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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The Expendables 3 (2014)

The Expendables 3In need of a medic and a fifth member, Barney Ross (Sylvester Stallone), Lee Christmas (Jason Statham), Gunnar Jensen (Dolph Lundgren) and Toll Road (Randy Couture) mount a daring mission to extract Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) from military prison. They soon cross paths with Conrad Stonebanks (Mel Gibson), the team’s co-founder turned arms dealer, who once betrayed Ross and left the rest of his team for dead. Reluctant to lose any more friends to the man, Barney recruits a new team of rookies (Kellan Lutz; Ronda Rousey; Glen Powell; Victor Ortiz) only for his plan to fail and the youngsters to be captured by Stonebanks. He has no option but to put the old team back together and go after them.

Throw in Arnold Schwarzenegger, Antonio Banderas, Harrison Ford, Kelsey Grammer, Jet Li and Terry Crews and you have the series’ most diverse cast yet. Faced with rounding off his trilogy and outdoing the two previous instalments, Stallone — who once again holds a story credit — has amassed not only some of the most kick-ass action stars in cinema history, but some of the best actors too. Given that it’s his third time around the block (this particular block, anyway) it’s impossible to see how The Expendables 3 could be anything but the best one yet.

Sadly, the film is anything but. Patrick Hughes, Stallone’s “new blood”, who has taken over directing duties from Simon West (who in turn took over from Stallone himself), doesn’t seem to have any visible grasp on the story, characters or tone of his film. It’s not entirely his fault — the decisions to rely on CGI, pander to a younger audience and overcrowd the cast were all likely out of his hands — but he’s got to be at least partly responsible for the failure of the action, jokes and emotional beats to have any sort of identifiable impact. With the exception of one gag (“I’m the knife before Christmas”) the film is essentially a laugh-free zone.

As for the story, the less said the better. The Expendables 3 is a trilogy in itself, basically repeating the same narrative with three separate but indistinct generations of the team. You’ve got the two founders, a member of the first team, the cast of first and second movie, the new recruits and a new-new line-up that consists solely of Antonio Banderas — or rather archive footage of Antonio Banderas’ outtakes on Shrek The Third. The film is little more than a single looped sequence involving a seemingly endless cycle of captures and rescues.

Not even the cast can save it, with every newcomer bar perhaps Mel Gibson failing to make a mark. Wesley Snipes is clearly out of practice, Kelsey Grammer is still in Transformers mode, and Harrison Ford looks like he might genuinely kill someone. Oritz doesn’t even get a role, Rousey barely gets a character, Lutz is so forgettable that you’re never entirely sure he’s been introduced yet, and Banderas is just plain embarrassing. Of the returnees, Crews is by far the most entertaining and he spends almost the entire film in a coma.

By skewing young, updating the effects and playing it straight the filmmakers have left the Expendables feeling a bit, well, expendable. The Expendables 3 is confused, lethargic and just a little bit sad. It seems strangely apt that the film was leaked online, undermining its box office performance: Stallone and co are outmoded, both on screen and off.

2-stars

Ender’s Game (2013)

Ender's GameYears after an alien invasion, in which the formic race’s attack on Earth was foiled by jet-fighter pilot Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), Andrew “Ender” Wiggan (Asa Butterfield) is scouted for Battle School by Colonel Hyrum Graff (Harrison Ford) and Major Gwen Anderson (Viola Davis) of the International Fleet. Impressed by his tactical ability and ethical code, Graff keeps a close eye on Ender as he adapts to life on the space station, wins the respect of his peers and shows promise in the Battle Room, a zero-gravity training area where teams of students must work together to beat the competition.

Adapted from Orson Scott Card’s novel of the same name by director Gavin Hood (who rightly swapped the buggers of the book for the formics of the film), Ender’s Game finally arrives on the big screen after various false starts and troubled productions. Originally set to star Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace actor Jake Lloyd in the leading role, with Card imploring fans to give the young actor another chance, the project was delayed until Hood came on board in 2010. Lionsgate then had to distance both itself and the movie from Card, whose involvement was being criticised by LBGT groups — some demanding boycotts — due to comments made about homosexuality and same-sex marriage.

Even without the history and controversy Ender’s Game had its work cut out for it if it was to find an audience. Marketed as yet another Young Adult adaptation, the film would have to compete with the likes of Percy Jackson: Sea Of Monsters, Mortal Instruments: City Of Bones and The Hunger Games: Catching Fire, and it would have to do so with a cast that perhaps skewed older than most. Harrison Ford, as idolised as he is by men of a certain age, is unlikely to appeal to a child weaned on Harry Potter, while Asa Butterfield is best known for Hugo (more of a critical success than a box office one) and The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas.

