Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Star Wars VII: the Force Awakens

Unlike most films I’ve reviewed on this site, I wanted to purposefully wait a few days after watching this one before I attempted to write this one, so that I could have some time to chew (bacca) on things a bit first and hopefully, write a review that was as objective as possible. Ok, I promise that was the first and last lame Star Wars joke I’ll make in this review…

Also, kindly note dear padawan, that this review needs to come with a few disclaimers: Firstly, like most inhabitants of this solar system, I am a massive fan of the Star Wars franchise and because of that, this film is probably more subjective than most of my reviews (hence the aforementioned need for extend ‘chewing’ time). Secondly, this review hasn’t been checked for spoiler alerts, so, if you haven’t had time to watch the film yet, then this review is probably not worth the risk.

One of the challenges that I’ve discussed quite a bit in some of my previous reviews is that of working on a project with a deep and extensive heritage. And when it comes to heritage, there is probably very few film franchises that have more of a history than that of Star Wars. Not only does the film now span multiple generations of film goers, but it’s also probably the most successful sci-fi franchise that the film industry has ever seen. And that’s not even to mention the added pressure that comes with the franchise’s highly controversial Disney takeover and change in directors. It therefore goes without saying, that trying to keep everyone happy is such a massive improbability, that it shouldn’t even be an objective.

Rey's relationship with the other characters in the film is one of the central driving forces in the film.
But it’s exactly here where the Force Awakens’ greatest achievement lies, in that it comes very close to achieving that exact impossible feat – a film that ticks so many boxes, that it will please not only most fans of the original Star Wars saga, but also a whole new generation of wanna-be Jedi knights that are eager to now explore the rest of the Star Wars universe. Not only has director JJ Abrams delivered an amazing film that sets the stage for the next installments to come, but even more impressively, has managed to make the ‘aged’ films in the franchise (especially episode IV – VI) more accessible to the current generation of film goers.  

“Not only has director JJ Abrams delivered an amazing film that sets the stage for the next instalments to come, but even more impressively, has managed to make the ‘aged’ films in the franchise more accessible to the current generation of film goers.

To go into the detail of all the elements that make the Force Awakens brilliant could take a while, so instead, I’d rather use this review to highlight the key aspects that stood out for me:

Firstly, when it comes to delivering on the personality of the original Star Wars franchise, the Force Awakens delivers in spades: Fans are sure to appreciate the return of the series’ iconic ‘space comedy’ feel, which, in many ways did not materialise as well in episode 1 – 3, mainly due to horrible acting (yes, I’m talking about you, Hayden Christensen) and the less focussed story arc of intergalactic diplomacy and other political shenanigans. In Force Awakens, there is generally a greater balance between quirky dialogue and high action thrills, which all works even better due to the tight storyline and excellent pacing.

It might also be good to point out at this stage that this review is not intended as a list of reasons why Force Awakens is better than episode 1 – 3 and that the comparisons made are merely here to illustrate how much care was taken to ensure that Force Awakens does not only do justice to the franchise heritage, but in many respects, vastly improves on many of the individual films in the series.

The second standout triumph of the film is definitely the tight storyline and the way the cast amplifies it to even greater heights. If there was one aspect of the new film that everyone was very curious about, it was definitely to see who the new villain would be and how it would set the stage for the conflicts yet to ensue over the course of the installments to come. Enter Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver from ‘Girls’ fame) a layered villain plagued by personal insecurities that revolves around a complex search for a sense of belonging, issues with his parentals (who doesn’t) and most importantly, an underlining fear of not living up to the expectations set by his predecessor. The latter of which, also acts as a clever nod to the film’s very own risks of not living up to the reputation of the broader series itself. But thankfully, like the film itself, Kylo Ren manages to not only meet the calibre that came before him, but in my opinion, also becomes by far the most interesting and relatable villain that the series has ever seen. There is a sense of fragility and complexity in Kylo Ren that makes him mesmerising to watch and difficult to hate outright. In this way, he also becomes one of the most successful representation of the franchise’s overarching theme of the balance between light and dark,  proving that this balance does not only exist as the sum of different alliance groups, but also within the hearts of the individuals that make up those groups.

