Director Christopher N. Rowley on his latest movie Molly Moon and the Incredible Book of Hypnotism

christopher n rowley molly moon incredible book of hypnotism raffey cassidy georgia byng

The best thing for me is to actually be in the screenings with the kids; we had a great screening at the Toronto film festival, and there were about a thousand kids there, and to see that response, that’s what I was going for. You know, to make the kids happy, to get the message to the kids and the parents – it seems to be doing that, and that’s what I wanted it to do.

My second interview, with Christopher N. Rowley. I admit, I wasn’t familiar with his work before this interview, but he struck me as quite an interesting person during our conversation. I’m looking forward to hearing more from him in future!

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Film Review | Anomalisa (2015)

anomalisa film review charlie kaufman duke johnson tom noonan david thewlis jennifer jason leigh

I think you’re extraordinary. I don’t know why yet. It’s just obvious to me that you are.

This is something of a difficult movie to review, I think; in some senses, it’s a difficult one to watch. And I don’t (just) mean how awkward it feels to see stopmotion sex.

Charlie Kaufman has something of a reputation of being, to put it bluntly, a genius. This is the first film of his that I’ve ever watched, so my expectations were high; particularly so, given that the praise for this movie was just through the roof. I mean, take a look at the soundbites on the film’s poster – it isn’t just “perfect”, it’s “a rare sliver of transcendence”. It’s a “rare and haunting marvel” that, apparently, changed someone’s life. So, you know, that’s an astonishingly high bar to set.

Particularly I was drawn to the line that says “the most human film of the year”; not least because that was the only tagline I was aware of before I saw the movie, but there’s something about that which is just so… enticing, to me. I’m quite interested in drama (obviously) and I want to get into writing myself someday, so there’s something about “the most human film of the year” which sounds to me to be a ridiculously high piece of praise to level at something.

Watching the film, though? Hmm. I’m struggling to properly put a pin in what I actually thought of it.

It did feel quite real, right from the off, beginning with the banalities of plane rides and hotels. (It’s possible this resonated with me moreso because I was watching the movie on a plane, having recently left a hotel.) I think in some ways this sequence was made more effective because it was done in stopmotion; it’s the juxtaposition between the very “true” feeling dialogue and the obvious-yet-uncanny-valley-esque puppets that really highlights the more human side of this movie, I think. It draws it into much sharper focus, and I think the film benefits from this throughout; Anomalisa is tied quite closely to its stopmotion format, really availing of the medium in such a way that it wouldn’t work otherwise.

The stopmotion, incidentally, is fantastic. I have some experience with that medium myself, having made a few shorts over the years – but we’re talking weeks’ worth of work, to produce fairly simplistic videos of a minute and a half tops. Anomalisa is so advanced as to be nearly incomparable to what I did, though, and it’s frankly a work of art in itself. A stunning accomplishment, really, which would have taken a hell of a lot of effort; it paid off, in any case, because Anomalisa came out looking absolutely gorgeous.

I just don’t know that Anomalisa was actually as smart as it thought it was, or as smart as it wanted to be.

Anomalisa is about loneliness, to some extent; David Thewlis’ character, Matthew Stone, clearly feels quite isolated and spends the runtime of the movie desperately searching for some meaningful human connection. When he does find it, it’s so fleeting as to barely last at all. In a lot of ways, the depiction of loneliness here is quite well done – the dialogue is fantastic, the feeling permeates the movie, and there’s an aspect of it that seems quite true throughout. Stone repeats with Lisa what he did with the other woman; the irony is that she isn’t an “anomaly Lisa”, she’s just the latest in a long string of women he does that with. He’s sad and lonely and a little pathetic, and he can’t connect with people, because he gets so caught up with the romantic ideals and doesn’t consider the person behind the idealised fiction version. It’s a well-presented story, and in many regards it’s quite clever.

