Review – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away… or more precisely over three and a half decades ago in a cinema in another town, a film came along which had a huge impact on the mind of a young 4 year old. The experience of that film made a lasting impression, introducing him to the majesty of films, the joy of space set adventure, and the galaxy of Star Wars. Decades later, the love affair with the franchise has wavered a slight bit. Yes, the love for the originals (untainted versions) is still as strong as ever, and the expanded universe of books and comics (and the occasional video game) has maintained the thrill, but a trilogy of prequels came and tainted any excitement for future instalments. So it was that, even after an impressive trailer campaign, I entered the screening of the new film, The Force Awakens, with a degree of trepidation. I’d been stung too many times, so wasn’t going to get too excited.

As the end credits played, I was that 4 year old kid once more, wanting to see the wonders on screen again, and desperately wanting to collect the toys and models that tie into the film!

Especially this little guy!

Especially this little guy!  Guaranteed to be on many Christmas lists this year!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the first of a new trilogy in the ‘core’ series (there will be other films set within the Star Wars universe, but they will be spin-offs, not forming the basis of the core tale), and it comes in the wake of the sale of the franchise to Disney. Sadly, this does mean no 20th Century Fox fanfare before the opening titles, but that’s only a minor disappointment. Director JJ Abrams, who in recent times has re-invigorated the Star Trek franchise (which he was criticised for making it feel too much like Star Wars), as a long term fan of the series, was a strong choice for the job. As the pieces were pulled together, excitement in the fan community began to build. Old cast were returning, whilst a new batch of fresh faces were being unveiled for the new chapter in the tale. Most importantly of all, throughout the whole trailer campaign nobody could really work out what the story was going to be about, and I’m not about to spoil it here. All I will say is that the opening scroll is a much better read than stuff about ‘trade negotiation’ and ‘political disputes’.

So, if I’m not going to talk about the plot, let’s look at the players. Obviously the return of Han, Leia, Chewbacca, and Luke will please old fans, and they all play key parts in the film, but this is not really their film. No, it belongs to the new faces, mainly Daisy Ridley as Rey, a scavenger from a backwater planet, John Boyega as Finn, a redeemed Storm Trooper, and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren, the dark force warrior. Oh, and of course BB-8, a small droid that carries an important message. Ridley and Boyega are instantly likeable in their parts, making for the kind of team up that we saw between, say, Han and Leia in the original trilogy, whilst Driver is furiously menacing as the villain of the piece, although his inability to control his emotions adds a depth of character to the part that wasn’t really seen in the role of Vader until the back end of the second film. The film serves as a way to hand over the reins to the new cast, who pick them up with ease, showing good promise for future entries into the saga.

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Action set-pieces are plentiful, albeit imbued with a fair bit of familiarity. In fact the film, as a whole, follows the beats of the original film much in the same way that Superman Returns did with Donner’s original film. JJ, along with long-term writer Lawrence Kasdan, fill the run time with echoes of the 1977 film, but not in a manner that is detrimental to the story, but in a way that redefines the franchise for a new generation, making it clear that this is a sequel to the original trilogy, and not the prequels. Even the lightsabre fights resonate more with the style seen in Empire or Jedi, and not the acrobatic, superhuman antics of Phantom, Clones and Sith.

It is safe to say that this is, perhaps, the third best film in the franchise to date, right after Empire and Star Wars, and sets up the story for the next chapter well. If there is any flaw it is that the fan-service within, whilst looking great, does mean that it never really defines itself as a film in its own right. However, with this re-introduction out the way, we can look forward to a glorious new future for the franchise, and for the first time in over a decade I am excited to see where the films take me next.

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Review: Steve Jobs

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One of the true shames about this film is that many people will choose not to see it for all the wrong reasons. There are those who turn their nose up at it as they don’t see why another film about Steve Jobs has been made (after the Ashton Kutcher film of 2013). Then there are those who vocally oppose Apple products so much that they refuse to accept there is any merit in a film about the founder of the company. This second group, to me, are a curious bunch – did they also feel Downfall wasn’t worth seeing because Adolf Hitler was a bad person? Already in the US, this film has had a poor opening and been pulled from a substantial number of screens, despite critical praise for the director (Danny Boyle), the writer (Aaron Sorkin), and the lead actor (Michael Fassbender), as well as the support cast of Kate Winslet, Jeff Daniels and Seth Rogan among others. Audiences, it seems, are not that bothered with a film aiming to get under the skin of one of the icons of the past few decades.

