Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

★★★★★

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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

All Eyes on The Force Awakens Cast in Official New Posters

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Rey

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Finn

Star Wars news klaxon! Those behind The Revenant’s marketing campaign recently stepped things up a notch with the release of two brand new, ominous character posters. Now 2015’s most anticipated movie, and The Revenant’s stiffest competitor this winter, is getting in on the artistic act.

Disney and Lucasfilm previously sent moviegoers the world over into a unified frenzy (or two) over a couple of exceedingly well-crafted trailers, and now the studio behemoths have opted to gift us a handful of superb character posters for The Force Awakens. The images don’t say much, a principle wholeheartedly in keeping with J.J. Abrams’ tight-lipped directorial approach thus far.

What we do know is this: the film is set around 30 years after Return of the Jedi and stars Daisy Ridley as Rey, a self-sustaining scavenger whose life takes an adventurous turn when John Boyega’s Finn shows up in stormtrooper gear — presumably he ain’t dressed up for Halloween. Oscar Isaac, Domhnall Gleeson, Adam Driver, Lupita Nyong’o, and Andy Serkis join familiar faces Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, and Mark Hamill to form a seriously exciting cast.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Kylo

Rey, Finn, Han Solo, Princess Leia, and Kylo Ren (Driver) all have solo head shots, though there is nothing as of yet for Isaac’s Poe Dameron or Gleeson’s General Hux. Isaac can at least rest easy in the knowledge that his character unequivocally has the best name. Luke Skywalker is once again conspicuous by his absence, having already missed out trailer-wise. Read into that what you will.

Intriguingly, each poster shows its respective character’s right eye being obstructed by a weapon, or a beam of light in Leia’s case. I’m mystified by the visual symmetry on offer though I’m sure its symbolism will wreak havoc upon the galaxy at some point. For now we can only mull over any underlying message and anticipate what could end being the biggest film of all time. Avatar might have the Na’vi, but it doesn’t have a Chewbacca.

Star Wars: Episode VII — The Force Awakens is out December 17th in the UK and December 18th in the US. My heart merrily bleeds for you America.

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Han

Star Wars The Force Awakens Poster Leia

Images credit: IMP Awards

Images copyright (©): Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures

Macbeth (2015)

★★★★

Macbeth PosterDirector: Justin Kurzel

Release Date: October 2nd, 2015 (UK); December 4th, 2015 (US)

Genre: Drama; War

Starring: Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard

Justin Kurzel’s ferocious take on Macbeth begins and ends with death. Though its Shakespearean format might isolate those who aren’t well-versed in the Bard’s prose, the film attains a degree of accessibility by dealing in brute force and thematic clarity. We see a Star Wars-esque information trail at the start, but this time the text is in blood red. Jed Kurzel, Justin’s brother, concocts a score that drills and hammers in tandem with bellowing battle cries, bestowing total discomfort upon us. Writers Todd Louiso, Jacob Koskoff, and Michael Lesslie opt to examine how the loss of innocence can incite the immoral side of power, and the results are unflinching.

Upon discovering he is destined to be king, Macbeth (Michael Fassbender) weighs up the immediacy of his sure-fire thronage. Lady Macbeth (Marion Cotillard) urges her husband to commit treasonous murder, to speed up the process by killing King Duncan (David Thewlis). Convinced, and perhaps driven by grief brought about by the death of his own child, the Thane of Scotland slays his superior. From then we see the man crumble, haunted by visions of dead clansmen he swore to protect in battle. He becomes a mad king increasingly propelled by unfettered impulsion and corrupted by power (“Full of scorpions, is my mind”).

Kurzel’s film will likely appeal to a specific audience; attempts to widen its potential reach are few and far between. Ye who enter devoid of prior knowledge, like myself, will have to contend with a movie that communicates entirely through the diction of Shakespeare. As such, it functions much in the same way a foreign language piece without subtitles would, which might alienate some viewers. It shouldn’t though. Blindly following the story is never too difficult as the actors offer a tangible, precise translation. It’s a testament to the performances of Fassbender and Cotillard in particular that the narrative is sold to us without a verbal parachute.

