Category Archives: Movies

Victory in reliving defeat: Dunkirk

A war movie with a difference ‘Dunkirk’ is a testament to Christopher Nolan’s skill and vision as a filmmaker. A student of history and film I have seen most notable war movies from Apocalypse Now to Saving Private Ryan and can safely say that like these Dunkirk has a unique element which makes it a modern masterpiece.

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First and foremost Dunkirk is focused on the scale and magnitude of the events it is dramatizing. This is clear from the very beginning as Nolan uses wide establishing shots to show thousands of soldiers waiting inline for their chance to escape the beach. There is an odd order to the soldiers’ ere vigil as they stand patiently and helpless in the middle of a war zone which makes the entire scene feel surreal. However, to suggest that the film relies only on the large scale nature of events is overly simplistic instead it combines scale with the individual stories of almost nameless characters so that their own intimate experiences represents the stories of all the soldiers, pilots and seamen. This is perhaps most evident with Tommy and his different experiences trying to escape the beach. It is the combination of this scale and intimacy that gives the film its power and the ability play on the audiences emotions.

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Structurally, Nolan is able to explore these events and their emotional impact because the film is able to explore three different narratives which converge at the films climax. This is an element more common to epic fantasy than a war movie which traditionally focus on a small group of soldiers and their experiences. It is a convention which is violently put down at the start of the film as the opening sequence of a small band of soldiers walking through desolate streets seems to fit with the genre as the audience can assume these will be the men the film will follow, until the are all shot in the back without a word except for Tommy who escapes and starts the narrative. Not only does the plot of the film fail to follow convention but Nolan complicates the narrative by providing three different time scales; one week, one day and one hour. Logically this makes sense as the planes can only stay in the air for so long but an hour is not enough time to properly cover the experience on the ground. At times this can be a little disorientating especially as the film approaches the climatic focal point but the quick cuts between narratives and that very sensation adds to the building tension and ultimately works.
In a way the logical necessity of the different time scales is symbolic of one of the Dunkirk’s other main strengths, realism. This normally means a war movie with graphic levels of carnage like ‘Saving Private Ryan’ but Nolan does not look to sensationalise war in anyway, instead the film aims to present an authentic vision of the evacuation. The starting point here is establishing historical accuracy which is consistent throughout the film from the German propaganda, Churchill’s pessimistic hopes for the evacuation, the importance of the mole, the decision to hold back planes and even the soldiers’ anger towards the RAF all demonstrate Nolan’s commitment to detail and build a strong foundation. This is developed through the films ability to avoid sensationalism, perhaps most obvious in the depiction of the aerial battle. The small grouping of planes, the cramped cockpits, limited visibility and absence of eye-catching aerobatics are just a few examples as the film never tries to make these men out to be more than what the were. Instead the real story is allowed to impress audiences with the heroism of sacrifice and battling the odds. Perhaps the most striking element of realism is the limited use of dialogue which is kept only to lines that are seemingly necessary for the situation. It seems a simple idea but very few films seem to recognize that often by adding more dialogue it actually detracts from the overall visual medium as there is a tendency to use words to express ideas and emotions that can be shown to the audience rather than told using contrived dialogue.

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In many ways this is the context for a raft of strong supporting performances as in many ways ‘Dunkirk’ lacks a traditional lead. Fionn Whitehead who plays Tommy may have the most screen time but at no point does he dominate the film this makes sense since his character represents ever man on the beach. He has a difficult task alongside Domien Bonnard to make their non-verbal communication work but they both make their characters mutual understanding believable. As a result their journey is ultimately able to highlight the desperation and self preservation of all the men on the beach effectively for the audience.  Tom Hardy is no less effective using non verbal cues in his portrayal of Ferrier as the characters major decisions can all be seen clearly in his eyes. Emphasised perfectly by the films cinematography and editing to show the thoughts running through his mind. Than there are the elder statesmen in Mark Rylance and Kenneth Branagh who both bring so much to the film. Whether it is Rylance’s ability to downplay the heroism of his character Mr. Dawson or Branagh’s weary appearance of shouldering the burden of command they both create depth in their respective characters.  As a fan I couldn’t see anyone else balancing Commander Bolton’s forlorn sense of responsibility and his seemingly dry sense of humor with such master as Branagh, even his accent seems perfect for the role, a real British officer.

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Historically Dunkirk was an important moment in WW2, a catastrophic defeat that could have been much worse. Yet, the fact that the British were successful in evacuating most of their troops providing them with the will and resources to keep fighting the Germans until they could go on the offensive with the US. This fine line between victory and defeat is captured throughout the film as almost every moment of heroism is connected to tragedy. Even in the film’s conclusion there is seemingly nothing to celebrate and this highlights the triumph of Nolan’s work.
An absolute must see, 9/10

Old Man Logan

These day’s I rarely get to the cinemas to see the latest release, so I have had an agonising wait before finally getting  the chance to see ‘Logan’ but it was worth the wait. The latest instalment in the X-Men franchise is undoubtedly “The very best at what it does” and is not only notable as probably Hugh Jackman’s final appreance as Wolverine but a well written and directed film. It is darker and more complex intrant to the superhero genre which we haven’t seen since “The Dark Knight” and is a clear departure from the feel good uplifting films of the rest of the X-Men movies.

