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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Released: 17th December 2015

Directed By: JJ Abrams

Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Adam Driver, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Domhnall Gleeson, Oscar Isaac

Certificate: 12A

‘Nothing will stand in our way. I will finish… what you started.’

The chilling words of a fresh and imposing intergalactic threat. But a mantra that could so easily have been embraced by the top-tier executives at Disney and their own supreme ‘chosen one’. In the year 2005, we witnessed the culmination of an indifferent prequel phase. For all their sporadically stunning swishes of a lightsaber, The Phantom Menace, Attack Of The Clones and Revenge Of The Sith collectively suffered from perfunctory CGI-heavy spectacle and awkward exposition that left many fanatical fans slumping in their cinema seats, wanting to scream ‘NOO!’ in the style of Star Wars’ most iconic antagonist.

The trilogy left the reputation of its once-cherished creator George Lucas tarnished. A much adored series plunged… Into Darkness (Sorry Star Trek fans!). In a modern cinematic landscape bombarding audiences with visual splendour and spoilerific sneak-peeks, this is a much-anticipated Episode shrouded in secrecy, now steered by a fantastical action auteur who thrives on toying with the powerful forces that be.

Already feeling the ‘Wrath of Khan’ through a distinct lack of clarity on his part, director J.J Abrams faces up to the daunting challenge of reinvigorating a $4 billion investment, as it enters exciting and uncharted territory whilst intertwining the beloved remnants of past glories without slipping into blatant fanboy plagiarism.

Set 30 years after Return Of The Jedi, from the outset, The Force Awakens displays a glorious sense of purpose fused with a fearless confidence. In newcomers Daisy Ridley’s Rae and John Boyega’s Finn, we have the poignant parallels of a seemingly slight Jakku-based scavenger and a morally-torn ‘fighter’ both questioning their own purpose and place in the galaxy.

In more pressing political matters, the responsibility of leading the latest charge lies on the broad shoulders of Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, a highly regarded fighter pilot complete with a wisecracking wit, that would make ‘homeward bound’ Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (voiced by Peter Mayhew) salivate.

Whilst the bond between beloved brother/sister Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) and General Leia (Carrie Fisher) remains strong, the forming of a deadly alliance threatens to be just as potent. Tortured by the daunting expectations of living up to the infamous name of Darth Vader, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is an unnerving pawn in the agenda established by the steely dictator General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis).

Abrams’ clear intent to drive a sleek narrative at a breakneck pace like a well-trained X-Wing fighter, has consistently served him well with his previous forays into franchise territory. Tackling whilst adding to a respected mythology, in lesser hands, the expansive ensemble struggle to register and the mysterious plot threads threaten to never bind.

The Force Awakens first and foremost, serves as a sensational homage to Episodes IV-VI. A back-to-basics emphasis on practical effects laying the foundations, the painstaking craft of the stunning worlds and inhabitants (the show-stealing BB8 a delightful addition) created is thrillingly evident.

Gone are the weightless backdrops. Welcome an involving and immersive cinematic experience, which is merely accentuated by the crowd-pleasing visual motifs (enter the Millennium Falcon!) and the instant imprinted quality of J.J’s dizzying direction, coupled with the dialogue of series veteran Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt’s beautifully constructed script.

Always impactful whilst varying in their respective screen time, the original trio of Carrie Fisher’s Leia, Mark Hamill’s Skywalker and Harrison Ford’s Solo instill this entry with an often spine-tingling and superior sincerity, with the mere early infancy of shared scenes possessing a poignant power. Affecting with a word. Devastating with a look or gesture.

For all the wondrous nostalgia, it’s the enthusiasm of introducing a new generation of fully fledged characters that truly elevates ‘Awakens from being wholly derivative. Its original feisty female born into royal prestige, Daisy Ridley’s grounded Rae is a terrific counterpoint whose interactions with the infectious charismatics of John Boyega’s Finn are assured in their consistent light-hearted nature.