With Fassbender, it’s all in the eyes. His Macbeth, a brooding warrior at the fore, grows bags that darken beneath increasingly absent pupils as the pressure of sovereignty takes over. We never really know where we stand with him — his irreverent actions eventually hit a point of no return, but until then there’s a sorrowful tragedy surrounding Macbeth. In a case of role-reversal, it is Lady Macbeth who must take on the burden of regret. Cotillard is more subtle than her male counterpart. Her words, though often beautiful, are enshrouded in hysteria and pain; the camera unblinkingly lingers on her face during a scene towards the end as the actor speaks with utter command, evoking genuine heartbreak.

The framework from which the duo perform is comparable to how Eddie Redmayne and Felicity Jones navigated The Theory of Everything: one exercises true physicality while the other evokes a delicate-yet-purposeful poise. There is often a lingering stillness that is only interrupted by Fassbender’s increasingly perturbed movement, and only Cotillard has the guile to reign in said eccentricity. Friend-turned-foe Macduff, played by an emotionally-wrought Sean Harris, christens Macbeth the “Fiend of Scotland”.

Nicolas Winding Refn’s Valhalla Rising might have been a touchpoint for Kurzel, especially in a visual sense: the unquenchable mist, the moorish setting, the breadth of visceral savagery, all invoked. Battle scenes could very well be taking place among the Dead Marshes on the boggy road to Mordor. The Scottish setting, not unlike modern times, is always cloudy, or rainy, or dank, but the aesthetic is never mundane — fog is crimson coloured and dynamic. Cinematographer Adam Arkapaw mixes steady shots with a shaky cam effect, mirroring the vacillating levels of order and chaos afoot.

Arkapaw shot the soon-to-be iconic six-minute drug den raid in True Detective season one, and Macbeth revels in similar technical prowess. From sound, to look, to how the film is edited, it’s quite stunning. Scenes showing brutal murder, such as the death of King Duncan, are intercut with instances of solemn hush. A contrast is evident throughout, pitting light against dark (or perhaps it is dark against post-dark). The sound design is worth mentioning too: rallying howls echo with spine-tingling reverence around cavernous cathedral-like rooms.

To the credit of those on and off-screen, it never feels like we’re watching a play. In many ways this is a niche offering; much of the verbiage might not make sense, yet you can’t help but stare. And when what you’re staring at is this good, this impactful, words are almost inconsequential. Here are two more anyway: Hail Macbeth!

Macbeth - Michael Fassbender & Marion Cotillard

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): The Weinstein Company

Metropolis (1927)

★★★★★

Metropolis PosterDirector: Fritz Lang

Release Date: March 13th, 1927 (US)

Genre: Drama; Science fiction

Starring: Gustav Fröhlich, Brigitte Helm, Rudolf Klein-Rogge, Alfred Abel

Lost for 80 years until its miraculous 2008 rediscovery in an Argentinian museum, Fritz Lang’s original version of Metropolis astonishes in both its visionary aesthetic and also its societal relevance almost a century after release. The film’s opening montage depicts brassy, metallic equipment chinking away as steam spurts out without prejudice, and it is clear from the off — the machines have taken over. Workers solemnly shuffle in and out of tunnels for their latest totalitarian inspired shift, shoulders hunched, heads drooped. “Deep below the surface lay the workers’ city,” a cue card informs us.

The ‘Club of the Sons’ lies above, hosting libraries and lecture halls and lush gardens. Inhabitants all wear bright, expensive garments that haven’t been dirtied by the plumes of ash below. They scurry around dazzling water fountains seemingly oblivious to burden, their nonchalance heightened by the fact that those doing all the hard graft underneath probably don’t see much in the way of H2O replenishment. Lang is introducing us to a clear class order, where those on the lower end of the scale are compelled to fund their loftier counterparts’ serene lifestyle.

The first literal clash of class occurs shortly thereafter: worn, muddled children seemingly escape into the land of luxury, leaving the socialites frozen in anger. Or perhaps it is fear. All except Freder (Gustav Fröhlich), offspring of the Master of Metropolis Joh Fredersen (Alfred Abel) — the latter resides in the even grander Tower of Babel, one of many religious references laced throughout. The film primarily follows Freder as he goes in search of Maria (Brigitte Helm), a young Mother Teresa-esque figure from the workers’ city.

He ventures into a world of capitalist mechanisation where everything is procedural and methodological, and where a single deviation from structure entails disaster; we see men fall, likely tragically, after a large machine providing power to the city above malfunctions. It is here that Freder realises these labourers are essentially slaves to the system, and that his father is complicit in promoting their hardships. “What if one day those in the depths rise up against you?” says son despondently to father as the film not-so-subtly anticipates events to come.