It’s not that clever, though. Because Anomalisa doesn’t really say anything about loneliness, and I don’t feel it presents anything particularly new or all that interesting. The high concept, essentially, is “let’s tell a story about a lonely middle-aged man who has an affair… except it’s stop motion!” and then that’s just sort of the extent of it. There’s a rather out of place, yet wholly predictable, dream sequence; it adds little, feeling largely superfluous, and you can sort of guess what’s going to happen in it from the first time you see the stop motion models. Towards the end of the movie, we’ve even got Stone saying “sometimes there is no meaning, and at times that’s a meaning in and of itself”; this feels rather like a cop-out, to be honest, as if the movie itself is rejecting the idea it needs to have some level of substance. It’s taken the simplest representation of loneliness you can have, and presented it in an interesting way – that’s not enough to make the heart of the movie feel anything other than quite superficial.

I’m quite frustrated, really, that I feel this way. Primarily because I actually did, generally speaking, enjoy most of it; it was reasonably clever, and entertaining enough, despite feeling terribly lacking in a few key areas. More than that, though, I want to understand why everyone else loves it so much, and what they took away from it that I didn’t. While I’m not exactly disinclined to go against the critical consensus, I do feel like “yeah it’s just not that great” isn’t really a strong enough argument in the face of such significant praise. There was a distinct feeling that I’d missed something about the movie; I did some more reading, and I did pick up on some more nuanced ambiguities before. The Japanese sex doll, for example, wasn’t quite as gratuitous as I thought and did open up some questions as to whether or not Stone’s night with Lisa was hallucinatory; I was also able to clarify a few points regarding the voice work and the impact of it.

Ultimately, though, none of what I’ve read actually made me feel any the wiser. Anomalisa feels like a movie that needs a rewatch to fully appreciate it, but there was little about it that made me think it deserved an immediate rewatch; I suspect I’d only be watching it to keep searching for some deeper meaning that I’m just not going to find. If you’ve got any clever comments on it, or you can link me to a great essay about the movie, I would love to hear from you; I get the sense that I’m going to be trying to make Anomalisa into something it’s not for quite some time.

I’m going to eschew a rating for this movie, in part because I still don’t feel that I “get” it, but also… well, sometimes there is no rating, and at times that’s a rating in and of itself.

(See? Such a cop-out.)

Note from Alex of 2018: I’m inclined to tell you to disregard most of the above, though I’ve not actually rewatched Anomalisa since writing this. It’s going to be near the top of my list, though, because I still think I’ve missed something.

Related:

I’ll add this bit in later.

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Film Review | Everything is Copy (2015)

everything is copy nora ephron scripted and unscripted jacob bernstein documentary review hbo tom hanks meg ryan nora ephron

Most of us live our lives devoid of cinematic moments.

Something of a departure from the norm for me here, given that this is a documentary, rather than a piece of fiction. (I say that, of course, but I’m working on reviews of another documentary and a biography at the minute, so perhaps this is just the new norm.)

This movie caught my attention not because I knew who Nora Ephron was – though I soon realised that I was actually reasonably familiar with her work – but rather because the documentary was one about a journalist and screenwriter. With the former ostensibly being my current “job”, and the latter my destined dream job, it seemed like this was a documentary that would be, at the very least, quite interesting to me.

Given that little preamble, I suppose I should point out now that you’re not necessarily going to be getting advice on how to become a writer, but rather a lot of insight into the life of this particular writer, and how she approached her work. The title, Everything is Copy, refers to the mantra of Ephron’s mother, who was a writer herself; it also comes to reflect, however, the manner in which much of Ephron’s best work was that which was personal to her. Indeed, the whole documentary is quite an intimate and personal affair, with close friends and family members musing on Ephron’s life and their relationship with her, following her death from leukaemia in 2012. That the movie is directed and presented by her son, Jacob Bernstein, only adds to the intimacy with which her life was viewed.

It becomes quite clear that Nora Ephron had quite an interesting life rather early on in the movie, as it tracks her career across its different stages, from her first job at the New York Post (which she got after writing a satirical piece criticising the paper which impressed the editor) to her final theatre play, which starred Tom Hanks as a journalist himself. In a way, it’s quite circular; perhaps another manner in which everything is copy. Between these two events, though, Ephron had a long and distinguished career, with a host of articles, books, and movies to her name – including one of my favourite romcoms, You’ve Got Mail. (It’s really great.)

A series of different guests, with actors such as Tom Hanks, Meryl Streep, and Meg Ryan, to other collaborators such as Mike Nicholls, alongside Ephron’s sisters Delia, Amy, and Hallie, really help to flesh out the picture of Ephron that we get. It’s very clear how much of an impact she had on their lives; they were all clearly quite upset, in the way that one is when you’ve lost someone special.