The film is inspired by the biography by Walter Isaacson, but in true Sorkin style takes a fresh approach, focussing on three key moments in time, and the relationships Jobs had with a small group of people at each point. The film is segmented into 3 chunks of around 40 minutes each, playing almost real-time behind the scenes activity at the launches of the Apple Mac in 1984, the NeXT computer in 1988, and the iMac in 1998. In the time before stepping out on stage to each of these launches, Jobs interacts with his confidant and marketing executive Joanna Hoffman (Winslet), the co-founder of Apple Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogan), the CEO of Apple John Sculley (Jeff Daniels), his former girlfriend Chrisann Brennan (Katherine Waterston), and his daughter Lisa, as well as John Oritz, a GQ journalist who interviews him through the film, and a handful of others. Through his interactions with these people we see both the cold, distant Jobs, focussed purely on his product and company, but with the occasional glimmer of the humanity he buried deep, whilst gaining some understanding over the course of the film as to why he kept such a distance from those around him.

With a script by Sorkin, a writer who doesn’t just hand over his words and walk away, instead sticking around and being an integral part of the film-making process, you can expect swift and fluid dialogue exchanges from the offset, and also plenty of ‘walk-and-talk’ moments (a trope which Sorkin popularised in shows such as Sports Night and West Wing), making dialogue heavy scenes more dynamic, and adding a sense of urgency to every conversation. The result is a conversation heavy film which never seems drawn out, never slows down, and keeps you engaged throughout, and has a light sprinkling of wit to raise a few smiles at points.

But Sorkin is only one piece of the recipe for this film, and Danny Boyle’s direction is solid throughout, with touches of flair that make you remember how much of a visual style director he is. The three periods in time have slightly different looks, from a slightly grainy early 80s, through to the smooth focus of the late 90s segment, and sharp use of backlit images (from Bob Dylan lyrics, to NASA footage) lend striking impact to scenes. In addition the performances he gets out of all the cast ensure that at no point do you write off Jobs as heartless, and the way in which he touched the lives of those around him (who, it has to be said, stayed loyal to him despite his flaws) is reflected well in every scene.

Finally, a mention must be made of Fassbender who delivers yet another fantastic performance, with a commanding presence as a man obsessed with how others seem to betray him, who fails to see that his icy demeanour is have far worse an impact on close friends and colleagues such as Wozniak, and his daughter, Lisa. Jobs was an enigma to many, but Fassbender seems to have deciphered what made him tick and channels everything into the role. He may not look much like Jobs, but he swiftly becomes the man entirely.

Steve Jobs was a complex man, and this film (and indeed any film about his life) can only scratch the surface of what drove him, but Srokin, Boyle and the cast do a sterling job of tapping into the persona of a modern day legend, sparking a desire to find out more about his life, his drive, and his impact on the world – because even if you are not an Apple fan (which I am not), you cannot deny the legacy he left behind after his passing, and the impression he made on the tech world.

Review: Kingsman: The Secret Service

Matthew Vaughn is no stranger to adaptations of comic book works, having been responsible for the film that sort-of rebooted the X-Men films, First Class. Neither is he a stranger to Mark Millar comics, and their more brutal manner of approaching an already familiar genre, as he directed Kick Ass, and acted as producer on the second film. With this new collaboration on a Millar title, Vaughn gets to explore Bond-styled themes as we discover the world of the secret agency known as Kingsman.
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The comic on which the film is inspired was a typical Millar approach to a genre, breaking down the conventions and putting a new spin on old ides. Much as how Kick Ass lovingly made fun of the idea of costumed vigilantes, so too did Secret Service poke fun at the spy genre. In adopting the film version, this loving mockery is retained, but never seems to be mocking as such as it embraces the old styled aesthetics of a crazy megalomaniac versus a secret agent, mountain lairs and strange skilled henchmen intact.

Story wise, the film has a Men in Black approach, as we are brought into the secret world of the Arthurian named agents of Kingsmen via a new recruit who joins a group of others in an intense training program of which only one can succeed in the end. It is usual for the recruits to be of the upper class stock, but Harry Hart aka. Galahad (Colin Firth) believes that there is potential in a young lad from a poor estate, Eggsy (Taron Edgerton). Whilst Eggsy starts proving his worth via tests laid on by Merlin (Marc Strong), the underlying plot plays out elsewhere. Celebrities great minds, and diplomats have been vanishing, and a wealthy tech developer, Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) is set to release a new mobile technology to the world. However Valentine has a secret agenda, and only the Kingsmen can stop him.
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The film is visually smart, and action is handled with skill and style that we have come to expect from Vaughn. From encounters with mobs in a local pub, to a frantic chase through an underground lair, Vaughn knows how to edit for pacing, but ensure that the action is seen (a pet hate of mine is the shaky camera and swift editing of many action films these days that don’t allow you to see the impact). There is generally a comical approach to the action, even in a high point of the film which sees a brutal massacre in the confines of a church. The balance of humour to brutality is well measured, much in the same way it played just right in Kick Ass. Other set pieces such as a group skydive exercise, or a flooded dorm room present more thrills and tension between the key moments, making this a well packed out action film.

