Saturday 19 December 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Year: 2015
Director: JJ Abrams
Screenplay: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams, Michael Arndt
Starring: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Lupita Nyong'o, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Max von Sydow.

Synopsis is here:

This is going to be a difficult one to start. So I’ll go with the large revelation first. I’m not a Star Wars fan. I admire their technical prowess. I respect their position they hold within mainstream cinema. To a point. However, as a film goer who did not watch these films at a young, impressionable age, I do not hold Lucas’ space opera as the benchmark for nearly all cinema. Watching the hype of The Force Awakens take hold of my social media feeds, general media feeds and my workplace was more irritating than encouraging. I now have more understanding of how non-football fans feel during every World Cup.

My dismissive views of the saga will feel, to some, that I shouldn’t review the most anticipated film of the year, nee decade (Revenge of the Sith was 2005). I myself find it annoying that in order to be part of popular cultural conversation, I must now binge on T.V show seasons within a day, have general knowledge of Kim Kadashian’s movements and hold a view on Star Wars. A view that if not perversely uncritical and overwhelmingly positive, then death threats are abound.

It’s safe to say I went into my Saturday morning screening with a sense of trepidation. I dread to think how JJ Abrams must have felt with the pressure to deliver a film which must be considered as perfect to many people. Especially with the sour taste of Lucas’ over digitalised prequels.
I may not hold Star Wars as the cinematic standard and you won’t find me hastily slapping The Force Awakens on any end of year lists. I will say, however, that JJ Abrams has delivered an enjoyable, progressive and light entertainment.

There’s a lot of pleasure to be taken from The Force Awakens, mostly because Abrams keeps hold of many of the things that Star Wars’ does well. The impressive world building, the strong sense of scale and scope and some truly wondrous visuals. This is combined with an eclectic and spirited cast who sell film’s emotional beats and crummy expositional dialogue with aplomb.

The eye candy and characters do well to cover up the fact that plot wise, the film hasn’t too much to say. Abrams may have been wise to keep much of the structure of A New Hope and doesn’t deviate wildly from elements as he did previously with Star Trek (2009). Unfortunately, while the film reminds us of the archetypes and motifs that fans will feel comfortable with, the lack of risk taken leaves us with a narrative that feels a little flat and mildly predictable. The film also has that irritating issue comes with a lot of modern franchises in that, if you have not immersed yourself within the universe, then filling in the dots can feel cumbersome and confounding.

What The Force Awakens misses with a truly engaging story (I did zone out a few times), delivers with the fact that everyone involved gives it their all. There are moments in which Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher appear to age backwards in front of our eyes. It’s certainly clear that Ford feels more comfortable here than he did with those crystal skulls. It’s Abrams’ blooding of the new guard that is the most eye opening. John Boyega and Daisy Ridley are both given moments to shine and run with things with the right amount of vigour. Adam Drivers off beat speech rhythms makes him perfect for his role of Kylo Ren. It’s also a performance that’s far more emotive than expected. The same can also be said for Lupita Nyong'o who’s Maz Kanata has a moment that holds the type of gravitas that we’d only expect from the aforementioned Ford and Fisher. As for Oscar Issacs? Well, that guy is just made of charm.

Much like Mad Max: Fury Road (2015), the cast also highlights the need for progressiveness within the modern blockbuster. The film’s diversity never feels shoehorned and despite the narrative issues, provides fresher perspectives and stronger representation. Ninjas Kanata helps highlight just how tone deaf Jar Jar Binks really was. Meanwhile Boyega and Ridley playing center stage holds the possibility to pay dividends for younger audiences, such is the forward thinking by Abrams.

Indeed, that’s the point with Star Wars. The film will appeal to fans young and old, but its set pieces, colour and toys should delight a new generation of young sci-fi fans. More so than Lucas’ prequels. The drab trade federations and midi-chlorians aren’t found here. Only Millennium Falcon thrills and lightsabre duels. The film’s oddly named characters and planet hopping will unlikely change the minds of more hardened non-fans. However, The Force Awakens kept this non-fan entertained from start to finish. Even if I’d need Wikipedia to remember the character names. I still don't consider myself a Star Wars fan. But consider my viewpoint somewhat softened.


Saturday 5 December 2015

Review: Nurse

Year: 2014 (U.K Release 2015)
Director: Doug Aarniokoski
Screenplay: Doug Aarniokoski, David Loughery
Starring: Paz de la Huerta, Katrina Bowden, Corbin Bleu

Synopsis is here:

“Trash has given us an appetite for art.”
Infamous film critic Pauline Kael was the writer who was smart enough to inform us that “Movies are so rarely great art that if we cannot appreciate great trash we have very little reason to be interested in them.”

A part of me disagrees with this. For me, as ignorant as I am to combat Kael when talking about art (I’m still naive enough to believe that great art often lies in the eye of the beholder), there’s a canny kernel of truth that lies in the words of one her most well-known pieces of writing. We must sift through the trash to find the gems. We most search through crap to find a golden “truth”. Or something like that.