From the beginning, it is made apparent that our protagonist considers all humans to be his brothers and sisters. It could come across as forced characterisation, but Gustav Fröhlich subsequently spends two hours justifying his persona’s caring mentality through empathetic expression. Freder’s not the only aristocrat with a conscience; we also have Joh’s trusty-cum-not-so-trusty assistant Josaphat (Theodor Loos), whose job security anxieties capture in a nutshell the power his boss has over the city.

Joh’s other sidekick — you could say he is the devil to Josaphat’s angel — is known only as The Thin Man (Fritz Rasp): a slender-faced and baggy-eyed detective who is tasked with stalking Freder. He is pre-transformation Nosferatu. There is also Rotwang (Rudolf Klein-Rogge), an Einstein-like inventor who dwells in a Gothic house that looks distinctly out of place amongst the grandeur of Metropolis. At one point Rotwang ambles maniacally towards the camera, his outstretched arms poised to grapple. Werner Herzog would employ a similarly eerie shot in his interpretation of Nosferatu the Vampyre years later in 1979.

Towing frazzled hair and a forlorn gaze, the scientist reckons he can bring back his deceased ex-wife (Joh’s eventual partner and Freder’s mother) in machine form. The film plunders this intersection between life, currency and machinery for all it is worth, decrying the amalgamation of prosperity and power as something that’ll almost certainly lead to immorality. Rotwang claims nobody will be able to tell the difference between man and his Machine-Man creation. But the workers, the people, are already powerless machines.

By design silent films have a far-reaching interpretative wingspan and this can confuse viewers, or at the very least distract us from events actively playing out on screen. That is not the case here — you can translate the film as you please, and the more thematic mining you do the more fascinating it is. Thea von Harbou’s screenplay evolves into a game of pseudo-AI deception, where life’s more positive aspects (such as love) are warped and used against our central protagonist.

Even revolts, which are often stimulated by underdog collectives seeking to rise up against injustice, are inverted through artifice in Metropolis — the workers’ revolt is manufactured without their knowledge by Joh, another instance of the overseer using his influence to puppeteer society. Said uprising unveils some Titanic-esque disaster imagery involving, again, water, and you being to wonder if James Cameron was influenced by the class crisis on display here when writing his record-breaking flick.

The piece’s appearance is something to behold, particularly given it is almost a century old. It is plain to see how other filmmakers were visually galvanised: Ridley Scott and Blade Runner’s neo-noir cityscape; Luc Besson and The Fifth Element’s futuristic allure; George Lucas and Star Wars’ hovercraft network. Utilising miniatures, effects master Eugen Schüfftan created an urban locale resembling New York (director Lang was inspired by the concrete jungle during a visit).

But the smaller details stand out as much as the larger ones — glowing science fiction spirals sit atop desks and hang beneath ceilings, their ascending-descending design mirroring Metropolis’ upper and lower class system. A wonderfully shot elevator scene sees Freder sink with hope gleaming from his eyes as the menacing Thin Man rises, the pair just missing each other. Silent movie performances are about body movements and facial expressions, and this sequence captures that imperative notion perhaps more than any other.

Time has afforded Metropolis even greater substance. Terrifyingly so, given its underlying message — that centralised sovereignty shouldn’t prevail — is still a widely problematic phenomenon at large in various parts of the world today. The movie is a bit long and some might find its war on capitalism too one-sided (Netflix is great after all), but this is pioneering filmmaking.

Metropolis - City

Images credit: IMP Awards, Film 110

Images copyright (©): UFA, Paramount Pictures

Top 10 Films of 2014

Have you guys seen that new Star Wars trailer? Or the Jurassic Park one? How crazy was Arrow’s mid-season finale? Better than what Agents of SHIELD had to offer? Or The Flash’s showing? The Walking Dead killed more people! Dave Bautista and Léa Seydoux are in Bond 24, and it’s called Spectre – spooky! Idris Elba might be in Bond 25 – funny!

Disney and Warner Bros are releasing around seventy-one Marvel and DC films over the next decade! Unless Pete has another Middle-earth itch, The Hobbit saga finally finished! Jennifer Lawrence is the year’s highest grossing actor! And those damn North Koreans cancelled The Newsroom… at least I think that’s what happened.