In fact, Ender’s Game has more in common with Starship Troopers or even District 9 than it does Twilight. This is science-fiction with subtext rather than just space opera, and taking its cues from a story written nearly thirty years ago by an out-of-touch Mormon it is surprising just how relevant it still feels today. Certain tropes will certainly feel familiar — the Battle Room is the film’s Quiddich pitch or vampire baseball field and the final act is spent mostly in a ‘Kobayashi Maru’ simulator — but the rest is rather more novel. Children are assessed by video games, war is largely fought using drones and e-mails are censored by those in command. It’s also surprisingly — and remarkably — brutal; the film could easily have been subtitled: “It’s all fun and games until someone gets hurt.”

Ender’s Game is a very pleasant surprise with some impressive performances (Ford and Butterfield in particular stand out, while The Kings Of Summer‘s Moisés Arias certainly makes a splash), but the script doesn’t quite do the subject matter justice. The dialogue is stilted, the pace is at times plodding and some of the set pieces are a little beyond the budget’s means. That said, with the weightless scenes standing up even in comparison to those in Gravity there must be some style to compliment the substance.

3-Stars

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi (1983)

Arriving at its much anticipated third instalment, Star Wars had a choice of three trilogy-standard options: sell out, jump the shark or cast Sofia Coppola. Lucas, however – never one to meet audience’s expectations (ZING!) – decided instead to replace the previous film’s battle of Hoth with a giant intergalactic slug, pit our hero against a veritable geriatric, and end everything with cinema’s least welcome Teddy Bear’s Picnic. Have seen this coming, not even Yoda could.

The point, however, is that Return of the Jedi didn’t sully what came before. It might be the weak link in the original trilogy, but in relation to Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back that’s broaching on a regrettable inevitability. Boasting its fair share of iconic moments and franchise highs, Return of the Jedi is still first-rate entertainment, and a film that – at the age of six – I honestly couldn’t get enough of.

R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) are once again wandering the Tatooine desert, bickering as though nothing has changed. The truth, however, is that everything has changed: Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is a now one-armed Jedi coming to terms with the revelation that his nemesis is also his father; Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is encased in carbonite and occupying prime space on Jabba the Hut’s mantle; and Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) can’t find any shoes to go with her shiny new gold bikini. Inadvertently offering themselves to Jabba as gifts, R2D2 and C3PO could be forgiven for thinking things couldn’t get much worse.

When Jabba soon has near enough the entire Rebel Alliance captive, they begin an uprising which leaves Jabba choking on a slave-girl, Boba Fett waiting it out in the Sarlaac’s stomach and our heroes liberated and ready to fight another day. Departing once again for Dagobah, Luke says his goodbyes to Yoda (Frank Oz) and learns that he may or may not be related to everyone with a name credit in the entire franchise. Han and Leia, on the other hand, rendezvous with the rebel fleet and plan their latest assault on the Imperial Empire.

Landing on The Forest Moon Of Endor (clearly distinguishing it from all those other moons called Endor), our heroes befriend the natives and set about destroying the structure responsible for the new Death Star’s protective shield so that the fleet can attack. Luke confronts Vader only to find himself hauled before the Emperor himself, earning himself a prime view of the destruction of the alliance. When the shield is deactivated, however, Lando Calrissian leads the fleet into the Death Star aboard the Millennium Falcon, successfully destroying the main reactor. Saved from the Emperor by a repentant and injured Vader, Luke escapes in time to catch the fireworks with his friends in a cosy treehouse in the Endor woodland.

Many people chastise George Lucas for continually meddling with his creation, but really, who are they to tell the man how to do his job? It’s an issue that – with the release of the full franchise on Blu-ray – I think is of particular relevance. With the high-definition format suddenly shining a spot light on older movies’ unfortunate wrinkles, we should really be thanking Lucas for maintaining such a level of involvement in his creation so that it moves with the times. It’s value for money really, every time you revisit the movies there is always something new to spot.