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One element responsible for the very noticeable change in tone is the movement away from the lighter side of the science fiction genre which has always been present in the rest of the franchise. Starting with the moment Logan opened his eye’s in the high tech lab under Xavier’s School for the Gifted to the Sentinels he was sent back in time to stop Wolverine’s appearance in the X-men films has always been connected with technology. In contrast “Logan” has a more post – apocalyptic feel similar to ‘Mad Max’ this is partly due to open and desolate landscapes that dominate the film. Sure their are still elements of technological advances like the robotic hands of the Alkali-Transigen Reaves who pursue Logan or the continuation of the Weapon X program. However, even this set in a rudimentary Mexican hospital and the entire process of impregnating young women is decidedly low tech not only for the franchise but for 2029 when the film is set. Perhaps the greatest example of this change is shown by comparing the scene in which Logan sees Laura receiving her adamantium graft, strapped to a simple medical chair and covered in blood, compared to his own operation at alkali lake in the submerged tank.

This more dystopian style of science fiction is than blended with elements of an old fashion western which focuses more on character and relationships than the grander idea of saving the world found in the rest of the X-Men movies, in fact the storyline itself, a journey across the country, has more in common with this genre. It is a link that James Mangold was quick to reinforce with reference to the movie ‘Shane’ which is not only paralleled in Logan and Laura’s own journey but the desire Charles has to see Logan settle with a family. Further, to this mix of genres Mangold introduces an extreme application of gore again reminiscent of something like ‘Mad Max’ with close ups of injuries and gritty fight sequences emphasised at times by the fact that many of the films most graphic sequences are perpetrated by a child. Again this is a departure from the rest of the X-Men franchise as although Wolverine has always amassed a body count his victims have rarely left a trail of blood. As a result the film has a darker and in some ways more realistic feel rather than the more family friendly version of Wolverine we have become more familiar with.

It is this darker tone that allows Mangold to explore more personal themes through his characters rather than the grandeur ideas of discrimination, tolerance, sacrifice and responsibility which have been done to death in the past films. Instead Mangold focuses on Logan’s depression and desire to escape either through the adamantium bullet or the unrealistic dream of escaping to the sea. This is tired in part to Logan’s physical deterioration as a result of adamantium poisoning which makes him reflect on the lives he has taken as his own is seemingly coming to an end and his recognition with the decline of mutants in society he no longer has a place. At the same time Mangold is able to explore similar real world experiences with an elderly Charles Xavier whose declining health has made him a danger to everyone around him. It’s clear for most of the film that he is haunted by the damage his powers have done but still wishes desperately to hang on to his sanity and therefore resists the medicine that keeps them in check, his struggle mirrors the experience of those with dementia. It’s not surprising than that Charles wants to try and make amends by encouraging Logan to take responsibility for Laura and possibly settle down as it is his last chance to make a positive impact on the world. The introduction of Laura and the revelation of her paternity, which lessor films would have made into a grand reveal at the end, forces Logan into a position of responsibility he never quite fulfills. Through out the film we see him offer sage advice and obviously protect Laura from the Reavers with their growing bond leading to his willingness to sacrifice himself to save her at the end but it’s clear that he recognises that it’s impossible for him to be the father that Charles wants him to become. These personal themes make the film far more relatable and powerful than previous X-Men movies and the feel good sense of adventure.

The resulting character driven storyline requires strong performances from both Patrick Stewart and Hugh Jackman. Since handing over the role of professor Charles Xavier to James McAvoy it seemed the Stewart’s contribution to the X-men Universe maybe finished but his final performance has more depth than before. Instead of the wise, self assured Professor X we have been accustom to from the original trilogy, Stewart gives a compelling vision of man battling against his own mental state. His ability to appear fragile and lost at the start of the film and yet still hold a semblance of the moral authority audiences expect from the character even if it is only apparent when he is pleading with Logan is testament to Stewarts credentials as an actor. Not to be out done Jackman also puts in his best performance as for most of the film Logan’s depression is communicated with an expression as it is not until late in the film that it is properly articulated. His portal of the popular brash and antagonist hero is still present whether it is in the action packed final sequence or through the simple little glimpses like Logan’s decision to grab a cigar after telling Laura not to steal but these glimpses are buried beneath the limp of a man carrying the weight of his past missed life on his shoulders.

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Amongst this mix of established and renowned talent Dafne Keen managers to hold her own. Her portrayal of Laura a deadly killing machine filled with rage in the form of a little girl is made more difficult by the fact that she does not talk for a large portion of the film. This means that Keen needs to communicate volumes with every look and piece of body language not an easy feat for a 12 year old actress. She does unbelievably well as it is obvious to the audience the different thoughts and feelings going through her mind. As a result the character appears sympathetic despite her ability to decapitate the men hunting her, this is thanks not only to Keen’s performance but Mangold and Scott Franks work with the script. Since they have been able to give Laura a sense of  innocence through the wonder she experiences at the outside world and cleverly balances the references to her childhood suffering in a way that prevents it becoming forced. When Laura does talk it serves to reinforce all the key elements of the film since she speaks in Spanish without subtitles. The English speaking audience like Logan is left to use the context of what she says to derive her meaning but fail to comprehend every word. Not only does this put the audience alongside the main protagonist but it also serves to highlight the fact that despite their growing bond the characters are separated by very different worlds.

So far I have highlighted in depth what makes “Logan” a great film but it is more than that as it is still an X-men movie to the core as Mangold does a wonderful job of paying tribute to the comic book universe in addition to the past films. Some times these are in subtle elements of set design like the Samurai sword hanging in Logan’s room  or the throw away line at the start about Liberty Island that takes fans back to the very beginning in 2000 or my personal favourite the Wolverine figurine wearing yellow spandex. More significantly the premise of an aging Logan pays a respectful homage to the ‘Old Man Logan’ series of comics without adapting the story and Mangold even finds a way to use the X-men comics as a plot device which defiantly got this fan boy excited. Even these elements could have easily become a gimmick if the plot and the introduction of Laura ( X – 23) was done poorly but the film manages this well by using the X-men evolution series as a starting point and returning to Wolverine’s own origins as part of the Weapon X program.  The film therefore can be seen as a maturing of the franchise aimed at the audience who grew up with cartoons and comic books but are now looking for something a bit darker and complex than the lighter films of the past.