Phew. Now that we’ve caught up on all of the most important things to have happened in life over the last two months, let’s take a look at the year as a whole. In July, I posted my top ten films of 2014 up until then. (You can read that here). The final whistle is about to go on the second half of the year. What, if anything, will make the cut? Oh, drama!

I’ll be sticking to UK release dates – the likes of Birdman, Foxcatcher and Selma aren’t out over here yet. I also haven’t seen Boyhood, but I reckon that’s the only significant omission. Click on any film title to read my review.

EDIT: I have now seen Boyhood. If you read my review, you’ll probably be able to guess where it would end up on this list.

10. Edge of Tomorrow

Edge of Tomorrow is the only film I’ve seen twice at the cinema this year. And for good reason; it’s an intelligent and engaging piece that could’ve easily gone awry. Director Doug Liman takes a chance by plucking Tom Cruise from the top of Hollywood’s good guy pile and dropping him face first on set as the slippery Major William Cage. Of course, Cruise resorts to his heroic norm soon enough, but not before the brilliant Emily Blunt gives him a few kickings.

Edge of Tomorrow - Cruise and Blunt 2

9. The Guest

Speaking of iffy characters, this year Dan Stevens’ soldier is the pick of the bunch. The Guest is Adam Wingard’s best film to date and that is in no small part down to Stevens’ magnificent work as a mysterious visitor who somewhat miraculously charms his way into the Peterson household without much in the way of credentials. Stevens and fellow star Maika Monroe are fairly new to the big screen, and on the evidence of this retro-thriller we’ll be seeing a lot more of them both.

The Guest = Stevens

8. Captain America: The Winter Soldier

Steve Rodgers does his best James Bond impression in The Winter Soldier, the first Marvel film to truly break away from a standard that might’ve been becoming generic. Its influence can be traced back to films based around Cold War politics and the aforementioned espionage range, but that’s not to say The Winter Solider loses its superhero drive. In his third credited appearance Chris Evans nails it as the red, white and blue shield-tosser. (As in thrower of protective instrument and not, well… you know).

Captain America: The Winter Soldier - Chris Evans

7. Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

Matt Reeves’ sequel to Rise of the Planet of the Apes looks incredible, even by the lofty standards set in our technology age. But this is more than simply a visual wonderment, it’s also genuinely moving. Though Andy Serkis’ performance as Caesar is unlikely to earn him a golden statuette – in truth, those early rumblings were probably unfairly devoid of much foundation – the actor cements his position as peerless when it comes to motion capture acting. He deserves recognition, as does Dawn of the Planet of the Apes as one of the year’s best blockbusters.

Dawn of the Planet of the Apes - Caesar

6. 12 Years a Slave

Critically-speaking, this is probably the most important film of 2014. Steve McQueen’s movie is an eternally tough watch because we are an eternally flawed species. You’ll do well to find any flaws throughout this offering though, for 12 Years a Slave is an unyielding masterstroke. It rightly won Best Picture back in March and, in truth, wouldn’t look out of place far higher on this list.

5. Gone Girl

We never really know where David Fincher is about to take us during Gone Girl, and as much as our minds are racing attempting to put those pieces together, we never really want to know either. It’s all just so creepy and insane. The director pulls no punches and lives up to his obsessive nature – everything looks pristine, adding to the unsettling aura. Rosamund Pike delivers the best performance of the year and Ben Affleck is quite exceptional too.

Gone Girl - Pike

4. Blue Ruin

I viewed Blue Ruin in a sparsely populated screening room, having entered carrying a brain filled less with critical expectation than a need for sleep. I didn’t sleep. Instead, I intently watched the tautest 90 minutes of the year play out, headlined by a manically normal Macon Blair. This revenge tale harkens back to Hitchcockian cinema; simple, frenetic and nail-biting.

Blue Ruin - Blair

3. Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis placed third in my January-July top ten, behind Blue Ruin and 12 Years a Slave. Now that the last twelve months have collectively drawn to a close, and without the benefit of having re-watched any of the three, Inside Llewyn Davis has won out as the film that continues to reverberate in my mind with the most fondness. It must be down to Oscar Isaacs’ enchanting tones. Or the Coen brothers’ musky setting. This film is also the least bleak of the trio. Hurray for holiday spirit!

