TV Shows of the Year – 2015

This year, for really the first time, I spent about as much watching TV as I did watching films. As a result, I have watched more new series than ever before, more often than not finishing each season that I start — Doctor Who being the main exception, because who on earth has the time for that?

However, the more television I watched the more I began to compare and contrast the shows that I was seeing, rating each new episode, and ranking the respective series against one another. With no outlet for these burgeoning opinions, and with no real inclination to create another blog, I thought I’d squeeze a quick top ten in here. Any excuse to microwave some popcorn at home on a cold winter’s eve.

10. Scream

ScreamThese days it seems as though every movie is at some point destined to be rebooted as a television series, whether directly tied into the source material like Limitless or as barely recogniseable as Teen Wolf to the 1985 film. The best, more often than not, fall somewhere in between, where the essence of a story is captured even if it takes place within a new and exclusive continuity. Many took issue with Scream‘s recalibration as a teenage soap opera, but the initial involvement of original director Wes Craven and a keen sense of the franchise’s MO meant that it still felt like Scream even if it didn’t follow exactly the same formula.

9. Catastrophe

CatastropheWhen it comes to nature documentaries, panel shows and period dramas, UK TV is often the place to be. For every other genre of television, however, it rather drags behind foreign productions. There were two notable exceptions this year, and while London Spy never made this list it was undoubtedly an engaging mini-series made all the more remarkable by the fact that it came from the BBC. Perhaps even more astonishing, however, is the fact that our shores also produced one of the best romantic comedies of the year in Channel 4’s Catastrophy, a dry relationship drama starring Sharon Horgan and Rob Delaney, with supporting turns from Ashley Jensen and Carrie Fisher. We got two seasons of it this year, and both impressed equally.

8. Marvel’s Jessica Jones

Jessica JonesMarvel’s second 2015 collaboration with Netflix, and the next instalment in its would-be Defenders franchise after Daredevil, Jessica Jones pitted Krysten Ritter’s private eye against David Tennant’s hypnotist in one of the studio’s more risque productions. Whereas Daredevil pushed the studio’s violence quotient to the point that characters were having their heads smashed in with car doors, Jessica Jones focuses on other adult themes while still dropping the fantasy from fantasy violence. This is a comic book adaptation that deals with sexuality, sexual consent and PTSD, and which does so in an intelligent and thoughtful way. All eyes are now on Luke Cage, as played in Jessica Jones by Mike Colter, who is set to headline his own miniseries in 2016.

7. American Horror Story: Hotel

AHS HotelAlthough I have enjoyed every iteration of Fox’s anthology serial American Horror Story to date, I have come to accept that I’ll never love the show (or any show, for that matter) quite as much as I did AHS’s second season, Asylum. The news that Lady Gaga was set to replace series stalwart Jessica Lange in the main role did little to raise expectations, though in the end Hotel proved that she was more than a match for the material. All of the usual players returned, including Ryan Murphy as showrunner, but there’s something even stranger than usual about the Hotel Cortez — and it’s not just the guest sewn into their mattresses.

6. Game of Thrones: Season 5

Game of ThronesHas the novelty begun to wear off? Or are we simply growing desensitised to Game of Thrones continued, nigh predictable excellence? Either way, there was the sense during Season 5 that the best was maybe behind us, as it arguably lacked the dramatic clout of previous seasons. At least, talk seemed to turn from the latest shocking developments to the showrunners’ worrying preoccupation with sexual violence. That said, the acting and action were still faultless, and it was a delight to see the once essentially exclusive narratives continue to intertwine as Tyrion Lannister set off in search of Daenerys Targaryen.

5. Marvel’s Daredevil

DaredevilAs Marvel’s Cinematic Universe continues to balloon with new characters and spin-offs, the studio’s television division seemed to be making efforts to streamline its content. Marvel’s Agents of Shield might have been busy establishing a film nobody would see until 2018, while Marvel’s Agent Carter went back to explore the fall-out from one of its 2010 releases, but Marvel’s Daredevil — their first collaboration with Netflix — went back to the drawing board as it attempted to establish another shared universe within a universe, or a microverse, focusing on smaller acts of heroism and adding a bit of texture to a franchise that worked overtime to iron out every wrinkle.

4. The Great British Bake Off

Great British Bake OffI’ve never really been one for reality television — I’m not sure I’ve ever truly recovered from the injustices of Pop Idol — but I’ve always made an exception for The Great British Bake Off. With its low-stakes competition and likeable contestants, GBBO has since its inception been the complete antithesis of something like X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent — to date the closest the series has come to a scandal was when one of the bakers took another’s Baked Alaska out of the freezer. This year’s series was particularly undramatic — there was nary even a soggy bottom to be found, while the contestant everyone thought would win actually won, deservedly — but that did nothing to diminish the joy of watching nice people bake pretty cakes.

3. The Hunt

The Hunt 2David Attenborough has narrated some of the most astonishing scenes to ever grace British television, or any television for that matter, from pack-hunting orcas in Frozen Planet to Africa‘s showstopping giraffe battle. This year’s offering, BBC’s The Hunt, dealt with predators across various environments, from the forest to the ocean. Perhaps the most amazing episode, however, was Race Against Time (Coast), which featured traditionally aquatic animals such as dolphins and octopi leaving the safety of the water to hunt their prey on or over land. The surreality didn’t sop there, either, as monkeys and wolves took to the coast to feed on fish.

2. Scream Queens

Scream QueensAs good as American Horror Story: Hotel was, it wasn’t the best genre show from Ryan Murphy and frequent collaborator Brad Falchuk to be released this year. Poaching talent from both of Murphy’s previous shows (including AHS: Coven’s Emma Roberts, promoted to star, and Glee’s Lea Michelle, recast as a psychopath in a head-brace), casting decisions emblematic of a wider wedding of tones, Scream Queens feels fresher and more focused than any of his previous work. A love letter to the slasher genre, or rather the very worst of the slasher genre, it’s shrill, schlocky and stupidly smart.

1. Sense8

Sense8 2As their latest movie, Jupiter Ascending, was kicked around town by critics, the Wachowskis first foray into television received a more positive reception. Taking a leaf out of Cloud Atlas‘ book — their masterpiece, and in my opinion the best film to be released in 2013Sense8 was another ensemble piece that sought to bring a diverse and disparate cast of characters together even if few of them ever actually met in person. Able to share knowledge and experiences with others in their cluster, whether based in Germany or India, the characters assist one another in their day-to-day lives while simultaneously scheming to overcome a threat to their larger group. The result is a series that is unusually resonant, its emotional beats emphasised eight-fold.

