Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

What does one say about a series like Star Wars that you haven’t already heard? It’s such a pop-culture phenomenon that you’d be hard pressed to avoid it in any English-speaking country. The revival of Star Wars by Disney’s purchase of the rights from George Lucas was huge, and with Episode VII, The Force Awakens, we can see just how huge the juggernaut can get. I went to watch it on Friday, a whole 42 hours after its release on midnight Thursday, and I already felt like I was out of the loop for almost two days.

Still, the experience is unique in its own way: the lights go down, the trailers end, the screen goes dark… and then those words appear – A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away… cue the fanfare.

The Star Wars experience is as codified as a fairy tale starting with “Once upon a time”, and the rush of seeing it in a full theatre is equal for fans and non-fans alike – you can’t help but be caught up in John Williams’ score, or the scale and scope of the visuals that march across the screen. This is a sign the fun’s just getting started.

The Force Awakens starts with a thirty year jump from the end of Return of the Jedi (and in the real world, it has been over thirty years since as well, so this is only too apt). Luke Skywalker is missing; the galaxy is not yet wholly under the New Republic; the Rebel Alliance still relevant as the Resistance, who fight the remnants of the Empire in the form of The First Order. Leia is a general in the resistance, and sends a pilot, Poe Dameron, to track down a map to the whereabouts of Skywalker. He’s being tracked by The First Order, who want to prevent the return of Skywalker as much as they want to re-establish control over the Galaxy.

Since it’s still so close to the release, I’ll tuck the rest away under a break for spoilers…

Continue reading Movie Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Movie Review: Spectre

It was always going to have to come to an end. Bond actors don’t last as long as you think, though it’s been 9 years now that we’ve had Daniel Craig as the image of Bond – from his reinvention of the character as a gritty, conflicted type in Casino Royale, a vast gulf separating the reboot of the character from Pierce Brosnan’s portrayal through the 90s and early 2000s. Handily, the plot in Spectre serves much the same – a sense of an ending is present very early on.

Following the events of Skyfall, Bond finds himself in Mexico City, where he must kill a man – ostensibly, once again, Bond is on leave, but still appears to be doing his best to serve his country regardless. This is not a man that takes being off active duty very easily, it appears, and the assassination witnessed by a whole city celebrating the Day of the Dead doesn’t help him cover that fact up terribly well.

Back in London, the new M dresses him down for acting without orders, and is seemingly inevitable for Craig’s Bond, officially suspends him – this time ruminating over the fact that MI6 no longer hold special privileges with the era of digital surveillance and digital killing with drones quickly outpacing human intelligence.

Of course, as part of being suspended, Bond must visit Q, and so the Bond movie structure clicks into place. Gadgets are introduced, a reason to go off-book is brought up, and for the first time in Craig’s run of movies, I finally got the feeling we’re back in familiar Bond territory.

And that’s how this plays out – M disapproves, Bond gets Moneypenny involved, Q’s toys get to be Chekov’s gadgets, Bond finds the truth runs deeper, and there’s a race against the clock to prevent a mad plan from dropping into place – especially when the sinister head of Spectre, played with relish by Christoph Waltz, appears to ramp up the tension.

Between the plot, gadgets, cars, international (but more or less European) locations, girls (Monica Bellucci played far too short, Léa Seydoux played a little beyond her abilities), Bond’s meticulous dress sense that shifts from scene to scene, and the call-backs to earlier Bond movies, this is a departure for Bond as portrayed by Daniel Craig – this is Bond of old, Bond made un-gritty, in a way that could’ve seen Roger Moore or Pierce Brosnan happily embrace the occasional silliness. The obligatory car chase in prototypes, the obligatory hair raising shootout in a fantasy location, the obligatory explosions which – in hindsight – don’t quite make sense but are spectacular nonetheless; it is all what the Bond franchise delivered for so many years.

Spectre is above all else entertainment; where Casino Royale sought to humanise Bond the character, where Quantum of Solace was driven and purposeful, albeit without plot, and where Skyfall was intensely personal for Bond, this one lets us back into the super-spy world – perhaps ironically given the plot talking about the end of the human pulling the trigger. It aims to tie a nice bow on the arc of the story which Craig’s portrayal started, and in a way it does – the first time in the Bond universe you’d have a plausible reason to watch back to back, which is its own novelty.

The performances are largely fine, with Craig possibly the weak point as you can see he tires of the role and its low dimensionality. Whishaw is excellent as Q, a much better every-man than perhaps would be expected, and Waltz’s villain gets steadily more pathological as the story progresses, working perfectly with the building plot.