2. Guardians of the Galaxy

If The Winter Soldier bucked the generic Marvel trend, Guardians of the Galaxy entered another universe. James Gunn is given the most energetic and interactive cast of the year to work with, so he has them dancing in plant pots and making jokes about Kevin Bacon. Wouldn’t you? The film is packed full of witty gags, but is not without a touching underbelly. After only one outing, the Guardians might’ve even gained more favour than those Avengers. Thor needs to pray more.

Guardians of the Galaxy - Cast

1. Interstellar

Interstellar isn’t perfect. The piece wobbles under the weight of its scientific load occasionally, and champions an ending that might exceed the justifiably grounded expectations of some. But it’s pure cinema. It’s inspiring and uplifting. Heart-breaking and mesmerising. Christopher Nolan pits the plausibility of science against the will of humanity, incorporating an effective cast and a thrilling technical palette in the process, and he subsequently conceives the best film of 2014.

Interstellar - MM

I hope you’re all having a tip-top holiday!

Images credit: Collider

Images copyright (©): Warner Bros, Picturehouse, Walt Disney Studios, 20th Century Fox, Fox Searchlight Pictures, CBS Films

After Earth (2013)

After Earth PosterDirector: M. Night Shyamalan

Release Date: May 31st, 2013 (US); June 7th, 2013 (UK)

Genre: Action; Adventure; Science-fiction

Starring: Jaden Smith, Will Smith

M. Night Shyamalan has a grand idea. His mind urging him forth, he embarks upon creating a film shepherded by characters who are inherently devoid of emotion. It’s not that emotional attachment is hard to come by, rather, that these people strive valiantly to become absolutely emotionally detached. An inspired scheme. Someone give the Academy a call. Only, hold the phone for a moment. A bunch of characters whose individual and collective M.O. is to be uninterested and, subsequently, uninteresting? I digress, our gallant director must have a couple of top actors lined up who’ll be able to effectively balance this indifference with microscopic poignancy. Is that the Academy on hold- wait a minute. Will Smith, a quintessential purveyor of emotion — be it comedic or dramatic — and his extremely unseasoned son, are our emotionless duo? Who wrote this thing? Ah.

Unable to harness his impassioned outbursts, Kitai (Jaden Smith) is rejected by the cadets. He’s physically capable, but an inability to ‘ghost’ — hide one’s feelings in order to battle the Ursas, creatures that can smell fear — puts a dampener on Kitai’s attempts to impress his father Cypher (Will Smith). The pair share a disgruntled relationship that is a product of Cypher’s long stays away from home and Kitai’s self-condemning attitude in regard to his sister’s death. Midway through a family bonding trip, their spacecraft crashes on the now uninhabited Earth, leaving Cypher injured and Kitai as the duo’s only chance of survival.

An Ursas is loose and Kitai must repress emotion. Prepare for 100 minutes awkwardly depicting a person’s attempt to be boring. This premise is After Earth’s most debilitating problem, of which there are many. Renowned for his twists, we’re crying out for an M. Night Shyamalan tide-turner in the face of events that struggle to spark and ultimately dissolve into a sea of monotony. Devoid of any nuances designed to connect character and viewer, the film tries to infuse heaps of sentiment by way of inventing a dramatic predicament; the crash forces an incapacitated father to rely on his son who is mentally unequipped for the dangers ahead. But straight away this concept flails without emotional gravitas. There’s no tension as happenings are hampered by a lack of realism: surrounded by an almost universally dead crew, it’s inconceivable that Kitai would escape a plane crash without so much as a skin laceration. Heck, even dad Cypher’s broken leg sounds pretty welcoming considering he has just been zapped by whirling turbulence. (Always wear your seat belt kids.) After Earth is as diluted as science-fiction gets, plain-tasting and without scope. Look away now Stanley.

Neither Will nor Jaden is afforded much in the way of a relatable character, but the senior Smith should know better. Cypher does a lot of sensing — a trait that seems to come with the reticent territory from which he spawns — and it’s a shame that Will was unable to sense just how hopeless After Earth promised to be before putting pen to contract. In this sense the actors are more idiotic than their characters, but it’s not a foregone conclusion by any means. At one point, junior notices that a significant portion of his breathing equipment has been destroyed and opts not to tell senior. Why? Who knows? Maybe it’s because he’s scared of his father’s reaction to wasted Jammie Dodgers. At least by lying Kitai is awake and therefore offering some sort of interaction with the audience rather than sleeping, a popular action of his that consumes at least half of the runtime and subsequently jars an already wobbly narrative flow. Though in fairness, if it wasn’t for an inordinate amount of caffeine, he mightn’t have been the only one dozing. Perhaps I should have indulged in some of Cypher’s painkillers – y’know, the tablets that he decides not to take for fear of drowsiness before succumbing to his unconscious anyway?