“But thankfully, like the film itself, Kylo Ren manages to not only meet the calibre that came before him, but in my opinion, also becomes by far the most interesting and relatable villain that the series has ever seen.”

Although I won’t go into the detail of the film’s other performances, it is important to also highlight the powerful performance of the film’s new female protagonist, Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). There’s also great supporting roles fulfilled by ex-Stormtrooper Finn (played by John Boyega) and General Hux (played by Domhnall Gleeson, known for his role in Harry Potter). Not to of course forget about all the returning cast members from the original franchise, that do a great job in imbuing the film with a powerful sense of nostalgia, whilst also building a sense of anticipation for the films yet to come.

Kylo Ren is like most guys you've dated: Easily angered, insecure and a unhealthy obsession with Darth Vader...
And then, lastly, I need to address the criticism that the movie has been receiving about relying too heavily and directly on the plot structure of previous films and other borrowed elements from the original Star Wars saga. In my opinion, the film strikes the perfect balance between references to previous installments and completely original plot devices, which both ensures a pleasant nostalgic nod to the series’ heritage, whilst also effectively setting the scene for the franchise’s future installments.

In summary, considering all of the hoops that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has had to go through to please and live up to its seemingly unreachable expectations, I am confident in calling it not only one of the best Star Wars films ever made, but also, one of the best sci-fi action films I’ve ever had the privilege of seeing. I can’t wait to see where the series takes us next!

Highlight: Basically, any scene with Kylo Ren in it. 


Monday, December 7, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mocking Jay – Part 2

Successfully ending off a complex film franchise in a way as to do justice to the legacy that the franchise has built up is by no means an easy task. It also doesn’t help when the previous instalment of the franchise was the worst one of the bunch, as it only leads to additional pressure, with fans expecting (or rather, desperately hoping) that the ultimate entry can redeem the legacy of the franchise. The good news, is that in a lot of ways, the final Hunger Games film delivers in spades, whilst also doing a commendable job in tying up most of the loose series plot strings dangling about.

The biggest issue with the Mockingjay Part 1, was that it very much felt like a mere intro for the final movie, with a low degree of substantial plot development and not to mention, some highly awkward acting from the likes of Julianne Moore. After watching the final installment however, I must admit, I do feel that it has also affected my opinion of the preceding film positively, as the slow moving foundational work done by part 1 now seems to make a lot more sense, when understood within the context of the final film.

One of the best aspects of the final film is its exceptional pacing: Moments of intense confrontations and visceral action sequences are well balanced with considered scenes of significant dialogue between the film’s main cast members. Jennifer Lawrence once again gets an opportunity to show off why she has an Oscar behind her name. During the course of the movie, Lawrence showcases an amazing aptitude for accurately portraying a wide range of different emotions on-screen, which include longing, depression, confusion, hope, outright shock and fittingly, also love, successfully bringing the series back full circle.


"Moments of intense confrontations and visceral action sequences are well balanced with considered scenes of significant dialogue between the film’s main cast members."


The highlights of the film are however definitely a welcome return to the film’s high spectacle, sci-fi action sequences, with there being more than a hand few that will still linger with you long after the film, due to their intense and spectacular nature. These action sequences are even more penetrating due to the film’s overarching sense of dread, anxiety and in some cases, outright repulsion from the in-humaneness depicted.

The plot structure also does a great job in keeping you guessing, as it’s not clear until the very end of the film where alliances truly lie. The developments of the final film also add some interesting dimensions to the film’s political commentary, with an ending that feels more probable than wishful, imbuing the franchise with some added overall credibility and poignancy.

