My 2015 in Film (Part 2)


Cinema Screen


My 2015 in Film (Part 2)

A continuation of my ramblings about the 2015 released films I saw.



Self/less (2015, dir. Tarsem Singh)

I was surprised by this film.  Admittedly it had Ryan Reynolds in it, and I can watch him in almost anything, but I actually enjoyed this film, even if it was fairly obvious where it was going and what was going to happen.  Anyone familiar with SF literature will recognise the story arc, old rich man downloads consciousness into new body… hijinks ensue, but it was well presented and acted, and pretty enjoyable.  And who doesn’t love Ben Kinglsey?


Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation (2015, dir. Christopher McQuarrie)

The M:I franchise demonstrates what the Bond movies are severely lacking, an ensemble cast and a sense of humour.  This is an absurd, fun, exaggerated action movie that provides chewing gum for the eyes and popcorn for the brain.  It doesn’t matter that the plot is ridiculous.  It doesn’t matter that both the hero and the villain are both over-qualified super spies.  The stunts are amazing, the action is glorious, and you get what was advertised.


Pixels (2015, dir. Chris Columbus)

What could have been a fun, nostalgia filled trip down computer memory lane turned out to be a fairly tedious and unfunny Adam Sandler film.  Who would have guessed?  The visuals were great, the references to the old arcade games were fun, but unfortunately it had Adam Sandler as a hero and contained all the annoying dialogue and unfunny jokes we have come to expect from him these days.


Fantastic Four (2015, dir. Josh Trank) aka Fant4stic

This one surprised me.  It got a lot of hate online before I had a chance to see it, and I was therefore pleasantly surprised.  As far as superhero reboots go, and they are all the rage apparently, this was actually pretty interesting.  Trank’s earlier effort Chronicle (2012) clearly had a strong influence on what he was trying to do here, and I found it a lot more engaging than most of the superhero destruction fests on offer.  Admittedly the last ¼ of the film was a bit of a let-down and felt rushed and skated over, the character of Doom was under-utilised, and the finale felt ‘meh’.  It could have been really engaging, as the acting was pretty good, the origin story was an intriguing update marrying the New 52 with older continuity, and the effects were pretty damn interesting.  I enjoyed this one.  So much so, that I would actually look forward to a sequel by the same director with the same actors.


The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (2015, dir. Guy Ritchie)

I loved the trailer for this film.  Seriously, the trailer is great.  Watch the trailer.  What can I say?  This is a polished, stylish, smooth, hollow film.  I don’t have any nostalgia for the TV show, so there was nothing there for this film to build on.  It looked great, it seemed to have all the story elements that it should, it just felt soulless and cold to me.  It was like a pretty, empty, shell of a spy film.  The costuming was great though.  I really liked the suits that Henry Cavill got to wear…


Hitman: Agent 47 (2015, dir. Aleksander Bach)

Computer game adaptation sequels are never likely to be amazing works of cinematic genius, but this has some excellent fight choreography and some impressive action sequences.  The story trips along predictably, but entertainingly, the acting wasn’t offensive, and the dialogue wasn’t particularly cringe worthy.  It is a step up from the Uwe Boll films at least.  What more do you want from a computer game franchise film?


The Martian (2015, dir. Ridley Scott)

A film in which Matt Damon needs to be rescued … again… as an internet meme is currently pointing out.  This was actually a good film.  It was enjoyable, smart, interesting, and only slightly strained incredulity.  It was also surprisingly fun and some excellent moments of tension.  I had a great time watching it, and, unlike Interstellar (2014, dir. Christopher Nolan), didn’t come out of it regretting having listened to the hype.  Damon is brilliant in this, and it convinces me further that Elysium (2013, dir. Neill Blomkamp) being awful had very little to do with him and much more to do with the fact that Blomkamp is over-rated and not actually that talented.


The Last Witch Hunter (2015, dir. Breck Eisner)

Hey, Vin Diesel is great.  I will watch anything he is in (see Furious 7 above for proof… hell, I even watched The Pacifier (2005, dir. Adam Shankman)).  This film is part fairytale, part Urban Fantasy, and part Fantasy Epic, but seemed to be desperately trying to be a modern Sf action movie.  It felt a lot like Van Helsing (2004, dir. Stephen Sommers) and I, Frankenstein (2014, dir. Stuart Beattie), but was better than Seventh Son (2014, dir. Sergey Bodrov).  I don’t know why it is that so few Fantasy films actually work well.  Especially when there are so many great Fantasy works out there that prove that it can be smart, engaging, grown up, and riveting.  But this, unfortunately, is another one to watch when there is nothing else on.


Spectre (2015, dir. Sam Mendes)

Despite Mendes’  protestations to the contrary the opening shot of this was remarkably similar to Soy Cuba (1964, dir. Mikhail Kalatozov), and that was probably the best thing about this bloated, cold, sterile, humourless, dour, tedious instalment in the Bond franchise.  It was almost bad enough to make me want to watch the Pierce Brosnan Bond films again.  When did Bond get so boring?  Even Christoph Waltz (playing exactly the same character he always seems to play) couldn’t save this film for me because there was no intimacy between him and Bond, the threat and antagonism seemed so impersonal and distant.  The stunts were good but lacked the style and sense of ridiculous fun that the M:I seem to have cornered the market on.  It felt like this was a film going through the motions of being a Bond movie… Opening cinematic stunt sequence?  Check.  Under-used female co-stars?  Check.  Unbelievable romance sub-plot that won’t go anywhere?  Check.  Car chase?  Check.  Ridiculous villain with nonsensical plan?  Check.   Casino Royale (2006, dir. Martin Campbell) seemed to breathe fresh air into the franchise… but now that air seems to have gone stale at best, and as rancid as a fart in a space suit at worst.  But they managed to make Quantum of Solace (2008, dir. Marc Foster ) look better by comparison.


