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

World War Z (2013)

★★★

Director: Marc Forster

Release Date: June 21st, 2013 (UK and US)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Horror

Starring: Brad Pitt, Mireille Enos

As Brad Pitt’s UN investigator Gerry Lane swoops over the city of Jerusalem encased in an enormous fortified wall, you are reminded of all that is wrong with World War Z. There’s a lingering generic-ism abound, one that stockily lumbers around without promise nor priority. When Drew Goddard, Damon Lindelof, Matthew Michael Carnahan and whoever else’s script this is attempts to overcome these commonalities, the film struggles to successfully juggle its grandiose ideas and instead is blighted by one or two gaping plot holes. Yet, before Gerry’s helicopter settles on the dusty plains below, you’re also privy to World War Z’s great elements. The magnificent visual landscapes on show. A sense of urgency that not only ensures problems are swiftly left hanging far behind, but also relents in tandem with the film’s menacing creatures. And also Brad Pitt himself, whose screen presence is a welcome, wholly capable one supported robustly by Mireille Enos. Occasionally frustrating, often energetic; World War Z ain’t all that bad actually.

Having allayed his United Nations requisites in order to spend quality time with his family, a commute-turned-zombie attack must be the last thing on Gerry Lane’s (Brad Pitt) mind as he drives his wife Karin (Mireille Enos) and two daughters through a busy Philadelphia street. You get the sense he misses his old investigative job though, therefore it’s unsurprising that Gerry is speedily roped back into a life of danger and heroism, recruited by UN Deputy Secretary-General Thierry Umutoni (Fana Mokoena) to find the origins of the harrowing virus. Where did it come from? How can it be harnessed? These are apt, important questions demanding rapid answers in the narrative context, but questions that don’t quite elevate the film to any significant height.

World War Z, then, suffers two-fold. One on hand its familiar formula reeks of a sterility, whilst characters and plot advancements are constrained by the formalities of the pandemic sub-genre. Instantly, the screen reels off a variety of intertwined media, life, death, disease images in a montage designed to propel the likelihood of ecological threat in a shrinking world. It’s quite clichéd, but just about works as a warning (or confirmation) detailing the film you’re about to watch. Then a hair-strewn Brad Pitt appears, assuring his daughter that he’s done with the ‘leaving home’ business and is now employed solely in the confines of his own four walls — of course those busy, reminiscing eyes say something a little different. And after five minutes, you know exactly what you’re going to get: a rampant, solid action flick. This isn’t necessarily a negative, a ‘rampant, solid action flick’ will often conveniently fill up a few hours. What works, works, right? At times though, there’s an inherent over-predictability that, shuffled in lesser hands, could be construed as laziness (a taped arm will probably get bitten; a family left behind will more than likely come off worse for wear; a semi-retired family man will leave loved ones in the time of need).

These oh-so-common nuances do not affirm laziness though, because it’s evident that the conglomerate of director Marc Forster, actors and writers do care about the film they’re unstably constructing. Here’s the second problem then. In caring, and in striving to cast aside generic formulae, the film unwittingly jumps around, up, down and all over. Big surface ideas fall foul of gaping discrepancies, and there isn’t really a specific overarching tone, rather a number of intermittent murmurings. As a tormented, abrasive group of zombie-humans trample through the streets of Jerusalem, you’re watching (and probably enjoying) that ‘rampant, solid action flick’. But later, when Doctor Who appears and, stopping short at TARDIS-ing back in time, signals an atmospheric switch to one attempting Danny Boyle-esque tension. That’s not forgetting the splatterings of humour (the “Mother Nature is a serial killer” diatribe is oddly built on comic undertones) and misplaced masculine camaraderie throughout. Individually these tonal constructs are more hit than miss, but collectively the mishmash is a tad sloppy.

