Tuesday, 29 December 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens





Any Star Wars fan will know the thrill of sitting in the cinema and seeing A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… appear on the big screen in front of you, just before John William's masterpiece soundtrack blasts out of the screen at you. The Force Awakens is a great Star Wars film, from the moment those words flash up on the screen in front of you until the end credits. 

The Force Awakens is set several decades after Return of the Jedi. The Empire is gone and the Emperor  and Darth Vader are dead, the Sith with them. However, things haven't changed much since A New Hope as The First Order, a new political organisation, is trying to fill the void left by the Empire and to take control of the galaxy from the Republic. The Resistance  (today's version of the Rebel Alliance), led by Princess (or should I say General) Leia, is the only thing standing in the way of total control by the First Order.  

You really have to give J J Abrams credit, he may not know original Star Trek but he knows his original Star Wars! Watching The Force Awakens feels like you're watching the fourth movie in the original trilogy; the only give aways are the fact that Han Solo and Chewie have some grey hairs and the special effects are about 20 years better. Having said that, Abrams has obviously put a lot of trouble into making these movies appear as if they were filmed at the same time as the original trilogy. He intentionally steered away from the more modern, stylised look of the prequels, for example, going back to more basic, rougher lightsaber battles. And it doesn’t hurt that he's brought back Han, Chewie, Leia and, of course, the Millennium Falcon.
There are some very good new additions to the case as well. Daisy Ridley and John Boyega are fun as the new young leads, Rey and Finn, and Oscar Isaac is charismatic as ever as Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance.  But my favourite new addition by far is Adam Driver, who stole the show for me as the tormented villain, Kylo Ren. Driver has a tremendous presence which makes him worthy of inheriting the role of Star Wars villain from the awesome Darth Vader. Ren's mysterious past is certainly the most interesting thing in The Force Awakens and I can't wait to see how his storyline develops. Oh, and I can't forget the wonderful Domhnall Gleeson, who plays General Hux, a high-ranking officer in the First Order.  

It's not just the style of The Force Awakens that harks back to the 1970s/80s films. Many elements of the story reflect those of the original films. Daisy Ridley's character is a scavenger living alone on a desert planet, swept up in the war between the Resistance and the First Order. Kylo Ren, our masked villain, has been seduced to the dark side by a mysterious lord and is now torn between the light and dark side of the force. The main plot revolves around the Resistence, the descendants of the Rebel Alliance, and their struggle against the rising First Order. There are those who will criticise this film for being unoriginal and a mere re-hash of the old movies. I disagree with this critique! When you watch The Force Awakens, as I said, it feels like watching the fourth movie in the original trilogy; Abrams has captured the spirit of Star Wars and what makes it a great franchise. It does not however feel like watching a New Hope all over again. The scenes are different and the characters are different. 

In fact, the only part of this film that I'm not quite sold on is Ren's master, Supreme Leader Snoke, an entirely CGI creature voiced by Andy Serkis. I feel he would be more of an impressive character if he weren't CGI but we'll see if I change my mind as he inevitably features more heavily in later instalments.
In short, go see The Force Awakens if you haven't already; it's brilliant!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2




The fourth and final Hunger Games film has arrived: Mockingjay Part 2. The new film follows the second half of the third book and sees Katniss head into the Capital for a final fight to end the civil war between the Capital and the rebels. It would be a pretty hard film to follow if you hadn't watched the previous 3. Mockingjay Part 1 felt a bit slow, being only half of a book and the first, less eventful half. Mockingjay Part 2 however has some of the best scenes of the Hunger Games franchise and is one of the best films I have seen this year.

I am a big fan of Suzanne Collins' books and I have been really impressed with all of the Hunger Games films, which have kept true to a clever and exciting story. The cast includes some of Hollywood's best up and coming (don't even get me started on how great Jennifer Lawrence is) and also well-established actors: Woody Harrelson, Julianne Moore,  Philip Seymour-Hoffman, and so on. I had high expectations therefore for this final instalment and I was not disappointed! Mockingjay Part 2 is as thrilling, moving and thought-provoking as the book on which it is based.

The Hunger Games is intelligent teen fiction and this is an intelligent film. The story is highly politically-driven. Panem clearly represents an alternative version of the USA; a country where the rich (who are all concentrated in the Capital) live absurdly extravagant lives, relatively ignorant to the  extreme suffering of increasingly poor districts. When they are exposed to the suffering, during the annual televised Hunger Games, they are highly amused by it. The corruptive nature of power is brilliantly portrayed by both Coriolanus Snow, President of Panem (Donald Sutherland), and also Alma Coin, leader of the rebellion (Julianne Moore).