 

Films of the Year – 2015

Admittedly, I didn’t see quite as many films as usual at the cinema this year, as I was forced to prioritise the films I actually wanted to see over those that I might otherwise have taken a chance on. CarolSouthpaw and Tangerine might well have been masterpieces (as might Man from U.N.C.L.E., Ricki and the Flash and Hot Pursuit), but I wouldn’t know. Of the films I did see, however, a few stood out from the crowd. Here are the ten films that made the biggest impression.

10. While We’re Young

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There seem to be two Noah Baumbachs at work these days: one who specialises in Greta Gerwig vehicles aimed squarely at the art-house crowd and another who surprised everyone in 2012 by writing a thoroughly enjoyable Madagascar movie. While We’re Young rather splits the difference, combining well-observed human drama with the sort of larger-than-life characters that might potentially appeal to wider audiences. Heck, it even stars Alex the lion, aka Ben Stiller.

09. Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max 1There were those who went nuts for this movie, by anyone’s standards besides perhaps George Miller’s, but overall I found Mad Max: Fury Road about as exhausting as I did entertaining. There’s no denying that it’s a thrilling ride, or that it runs circles around most other action movies, but it is not without flaws of its own. Whether viewed as one long chase sequence or a succession of smaller ones there is no room for escalation, or progression. It could just as easily have been a short.

08. Theeb

Theeb 2I first saw Theeb at the Glasgow Film Festival in February, though I revisited it on release when invited to write the programme note for Glasgow Film Theatre in August, whereupon I realised that my love of it hadn’t diminished at all. Shorter and less convoluted than Lawrence of Arabia, but with the same sense of adventure and scenes of Jordanian spectacle, Theeb is the latest in a series of Middle Easterns to recontextualise one of the oldest conflicts in cinema. As brutal as it is beautiful, this is a film that will take your breath away, by turns leaving you awed and winded.

07. Song of the Sea

Song of the SeaAlthough Inside Out found the larger audience, it’s Song of the Sea that arguably deserves the most attention. From Cartoon Saloon, the studio behind 2010’s The Secret of Kells, Song of the Sea stands out as bold and unique, even in today’s increasingly diverse cinematic landscape. The story is a simple one, but the artistry is so strong that Will Collins and Tomm Moore feel no need to target their adult and child audiences individually, but to let the fairy tale speak for itself. After all, the legend of the selkie has got this far without stunt casting or show tunes…

06. CHAPPiE

Like Richard Kelly before him, Neill Blomkamp seems destined to be remembered as a one hit wonder, with any follow-up to District 9 dismissed off the bat. The truth, however, is that Blomkamp is actually getting more interesting with every project, whether he’s still making films that audiences want to watch or not. A number of 2015’s other releases have dealt with artificial intelligence, from Ex_Machina to Avengers: Age of Ultron, but only CHAPPiE really explores the ghost in the machine. Recast as a good guy for once, Sharlto Copley plays the titular drone as a scared child, delivering one of the best motion capture performances not to come from Andy Serkis.

05. Jurassic World

Jurassic WorldWith Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens so fresh in the public consciousness, its not surprising that Jurassic World has been somewhat overlooked as critics publish their best of year lists…but it is sad. The films have a lot in common, not least their faithfulness to previous movies in their respective franchises. While J. J. Abrams appears beholden to what came before (but not all of it, apparently), Colin Treverrow revisits old locations with a cast made up almost exclusively with new faces. The result is a film that feels familiar rather than repetitive, and which augments that which came before instead of simply aping it.

04. Sicario

SicarioHopefully a sign of things to come, 2015 was awash with female leads giving their male co-stars a run for their money. Charlize Theron stole Mad Max from Tom Hardy to the confused consternation of misogynists everywhere, while both Star Wars and Terminator: Genysis had women front and centre. Really the only action film to do this without making a song and dance about it, however, was Sicario, a gritty thriller from Denis Villeneuve that had Emily Blunt on the trail of a Mexican drug cartel. A real tour de force, the film took its audience on one hell of a ride, leaving them almost as confused and compromised as its protagonist.

03. The Interview

The InterviewIt’s hard to explain, but every so often a film comes along that seems aimed squarely at you. Reviewed not so much as a film but a near international incident, The Interview was such a victim of its own success (in terms of offending Kim Jong Un, at least) that it didn’t stop making headlines until it was finally released, by which point South Korea, Sony and media commentators were presumably glad to be rid of it. A shame, really, because the film is an absolute joy, and all in all the most fun I have had in the cinema this year. Certainly, it’s the best political satire I’ve seen since Team America: World Police, and was only topped by Matt Stone and Trey Parker’s subsequent musical, The Book of Mormon, which I saw earlier this month at the theatre.

02. It Follows

If FollowsBig screen horror has become terribly predictable, with small screen shows such as American Horror Story and Scream Queens doing more to explore the current state of the genre than any film in recent years. For throwbacks, however, cinema is still the place to be, and its unlikely that any film will do a better job of invoking the ghosts and ghouls of yesteryear than It Follows. Quite simply one of the most imaginitive and iconic monster movies of the 21st Century, it is also one of the most chilling, as a curse that can only be passed on through sexual contact leaves teens haunted by a creature that only they can see. I’m honestly shuddering just thinking about it.

01. The Martian

The MartianAs funny as The Interview might have been, and as scary as It Follows still proves to be, there was only one film this year that truly married the visceral with the cerebral, and that was Ridley Scott’s The Martian. Yes, you read that right, Ridley Scott, the much maligned director of Prometheus and The Councellor. Starring Matt Damon as an astro-biologist stranded on Mars, the film is pure sci-fi, in that it is almost equal parts science and fiction. In an age of superheroes and supernatural romance, it is amazing how unusual it is to hear explanation rather than exposition, in which a problem is reasoned out and not just glossed over with lights and noise. It’s not just smart either, it’s as warm, witty and awe-inspiring as any film this year.

11. Whiplash, 12. Slow West, 13. Birdman, 14. Inside Out, 15. Steve Jobs, 16. Ant-Man, 17. Top Five, 18. Bridge of Spies, 19. Unfriended, 20. Wild

In the Heart of the Sea (2015)

In the Heart of the SeaHerman Melville (Ben Whishaw) has become preoccupied with the story of the Essex, and, convinced that the only way to rid himself of his latest obsession is to commit it to the page, travels to Nantucket where he has arranged to speak with the only surviving crewmember. Reluctantly, Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson) recalls his experiences as a cabin boy (Tom Holland) under novice captain George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) and his rather more experienced first officer, Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth). Fast foes, the pair are determined to be rid of one another as quickly as possible, and in their haste steer the Essex into unfamiliar waters after hearing tales of a bounty of sperm whales in the remote Offshore Grounds. In so doing, however, they ignore another rumour, of an enormous white whale intent on destroying any ship that crosses its pod.