I have found myself looking at this phenomenon as a microcosm for the prequel trilogy, the reactions of fans to these tweaks representative of their feelings towards Episodes I, II and III. Think about it, it isn’t that George Lucas has suddenly lost his mojo and decided to urinate all over your favourite movies; it’s just that nostalgia is blinding you to the director’s trademark style. The new song sung in Jabba’s chamber is no more or less awful than the song which preceded it. It’s you that has changed – and while you might have been willing to let the first one slide, having become too familiar to judge it objectively, there is no childhood nostalgia to blind you to the God-awfulness of its replacement.

Return of the Jedi is no better or worse for Lucas’ modifications, I’m just thankful to the director for showing such loyalty to his creation. Whatever Sy Snootles decides to sing, whoever plays Anakin Skywalker’s ghost, it really is completely inconsequential. For those watching the film for the very first time, these changes are likely to have no impact whatsoever.

What makes Return of the Jedi such an enjoyable movie has well and truly stood the test of time. It’s funny, exciting and resolves the numerous plot threads with total satisfaction. It is this dénouement, the final battle, that had – and still has – me foaming like an enchanted school boy. While Luke’s final confrontation with Vader may pail in comparison to the high-octane lightsaber battles of the prequels, it still packs a punch as Luke tries one last time to save his father. Intercut with a large scale ambush on The Forest Moon Of Endor and the second best space-battle this side of Coruscant’s atmosphere, it sees the franchise out on a pulse-pounding high.

Yes the Ewoks are about as agreeable as asbestos; yes Boba Fett bites the Sarlaac without much of a fight; yes that shot during Luke’s tussle with the Rancor still makes no sense (seriously George, all that tinkering and you still haven’t fixed that!?), but I still wouldn’t believe you claimed not to punch the air every time the Falcon escaped the exploding Death Star. Liar liar TIE Fighter on fire.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

Call me sheepish (or a bog-standard copy-cat), but having kick-started HeyUGuys’ Video Vault tribute to the Star Wars saga with my own take on A New Hope, I have found myself unwilling to relinquish my soap box just yet. As a result, here’s my retrospective review of the second film in George Lucas’ (largely) esteemed franchise: Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back, about to arrive on Blu-ray in every half-decent retailer near you.

Now, for a long time Empire Strikes Back was my least favourite film in the original trilogy – I know, kids are stupid – it spent half its time in tedious conversation with a rubber puppet and the rest being all dark and serious and (forgive me) boring. Where was the swashbuckle? The happy ending? The Ewoks? Naturally I have grown to love Irvin Kershner’s sequel – joining the rest of the civilised world in championing it as not only the best in the series, but one of the finest movies ever made.

Having relocated to Hoth for a bit of a winter break, the Rebel Alliance is regrouping after the events of the first movie. On a routine surveillance mission, Luke Skywalker is preparing to return to base when he is suddenly clawed off his taun-taun by the planet’s abominable snow-thing. Han and Leia have problems of their own, as they intercept an Imperial signal and destroy a probe droid, but not before it has alerted the Empire to their location.

Saving Luke from his predicament in time to take on Vader’s infantry, the rebels separate when their defences prove futile. As Luke heeds a ghostly vision’s advice and heads to the Degobah system, Han and the others depart Hoth with the Empire in hot pursuit, taking refuge first in a dubious asteroid and then on the mining colony, Bespin. Betrayed by acquaintance Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), Han is subsequently probed (literally) for information regarding Skywalker.

Alerted to his friends’ situation while learning about The Force from Jedi Master Yoda, Luke departs for Bespin against his teacher’s wishes – promising to return and complete his training once his friends are safe. Ambushed by Vader, and too late to save Han from being encased in carbonite, Luke loses his arm in battle, learning a terrible truth in the process: that Darth Vader is in fact his father. Taking a leap of fate and escaping death, Luke reunites with his friends (sans Han), whose own escape was facilitated by a repentant Calrissian, and prepares to save Han from the clutches of Jabba the Hut.

The thing I love about The Empire Strikes Back – and the thing I missed during my informative years – is how funny it is. Obviously, I’m not talking hysterics or giggles of the inadvertent variety, but a good humoured script that plays its characters off one another to charming – and occasionally comic – effect. While A New Hope was a particularly massive technical achievement, it is hardly famed for its adept characterisation. A cast of archetypes, it worked because it attacked its story with infectious bravado, more than happy to accept its standing as a fairy-tale in space.