Kingsman is a great, loving homage to the early days of spy films, whilst also setting up potential for a future franchise of well spoken, well educated, and most importantly well mannered spies for the new generation. A well rounded cast, including Michael Caine as Arthur, and Jack Davenport (who needs to be cast as Bond once Daniel Craig leaves the role) as Lancelot, all lend to the proceedings. It also has a great use of music tracks throughout, with standout moments using Freebird and Land of Hope And Glory to brilliant effect. Most importantly the film knows exactly what it wants to be, and doesn’t try to be a serious film. It is fun, frantic, and pure entertainment.

The Interview – Why Sony almost did the wrong thing…

The past few weeks have been a turbulent time for Sony, and many articles have covered the events in great detail. If you are already aware of the basic story, feel free to skip this first paragraph and get to the core issue I want to touch on. For the rest of you, who want a reminder of events, a hacking group calling themselves The Guardians of Peace began a cyber-terrorism campaign, breaking down servers and stealing documents, scripts, films, and emails from the company. Some of these emails and documents were private exchanges between Sony employees, and have been the source of all the recurrence of Spider-Man in Civil War rumours (which was old news and is still not going to happen), as well as some insulting remarks made against various celebs which has resulted in embarrassment for those involved. Disregarding the ethical questions regarding the news sites who published the emails (who seemed to think it was fine as Sony are a big company and deserve some flak – thus ignoring the very human aspect of people who believed their conversations were personal), the whole experience started to grow out of hand when medical insurance records had been hacked, and families of Sony employees were being drawn into the threats. When the hackers released a statement threatening doom to cinemas who screen the film, The Interview, with comments such as, “We recommend you to keep yourself distant from the places at that time,” it was the last straw for the major cinema chains in the US who refused to screen the film over the security risk involved. Sony initially responded by cancelling the release of the film, including any planned home release. After a bit of a backlash from industry pundits, Sony took the sensible step to retract that previous cancellation, and the film saw limited release on small cinemas in the US on Boxing Day, and a US digital download release at the same time.

Now, whilst it is genuinely a sad day for the industry when a distributor can be bullied into almost not releasing a film, what made it sadder were the, “Oh it looked rubbish anyway,” comments being thrown out by people who didn’t actually understand the significance of it all. The precedent was set, and pretty much every film made can cause offence to someone somewhere. Don’t like the idea of a black stormtrooper? That’s fine, start hacking and threatening now and you might stop it. Bond is sexist? Get going with the hate campaign and threaten to blow up cinemas. Feel that the Fast & Furious films promote high pollution cars that damage the environment? Get on it keyboard warriors.

interview1You see, any ’cause’ could now follow suit, and aim to cripple production of any film that bothers them. Already one film has been scrapped (a spy film which was going to star Steve Carrell), how many more will follow? I’ve said this before elsewhere, but must stress that there are people who have lost money in the form of income from this, not just corporate profits, but writers, camera crew, sound engineers, and all the other folk involved in making a film. Real people now without work due to a film being cancelled early in production. Whilst The Interview is now seeing a limited release, and a digital distribution, there is no way it will make the kind of money that Sony initially hoped, not without the major cinema chains’ support. It is likely the film will suffer a loss, but at least Sony have gained some credibility by standing up to the cyber-bullies and going ahead with some kind of release (intriguingly the Guardians of Peace issued a message saying they would allow Sony to release the film after all…AFTER Sony had already decided to do so. I suspect their bluff was called, and Sony won.)

Some folk speculated whether the whole affair was a publicity stunt to generate more interest in the film. Just the simple fact that early in the hacks a handful of unreleased Sony films were illegally obtained and distributed via online torrent sites should be enough to quell that myth. Why would Sony decide to kill the box office of other, higher profile films just to get more publicity for a Seth Rogan film that cost around $40million? Add to that the leaked scripts, embarrassing emails, and references to 9/11, and it is quite obvious to anyone that Sony didn’t engineer this whole thing.

interview2Whilst I did also throw out some jokey memes on various social media sites online around it all (after all, humour is a very human reaction to difficult situations) I still saw the bad precedent this has all set. From the start of the leaks onward I have commented on the genuine concerns all the actions of the past couple of weeks raise. Now it has proven to be a genuinely terrible moment for the industry. A film’s distribution and resulting box office takings can be damaged by a cyber-bullying campaign. Imagine if, next December, we are suddenly told that Disney are pulling the release of Star Wars Episode 7 because the cast and crew have had threats made online against them – how would you feel then?

So to those saying the film looked rubbish anyway and it is good it has been cancelled, I leave you with the words of Martin Niemoller.

” In Germany, they came first for the Communists, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist…

When they locked up the social democrats,
I remained silent;
I was not a social democrat.

…then they came for the Jews, And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew…

When they came for me, there was no one left to speak out.”