The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 (2015, dir. Francis Lawrence)

I am not a Hunger Games fan.  I am just saying that up-front so you know.  I am also not a huge fan of films that split a book into two in a desperate grab for more money.  Despite that, I thought that this was the least tedious and awful of the films.  It was certainly a lot darker and grimmer than I expected (I only managed to make it through the first book and couldn’t face the rest of them).  Jennifer Lawrence is a great actor and I love watching her films (hence forcing myself to watch this one), and Philip Seymour Hoffman will be missed… but I was left fairly nonplussed by this.  It hit me squarely in the ‘meh’ zone.  Just not for me I guess.  Everyone else seemed to really enjoy it.


Creed (2015, dir. Ryan Coogler)

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this Rocky/Not Rocky film.  Sure the story was predictably by the numbers but Michael B Jordan was pretty good in this and Sylvester Stallone plays the aged champ turned reluctant trainer with ease.  The boxing matches seemed a lot more convincingly choreographed this time around, and there was a decent human and humane element running through the film that only occasionally lurched into full bombast.   Not a bad film in my not so humble opinion.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015, dir. J.J. Abrams)

I have already reviewed this… twice, so don’t have much to add, except that, upon further reflection (and by this I mean that I have shamelessly stolen the thought from a friend), Kylo Ren is actually a pretty interesting and scary villain as soon as you start to think of him as one of the mass-shooter teenager types who rages through schools killing innocent children and teachers.  His lack of empathy, his dialogue, and his desire to re-enact the murderous acts of a previous monster matches disturbingly well with the profiles of those individuals who have shot up schools and universities.  But if you want a review you can easily click on the links to the right to find the two more detailed discussions of TFA.


The Hateful Eight (2015, dir. Quentin Tarantino)

I didn’t like it.  Cinematically it had some wonderful shots and some clever framing, but ultimately I didn’t care how or why any of the characters would die.  I am not a huge Western fan, so the homages to previous Westerns were lost on me.  The story was contrived and slightly tedious, and even though the dialogue was very sharp in places and some of the acting was great, this one just wasn’t for me.

Spoiler Filled Review: Star Wars The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)




I have posted a spoiler-free review of Star Wars the Force Awakens already, so if you still haven’t seen it you might prefer to read that than read this spoiler-filled review.

If you have seen it just skip down to the bold title below.  This whole section is just to prevent people seeing spoilers.

Seriously, this one has spoilers in it.

For those that don’t want to read spoilers you need to look away.

Not kidding here.

There are spoilers below.


Alright then, I think I have done my due diligence in trying to prevent spoilers unknowingly ruining someone’s day.  If not, then at least I tried.

Spoiler-Filled Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (JJ Abrams, 2015)
<With more than a little snark… ok a lot of snark… and some ranty grumbling>


There is a line from 10 Things I Hate About You (1999) that sum up the experience of watching the new Star Wars film.
‘I know you can be overwhelmed, and you can be underwhelmed, but can you ever just be whelmed?’
The Force Awakens just leaves you feeling whelmed.  Or, in modern parlance, meh.  In fact a friend of mine suggested it was really Star Wars: The Requel given its uneasy status as both reboot and sequel.  Alternatively, we could call it Star Wars: The Next Generation.  Part of this was due to the unsustainable hype and level of expectation built up before the film’s release, and partly due to the nostalgia tinted glasses with which we view the originals.  But the bottom line is, if you liked Star Wars: A New Hope you will like this… because it is the same film.

Or, as I more politely and tactfully said in my original Spoiler Free review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.


Let’s start with the good.  Sitting in the cinema, the screen darkens, the lights go out, the logos appear and then… STAR WARS accompanied by Williams’ iconic overture.  In that one moment of giddy excitement you relive the first time you saw Star Wars.  Get used to that feeling, well not the excitement part, because for the next two hours you are going to feel like you are, in fact, re-watching Star Wars: A New Hope with a dash of Empire and sprinkling of Jedi, but not in a good way.


But I said I would start with the good, so we shall carry on with that.  Firstly, it sounds fantastic.  It has the John Williams score so it sounds like Star Wars, and he has reworked some of the themes and tracks to give a Star Wars feel to the new characters.  But, perhaps more importantly, The Force Awakens has Ben Burtt’s sound effects all cleaned up for the modern audience.  The TIE Fighters engines scream, and their lasers whine, while the X-Wings have their own jet-engine roar and the blatt blatt of their blasters.  There is the familiar snap hiss of lightsabers followed by their distinctive crackle.  BB-8 has cutesy droid noises that are similar to, but separate from, R2-D2’s chirruping.  Stormtrooper laser blasts vie with the distinctive fire from the Rebel Alliance Resistance blasters.  These sound effects, more than anything else, really give you a sense of the Star Wars universe.  The ships and costuming can change, either dramatically or subtly, but as long as it sounds ‘right’ I can forgive a lot.