Unfortunately, Nurse is bog standard trash. C-movie garbage that strives to be B-movie gold. There’s not much to be found from it. The film looks it has the ingredients to be a piece of cult entertainment, but the elements aren’t stirred right. Its lead actress Paz de la Huerta has sought to sue the filmmakers for loss of earnings due to the film's poor quality. What should we make of that?

Such an act, screams significance. A film like Nurse that wishes to play on the exploitation curve only really needs to highlight de la Huetra’s own. Nurse never fully embraces its trashiness. Its body count and pert bottoms never wink hard enough at the audience. Paz de la Huerta’s should be embracing her inner Eva Green for her role as psychotic necrophiliac; Abby. Instead, she displaces her energies and sleepwalks drearily through scenes with none of the OTT mania that would make her part enjoyable to watch. There’s seems to be a distinct lack of energy in getting the best out of Katrina Bowden, who may not be a go to A-list actress, but has a lot more presence than what is shown here.

None of Nurse feels like the fault of the cast. The apathetic nature of the film seems to come from the source material. Nurse’s weak screenplay never feels subversive. If it did then at least it could make light of the film’s glaring discrepancies. Director Doug Aarniokoski; a veteran of television, does very little work on the pace of the script either. At 84 minutes, Nurse manages to ensure that it’s one of the more laborious chores of cinema I’ve had to watch this year.

With its blood, boob and bums, there may be one or two fans of Nurse who will have differing thoughts about Nurse. I however, found very little to enjoy from its anemic attempts at titillation. There’s little to no diamonds to be found within this bit of rough. It did however manage to get me to watch the film twice, to see if I missed something. Just in case. I guess that’s something.

Review: Carol

Year: 2015
Director Todd Haynes
Screenplay: Phyllis Nagy
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Rooney Mara, Kyle Chandler 

Synopsis is here:

After watching Carol, I gave myself a day or two to let the film linger.  It’s a film that likes to settle within the recesses of the mind. Its story is deceptively simple at the surface, yet the emotional connections run deep throughout. Much has already been said about the film main relationship between the elegant Carol (Cate Blanchett at her most graceful) and Therese (Rooney Mara captures doe eyed innocence in a bottle). However, director Todd Haynes’ command of the plot and its characters is so robust that I had felt involved with even the secondary characters. There’s a texture in the film that runs deeper than the luxurious fashions on display. 

While conversing with a friend, she mentioned that her mother found such a connection to be lacking. I wonder if this is due to Carol’s sexual orientation. I don’t say this as a negative. Far from it. The beauty of Carol with its subtle glances and sly smiles is just how often it pushes its heterosexual characters to the side. This must be by design. To show that while many within the film may not understand the connections taking place, they are still not things to be judged. Carol isn’t a queer text about gay rights or equality per say, but it does seem to suggest that roses growing out of the concrete needn’t be plucked. A less pretentious (and clearer) interpretation would be to say that this is a struggle for these two individuals rather than a universal one.  

Haynes' depiction of this blossoming relationship and their yearning is dutiful and precise. Once the roots are planted, the branches get tangled with everyone. The ever dependable Kyle Chandler’s heart bleeds as Harge; the heterosexual husband who struggles to grasp this new reality through anger and his own needs. A brief moments from old flame Abby (a wonderfully understated Sarah Paulson) hints not only at understanding, but heartache. Smaller supporting roles also excel. Never sounding like soundboards of a previous era, or knowing totems of this one. Haynes has entertained with this era before for his beautiful melodrama pastiche Far from Heaven (2002), but this seems far from the more broadly drawn and colourful characters from his previous venture. For me, Carol often reminded me of the isolated characters who feature in the painting by Edward Hopper. It’s doubtful that Hopper is an influence, yet Haynes’ direction and blocking of characters along with cinematographer Edward Lachman’s framing, makes nearly every person we meet feel like Hopper’s figures. Almost consumed by the industrial world around them.

It’s no surprise that when the films action shifts from city to country, the characters seem to feel less suffocated by their surroundings and in turn, their societal trappings. Carol’s beauty lies in its small subtleties. Trying on new fragrances. A quiet drive with someone you admire. The small token gesture of a gift, or an admiration of talent. These moments can seem so typical of a romantic drama. However, the softness and slightly alien aspect of an all-female romance within such a bygone era and the shifts of tensions within the relationship dynamics makes Carol stand apart from more universal films of a similar nature. Looking back at the film’s final outcome, the final moments are both heartening and fretful. There’s elements of rejection we ignore due to what we observe on the screen. Even at that moment the film’s closure lays a shade of ambiguity that a more universal romance could perhaps ignore for surface pleasures. I found that the excellence of Carol lies in its ability to sow such seeds. It’s only after leaving the screen did the film’s deeper resonances strike me. For that I am thankful.