Kershner, however, injects a welcome dose of soap opera into Lucas’ universe, beautifully complimenting the creator’s expanding mythology and increased interpersonal conflict. Han Solo and Leia Organa in particular benefit from this greater emphasis on character, their relationship deepened through Lando’s intrusions and their unrequieted feelings for one another, ultimately leading to a very real emotional climax – important because of the lack of story resolution come the closing credits. R2D2 and C3PO continue to brim with personality, too, with the former’s resolve and the latter’s prissy pessimism comprising an engaging double team, C3PO’s ability to rub everyone and their space-ship up the wrong way leading to some of the film’s most entertaining scenes.

For many, however, it is the narrative expansion that gives Empire its edge. By introducing Yoda and the Emperor, Lucas teases a history that will not be further explored for another thirty-odd years. The Empire Strikes Back isn’t the whole story, but it nevertheless manages to deliver an accomplished and hugely satisfying story in its own right. In willing to not only tease a wider mythology but leave the story in disarray and its heroes in transit, Empire is the main argument for the saga being more than just children’s entertainment. For better or worse, it is Star Wars at its most mature.

From Hoth to Bespin, Yoda to Lando and the frying pan to the fire, Star Wars: Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back is an absolute delight. To the tune of John Williams’ Imperial March, Kershner duly rises to the challenge and delivers the movie George Lucas never could. Sure, I never grew up wanting to be a two-foot tall frog puppet living in exile on a swamp planet but, like I said, kids are stupid.

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope (1977)

A long time ago, in a living room far, far away (well, Elgin), I remember sitting down to watch Star Wars for the very first time. Now, twenty-odd years, a full franchise and hundreds of pounds worth of merchandise later, I am sitting down to watch it again in anticipation of the saga’s encroaching release on Blu-ray.

The problem with Star Wars, however – and there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type – is that it doesn’t feel like a movie. It feels like so much more than that. A childhood spent mimicking the sound of a YT-1300 light freighter (not) making the jump to lightspeed; the rush of endorphins that dutifully follows the recitation of the series’ theme music; a deep conviction that Han Solo shot first; and a general aversion to any religion which doesn’t grant you Force powers and a complimentary lightsaber. It’s a part of who I am.

And it all started here: in garish yellow print before a jaw-dropping pan through space, right into the centre of a heated exchange between an asthmatic masked invalid and a princess of dubious nobility. Right in the centre of the action are two droids – the heart and mouth of a franchise that is taking its first gasps of life. R2D2 (Kenny Baker) and C3PO (Anthony Daniels) – or The Simpsons’ gay droids from Star Wars – are given a message meant for Alec Guinness (Alec Guinness) and carted off to the nearby planet of Tatooine, where they are quickly captured by a gang of intergalactic hoodlums and sold to a young farm-boy (Mark Hamill) and his Aunt and Uncle.

When Darth Vader (David Prowse) and Darth Vader’s voice (James Earl Jones) realise that precious information has been leaked, he sends his gleaming white Stormtroopers in search of the escaped droids. R2D2, determined to complete the mission set him by Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and deliver the plans to Mr. Guinness, leads Luke Skywalker and C3PO away from the farm moments before his relatives are searched and killed by Stormtroopers. United in the desert, Alec Guinness tells Luke that he once knew his father, having fought with him in the Clone Wars (you had to be there…or maybe you didn’t) as Jedi Knights.

With nowhere else to go, Luke accompanies Alec, along with chauffeurs Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to the planet Alderaan aboard Han’s ship, the Millennium Falcon. Finding the planet in ruin, literally, they encounter a fighter ship nearby and inadvertently follow it into range of a giant, moonlike structure’s tractor-beam. Captured by this Death Star, Luke and Han discover that the princess is being held captive and is to be executed. Setting out to save her while Alec Guinness disables the space-station’s tractor-beam, they run afoul of a group of Stormtroopers and are forced to make an immediate escape. Fleeing aboard the Falcon, minus Alec Guiness who was killed in battle with Darth Vader, our heroes are followed back to a rebel base on Yavin IV, where they are forced to stand up to the Death Star before it can attack, and destroy Vader’s Empire once and for all.

As if you didn’t know. Star Wars, and this original film in particular, has punctured public awareness and dominated pop culture like no other. Phrases like “May The Force be with you”, “These are not the droids you’re looking for” and “The regional governors now have direct control over their territories” (OK, maybe not so much) have become common-place, almost independent of their source. While Trekkies hid in their basements, practising their Vulcan nerve pinches and sharpening their home-made bat’leths, the masses embraced Star Wars completely, as the droids left their mark on the Hollywood walk of fame and Jedi even became a practised religion in its own right.