Actually the costuming was pretty great too.  The Stormtroopers have been revamped slightly but are still recognisable in their iconic white armour with black trim.  Rey’s desert robes are sufficiently desert-y.  The rebel Resistance pilots wear the familiar orange flight suits.  Han Solo has the same outfit on that he had thirty years ago.  Chewie still has no pants.  The First Order officers look sufficiently like Nazis/Imperial officers that we can’t fail to make the connection between them and EVIL™.   And Kylo Ren has the black helmet, the sweeping cloak, and clearly the best tailor in the galaxy.  No one says being evil means you have to dress poorly, and let’s face it the Sith have always been snappier dressers than the Jedi.


Speaking of how it looks, it is pretty.  It is by far the best looking of all the Star Wars films.  Abrams utilises CGI to enhance and supplement the practical effects and tries not to let them completely dominate the screen.  This is especially true in the action sequences, particularly the dog fights and the X-Wing trench run attack run (yes, another one, only this time the trench is a lot shorter) on the third Deathstar Starkiller Base to target a tiny over-looked weakness in the base design.

[Side note: At some point someone is going to execute all the structural and military engineers at the Sith Academy… or at least let them go with extreme prejudice.  Once is a mistake, twice is carelessness, but three times?  That is outright criminal negligence.]

While the digitally re-mastered versions of the original trilogy and the prequels were slathered in gobs of CGI that obscured or obfuscated the action, Abrams actually showed some real restraint.  Even the dreaded lens flare that blinded Star Trek audiences in recent years was scarce.  There seemed to be enough on the screen to denote action and ‘epic space battle’ but not so much flashing rubbish that you couldn’t follow the action sequences or run the risk of triggering photosensitive epilepsy.  Abrams also tried to have the camera follow one main actor or moving piece at a time so that the audience’s weary eyes could actually track the action.  For the most part he succeeds, and this results in far more interesting action scenes that engage the audience.


There were also some beautiful cinematic landscape shots, particularly in the early scenes of the young Luke Rey scavenging from the old AT-ATs and ruined star ships crashed around the desert planet of Tatooine Jakku.  As Rey enters Mos Eisley Niima Outpost Abrams has thankfully done away with the slapstick CGI comedy that cluttered the screen in the re-mastered New Hope and gone with predominantly physical effects to give a lived in and distressed look to the settlement.  It actually looks like a crappy outpost in the arse end of nowhere.  The move of the cantina Maz Kanata’s bar from Mos Eisley to the forested Yavin 4 Takodana adds a little variety to the landscapes depicted in the film.  As does the inclusion of the snowy wastes of Hoth Starkiller Base.  Unfortunately no equivalent of Cloud City and Bespin featured heavily, so I am sure they are saving that for the next one.


Another positive was the slightly more diverse casting of this film.  Rather than the usual selection of pale white faces intermixed with strange aliens, we get to see a couple of non-white actors… on screen… in potentially important roles… That sure is a lot of progress.  Huh, I think my sarcasm font isn’t working.  But seriously, it was great seeing John Boyega emerge from the blood splattered Stormtrooper helmet and show a human face inside the armour.  The weird way that a laser blast through a fellow Stormtrooper’s armour (presumably cauterising and burning a wound) allows him to smear his facemask with blood might seem an extraordinarily convenient way to mark Finn out for the scene, but it seems harsh to pick at such an unsightly and easy plot scab.  While the transition of FN-2187 to Finn might have felt a little uneven and rushed, Boyega was pretty good on screen and created a likeable and surprisingly complex character that had feet of clay.  Certainly Boyega has laid the groundwork for Finn to develop far more fully in the later instalments of the franchise.  Hmmm that might be a very useful phrase for this film… ‘lays the groundwork for the future instalments’ and the second part of that phrase, ‘rather than giving us a complete film in and off itself this time around.’


Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron, the greatest pilot in the galaxy (as we are told at least three times) was underused in this film.  Isaac is clearly capable of great performances, but there was just no room in the script for him or his character apart from a couple of short scenes and the odd flight shot.  His torture scene at the hands of Kylo Ren, in no way reminiscent of Leia being questioned by Vader in A New Hope or Solo being tortured in Cloud City, wasn’t the best opportunity to showcase Isaac’s acting skills but he still manages to turn the scene into something memorable.  In fact, Isaac did his damndest to steal every scene he was in with infectious devil-may-care charm and some smouldering looks that may have been aimed at Finn rather than Rey.  Could Star Wars finally have an openly gay hero?  Probably not, but we can always hope.  But as the stand-in for the new generation’s Han Solo Isaac put in a good performance, and it bodes well for the future that Abrams kept him in instead of killing him off… ‘laying the groundwork for the future instalments’.  Admittedly, it would have been nice to not constantly be told that he was the greatest pilot in the galaxy and simply shown that, but perhaps such subtlety was lost on the editing room floor in order to carve out more space for needless fan service and homages to the original trilogy.


Rey, The Force Awakens’ Luke Skywalker stand-in, is ably played by Daisy Ridley.  Her initial wordless scenes demonstrated her ability to convey character and emotion without the need of dialogue, which says a lot about her acting chops and Abrams’ direction.  Unfortunately, for no real reason, she has a strong English accent, despite the fact that no character on the planet around her has a similar one.  Apparently some accents are just genetically predetermined.  She presents a fascinating character and it is great to have a female hero Jedi-in-training on the big screen and in live action.  If as much care had been given to her later scenes as those early ones, this would have been a far superior film, albeit with fewer scenes stolen directly from the original trilogy.  Given that Abrams was cramming so much into this film, Rey’s force sensitivity blooming into full-on command of the force felt rushed, not because of the character of Rey, or Ridley’s portrayal, but because Abrams didn’t give the character the room to breathe.