Plot-twists are the name of the game in this final installment of the series...
All in all, the Mockingjay Part 2 is a satisfying crescendo to the Hunger Games franchise. It does a great job in highlighting the best aspects of the franchise and manages to conclude it in a way that fans are likely to appreciate.


Sunday, May 24, 2015

Mad Max: Fury Road

Let’s not tip-toe around it – Rebooting a franchise that has managed to muster a cult-like following is a massive challenge. Not only do you need to be true to the source material (in a way that it appeases those cultists), but you also need to successfully introduce the franchise to a modern-day audience. This balancing act is so precarious, that is usually ends in a franchise reboot ending up in two ways: Firstly, modern-day audiences will likely see it as a strangely ‘alien’ piece of fanfare, or secondly, original franchise fans experience it as being so far removed from the original source material, that it just doesn’t do the film’s heritage justice. It’s very, very rare that you manage to find a franchise reboot that has its own unique spirit whilst at the same time, still staying true to the personality and defining aspects of the legacy it borrows from.

Sure, Mad Max: Fury Road, had an advantage in that it was directed by the exact same person that brought to life the original Mad Max trilogy. But if you think this means that you can expect a simple rehash of the original Mad Max recipe, then you’ll be pleasantly surprised, as the film does an incredible job in revitalising this iconic franchise.
Don't worry, you'll have a similar look on your face throughout the course of the film.
The first thing you’re sure to notice is the viciously distinct and vibrant post-apocalyptic world created by director George Miller. You can’t afford to blink once in this film, folks – it has been painstakingly layered with a tremendous amount of beautiful detail that results in a highly animated world, only equal in grandeur to a massive Steven Spielberg production. The barren and desperate world that Miller creates here is perfectly juxtaposed with the colourful, but mostly displeasing characters that inhabit it, the likes of which can’t be adequately described with words alone. There is so much gorgeous grotesqueness to stare at here, that the film can only be truly appreciated after multiple repeat viewings.
"The barren and desperate world that Miller creates here is perfectly juxtaposed with the colourful, but mostly displeasing characters that inhabit it..."
Another massive accomplishment is the film’s unfaltering and unforgiving grip on its viewer’s throat – there is little to no time to breathe in between the furious roaring of engines and the lavish spilling of blood, all neatly packaged in the form of carefully orchestrated action spectacles. There is a constant, relentless sense of impending doom and dread here that makes each and every scene gut-wrenching to endure, but at the same time, wholly pleasurable. Think of it as ‘a shot’ of high-end drugs, straight into the aorta, leaving you dangling from an unstable tight rope of fear and exhilaration.

Mad Max: Fury Road is an action film in the truest and best sense of the term, with Miller making sure not to waste any screen time on unnecessary dialogue. Due to the nature of the film’s plot, there’s no time for the characters to get lost in long-winded discussions or negotiations. It’s kill or be killed and the film’s main cast follows suit. That’s not to say that Miller doesn’t do amazing character work here – even though dialogue is kept to a minimum, Miller expertly highlights the cast’s non-verbal disclosures to create dramatic tension. Something as simple as a piercing and malevolent gaze between two characters is masterfully utilised to fill the gaps left by the film’s scarce approach to chatter. There’s no time for chit-chat in the world created by Miller and the film’s approach to character development complements this perfectly.
"Something as simple as a piercing and malevolent gaze between two characters is masterfully utilised to fill the gaps left by the film’s scarce approach to chatter"
And even though you shouldn’t go watch the film with the intention of leaving with profound topics to discuss afterwards, there are some very poignant themes that are sure to linger. Some of which are the film’s interesting, but distressful exploration of the repercussions of extreme fanaticism; the effects of desperation on human actions and lastly, how crippling a life devoid of hope can be. Because of this, Fury Road is an unforgiving little bugger, but at the same, such a delight to experience.
You won't be able to look away. 




























In conclusion, Fury Road is arguably, one of the best action films of the last decade. Not only does it successfully reboot one of the most well-loved action sci-fi franchises of cinema history, but it also manages to improve on the original premise in almost every way. A must-see.