A beautifully organic high-concept that kicks the traditional fairy-tale into orbit, George Lucas has created a film that speaks to people of all ages, helping to form the blockbuster concept and inspiring a generation of filmmakers to pick up the mantle. The film’s legacy is incredible, not only making way for another five instalments but sowing the seeds for Pixar (through Industrial Light and Magic) to later reap, patenting a lived-in future to be fervently mimicked by everyone from Ridley Scott and James Cameron to Joss Whedon, as well as instigating  innumerable other stylistic and technological innovations without which modern cinema couldn’t conceivably exist.

While there may be naysayers who claim Star Wars to be derivative, poorly written and over-blown (and who may, dare I say, even have a point), there is no denying that Star Wars is much more than the sum of its parts. Taking characters from The Hidden Fortress (1958)scenes from The Dam Busters (1955) and elements of the setting from Dune (1984), Lucas has nevertheless worked his influences into something endlessly compelling, beautifully realised and utterly timeless; something that has inevitable gone on to pay its own dividends in terms of homages (take a bow, Robot Chicken and Family Guy). Star Wars may just be a kids movie, a Saturday morning matinee in the vein of Flash Gordon, but it’s so rewatchable, so entertaining and so completely majesterial that that is of no consequence whatsoever.

Laying foundations that will be built upon (and…well, the opposite of built upon) by its two sequels and three prequels, Star Wars has continued to represent the very best in sound design, special effects and blockbuster filmmaking, overcoming its flaws with an inherent quality that is perhaps best evidenced in John Williams’ continued loyalty to the  franchise. Say what you will about clunky dialogue (who wouldn’t have a bad feeling about this?!), infantile comic relief (BUT SIR! C3PO remains my favourite character) and Lucas’ incessant tinkering that accompanies every re-release (OK, I’ve got nothing), but only a crazy person could find fault in a film which has brought us Williams’ titanic ‘Main Title’ and iconic score (‘The Imperial March’ didn’t come until later, the unmatched ‘Dual of the Fates’ until even later still).

But, whatever Star Wars means to cinema, however much money it made George Lucas (at last count: lots) and regardless of how thankful James Cameron might be that he was spared a career as a truck driver, I will always remember Star Wars as that little film that blew my mind. For years all I wanted was to be a Jedi, a Corellian spice smuggler, or, Hell, a Jawa if I flunked school. I loved Star Wars like I’d never loved a film before, and continue to love it to this day. Seriously, just ask my lightspeed impression, it’s very convincing.

Cowboys and Aliens (2011)

An unnamed Bond-alike (Daniel Craig) awakens in the desert with no knowledge of who he is or where he came from – though he is nevertheless able to recall the word “English”, some nifty combat moves and something about a woman and some gravity-defying gold. Anyway, he’s hurt and therefore forced to take refuge in a small village called Absolution, where he quickly catches the eye of the enigmatic Ella Swenson (Olivia Wilde) and fist of curmudgeonly cattleman Colonel Woodrow Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford). Accused of stealing Dolarhude’s gold, Jake Lonergan (turns out he wasn’t so nameless after all) is vindicated when the culprits reveal themselves to be none other than an alien force intent on capturing the natives and stealing the planet’s gold. AND THEN!

Not many movies these days benefit from the the automatic boost of having Harrison Ford chewing his marbles as part of the cast. It’s an easy A, a golden ticket, a God-damn Sankara stone. Just look at how much the guy’s mere presence elevated Morning Glory (lots). Naturally then, Jon Favreau wastes him – the one man alive who could have brought any gravitas to a film about gold-snatching aliens; and yes, I’m including Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull – instead deciding to point his camera at Old Expressionless and Plot Device #4 (dutifully reprising her role from last year’s Tron: Legacy). Ford is the best thing in Cowboys and Aliens by a good Kessel Run, and this is coming from someone who loves hummingbirds.

You see, you’d think that a high concept like Cowboys and Aliens would be substance enough for one movie – or graphic novel, for that matter- but no; Favreau has merely truncated the film’s much more representative, but much less wieldy title: Cowboys and Aliens and More Aliens and Convenient Phoenix Metaphors and Indians and Sam Rockwell and God and a Hummingbird. It really is “And Then” moviemaking at its worst, a relentless slew of ludicrous plot points clunkily held together with the kinds of contrivances which sink much, much better movies, often starring much, much less Harrison Ford.