Prior to the release of the first trailer, buzz for In the Heart of the Sea was relatively positive. Ron Howard had just made Rush with Chris Hemsworth, a compelling sports drama with a charismatic lead, and had put together an impressive cast for their next film together, the story behind one of the greatest American novels ever written. The trailer changed everything, however, as discussion soon turned to the famous white whale, and how poorly rendered it appeared in the various effects shots that dominated the footage. For while Melville’s novel might have been a treatise on race, religion and revenge, in which the whale is as much metaphor as monster, Howard’s adaptation seemed to be positioning itself as a disaster cum survival movie in the blockbuster, in which the whale attacks were the main draw. The only problem? It didn’t look as though anyone involved had ever seen a whale before. Had Moby Dick already sunk its own adaptation?

It might come as something of a surprise, then, but In the Heart of the Sea isn’t nearly as bad as it looks. It’s no classic — nor is it even another Rush — but there is more going on than anyone had any real reason to expect. For one, the narrative device employing Herman and Nickerson is not only a more substantial part of the movie, it is also one of the most memorable. There is never any threat that the story won’t be told — history tells us otherwise, as does the poster for the film — but it makes for engaging drama nonetheless. With Michelle Fairley providing support as Thomas’ wife, the trio quickly build an uncanny rapport that foregrounds their subplot against the rather more more straightforward main narrative. Hemsworth is compelling as ever, but his characterisation — and his conflict with Pollard — is so by the numbers and predictable as to nullify any perceptible dramatic tension. There is a slightly unreal aesthetic to the film, and whether or not the performances are meant to ape that quality, their rivalry does feel a little cartoonish at times.

In context, meanwhile, the whale doesn’t look any more realistic, nor do the pods of regular-sized sperm whales that feature throughout, but Howard finds other ways of provoking a visceral reaction. The film doesn’t shy away from the butchery and barbarism of the whaling industry, and there are a number of shots demonstrating both the hunting and harvesting of these animals that really gets beneath the skin, no pun intended, and leads to some pretty interesting places. (When it is revealled that oil can now be extracted straight from the planet, you really fear for our poor little world.) Tom Holland is exceptional throughout as the young Nickerson, but never better than when forced into the carcass of a freshly harpooned whale and told to extract the more hard to reach pockets of oil from its depths. It’s an upsetting scene, and Thomas’ own tumult is plain to see. That is to say, then, that the whale’s retribution feels perfectly justified, leaving the real horror to come from the survivors’ own treatment of one another. Life of Pi and Unbroken didn’t shy away from desperation, but even within the boundaries of its 12A rating In the Heart of the Sea really makes you question not just the value of survival, but the very essence of humanity.

Not swashbuckling enough to compete with Star Wars, and not substantial enough to convince as any sort of counterpoint, it’s unclear exactly which audience Howard is fishing for. Like Blackhat, another of Hemsworth’s 2015 efforts that suffered a similar issue, however, it might yet make its bounty back on DVD. By the power of Thor — and Spider-man, too — if nothing else.

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Expecting a Jump to Lightspeed? How The Force Awakens Stalls the Star Wars Saga

Star Wars 3

Beware, the spoilers are strong with this one.

Return of the Jedi. That’s what the last film in the extant series was called — chronologically speaking, at least. Return of the Jedi. And yet, thirty years later, at the outset of a new trilogy designed to take the Skywalker story forward, these Jedi who have apparently returned are nowhere to be seen. According to the opening crawl, the Jedi did enjoy something of a brief resurgence, but the New Jedi Order came to an abrupt end when one of Luke’s padawans gave in to the Dark Side. In the years since, as the film’s title suggests, Luke and the light have gone into hibernation.

This might come as something of a surprise given that until now Star Wars has followed the Skywalker story this far, but The Force Awakens instead asks audiences to put a pin in the whole Chosen One thing and instead watch what is essentially a rerun of the first movie, as a new, utterly unrelated group of youngsters get to grips with the Force and take their first small steps into a conflict that has raged for generations. While it’s understandable that J. J. Abrams and Disney might not wish to acquiesce to the Expanded Universe — a collection of stories previously considered to comprise the canonical continuation of the saga, post-Jedi — it does rather lead to a more contrived and counter-intuitive continuity as the obvious narrative trajectory is eschewed in favour of a more awkward alternative. Ben no longer refers to Luke’s son, but to Han and Leia’s, while everyone else has to be introduced individually and ushered into position before the story everyone’s actually been waiting thirty-odd years for can actually begin.

Strangely, rather than open the world of Star Wars to encompass new worlds and perspectives, J. J. Abrams decision to start his film in this way has the opposite effect. The film may open on Jakku, ostensibly a new planet, but there is no mistaking it for a pale imitation of Tatooine, a remote outpost of almost no relevance to the wider mythology. The new characters don’t offer much more in the way of variety either, limited as they are to an orphan, a maverick and a Stormtrooper. So much of Rey’s past is withheld that it’s hard to infer anything about her upbringing or motivations, while Finn’s identity as a trained trooper — if not actually a clone — means that much of his own history is already written. Bizarrely, the film actually does introduce a character with some alleged connection to Star Wars lore, played by Max von Sydow no less, but rather than make use of his potential for providing context and establishing stakes Abrams simply kills him off, without the ceremony such an actor or character undoubtedly deserves. What of Endor, the last known resting place of Darth Vader, and therefore the most likely place Kylo Ren acquired his idol’s helmet? What of Cloud City and the AWOL Lando Calrissian? What of Kamino and its directly referenced clone army?

It’s not until the second act that we meet up with any familiar characters. Last time we saw Han Solo he had apparently turned his back on smuggling for good in order to begin a relationship with Leia and in the process become a fully-fledged soldier in the Rebel Alliance. He had lent the Millennium Falcon to Lando for the Battle of Endor, himself and Chewie instead leading a ground assault aboard a hijacked Imperial shuttle, but it’s easy to picture the pair fighting many more battles aboard the fastest ship in the galaxy — itself an asset to the Rebel Alliance. As it happens, this is not exactly how history transpired, as following the conversion of his son to the Dark Side Han returned to smuggling and apparently lost his ship to another scoundrel. The Falcon is found by chance on Jakku, by Rey and Finn, though it isn’t long before its most famous owners take advantage of the opportunity to take it back. It’s a nice moment, and duly brings Han and Chewie back into the fold, but relies so heavily on coincidence that you can’t help but imagine there might have been a more straightforward (and much less contrived) way of doing so.