A trait easily applied to Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron whose wholesome heroics impress, yet it’s the compelling complexities of Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren who is the standout, with his ‘loose-cannon’ demeanour creating an almost frightening atmosphere whenever he graces the screen.

 

Movie Reviews

Bad Times at the El Royale ★★★★

Bad Times at the El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp.

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Director: Drew Goddard

Stars: Dakota Johnson, Cynthia Erivo, Jeff Bridges, Jon Hamm, Chris Hemsworth, Lewis Pullman

Released: 12th October 2018 (UK)

Bad Times at the El Royale has seemingly fallen foul of the particularly hectic October release schedule in the U.K. As Venom and A Star is Born dominate the box-office and with the London Film Festival in full swing, El Royale has not received the recognition it deserves.

Boasting an impressive cast, Bad Times at the El Royale follows seven strangers whose stories intertwine at the El Royale hotel in Lake Tahoe. As each person’s agenda for being at the El Royale is revealed, tensions inevitably rises and the characters collide.

From the get-go, El Royale feels like a throwback to Tarantino in all his 90’s pomp. Director Drew Goddard, no stranger to managing madness following his debut A Cabin in the Woods, has crafted an immersive, intricately linked murder-mystery that feels like a grindhouse version of Cluedo. The violence is garish but necessary, the dialogue is short and snappy and the characters are most importantly, interesting. The hardest part of any film with so many moving parts, is making the audience actually bond with those involved. Goddard, who also wrote the screenplay, has nailed this – giving enough back-story for each, whilst holding enough back to keep us learning more.

Between Jeff Bridge’s bad-ass priest, Dakota Johnson’s kill-happy hippy and Chris Hemsworth’s dancing cult-leader, the wider cast have somehow managed to create a credible on-screen dynamic, despite the stark character contrasts. Cynthia Erivo’s soulful singer Darlene is the obvious standout and her interactions with Bridge’s Father Flynn provide some of the most film’s most satisfying scenes. Lewis Pullman’s unassuming concierge Miles is another strong performance deserving of a mention.

The film swaggers along accompanied by its killer soundtrack, which plays a crucial part in the films tonal change from chapter to chapter. It’s dark and violent, yet at times it’s engaging and even emotional. The sharp edits that mash-up the timeline don’t over-complicate the plot, but accentuate the frenzied feeling that Goddard is creating as we head towards the plot’s crescendo.

As expected there are some areas where a film with so much going on inevitably suffers. Jon Hamm’s Seymour is arguably the biggest victim of this, with his character perhaps not utilised as much as it could have been. The film also feels a little too fleshed out in parts, lingering on some of the less necessary aspects and leaving one or two plotlines unexplored as a result.

Bad Times at the El Royale really does feel like a Tarantino movie and that’s no mean feat, Goddard has taken his own style and applied tried and tested techniques to create a compelling, genuinely exciting movie and one that deserves to be enjoyed by a wider audience.

 

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Arctic ★★★★

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Released: 5 December 2018

Directed by: Joe Penna

Starring: Mads Mikkelsen, Maria Thelma Smáradóttir

Reviewed by: Lauren Tina Brady

An expanse of white as far as the eye can see, gently sloping mountains in the horizon, a polar bear pads silently across the snow, pausing briefly to gaze back at the watching man across the valley.

At first Arctic reads as a classic survival narrative; the basic man vs. nature conundrum. I’d recently seen The Mountain Between Us, which draws some very obvious similarities; plane crash, hostile snowy environment, a great expanse needing to be crossed for a chance of survival. However, unlike relying on the pairing of Kate Winslet and Idris Elba for context,  Arctic’s dialogue is bare. This is largely due to the fact that there is only the protagonist for the first third of the film, played by Mads Mikkelsen.