It’s not even funny. Taking itself even more seriously than a Brothers Strauss directed Aliens vs. Predators movie,  Jon Favreau has clearly taken criticisms of Iron Man 2‘s levity to heart. Gone are the warm characterisations, the relatable relationships and the unashamed, infectious sense of fun, sorrily replaced with sand and not much else. Sand and cowboys and aliens. The best line, a welcomingly self-effacing “this is ridiculous”, is too little too late, the faux machismo forced down the audiences’ throats with all the finesse of a tomahawk, but little of the substance. What’s the point in strapping an alien weapon to a grumpy cowboy and hiring thirty people to spend ten months at a computer screen tirelessly forcing pixels together if you can’t at least have a good laugh about it after? Who is supposed to care about the outcome?  Not me, apparently.

I’m not asking for a Jar Jar Binks or a nice, friendly group hug. You an keep the grue, the poorly rendered creatures, Olivia Wilde; just throw me a bone – a big, we-know-how-stupid-this-sounds inscribed bone. I need something if I’m to happily turn a blind eye to the shoddy FX, the pervasive plot holes and the required suspension of disbelief that cowboys might stand any sort of chance against a battalion of extra-terrestrial, gold-mining crickets. An underused Harrison Ford just isn’t enough.

Morning Glory (2010)

Sacked from her old job and left to twiddle her workaholic thumbs, Becky (Rachel McAdams) is thrown a life-line by failing morning TV news show DayBreak. Tasked with improving the show’s pitiful ratings and breathing new life into its unappealing dynamic, Becky looks further than ever from attaining her dream job at the Today Show. Ditching the resident pervert and replacing him with egotistical reporting legend, Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford), it quickly becomes apparent to all but Becky that she might have taken on more than she can chew. At odds with existing anchor Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton) almost immediately,  Becky finds herself in conflict with Mike and struggling to keep her fledgeling relationship with Adam Bennett (Patrick Wilson) out of the firing line.

Morning Glory has all the makings of a cliché-ridden chick-flick – it boasts an accident-prone, hard-working heroine, a dream job and a problematic romance; I’d even give you good odds that you’d be able to predict the ending from your first encounter with Becky – yet the movie is so well realised, so disarming and poignant, that you wont begrudge her anything. This saving grace lies with one person, and she goes by the name of Rachel McAdams.

Had anyone else been cast in the role, I might not be cursed with such a scarily face-consuming grin. Had this been a Jennifer Aniston or – God forbid – a Kate Hudson movie, our heroine might have proved a character quirk too much. As it stands, however, McAdams’ Becky is a truly adorable and sympathetic protagonist whose social ineptitude lands firmly in lovable territory. Eternally exasperated and decidedly out of her depth, it is because of her numerous flaws that McAdams truly sells her winning naivity.

Refreshingly, McAdams turbulent relationship is relatively turbulence-free, making way for another relationship to fulfil the rom side of the hyphen. As the bickering co-anchors of DayBreak, Harrison Ford and Diane Keaton exude even more sexual tension in two hours than Mulder and Scully managed over nine seasons and two movies. Succeeding on the big screens for the exact same reason they boosted DayBreak’s ratings on the small screen, their discordant rapport not only grounding the sillier stories with something approaching gravitas, but keeping the laughs coming at a truly accomplished rate.

My only problem with Morning Glory, aside from the relatively slow burning opening act, is the hits-laden soundtrack which signposts emotion I was already feeling. Boasting a story that will have you beaming from beginning to end courtesy of often hilarious character interactions alone, Natasha Bedingfield’s intrusive vocals are simply not required. That said, this is a feel-good fuzz-fest at heart and makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel – nor should it feel the need to. The parallells with director’s Roger Michell’s narrative go beyond the effect of Ford and Keaton’s awkward relationship, with the appearance that the film’s A-List cast are slumming it for a few quick laughs reflecting the character’s surrender of working door knobs – and proving all the funnier for it.

Ultimately, Morning Glory is a success because of its beautifully characterised ensemble. As McAdams revolutionises daytime television in the most heart-warmingly way possible; Keaton is snogging frogs, wind-dial obsessive Matt Malloy is passing out in a jet-fighter and Harrison Ford has the audience willing an after-the-credits-scene depicting Han Solo’s prostate exam. Morning Glory is a laugh-out loud, touching and endearing film which navigates the genre’s trademark cliche’s with a truly winning charm and grace which sets this joyous movie aside from its lesser peers.