Don’t go in expecting something as complex or empathetic towards Bond as Casino Royale – this is much more the Bond movie that you enjoy for the ride, without closely examining the details because the movie asks you to move on with steady pacing; if you do take it for what it is, you’ll be in for a good time.

★★★★

Movie Review: Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows

Sherlock Holmes 2: A Game of Shadows: If you want to watch a Guy Ritchie movie set in the late 19th century starring a character whose name happens to be Sherlock following a plot that approximates Conan-Doyle’s writing in the way a Big Mac approximates a steak, watch this movie. If, on the other hand, you want to watch Sherlock Holmes in action, go watch the superlative Sherlock from the BBC.

I mean, sure, Robert Downey Jr. is fine, Jude Law almost a better Watson than Martin Freeman, but there’s a key element missing in A Game of Shadows, and that is detective work. At no point does it become clear to you the viewer that Sherlock is working a case – Ritchie does action very well and there’s some amazing cinematography, funny moments and tight pacing, but a detective story this is not.

★★

Movie Review: Horrible Bosses

Horrible Bosses: Jason Bateman, Jason Sudekis, Jennifer Anniston, Kevin Spacey, and Colin Farrell – and that’s only the part of the cast you’re likely to recognise just by name. Nimble and adept, modern and unflinching with enough to keep the laughs going, this comedy provides some light relief without compromising or requiring you to switch your brain off. ★★★

Movie Review: Quickie Edition XI

What Happens in Vegas: Look, I know this is the kind of movie you’re supposed to hate if you’re any sort of movie buff, but I didn’t totally hate this. The plot: Kutcher and Diaz meet in Vegas, get hitched, win $3 million, are forced to wait 6 months for a divorce to split the winnings. They attempt to devise ways to drive each other nuts, only to (spoiler!) fall in love (no wait, that’s no spoiler – that’s a duh). Despite the hackneyed, predictable plot, it maintains a fluffiness that makes it a great popcorn movie. ★★★

Watching the Detectives: It’s little wonder this movie went straight to DVD – I’m not quite sure what I saw in the trailer that made me want to watch it, but I regret it now. It’s ostensibly a rom-com, but it really is neither. Cillian Murphy (of Scarecrow in Batman Begins fame) is a video store owner (shades of High Fidelity here) who falls head-over heels for a girl who wanders into his shop, Lucy Liu. She defines the term “psycho girlfriend”. This movie is trash, and if it hadn’t been for the fact that I didn’t pay for it, I’d be asking for my money back. ☆

Duplicity: Clive Owen, Julia Roberts pair up in a movie that’s kinda hard to shoe-horn into a genre. Is it comedy? Not enough laughs and slapstick. It’s not a romance by any means, and nor is it a drama or a spy thriller. Is it a heist movie? Not quite, but that’s fairly close to the mark, I guess. The film also doesn’t know what genre it is, as it tries to cover too many bases and inevitably ends up covering none. For all the plot machinations, it left me somewhat unsatisfied. ★★☆

Easy Virtue: Period piece set in the inter-war period starring Colin Firth and Jessica Biel – mostly Biel – about an American who marries into an upper class English family. Inevitably, the newcomer clashes with the stiff-upper-lip establishment and arguments ensue, as she tries to drag the family into the cold light of reality. Based on a play by Noel Coward, this reimagining does a great job at keeping a good pace and tight focus, albeit all too short. A few laughs, a few touching moments, and Biel in a smokin’ hot dress. ★★★

Star Trek: At risk of indulging in some 20/20 hindsight, Star Trek was a series I always wanted to see from the start, if only to find out what it is about this series that exerts such a hold on its fanatical followers and has had a significant cultural impact. However, there was something about picking up a cheesy sci-fi series from the 60s that embodied the image of “nerd” that was a little… off-putting, shall we say. It was a relief to find then that Star Trek was being re-booted by J. J. Abrams, he of Lost and Cloverfield fame (though the second did give me pause).
Turns out, it’s not all that bad – or at least in this imagining, it’s been given a jolt of credibility, along much the same lines that Batman Begins and Spiderman did. The new Star Trek tells the origin story of the crew of the Enterprise, particularly Kirk (Chris Pine) and Spock (Zachary Quinto, of Heroes fame), and really those two are the focus of the movie far more than the bad guy (Eric Bana, under a lot of make-up and flat dialogue). The support characters are mostly one or two dimensional, and some of the plot points are mere McGuffins to keep the story moving (A liquid which creates an instant black hole? The rings of Saturn having a detector-blocking-but-teleport-allowing magnetic field? Yeesh), but then this is a blockbuster, and you didn’t come to think too hard. ★★★★, despite all its flaws.