“Logan” won’t be for everyone, for starters it’s not the film to take your kids to see but for diehard fans and movie junkies it is a must see. I’m sure there are many fan boys out there who see “Logan” as a bit bitter sweet moment, it is the stand alone movie we have waited for especially since the train wreak which was X-Men Origins: Wolverine but unfortunately the last.

5.5 Claw marks out of 6

 

 

 

 

Revenge of the Sith

The final instalment in the prequel trilogy continued where “Attack of the Clones” left off and thankfully was not a backwards step. Unfortunately, this also means that “Revenge of the Sith” also contains similar drawbacks including a heavy reliance on CG and some poor acting. Possibly the most frustrating element of Episode 3 is that the film shows glimpses of potential but ultimately disappoints.

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The opening space battle is a perfect example of this as the scale and effects were an effective hook for audiences. It then teased the possibility of an intense character building scene in the confrontation with Count Dooku which fizzled into mediocrity. The duel was over too quickly and Palpatine’s manipulation of Anakin if you could call it that made no attempt at subtlety. All this is then capped off by the clumsy ray shields trap and some poor dialogue. Another example would be the introduction of Darth Plagueis the Wise which gave an opportunity to explore the nature of the force but was left undeveloped.

One of the few strengths of the entire prequel trilogy is the casting of Ewan McGregor as Obi-Wan and the character’s development over the three movies. This reaches a climax in “Revenge of the Sith” as Ewan McGregor ‘s version of Obi-Wan needs to transition towards Alec Guinness. It involves gradually distancing the character from the fatherly role he occupies in “Attack of The Clones” and developing the burden of failure that marks the character in “A New Hope”. The costume design team also made this work as they make sure that Ewan McGregor looks more like a younger Alec Guinness then he did in the previous films.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for George Lucas’ script as too many times the actors were forced to try and make simplistic dialogue seem believable. Whether it is Obi-Wan’s disappointment, Padmè’s concern or Palpatine’s manipulation these dramatic moments are often let down by the complete lack of complexity and reliance on clichés like “you were the chosen one”. Another weakness in the script is that Lucas often fails to capitalise on stronger cast members like Natalie Portman since Padmè’s role in the film is extremely limited. It’s easy to pick out the faults in the script but what it does well is create an overall storyline that effectively links the rest of the prequels together with the original trilogy. It is only a shame that the other short comings detract from a storyline that offered such emotional climaxes.

Effects have always been a highlight of the Star Wars franchise and “Revenge of the Sith” is no different from the opening sequence it grabs our attention with the stunning space battle. The introduction of General Grievous gives the filmmakers another opportunity to dazzle audiences but they focus too much on the effects and failed to build any sense of the character. This is perhaps the key difference to the originals in that the effects become the centre of attention rather than a vehicle to transport the audience to the universe of the characters. In addition, the use of CGI rather than practical effects in all the prequel movies meant the films did not feel like Star Wars regardless of how awesome the final battle between Anakin and Obi-Wan looked onscreen.

I couldn’t talk about the prequel trilogy without discussing Hayden Christensen’s portrayal of Anakin Skywalker. It’s a topic that always makes me think about a quote from Clerks 2, “shity acting is ruining saga”, but perhaps this is a bit unfair on Christensen as others need to shoulder some of the blame. Casual observes might ask what was wrong with his performance and I could pick out a plethora of things from different scenes but most importantly is his whole characterisation as it fails to invoke the audiences’ sympathy. Instead of an image of Anakin as a tragic figure Christensen performance comes off as an overconfident teenager who wingers about those around him and is easily manipulated by others willing to play on his desires. This is ultimately problematic since the entire trilogy was built around creating sympathy for Darth Vader ahead of “A New Hope” especially considering at times I find myself satisfied knowing that the character gets what he deserves. Admittedly it was a hard task for Christensen and others let him down as obviously the direction was taking him down the wrong path.

In no stretch of the imagination is “Revenge of the Sith” a terrible movie as it has a solid storyline some excellent special effects and a couple of good performances to carry the rest of the cast. Unfortunately, it lacks the feel and focus on character development that we expect of a Star Wars as the originals were never reliant on the storyline to keep the audience entertained.

6.5/10

Jono

The Force Awakens a hit of nostalgia

Before the 17th of December the world was in overdrive with speculation and we all wondered whether J.J Abrams could deliver on the hype. After the disappointment of the prequels many fans were sceptical of a new Star Wars movie especially with the recent acquisition by Disney a brand who has always focused on targeting a younger audience. The involvement of the original cast helped convince many of us that “The Force Awakens” was going to be different as it suggested a more respectful approach to the original movies. Ultimately this is what Abrams has been able to deliver a continuation from “Return of The Jedi” that feels like a Star Wars movie and generally gives a balance between something new and a strong shoot of nostalgia.

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This mentality is obvious from the film’s opening scene to the start of the credits elements of the story, settings and even specific shots are all reminiscent of the originals but slightly different. The perfect example of this without giving anything away is Jakku, a sand covered backwater planet that looks remarkable like Tatoonie. The film draws the similarities together through the establishing shots of the scenery and the costume design of its inhabitants while emphasising the differences like the remains of a past battle. The result is a setting the conjures up memories of “A New Hope” while not simply reusing the same familiar places like Episode 1. A trend continued throughout the film, this is the Star Wars we know but different.

