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: Inglourious Basterds

It’s perhaps worth noting here that, as far as I can tell, this is the second Tarantino-directed movie where Quentin himself doesn’t get in front of the camera at some point, as he’s wont to do in most of his other movies, Kill Bill being the other notable one. But where Kill Bill was brilliant for its action sequences, its all too overt nods to kung fu and samurai movies, Inglourious Basterds ignores World War II movie convention as brazenly as the spelling in the title, making it recognisable and yet giving you reason for a double-take.

Inglourious Basterds starts out with an old-school opening credits, refusing to layer names on action as has become the norm, and the first chapter of five is introduced as “Once upon a time… in Nazi occupied France, 1941” as though to declare up front this is a fairy-tale which references and adapts real events into the story to follow. If you were expecting something like The Dirty Dozen, or even Saving Private Ryan done Tarantino style, be prepared for something entirely different – although if you’re watching a Tarantino movie with any prior expectations, it would be that this isn’t going to be more of the usual.

The opening scene could be a short film all by itself, nearly standing alone from the rest of the movie and with all the trappings of a full narrative arc. In the idyllic French countryside, at the dairy farm of Perrier LaPadite, we are introduced to the deliciously intellectual Colonel Hans Landa (Christoph Waltz), “the Jew hunter” of the SS in France, who speaks German, French, English and (later) Italian with apparently equal fluency. He is perhaps the primary antagonist of the movie and plays a far more pivotal role than the eponymous Basterds, who we are introduced to in the second, brief, chapter. We also see Shosanna Dreyfus (Mélanie Laurent, playing a true femme fatale), a Jewish girl, and are left wondering as to her fate, though not for long.

Meanwhile, somewhere in Italy, Lieutenant Aldo Raine (Brad Pitt) is inspecting  his crack team of eight Jewish soldiers, planning to drop behind German lines to kill soldiers as a guerrilla style force years before the term guerrilla became common. Raine is of partially Native American blood, and in that tradition demands his men bring him 100 Nazi scalps. If you’ve not heard of scalping before, you’re about to get a very graphic demonstration.

The majority of the action takes place around in 1944. The Basterds have instilled terror in the German foot soldiers, and even to the point where Hitler is trying to counter rumours himself. In Paris, Shosanna is disguised as Emmanuelle Mimieux, and owns and runs a glorious art deco theatre in a quiet street of the city. When a German soldier with an interest in movies approaches her, she first repels his advances, and then, after being corralled into hosting a premiere for the Nazi top brass, finds the attention useful as a cover for plotting vengeance on the prosecutors of her people. Meanwhile, the British and a double-agent are plotting an operation to blow up the same cinema, and call in the Basterds to help pull it off.

What follows is a series of scenes where the tension is ratcheted bit by bit, until at last the climax unleashes the violence we fully expect of a war movie, albeit with the director of Reservoir Dogs and Pulp Fiction‘s own frantic interpretation. While Tarantino does not commit the hubristic sin of referencing his own movies, his style is painted over this movie with a brush a mile wide. The reams of dialogue in three languages (and then some) making this a movie where you have to concentrate on the words, a refreshing change to the usual blockbuster trash where you can watch without paying attention to words, the plot adequately revealed by explosions.

I think I agree most with Time’s review, especially in that it is very much a European-style, foreign language film – I’d be hard put to say whether there’s more time when the dialogue is in English or some other language, an authenticity that you’d never get with all characters speaking English, as accessible as that might make it. I love also that in some scenes, we’re clearly guided to a particular character’s viewpoint by not being given subtitles for languages they don’t know. Brilliantly played out, almost novel-like – and would certainly be all the more rewarding for those who can speak German, French and English, as I’m sure a number of Europeans would.

You’ll pardon me if my descriptions of the plot and characters seem a bit torturous – this is genuinely a movie you don’t want to spoil, and I’m thankful that the trailer is a bit of a hodge-podge that doesn’t reveal nearly enough. In a few key scenes, the tension is palpable, and I’d watch it over and over again to discover new aspects of the movie.

