Category Archives: films

A force awakens… again

[WARNING – MANY, MANY SPOILERS]

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The film may have come out a year and a bit ago, but I’ve finally sat down to watch the Blu-Ray extras for Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Sure, I had to go to the ‘Deleted Scenes’ first (who wouldn’t?) but they don’t really lend much to what happened, and there’s no real nuggets in there, nothing that really (rightly) felt that it shouldn’t have been left on the floor. Because the film didn’t feel anything but lean. But the ‘Making Of’ was a really special viewing. I’m also not afraid to say I shed a tear watching the scenes with Carrie Fisher, both on set and off. It seems ever more tragic that she’s not going to be here to see how the universe develops in front of our eyes. A part of my childhood really did die when she left us.

The Read-Through alone sent shivers down the spine. Seeing Carrie, Harrison Ford and Mark Hammil in the same room, with Peter Mayhew, Anthony Edwards, talk through the words in that universe again… it still didn’t seem real. God knows what it must’ve been like being part of it. Because this is a film (no, not a movie) that I never thought would happen again. After the three ‘prequels’ that let down so many people of a certain age, I felt the stories had run their course. I’d never immersed myself that much in the books when I was a kid – sure, I read a few, but they never gripped me the way that first roll did on A New Hope – so for me, the films were the centre of all of it, and while I love the original trilogy (ok, I’m obsessed by it) and I still watch them regularly, I’d resigned myself to that being it. A sad, underwhelming and overblown successor that drowned in SFX, clunky dialog, toyshop characters and none of the real magic of the first three.

But of course, the last two years have proven how wrong I was. And as a 42-year old man, there should be something a bit sad about being so excited and overwhelmed by a couple of films, but then this is my youth, returning, and in a world that’s so grim, grimy, chaotic, unsure and angry, it’s no surprise that many of us are revelling in the escapism that such a vibrant, colourful and enticing universe that we all find so familiar gives us over the rest of reality.

There’s so much beautiful synergy between the old and new. And yes, some of that is a purposeful, heartstring-tugging intention to rope us olds back in, but it’s also such a reverence to the original films, because JJ Abrams gets that it’s a legacy, not just a money-making machine, churning out ever-decreasing chapters for the next decade. He was a fan himself when we were watching Empire as a small kid, he was a teen in LA, seeing the very same magic. So, where the old generation hand over to the new in The Force Awakens, it’s not just in front of the camera. Just looking at Nien Numb, who so memorably appeared in Jedi in the Falcon in the final battle of Endor, back as a pilot in the base on Yavin, or, even more sweetly, Warwick Davis, Wicket in Jedi, now returning (so much more known to many for Extras) as Wollivan alongside his yellow-headed monster daughter in the bar scene at Mas Kanta’s. It’s that incredible charm and character that’s indelibly inked onto the new films that makes you feel such a connection to them, where it wasn’t expected or assumed. There’s over a hundred creatures in VII, so many of them non-CGI, from the returning Gonk droids, to new pilots, musicians, bounty hunters.

That’s one of the greatest beauties of the  new trilogy so far is Abrams’ and the entire team’s willingness to only use CGI when there was no other means to achieve their ends. As many of us felt Lucas slowly diluting the rough-hewn charm of the original trilogy with needless new effects shots and reissues, leading to an almost shiny, blurred, CGI-laden set of prequels that fell into the era’s obsession with effects, the Force Awakens went back to what worked best: real models, characters, creatures, sets, effects, which felt so much more visceral and real. It always does, and it should be a lesson to filmmakers out there, that computer-generated SFX should be the point of last resort. Gareth Edwards showed that, more than anything with Monsters, a beautiful looking film made on a minuscule budget, whose effects were part of the tapestry, rather than the end-point of the whole fable.

