At one point both Rey and Finn repeat, “I can do this. I can do this,” perhaps speaking on behalf of their director who absolutely has ‘done it’. An information-touting droid named BB-8 trundles alongside the pair, spluttering hilarities. Oscar Isaac gushes charisma as Poe Dameron, premier fighter pilot for the self-descriptive Resistance, but he doesn’t feature nearly enough (nor does Gwendoline Christie’s First Order baddie Captain Phasma, who’ll likely see more screen time in the extended edition Blu-ray).

The Force Awakens wouldn’t be a proper franchise sequel without some crowd-pleasing throwback nods and while these moments are smirk-inducing for those in the know, they also bear just enough subtlety to avoid alienating those taking part for the first time. The snappy one-liners are genuinely funny and this shouldn’t be undervalued; indeed, the fact that many of the gags are rich in Star Wars mythology affords them greater validation. Marvel films, by comparison, employ a similar comedy format and although the jokes are often funny, they don’t quite have the same vitality.

A Kraken-esque battle scene inside a ship unfolds like something out of Doctor Who, only louder and bolder and much, much more expensive. Abrams’ film invokes the same melodramatic filling championed by the original trilogy: characters say mad things with a serious tone and pull it off. This is particularly true of Domhnall Gleeson, who offloads some terrific thespian yabber — 1977 wants its patter back — the best of which manifests during a maniacal speech straight out of Saruman’s playbook. But the outing is a playful fantasy at heart, a grandiose adventure, and everyone knows that. When some sentences creak, and some do, it’s just part of the charm.

That certainly doesn’t mean screenwriters Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams (they redrafted an earlier Michael Arndt script) avoid hefty solemnity. There are instances of genuinely shocking gravitas, moments bolstered by Dan Mindel’s sweeping cinematography. The landscapes that unfold before our eyes feel authentic, primarily because they often are. Fight scenes boast substance too and the action is easy to comprehend, therefore the stakes are raised. John Williams’ score, as if it really needs saying, is as wondrous as ever.

Speaking of revamped classics, a few familiar faces join in on the fun. Harrison Ford’s grouchiness totally fits his older Han Solo, the rogue still fond of heart-warming cynicism. Carrie Fisher doesn’t have an awful lot to do as Leia, now a General, but her presence fuels the film’s emotional weight. Crucially, and this is true of the various other returnees, the duo serve the story: seeing our heroes back together in such a familiar environment is meaningful. It also ages the world in the best way possible — we know it is the same place as before, but we don’t know what fresh mysteries lie beyond the next star.

The beauty of The Force Awakens is that it addresses the nostalgic needs of the many while simultaneously ushering in a contemporary set of filmic variables ripe for fresh storytelling. It’s not just about waiting impatiently for the old guard to reappear; the new faces are a delight. I say four stars for a truly fantastic motion picture romp, and one more to J.J. Abrams for his frankly ballsy decision to take on the hopes of a cine-nation and successfully rekindle that highly sought after magic. We really appreciate it.

Star Wars The Force Awakens - Boyega & Ridley

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Inside Out (2015)

★★★★★

Inside Out PosterDirector: Pete Docter

Release Date: June 19th, 2015 (US); July 24th, 2016 (UK)

Genre: Animation; Adventure; Comedy

Starring: Amy Poehler, Mindy Kaling, Bill Hader, Phyllis Smith, Lewis Black

If you’ve spent years agonising over the possibility of a live action Numskulls film — and let’s face it, who hasn’t? — you’re finally in luck. Inside Out takes the premise of said comic strip and imbues it with a visual vitality not always achievable on paper. But more than that, the film smartly and effectively explores the social complexities of growing up, and does so amidst a level of confidence not relayed from Pixar since Toy Story 3. One thing is absolutely certain: the creative minds behind the studio’s latest imagination emporium are no numbskulls.

The film follows youngster Riley (Kaitlyn Dias), whose bright and bubbly exterior matches her consistently joyful interior. See, Joy (Amy Poehler) is Riley’s overriding emotion, she having commandeered a monopoly on her host’s mind since birth. A sudden shift in locale from her beloved, chilly Minnesota to an unhomely San Francisco disturbs the eleven-year-old’s mental hierarchy, leaving Anger (Lewis Black), Disgust (Mindy Kaling), and Fear (Bill Hader) in charge.

As you can probably imagine, this loss of cheerful guidance sends Riley down a path of greater isolation in already isolating surroundings. Happy core memories — which power five primary islands, including Family Island and Goofball Island — are tinged with solemnity via Sadness (Phyllis Smith), whose clumsiness catapults her and Joy away from the central hub. You buy into the film’s simple story, desperately urging the odd couple back to Headquarters, even if the various structural nodes take a while to fully grasp.

