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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A Most Violent Year (2015)

A Most Violent YearIt’s 1981, and Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is preparing to close a deal on a sizeable new premises that will provide his expanding but increasingly constrained company with access to the New York City river. A string of attacks on his fleet of drivers is threatening the heating oil business he runs with wife Anna (Jessica Chastain) and mentor Andrew (Albert Brooks), and short of arming his staff — something he is reluctant to do — finding a new method of transporting his product may be the only answer to his problems. As noble as his intentions may be, however, Morales still has to compete with other, less reputable providers (Alessandro Nivola) and protect scared employees (Elyes Gabel) while also remaining accountable to the law (David Oyelowo).

Seriously, will someone just cut Oscar Isaac a break? Hunted through Athens in The Two Faces of January, driven to resent his lover in In Secret and deprived the recognition he believes he deserves in Inside Llewyn Davis, Isaac has made a career out of masochism and misery. A Most Violent Year, as its name might suggest, doesn’t mark much of a departure for the actor — Abel Morales is another good man apparently struggling to keep his head above water — but it does make for a marginally more interesting watch. Morales may be far from sympathetic, and the stakes more than a little uninspiring, but writer-director J C Chandor has nevertheless crafted an intelligent and engaging anti-crime epic that still impresses in other areas.

At first it looks to be another nostalgic gangster film, shot in wistful sepia and dressed in the finest trappings, but such first impressions are soon proven premature. The cinematography and costume design are both suitably handsome, but A Most Violent Year is more than just visually interesting. Morales himself may underwhelm but his relationships fascinate: a pacifist married to an ex-Mafioso, a fair businessman in an unfair business and a respected import threatened by the next generation of migrant workers, he is surrounded by people trying to emasculate, sabotage or take advantage of him. Unusually for such a film, A Most Violent Year isn’t attempting to romanticise criminality or corruption but condemn it. At a time when a prominent American businessman is blaming the Paris shootings on France’s strict gun laws, it’s reassuring to see a compatriot countering his claim in such a convincing manner.

The true stars of Chandor’s film are Chastain, Gabel and Oyewolo, all three of whom impress in supporting roles. Chastain in particular shines as Anna Morales, whether she’s noisily punching numbers into a calculator or shooting an injured deer dead on the side of the road. At once frustrated by her husband and infatuated with him, she can be both his best friend and his worst enemy — ready and almost eager to fight Abel’s battles for him. Gabel, meanwhile, is as weak as Chastain is strong, and continues to make things worse for himself — first taking a gun to work and then using it when his truck is targeted for a second time, causing a gunfight where there had previously only been fisticuffs and prompting an investigation spearheaded by Oyewolo’s district attourney. The three of them are never all onscreen together, but propel much of the plot between them regardless. A scene in which the DA’s department interrupt’s Anna’s daughter’s birthday party is one of the film’s best. Abel spends it moving boxes.

A Most Violent Year is something of a misnomer (A Most Trying Year might have been closer to the truth), but what Chandor’s film lacks in action it more than makes up for in nuance. Whether that’s endorsement enough I’ll leave up to you.

3-Stars

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

The Two Faces Of January (2014)

The Two Faces Of JanuaryChester (Viggo Mortensen) and Colette MacFarland (Kirsten Dunst) are on holiday in Athens in 1962. While there they meet Rydal (Oscar Isaac), a fellow American who gives guided tours of the city to the most unwitting of tourists. When Colette accidentally leaves a souvenir in their taxi, Rydal returns it to the couple’s hotel, only to find Chester dragging a corpse down the hall. For a fee, Rydal agrees to help the couple escape the city, and — promising to keep the incident from Colette — arranges for fake passports to be sent to Crete. Chester isn’t convinced that he can trust Rydal, however, and as Rydal becomes increasingly friendly with his wife Chester begins to look at ways of disposing of their guide.

Let’s start with the title. I realise that it’s poor practice to judge a book by its cover, but you can usually tell a lot about a film by how terrible its title is: Star Trek Into Darkness was indeed missing something important, Quantum of Solace didn’t make much sense at all and Mr Magorium’s Wonder Emporium was almost too twee for words. Admittedly, the filmmakers inherited the title from Patricia Highsmith’s novel of the same name, but in a week in which Lone Sherfig’s Posh has just become The Riot Club (though a poor substitute, in my opinion) it’s little excuse for writer-director Hossein Amini, who could hardly have done any worse. The Two Faces Of January is another terrible title — it’s rambling, awkward, nondescript — and so is the film itself.