Even so, it’s a little odd that Han should be re-introduced first, ahead of Luke or Leia. He may always have been the most popular character but he was never the series’ protagonist, instead occupying more of a supporting role. His son may be the saga’s new chief antagonist, but Kylo Ren’s obsession with Darth Vader — his grandfather on his mother’s side — and the fact that Leia is now a general in the Resistance — the enemy — makes her a more obvious target for a personal vendetta than an absentee father. Instead, it’s Han who gets the face-to-face confrontation with Kylo Ren, in which he inevitably meets his end at his son’s own hands (Harrison Ford has been looking for a way out of the franchise since Jedi), while Leia is sidelined at the other end of the universe. Presumably Ren knows of his mother’s role in the Republic, and given that the super-weapon on which he is situated is currently taking aim at the Resistance’s base, you’d think he’d be a bit more concerned with his Force-sensitive mother’s fate. During his confrontation with Han Leia isn’t even mentioned.

The Force Awakens goes to great lengths to show Rey as a capable and compelling female character who can take care of herself. She has apparently raised herself, supported herself and protected herself for most of her life, while the film depicts her fighting off kidnappers, resisting Kylo Ren’s attempts at mind control, and saving both herself and Finn from an untimely end. In fact, of all the newcomers, it is Rey who stands out as the obvious leader and hero-in-the-making. The Force Awakens also features Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, a powerful figure in the First Order, and never once makes reference to her gender. It’s a shame, then, that Leia isn’t given more to do, instead being left to watch helplessly as a group of men across the galaxy attempt to fire a sun at her. Come film’s end, when the Resistance retrieves Luke’s location from a star map conveniently located within R2, she doesn’t even set off in search of her long-lost brother — the brother she has very explicitly been searching for all this time, and the Resistance’s best chance at stopping the First Order and avenging her late husband. Presumably we’ll see her again in Episode VIII, but it would have been the perfect opportunity to get her back into the heart of action. It’s certainly a far cry from the Leia of Return of the Jedi, who strangled Jabba the Hut and fought the Empire on Endor. As Luke’s Force-sensitive sister, and presumably the “other” hope referenced by Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back, why isn’t she using her latent abilities to stop her own son?

And then there’s Luke, a bona-fide Jedi, so committed to his friends that he abandoned his training on Degobah in order to save them, completely unwilling to join Yoda in exile and neglect his destiny a moment longer than he must. Luke, who, from the moment he saw his aunt and uncle slaughtered by the Empire, never stopped fighting, even after he learned that the Sith Lord behind it all was actually his father. Instead, Luke spent the rest of the series trying to save Anakin from himself, eventually succeeding and in the process returning balance to the Force. He blew up the first Death Star, rejected the call to darkness, and even built his own lightsaber. To learn that, after all he had accomplished, Luke simply gave up when another threat arose, is to learn that you never really knew the character at all. That he gave up on family and left his best friends to suffer an uncertain fate after doing so much to save them doesn’t sit right at all. None of it fits, it feels illogical when it should feel intuitive, and is the chief reason that The Force Awakens doesn’t really feel like Star Wars at all. It’s a film about people running away — and while this may have precedence thanks to Yoda and Obi-Wan, when it comes to the main heroes that audiences have tracked throughout the original trilogy not even C3PO missed a moment of action.

Instead, it feels like fan fiction, or a throwaway aside. Like someone who grew up loving Han Solo and A New Hope (but who dismissed the prequels, and probably wasn’t even that keen on Return of the Jedi, if he was being honest, as most fans apparently have) who has been given the chance to write the future as he would like it to be, and not how it ought to be. We get a remake of the first film (or fourth, chronologically speaking) instead of a sequel to the third (sixth). There is safety in the familiar, and nostalgia pays, but it is not the Star Wars way. After all, it all started with Lucas, and if there’s one thing you can’t ever accuse him of, it’s giving his audiences what they want. Say what you like about the prequels, but they spent about as much time progressing the story as The Force Awakens spends regressing it.

My Eight Main Questions Upon Leaving The Force Awakens

Star Wars 2Overall, I’d say I generally enjoyed Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens. There were some thrilling set pieces, a scattering of witty one-liners and a couple of very interesting additions to the cast. However, I left the cinema with a number of burning questions, some of which I believe were intentionally left unanswered, but others too that rather undermined by enjoyment of the film. Here are six of the most pressing. Obviously spoilers will follow.

What happened to the other padawans?

Was there another youngling massacre? It is revealed during the movie that Luke was training a new generation of Jedi when one of their number — Kylo Ren, then known to Skywalker as nephew, or Ben — burned everything to the ground. But are they all dead, or did some of them escape and simply abandon their training? The introduction of Rey and Finn (as well as the film’s title) implies that people across the universe — whether scavenger or Stormtrooper — are developing Force powers, while a number of supporting characters appear to have an understanding of the Force that goes beyond simple study. Presumably, they are not alone, and, X-Men style, people throughout history have found themselves imbued with inexplicable power. Would it not have made a more interesting film to explore what they might do with these new abilities, without mentors good or evil to influence them? It certainly would have given The Force Awakens a unique slant, and a more complex morality.

Was that Coruscant?

We first see the full capabilities of Starkiller Base when it fires a sun across the galaxy to destroy the distant Hosnian system, home to the New Republic, and therefore the Senate. We know from George Lucas’ prequel trilogy that the original Senate was based on Coruscant, the city planet that also housed the Jedi Council. From the fleeting footage of life on the surface we see helpless citizens watch on helplessly as their world ends around them, and it certainly has a familiar air. I understand that the prequels are unpopular, and that J. J. Abrams might wish to distance his own films from them, but having spent half of the extant saga on and around Coruscant it seems unceremonious to say the least (more like spiteful) to wipe its entire star system from the galaxy with such senseless abandon. Would it really have hurt the film to base some of its action on the planet’s surface so to at least give the carnage some meaning? Even anonymous Alderaan got that honour, when Darth Vader blew it up in A New Hope with one of its residents — Princess Leia, no less — watching in horror. Remember guys: anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering…

How does Finn’s moral compass work?

According to Finn, he and his fellow Stormtroopers are abducted from their families at a young age and trained to do one thing — presumably to kill, or maybe to miss, it’s hard to say. Why this is easier than using clones bred on site is never really clear, but whatever. He also explains that during his first battle he chose to make a decision, that he would not kill in the First Order’s name. Let’s look past the fact that, if someone really was to be raised in an environment such as this, steeped in the Dark Side, would they suddenly decide that evil wasn’t for them? I suppose it’s possible that he somehow managed to fly under the radar, even with Captain Phasma watching, until adulthood, at which point he was able to orchestrate his escape. What really jars, however, is that having just forsaken murder he is so quick to turn on his own. Having acquired a TIE fighter from one of the Star Destroyer’s hangers, Po at the helm, Finn lays waste to battalion after battalion with obvious glee. So…he’s a good guy now?

What has the Resistance been doing all this time?