The overall storyline of “The Force Awakens” follows this same principle as it obviously borrows elements from all of the original films. The overriding structure of “A New Hope” mixed with the intensity of a character driven story like “The Empire Strikes Back” and just a dash of “Return of the Jedi” finished off with a couple of changes to make it different. It’s a combination that works well for most of the film as it allows fans to get comfortable, embrace new characters and be satisfied with a thoroughly genuine Star Wars experience. However, it’s a difficult balance which shifts a little too far for my liking in the films climax and just needed to be a little more unique to deliver the same intensity of the original trilogy. This is less of a problem with the more personal part of the storyline which tries to deliver a few twists and surprises much like “Empire”. Overall this part of the plot is done well yet, personally I found a few of these surprises a bit more predictable than Luke’s parentage and perhaps removing some of the sign posts would have increased their impact for the audience.

The main source of originality in “The Force Awakens” comes from the introduction of a new cast and well developed characters. Daisy Ridley gives an especially praiseworthy performance as Rey the resourceful scavenger on Jakku ends up being thrown into the conflict between the Resistance and The First Order. The character is unique in the Star Wars universe as she distinguishes herself from Leia through her background, resourcefulness and the profound sense of abandonment which Ridley doesn’t overplay as is the custom in many Hollywood blockbusters. Rey’s backstory is only partially revealed in the film suggesting that her history is going to be a focus for the rest of the trilogy however these gaps were well thought-out and don’t leave the audience feeling let down like something was missing. Rey’s struggle against the First Order is well supported in part by Poe Dameron played by Oscar Isaac whose delivery of refreshing one-liners makes sure he leaves an impression as the ace x-wings pilot. However, it is Rey’s more direct sidekick in Finn a Stormtrooper with a conscious fleeing the First Order (John Bodega) who threatens at times to steal the show. Bodega does well early in the film to portray the character’s sense of fear through a rushed and panicked demeanour but is equally effective in representing the characters shift to a more driven antagonist. The strength of these characters are at the core of “The Force Awakens” positive reviews as they are a noticeable improvement on a key failure from the prequels and don’t fit into any preconceived imitations of the existing characters.

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On the other side Kylo Ren is possible the most well characterised villain in Star Wars history as he has a well-defined backstory, clear motivations and inner conflict. This is in stark contrast to the prequels which failed to even give Darth Maul anything resembling a character. Perhaps the only downside is that Ren’s backstory develops so quickly that the film loses this possible source of tension. Despite this he is well-conceived as weaving in a helmet and voice distortion that resembles Darth Vader gives the character presence and ultimately fits well with his motivations so that it doesn’t seem like the filmmaker just tries to capitalise on the past success. Adam Driver was well cast to fill the role as he seems to personify the uncertainty that plagues the character and is equally believable earlier in the film with youthful confidence in his abilities. Unfortunately, Ren is not as well supported by his fallow First Order leaders, General Hux is given some clear characteristics as the traditional soldier in uniform who follows orders and clearly resents Ren for his methods and position but he is only really partially defined. Next to Hux the characterisation of Supreme Leader Snoke and Captain Phasma is non-existent and perhaps are the result of the filmmakers fixing plot holes or developing a means of introducing information. In the case of Snoke this is a clear limitation of the film and may have been more effectively introduced while Phasma is an opportunity lost as the idea of a female Stormtrooper was intriguing. Hopefully, these failings can be improved upon in Episode 8 as without any support from existing characters The First Order needs to be more clearly defined.

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Importantly it is these characters rather than the old favourites that carry the film at the start as Abrams obviously recognised that an audience needed to be invested in Rey, Finn and BB-8 before the appearance of familiar faces. The current internet buzz about Rey’s backstory demonstrates the overall success of strategy. When it happens the introduction of the old heroes generally works well as Han Solo is as roguish as ever and C-3Po still wins the prize for worst timing awards. The only miss step is the films use of Princess Leia as her role in the Resistance is poorly defined and she doesn’t seem to add much to the story. Conversely, the appearance of Luke Skywalker was perfect as the central hero of the original trilogy he more than anyone needed to take a step back but still remain important. The result is a clear point of suspense for the next film and a good starting point to transition Luke into a mentoring role previously filled by Obi-Wan and Yoda.

The other main element that has contributed to “The Force Awakens” success in the past few days is the return to practical effects. This was the hallmark of the original films using models and wires rather than the modern CGI which nearly destroyed the Star Wars universe in the prequels. Embracing these techniques means that Episode 7 feels and looks like a Star Wars movie and not just any big budget action flick made in the last 15 years. It does mean Maz Kanata does standout a little for the wrong reasons but overall the different elements are blended well by a director with a history in science fiction including Star Trek, Fringe and Lost. This feel is capped off the customary John Williams score and the sound team who bring the universe to life.

Overall “The Force Awakens” is a very successful continuation of the franchise that uses nostalgia effectively to satisfy existing fans and introduce the new characters that will drive the series forward. It’s not perfect with a few plot holes and some characters that aren’t properly defined but these don’t detract too much from the whole package. I’ll be definitely going back for a second viewing in the coming weeks and might update this review with a few more specifics so keep checking. Until then let me know what you think as I’m always keen to discuss anything Star Wars or check out these reviews over at the movie guysThe .

8.5/10

Jono

 

Attack of the Clones

A large improvement on Episode 1 the second instalment in the prequel series clearly learnt from its predecessor failures. Despite the progress it is nowhere near the level of the original trilogy still has a few really obvious flaws.