There’s also a significant plot-contrivance that perhaps stems from this rewrite plague that the film suffers from. The whole of Jerusalem is surrounded and protected by a gigantic wall, the idea being that Israeli officials were aware of the forthcoming viral attack and therefore planned ahead. The reason we are given explaining their premature knowledge is that these officials worked on the basis of a ’10th Man’ theory — where the assumption is that this 10th man (of a consistent group of 10, obviously) would always disagree with every unanimous decision agreed upon by the other nine, and then work to prevent the seemingly unpredictable. Essentially, this time the 10th man came across the virus, and that’s how Israel was alerted early. The issue then is, firstly, are we to believe that this earth-shattering discovery was successfully kept secret from the rest of the world? Secondly, if the 10th man always goes against the grain harvested by the other nine, wouldn’t his subsequent research always uncover (and thus prevent) past tragedies, therefore no global, human-based, disaster would ever have happened? Come on.

I digress. This is not a bad film, it’s only because the plot could’ve been tighter and the tone could’ve been structured and therefore the film could’ve been far better, that its weaknesses divulge frustration. For it looks incredible. Each visual is well-developed and astutely executed. In particular, there’s a tidal wave attack scene that’s ominous, turbulent and exceedingly well done. There’s also a sizeable amount of looking down at burnt, destroyed cities going on, although the terrific special effects anoint this a positive rather than a negative trait. And all of the fast-paced, energetic actions sequences deliver. In fact, Forster makes a point to move away from the early stereotypical set-up by quickly flashing the aforementioned disaster-threatening montage and then driving head-first into a bellowing helping of action.

These popcorn scenes do provide the majority of the film’s strengths, however on a few occasions there is a sense that Forster et al are striving to do more with the morality of said pandemic. A dancing moral stance that could’ve gone further, but one that flickers intelligently ever so often. This virus has spread worldwide, but what happens to civilizations in areas without sufficient protection, areas not ready and alert in their security measures? At one point we’re told “[it’s] pretty obvious nobody back home read it” in response to questioning over an email that circulated eleven days prior with the word “zombie” embedded. Is this a thinly veiled reference towards prior real-life mistreatment of threatening politically-bound documents? And are these creatures really zombies, or affected, compromised humans? They still wear human features, only now are assisted by growling eyes.

In an interview, Brad Pitt recalled his reasoning for seeking out the source material (of which his production company Plan B Entertainment secured the screen rights to). Effectively, something for his younger sons to watch and enjoy — apparently they like zombies. World War Z suffers from a number of faults, but it also boasts a few excellent aspects too and, at the end of the day, has been made with good intentions.

Hey, I’ll have whatever Brad Pitt’s children are having.

The Twelfth Doctor

Doctor who?

Peter Capaldi… that’s who.

Credit: Yahoo! Canada
Credit: Yahoo! Canada

Yes, ever since Matt Smith announced his pending departure from the much-loved science-fiction television show back in June — which will celebrate its 50th Anniversary with a special program this November — Whovians the world over have been perched on the edge of their seats wondering, debating and asking who the Twelfth Doctor will be.

The rumour mill has churned out everyone from Luther’s Idris Elba, to Academy Award winner Dame Helen Mirren. Recently, the likes of BAFTA winner Daniel Rigby and Aneurin Barnard of The White Queen have been the bookies favourites. There have even been those such as Barnard who have explicitly stated their interest in the role.

However, today’s unveiling of Peter Capaldi live on BBC1 means that the Tardis will play host to the man who has previously starred in shows such as The Thick of It and even Doctor Who itself, back in series four. Capaldi will join another recent addition to the cast, Jenna Coleman, who after only one season as Clara, the Doctor’s companion, will be the show veteran of the duo.

I began watching Doctor Who when Matt Smith landed the role, meaning Smith’s upcoming exit is bound to be a sad one for me. Smith’s charisma, timing and charm over the past few series’ have made the program hugely enjoyable to watch and resulted in myself becoming a really big fan — not to mention his performances earned Smith a BAFTA nomination back in 2011 — meaning he will be leaving a significant gap to fill.

Smith has a two episodes to go — a 50th Anniversary and Christmas special — before handing the Sonic Screwdriver over to Capaldi, who will fully take control of the role when series eight hits television screens around Easter 2014. The immediate reaction to Capaldi’s selection as the Doctor has been a positive one, and although I personally have not seen too much of him, I am sure he will be a hit on the show.

Shockingly Good Television

Warning: There will be spoilers (and blood, probably).

Bear with me here, for I am still reeling from last night’s instalment of Game of Thrones (“The Rains of Castamere”). Having recorded the episode to watch later, I browsed through Twitter only to discover an outcry of shock, fury, tears and every other emotion that is not necessarily a positive one. ‘The Red Wedding’ as I believe it is commonly known as amongst dedicated fans of the show (the ones who know everything about everyone, like those guys on Sky Atlantic’s Thronecast — very impressive) certainly lived up to the hype and proved itself to be one of the most shocking television moments I have ever witnessed. If you do not watch Game of Thrones you are missing out — and are also probably a bit fed up with the content that the internet has relentlessly regurgitated over the last day or two.

Therefore, rather than another top five films from me today, I have decided to pick my most shocking television moments. I must stress that I have not seen every television show in the world (in actual fact, I really have not seen that much — particularly older shows), therefore if a stand-out scene from the television show that you watch is not included then it is probably because I have not seen it yet — I have never seen Dexter or Breaking Bad, for example. No, these are the most shocking moments from the shows that I have watched. Also, they are in no particular order, because that would call for more effort than I can muster up after last night’s Game of Thrones malarkey.

Ned Stark’s beheading — Game of Thrones

(Season: 1, Episode: 9 — “Baelor”)

“I hope that’s a rubber sword.”

After being betrayed at the hands of the Lannisters following Robert Baratheon’s death, Eddard Stark, Lord of Winterfell, is executed in front of a clamouring crowd at King’s Landing.

This was the audience’s first warning from author George R.R. Martin and show creators David Benioff and D. B. Weiss to stop watching if we did not approve of the death of main characters – because it is going to happen. A lot, evidently. There are three things make this so shocking: the shows willingness to kill off main characters without hesitation; the presence of Ned Stark’s two daughters, Sansa and Arya, at the execution; and King Joffrey’s ruthlessness and lack of mercy towards Stark, even after the latter had confessed to treason and sworn allegiance to the Lannisters. That Joffrey is a bugger. The only unsurprising aspect of this death is that it was at the expense of Sean Bean.

Jack is ordered to kill Ryan Chappelle — 24

(Season: 3, Episode: 18 — “Day 3: 6:00 a.m. — 7:00 a.m.”)

“Dude, i missed.”

As a result of their inability to find terrorist Stephen Saunders in time, Jack Bauer is ordered to kill CTU’s Regional Division Director, Ryan Chappelle.

Although he was never the most popular character in the show, the death of Ryan Chappelle was certainly despairing, not to mention unexpected. This cemented Bauer as a man willing to do whatever needed to be done in order to save the majority. The direct involvement of the President of the United States, David Palmer — he was the one who assigned the task to Bauer — makes this all the more shocking. Chappelle’s revelation that he had no friends or close family, along with Jack’s apology for failing Chappelle, only added to the sombre nature of this scene, telling fans of the show that, sometimes, the bad guys really do get their own way.

Life on Mars/Ashes to Ashes are both set in limbo — Ashes to Ashes

(Season: 3, Episode: 8 — “Episode 8”)

“Pub?”

It is revealed that Detective Gene Hunt and the rest of the police officers (including Alex Drake and Sam Tyler) are all dead and left lingering a form of purgatory.

This one caught me off guard, mainly because I was expecting a completely different ending (one which I cannot remember — it was three years ago). It turns out that every episode in both Life on Mars and Ashes to Ashes is actually a depiction of “restless” police officers who are, unknowingly, seeking a way to “move on” — symbolised by ‘The Railway Arms’ pub. Hunt is the only character who has known this from the beginning, and has been acting as a guide for newly bereaved officers. The limbo explanation is not the most shocking on the list, but it was a nice twist and a fitting end to the show.

Rick kills Shane — The Walking Dead

(Season: 2, Episode: 12 — “Better Angels”)

“That’s not how you play Statues!”

Knowing that a troubled Shane is about to kill him, Rick is forced to turn the tables and act first against his best friend.

The death of Shane at the hands of Rick is arguably the most shocking, and heartbreaking scene, to come out of The Walking Dead thus far. Again, the death of a main character plays a part in the shocking nature of this scene, but the emotional attachment to both characters is also a major player. The audience had known that something was brooding between the pair since the beginning of season one as a result of Shane’s affair with Rick’s wife Lori, but for it to result in the death of Shane was certainly alarming. The proof is in the pudding as far as ratings go, because as a result of Shane’s untimely demise, the episode after this one (Episode 13, “Beside the Dying Fire”) drew over nine million viewers, up from just under seven million this time around, and breaking all sorts of records at the time.

Dr. Thredson is Bloody Face — American Horror Story: Asylum

(Season: 2, Episode: 5 — “I am Anne Frank (Part 2)”)

“I’m too old for this.”

Lana discovers that the man who has helped her escape the asylum, Dr. Thredson, is actually the brutal serial killer, Bloody Face.

Throughout the second season of American Horror Story, the burning question had been: who is Bloody Face? Though many were accused, it was Kit Harrington, a young man blamed for the disappearance of his wife, who was singled out eventually. It sort of made sense (well, apart from the audience more or less knowing it was not Kit due to events broadcast at the beginning of the season) that he was the killer, right? Wrong. It turns out Bloody Face was actually the doctor assigned to help both Kit and Lana, Dr. Thredson. In case you have never seen American Horror Story before and are unaware, it really is, well — mental. This is definitely not the most shocking event on the list, but having Zachary Quinto portray an evil, nasty and downright creepy serial killer was a touch of genius at the pens of the writers.

The flashback is actually a flashforward — Lost

(Season: 3, Episode: 22/23 – “Through the Looking Glass”)

“I left my shaving kit on the island… WE HAVE TO GO BACK!”

Jack’s apparent flashbacks throughout the episode are revealed to be flashforwards, divulging that he and Kate have both escaped from the island somehow.

“We have to go back!” And just like that, Lost hits another home run. This one really blew me away. Known for its signature flashbacks throughout the first two seasons, and majority of the third, Lost creators J.J. Abrams and Cartlon Cuse, masterfully lulled viewers into a false sense of security as Jack’s flashbacks in the finale of season three turned out to be flashforwards, revealing that he and Kate (who is meeting Jack in the scene) were off the island. For the first time in 72 episodes, the audience finds out that some characters have left the island – the whole aim of the characters in the show in the first place. In true Lost fashion, viewers were left with an almighty cliffhanger, with so mention questions remaining unanswered: How did they get off the island? Who else is off the island? Why does Jack really want to go back? And so on. By a distance this is one of the most shocking and surprising moments on this list — it still gets me to this day!

David Palmer’s assassination — 24

(Season: 5, Episode: 1 — “Day 1: 7:00 a.m. — 8:00 a.m.”)

“I want to play a game.”

As he is discussing his memoirs with his brother, David Palmer is shot in the neck by a sniper, and killed.

The assassination of former President David Palmer kicked off season five with a massive bang. Not only was he very popular amongst fans (at least in my view), it also appeared as if the show was gearing up for another season dominated, in part, by his presence. But it was not to be. There are a number of elements linked to Palmer’s assassination which made it so shocking: the attempted murder of fellow prominent individuals in the show, Chloe O’Brien, Tony Almeida and Michelle Dessler (the latter was successfully eliminated) and the revelation at the end of the season that the man behind the orders was current President, Charles Logan. This one came out of absolutely nowhere, particularly for me as I did not watch the series when it aired (presumably word had gotten out that Dennis Haysbert, the actor portraying David Palmer, was leaving the show). 24 had a knack for surprises, but this was certainly one of the most shocking.

Carrie blows her cover in front of Brody — Homeland

(Season: 2, Episode: 4 — “New Car Smell”)

*I’m too good – she’ll never find out.*

Having been unsuccessful at getting Brody to admit he is working with a terrorist, Carrie storms into his hotel room and exclaims she knows who he is and what he is doing, before Brody is taken into custody.

It was fairly obvious that something similar to this was going to occur at some point over the course of the season, but not as early on as episode four. Carrie, believing Brody is on to her after a briefly showing anger during a conversation between the two of them, ends up storming up to his hotel room — with nobody else around — and blowing her cover in front of him. This was a tremendous moment in the shows short history, as the audience was provided with another amazing performance from Claire Danes (and Damian Lewis). As I mentioned a moment ago, this happened so early on in the season that it was hard to believe — at the time I wondered how the writers were going to fill another eight episodes. Thankfully the scene was more than warranted, as the happenings in this episode ended up prefacing events which occurred in the best episode of Homeland thus far — “Q&A”.

Ross says the wrong name at the altar — Friends

(Season: 4, Episode: 24 — “The One with Ross’s Wedding”)

“Wait… you’re not called Rachel?”

As he is in the middle of saying his vows during his wedding to Emily, Ross accidentally blurts out Rachel’s name instead.

Of all the names, Gellar. This was probably a lot more awkward than it was shocking, but it still was shocking nonetheless. The most unexpected moments are often left for the end of an episode, or better yet, the end of a season, and this one closed season five — leaving viewers reeling. The Ross/Rachel dynamic was more or the less the core of Friends throughout the shows existence, and I am willing to bet that the vast majority of fans did not want Ross to marry Emily when this episode aired (in 1999 I was watching Scooby-Doo, not Friends… I still watch Scooby-Doo), so when it looked like there was nothing else stopping the marriage from happening, Ross, in all his glory, surprised everyone — including himself — saving the day in return. Another great moment which kept the audience guessing and left them in high anticipation of season six, I am sure.

Charlie’s death — Lost

(Season: 3, Episode: 22/23 — “Through the Looking Glass”)

I have nothing.

Charlie sacrifices himself to save Desmond, after turning off the transmission blocker and potentially saving everyone else on the island.

The finale of Lost season three really was a shocker alright. In fact, this particular moment is the most shocking in my experience of watching television shows, more so due to who was involved and what was happening to him, rather than it happening out of nowhere. Around the middle of season three it became apparent that Desmond could see into the future and had foreseen Charlie’s death. After Desmond had saved Charlie various times, everyone (well, me) began to believe that Charlie no longer had death in his foreseeable future. That was, until that damn Jack needed somebody to swim to an underwater Dharma station and turn off the transmission blocker. But again, after Charlie had swam down (followed by Desmond) and turned off the jammer, it appeared that he was in the clear. That was, until that damn Mikhail started flooding the station with water. Unselfishly, Charlie locked the door of the room he was occupying in the station in order to contain the flooding, whilst at the same time warning Desmond that the boat near the island was not Penny’s. A highly emotional moment. Somebody pass the tissues.

The end of Matt Smith as The Doctor — Doctor Who

(Christmas Special 2013)

It has not happened yet, but when it does I will weep.

I know Matt. I feel the same way.

So there they are, some of the most shocking television moments I have witnessed. Little Mo clobbering Trevor with an iron was another one that did not quite make it. As I wrote earlier, I have not seen every television show that has ever existed, and therefore I imagine there will probably be a second part to this blog post when I have watched more — hopefully including scenes from shows like Boardwalk Empire, Sons of Anarchy and Dexter.

Comment below with the small screen moments that shocked you the most if you like!