There’s an overbearing sense of woodenness going on too, and it’s not simply the vast array of trees that now cover an unpopulated Earth. Everything is very mechanical: the way people walk, the way people speak, and especially the way people act. Will and Jaden were authentic as a pair in The Pursuit of Happyness, their family connection purveyed with total wholeheartedness. In that outing we believed in them as father and son, not simply because that is reality, but because the two transferred their reality to the screen in a genuine manner. Here, it’s difficult to gain sight of this beneficial legitimacy as two poorly construed characters terminally intrude, along with a script that occasionally has us reconsidering The Phantom Menace for Best Original Screenplay (“I will guide you, it’ll be like I’m right there with you,” says assured father to timid son).

In seeking emotionless vigour, both Will and Jaden act as if they’ve just been told that McDonald’s is out of Big Macs whilst incurring the wrath of a food-demanding hangover; faces unwaveringly sorrowful, eyebrows lapsing and pupils heavy, emotionless but also purposeless. Next time nobody ought to invite Tony Montana over to any script-writing sessions, then we might see a film with dialogue that hasn’t been tanned by a machine gun. Cypher informs Kitai, “You are not a ranger,” before ordering his non-ranger son around a little more, probably in a similar vein to that which he instructs his rangers. These holes devour our lead actors and leave them stranded, unable to escape. It’s worth noting that there are one or two faint bids at humour, chuckle-inducing to a point, but gags that primarily urge us to contemplate the reasoning behind Shyamalan’s decision to present his piece with such a dreary and serious tone in the first place — a tone that, it turns out, doesn’t succeed in being all that serious anyway.

This recipe for disaster might boast a visual sheen that is moderately impressive — if not invariably cut-and-paste when it comes to Mordor-esque volcanoes — but it tanks in every other department. There are bad films, however there aren’t too many $130 million bad films. After Earth scores high in said category and, given its lofty price tag, that’s pretty unforgivable.

After Earth - Jaden

Images credit: IMP Awards, Collider

Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures

The Lego Movie (2014)

★★★★

Directors: Phil Lord & Chris Miller

Release Date: February 7th, 2014 (US); February 14th, 2014

(UK) Genre: Animation; Action; Comedy

Starring: Chris Pratt, Will Ferrell, Elizabeth Banks, Morgan Freeman

“Everything is awesome!”

Everything is also chaotic, bonkers and pretty hilarious too. The Lego Movie doesn’t hold back. It cracks the obvious gags when they’re hovering around. There’s a lot of shouting, screeching and wailing, and that’s not just from the children watching in the same screening as you. Engines are set to full-throttle from the off and remain that way. What’s left then, is this gigantic ball of merriment that sees it origins in a whole host of previous box office-busting successes, but one that also conjures up a few smart quips of its own. Truly abiding by its ‘Universal’ rating, The Lego Movie builds on the colourfulness, catchy riffs and outright pandemonium aimed at the young’uns, and ends up also divulging a witty, often reminiscent backbone for the oldies. So yes, everything is awesome.

Emmet Brickowski (Chris Pratt) is a middling construction worker who blends into his job and surrounding world as much as the next Lego figure. He abides by the bustling code of Lego life, a step-by-step process meticulously ticked off by everyone, a job designed to assist progress, and an anthem heralding President Business’s (Will Ferrell) seemingly glorious society. On the periphery though, there’s a menace, an evil at work. President Business has devious intentions, with sights set on using the ‘Kragle’ to glue the world motionless. Only the MasterBuilder can stop him, and maybe Emmet isn’t as ordinary as first perceived.

