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

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Ex_Machina (2015)

Ex MachinaHaving apparently won a week away with his company’s CEO, Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) whisked out to a remote island only to be dropped unceremoniously in an empty meadow. He finds Nathan (Oscar Isaac) a few miles away, in a windowless building, and after being granted security clearance at the door is given the grand tour not of his host’s holiday home but of an underground research facility. Nathan is developing a robot, and it’s Caleb’s job as competition winner to determine whether or not it possesses artificial intelligence. Over the course of a series of trails, Caleb interrogates Ava (Alicia Vikander) on everything from logic to likes and dislikes in order to identify a sense of self and hopefully sign off on one of the greatest scientific advancements in human history.

From celebrated screenwriter and first-time director Alex Garland, Ex_Machina is a meditation on what constitutes consciousness and whether or not it can ever be attributed to a machine. It’s a smart script, and Garland both introduces and implements the Turing test — the literal imitation game, developed by Alan Turing to help discern whether a specific machine can think — with remarkable authority and economy. He even goes to the trouble of second-guessing his paradigm, as if pre-empting not just critical but peer review, and through Caleb’s conversations with Nathan elaborates on his experiment’s design. Caleb asks why Ava should resemble an attractive human female and not something more along the lines of HAL or R2D2, to which Nathan replies that consciousness might actually have its basis in sex and gender. What is the biological imperative for a self-concept, if not to encourage reproduction?

Even if you can’t tell your Alan Turings from your Benedict Cumberbatches, Ex_Machina will likely still intrigue. The central conceit — that Caleb is alone in the laboratory and doesn’t know who to trust, Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s monster — is a good one, and the performances are ambiguous enough to keep you guessing well into the third act. Gleeson overcomes a pointless American accent (isn’t everyone in the United States at least a quarter Irish anyway?) to impress as Caleb, both as an innocent and — as his week in Nathan’s lab goes on — as someone complicit in a crime of (com)passion. Isaac is great too, playing yet another arrogant, layabout genius but with just enough drive and dynamism to distinguish him from Llewyn Davis. You’re forever asking just how much he knows, what his desired endgame might be and if it is just Ava who is being tested; whether he is in fact capable of greatness is never in question.

Whatever happens to be the case with Ava, and it wouldn’t do to divulge too much, it goes without saying that Vikander passes with flying colours. Her performance augmented by some of the finest effects work $20 million can buy, Vikander quickly conquers the uncanny valley, perfectly maintaining a balance between her own humanity and her character’s artificiality. She is by turns beautiful, curious and really quite intimidating, particularly as she plays with other characters’ perceptions either by putting on clothes or removing sections of synthetic skin. Ex_Machina is at its most powerful and provocative, however, when Ava’s gender is brought front and centre. Sexbots are not unusual in science-fiction, but they are used to particularly disturbing effect here; when Ava begins to flirt during the experiment the atmosphere doesn’t just change in the laboratory but in the cinema, while the (mal)treatment of an earlier model is not just unsettling but genuinely upsetting. This may be a film about robots, but it is human nature that is very much under the microscope.

While the finale might lack the power it perhaps deserves, largely due to the conclusions now particularly following from the original propositions, Ex_Machina is for the most part as engaging as it is entertaining. It’s got everything a great sci-fi needs. Well, except perhaps Scarlett Johansson.

4-Stars

Unbroken (2014)

UnbrokenHaving ran his way to 8th place in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, Louis “The Torrance Tornado” Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) enlists in the United States Army Air Corps where he receives the rank of Second Lieutenant. When his Bombardier is shot down during a routine rescue mission, Louis finds himself adrift at sea with Russell Phillips (Domnhall Gleeson) and Francis McNamara (Finn Wittrock). For forty-six days the three survivors fend for themselves, first killing a seagull and when it proves inedible baiting its entrails to fish for something a little more palatable. They are eventually rescued by the Japanese, at which time Louis is interred in a Japanese Prisoner of War camp run by Mutsuhiro “The Bird” Watanabe (Miyavi) where he labours for the enemy.

Produced and directed by none other than Angelina Jolie, the film is an adaptation of Laura Hillenbrand’s 2010 non-fiction book Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption about the real-life Zamperini. Considering this is only Jolie’s second directorial effort, after In The Land of Blood and Money, it’s notably accomplished. After all, she’s working from a Coen brothers script (Ethan and Joel having collaborated with Richard LaGravenese and William Nicholson), has hired Roger Deakins as her cinematographer and confidently amassed an impressive cast of rising stars. Sadly, however, Unbroken isn’t quite the sum of its parts.