What also became very clear, though, was how talented Ephron was as a writer. Across the film there are a series of excerpts from Ephron’s writing across the years, with Meg Ryan, Lena Dunham, and Reese Witherspoon all providing readings, and even Ephron herself in archive footage; it’s immediately evident how incisive and insightful Ephron could be, with a very strong voice, as well as being quite funny generally.

Ultimately, Everything is Copy is quite an engaging documentary, and I’d really recommend giving it a look if you’re interested in writing, or indeed the life of Nora Ephron. It’s a respectful yet fair historiography, which shines a light on the trials and tribulations of a genuinely fascinating – and genuinely talented – woman.

7/10

Related:

Film Review: Inequality is for All (2013)

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Film Review | Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015)

me and earl and the dying girl film review Alfonso Gomez-Rejon jesse andrews thomas mann rj cyler olivia cooke

This isn’t a touching romantic story.

I recently managed to watch Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, which is something I’ve been meaning to do for quite a while. I read the book a while ago, as part of my efforts to get through 100 books in a year (I managed 12), and I quite enjoyed it.

Just for reference, here’s what I said about the book at the time:

The book is positioned as very much Not A John Green Novel. There’s a sort of low key reference to it at one point – the narrator very explicitly says that there will not be any schmaltzy messages or tumblr style quotes. He gives an example; I forget what it was, but it may as well have been “That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.”

It works, I think. Me and Earl and the Dying Girl is much more acerbic and rough around the edges than a John Green novel. It feels very real. At the end of it, there’s no real message. (At least, not one that I took away from it.) There isn’t a love story, or a great romantic climax. Death just happens, and you’ve got to live with it.

If you’ve not yet gathered, the story is this: Greg befriends Rachel, a girl with leukaemia. It’s a bit awkward, but over time they get close; Rachel takes a particular interest in the films that Greg makes with his friend Earl. The pair of them then work on a film for Rachel, which they’re able to show to her before she dies. This is the basic plot that both the film and the book share; there are a few subtle changes made to the film which, though seemingly quite slight, I would argue actually fundamentally change the whole movie.

Primarily, there’s the dynamic that Rachel and Greg share. In the book, the pair of them had previously known each other, and sort of had a relationship that had petered out in the past. In the movie, however, they meet essentially at the start, not long after Rachel is diagnosed. It’s a subtle, but I think quite meaningful, change to the relationship and interactions between the pair. It becomes less about Greg confronting his own previous mistakes (because he’s quite an antisocial individual, who actively avoids making friends) and is much more about a guy who just becomes friends with a cancer patient because his mum asked him to.

That leads into my next point, then, because I think that the emotional arc and character development that Greg goes on is quite severely limited in this movie, compared to the book. Part of the story in the book is that Greg learns to open up to people and make genuine connections; one of his big character traits is that he’s a social floater by choice, with no real friends. Indeed, something he learns from Rachel is linked into this, with Greg ultimately realising that a standard university isn’t for him, and choosing to go to film school. This, weirdly, wasn’t included at all, as Greg chooses to go to the normal university, without really changing as a person particularly at all – I found that quite surprising, because it seemed to me that this was quite an important part of the story and its resolution.

(I think because of this, The Fault in Our Stars actually looks a lot better by comparison – because The Fault in Our Stars is actually about a cancer patient. This movie is just about a cancer patient’s selfish friend, and in some respects comes across as rather cynical in its approach to the audience.)

Don’t get me wrong, it was a fun movie, and I found it quite entertaining. The cast was quite strong – Nick Offerman and Jon Bernthal (for some reason I thought he was Tom Hardy) were great to see, and Thomas Man (Greg) and RJ Cyler (Earl) both did quite well too. The real standout, though, was Olivia Cooke, who played Rachel, and was a real breath of fresh air whenever she was on screen – funny, passionate and engaging, she was very easy to like, making it all the more poignant when she eventually met her end.