Unlike the mechanical and simple block-by-block creation style, The Lego Movie manages to deliver a well-rounded story with unimaginable scope. We’re bumbling around a fairly stagnant period of animation on the big screen, a time far removed from the Lion King’s and Shrek’s of cinema, films that combined humour and joy with underlying strands declaring positive living. The Lego Movie teeters on the verge of getting back there. For all its energetic prowess and funny moments, the film motions along a deeper, more satirical platform. One that denounces a lack of intuition and promotes difference. President Business — aptly named — embodies the proverbial symbol of power-hungry, corrupt domination. The addictive song “Everything is Awesome”, sung everyday all-day by the civilians of Bricksburg, is a means to an end for the evil overlord. It’s catchy for a reason, constructed by President Business to brainwash the masses. Yet there are those aware few fighting against the autocratic system, a misfit band of special, talented Lego warriors. This narrative works; it has meaning, evokes emotion and demands investment, even amongst all the surface madness and hilarity. The film trumpets variety against monotony and should be admired and applauded for doing so, perhaps even more so than for its many other accomplishments. Having said all that, it is interesting to consider how much authenticity this prevalent notion of non-corporate domination holds, when you take into account the film’s basis: a multinational, mega-encompassing, money-gorging branded toy.

Snappy comedy is one of the films main triumphs. A lot of the time you find yourself laughing not just on the back of current pop culture references (when Batman refers to Bruce Wayne as a “cool guy”), but also at the expense of historic political blunders — voting machines, for example. The gags are constant, relentless even, but their respective foundations are juggled around allowing a freshness to circulate throughout the film’s progression. On the odd occasion that a consistently fielded joke does become wearisome, writer and director duo Chris Miller and Phil Lord work hastily to replace staleness with another funny wisecrack, and very often that wisecrack is another jaw ache-er.

The dialogue is an audible sea of movie-innuendos, for the experienced and the novice. Aside from bountiful puns and hidden humours rewarded to tickle the quick-eyed (“Bob’s Kabob” is outstanding), we also get hilarious Star Wars absurdities and are showered with a number of popular superheroes — at one point proceedings take on a very Avengers’ Battle-of-New-York-like manifestation, with portals and whizzing machinery aplenty. Batman plays a significant role all through the film, and is probably the only running joke that slightly wears towards the end, which is a shame because Will Arnett does a tremendous job with the raspy Bat-voice, even if you’re throwing honey at the screen by the time the credits roll.

In fact, all of the voice-acting sounds terrific. Chris Pratt provides that exuberant bravado as Emmet, one that gradually pitches more assuredly as the film progresses. Emmet strikingly resembles another animated hero, Flick, both in characterisation and story arc. Similar to the A Bug’s Life protagonist, Emmet is an over-eager-yet-normal guy who possesses the willpower to do the extraordinary. Much like Flick, his apparently crazy, useless ideas are those that turn out to be crucial and imperative — the double-decker couch, for instance. On the contrary to Flick though, who was originally a spanner in the ant hole, Emmet tends to blend into his surroundings and therefore must ascend more than an echelon of innovation to save the day. Elizabeth Banks is zesty and strong as the voice of Wyldstyle, Emmet’s partner-in-heinous-prevention, a wickedness perfectly sounded loud and nastily by Will Ferrell as President Business. Liam Neeson is arguably the best of the lot though, his distinct raspiness toned down (or up) a tad to combat any Batman correlations. Neeson voices Bad Cop/Good Cop, but mainly Bad Cop, and provides a fair helping of humour as the Lego police officer carrying out President Business’s gluey work. A whole host of other names — from Morgan Freeman to Jonah Hill, and Channing Tatum to Cobie Smulders — add their choral airwaves to the very fun and easy-listening vocal front.

Visually, for the most part, the film succeeds too. It runs into a bit of a problem as events set sail across before diving under water. Up until this point, we’re fully engrossed in Lego-land where everything is constructed wonderfully of Lego pieces. The landscape accommodates those ever-noticeable spherical cogs, ready as always to ground an attached brick (a notion that goes over nobody’s head). Water, then, also runs and sprays as Lego parts, until the crew of saviours find themselves underneath the substance which then turns into a non-Lego, standard computer-animated sea. It’s a bit odd, and for a moment removes the viewer from the plastic world. In all fairness though, that’s nit-picking at its crudest and as a whole, the visual output explodes with colour, fluidity and life.

Based on a toy that encourages creativity and imagination, The Lego Movie upholds and listens to its own traditions rather than decimating them (à la the poor-tasting Transformers franchise). The film is controlled, uncontrolled chaos, a rapidly advancing and visually accomplished offering that sparks life into the animation genre. For over an hour and a half you won’t be able to keep the smile off your face, unless it’s to exhale another round of laughter.