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The most noticeable difference between “Attack of the clones” and “The Phantom Menace” is the overall tone. Gone is the simplistic humour and attempt to target a young audience as the film has a more grown-up feel. It shows character development and dispenses with the endless procession of coincidences and stereotypes. A perfect example of this is Count Dooku played by Christopher Lee who in contrast to Darth Maul has some backstory as Yoda’s former padawan. Yet, even despite this progress Dooku lacks the screen presence of Darth Vader and has a limited role in the film.
“Attack of the Clones” makes a clear attempt to model itself on the original trilogy. An opening rush of adrenaline with the pursuit through Coruscant before a period of development and investigation leading to a final climatic battle. In addition, the film follows the format of “The Empire Strikes Back” by developing alternating plots in the love story between Padmé and Anakin while Obi-Wan is busy investigating the cloners on Kamino.
Beyond the format the film also makes an effort to engage long term fans by making references to the originals. The most obvious of which is the introduction of Jango Fett as the template for the clone armour. However, as a dedicated fan I prefer the subtler homages like Obi-Wan’s use of an asteroid or his confrontation with the assassin in a bar. These are the types of things that make diehards feel satisfied when a new film is added to a pre-existing franchise.
The major weakness of “Attack of the Clones” is the development of the love story. This side of the plot is noticeably more superficial than Obi-Wan’s investigation of the assassination attempt. In part this is due to Hayden Christensen and his petulant teenager approach to the role which detracts from his ability to command our attention like Ewan McGregor. This is not assisted by the reliance on clichéd scenes that just don’t fit in a Star Wars movie. While feeling out of place these scenes also impact pacing as the film does drag a little at times, something that was never a problem with the original trilogy.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the film is the protracted final battle and the beginning of the clone wars. At first this sees Obi – Wan, Anakin and Padmé fighting for survival against a collection of exotic predators before the arrival of the Jedi offers a false sense of hope before they are overwhelmed by the droid armies. The arrival of the clones is not unexpected and saves the remaining Jedi but as Yoda points out has played into the hands of the Sith. The real surprise comes in the form of the more personal battle between Yoda and Dooku as it challenges our preconceptions and limitations of the character much like he did in his first encounter with Luke on Dagobah in “Empire Strikes Back.”
Overall “Attack of the Clones” was definitely a move in the right direction after the disappointment of Episode 1 and did definitely increase our expectation for the final instalment.

7/10

Jono

The Phantom Menace 1999

The first of the prequels and the start of our flashback, “The Phantom Menace” is personally not a required watch when going through the saga. That Episode 1 was a colossal disappointment would be an understatement and as such I’m not going to take the time to review it in depth so this is going to be a quick fire set of impressions.

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The Good

Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor: The two main characters were ultimately well cast as Liam Neeson has a well-established track record in mentor rules bringing the necessary gravitas and intensity. While McGregor is an excellent character although he doesn’t really come into his own until Episode 2 where Obi Wan’s character is more prominent but it’s a starting point.

Double sided lightsabres: A minor inclusion in the film there is a reason why they make an appearance in nearly every Star Wars game since. Simple fact two blades look better than one.

Pod Race scene: The highpoint of special effects in the film and surprisingly well scripted with clear ebbs and flows to build tension. Film editing is also important here as the cuts between different pilots, the track and the crowed give it that sense of excitement.

Final duel: Undoubtedly the only part of the climax that works as it says away from any attempt at humour. The three-way battle is possibly the best technical lightsabre duel on film as the combats exchange blows as the move amongst the different levels of the palace before the drama of the force fields makes the necessary change needed to lead to a result.

The Bad

Target audience: The largest misstep in the production of the film is trying to capture a young audience. Ultimately this attempt motivated the introduction of simplistic comic relief and a lack of depth. Perhaps the most disappointing element is that this was totally unnecessary as the original trilogy has always proven to engage young people, I’m living proof.

Young Anakin: This isn’t really Jake Lloyds fault as the dialogue didn’t really do him any favours and his character was often positioned to deliver a contrived source humour. He does succeed in creating a sense of sympathy but this could easily have been enhanced by taking the slavery angle more seriously and developing some emotional baggage.

The storyline: Even after the completion of the prequel trilogy “The Phantom Menace” stands aloof from the rest of the saga. Since the storyline doesn’t develop in either of the next movies and they are necessarily separated by several years. In addition, too much of the events in episode 1 are the result of coincidence as the band have to make an emergency landing on Tatooine, where the happen to meet Anakin at Watto’s shop who just happens to have the rare parts they need. Star Wars have a get out clause in this situation as characters are guided by the Force however the original trilogy does not rely on this to cover bad script writing.

Darth Maul: In many ways the most visible villain of the film is a great example of what’s wrong with Episode 1, absolutely no development. Nearly no lines and only a handful of scenes there is no real hint at backstory, motivation or much agency. If it wasn’t for the double bladed lightsabre he would be completely forgettable.

The Ugly

Jar Jar Binks: do I need to say any more? The horror, the horror!!

Overall if it wasn’t a Star Wars movie perhaps I wouldn’t be so harsh but it had a lot to live up to and failed completely. Hopefully it has been a lesson to J.J  Adrams and Disney ahead of “The Force Awakens” so that history doesn’t repeat itself.

5/10

Jono

The Empire Strikes Back – 1980

My personal favourite it is hard to put a finger on a specific element that makes “The Empire Strikes Back” any better than the original as for the most part it relies on similar strengths. The model for educating the audience about the Star Wars universe, the cast of familiar characters and an extension of the techniques that brought “A New Hope” to life. However, to suggest that Episode V simply relies on its predecessor would be a disservice to a movie that alongside “The Godfather: Part 2” and “Judgement Day” I count as one of the best sequels in cinema history. One thing these films all have in common is a willingness to expand upon the existing context and add complexity to the storyline through plot twists.