At first it appears to lull you into that false sense of security of knowing exactly how this works out; he sticks to a routine of catching fish, laying out black rocks spelling ‘help’ against the snow and signalling for nearby aircraft. However, crucially, we don’t know who he is. He speaks very little, in both Danish and English. He offers no information to help us piece together a backstory and remains an enigma throughout, which feels fresh. The character becomes more than a person; he becomes the flicker of hope for survival, the spectrum of emotions that occur in the darkest of hours.

There is plenty of drama to keep us on the edge of our seats; he has a chance of escape quite early on – a small helicopter has spotted him and attempts to make it’s way towards him in strong winds leading to a crash. There are two people on board; one is killed with the other, a woman (Maria Thelma Smáradóttir), who survives but is badly hurt and must be cared for. Suddenly the odds of both surviving are halved; the danger is intensified.

Here is a tale of endurance over survival. This is where Mikkelsen excels; he digs deep to portray every possible emotion through a gruelling and ice-cold journey. He is silent but his face says everything. I laughed in delight, I wept quietly. It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing this role.

It’s a feat for Joe Penna, directing his feature film debut. See it for Mikkelsen, stay for the sensitive direction and the stunning cinematography.

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Movie Reviews

LFF 2018 Review – Museum ★★★★

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Director: Alonso Ruizpalacios

Stars: Gael García Bernal, Leonardo Ortizgris, Alfredo Castro

Released: London Film Festival 2018

It’s Christmas Day, 1985. College dropouts Juan Nunez and Benjamin Wilson are ready to pull off an audacious heist that will have authorities searching for professional art thieves for years. Based on a true story, Alonso Ruizpalacios’ film sees the duo attempt to steal 140 priceless artefacts from the National Museum of Anthropology in Mexico City. Winner of the Silver Bear for Best Screenplay at Berlin International Film Festival earlier this year, Museum explores the mindsets of two would be criminals with nothing to lose.

The tale is narrated by Wilson, played with subtle compassion by Leonardo Ortizgris. Wilson’s role is much like Nick’s in The Great Gatsby, an opinionated and somewhat loyally biased eye through which Juan is diluted. Played by Gael Garcia Bernal, Juan is the film’s focus, a Mexican Cool Hand Luke drifting through his young adulthood. In the hands of another actor, Juan may have come off as entitled, lazy even, but Bernal’s performance layers the character with sympathetic naivety and relatable desire. A perennially youthful, multifaceted actor, Bernal paints buckets of emotion into every micro-expression.

The crime takes place after Christmas dinner, a lively family affair that sees Juan alienated and berated. At first, the silence is reminiscent of the hanging scene from Mission: Impossible; the tension equally palpable. But soon the action changes, pared back to a static style similar to the panels of a comic book. It is a technique repeated throughout the film, the continuity broken up into freeze frames that are not quite motionless, still alive with a touch of movement. Reducing these scenes to a childlike fantasy, Ruizpalacios succeeds in creating the ultimate sense of idyllic, youthful adventure.

Something often ignored in heist films is the aftermath, when the thieves must deal with the fallout of their decisions. Museum’s second act focuses on this aspect, allowing the introduction of an English art dealer, played by the superb Simon Russell Beale. Uncertainty builds from the start of their meeting, as the camera endlessly pans until Juan’s misguided perceptions come crashing down around him. In a script littered with intelligence and comedy, it is a pleasant surprise to see the characters’ raw emotion become the focal point.

Ruizpalacios seems content to pose questions that hang wispily in the air, unanswered: questions of cultural ownership, of morality and greed. He is more interested in the character study at the heart of this story, of a man who commits a crime out of boredom, a sense of nihilism or a desire for adventure, or perhaps a little of all three. It is a fresh idea in a crowded genre, making for a film that is impressive but never quite brilliant, a wonderful adventure that doesn’t aim to blow minds. But does that matter? As Juan says and Wilson relays: “Why let the truth ruin a good story?”, a sentiment Ruizpalacios takes quite literally. Luckily for him, Museum is without a doubt a good story.

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