Archive for December, 2015

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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I am not a big Star Wars fan. While I cannot deny the importance of Star Wars as a cultural phenomenon and its place in cinema history, I do not rave about the various films in the franchise. Aside from The Empire Strikes Back, the originals seem rather ropey and stretched both narratively and thematically, while the prequels are overly complicated and poorly paced. So the most exciting aspect for me as I approached The Force Awakens was that it is a J.J. Abrams film, as I enjoyed all of Abrams’ previous directorial efforts (Mission: Impossible III, Star Trek, Super 8 and Star Trek Into Darkness). I previously wrote that Star Trek Into Darkness was something of a repackaging of The Wrath of Khan. This was something of a problem for that film, which did not always manage to declare its own identity. Such is not the case with The Force Awakens, which could be fairly described as a reawakening of Star Wars as a whole. The Force Awakens illustrates much that is typical of Abrams – fast-paced storytelling, warm and witty characters, stellar action sequences and fanboy enthusiasm. Crucially, Abrams does not let his (evident) love for the originals overshadow his own story, as he and co-writers Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt pay sufficient homage to George Lucas’ initial characters and concepts but concentrate on telling their own story in such a way that is both fresh and familiar. New characters rub shoulders with old favourites while beloved sequences and plot developments are reimagined with affection, creativity and, crucially, genuine emotion. Some characters are conflicted while others are regretful, some are motivated by kindness and others by desperation. For the most part, characters are given sufficient detail to enjoy spending time with them, not least because of some genuinely funny verbal and physical jokes. And when it comes to the action, Abrams delivers visceral and arresting sequences, as attack ships hurtle through space and atmosphere, taking the viewer on wild rides both expansive and claustrophobic. Ground battles are similarly gripping and compelling, with the shadow of history and the call of destiny never far away yet never overshadowing events. As a new hope, The Force Awakens strikes back as Star Wars returns with fresh life and vigor for this franchise, Abrams and co delivering one of the finest blockbusters of 2015.

Carol

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Carol is a delicately beautiful and heartbreakingly mournful period romance. Director Todd Haynes and screenwriter Phyllis Nagis adapt Patricia Highsmith’s novel The Price of Salt into an entrancing portrayal of hidden love, frustrated desire and broken people glancing off each other. As would-be lovers Carol Aird and Therese Belivet, Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara are never less than utterly engaging. Blanchett has a sublime ability to merge strength with fragility, which makes Carol something of an ideal role for her. Mara conveys both wide-eyed innocence and growing experience as the relationship progresses. Judy Becker’s exquisite production design not only creates the necessary period detail but also serves to create a mise-en-scene of entrapment, both protagonists enclosed by societal as well as familial demands. DOP Edward Lachman lenses much of the film in soft focus, adding to the melancholy longing of the characters. It would be so easy for a film of forbidden love to overextend into crude melodrama, but Haynes utilises restraint and subtlety to express the anguish of his characters, with looks, gestures and careful framing suggesting as much as they explicate. Carter Burwell’s score is similarly suggestive, drawing the viewer along and sweeping them up when necessary. Overall, Carol is that finest of cinematic finds – a gem where all elements operate in near perfect harmony.

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay Part 2

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It begins quietly and with difficulty speaking, a problem that persists as the narrative progresses. Throughout The Hunger Games series, protagonist Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) has struggled to be heard or acknowledged as more than a pawn or puppet. This continued interest in the voiceless and powerless has been a consistent element of the series’ grim dystopia. Mockingjay Part 2 continues this conceit as Katniss repeatedly tries to assert her own identity and agency, yet is continually co-opted and coerced by President Alma Coin (Julianne Moore) and Plutarch Heavensbee (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in his final role). Katniss’ struggle allows the viewer to appreciate revolution and combat from a ground level, as director Francis Lawrence stages many gripping and even shocking set pieces, yet never loses sight of the individual journey. Attention is given to other characters such as Peeta Malark (Josh Hutcherson), Gale Hawthorne (Liam Hemsworth) and Finnick Odair (Sam Claflin) to allow other views and responses, while Panem in the grip of war is presented consistently and convincingly by production designer Philip Messina and DOP Jo Willems. Where many an action franchise presents violence as redemptive or at least cathartic, Mockingjay Part 2 suggests that violence may not be an answer. The coda feels like a partial cop out and is not entirely convincing, as the viewer may be left with a sense of disquiet and non-completion. But that may well be the point – whether the Games end or not, freedom and agency remain circumscribed. In daring to present this lack of resolution, The Hunger Games stands out from many of its contemporaries not only in its female-centred narrative, but also its willingness to suggest that courage, determination and compassion may not ultimately lead to a happy ending.

Bridge of Spies

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The Cold War. A time of intrigue, second-guessing, secrets and absurdity, at least according to Steven Spielberg’s blend of spy thriller, legal drama and dark humour. Screenwriters Joel and Ethan Coen along with Matt Charman integrate this humour with well-rounded characters, as lawyer James Donovan (Tom Hanks) defends accused Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) against not only legal prosecution but also the court of public opinion that is out for blood rather than justice. The film is both absorbing as a period piece and resonates with contemporary events, as it highlights the attitude towards perceived enemy aliens and the conflict between the rule of law and national security. As Donovan moves on to negotiate a prisoner exchange in East Berlin, Cold War antagonisms rise in a number of tense set pieces, yet the nationalism of the USA, the USSR and the GDR (acronyms are important, characters remind us) are largely ridiculed, exposing the absurdity of such ideologies. Bewildered yet determined in the face of these conflicting and confusing demands, Donovan remains a compelling anchor, the viewer subjected to his steady education in this strange and confusing world of espionage and expediency. To its great credit, Bridge of Spies avoids simplistic flag waving: the relative freedom of the West here is not something guaranteed by sentiment or belief, but contingent upon an adherence to the law and equality under it. Bridge of Spies therefore develops themes from Lincoln, demonstrating once again Spielberg’s skill at using historical settings to comment upon the current state of the world.

Black Mass

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Boston has a funny effect on makers of crime films. Whether it be Clint Eastwood with Mystic River, Ben Affleck with Gone Baby Gone and The Town, Antoine Fuqua with The Equaliser or Martin Scorsese with The Departed, Boston demands sociological depth as part of its crime milieu. The same is true of Scott Cooper’s Black Mass, a detailed examination of notorious gangster James ‘Whitey’ Bulger’s (Johnny Depp) relationships with the FBI and a sizeable chunk of South Boston’s criminal and political community. This sociological aspect contextualises the film’s action, as Bulger’s criminal exploits impact upon his FBI handler John Connolly (Joel Edgerton), his politician brother Billy (Benedict Cumberbatch) and various others. Crime is not separate from society here but deeply imbricated within it, as are the personal connections and loyalties between childhood friends. At times the emphases on trust and ‘who ya know’ becomes a little repetitive, but this is a minor detraction in what is otherwise an solidly absorbing and effective crime drama.