Thirty years have passed since the second Death Star was destroyed and Ewoks defeated the Empire, and all that the Rebel Alliance appears to have done in that time is change their name. (The Millennium Falcon has clearly had its deflector dish repaired too, though that might easily have been done by one of its subsequent owners.) Over the course of the original trilogy, having grown from the nucleonic Alliance to Restore the Republic established by Padme Amidala at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the Rebel Alliance clearly grows from a handful of fighters to a full-blown fleet with a veritable smorgasbord of vessels to its name. Worryingly, however, as of The Force Awakens, the newly minted Resistance has since resorted to the same tactics they used in A New Hope, namely to dispatch a dozen or so X-wings and hope that they can stop a planet-killing superstructure before it wipes them from the face of the universe. What’s more, it doesn’t even have Y- wings in its ranks anymore, let alone the B-wings and A-wings that were introduced in Return of the Jedi. We also learn that Han and Leia lost their son to the Dark Side, a trauma so great that Luke fled, Han and Chewie deserted and R2D2 simply switched off. None of this rings true in any way.

If Luke wants to be left alone, why did he leave a map?

So, since ditching his friends and leaving the galaxy in the hands of Kylo Ren and the First Order, Luke has taken a leaf out of Yoda’s book and exiled himself on a distant planet — one that, somehow, is completely off the charts. For some reason, however, a map exists to his location. Now, I suppose that if he were going to leave directions to a small outcrop off the coast of Ireland he would store them in R2 for safekeeping, but why R2 should then power down (and why he should choose some completely arbitrary point in the future to power up again) doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Was there really no way of retrieving the information from an offline droid? Did Princess Leia even look? (Remember, having already programmed him with information, she clearly knows her way around an R2 unit.) The point that really rankles is made by Kylo Ren, who reveals that the rest of the map was actually recovered from the Empire. What? And, what’s more, it exists as a jigsaw puzzle, part of which was stolen from the First Order by Po. The completely baffling bit comes at the end of the movie, when R2D2 (now conveniently awake and willing to help) projects the map with Po’s piece of the puzzle missing. Was it saved on some sort of shared database, between the Rebellion and the Empire? Again, WHAT?

Are Finn and Po more than just friends?

When it comes to racial and gender politics, Star Wars has had something of a checkered history. The original trilogy only featured one non-white actor (and one non-white actor’s voice), who was revealed to be a traitor, and forced its only notable female character to wear a metal bikini; while the prequel’s came under fire for their depiction of Gungans and whatever Viceroy Gunray was supposed to be as apparent racial stereotypes. The Force Awakens raises a few eyebrows too, namely for a throwaway Han Solo line referring to Asian raiders as “little” and a scene showing Finn drinking from a trough. For the most part, however, thanks to the casting of Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac in key roles, J. J. Abrams film boasts one of the most diverse casts of Hollywood history, even if it still doesn’t technically pass the Bechdel test. Rey is a capable character who can fight her own battles, Finn overcomes his fears to fight the good fight, and Po is repeatedly described as the best pilot in the Resistance. But there is a chance that it could be even more progressive than that. Whether the script is supposed to be setting Finn and Rey up as suitors or not (after all, there’s no reason that any of the new characters need pair up), the closest it actually comes to creating believable sexual tension is in a handful of encounters shared by Finn and Po. The actors may simply have been aiming for bromance, or perhaps homoeroticism, but their interactions hint at something more. When Finn returns to the Resistance wounded, Po even appears to rush to his sickbed, while Finn’s earlier question to Rey (“Do you have a boyfriend, a cute boyfriend?”) is strangely phrased to say the least. Not only would it be refreshing for a film of this scale to feature gay characters, it’d be worth it just to see the fanboys froth. If anything was going to break the internet, it’d be that.

Who is Rey, really? 

Regardless of how hard you tried to avoid spoilers, the rumour mill had ways of getting to you. With the trailer showing Rey on a desert planet much like Tatooine there was inevitably speculation that she was somehow related to Luke Skywalker, whether genetically or otherwise. The film reveals that Rey — a non-native to Jakku — has been waiting on the planet for her parents’ return, with a Rebel helmet and a hand-stitched doll in the colours of an X-wing pilot. She tells BB-8 that her backstory is also classified, which suggests she is of some importance, while later she notes that the Stormtroopers chasing Finn are shooting at her too. It seems unlikely that she would be Luke’s daughter, not least because she imagines that Jedis and such might be a myth, but there are a number of moments later in the film that imply otherwise. When she is saved from Starkiller Base and returned to Jakku she is greeted with a silent embrace from Leia, despite apparently never having met. They might have had some sort of Force connection (although Luke is described as the last Jedi, Leia is clearly shown to register Han’s death from the other side of the galaxy) but the fact that Leia should send Rey in search of Luke (with Chewie and R2D2 by her side) and not go herself suggests that she knows something that we don’t. Finally, when introduced, Luke and Rey something that JK Rowling might have described as a “meaningful look”.

What would Lucas’ Episode VII have looked like?

The short answer is that we’ll probably never know. When Lucas sold the Star Wars rights to Disney the deal included his treatments for the sequel trilogy, but he has since revealed that they were never used. Meanwhile, the future described in official Expanded Universe materials has also been discarded in favour of a new continuity. However, there are elements of The Force Awakens that follow tangents established in the canon films and the non-cannon literature, not least the fact that Luke founded a new Jedi academy and the son of Han Solo was seduced by the Dark Side. It’s not hard to imagine some of the other changes, either. The film would have probably featured more CGI than Abrams’ does, and it probably wouldn’t have been as well acted or directed. However, it probably wouldn’t have stuck so close to the plot of A New Hope (and therefore The Phantom Menace). Lucas has in interviews described the saga as poetic, so themes and narrative elements recur throughout, but none of Lucas’ films were quite as repetitive as Abrams’. The action starts aboard a shuttle carrying Stormtroopers from a Star Destroyer to the surface of Jakku, then returns to the Star Destroyer, then to Jakku again. It also features a desert planet indistinguishable from Tatooine, a bigger Death Star, and so many captures, tortures and escapes that it is impossible to keep count. What’s more, there is a dearth of memorable ships, planets and leitmotifs — issues (though there were of course others) that even the prequels never had. There is also the very real chance that it might have felt like a more comprehensive saga, with more elements carried over from the prequels. It might have felt a bit more like Star Wars.

Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015)

Star Wars[Spoiler Alert] Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) have deserted, leaving the fate of the galaxy in the hands of the New Republic and its Resistance, now lead by Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). When her star pilot (Oscar Isaac) is captured by the First Order, the new face of the Galactic Empire, he entrusts vital information concerning Skywalker’s whereabouts to a droid who is left on the planet of Jakku. There it seeks assistance from Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who, along with reformed Stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega), agrees to return it to the Resistance, steeling a ride aboard an abandoned Millennium Falcon and narrowly escaping the clutches of General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson). The First Order have other plans for the Resistance, however, mostly involving a new weapon that makes the Death Star look like a Jedi training ball. [Spoiler Alert]

When the first of George Lucas’ prequel films was released in 1999 it was met with widespread disdain, with most criticising the fact that the film was too different from the original trilogy. What was once a story about rebellion was now a treatise on trade law; where once the galaxy had felt lived-in and battle-damaged it now sparkled and shone; while what in childhood had once inspired wonderment and awe now seemed to adult eyes childish and insipid. Nobody seemed to notice the similarities: this was once again the story of an inexperienced Jedi, plucked from obscurity on a distant desert planet and thrust into the midst of an apparently eternal struggle between good and evil. For this consistency, for his single-minded determination to make films that served the ongoing franchise he had conceived rather than the fanbase that had adopted it, he was met with ridicule and contempt, and was ultimately forced to relinquish control of his creation. Because in this day and age, even in cinema, it appears the customer is always right.

Disney bought Lucasfilm for $4 billion, and gave J. J. Abrams the job of rejuvenating the franchise, or rather redeeming it in the eyes of the most vocal members of its audience. He had previous experience, having recently restored Star Trek to perceived relevancy with his 2009 reboot, so his appointment was welcomed by many, even as Star Trek‘s own fanbase criticised him for taking too much of a revisionist approach to their beloved continuity. Whether as a reaction to this, or because of his own self-professed love for the original trilogy, Abrams soon sought to reassure fans that Star Wars: The Force Awakens would be a continuation of the saga made by the fans for the fans, even as he avoided referring to it as Episode VII and thus risk placing it in the wider, prequel-recognising series (though this subtitle was thankfully reinstated for the theatrical release). In keeping with this populist approach, stars Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher were re-signed, while all involved took every opportunity to satisfy fans that the less illustrious elements of the galaxy far, far away — the Gungans, Ewoks and midichlorians of Lucas’ world — would not appear. Whether it made sense within the story for them to or not.

The result is a film that bears a closer resemblance to A New Hope than even The Phantom Menace (there’s no pod-racing or choral choirs to distinguish The Force Awakens). Lucas often spoke of the poetry of his Star Wars saga, of a story that echoed down the generations, and there is an undeniable symmetry to the original and prequel trilogies. With Lucas gone, however, disharmony has crept in, and there’s an element of confusion to this latest stanza, the discord of an imperfect rhyme. The Force Awakens features familiar worlds with unfamiliar names, recognisable characters with unrecognisable faces, and traditional themes refracted in non-traditional ways. It’s uncanny at times, particularly where the returning characters are concerned. Like pastiche, like pantomime, there is a celebratory, self-congratulatory quality to The Force Awakens that feels out of place in a universe used to such high stakes, of galaxy-obliterating super-weapons and fatal family feuds. Everyone seems too happy, too eager to please, with past conflicts forgotten in favour of an out-of-place comfort. Even the perennially pessimistic C-3PO seems uncharacteristically content, as if scared to upset the film’s fervent following and therefore risk expulsion from future instalments. After all, who would want to be the next Jar Jar Binks?

None of this is to suggest that The Force Awakens isn’t enjoyable, because it undoubtedly is, or that is doesn’t take any risks, because it does. The film is fast, frenetic fun, J. J.  Abrams ensuring that the pace doesn’t let up long enough for the plot holes to register, while his decision to cast trained actors instead of matinee idols pays dividends in the work of the key newcomers, who break the blockbuster mould in a number of refreshing ways, even if their talents rather outshine those of the established cast. Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac are all terrific actors, the best (and most diverse) the series has ever seen, but they’re somewhat hamstrung by characters who don’t make a whole lot of sense. Their backstories and motivations are either concealed or contrived, so that Rey keeps alluding to a childhood trauma that is never elucidated on and Finn is left to make decisions completely at odds with everything we know about his background. Abrams just doesn’t have the same flair for iconography that Lucas did, and has made a career out of playing with other people’s creations. Jedi has become a recognised religion, while the ships, worlds and even jargon of Star Wars transcend not just the series but cinema itself. Even the prequels registered and resonated with the public consciousness, with their battle droids, padawan learners and Order 66 entering the wider lexicon. Nothing invented specifically for Abrams’ film makes quite the same impression — except perhaps BB-8.

At times The Force Awakens feels more like fan-service than film-making, and come film’s end it’s questionable whether Abrams’ has added anything new to the Star Wars mythology. It’s strange, therefore, that he should have been so wary of spoilers getting out in the first place. As with Star Trek, he pre-empted this not just with heightened security but with misinformation, so that he wasn’t just mollifying audiences but misleading them. That’s not all it has in common with Star Trek (and, for that matter, Star Trek Into Darkness), for only in its last few moments does Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens promise anything resembling a new direction, by which time everyone’s too relieved to criticise such an unsatisfying ending. The Force may have awoken, but to what end is not yet clear.

3-Stars

Snoopy and Charlie Brown – The Peanuts Movie (2015)

SnoopyWhen a new, red-haired girl joins his class, Charlie Brown (Noah Schnapp) is determined that she should see him for the good, kind-hearted person he is, rather than the hopeless clutz his classmates believe him to be. After seeking council from Lucy (Hadley Belle Miller), Charlie comes to the conclusion that confidence is key, and throws himself into a number of new hobbies in the hope that one of them might impress the new girl. Charlie’s crush rubs off on Snoopy (Bill Melendez), his beagle, who conjured up a love interest of his own using an old typewriter salvaged from his master’s school. Together with Woodstock, he embarks on an imagined adventure to free Fifi (Kristin Chenoweth) from the clutches of a evil pilot.

It’s been a strange year for animation — both DreamWorks and Pixar have disappointed over the last twelve months, the former with Home and the latter with The Good Dinosaur — leaving the genre to be ruled by other, less illustrious studios. Inside Out was good fun, and garnered some very enthusiastic reviews, but 2015’s best animations have come from rather more surprising sources. The Ireland-based Cartoon Saloon gave us Song of the Sea, Paramount Animation gave us The SpongeBob Movie: Sponge Out of Water, and now Blue Sky — you heard that right, Blue Sky — has given us Snoopy and Charlie Brown: The Peanuts Movie, a computer-generated revamp of the familiar characters immortalised in Charles M. Schulz’ comic strips.

Perhaps inevitably, the film is preceded by an uninspiring Ice Age short (as I said, Blue Sky), in which Scrat, having finished rearranging the tectonic plates, heads out into space to play pool with the other planets (really). It’s the studio at its worst, and doesn’t exactly bode well for what is to follow. After all, it wasn’t that long that another classic cartoon character — Postman Pat — was given the Hollywood treatment, which resulted in not only one of the worst movies of 2014, but one of the most misjudged adaptations of all time. Not that it’s easy to make a dated character relevant to new audiences, but thankfully director Steve Martino knows better than to pit Charlie Brown against an army of robot doppelgangers. There is a talent show, admittedly, but it’s not judged by Simon Cowbell.