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A sequel is often grander than the original as one method of expanding on an existing idea is to scale it up. In some ways the “The Empire Strikes Back” does follow this principle as the epic Battle of Hoth dominates a good portion of the film and the story develops over a wider expanse of space as Darth Vader chases the Millennium Falcon to Cloud City. Despite this I would argue that the film does the opposite as the plot is in fact more personal than the central storyline behind “A New Hope”. Since the main plot is focused on Luke’s developing connection to the force and Darth Vader’s plan to trap him using his friends in order to turn him to the Dark Side. The personal nature of the film is embodied in the climatic lightsabre duel leading to the most quoted lines in pop culture “Luke I am your father” it is a stark contrast to blowing up the Death Star. In this way the film takes what we expect from “A New Hope” by starting with Hoth before turning it on its head.

The emphasis on character development is not limited to the major plot and Luke’s training as a Jedi as there is an obvious focus on developing the relationship between Han and Leia. This interplay begins on Hoth with both characters’ exchanging jibes but develops while they are on the run from the Empire. The sarcastic banter between the two is a long established technique for developing romantic tension dating back to Shakespeare. However, it needs the on screen chemistry between Ford and Fisher to make it believable and it is ultimately Fisher’s ability to portray Leia’s resistance and final acceptance of her feelings that makes this work. Ford’s stoic response cements this scene as one of the emotional climaxes of the film and turning point in their relationship throughout the saga.

On the other side, the film develops our knowledge of Darth Vader who is seen largely as a blunt instrument in “A New Hope” searching for the stolen plans and doesn’t really come into his own until his conflict with Obi Wan. This is dramatically different in “The Empire Strikes Back” as it is Vader making the decisions and punishing the failures of his subordinates. These instances reveal his ability to visualise opportunities and use different resources to get the job done including bounty hunters and manipulation rather than the one size fits all approach employed by Grand Moff Tarkin. In addition, we get a clear understanding of his servitude to the Emperor and his schemes to draw Luke to the Dark Side in order to overthrow his master. He is also shown at his most vulnerable when his helmet is refitted on board the Super Star Destroyer this cleverly alludes to the fact that there is a man behind the mask which is important for the development of the climax and ground work for “Return of the Jedi”.

While the plot may have narrowed onto a personal scale the film still expands on the Star Wars universe through the introduction of Yoda, Buba Fett and Lando Calrissian. All of which play a significant role in the plot and add to the development of the existing characters. The most iconic of these is undoubtedly Yoda voiced by Frank Oz with his unique speech patterns and limited physical stature. Like with Obi Wan in “A New Hope” he is reasonable for Luke’s training and continues to unveiled the power of the Force to audiences. It’s hard to imagine anyone else other than Frank Oz delivering that backwards dialogue and his ability to shift from the comical nuisance to a series tone really sales the deception to the audience. Conversely, Billy Dee William’s portrayal of Lando Calrissian raises the right amount of suspicion when Leia and Han arrive at Cloud City. Beyond their own characterisation Lando and Buba Fett also act partially as a demonstration of Vader’s will and also explore Han’s back story therefore adding to the overall depth of the film.

It would be impossible to review “The Empire Strikes Back” without a closer look at the Battle of Hoth. At its core the Battle is a complete reversal of the climax of “A New Hope” with the Empire now trying to attack a small Rebel target the difference is that they never appear as underdogs due to the military might of the ATATs. Unlike the destruction of the Death Star it is also not a complete victory as the majority of the Rebel Alliance escape, a clear juxtaposition to Grand Moff Tarkin’s refusal to evacuate. Hoth demonstrates a real challenge for the visual effects team as the white background manipulating objects difficult as imperfections are more obvious especially in the shots through the speeder cockpits. The result in 1980 was always good enough for audiences but remained a frustration for the effects team and was an element addressed in the special edition demonstrating the dedication of the whole filmmaking team to the project.

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After reflecting on it perhaps the reason I prefer “Empire Strikes Back” is the added complexity and character development which all culminate in the plot twist. It could be simply as they put it in “Clerks” that it just ends on such a downer which is more realistic than the big against the odds victory of “A New Hope”. Whatever the case there is very little to separate the first two Star Wars movies and they are a must watch for any film buff.

10/10

Jono

A New Hope

In preparation for the release of Episode 7: The Force Awakens on the 17th I thought it was about time to look back at my favourite movie franchise of all time. Like many other people born in the 80’s I grew up watching the original trilogy and have memorised nearly every second of these timeless classics. I would not have been the only one that got excited with the release of the prequel trilogy only to be momently disappointed by the result but hopefully this time will be different. This has raised a serious question for me regarding viewing order ever since and thanks to a few hints online I have settled on IV – V – (I)II- III – VI with the prequels acting as a flashback after the plot twist of “Empire Strikes Back”. My purpose in giving this little preamble is to offer a suggestion to fallow fans trying to introduce Star Wars to others as Episode IV is a much better hook then the prequels while also being much more satisfying for die hards. Considering this I have chosen to review the saga in this order and hopefully if you have any doubts by the end you might give it a try.

Episode IV: A New Hope – 1977

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I can only imagine how the opening of “A New Hope” first memorised audiences in 1977 from the characteristic scrolling prologue to the opening space battle but it was a masterful piece of film making. The iconic scene with its chasing Star Destroyer filling the screen is often not given enough credit for hooking audiences. The sequence in its entirety is the perfect start to a film introducing a whole new galaxy as it not only gets the blood pumping but it importantly leaves the viewer with a plethora of questions not the least of which is based around the central plot and the plans which are ‘not in the main computer’. In addition, it gives a glimpse of the Star Wars universe from Stormtroopers and Darth Vader to the rebellious Princess Leia. Combined these elements engages an audience and leaves them wanting more over the next 120 minutes which is a lesson for any filmmaker.