For all that dialogue and plot gets the attention here in this text-based medium, the visuals are not to be forgotten. Tarantino lingers in some of his shots, especially on the two lead females, a habit he seems to have developed somewhere between Pulp Fiction and Kill Bill. The style looks timeless, and it’s definitely worth watching in the cinemas. A note for the queasy though – there’s a few confronting scenes of blood, violence and gore, and if you’re the type that can’t stand the sight of blood even on screen, there will be more than a few moments where you’re peeking through fingers at this. Excessive maybe, but very much in Tarantino’s way of doing things.

At this point, I think I’m sounding very much like this a flawless movie, but I hesitate to say it’s not a perfect 5-star experience. The plot feels a bit like a two-for-one deal – two distinct stories, standing alone but for the antagonist and the catalyst of the Nazi brass all in one public place. The Basterds of the title are neglected, I felt, in favour of telling Shosanna’s story, but then from all reports key scenes from that story, such as those with Maggie Cheung, were cut in an effort to “squeeze” it into two and a half hours (though in its defence, those hours go by very much unnoticed). If anything, I’d have been happy for Tarantino to make a pair of movies, perhaps along the lines of the two Kill Bill volumes, perhaps as two versions of the same ending where you could pick touch points later.

In the end though, what’s made is made and what’s cut is probably waiting on the DVD release in a few months time, at which point it’d be possible to go over this movie again with a fine toothed comb, pausing at all the moments where I felt like pulling out a reference book for movie and period references. Tarantino continues to make films that are different, unique and creative without sacrificing entertainment and scope, and it’s for that reason I hope that this movie, or indeed earlier Tarantino movies, inspires some studios to take more chances with their film-making

“Out now in cinemas everywhere,” I believe, is the usual finish to a movie you can heartily recommend. ★★★★☆

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.

Movie Review: Charlie Wilson’s War

Charlie Wilson’s War: Amusingly told story of how Charlie Wilson, a smokin’, drinkin’, womanising politician from Texas got the Afghan war of the 80s off the ground. A bit too light-hearted given the relevance of the subject matter today, and unrepentent – the argument being that “it would have been alright if we allocated more money to follow through after the war had been won,” which looks a lot like retroactive re-writing of facts to my cynical nature. ★★☆

Movie Review: The Dark Knight

Where to begin with Batman? The franchise has, after all, been going for nigh on 20 years now, and now we come to the 6th installment, The Dark Knight.

When you think about it, the number of Hollywood A-Listers who were in Batman and Robin, the entirely forgettable Batman movie of the mid-ninties, it is a bit of a shock that between them they managed to turn out the pile of crap that was. I mean, Clooney, Thurman, Schwarzenegger, Sliverstone, and sure, Macpherson even, and with Bruckheimer directing, you’d really hope you got something more for your money. Between that and Batman Forever (Kilmer, Kidman, Carey and Lee-Jones? No?), you’d have thought Tim Burton’s dark and brooding vision of Gotham was lost entirely in a chase for easy money that big names bring.

Little wonder then that Batman Begins wasn’t attempted until many years later, and with a cast far shorter on the A-List side. But aren’t we all glad it was? Dignity was restored to the franchise, even if in a post-Incredibles “No Capes” world, the cape really had to be justified. Not only did writer-director Christopher Nolan show that you could avoid crass blockbusterism, but you didn’t necessarily need to set it in Burton’s alternate reality to make bad guys and good guys work. Batman Begins established that the characters behind the masks could be real, that Gotham really could be somewhere, a true alt-New York.

The Dark Knight continues in that vein. While the broad arc of the story remains true to the comic cannon, Heath Ledger’s Joker is far more grounded, far more visceral than Jack Nicholson’s first incarnation of the Joker. Burton’s vision was a comic book brought to life, and it’s part of what he does best. Here, we have an entirely different beast, one more accessible and requiring less suspension of disbelief, even if the exotic gadgets do step up a notch from the restraint shown in the previous movie.

Much has been said about Heath Ledger and his role as The Joker, and I’m sure much more will be said, amongst them the push for a posthumous Oscar. On the basis of his performance here, it’s hard to see who his competition will be. In The Dark Knight, the Joker is not merely a criminal with a quirk; he’s a full-blown psychopath. Ledger lives and breathes the role, and we are richer for it.