The Hunger Games  trilogy is full of wonderful, complex characters, who are not just black and white heroes and villains. This is perhaps best portrayed in the final scenes with Sutherland and Moore, who are both mesmerising in these films. The characters are far more three dimensional than you would expect from this kind of fiction. The Katniss/Gale/Peeta love triangle is no repeat of the Bella/Edward/Jacob triangle in the Twilight films.

These are, in summary, intelligent, fun films and I would urge anyone who has not watched them to seriously consider doing so. If for no other reason than the awesomeness that is J-Law.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

The Martian


I've been a bit disappointed with blockbusters this summer, in fact with films in general. Avengers 2 came out aaaages ago. Mad Max: Fury Road was epic and Jurassic World was really fun and, well, was another Jurassic Park movie, but since then what has there been...? Ant-Man was this summer's  superhero movie (if we ignore Avengers: Age of Ultron which was, as I said, aaaages ago) and it was a bit meh TBH. Yes, everything Paul Rudd does is wonderful, but when there are so many brilliant superhero films coming out these days, Ant-Man didn't do anything particularly special or different. Definitely a stupid move letting Edgar Wright go. Anyway, the point is,  for the first time in months there is a better than average blockbuster in the cinemas and it's The Martian. Thank you, Matt Damon, Ridley Scott.

The Martian starts with astronaut Mark Watney (Damon) being left behind on Mars when his crew (who are doing some sort of science-y stuff on Mars) have to abandon the planet due to a dangerous storm. Watney is knocked out by some equipment and appears to have been killed and only revives once his crew mates are already long gone. Watney has no way to contact earth and it is 4 years until the next mission is due to arrive on Mars. The Ares III mission (Watney's mission) was only supposed to remain on Mars for a few months and so he has limited rations. If he wants any chance of surviving, he has to figure out how to make what he has last for several years at least. As he says, he is "going to have to science the shit out of it". NASA soon discover Watney is still alive and the film flips between earth's greatest scientists trying to figure out how to keep him alive/get him home and Watney doing impressive science stuff on Mars, like devising a way to grow crops on a planet where nothing grows and how to create water. To keep himself sane in the solitude, Watney relies heavily on dark humour.

This film is a lot of Matt Damon talking to himself and making corny jokes (mostly shown through a video diary he is making). Luckily, Matt Damon is super likable and has a subtle charisma which means that he can carry a film like this mostly on his own and pull off potentially lame lines like "Fuck you, Mars!" You get really sucked into the world Watney is building, feeling really great when something goes right and really frustrated when things go wrong. I felt very distressed as the film went on, food started to run out and Matt Damon got more and more emaciated. I may have shed a few tears...

The supporting cast on earth and in the spaceship that has left Mars is also very impressive: Jessica Chastain, Jeff Daniels, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristen Wiig and Sean Bean, to name but a few of the familiar faces. Arguably however their collective talent is slightly wasted as most of the screen time is taken up by Damon and the rest is divided between a large supporting cast. But they all play their roles well and make what is quite a long film where not much happens a very entertaining watch.

In this kind of film, it's obviously the ending that's most important: does he get rescued? Will he see earth again? The ending reminded me very much of how I felt watching films like Gravity (inevitable comparison) and 127 Hours: hands clutched to my face in tense anticipation!  I don't want to give away too much so I'll just say the ending delivers.

So yeah, all in all, a good blockbuster, one of the better ones I've seen this year. But now I'm going to have to wait until the final Hunger Games film and the new Star Wars for anything else exciting.


Tuesday, 7 July 2015

TERMINATOR GENISYS


It's very difficult to explain Terminator Genisys. This is partly because it is the fifth Terminator film (following on from Terminator Salvation back in 2009) and really only makes sense if you have seen the previous installments and also because, although it does initially follow on from the fourth film (with the odd inconsistency), it then completely re-writes the entire history of the Terminator universe.

The basic premise of the Terminator films (to the few who are unfamiliar) - which span back to The Terminator in 1984 - is that, in 1997 a computer program known as "Skynet" becomes sentient and, deciding that humanity is a threat, deploys a large amount of bombs which kill a significant proportion of the world's population. The date when Skynet becomes self-aware is known as "Judgment Day" (as is the second film). Skynet then creates humanoid robots known as terminators (some of which look human) whose purpose is to kill all remaining humans. Salvation was the first film set post-Judgment Day.