The film largely follows a linear storyline from this point forward with only a few brief exchanges between Darth Vader, Grand Moff Tarkin and Princess Leia on the Death Star interrupting the main plot. Besides these moments the plot maintains a fairly classical formula with a young hero found in the middle of nowhere on the planet of Tatooine adopted by a wise mentor and drawn into a galactic conflict by forces outside their control, the arrival of R2-D2 and C-3PO. The journey to answer the Princess’s distress call leads them to the egotistical Han Solo and his co-pilot before escaping the clutches of the Empire. There escape is short lived as they run into the Death Star and must disguise themselves to save the Princess and escape, before returning for the climatic final battle. In many ways’ the main storyline is actually reminiscent of mythology as the characters are on a quest to deliver the droids but are forced to face several challenges to prove themselves before a heroic victory.

The characters are only a slight deviation from this as Luke is perfectly characterised by Mark Hamill who optimises the naïve young upstart dreaming of adventure. Harrison Ford’s casting as Han Solo was truly inspired as he represents the character’s conflict between his instinct for self-preservation and noble delusions of grandeur. It’s no wonder why he has become an in during fan favourite ever since with his ability to delivery witty insults and appear aloof from those around him while still remaining irresistible charming.  The difference is in Princess Leia who refuses to be the traditional damsel in distress as Carrie Fisher gives her a sharp edge fitting for someone who believes in a higher cause. Not only is her passion obvious when confronted by Darth Vader and the threat to her home planet of Alderaan but later in her dealings with Han and Luke during their rescue attempt. Beyond this key trio R2-D2 and Chewbacca are something of an oddity as it is impossible to think of another movie where the audience cannot understand two of the principal characters by design, this places a lot of importance on the actors’ delivery and their interaction with each other. In the case of R2 his constant companion C-3PO while doing some translations for Luke, normally carries on the second half of a conversation allowing the audience to infer what has been said in the odd collection of beeps. The overall success of this is a combination of good script writing and excellent delivery by Anthony Daniels with the right insinuation in his tone. This talented cast and their on screen chemistry is a large part of the franchises success and is unfortunately something missing from the prequel trilogy.

The importance of relatable characters and a reasonably straightforward plot cannot be overestimated in a movie like “A New Hope” which is intruding audiences to a whole mythology. These elements have allowed people since 1977 to focus on understanding the back story including the nature of the Force and the way of the Jedi. Most of this information is given to the audience through the instructions of Obi Wan Kenobi as he begins Luke’s training. Alec Guinness is perfect for this role as he brings a real gravitas and is also able to communicate a sense of the burden he carries due to the character’s past failures. One thing that Star Wars does well is that although it needs to communicate a lot of information to the audience it does not bore us with any long explanations as the training is interspersed and involves some development of the plot, for example Obi Wan’s decision to leave for Alderaan. Lesser films often try to explain everything rather than using these little tricks like a remote training exercise to show an audience that a lightsabre can defect blaster fire, this is one area where “A New Hope” really distinguishes itself as most of the context be it the Force or the Rebellion evolves gradually out of the plot.

It may have aged since its release in 1977 but the original film smashed onto the screen with revolutionary special effects, precise film editing, well-crafted sound, fantastic set and costume design. Unlike today it was a combination of body suits, prosthetics and miniatures which gave us the look with a combination of wires and blue screen for visual effects. Meanwhile the sound designers gave use the unmistakable sound of a lightsabre while seamlessly blending in all the little background ticks that make a movie. This is capped off by John William’s masterful score which produced the most recognisable movie theme of all time, one that represents the scale of the film and gives that uplifting sense of triumph needed for the final scene. Possibly the greatest example of their efforts is in the Rebels attack on the Death Star as it started out in a parking lot with a collection of model kits on a couple of table tennis tables filmed from a jeep driving past. This raw footage comes to life with the addition of sound effects and the expert editing to quickly cut between shots of Luke’s  X-Wing, Grand Moff Tarkin, Darth Vader, the rebels on Yavin and the count down clock to add the perfect amount of tension. Finally, Williams score echo’s the movement of the fighters through the trench and is simply the exclamation point making for one hell of a climax.  It is the hard work of all these teams that were ultimately responsible for creating the Star Wars universe by making George Lucas’ vision a reality and it is not surprising that they were recognised by claiming 6 Oscars in 1978.

Writing this review, I have been trying desperately to think of anything that could have been improved and coming up with only minor adjustments. One that stuck in my mind was the characterisation of Grand Moff Tarkin as despite his position ‘holding Vader’s leash’ he is never really developed in any detail. These little things don’t detract from the movie in the least and are more observational then critical as I can’t imagine how Tarkin’s role could be developed without impacting the screen presence of Darth Vader. As such I still consider “A New Hope” to be one of the most complete films I have ever seen. 

9.5/10

Jono

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Spectre: A Fanboy Homage

The 24th Bond movie is a strong continuation from the hugely successful “Skyfall” but it is definitely more aimed at traditional fans than any of Daniel Craig’s previous efforts. SPECTRE takes all the elements reintroduced in “Skyfall” like Moneypenny, Q and the DB9 to another level combining them with the new method of personalised storytelling that revolutionised the francise with “Casino Royale”. The result is largely successful but does make a few trade offs which might not appeal to wider audiences but are second nature to die hard fans like myself.

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SPECTRE’s opening scene works well to capture audiences attention following the model of Craig’s other movies as it creates certain questions which the film has to answer. This opening chase sequence is inhanced by the stunning setting of Mexico City during the day of the dead which allowed the custome designers to explore different images of the macabre and turn it into a real spectacle. Where as Craig’s other films have emphasised a focus on slightly more realistic stunts the helicopter sequence at the end of Bond’s breif chase through the parade requires the audience to suspend their disbelief and is a little reminiscent of “GoldenEye” where Bond jumps into a falling plane. In many ways this shift epitomises the differnce between SPECTRE and “Skyfall”.