The inside of Riley’s head assumes a life of its own, where reality has been remodelled with a rainbow-like gloss. Fittingly, we find out it’s a movie studio (aptly called Dream Productions) that is responsible for the creation of dreams. With her rectangular hair and sharp glare, Riley’s dream auteur resembles Scarefloor clerk Roz from Monsters, Inc. Pete Docter, who helmed Mike and Sulley’s fun frightfest, also directs here and does so with incessant invention, answering questions about how the mind is constructed before we even get the chance to think them up. At one point the action calls for a dream to become a nightmare, and as such Dream Productions’ feature film evolves into a horror movie starring a huge scary clown.

Inside Out often takes its visual cues from Toy Story, both materially and comically. Just as that franchise portrays Slinky, a stretch toy, in Sausage Dog form, here Anger wears a shirt and tie combo normally associated with workers who are fed up with their job and full of scorn. Anger is also the lead emotion inside Riley’s father’s head, a playful jab at male stereotypes; men are either grumpy, preoccupied by sports or hilariously militaristic when it comes to getting things done at the last minute. We stalk the camera during a superbly written family dinner scene as it invades the inner workings of mother and father (voiced by Diane Lane and Kyle MacLachlan), showing their respective reactions towards Riley’s morose attitude.

Fear is unabashedly spontaneous, in a state of terminal alarm and never boring to watch — Bill Hader just about steals the show with his squawking audio performance. Joy glows, whereas Sadness is a murky blue colour, small and forever huddled up. Phyllis Smith’s voice work as the latter channels Saturday Night Live’s Debbie Downer to perfection. Disgust, obviously, carries the poise and style of a fashion expert.

Throughout we constantly weigh up whether the emotions are controlling Riley, or if it’s Riley who is controlling her emotions. On occasion you can’t help but give into the sprightly visual splendour and the barrage of smart gags, but even in these moments the film steers well clear of all that is routine. For adults Inside Out could be a hypothetical examination of mental illness, or simply a voyage into the psychologically transformative nature of ageing. For children it’s also about growing up, only the immediacy of events on screen are sure to hit home with greater verve. The film affords young viewers an optical veracity that likely mirrors their ongoing experiences.

Pixar hasn’t shied away from misfortune in the past — see the first ten minutes of Up, or the abandonment arc in Toy Story 3 — and the studio continues to respect its audience by maintaining that mature philosophy here. Joy is undoubtedly a positive influence on Riley’s life, but her mistrust of Sadness is telling. The establishment of a ‘Circle of Sadness’ is a somewhat autocratic control mechanism thought up by Joy to restrict Riley’s emotional output. Joy doesn’t want her young anchor to ail, not realising the process of ailing plays a crucial role in a person’s development.

Docter and co-writers Meg LeFauve and Josh Cooley champion lightheartedness in equal measure, matching seriousness with amusement: less imperative memories are tossed away at the onset of teenagehood, at which point bouts of important knowledge (US Presidents, piano skills) succumb to materiality (the perfect boyfriend). The funniest running gag, which centres on an annoying advert with a catchy theme song, is irksomely on point. This mixture of slapstick, witty and child friendly — though not childish — comedy gives the movie a peppy air. “That’s it, I fold,” bemoans a Jelly Bean-esque builder whose house made of cards keeps collapsing.

Long-term memory is visualised as a gigantic maze library. The filmmakers even explore abstract thought; the realisation of our overly analytical side (something writers can relate to), where notions and ideas and truths are deconstructed and subsequently flattened to the point of nothingness. It’s a brilliantly incisive scene that implores us not to be too self-critical or too self-diagnostic.

The primary message throughout Inside Out is a reassuring one. Sometimes it’s okay to be sad. Or angry, or fearful, or disgusted. These are feelings that will eventually subside and offer in their place a stepping stone to happiness, and to other, more complex and interesting emotions. Docter’s film is rich in subtext, one of those that you should watch again and again and could pick apart all day thereafter. This warrants examination both inside and out.

Inside Out - Emotions

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Tomorrowland: A World Beyond (2015)

★★★

Tomorrowland PosterDirector: Brad Bird

Release Date: May 22nd, 2015 (UK & US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Family

Starring: Britt Robertson, George Clooney, Raffey Cassidy

We shouldn’t be surprised that Tomorrowland is a giant bouncing ball of alacrity. From Brad Bird, director of The Incredibles (the hint is in the title), comes a film packed with a positive punch. “There’s a great big beautiful tomorrow,” we’re told at the very beginning via cheery song. Shortly thereafter, a young Frank Walker (Thomas Robinson) engages in conversation with Tomorrowland overseer David Nix (Hugh Laurie). Nix asks about the practicality of Walker’s jet pack creation. Walker, wide-eyed and all, replies: “Can’t it just be fun?”