Essentially three stories in one — namely how a young immigrant came to represent America in the Olympics; a tale of record-breaking survival at sea; and a story of torture and torment at the hands of a Japanese officer — Unbroken can’t help but labor its point: Louis Zamperini is made of sturdy stuff. Any one of these narratives might have made a fine film — as we have undoubtedly seen with Life of Pi and The Railway Man — but together they find themselves competing with rather than complimenting one another. The Olympics is the first casualty, awkwardly cut with an aerial attack when such a singular achievement deserves an audience’s undivided attention, but throughout the film structural decisions work to undermine not just the sheer scale of Louis’ ordeal but the scope of his myriad accomplishments.

Nevertheless, the cast give it their all, and while it’s never quite as powerful as it should be Unbroken is still a tough and touching watch. O’Connell has gone from strength to strength this year — even making an impression in 300: Rise of an Empire — and Jolie’s film sees him continue on that upward trajectory. He’s as charismatic and compelling as ever, but the nature of this particular role pushes and perfects his abilities more than ever before. Even at his most malnourished and mistreated Louis shines with the same intensity and survivor spirit that exemplified Starred Up‘s Eric, ’71‘s Gary or even Skins‘ James Cook. The rest of the supporting cast are just as memorable, with Gleeson and Wittrock rounding out an ensemble which also includes John D’Leo, Garrett Hedlund, Jai Courtney, Luke Treadaway and Japanese singer-songwriter Miyavi.

For all of its faults there is no denying that Unbroken is ultimately successful in its endeavour to do justice to the extraordinary life of Louis Zamperini — at least within the constraints of the cinematic medium. O’Connell is sometimes left to pick up the slack, but in such moments it only becomes clearer that he was the right man for the job. Regardless of however much pressure he may be experiencing O’Connell never falters, let alone breaks.

4-Stars

Frank (2014)

FrankJon (Domhnall Gleeson), a prolific Tweeter who still lives with his parents, is trying to make it as a musician. After witnessing an unhinged keyboard player attempt to drown himself in the sea, Jon is asked by Soronprfbs manager Don (Scoot McNairy) to join the band. Led by Frank (Michael Fassbender), an enigmatic figure who wears a large papier-mâché head, obscuring his true identity, the band — which includes Baraque (François Civil) on guitar and Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) on the theramin — travel to Ireland in order to record an album. While there, Jon — who has aspirations as a singer-songwriter — becomes increasingly frustrated by his own limited involvement in the creative process, and to expand his role within the group decides to record Frank’s recording sessions in order to build the band’s profile online. This leads to an invitation to appear at the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, which Jon accepts despite the protests of Baraque and Clara.

Inspired by Frank Sidebottom, the comic persona of Chris Sievey which found fame in Manchester in the late 1980s, Frank is co-written by Jon Ronson, who used to be a member of the character’s Oh Blimey Big Band. Set in the present day, in the age of Twitter, YouTube and SXSW, the film reimagines Frank as an American urban legend. Lenny Abrahamson’s film is a strange one, occasionally reminiscent of Scott Pilgrim vs. The World (Clara’s brand of dry humour is strikingly similar to that of Kim Pine) but probing much deeper than most films about aspiring musicians, even this year’s Inside Llewyn Davis. It is believed that Sievey signed off on the film prior to his death in 2010, but Frank has far less to do with Sidebottom as it does with fame in general. Not just fame either, but talent itself, and the effect that that talent has on other people.

Though his face is for the most part obscured by papier-mâché, Fassbender gives a terrifically physical performance as Frank, who seems to embody the famously fine line between genius and madness. Eccentric, manic and appreciably volatile, the character is a force to be reckoned with, though not by his bandmates, who without exception seem to follow him without question. There is still conflict — Clara clearly has feelings for Frank, while Don covets him for other reasons — but for the most part Soronprfbs (a gag not dissimilar to Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs‘ FLDSMDFR) seems to be a relatively harmonious team. Enter Jon, whose sense of entitlement seems to be greater than his actual talent, and who seems determined to worm his way into the band whether there is a place for him or not. Jon starts out as a sympathetic character, a little too relatable, but is soon revealed to be jealous and obsessive, verging finally on violent.