I am really looking forward to seeing her in action in the later films when she gains even more control over her considerable force powers as she clearly ‘laid the foundations for development in future instalments’.  For those that think she learned the Force far too quickly, there is a great scene when Kylo Ren is torturing her and you see her watch what he is doing and learn from it.  And, later, she attunes herself to the Force, giving herself to it, and we witness her channel it.  Again, Ridley portrays this wonderfully on–screen without unnecessary dialogue… then again, considering the number of people complaining about this maybe the dialogue laying everything out for the audience wasn’t completely unnecessary.  I liked it though.


Han, Chewie and Leia are back! Well sort of.  Don’t get me wrong, seeing Han Solo and Chewbacca stride aboard the Millenium Falcon (despite the absurd coincidence) was fantastic.  It made no sense and was completely out of place, but it was still a great moment.  Just in case fans didn’t get their A New Hope fill with that one particular moment we also have shots of the holographic chess game and a target drone.  And Rey and Finn hiding in the smuggling compartments.  And the earlier scene in which Finn fires the quad lasers at TIE Fighters which is clearly completely different to the almost identical scene in A New Hope because it is in a planet’s atmosphere and not space.  And a later scene of it needing repairs.  But seriously, those moments of fan service were not completely wasted, just a little redundant, and felt more like copies rather than homages.  Time on these scenes could have perhaps been better spent on more original content rather than re-hashing the plot and scenes of A New Hope.


So despite the ridiculously tenuous reason for the Millenium Falcon to be on Jakku, and apparently the only Corellian freighter still flying in the Galaxy, and the billion to one shot that Solo could track it as soon as it left the atmosphere from light years away… it was still great to see it.  I mean, it just wouldn’t have been the same if it had been a different junked up Corellian freighter on Jakku that Rey and Finn flew away, and that Solo and Chewbacca had found them and used parts from it to repair the Falcon.  That would have been close to believable and clearly believable, rational, or even ‘likely, have no place in this film.  It isn’t so much that the coincidences in this film are absolutely, mind-bogglingly, astronomically staggering, (it is a film that has science fiction wizards with laser swords after all) it is the fact that not a single person seems to think that the coincidences are at all noteworthy.  Plot convenience can excuse some level of quirky twists of fate, but some discretion or even half-hearted attempt at believability would have been nice.


Speaking of sins of convenience of ridiculous proportions, wasn’t it handy that Luke’s lightsaber turns up in Obi Wan Kenobi’s trunk in the one bar that Rey, Han et al decide to swing by?  It is not as if hundreds of Jedi were killed across the Galaxy during the Empire’s purge and that she could have found anyone’s lightsaber just then.  Or that Kylo Ren could have taken it and kept it as a keepsake on his nightstand next to the melted face mask of his grandfather.  Nope, Rey has to find Luke’s ancient lightsaber that has been knocking around for decades but is thankfully still fully charged and in excellent working order.  And it was helpfully stored in Obi Wan’s travel trunk, that at some point after his death, Luke had gone back to Tatooine to collect, then deliver to a bar owner on a different planet.  Uh huh.  That isn’t a fan Easter egg, that is a staggering series of unlikely events.  Plus, it was lucky that both a resistance informant and a First Order informant were drinking in that exact bar and had enough cell phone coverage to contact their various bosses, light years away I might add, in a manner that is coincidentally reminiscent of Garindian informing on Han and Luke et al in Mos Eisley.  I mean, in that case he just contacted the local guard post, so it made sense, but here we have interplanetary communications that result in both sides arriving at near identical times.  That is some grand happenstance right there.


The meeting between Leia and Solo was an emotional one that surprisingly missed the opportunity to reprise their famous exchange.  When Solo was leaving I was expecting him to say ‘I love you’ and for Leia to respond ‘I know’.  But clearly Abrams though that copying that scene would be stealing too much from the earlier film… either that or the inversion of the dialogue was too original.  Hard to tell.  But, seeing as Chewie does not go to comfort Leia after Solo’s death, nor she to him, it is possible that their estrangement was rougher than was shown.  It made far more sense for random people she doesn’t know and who didn’t really know Han to show emotion in that scene.  Although, this could possibly be foreshadowing the future films by laying a foundation that Rey is in fact Leia and Han’s daughter, the twin of Kylo Ren.  They just abandoned her on a desert planet to be raised by strangers because that actually worked out well for Luke.  Sorry, I am still meant to be on the good things about the film.  Han Solo and Chewie are in it.  We also get a couple of scenes in which Han tries out Chewie’s bowcaster gun that he has been carrying around for nearly over thirty years that apparently Han has never fired, or even seen fired.  It was cool to see though.


I was disappointed by how little Carrie Fisher got to do in the film.  Given the amount of time that Solo and Chewie were on screen, it would have been nice to see Leia be a bit more hands on, and show us what a bad-ass general she is.  But perhaps they are just laying the foundations for the future instalments.  As it is, her appearance feels like a wasted cameo inserted solely to appease the fans.  I mean they have a female Jedi-wannabe, why would they add another significant female character that could demonstrate strong leadership skills, a forceful (geddit?) personality and be a bad ass general to boot?   Instead she is pretty much relegated to Hans ex-squeeze, Kylo Ren’s ex-Mom, and has Mon Mothma level dialogue.  If Chewie needs a new co-pilot I am voting her.  Rey can hang out in back and fix the ship and shoot the guns.  I want Leia up front and calling all the shots.  But she does figure as part of the heart of this film for the older fans.  I am not sure what the younger and newer fans will make of her.