I guess my problem with this movie, then, was that it wasn’t enough like the book – not because I think that the point of an adaptation is to slavishly dedicate oneself to the original text, but rather simply because the book was better. It’s odd, because I think this is a story that would have translated rather well to film, particularly given that the main character is something of a cinema aficionado; the extent of this, though, was a few stop-motion sequences and excerpts from their home movies. It’s not obtrusive or bad, it’s just… the concept could probably have been pushed further, I guess?

Thinking back on what I said in the original review – it’s not that Me and Earl and the Dying Girl doesn’t have a message. The point of the original book was that there isn’t an easy message – death is complicated, and you can’t distill it down to something as simple as “pain demands to be felt”. There are lots of different things, with the characters having their own outlook on it all. For the film, though, they seemed to do away with this, focusing on one particular message from Jon Bernthal’s teacher character, and ending the movie essentially on this note.

In the end, I think that sums up the differences between the book and the film. One was far more generic, and far less insightful, than the other. It’s a shame, given that probably didn’t have to be the case.

6/10

Note: This is another movie I’ve come to wonder if, in hindsight, I was pretty unfair on – if nothing else, I’m normally fairly sceptical of any “it’s not like the book” film criticism. So I’d like to give this another watch and see what I make of it some time.

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Who is Rey?

star wars the force awakens rey face poster daisy ridley parents identiy the last jedi rian johnson jj abrams kylo ren reylo obi wan kenobi rey skywalker

The new heroine of the Star Wars movies, as I imagine we all know by now, is Rey. She’s a fantastic character, played well by Daisy Ridley, and she’s got a wonderful leitmotif to boot. (It’s one of my favourite pieces of Star Wars music, actually, and I’d probably go as far as to say it’s one of my favourite pieces of John Williams’ music as a whole.)

Rey’s lived on Jakku for much of her life, having to become nearly entirely self-sufficient; despite her wanderlust, she’s lead a very sheltered existence, always waiting for a family that would never come. (I thought her line upon seeing Takodana –  “I didn’t think there was this much green in the whole galaxy.” – was one of the more memorable subtle moments of the movie.) In the end, she’s a hero, much like Luke Skywalker before her.

While we know a lot about Rey as a person, though, there’s still much about her that’s a mystery. It’s the question first posited by one of the initial trailers:

“Who are you?”

At the minute, smart money suggests that she’s a Skywalker; a child that Luke fathered and abandoned during the thirty year stretch between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. And, you know, it could certainly explain a few things; Rey’s affinity with the force, her piloting prowess, Kylo Ren appearing to know of her on Jakku. Certainly, there are also some thematic parallels that could line up with Luke’s origins in A New Hope – but then, there are thematic parallels that could line up with everything in A New Hope. After all, I can’t imagine Han Solo is a reincarnated Obi-Wan, or anything like that.

Honestly, I am expecting Rey to be a Skywalker; I was, in fact, expecting the movie to end with a reversal of the iconic “I am your father” moment. But… there’s something about that idea that leaves a bad taste in my mouth, in much the same way the idea of Luke being Kylo Ren did. Luke Skywalker, iconic hero, abandoning his child to a life of slavery, not so different from how Anakin was brought up? I mean, particularly given Luke’s relationship with Vader, I can’t imagine he’d abandon his own child at all.

Similarly, the suggestion that Luke used to force to suppress Rey’s memories (and potentially Han and Leia’s) of him, leading to the “I thought he was a myth” comment, is equally offputting. I think this is a result of the recent Doctor Who episodes examining the relative fairness of non consensual memory wipes, actually; there’s something about the idea that, no matter what trauma or greater good they justify it with, makes me more than a little bit uncomfortable. Certainly, there are ways to make it work – perhaps that’s how they signify Luke’s own fall from grace – but I wonder if that’s just an attempt to fix an idea that is already fundamentally poor.

There’s also, from some people, the suggestion that Rey is a Kenobi. On the one hand, it’s a nice idea – thematically speaking, the idea that these two families are tied so closely together that we’ll see another generation of Kenobi save the latest in the Skywalker line is a really great concept, which is something they could get a really compelling story out of. And yet… it seems far too unlikely to happen, simply as a result of the level of exposition that would be needed; with no prior indication of Obi-Wan having a family, the necessary backstory to include doesn’t seem like something they’d want to shoehorn into future movies. From a practical standpoint then, I don’t see it happening.

Honestly, though, my favourite answer to this question is Rey’s own: “I’m no one.”