In Genisys, the human resistance is near victory and John Connor (Jason Clarke), the protagonist in many of the films and the leader of the resistance, sends Kyle Reese (Jai Courtney) back in time to 1984 to protect John's mother, Sarah Connor (Emilia Clarke), from a terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) who has been sent back by Skynet to kill Sarah and prevent John from ever being born. Complicated right? When Reese arrives in 1984 with instructions to protect Sarah, he finds she is waiting for him, aware of his task and with Schwarezenegger's terminator as her ally. This is where the plotline deviates from the original films. 

The first three Terminator films had very similar stories, in that each saw either John or Sarah Connor on the run from a single terminator who had been sent back by Skynet before Judgment Day to kill them. The war is yet to happen in these films and they are best described as thrillers. The fourth film was more of an action film and was set mid-war and in my personal opinion, is nowhere near as good as the first and second film. The third film was a bit of a dud but the first and second are great films (and Judgment Day has aged incredibly well), full of suspense and, at times, quite frightening. The best thing about these films was the characters: they both had great villains (Arnie in The Terminator and the amazing Robert Patrick in Judgment Day) and the heroes, Kyle Reese, John and Sarah Connor, were strong-willed and likeable.

Genisys is also set mostly pre-Judgment Day and sees its heroes, Sarah Connor, Kyle Reese and "Pops" (Sarah's name for her terminator protector), face for the most part one main villain, a new and improved terminator (try to avoid the trailers which give ridiculous spoilers on this). Because it goes back to the old formula, I much preferred Genisys to Salvation. It felt much more like a Terminator film for me and I do love Arnie in that role (he barely makes an appearance in Salvation).  The new villain is quite cool and, although it's another terminator, it’s unlike the terminators we've seen before. That said, Genisys is not as scary or as suspenseful as the first or second films.  

I really enjoyed Genisys and thought it was a good action film, but I do think it has its faults, in particular that its characters generally aren't as well-developed or as cool as in the earlier installments. Arnie fits into his old role like a glove and Emilia Clarke is likeable as Sarah Connor. However, Clarke is nowhere near as bad ass as Linda Hamilton's Sarah Connor from Judgment Day who, let's be honest, is one of the coolest female leads in any film. Those are pretty tough shoes to fill to be fair! Courtney is quite generic as Kyle Reese and, I feel, could have been replaced by a number of other handsome, buff men without any detriment to the film (not so much his fault perhaps as the writing). The emotional scenes in the film, particularly between Sarah and Kyle, seem quite forced, although I did like the relationship between Sarah and Pops.

The ending is fine and I would not say disappointing, but it is nowhere near as epic as the finale of The Terminator or Terminator Judgment Day. The latter has one of the most memorable movie endings ever!

Overall I did enjoy Genisys. I love the Terminator franchise and would be very happy to keep watching more films. That said, the first two films are so good, especially Judgment Day, and I don't think any new film will ever meet that high standard.

Monday, 8 June 2015

MAD MAX: FURY ROAD



The original Mad Max movies are classics. They made Mel Gibson  famous (though I try not to hold that against them). But what they're probably most famous for is the rather long chase scene at the end of Mad Max 2: The Road Warrior. In this scene Max drives a truck hauling a giant tanker full of fuel through the Australian desert, attempting to escape a maniacal gang clad in hard-core bondage. It is one of the (if not the) most famous chase scenes in the history of film and George Miller clearly knows when he is on to something good. Mad Max: Fury Road is essentially a two hour chase scene with the occasional break so that the protagonists can have a quick drink and recuperate.

The story is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia where water and fuel are scarce. A crazy cult has arisen led by the incredibly gross Immortan Joe (played by Hugh Keays-Byrne, who was also the lead villain in Mad Max 1), who has built a fortress in a mountain in which he hordes the local water supply and keeps his army of War Boys and his 5 young wives (including Zoë Kravitz and Rosie Huntington-Whiteley). Imperator Furiosa (played by the awesome Charlize Theron) tries to free his young wives by sneaking them away in a fuel truck. Meanwhile, Max (now played by Tom Hardy) has been captured by the War Boys and is being used as a blood bag for War Boy Nux (Nicholas Hoult). When Nux tries to help re-capture Furiosa, Max manages to escape and ends up helping Furiosa and the wives in their bid for freedom. And so begins one of the longest and most awesome chase scenes in film history.