No, The Peanuts Movie opts for a more honest approach, clearly realising that although popular culture may have changed considerably since Charlie Brown’s heyday in the 50s, the things children want from it really hasn’t. Children’s cinema is full of lovable losers, many of whom have likely been inspired by Charlie Brown, and it’s the character’s insecurities that form the focus of the resultant film. Unlike other CGI animations preoccupied with pushing the envelope or pandering to parents, Martino’s has aimed his squarely at a younger audience, who are unlikely to be interested in realism or innuendo. That said, Blue Sky have done a tremendous job of translating the original artwork to the big screen, and whether it’s the dirt-cloud shadowing Pig-Pen or the imagined adventures of Snoopy and Woodstock in their ongoing antagonism with the Red Baron, the animation — and its 3D conversion — are beautifully rendered.

The story might never match the animation in terms of sophistication, but there is a simplicity and sweetness to it that is just irresistible. Charlie Brown might have surprised himself, but Blue Sky have surely surprised us all.

3-Stars

The Good Dinosaur (2015)

The Good Dinosaur66 million years ago an asteroid missed the earth, and its dinosaur inhabitants lived happily ever after. The End. Some time later, on an a remote outpost somewhere in America, three Apatosaurus are born to a family of farmers. The youngest, named Arlo (Raymond Ochoa), is smaller than his siblings, and struggles with his assorted duties, the most recent of which involves guarding the family’s food stores from a pesky hominid (Jack Bright) who keeps helping himself to their corn. When Arlo and Spot (as the former comes to call him) are washed hundreds of miles downriver by floodwater, they must join forces if they are going to make their way back home in time for first snow, and survive encounters with various other dinosaurs looking to fill their stomachs before winter sets in.

Pixar have, by and large, always known which questions to ask of their audience. What do your toys get up to when you’re not around? Why are there monsters under your bed? What exactly is going on inside your head? Obviously, these creative quandaries feed the imagination of young children who don’t know any better, but they are also intuitive and insightful enough to inspire those who really should. At their simplest, the premise of every Pixar film makes sense to children young and old on a level unspoiled by sense or reason. For these are questions that have been asked by all, at one point or another in their lives, whether yesterday or yesteryear. Their latest, The Good Dinosaur, has such a hook — What if the dinosaurs didn’t die out? — but unlike the rest of their set-ups, this one lacks a satisfying answer. Worse than that, it’s not even coherent.

Like the asteroid seen bypassing the planet in its opening moments, The Good Dinosaur is pretty wide of the mark. When you consider the success Pixar has had spit-balling ideas about fish, rats and old people it is quite simply inconceivable that they’d hit a creative wall here, with dinosaurs, and think of nothing better to do than cast them in a western…for some reason. There was that scene in The Lost World: Jurassic Park that saw a pack of velociraptors chase Jeff Goldblum through a cornfield, but generally speaking dinosaurs and farming don’t exactly go hand in hand. That the film conspires to have sauropods plough fields to collect corn, which is then stored in a totemic silo that could not possibly have been built by quadrupeds is just the first in a long line of creative decisions that leave you wondering if you’re watching the latest Blue Sky animation by mistake, or maybe a prehistoric prequel to the studio’s much-maligned Cars series. After all, if dinosaurs can learn to sow and harvest crops, then what’s stopping them from evolving wheels and a thresher? Heck, Tyrannosaur’s can even gallop now.

Director Peter Sohn has clearly gone to great pains to replicate the American northwest setting, to the point that the animation borders on being photorealistic, but rather than show his characters the same reverence he has gone in the opposite direction. Arlo is unmistakably a dinosaur, but the resemblance isn’t much stronger than that of a balloon animal to an actual animal. It’s not just that he’s not particularly visually interesting either; scratch beneath the surface and the whole character just deflates into nothing. Has Pixar ever produced a less compelling protagonist? Not since A Bug’s Life has a main character appeared so anonymous — and that was a film about ants! This is all the more remarkable given how many traits Arlo has in common with Rex, the studio’s only other dinosaur character to date, and one of its best loved. It’s hard to remain focused on someone so plain when there is such depth and detail in the background, and Arlo’s motivations (he wants to put his stamp on the aforementioned silo, but first he has to earn it) are so completely uninvolving that you really do find yourself admiring the river’s keenly observed currents instead.

The Good Dinosaur is not without its moments, most of which can be attributed to the character of Spot (or traced back to an all too fleeting appearance from Forrest Woodbush, a Styracosaurus with serious squad goalsvoiced by Sohn himself), but for the most part it fails even to register as entertainment — more a handsome screensaver with a crude cartoon photoshopped onto it. It might not be Pixar’s worst film, but it is certainly their least enjoyable, and not just for the adult contingent left feeling betrayed by a studio that usually caters to all; after the multi-monster melee that closed Jurassic World it’s hard to imagine anyone but the youngest, most unassuming children getting excited about a C-list dinosaur who’s afraid of bloody birds. Even the name is underwhelming: since when did Pixar settle for good?

2-stars

 

SPECTRE (2015)

SpectrePosthumously ordered to Mexico by the previous M (Judi Dench) to kill Marco Sciarra (Alessandro Cremona), James Bond (Daniel Craig) uncovers a secret organisation that connects Quantum and the deceased cyberterrorist Raoul Silva (Javier Bardem). He infiltrates a meeting of SPECTRE in Rome, following a tip-off from Sciarra’s widow (Monica Bellucci), where he is introduced to the group’s leader, Franz Oberhauser (Christoph Waltz). Henchman Mr. Hinx (Dave Bautista) is dispatched to take care of Bond, stalking him all the way to Austria — to the workplace of Dr. Madeleine Swann (Léa Seydoux), who 007 has promised to protect in exchange for Oberhauser’s location. With Bond AWOL, and both Q (Ben Whishaw) and Moneypenny (Naomie Harris) suspected of aiding and abetting his illicit investigations, M (Ralph Fiennes) finds himself in conflict with C (Andrew Scott), who wants to disband the 00 programme as part of a controversial reform of the secret service that will see MI5 and MI6 merged to form a Joint Intelligence Service.

The James Bond film series is a mess, and always has been. Spanning over fifty years and twenty-four movies it has seen the lead role re-cast, the creative team replaced, and the narrative revised so often that James Bond now exists more as an icon than a character. It is this iconography that holds the series together, so that a Bond movie is as identifiable for containing a Bond girl and a Bond villain as it is for featuring Bond himself – heck, the main character has to introduce himself at the outset of every movie just so that the audience knows who is on this particular occasion supposed to be playing him. This formula has produced a number of memorable adventures, but the repetitiveness has made it predictable and over time this has rendered it rote. There is no character development, no narrative progression, no end in sight, just an apparently endless succession of explosions and innuendo that can sometimes stimulate but can rarely satisfy.

