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.