I’d rather see Rey as a ‘normal’ person, unconnected to any character we’ve seen before, or any important lineage. Let her story be her own; her merits as a character are borne from the fact that anyone can be special, not because of who her family is.

We’ve already got a familial connection in this new generation of characters – and it shows us how that’s not necessarily a good thing. Rey is the thematic parallel to that, then; you don’t need to be a Skywalker to be a hero.

In Star Wars, anyone should be able to be a hero.

Related:

Star Wars retrospective

On the Identity of Kylo Ren

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On the identity of Kylo Ren

star wars the force awakens kylo ren adam driver han solo ben solo reylo identity twist reveal empire strikes back I am your father luke skywalker

So, I watched The Force Awakens again recently; I maintain my original judgement, that it’s a fun film with great characters, but ultimately a very derivative plot. Interestingly, I’m pretty sure most of the people there were also rewatching it; there were no big laughs at any of the moments there were the first time around, so I’m assuming that was because the other people there were anticipating the jokes, rather than that they didn’t find it funny. Glad to see lots of people liked it enough to watch it twice (or thrice!), in any case.

There was, though, one sticking point for me, and that was the identity of Kylo Ren – or, more specifically, how it was revealed to us.

From this point on there will be spoilers.

Consider, if we jump back to 1980 for a moment, The Empire Strikes Back. Everyone is familiar with the twist which takes place at the end of the movie, of course – Darth Vader is Luke’s father. That’s thought to be one of the most impactful moments in cinematic history, and it’s certainly one of the most memorable; you’d be hard-pressed to find a person who doesn’t know that Luke is Darth Vader’s son. (Which, I suppose, is something of a shame, because it means it’s rare that people are able to actually experience the twist. But that’s beside the point.)

Part of the reason why this is such an effective reveal is the way we come to learn the information – it’s built up as a surprise, and delivered during an already tense moment. It was foreshadowed previously; Darth Vader and the Emperor have a conversation about “the son of Skywalker”, but they never get any more specific than that.

You can see it here. (Incidentally, there’s a rather clever moment where the Emperor says to Darth Vader “Search your feelings; you know it to be true”, which is echoed later on, as Darth Vader says the same to Luke upon revealing his identity as Anakin Skywalker.)

In any case, though, what’s crucial is that the Emperor doesn’t simply say “your son”, or “the son of your former self, Anakin Skywalker”, or anything that would pre-empt the coming reveal. The exposition is built up as a dramatic moment, rather than as a piece of throw-away dialogue (which is, notably, the problem in Revenge of the Sith when we learn Palpatine is Darth Sidious).

In The Force Awakens, though, we have an almost complete reversal of this scene – rather than saving the revelation of Kylo Ren’s identity for his confrontation with Han Solo on the bridge, Supreme Leader Snoke says something along the lines of (and look seriously spoilers!) “Han Solo… your father”. This is very much not a big reveal – there’s no big gasps from the audience, there’s no shock or surprise. It’s just not structured as a reveal.

I suppose in some ways that makes sense; in The Empire Strikes Back, this information was a reveal to Luke as well. Here, all the characters know the information already – it’s not a surprise to Snoke or Kylo Ren or Han. Why, then, structure it as such? Well… for the audience. After all, if it’s not going to be structured as a reveal to us, why Kylo Ren? Why not just tell us in the lead up to the movie? Announce Adam Driver as Ben Solo, Han and Leia’s son?

Because a twist reveal is just more fun, to be honest. But what we got didn’t really function as a twist reveal.

star wars the force awakens kylo ren adam driver han solo ben solo reylo identity twist reveal empire strikes back I am your father luke skywalker snow hd picture forest

So, let’s structure it thus: we remove any reference to Kylo as Han and Leia’s son until the final confrontation on the bridge. Prior to this, you can just keep it vague; Han can say things like “I saw him, Leia. I saw… Kylo Ren” and Leia can respond with “I wish you wouldn’t call him that”, to which Han responds “That’s who he is now. That’s all he is now” and suchlike. We don’t reveal who he really is until Han calls him by his true name on the bridge – and, hey, that becomes a cool character moment for Han too, because it’s a more overt symbol of how he’s trying to connect with his son, in that it’s the first time we see Han acknowledge Kylo as his son.