No superhero movie is complete without an arch-nemsis to get in the way, but this movie is so dominated by Ledger’s performance and the Joker’s characterisation that the focus of the movie is more properly said to be the Joker, rather than Batman. It is his actions which drive the plot throughout, and Batman is left playing catchup.

It is a treat to see a superhero movie that both takes itself seriously and pulls it off. Batman has always been the most accessible superhero – his special power is money, not some supernatural, inexplicable power for which we are given pithy explanations. Batman Begins made a serious effort to establish a plausible background for Batman’s abilities, and The Dark Knight takes it to the next logical step, showing Batman still has human frailties. Wayne tires during the day, sleeping in a meeting. After a fight, we see him stitching himself up – he isn’t invulnerable.

While this movie is far from perfect – inexplicable and needless plot points seem to abound, possibly suggesting an even longer movie left (thankfully) on the cutting floor – it definitely is one of the better ones released in the last few years, and strangely enough one where the sequel is more in-depth than the first. Between this and Hancock, I’ve had my hope in the superhero genre renewed.

Christian Bale isn’t my perfect idea of Bruce Wayne – something about him doesn’t live up to the rich-boy image, possibly enforced by another Nolan movie, The Prestige, but he is a capable actor who manages to live the role and make it rise above the standard man-in-leather-tights. Maggie Gyllenhal is a great replacement for Katie Holmes, but is under-used – possibly, again, left on the cutting room floor.

Aaron Eckhart and Gary Oldman round out a solid cast, showcasing some of the better character actors currently at work. Eckhart particularly seems to take his Thank You for Not Smoking role and inject it with a sense of gravitas, while Oldman has long been unrecognisable from one movie to the next.

Well worth watching – all the better if you can catch it on a giant screen, as its cinematography is masterful. ★★★★☆

Movie Review: Hancock

Hancock: This isn’t going to get great reviews in the media, because (a) it mixes genres and (b) it’s got some moral ambiguity, which could be like, confusing and stuff? But don’t be fooled, because it’s… uh… really not that bad. Honest.

Will Smith is John Hancock, a superhero who doesn’t know why he’s a superhero. He’s a drunk and generally in need of some anger and image management – after all, what kind of superhero is hated, told to go away? – until he meets Ray (Jason Bateman), PR whizz attempting to sell his world-changing ideas.

The thing that I enjoyed most about this movie is that they actually resisted giving away a gigantic chunk of it in the trailer. Watching most trailers, you can put two and two together and work out the plot, which it really does feel like for this movie too, at least up to the inflexion point. What you might perceive to be a stock-standard parabolic plot suddenly goes the wrong way, and the audience is left bruised by the story.

I’m not going to spoil the surprise at all, because it is one of the best features of this movie. Suffice to say though, it left people gasping – something I’ve not heard in a long time. From what I can tell of its development history, it’s been in production hell for nigh on 10 years before it actually got made, and was changed from something far less comedic, and for coming through as intact as it has I give full credit.

Will Smith does a superb job as Hancock during the early part of the movie, though the effort lapses a little towards the end. I’m yet to see Jason Bateman do wrong since Arrested Development, even in the low-ball The Kingdom, where his depiction of a kidnapped American soldier was the biggest redeeming factor for the whole movie. While there’s little hint of Michael Bluth (of AD) here, occasionally you’ll hear a line or two that resonates, and his every-man affability is awesome – you want to live down the street from this guy. And finally, Charlize (as Ray’s wife) is, as ever, gorgeous and very capable.

If there’s one (or two) criticisms to be had, it’s that it does make a couple of concessions to audience populism and raises the inevitable blockbuster sceptre of sequelism. Some rather minor plot threads are left open, though not in an obvious way, and while it would be nice to get closure on these, it’s more intriguing to leave them hanging than try to draw some disparate threads together.

There is a moment, very late in the movie, where the plot can diverge one of two ways: populist, a.k.a. blockbuster-ist – what keeps the punters happy – and artistic, or maybe post-modernist. One would have you walking out of the cinema, pleased enough, and the other would make you leave a lot more contemplative or even miffed at their audacity. See if you can spot the moment too.

A note for the Aussies: a “John Hancock” is apparently American slang for a signature, something I had to look up when I got home. Also, there’s a mini bonus clip about a minute into the credits, though only worth a short chuckle.