This exangeration is also visible in the main plot as it tries to tie the previouse three films together. Like “Quantum of Solace”, SPECTRE follows on directly from the last film and does this reasonably well with ‘M’ leaving Bond a secret message that sets up one last mission for the old boss. It also offers continuaty with Ralph Fiennes, Naoime Harris, Rory Kinnear and Ben Whishaw all reprising their roles from “Skyfall” as Bond’s fellow members of MI6. Unfortunately, the link with Craig’s other films isn’t as successful since the overiding storyline becomes a bit far fetched and feels overly simplistic at times.

Beyound the links to the previouse films the plot continues to deal with more of Bond’s personal life. This does successfully build the tension between Bond and Blofeld played by Christopher Waltz but is incapable of reaching the development present in “Casino Royale” or “Skyfall”. Similarly the film tries to build a relationship between Bond and Dr Madeleine Swann portayed by Léa Seydoux but despite their on screen chemistry she’s no Vesper. Overall the plot tries too hard to recaputre previous success and doesn’t quiet pull it off, yet it is far from a complete wreak.

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The strength of SPECTRE is undoubtedly the emphasis on the traditional Bond formula. Firstly, Ben Whishaw’s return as Q brings with it new and familar toys including a fully equiped Austen Martin DB10. More subtle then this is the return of a good old fashioned Bond henchmen in Mr Hinx played by Dave Bautista. A silent imposing figure he often appears seemingly out of nowhere and his physical size makes him a match for Craig. Like these elements the return of Blofeld the old nemesis might not please everyone but it does get fans who have grown up watching Bond films excited.

The result is a very good Bond movie but one that doesn’t rise to the heights acheived by “Skyfall”. Still it has it’s moments and is the first time since before the 80’s that a highpoint in the francise has not been followed by a monumental disappointment.

7.5/10

Jono

Retro Review:Casino Royale

Taking over from the naturally charming Pearce Brosnan who had become regarded by many as possibly the best Bond after Sean Connery was always going to be a challenge. Daniel Craig was also for many at the time an unknown quantity with parts in movies like Tomb Raider, Munich and Layer Cake when he was cast as the world’s most famous spy.  Plan’s for a rebut made some fans nervous and only added to the building uncertainty as film makers had flagged their intention to follow the more physical and realistic style laid out by the Bourne series. In this climate it was announced that Daniel Craig’s first movie as 007 would be an adoption of Fleming’s first novel Casino Royale which didn’t fail to get people excited. Ultimately these decisions help lead to a successful debut and possible the best Bond film ever made.

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The switch to a more physical approach worked perfectly for the introduction of the athletic Daniel Craig. This new look is obvious from the film’s opening sequence as the planned clean kill turns into a desperate struggle for survival. It isn’t until after Chris Connell’s theme that Craig’s physical approach to 007 really comes into focus through the parkour chase sequence in a construction site. While this opening scene may have been the height of Bonds physicality it remains visible throughout the rest of the film either in several hand to hand fight sequences or Bonds torture. This change allowed the film to distinguish Craig’s Bond from the earlier versions but isn’t the main reason for the film’s success.

Instead it is the focus on character development and creating a more emotionally complex storyline that makes Casino Royale standout. The central plot based on the capture of La Chiffre makes for an interesting backdrop to develop Bond’s character. The nearly promoted 007 spends most of the film coming to terms with his new position in the secret service as he is driven by a need to prove himself to those around him. This play’s out in the suspense of the poker game where Bond matches wits with La Chiffre and tries to impress the hard to catch Vesper Lynd. Unlike other movies where everything runs to plan the poker game forces Bond to face his own failure before he is given the chance to learn from his mistakes. His success is short lived as he must learn yet another cruel lesson when those closest to Bond ultimately betray him leaving him damaged and enlighten to the dangers of failing to remain detached.

This focus on character development would not be possible without a strong supporting cast. Dame Judi Dench remains reprising her role as M, ably fulfilling a duel maternal role, part guardian and part disciplinarian.  Mal Mikkelsen gives a calculating performance as La Chiffre providing a reserved counter to Bond’s charisma. It is the rare occasions when he loses his cool that Mikkelsen makes the role work as he gives a real intensity that represents the desperation of La Chiffre position. Possibly the greatest choice made by the production team however is Eva Green as Vesper Lynda. Not only is she captivating on screen but her ability to deliver witty comebacks with believable sarcasm makes the banter with Bond work. Like the other characters in Casino Royale, Vesper drops the prickly demeanour which Bond highlights at their first meaning and Green is able to effectively communicate her character’s emotional turmoil as their relationship develops. These strong performances help make Casino Royale more believable and contribute to Bond’s own development but what I notice the most is the film’s return to Fleming’s original body of work.

Reading my first Bond novel years ago ‘Dr No’ the thing that struck me as a fan of the films is Bond’s fragility as a man of flesh and blood as he spends a large section of the book either in pain or recovering. This same element is present in Casino Royale as unlike other Bond movies every battle leaves him with new scares that he must carry, the best example is after the fight in the hotel staircase as later when he is using the defibrillator the bandage from this earlier sequence is visible. Like Fleming’s Bond the representation in Casino Royale doesn’t get everything right and this leads to his capture and torture. This scene which makes every man in a cinema wince has Bond stripped of any hope or chance of escape and he relies ultimately on Mr White’s intervention for his survival.

The film ends with the classic James Bond calling card but Casino Royale is far from the simplistic story of its 20 predecessors with clear layers of development. However, importantly for fans it does not do away with the traditional elements of the classics as the silencer, car and witty one liners are all balanced with new style of Bond movie.

9/10

Jono