Highlight: The final confrontation will leave you gasping for air. It's fucking awesome. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Wild

Disclaimer: I've never had any patience for Reese Witherspoon – let’s just say that Legally Blonde left a bitter after-taste in my mouth that a spoonful of sugar can’t even help go down (sorry Julie)! But, after hearing about the high acclaim of her latest venture, Wild, I was mildly excited to give her another go.

Let’s get one thing straight – Wild is anything but an easy film to watch. At its core, it’s about a woman that has gotten completely lost, both physically and figuratively. In an attempt to reboot her downward spiraling life, she decides to undertake an unnecessarily long hike across, which seems like, the biggest part of the USA. Whilst I must admit, the logic of this trip still doesn't make much sense to me, the journey itself is a wonderful thing to experience.

One of the aspects that I really admire was how the film portrayed the loneliness and even awkwardness of a women completely alone in the wilderness, and mostly inept for the monstrous challenge that awaits her. Most of the film consists of beautifully quiet scenes, involving Witherspoon battling both the elements and her inner demons. Whilst this is probably something that’s been done, I have to admit, I haven’t quite seen it done quite like this before. Whilst Witherspoon’s encounters with other humans during her journey are functional as types of progressive waypoints, the film’s best moments are definitely when Witherspoon is by herself. This is due to director Jean-Marc Vallée going to admirable lengths to ensure these scenes are as poignant as can be.

"Whilst Witherspoon’s encounters with other humans during her journey are functional as types of progressive waypoints, the film’s best moments are definitely when Witherspoon is by herself."

Flashback scenes to the events that led to Witherspoon’s unorthodox journey are a welcome change of scenery and also helps to colour in some of the questions that get raised during Witherspoon’s unnaturally long hike (did I mention I think this hike is abnormally long?). These scenes also benefit from strong performances by supporting cast members, helping the viewer understand even more about the protagonist and the relationships that defined her life.  

And yes, I have to admit, the film would have been nothing without Witherspoon’s powerful performance, which involves a wide range of emotional highs and lows, all coming over as totally believable. It’s an admirably vulnerable performance that allows the viewer to connect with the protagonist on a very intimate level. Although Witherspoon’s state of mind is quite desperate during the events the film depicts, I’m sure anyone that watches the film will be able to identify with some of the insecurities that she faces. But, in saying that, there are also glimpses of amazing strength portrayed here and it’s in these rare moments that you really connect with this troubled women (yes, even if you’re a dude. dude).  

Much like its protagonist, the film is not in any particular hurry to go anywhere and thanks to this, the film has a weirdly comforting tempo. This gives the viewer more than enough time to appreciate the stillness of the surroundings, but at the same time, delve deeper into Witherspoon’s inner-loudness.

Some scenes just involve Witherspoon walking, falling or complaining. They're brilliant though. 
All in all, Wild is an amazing return to form for its main actress and thanks to an unrushed plot and tight direction, it makes for an incredible journey that will most likely make you reflect on your own. 

Highlight: There are so many amazing little moments in this film, but if I had to pick one, I would go for Witherspoon's first night alone in the wild. It perfectly captures all the emotions one would expect from someone who just realised they might have bit off more than they could chew. 


Sunday, February 22, 2015

Birdman (The unexpected virtue of ignorance)

When the credits started rolling, I noticed something very peculiar – the rest of the audience were just sitting, anxiously hopeful that director Alejandro González Iñárritu had left some sort of Easter egg that would answer this highly enthralling film’s central question. But something in me knew that no such release would come – Birdman isn't interested in ‘tying up all those little loose strings’ for its viewer. Instead, it sole purpose is to take you on an often weird, often jarring, often frustrating, but consistently brilliant cinematic journey that is impossible to clearly define (the biggest compliment I can give a film).