Fury Road is visually stunning. It is a film which focuses entirely on the visuals and gives little importance to the script.  I watched an interview with George Miller in which he said he didn't write a script for Fury Road, but rather created a graphic-novel -style storyboard and left a lot of the dialogue up to the actors. Hardy himself has very few lines in the film. But that doesn’t matter because there's so much to see! 

As Furiosa drives her giant armoured truck through the desert, she is chased by dozens of dune buggies, covered in spikes and skulls. In order to try to re-capture the wives, the War Boys thrust giant sticks out of their vehicles into the air with men clasped to the top who are thrown towards the truck. There is literally a giant vehicle whose only purpose is to convey a man perpetually playing electric guitar and his giant amps alongside the chase.   

There is a breath-taking scene in which Furiosa enters a sandstorm in order to evade her pursuers. Lighting flashes through the storm and changes the colours from sand-red to electric blue. Vehicles are thrown into the air and torn apart by hurricanes. It's one of the coolest things I have seen in a film for a long time and I must admit, I found myself wishing I was watching the movie in 3D (even with the extortionate prices).

Turning to the characters, Hardy and Theron are both incredibly cool leads. Both actors have a great amount of presence in whatever role they take on and they make a good team here. You could say that, even though this is a Mad Max film, Furiosa gets more attention and certainly, with her robot arm, she was the more interesting character. Immortan Joe is ridiculously repulsive  and makes for quite a scary bad-guy. Hoult is very likeable and entertaining as redeemed War Boy, Nux.

There has been some criticism however of the portrayal of Joe's young wives and I can't say they're given very empowering roles. We first see them hosing each other down in the desert wearing nothing but thin strips of white fabric. They aren't exactly stereotypical damsels in distress but nor do they really add much to the film or provide much assistance to Max and Furiosa.

All in all, I'd say this is my favourite Mad Max film. Admittedly I have not seen Beyond Thunderdome yet but I highly doubt it beats The Road Warrior or Fury Road.

This summer looks like it's going to be a good one for epic blockbusters. Jurassic World isn't far away, there's another Terminator movie on the horizon (although I have some doubts about that one) and the next Marvel Universe movie, Ant-Man is due out on 17 July.

Sunday, 17 May 2015

PITCH PERFECT 2



Three years on from Pitch Perfect, Beca (Anne Kendrick) is now in her final year of college and is the leader of the Barden Bellas, who are 3-time national a cappella champions. Pitch Perfect 2 follows the Bellas after they are disgraced at celebrations for the President's birthday (easily one of the funniest scenes in the film) and as they try to win back their reputation and their right to compete nationally by competing in the World Championship. 

Pitch Perfect (1) is incredibly popular, probably more so than anyone expected when it first came out. I believe this popularity stems from its quirky, off-the-wall character.  It is funny and sweet and something a bit different. Although Pitch Perfect 2 is also funny and sweet, it seems to me more mainstream and less original than its predecessor. For that reason, for me at least, it isn't as good or as memorable as Pitch Perfect.  The romance between newcomer, Emily (Hailee Steinfeld), and Benji (Ben Platt) seems unnecessary and clichéd and, to be honest, I don’t think Steinfeld really adds anything to this film. 

On top of this, there are a number of moments in the new film where the writer is clearly trying to replicate some of the better scenes in the first. At times I felt like the film was relying too much on the popularity of its predecessor. The basement a capella-off is clearly a throwback to the swimming pool scene in Pitch Perfect. I'm not saying I didn't enjoy David Cross's appearance and the Bellas' spar off against Das Sound Machine and the Green Bay Packers! I just feel like this film wasn't giving us much new. 

That said, Pitch Perfect 2 does bring back all of the brilliant characters who made Pitch Perfect so great and it has maintained much of the charm of the first film. Anna Kendrick is one of my favourite people ever and is undeniably wonderful in both films. However, it's really Rebel Wilson who steals the show in these films, brining comedic-brilliance to every scene she is in. I will never get sick of Bumper and Fat Amy's sort-of romance. One piece of constructive criticism on the cast: I do wish they'd made more use of the Treblemakers!

Pitch Perfect 2 also has some great tunes and theatrics. Beca produces some more of her awesome mash ups for the Bellas to perform and the Bellas' new a capella-nemeses, Das Sound Machine, are a great addition to the cast and incredibly entertaining to watch. Who knew you could do an a capella rendition of a Muse song?!  

Pitch Perfect 2, when considered on its own, is a fun film which I really enjoyed. It's just a shame I don't feel a great need to watch it again, as I did with the first one.