Though it may not have been sufficiently clear from Disney’s muddled marketing campaign — one possible factor in a disappointing opening weekend financially — this is a film about incentive and inspiration, enjoyment and energy. Whereas evasive trailers have partly sold the piece as a sci-fi escape and partly as a family drama, the movie itself is far from confused. Tomorrowland is bright, and it knows it.

Starring Britt Robertson as the self-prescribed ultra-optimist Casey Newton (probably related to Isaac), the story follows her eventful journey as she searches high and low for a mysterious place called Tomorrowland. Accompanying her are recruiter Athena (Raffey Cassidy) and the now older, world-weary Frank (George Clooney). Casey is the human embodiment of the film’s joyful prerogative. Her school teachers drawl on about end of world scenarios — spouting warnings on everything from nuclear Armageddon to environmental degradation — but all Casey wants to know is how to fix these problems.

Just as the camera struggles to go more than a minute without whizzing towards a Hall of Invention or something of similar ilk, Casey can’t spend any significant length of time without exuding eagerness. She would be the perfect citizen of Tomorrowland, where everything is so big and bold. In Mad Max: Fury Road — which shares the same sticking-by-one’s-convictions mantra — vehicles are bolted on top of other vehicles. Here, we see skyscrapers double up to create super skyscrapers. Bird spends a long time worldbuilding, striving to convey a sense of wondrous momentum from the off. It is probably too long, especially when we spend so little of the two hours actually in Tomorrowland.

Robertson is charming and consistently watchable as our central character. Quite brilliantly, she manages to be sprightly but not sickening. Unlike in the television series Under the Dome, this is a much more assured performance from the actor (admittedly, her character in the former offers little in the way of depth). Young newcomer Raffey Cassidy is a victim of the hyped up and overly long sugary beginning, her verbiage a tad too sentimental. The talented teen increases in charm as the film progresses though, to the point where the screen significantly benefits from her presence.

Damon Lindelof’s screenplay avoids the politics and greed normally rife in the world we know. This lack of cynicism is actually quite refreshing, and the film shouldn’t be kicked for carrying a hopeful message. It should be saluted, really, for moulding its message of hope into a pertinent discussion about the state of humankind. At one point Casey exclaims, “It’s hard to have ideas and easy to give up!”, a statement epitomised by the film itself. Tomorrowland is more than just a surface level blockbuster. At its core, it boasts a perceptive idea about how we, humanity, have accepted and monetised our demise. Bird and Lindelof should have mined this concept further, but its inclusion is evidence that their script isn’t naive, nor ill-judged.

However, it can’t quite dodge plot holes. Terminator-ish humanoid robots show up occasionally wearing goofy smiles (obviously) and guided by a view to kill, though it’s never really apparent why. The existence of the film’s grandiose, hidden cityscape is also somewhat puzzling. Sure, it looks great and has some cool gravity defying roads, but what exactly is it? And where did it come from? Rather than answering these questions, Bird and Lindelof seem to be more transfixed by their attempts to include as many cinematic references as possible.

And who can blame them? There are so many fun touchstones: Baymax bubble suits are worn with jet packs as a safety precaution; attire-wise, the futuristic land resembles The Hunger Games’ unconventional Capitol style; visually, moments of inter-dimensional travel momentarily resemble David Bowman’s cosmological pilgrimage in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey; and Charles Xavier’s Cerebro room gets an interactive Google Maps makeover. A Forbidden Planet-esque store that we enter midway through the piece is a treasure trove of movie geekdom.

Aside from his presence as part of an unnecessary narration tactic that materialises every so often, George Clooney is introduced to us with the sun beaming down behind him and illuminating half his face, probably because he is God. Frank has a grizzled beard and is a bit moody, but that’s as rebellious as it gets. He delivers a “son of a” but no “bitch”.

Frank’s downbeat personality is the story in a nutshell — someone once driven by promise who has presently accepted defeat, but can be saved. “Can’t you just be amazed and move on?” Frank muses when Casey persistently asks about his cool house gadgetry, and you sort of get the feeling that in lesser hands this would be the film speaking to its audience. Neither a baddie, nor a goody, Hugh Laurie’s David Nix is a misstep. The presidential figure is very thinly drawn, though the actor does deliver a really compelling speech towards the end summarising humanity’s passiveness.

Tomorrowland doesn’t throw the cat among the pigeons. The closest we get to edgy is a non-diegetic rock tune that accompanies Casey as she invades a NASA launch station while wearing a treasured NASA cap given to her by her NASA-employed father. The film tells the world that we have lost our way and that we can reclaim our rosy roots, but that we should strive to be even better than before. It is what it is and if you’re happy to spend a few hours riding a roller coaster of cerebral optimism, it is for you.

Tomorrowland - Hall of Invention

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures