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

This Is 40 (2013)

★★

Director: Judd Apatow

Release Date: December 21st, 2012 (US); February 14th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Comedy

Starring: Leslie Mann, Paul Rudd

The Valentine’s Day film always goads suspicion. Like releasing a Christmas flick in December, a children’s adventure during mid-term, or a horror movie on Halloween, the legitimacy of the proverbial February 14th film (the date This Is 40 was released in the UK) often comes into question, at least in these semi-cynical eyes. How would it fare in cinemas on any other generic weekend? A moot point really, particularly in terms of critically assessing the piece. But the decision to hold out for a specific release date lends its hand to a lack of confidence in the product in the first place. And sadly, when it comes to Judd Apatow’s This Is 40, a confidence deficit is only one of many headaches. Misdirection, grating characters and a badly written screenplay sit atop a list of negative traits associated with a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, and ought to thank its lucky stars that some semblance of watch-ability is retained through the accommodating faces of Leslie Mann and Paul Rudd.

Seemingly happily married, but unhappily ageing, Pete (Paul Rudd) and Debbie (Leslie Mann) live with their two young daughters. They must be pretty well-off too as Debbie owns a boutique and Pete runs his own record label; a venture he probably undertook to get away from his wife every now and again, or maybe it was to embellish himself in a false sense of youthful hipness. It’s not that he doesn’t care for Debbie, but there’s only so much baseless moaning a human can endure. Debbie has just turned 38 — that’s forty to every other sane person — and cannot handle the overbearing, horrifying toll it is taking on her. Only nobody really cares about her age. Especially not the audience. And that’s the problem.

Going into a film titled “This Is 40” you are absolutely aware of the self-opulence about to be hurled your way, but that doesn’t soften any blows from water balloons filled with whine (and not the alcoholic kind) as they relentlessly strike your face. Debbie cannot fathom waking up to the big four-oh, which is a petty mindset in itself but might have had some comedic legs within the boundaries of structured character development and a cohesive narrative. However she’s too jolly too often, making it difficult to engage with any semblance of sympathy that may or may not exist. Debbie lies on medical forms to hide her age, yet she doesn’t even bother to use a consistent date of birth. Further tarnishing matters is her relationship with husband Pete, one that skips foot-by-foot between hot coals of happiness and hatred quicker than the first penis joke is sounded. The duo get up to generic antic after generic antic, from hash-cookie gorging to awkward family gatherings that are no longer awkward. Heck, the film itself struggles to identify any prerogative – “The sort of sequel to Knocked Up,” reads the poster.

The best character is Sadie, Pete and Debbie’s eldest daughter, because she is easy to relate to; when met with end-of-the-world stipulations we concur with her inexperienced spitefulness, knowing it’s not terminal. There’s a significant difference between a 13-year-old cursing the earth over a Lost ban enforced by her parents, and a grown-up churlishly denouncing her existence over age. Besides, if someone prevented me from watching Lost, I’d lose the plot too (“It’s not frying my brain, it’s blowing my mind”). Interestingly, This Is 40 is an Apatow family affair: Judd directs, Leslie stars, and their two children Maude and Iris act.

Another nail in the coffin is hammered tediously by way of a fairly uneventful plot. Although comedies are driven first and foremost by gags, quips and puns, a baseline story must be present in order to provide a buffer. Nothing happens in the opening 30 minutes (of an unnecessarily long two hour runtime), other than the establishment of how great the family before our eyes have it in life. Both daughters amble around with iPads, the two parents drive their own glimmering cars, the house is spacious and homely, Pete spends his time gorging on delicious-looking cakes and Debbie eats out with her father at up-scale restaurants. Sounds pretty good to me. And other than the groan-inducing issue of getting older that pitifully tries to veil itself as a narrative, no authentic dramas arise until proceedings are too far gone (by that time, the JJ Abrams condemnation has played out and there’s no way back into my good books). Historically Apatow has been hit-or-miss in the director’s chair, and neither his directorial nor his writing skills are up to standard here.

Thankfully, there are a few positives. Even though many characters are lifeless, they benefit enormously from embodiment by a pair of very likeable actors. Paul Rudd is up there with the best comedic performers around today, someone whose timing and wit often exceed the material in front of him. Pete is not the most annoying character, but without the spark provided by Rudd he’d likely be the most boring — instead, that accolade goes to camera-fodder Desi, played by Megan Fox, whose existence in the film seems only to advocate prostitution because it affords you a nice car. Leslie Mann, although straddled by the gripe-ridden Debbie, once or twice manages to valiantly charm her way through an annoying character and relax into that recognisable humorous self in moments of respite. Chris O’Dowd is criminally underused as an employee at Pete’s record company, but manages to be funny when given the chance. Melissa McCarthy, Lena Dunham and Jason Segel also find time for a cup of coffee. Oh, and there’s a very funny Simon & Garfunkel joke. I’m out.

Hampered by shoddy characters, all too familiar comedy tropes and a messy narrative, This Is 40 ain’t even good enough to be a one star film. Occasional murmurs of humour seep through, and likeable faces shield the piece from too much brutal disharmony, but a lot more is required. Sadly, neither man(n) can save this one: Ant nor Leslie.

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.