I can’t even imagine what is must’ve been like being part of it, but there was something wonderful about how the younger actors – John Boyega especially – were so blown away by being on set, wanting a hug from Chewie, a walk through the Falcon. It says something that over 200 people were crowded onto the set when – for a day, they set aside a WHOLE DAY – when Han and Chewie get to utter the line that made a million adults squeal: “Chewie, we’re home.” It’s lovely to hear that, even as the film was being so meticulously made, pretty much the entire cast and crew were as excited as the rest of us were anticipating it, and watching it. And all of it soundtracked by John Williams, at 84 years old, still vital and perhaps one of the most important and iconic people in cinema today. Music that is as much part of our lives as Luke, Han, and Leia, but also Indiana Jones, ET, Jaws, Superman, Home Alone, Schindler’s List, Empire Of The Sun, Saving Private Ryan, Harry Potter, Lincoln and War Horse. Who else has been nominated for 50 Academy Awards?

The ILM work is still just incredible. Seeing so much referencing the original trilogy, whose effects were groundbreaking at the time, back against the new film is wonderful. The best CGI is the stuff that doesn’t look like it’s even there until you look, and for every shot that is obviously FX, there’s a bunch of stuff happening in the background that you don’t know is even unreal. And the new stuff: The Black X-Wing, the new TIE-Fighters, the updated Falcon, the Star Destroyer Graveyard, new Stormtroopers. Seeing them photograph the old 5ft model Falcon and take the little motifs the original model makers left (the ‘Drive Safely’ stickers!) and mapping them onto the ‘new’ Falcon so that the little details perpetuated into the new chapters. You’d have to know these details and watch it over and over, so it’s great to see that this is just ‘what had to be done’, even though many of us would never even spot what’s there. It’s just another example of the rich detail, thought and love that went into it all.

There are so many amazing insights into the making of the film. That JJ Abrams himself came up with the basic concept of BB-8. That Poe was going to be killed early on before they changed the story to keep him in. That Kylo Ren’s suit was going to be chrome (ugh) but when it was dumped it ended up as Captain Phasma. The fact that so many of the original crew from the first trilogy were part of the team that made The Force Awakens, in many cases using inspiration from the iconic Ralph McQuarrie, or the original designs, photos, and in one case, one son’s own inspiration from his father’s snowspeeder drawings in Empire. It felt like not just the handing on from one generation to another in front of and behind the camera, but really bringing so much of the history back together to ensure that the magic of the first trilogy was sprinkled all over the newest one. That may seem obvious, but it’s really the most important and intangible thing that, done wrong (especially overdone) would’ve seemed clumsy and too broadly brushed. They got it nailed.

As a film geek anyway, these behind-the-scenes things are catnip to me. It’s why I’ve started a Saturday that I couldn’t get back to sleep at 7am by thinking ‘I’ve been meaning to watch a bit of this for ages” and sitting here on the sofa for almost 3 hours gorging on the entire extras for the original Blu-Ray, feeling like a 6-year old kid again. But the mechanics of putting something so huge together is fascinating. I feel as excited watching this as I did watching grainy extras on the VHS tapes back in the mid-80s, or reading through the articles in the papers and magazines at the time. I wish I could take a weekend out and watch the whole lot from all of the films, but I’ve got packing to do!

Really, it’s an incredible thing to just immerse yourself in every now and then. I know that I’m a bit of an obsessive. How can you not be that excited about watching a universe unfold in front of your eyes that you first witnessed as a small boy (I was barely even walking when the first came out) and want to dive back into that? It’s part of my lifetime. It always will be.

Do the Hustle…

The cast of American Hustle
American Hustle….

I thought I’d start the new year by trying to get to the cinema more, partly because there’s a lot of good stuff around (12 Years A Slave, American Hustle, Anchorman 2, Monument Men) and partly because I live five minutes walk from an independent cinema here in Stratford, so there’s really no excuse. I chose David O’Russell’s new ensemble picture about (in the loosest of terms) about a corruption scandal in New Jersey in the 1970s and 80s. Pedantry check: while it does bear a passing resemblance, in reality it’s only framed around events, the names are changed (to protect the not very innocent).

That out of the way, it’s a hugely enjoyable film. The cast is superb, working very much as an ensemble, even though you’d argue (like The Fighter) the star of the show, while pitched behind Bale’s crack addict (in The Fighter) brother or overweight con-man here, is Amy Adams. She’s proven serious acting chops once again, the driving force behind the men, and the story, and a world away from Disney fare of the last decade. But part of the joy is just how great the film looks, and, more importantly, feels. Yes, there’s been a lot of talk about style over substance, but that’s a lazy criticism. This isn’t Anchorman, it’s pitched fantastically into the late 70s, and there’s little flamboyance above what’s needed to tell the story.