But… if we’re going to go for a big reveal, why not push it further? Let’s see if we can top The Empire Strikes Back.

You know what I thought was kinda silly? Naming Han and Leia’s son Ben. I could buy Luke naming his son Ben, but Han and Leia were more likely to call their child Lando or Chewy – Han barely knew Obi-Wan, and didn’t exactly seem to like him, and I’m not convinced Leia had even met Obi-Wan. It was fan service that didn’t really land properly, in terms of the actual characters.

You know what they might name their child, though?

Luke.

So let’s run with that, and take a page from the book of the speculators and theorists: we’re going to have a fake out, and imply that Kylo Ren is Luke Skywalker, fallen to the dark side.

We’ll modify some of the earlier dialogue; Han can say things like “I thought I knew him” when Rey and Finn ask about Luke Skywalker. Han and Leia’s conversation would be more “To him, I was just family. But you were his best friend. You can reach him.” We’d also, I think, add in the idea that Leia doesn’t know exactly what happened to Luke, and make it seem that Han does – he can disparage the idea of looking for a map, saying that they might not like what they find, that sort of thing. Obviously Han doesn’t, but we want to preserve the eventual reveal.

Then, on the bridge, rather than calling out Ben, Han will say “Luke!”.

And everyone in the audience is shocked! They gasp! What a surprise… and how confusing it is when Kylo Ren removes his mask (it’d have to be the first time, so earlier scenes would need rewriting) and we don’t see Mark Hamill, but… Adam Driver? (Obviously, they wouldn’t have announced the casting of Adam Driver ahead of time.)

The conversation between Han and Ben Luke Solo will go similarly, but removing any outright references to how they know each other, until… this mysterious other Luke stabs Han. And as the music swells, and Han strokes Luke’s face, he says:

“I love you, son.” “I know, father.”

And then, with that callback to one of Han’s most iconic moments, we learn the true identity of Kylo Ren.

That, I think, is a lot more impactful than Andy Serkis’ throwaway exposition.

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective: Rewriting the Prequels

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

star wars the force awakens review episode vii logo jj abrams lawrence kasdan

And this is the new one. The film we’ve all been waiting for since 2013 when the Lucasfilm deal was first announced. The Force Awakens has, as I understand it, already broken several records with regards to pre-opening ticket sales, and I think it’s on track to beat Jurassic World as the biggest opening weekend of all time.

This review will, obviously, contain spoilers. They’re going to be fairly in depth in terms of an examination of the film, so beware of those. I don’t want to ruin Jar-Jar’s cameo appearance for anyone, and so on and so forth. The actual spoiler-y discussion begins after the read more jump; first up, I want to talk a little about my expectations and thoughts having gone into the film.

For a fairly long time, I was hesitant about the movie; my expectations were pretty low, and I was interested simply because it was Star Wars, rather than because I had any real or genuine expectations of legitimate quality. Over the course of the two year wait, though, and particularly in the last few months as new trailers began to be released, I began to get more and more excited. In the end, it was my Star Wars Retrospective rewatch that really got me immersed in this world again, and really looking forward to the new film.

So, as I was sat there watching the beginning of the film – the Lucasfilm logo appears, the music blares, the credits scroll – I ended up sat there with a great big stupid grin on my face.

And rightfully so.

Once again, I feel the need to stress – from hereon out, there be spoilers. If you are still reading at this stage, you’re an idiot, or you just don’t care. Regardless, make sure you know which you are before you keep reading.

Anyway.

The Force Awakens opens strong, with the attack on the village in Jakku. It serves as a great introduction to both Poe Dameron and Finn; rather effectively, we get to see the battle from Poe’s perspective, with the Stormtroopers doing all of these brutal things… before slowly moving across to focus on one of those Stormtroopers, with their conviction clearly wavering. This is, of course, Finn, who’s played by John Boyega, and he’s going to be one of our key focal characters for the rest of the film; after an extremely entertaining escape sequence, which does a great job of showcasing both Finn and Poe as characters, Poe Dameron gets a much more reduced focus. It’s a shame, to be honest; Oscar Isaac gives a great performance as an interesting character who has a lot of potential, and while I can understand the in-story reason for taking him out of the action, I do hope his role is bumped up a fair bit next time.