And oddly enough that that brings us to the bad ‘guys’.  Before diving in with the main adversaries, let’s have a moment to talk about Captain Phasma.  A bad-ass Stormtrooper Captain, who wears really cool chrome armour, leads Finn’s squad, and her… yes I said her… we have  female Stormtrooper everyone… and her main job is to tell Finn off.  That’s it.  But because she doesn’t chastise him enough, or send him to the naughty step, he runs away to join the Rebelllion Resistance, thus laying the blame for what happens almost solely at the feet of about the only female Stormtrooper we have ever knowingly seen in Star Wars.  To make matters worse, she is solely responsible for turning off the shields of the entire planet from that one tiny control room, that is conveniently located next to where Rey is being held, and near the thing the Resistance have to blow up… all on a planet sized base.  Is that lucky or what?  I sincerely hope that she turns up in the later ones, because she was criminally underused, and was definitely more intriguing than General Hux.  Is anyone else getting the feeling that female characters are getting short shrift in this series… again?  Although I should point out that there are a couple of female officers knocking around on both the First Order side and the Resistance side.  I don’t think we get their names, or even significant dialogue from them, but at least they are there.  The Resistance even has a couple of female pilots, although I am guessing that they earn about 70 cents to the dollar of their male counterparts.


Before getting to General Ranty McShoutyface we need to talk about Kylo Ren, Discount Vader Darth Vader Jr. Darth Emo Emo Vader AKA Ben Solo.  I thought that the prequels had cornered the market on angst ridden, overly emotional, mewling, whining, Sith teenagers.  Apparently I was wrong.  When we first meet him Kylo Ren is menacing.  The face mask, the breathing, the weirdly modulated voice, the scary lightsaber, the cool force powers, dressed all in black and flanked by the faceless Stormtrooper hordes in contrasting white.  Damn that guy was scary.  He was cold, cruel, pragmatic, and a galactic bad ass.  He orders the murder of civilians without breaking a sweat.  He freezes a laser bolt in time without blinking.  He was the villain we all wanted to hate and fear.  Then he takes off the helmet and lo and behold the worst helmet hair in history and has the self-control of a puppy in heat spotting a nearby leg, thereby becoming the villain we all simply hate.


Even long ago, in a galaxy far, far away they must have had conditioner.   Apparently the Empire’s First Order’s mission is to locate a hair products factory in order to sate the styling needs of their young Sitholescent.  Either that or the helmet has magical powers to tame the worst mane of hair and to regulate his emotionally charged outbursts.  I understand that the Sith are meant to be slaves to their emotions, or something like that, but really?  His temper tantrums and ranting delivery of spittle inflected lines made me long for him to put the helmet back on again and glue it there.  Admittedly it did lead to one of the best moments of the film when two Stormtroopers see the ranting down the hall and just turn around and leave him to it.  I like to think those troopers were called Steve and Bob and they headed off to have some coffee by the water cooler, talk about their day and complain about their psychotic boss… before being blown up by the Resistance.


I am not particularly familiar with Adam Driver, but I have to imagine that he has turned in more nuanced performances than this.  Actually, I know he can, because the scenes when he is wearing the helmet are great.  So I lay the blame for his scene chewing, whingeing solely at the feet of the director who apparently said ‘cut, that was great.’  In the original films we saw Vader use controlled anger and occasionally lash out.  We saw the Emperor cackle with evil, sadistic glee.  We saw how the dark side uses emotions and amplifies the negative ones.  We didn’t really hear about how Palpatine’s mum and dad never really loved him enough, or didn’t understand him.  I know, I know, he is meant to be evoking the brooding Anakin from the prequels, but why resurrect that mess?  Anger, rage, wrath, these are dark side emotions that can be channelled into a chilling performance as we see in the scenes when he is wearing the mask.  When the mask was off I kept waiting for him to offer to read some of his poetry about being misunderstood.  Poetry that he wrote in a black notebook, that had black pages, and that he wrote on in black ink.  And that he recites while he smokes some French cigarettes and drinks organic espresso.


And while the scene with Ren confronting and killing his father on the bridge over the giant pit was clearly completely and utterly different to Vader confronting Luke in Empire… nope, apparently the sarcasm font is not working again.  What would have made that scene better would have been if the outcome hadn’t been so heavily telegraphed.  I don’t think anyone in the cinema was shocked to see Ren kill Solo except for the fact that Solo is a hero and we are conditioned to expect them always to live.  I mean it is not as if a previous Star Wars film had an older mentor figure allow himself to be killed near the end by a Sith while the young Jedi apprentice watches…oh wait.  Well at least they didn’t follow that up with them blowing up the massively powerful, completely indestructible base by exploiting its one tiny flaw… damnit, not again.  And despite this Abrams couldn’t find the space for the ‘I know’ line.  Placing the scene in a bigger room, with a longer bridge and inverting the reveal to basically, ‘I am your son’ doesn’t really make it an original scene.  It barely qualifies as a fig leaf to cover the plagiarism.  I get it.  The whole of Star wars represents this cyclical problem that, until the Force is balanced, will keep repeating itself.  A bit like Jordan’s Wheel of Time series.  I know that Ren is meant to be channelling Anakin, to be an echo of that character.  But just because it is a deliberate copy doesn’t excuse the fact that it is blatantly a copy and therefore unoriginal.   I know it is a story ‘cycle’ but that doesn’t mean you have to take it literally.