It is an incredibly powerful film, which could be analysed in a number of ways. The easiest parallel to draw is between Jon and the music industry, or even music fans, not only exploiting but ultimately corrupting the abilities of others. Frank, meanwhile, could be seen as an analogue for the public persona adopted by all public figures — be they artists, celebrities or politicians — who are attempting to mask or protect their weaker private selves. There are shades of domestic abuse in Jon’s maltreatment of Frank, and an element of self-delusion in the way Jon lies to Twitter and bemoans his happy childhood in the belief that it has somehow robbed him of artistic validation. Frank is at its most touching when dealing with mental illness, however, and as both Frank and Jon continue to unravel their respective journeys become all the more heartfelt and heart-breaking.

That’s not to suggest that Frank is a miserable watch; as the references to Scott Pilgrim and Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs were intended to suggest, there is a surreal absurdity to it that somewhat lightens the load. Jon’s hashtags are wonderfully inane, Frank is completely bonkers and the songs are a joy. The tone is wacky and ironic, never more so than when Frank performs his most likeable song to the rest of the group, to rapturous applause from everyone but Jon, who is the only one thinking about commercial viability. Mostly, however, the comedy comes from the matter-of-fact treatment of the papier-mâché head, as Frank is revealed to wear it whether he is eating, showering or travelling through customs. It’s for this reason that the film stays with you so long after the initial viewing, for there is so much to unpack that you perhaps don’t appreciate while watching.

Though not always an easy watch, Frank is certainly an interesting one. It powers through a variety of genres, from comic book movie through social satire to black comedy, and though the gear changes may occasionally grind it is one hell of a ride. You might not understand it, you might not even particularly like it, but come year’s end Frank will be one of the few movies that is still playing on your mind.

4-Stars

 

Calvary (2014)

CalvaryWhile holding confession, Father James Lavelle (Brendan Gleeson) is sentenced to death by an unseen man seeking revenge for past injustices at the hands of the church. Lavelle has been given a week to live, but rather than give the man’s name — which, importantly, he knows — to the police or flee the country — though the thought does occur to him — he simply goes about his religious duties as usual. His parishioners/the chief suspects include a shady butcher (Chris O’Dowd), a shady doctor (Aidan Gillen), a shady squire (Dylan Moran) and a kind-hearted cannibal (Domhnall Gleeson).

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Calvary — the not-so-surprise movie at this year’s Glasgow Film Festival — is an Irish black-comedy, with elements of both tragedy and drama. It’s from John Michael McDonagh, brother of Martin McDonagh, and is cut from the same cloth as both In Bruges and The Guard. Whereas those films centred on hitmen and police officers respectively, Calvary concerns itself with the priesthood: specifically Brendan Gleeson’s Father James Lavelle.

Though perhaps similar in disposition (it’s still Gleeson, after all), Lavelle is almost the polar opposite of his character in The Guard. He’s essentially a good man, though undoubtedly conflicted and naturally wracked with Catholic guilt. Gleeson is once again terrific, and here treads the fine line between cynicism and scepticism with surprising ease; he’s a man of faith, but is quite happy to be flippant about it. This ties into another key difference between McDonagh’s films: whereas The Guard was a drama undercut by humour, Calvary is essentially a dark comedy run through with real human hurt (the opening line, for example, shocks you into laughing, but really isn’t very funny at all).

Calvary is sensitive and occasionally even stirring, but it is just sardonic enough to steer it clear of mawkishness. Lavelle’s relationship with his estranged daughter — even his friendship with his dog —  makes a real impression, and his inevitable confrontation with his would-be killer is genuinely emotional. The satire is just as effective, with the film commenting on everything from the country’s economic downturn to cover-ups and corruption within the Catholic church. It’s a story of sin, sacrifice and redemption, but one that is strikingly short on miracles. If only McDonagh had been more careful with his casting, it might have been a decent mystery too.

Calvary isn’t as entertaining as The Guard or In Bruges, but then it isn’t trying to be. This is a much more meditative movie, and is ultimately sharper and more scathing than either of its predecessors for its lack of a disarming punchline  — its message will stay with you long after the jokes have faded from memory.

4-Stars

 

Dredd (2012)

Tasked by the Chief Judge (Rakie Ayola) with evaluating rookie recruit Judge Cassandra (Olivia Thirlby), an orphaned mutant who has failed the more traditional entry tests, Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) takes her on a routine assignment to shanty tower block Peach Trees in order to investigate a triple homicide. Sealed into the complex by Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), a drug-lord looking to protect her fledgling Slo-Mo empire, Dredd and Cassandra are targeted by a mix of hardened henchman and terrified inhabitants as they attempt to scale the tower and serve Ma-Ma the justice she deserves. Read more of this post