I’m extremely happy I decided not to do any prior reading up on Birdman – I heard the rumours that ‘Keaton is exceptional’ and that the film was ‘a technical achievement’, but little did I know that these pieces of praise would just scratch the surface of what I was about to experience.

At its core (if you can identify one), the film is about a slightly ‘has-been’ Hollywood actor, Riggan Thomas (best known for his role as the superhero ‘Birdman’) who has one last chance to redeem his career (and himself) via a Broadway play he is directing and starring in. Whilst everything seems to be running quite smoothly at first, a freak accident during rehearsal puts one of the cast members in hospital, putting Keaton and company on a mission to find and prepare a suitable replacement, just days before the play’s opening night on Broadway. As luck may have it, they managed to find someone that seems to fit the bill perfectly in Mike Shiner (played by Edward Norton). But although it seems that all crises have been averted, a series of new obstacles and confrontations once again puts the play in jeopardy, with Keaton desperately holding on to his last shot at personal redemption.


One of the standout aspects of the film is undeniably the characteristic cinematic style employed, intended to create the illusion of a single, continuous shot. This idea was based on Iñárritu’s realisation that ‘we live our lives with no editing’.  It’s difficult to explain precisely what an amazing achievement the cinematography is, the impact of which can be felt throughout the film’s running time: On a basic level, it creates a constant sense of anxiousness or uneasiness that perfectly mimics the mind-set of the film’s troubled protagonist. On a deeper level, it creates closer proximity between the audience and the film’s events, successfully amplifying the variety of emotions experienced and thus ensuring for a highly engrossing, realistic movie. Be warned: The film takes you on a high-speed rollercoaster of emotional variation: sometimes feeling frustrated, other times filled with angst, here and there you might feel some empathy, and sometimes, even a few moments of happiness. By the end of it all, you’ll feel exhausted, but exhilarated by the immense  achievement that you just experienced.

"It’s difficult to explain precisely what an amazing achievement the cinematography is, the impact of which can be felt throughout the film’s running time."

All of this would of course not be possible without an amazing cast and in the case of Birdman, it’s clear how much attention was given to ensure that every line of dialogue spoken was executed perfectly. Keaton and Norton truly deserves all the nominations they have received during this award season and some of the film’s most powerful scenes are definitely where Norton and Keaton are at opposite ends with each other. That’s not saying that the rest of the cast should be dismissed however: Emma Stone, Naomi Watts and Zach Galifianakis all play their parts very convincingly and help to increase the emotional spectrum that the film delivers on.  

The third stand-out aspect of the film is the deceivingly simple score, consisting entirely of drums and classical pieces. The out-of-sync, intentionally jarring drum work from Antonio Sánchez might at first seem like a completely random choice, but you soon learn to appreciate how it’s used (much like the cinematography) to accentuate the protagonist’s volatility and instability. It also manages to contribute to the film’s undeniable sense of authenticity and is a satirical nod to the way drums are used to highlight comedic punch lines.


The question then is though: Is Birdman merely a technical showcase for Iñárritu? Those who are critical of the film might feel that the film ‘does a lot well’, but lacks a singular focus regarding what it is trying to say. One of the reasons why some audience goers might experience the film this way is because it does not surrender to one genre classification. Good luck to the video store clerk trying to put this one in the appropriate genre rack - This part drama, part sci-fi, part dark comedy, part psychological thriller refuses to be labelled and for some, this might be to the detriment of the film. For me, however, it’s the final proof of the achievement that is Birdman. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more refreshing, stimulating and engrossing film experience, and one that can only truly be appreciated with various re-watchings. Not only is Birdman my favourite film of 2014, but it’s right up there with my favourite film of all-time.

"This part drama, part sci-fi, part dark comedy, part psychological thriller refuses to be labelled."


Highlight: The scenes with Stone and Norton on the rooftop of Broadway feels noticeably out-of-place with the rest of the film. But of because of that, are hauntingly beautiful and memorable.