But Kylo Ren is not the only bad guy, we also have Grand Moff Tarkin Jr. General Shouty McNutbar General Hux, a man-child who can chew more scenery than an entire mound of termites in a sound stage, and has the ability to make sour faces at the drop of a hat.  It is like an evil Ron Weasley is in charge of the Deathstar.  It wasn’t that I didn’t find Domhnall Gleeson’s portrayal of Hux unwatchable, far from it, I couldn’t take my eyes off him.  It was that I couldn’t believe for a second that he had survived long enough to be a general in an army and no one had ‘accidentally’ dropped a live grenade at his feet.  If there is a dark Sith Lord overmaster in control of all this and manipulating everything, why the hell would he put this clearly unhinged, whiney, adolescent, nutbar in control of a vast military force?  Not only that, but his best mate is a sociopathic killer with exceptionally poor impulse control and anger issues.  So the fact that Hux never got a lightsaber to the face/back/chest/vital organ of your choice, is even more ludicrous than the contrived plot device to get Han and Chewie back on the Falcon.


In Gleeson’s defence, he wasn’t exactly given many subtle scenes, and the whole Nuremberg rally scene begged for spittle-loaded ranting.  But when we compare him to the subtle menace and sadism of Peter Cushing’s Grand Moff Tarkin, a very similar role… very similar… like really, really similar… Gleeson doesn’t really come off well.  But, again, I think that this one can be laid at the feet of the director saying, ‘awesome take. But can you do the next one with more insane, eye-rolling, ranting and perhaps a bit more spittle?’


To round out the baddies we have holographic Emperor Voldemort, Darth Gollum, mysterious Sith master and debunker of urban myths, Snopes.  Sorry, that should be Snoke. Supreme Leader Snoke in fact.  Not just any leader, but the Supreme leader.  Diana Ross being unavailable of course.  Apparently Emperor Snoke would be too on the nose… if he had one.  Unfortunately Andy Serkis is a bit of a victim of his own success.  You want a guy to hiss and cackle in a motion capture suit, call Andy.  Admittedly he has worked pretty hard to make Snoke completely different to Gollum, but the CGI department didn’t get the memo that said to stay clear of Voldemort rip-offs and so he ends up being less distinctive or mysterious as a villain than the Emperor was.  So his performance is perhaps influenced by things far beyond his control.  His character does beg the question though, just why is it that behind every bad guy there is another bad guy who is old, brooding, and spends all his time training up pawns?  If we go behind him is there another even older guy?  Rumours are, of course, flying around that this is Darth Plagueis or perhaps even a clone of the old Emperor.  To be honest, it doesn’t really matter.  He is the old guy pulling the strings behind the scenes.  The man behind the curtain, and the guy who will eventually be taken down in the last film.  Who he actually is, or what his name is doesn’t really matter.  Senator Palpatine, Emperor Palpatine, Darth Sidious, Darth Hideous, Darth Don’tcallus… doesn’t really make a difference.


I know the prequels introduced the asinine rule that there are only two Sith, a rule that makes no sense.  I mean, if the only way to become a Sith Master is to kill your own master, why the hell would you ever take an apprentice?  You know what they are going to try to do at the earliest opportunity.  Why would you train them?  To give them a fighting chance to take you out?  Maybe a Sith master can only have one apprentice, just like a Jedi Master, but that doesn’t mean that there is only ever one Sith Master.  I don’t imagine they all hang out or have a union or anything like that.  Maybe they meet up for the odd Ewok barbecue or casual slaughter.  But I doubt that the order would survive for very long if you could only have two members.  So I am holding out the slim hope that there are actually a whole bunch of Sith out there, of which Snoke is one, or the head of the order, or on the run from a band of bigger, badder Sith.  And do all Sith Masters have to be creepy old dudes?  I am fairly sure that there are canonical female Sith.  And there must be a couple of spry, youthful Sith knocking around somewhere.  Why is it that we are once again presented with a Sith Lord and his evil walking frame?


But as you might have gleaned thus far, I had some problems with the film.  Mainly in the fact that it so slavishly follows the originals, not just in plot, but in characters and action sequences.  Fan service, homages, excuse it all you want, but Abrams flat out copied entire sections of the earlier films, and repackaged them for the modern audience, just like he tried to do with Star Trek.  But it seems that everyone is going out of their way to excuse this, to rationalise it, or to forgive it as the price we pay for a new Star Wars film.  The thing is, this isn’t really a new Star Wars film, it is the oldest one all tarted up and hot to trot for a new audience.  Ok, so it is the first instalment of a trilogy and the whole story will eventually be revealed… but is it too much to ask that each film be its own film and not an extended trailer or foundational step for the next one?  We are seeing this more and more in the Marvel Cinematic Universe films, in which each film seems to be there solely to lay the groundwork for the film that is to follow it.  Where each film is in essence an extended trailer and set-up to further the franchise.  Instead of doing that, can’t directors, studios, and producers trust that their audiences are smart enough to join the dots between films?


Almost as bad is the need to spoon feed the audience.  Seriously, we don’t need every single detail ironed out and neatly fed to us in a series of intrusive lampshading and heavy-handed foreshadowing scenes whose sole purpose is to sell us on the next film.  Admittedly, The Force Awakens is not as guilty of this as Marvel, but the big scene with Ren killing Han Solo was so heavily foreshadowed that it completely ruined the impact.  Why not have it come out of left field?  Why not have it shock the audience?  Why drop all these hints that this exact thing was about to happen?  Why have the deliberately ambiguous, clumsy dialogue that we know it ambiguous solely to tease the scene a few seconds longer?