As for the plot, it skirts a little close to pastiche at times, in terms of the Goodfellas-style focus pulls and bar scenes, but it’s all about the characters, staying much in close-up, to get us close to the action, which works especially well in the scenes with De Niro, which crackle with menace (and imminent collapse), and in the second half of the film, as things slowly unravel. There’s no great payoff, even though the ‘real events’ are given a veneer by Russell, reminding us that this is life, and there’s never a happy ending (cue “some of the actually happened” at the start).

Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.
Christian Bale and Bradley Cooper in American Hustle.

Bale is in superb, shape-shifted form as Irving. Compare this to The Machinist, and you have to wonder if he’s the actor most willing to destroy his form to inhabit the role. He’s not afraid of walking around, gut out. He also gets the fine line between crafty con artist and flawed human perfect, in fact all the characters interweave really well, whether it’s Adams’ ballsy and strong fellow con, Cooper’s curly-haired and increasingly wayward FBI agent, Penner’s Elvis-haired mayor, and Lawrence’s agoraphobic wife. You can sense how much they’re enjoying themselves in every scene, even when it’s all going to pieces. Despite the fact this is a criminal caper, you still feel sympathy, even though most of the characters are pretty unlikable.

The music is superb – think Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, Live And Let Die, A Horse With No Name, I Feel Love, Papa Was A Rollin’ Stone – and adds to the experience greatly, (and as an aside, it’s so great to see attention to a good soundtrack when the film’s so clearly lodged in its time) and it’s one of the many reasons why I barely looked at my watch for the two hours-plus running time.

It’s a classic tale of American life, of crime, corruption, politics (in passing) but more than anything about people. And it could’ve come across as a lazy pastiche, but it was a hugely enjoyable trip, at times almost a romp, that’s carried by its stars and its director. It could’ve been overacted, but actually, there’s a nice understatement it much of it, even when the scenes are being laid on thick (the toilet scene in the casino with Adams and Lawrence for starters). Even O Russell, whose career reached something of a crossroads at the divisive I Heart Huckabees (I thought it was self-indulgent nonsense), where his behind-the-camera antics were both cringeworthy and aggressive, (and widely reported) seems to have righted the ship, and reigned in much of his difficulties (though not all), and since then he’s put out three award-worthy films in The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. This has already picked up nominations for the four main actors, director and screenplay in the Golden Globes.

So forget the criticisms, and just enjoy what’s a beautifully acted, superbly shot, dryly funny film that captures the world-weary transition from the 1970s in New Jersey in all its glory.

Sweeney? Gone for a Burton….

One of the few joys of transatlantic flight are at least catching up on films you’ve missed in the last 12 months. So, for a roll call, here’s my list: 

American Gangster (cracking) 

Juno (utterly brilliant)

Atonement (overblown sentimentalist posho semi-nonsense)

The Kite Runner (good but not great. Maybe I was in the wrong mood, ie. comatose)

I Am Legend (watchable pulp)

We Own The Night (at 4am it was alright)

I’m Not There (wonderful for the 25 mins I grabbed before the video system on Quantas died on its arse grrr)

Which brings me to the final choice. Sweeney Todd. Now, this should be right up my street – Depp, Bonham-Carter, Spall, Rickman, Baron Cohen, and all helmed by the legendary Tim Burton. But it isn’t, you see. Depp’s entertaining Jack Sparrow accent becomes irritating when he’s not a drunk pirate, Bonham-Carter is great, but Mrs Lovett’s no Marla Singer. Rickman’s good, but the character is a bit wafer-thin, Baron-Cohen is pretty good, and Timothy Spall is his slime-covered best. 

But it’s the singing. It grates. And while I know building a set of dark and dingy London isn’t easy, so much CGI just made parts like a cartoon. But it’s just the SINGING. God, I’m not a massive musicals fan, but I’m not a hater of them either, but I wanted to cringe every time someone broke into song. In fact, I wanted all of the songs to end with a stint in the barber’s chair. 

This really is something that seemed a great idea turned into a terrible film. I’m sure it went down a storm in America though. Very ‘quaint’.