Mortensen, Dunst and Isaac are all accomplished actors in their own right, but together they make for a strangely inert ensemble. The film lacks an obvious lead, a sense of urgency and a palpable threat. It’s like they were all in Athens anyway, and having grown tired of hiding hats at the Acopolis decided to film something while they were there. It’s a thriller that deals more in murk than mystery; there are various hidden agendas, a scattering of secrets, but nothing salacious or even remotely surprising. Are the MacFarlands innocent tourists or equally innocuous con-artists? Is Rydal an unambitious fraudster or a good man just trying to get by? It’s not exactly thrilling stuff. January may have two faces, but neither is much to look at.

Based on a 1964 novel and set in 1962, Amini’s The Two Faces Of January at least feels suitably old-fashioned. It’s the kind of film you imagine filling Channel 5’s mid-afternoon schedules, aimed at hungover students and housebound pensioners who are looking for something reasonably diverting but ultimately undemanding to snooze through. It looks pretty enough, like Mamma Mia! in better light, but has little else to offer. There’s some father-son trite to explain why Chester and Rydal are giving each other the time of day, and the occasional allusion to Greek myth to justify the setting, but essentially you’re just watching cream-coloured clothing crease as the characters move from one seat to another. They’re supposed to be on the run from the law, but with nowhere to go and almost no immediate threat they spend most of the film lying down or standing still.

So, heavy night last night? Stuck on your crossword? The Two Faces Of January might just about keep you awake until dinnertime. If, however, you’re looking for a bit of excitement on a Friday evening, I’d probably advise against it — that said, you probably didn’t register the title anyway.

2-stars (1)

 

Drive (2011)

An ostensibly nameless driver (Ryan Gosling), sun-lighting as a stunt driver for movies, is earning an extra buck on the side as a getaway driver when things go a little bit tits-up. Having mumbled a few loaded words at his pretty neighbour, the diver is forced into reverse when Irene’s (Carey Mulligan) convict husband is released from prison. Wanting to do well by his neighbour and her young son, the driver concocts a plan with Standard (Oscar Isaac) in order to settle the latter’s debts and protect Irene and Benicio (Kaden Leos) from a couple of gangsters looking to tie up loose ends.

Drive is a film that has you caught in its headlights from the off; a gloriously retro font and finger-bitingly tense pre-titles chase sequence smack of director Nicolas Winding Refn’s confidence in his minimally scripted, maximally visualised creation. Boasting enough subtext to keep you locked in an almost devastating state of yearning,  it really is impressive just how much can be chewed out through a devilishly well-placed tooth pick. For while Gosling might use only a scattering of words – we don’t even learn the man’s name – he is a maddeningly sympathetic and utterly compelling cypher through which to experience Winding Refn’s trite but beautifully stylised (and massively gory) creation.

The scenes shared with Carey Mulligan’s friend-interest positively smoke with chemistry (that’s what chemistry does, right? When it’s not melting jellybabies?),  oozing attraction in the way that only the most forbidden, definitely doomed romances can. The support is surprisingly strong too, quite despite the fact that every other character is drawn with the broadest of strokes, with Ron Perlman in particular falling back on his own awesome reserves in order to make his character anything more than a reject from The Sopranos. Albert Brooks succeeds through juxtaposed shock alone (is that Nemo’s dad? The guy slitting that nice man’s wrists?), while it is just such a relief to see Malcolm in the Middle‘s Bryan Cranston back in work that you are more than willing to overlook the fact that he is near interchangeable from every other mentor figure, ever.

The plot is its biggest weakness, however, as it doesn’t really have one. Despite starting out strong, the initial premise quickly and disappointingly segues into an unexpectedly conventional revenge movie. As a stage for some pretty serious foreboding (You know, I can’t say I’ve ever seen Oscar Issac and the poltergeist fom Paranormal Activity in the same room, at the same time), the film holds up slightly less well as narrative. It simply isn’t satisfying as a motion picture. It’s cool, sure, but I didn’t exactly leave the cinema fulfilled; it all seemed too slight.

A wonderfully visceral piece of genre filmmaking, and a truly tantalising exercise in word economy, Drive succeeds thanks to a star-making turn from Gosling and a soundtrack that verges on note-perfect. While it might not be the masterpiece touted by over-enthused journos, it is nevertheless an immensely enjoyable and thoroughly engaging piece of Grindhouse cinema.