Now, after reading all this you might think that I really hated the film, but I didn’t.  As I said at the start it was ‘meh’, it was ok, it was decent.  Neither atrocious, nor brilliant.  Certainly I was entertained.  And for those of you that think that being entertained is enough, then great, enjoy.  But I think of it more as being promised a steak dinner with all the trimmings and then being served a limp, cheap takeaway burger and someone saying, ‘Well you aren’t hungry any more, so what’s your problem?  It is food and you are full.’  My problem is that I was led to believe I was going to be getting a steak dinner and what I got was cheap, admittedly tasty, meal but far from the expected quality.  And this brings us full circle to the expectation game.


Hype might sell tickets, but, in my case at least, it really harms the viewing experience.  Added to that is being ‘force’-fed the marketing, products, interviews, promotional spots, trailers and TV-spots, the endless fan speculation that begins after the film is announced and continues practically unabated for the entire production time, post-production, pre-launch, launch and so on, before rolling seamlessly into speculation about the next one.  It seems to be a never ending machine that like the ouroboros feeds upon itself in an endless cycle of consuming and regurgitation.  In the cinema waiting to see this film I was treated to four separate advertisements that either directly referenced the film or were selling something tied into the franchise.  Come on.  I was already there.  I had already bought my ticket.  I didn’t need more Star Wars ads.


Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a fun movie that will no doubt attract new fans to the franchise, and it has already shattered box-office records, but it is not without flaws.  Some of which are pretty damning of how studios, production companies, and directors view their audiences.  Yet despite them serving us yesterday’s warmed-up left-overs we respond in the fashion of Oliver Twist and ask for more.  So it seems sour grapes to complain that the reason we keep getting such flawed, unoriginal films is because we keep supporting them with our wallets.  We know it will entertain and do well because it did so the first time it was released in the 1970s.



Spoiler Free Review: Star Wars – The Force Awakens (dir. JJ Abrams, 2015)



Short Version:

A new Star Wars for a new generation.  Plenty here to please old fans and new.  Finally an SF franchise that JJ Abrams’ sensibilities mesh with instead of clash.  No Jar Jar or midi-chlorians.  Better than the prequels.


Actual Review:

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens JJ Abrams had a nearly impossible task, he had to please old fans and acquire new ones, pay homage to the old films, undo the errors of the prequels, and yet also create a new Star Wars for the new generation.  The film had to appeal to children and adults alike and therefore had to indulge the older fan’s nostalgia but not let it dominate the storytelling, have enough action and visual effects to entertain today’s jaded youth but refrain from the frenetic screen clutter that plagued the prequels making the actions sequences migraine inducing blurs of sound and light, and, above all else, launch a new mythic storyline.  Given that this was not just a film but also part of a multi-billion dollar media franchise and of one of the most beloved film franchises of the modern age, to say expectations were high is perhaps a bit of an understatement.

So because anticipation was so great, because expectations were so ridiculously high, it should come as little surprise when I say that The Force Awakens is a mixed bag.  It isn’t terrible, and it isn’t amazing.  It had its high points and it had its weak moments.  There were some great lines and some misses.  In Abrams’ defence, no matter what he produced it was not going to be able to please all the fans all the time, so I am actually surprised at how much I enjoyed this.  If we are measuring it solely against the prequels then in this regard Abrams cleared it with a parsec to spare.  Against the original Star Wars: A New Hope… that is a more complex comparison.

Just in case anyone has missed the numerous plot summaries, speculations, in depth interviews, featurettes, spotlight specials and extensive trailers and cast videos, a brief detail-light summary of the set-up is as follows:
There is a new villain, a dark militaristic force in the galaxy the First Order, led by a slimmer and slightly more sartorially elegant Darth Vader wannabe, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

There are two new young heroes, Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega), who, despite their disparate backgrounds will undoubtedly turn out to be instrumental in saving the galaxy.

There is a new cutesy droid, BB-8, that is attempting to take the place of R2-D2 in our hearts, and comes close to doing so.  Adorkable is the word that springs to mind.

And there are X-wings, Tie Fighters and all the classic elements of Star Wars galore.  So rather than attempting to re-invent the wheel as the prequels did, Abrams went with tried and tested crowd pleasers.

So let’s start by discussing a couple of the really good points without getting into too many specifics as I don’t want to spoil the film for anyone.

The opening wall crawl.  There is something about the logo appearing and the wall crawl against the starry background while John Williams’ overture assaults the brain that will forever be ‘cool’ in my book.  When the music started I couldn’t help it but grin and feel excited.  What was even better was that there was no mention of a trade embargo, sanctions, disrupted negotiations or a diplomatic deadlock in a bureaucratic senate in the scrolling text.  It then pans down in classic fashion to a shot of a giant spaceship.  I hope no one regards that as a spoiler, not least because it is a bland and generic version of the events, but also it is the classic opening and it occurs in the first couple of seconds of screen time.  Not a single, horrendously racist caricature to be seen in the first minute.  So already it is well ahead of The Phantom Menance.

It was also great having new characters to carry on the story.  Star Wars: The Next Generation, if you will.  As much as I loved the story of Luke, Han and Leia… and was less enamoured with the prequels going back in time to set up the story of Luke, Han and Leia, it was genuinely nice to have new characters, about whom I knew next to nothing, who promised to lead the story into new territory.   Daisy Ridley’s Rey is a nice change of pace for the Star Wars cinematic universe in that we finally have a competent, intelligent, talented, and independent female character who is centre screen as a hero and not a spunky support or love interest to the main heroes.  Strongly reminiscent of the young Luke Skywalker (they clearly shop in the same desert paraphernalia shop) it seems that Rey is going to be central to the entire new trilogy.    Rather unkindly my brain automatically labelled her as Discount Keira Knightley and I haven’t been able to shake the comparison.