It is for this reason that Sam Mendes’ Skyfall — EON’s twenty-third production — was such a success, both critically and commercially. Tasked with celebrating fifty years of Bond, Mendes was really the first director to sit down and think about who the character is or where the series might be going. Even the fact that he was ostensibly operating in a rebooted timeline barely two films old couldn’t stop him from producing the most engaging and comprehensive Bond movie in decades — one that was both emotionally resonant and culturally significant. Skyfall simultaneously operated both within and outwith the series’ established continuity, referencing previous adventures while reinstating fan favourite characters who were nevertheless unknown to Bond. This allowed Mendes to comment on or even slyly mock established tropes while also hitting all of the usual marks. It was at once a standalone adventure and a distillation of everything the series stood for; in many ways it was the definitive Bond movie, and may either have been used to bring one of cinemas longest running sagas to a triumphant conclusion or stand it in good stead to see out the rest of the century.

Obviously, there was little chance that Sony was going to retire one of its most celebrated and lucrative tentpoles, and the existence of SPECTRE shows that of the two options it was going to go with the latter. To the film’s credit, it approaches the idea that James Bond has to adapt to survive head on: Andrew Scott’s character explicitly questions the relevance and validity of the 00 programme in the 21st Century, and spearheads a Joint Intelligence Programme that favours surveillance over espionage. Unfortunately, however, it stops at lip-service, and rather than reach for new horizons the film — as its name suggests — resurrects an organisation that hasn’t been seen onscreen since 1971 to concern itself with instead. Mendes, who after much convincing agreed to return for SPECTRE, is clearly aware of his film’s shortcomings, but having killed M off at the end of Skyfall he is no longer able to refocus attention away from narrative inconsistencies and onto the characters. He overcompensates, contriving to retcon a shared history between Bond and his latest antagonist, but it is neither as convincing or as compelling as the relationship he once had with M. Realistically speaking SPECTRE may only be as incomprehensible as half the other films in the series (it’s certainly as stylish), but after Skyfall it feels all the more inconsequential.

In an age of shared universes and multimedia storytelling, Bond really is beginning to show his age. Like Skyfall, SPECTRE may continue to mirror and directly reference past events (though a fight on a train and a video tape labelled Vespa barely registers as fan-service at a time where Marvel is cross-pollinating between sub-franchises and Fox is commissioning films with the express intention of reinstating some semblance of continuity) but it doesn’t have the same focus or sense of purpose as its predecessor — it confuses matters when it should be clarifying them. Rather than use Skyfall as a jumping off point for new adventures or dynamics, SPECTRE feels more like an epilogue, an after-party, or perhaps just a hangover. The franchise hasn’t been renewed, it’s outstayed its welcome. The suitably stand-out Day of the Dead sequence might have been more than a prelude; it may have been a premonition.

2-stars

The Walk (2015)

The WalkIn 1973, wire walker Phileppe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) seems content to entertain the Parisian public in exchange for small change and the occasional hard-boiled sweet. When a chance broken tooth lands him in a dentist’s waiting room, however, he becomes fixated on New York’s World Trade Centre after seeing the Twin Tower’s featured in a magazine article. Determined to walk between the towers, Petit turns to veteran circus performer Papa Rudy (Ben Kingsley) in order to learn the finer details of knot-tying and rope-rigging. He also recruits girlfriend Annie (Charlotte Le Bon) and photographer Jean-Louis (Clément Sibomy) as accomplices, and shortly after a dry-run at Notre Dame flies the three of them out to America so that they might begin plotting the “coup” in earnest. The plan: to rig a cable at 1350 feet so that he might tightrope between the two tallest buildings on Earth.

Over the last fourteen years audiences have become so used to contemporary films and other fiction being referred to as post-9/11 that there will inevitably be some who are surprised to discover that there was a time before the Twin Towers had even been built. Perhaps counter-intuitively, so iconic and well-integrated were the structures, you only have to look back just over forty years — to 1973, when they were first opened. The same year, that is, that Robert Zemeckis’ story — and, for that matter, the real-life story of Philippe Petit — actually begins. We meet him in Paris where he is performing for passers-by, juggling at first and later traversing a tight-rope tied between two lampposts, but it isn’t long before he sets his sights on something much, much bigger — the original Mission: Impossible.

On the surface, The Walk has a lot going for it. It is, after all, a tremendous true story, and one that has only really been explored once before on film, in James Marsh’s 2008 documentary, Man on Wire. Both films focus on the heist elements of the story, chronicling what was very much a crime, but only The Walk has Zemeckis calling the shots. Only his second live-action movie since Cast Away, the Back to the Future creator reasserts himself by combining his genius for physical performance with his understanding of stereoscopy, perfected over the course of his four-film flirtation with motion-capture animation. Throw in Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most interesting and ambidextrous actors working today, and it should come as no surprise that the film’s climax — in which Petit walks, unaided save for a metal cable and balancing pole, between the towers, no less than six times — is one of the most simultaneously breathtaking and breathless scenes of the year.

Unfortunately, the build-up leaves rather a lot to be desired. It has been reported that not only did Gordon-Levitt learn to walk the high-wire in eight days (thanks, it must be said, to Petit’s personal tuition) but he also became fluent in French. Both are obviously impressive feats, and each duly demonstrates the actor’s obvious dedication to his craft, but while the former fact results in a more credible performance the latter sadly does not. Instead of putting what he has learned into practice, Gordon-Levitt is only ever really required to speak English with a vaguely French accent. His clumsy narration doesn’t just open the film, however, but returns at regular intervals to undermine it throughout, often spoken directly to the camera while Gordon-Levitt straddles an equally unconvincing Statue of Liberty. It’s a horribly misjudged framing device that hamstrings the film from the get-go. Evidently, the film isn’t just a tribute to Petit’s talents but to the Twin Towers themselves, and 1970s New York is painstakingly recreated from the ground up. France, however, doesn’t enjoy quite the same verisimilitude, and the scenes set across the pond feel comparatively specious and superficial. The soundtrack jars, too.

The Walk is undoubtedly the main event — worthy, perhaps, of the price of admission on its own — but it’s a shame that more couldn’t be done with the character of Petit or the other important figures in his life. Zemeckis has rather conspicuously cast French (and French Canadian) actors in his film, in small supporting roles, but although Clément Sibomy and Charlotte Le Bon do ultimately manage to impress it is despite the material they have been given rather than because of it. The Walk is a spectacle, teased from the very beginning, whereas the journey to the towers could have made a more satisfying movie. Like Petit, Zemeckis should have taken things one step at a time.

3-Stars

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