John Boyega’s Finn is a surprisingly complex character who wants to be a hero, wants to do the right thing, but is plagued by crippling self-doubt and more than a smidgeon of self-loathing.  A curious mix for a hero in training, especially as he veers from the super-competent to the blaringly incompetent in a violent see-saw fashion as the script demands, but it is certainly engaging to watch.  Both Rey and Finn promise to develop even more fully as the series continues, and that is only a good thing as they have an odd dynamic on screen, and it will be nice to see them settle into their roles and see what they can create.

Opposite them is Adam Driver’s Kylo Ren, who, at first glance, appears to be a bargain basement Emo Vader.  Face mask, metallic voice, red light saber, dresses in black, temper tantrums because it is just so emotional, and will force choke you as soon as look at you.  However, he soon becomes a great deal more interesting and, as his backstory and motivations are explored, his character develops a depth and complexity that Vader never quite achieved in the original trilogy.  Admittedly, he is not quite as dominating on screen as Vader, nor does he have the gravitas of James Earl Jones’ voice, but in a number of regards he is a lot more chilling and arresting on screen.   Thankfully, unlike Tom Hardy’s Bane and Christian Bale’s Batman in The Dark Knight Rises you can actually understand what Driver is saying even when his face is obscured, something I was actually concerned about.

There are a couple of other characters, more in supporting roles this time around, that I sincerely hope get more screen time in the next one.  Not least the roguish Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) who is the best damned space pilot around (as we are told on numerous occasions… so it must be true), the scenery-chewing, mewling evil General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), arch villain and champion of the galaxy sneering competition 7 years running Andy Serkis’ Supreme Leader Snoke, and the decidedly under-utilised Captain Phasma, Gwendloine Christie’s retro-futuristic chrome trooper.  Despite my desire that they all get more screen time, none of the characters feels entirely superfluous and each adds to the story in significant ways.

In terms of action, Abrams seems to have learned both from the mistakes of the prequels and from his experience on the Star Trek films, and provided something that had satisfying explosions, lots of lasers pew-pewing, and some good light saber action without the need for a warning about photosensitive epilepsy or necessitating chugging Dramamine in large quantities.  Hearing the metallic whine of the distinctive TIE fighter engines with their unmistakable laser blasts, and the roar of the X-Wings’ engines coupled with the more splat-like noise of their weapons was a glee inducing moment for me.  The screen never felt empty during the action, but was never so busy that you couldn’t actually track the action.  It was also thankfully free of omnipresent lens-flares.

As is to be expected of Abrams, there are some beautiful looking cinematic shots, some really vivid tableaux, and he uses many of these to establish the ‘lived-in’ feel of the Star Wars universe.  That distressed look that makes the ships look used rather than fresh off the assembly line, the clothes worn and frayed, the equipment chipped and nicked.  Little details like this throughout the film give a real sense of authenticity and greatly add to the believability and immersiveness of the story.  This becomes all the more necessary when the staggering coincidences start to mount up.  I mean, I am all for a million to one shot working nine times out of ten, but there are some really astronomically improbable coincidences cropping up in this film with frightening regularity.

For fans of the original trilogy, TFA is, at its heart, an attempt to re-make it and update it while pretending to be a new chapter.  And that is perhaps what I found least satisfying about it, there was too much of the old in this.  There were too many similarities to the original trilogy.  There were too many moments that were a mirror or echo of vintage Star Wars.   This is Abrams’ Trek all over again.  Not quite a reboot, and not quite a sequel.  Fan service and in-jokes litter the screen, and in-depth exploration of character and story are sometimes short-changed in order to move onto the next sequence, the next plot point, and the next ‘must-see’ moment.  At times the nostalgia was dripping so heavily I was surprised the camera didn’t suddenly switch to a sepia filter.  There were other moments that only really had impact or meaning if you were already deeply invested in the Star Wars mythos.  But in this I suspect that Abrams’ hands were somewhat tied.  He couldn’t not have those nods to the originals, but for my money, he spent a little too much time genuflecting at the altar of Lucas and not enough time carving his own mythic cathedral.

Related to this problem was the fact that the film felt liked it was rushing from scene to scene to hurry up and get to the good part… only to rush past that to the next good part… and so on and so on.  It was as if Abrams was so excited to be showing the audience all the different ‘cool’ things that he forgot we don’t need to see them all at once, or even at all.  In fact, some of the moments when Abrams pauses to take a breath were scenes that were probably not that necessary.  I have no idea why Hollywood has decided its audiences are so stupid that they need almost every element of backstory of every character belaboured and shoved in their faces.  This is compounded further by the relentless assault of action sequence after action sequence.  Consequently, we are less emotionally involved in many of the conflicts because we still haven’t gotten to know the characters or feel tension as they just seem to ricochet from one meaningless action set piece to the next.  Admittedly, superhero films tend to be a lot worse.

To be any more specific than this would be to dance merrily through spoiler territory, an area that I am already uncomfortably close to, so I will have to forgo discussing the most egregious scenes.  However, all in all it was a good film.  It was an entertaining film.  It sets up the next film to develop the mythos and storylines further.  There are some revelations that make for moments of high drama, as well as some unanswered questions and plot hooks that will have me seeing the next one as soon as it comes out too.  Who am I kidding, I am probably going to see this one again at least another four times before the next is released.