star wars the force awakens review rey finn milennium falcon daisy ridley john boyega jj abrams

Regardless, though, John Boyega as Finn is a perfect protagonist for this new movie. There’s a lot of heart to his character, and he has a great character arc; moving from First Order soldier to deserter, before eventually joining with the Resistance, and all because he has such a keenly tuned sense of right and wrong. I think Finn is, in fact, my favourite character across each of these movies; he’s a really compelling character, and John Boyega gives a great performance. I love the fact that he’s driven by a fairly simple desire to do what’s right, and by compassion for others; a fairly simple, small touch that was included, and I quite liked, was that at one point Finn is knocked out, and the first thing he says when he comes around is “Are you okay?”. His primary concern is Rey, and whether or not she’s alright. It’s a nice thematic thread which follows through the entire movie.

Rey, similarly, is a lot of fun as our other main protagonist. In many ways, she’s our Luke Skywalker analogue here; stuck on the desert planet, wanting to leave, before ending up on a strange adventure across the galaxy. Interestingly, though, there’s an added complication: she feels like she has to stay on Jakku, because of some familial obligation. She’s waiting for someone. It’s an odd little detail, added in presumably to build up to a reveal in the next movie, as we find out who her family are, and why they left her on Jakku. I’m guessing she’ll be Luke’s daughter, but perhaps they’ll surprise us.

Aside from that, though, Daisy Ridley gives an engaging performance as Rey. I really like her voice, actually. That’s an odd thing to pick up on, I suppose, but it stood out to me anyway. There definitely seems to be the basis of an engaging character here, and I’m looking forward to seeing her grow and develop across the next two movies. Certainly, Rey was a lot of fun to watch on screen, and her return will be welcome, regardless of whether or not we find out more about her background.

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I was also quite impressed by how the return of the Original Trilogy characters was handled, by gradually introducing them to the plot. We didn’t begin with Han or Chewie or Leia; first it was an X-Wing, then Stormtroopers, then the Millennium Falcon, and then Han and Chewie. By layering the reveals like this, it let each aspect have the opportunity to breathe, and have a much greater impact in its own right.

The Force Awakens also works, of course, as a showcase for the best of Han Solo – which is what you’d expect, really. They do a great job of reminding us of exactly what we loved so much about him in all the previous movies, and why Han Solo is such a cultural icon; it’s because he’s such a genuinely compelling and engaging character to see on the screen. It’s wonderful to see Harrison Ford back, and to get quite so many great scenes and fun lines. JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan really make us fall in love with Han all over again, before – well, I’ll talk about that in a minute. The point is, then, that Harrison Ford’s appearance here really elevates the movie, genuinely adding to it’s strengths.

Similarly, it’s nice to see Leia, C3PO and R2D2 back, each in their various capacities. Honestly, I think C3PO’s appearance was my favourite of these three; it was a genuinely funny little segment, and I appreciated the efforts made to introduce some humour into these movies. As nice as it was to see Carrie Fisher back as Leia, I did have a few problems with the fundamental nature of her role here, so… we’ll talk about that in a moment, anyway.

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One of the most interesting aspects of the new movie is our new bad guy, Kylo Ren. It’s a difficult thing to pull off for this movie – The Force Awakens is having to compete with Darth Vader, who is genuinely the best villain in movie history. Even the prequels never quite had that issue, given that they were the story of a young Darth Vader – here, now, we’re looking at a Star Wars movie that is almost entirely divorced from the story of Vader.

Whilst Kylo Ren isn’t quite on Vader’s level, JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan have managed to create the basis of a villain with a lot of potential to be explored in the future movies. They’ve written a villain who is genuinely conflicted, and Adam Driver has done an amazing of portraying this. Lines like “I can feel the power of the light calling to me” give the impression of the potential for an interesting examination of the dichotomy between the darkness and the light; for Kylo Ren, evil is something is aspires to, rather than something that comes naturally. He self harms throughout the final fight, constantly hurting himself in an attempt to tap into the dark side – Ren is demonstrably volatile, using his lightsabre to smash and destroy some display monitors as a result of some bad news, all in a pique of teenage rage. His instability is clear as well; even though he’s strong with the Force, it’s evident that this strength is not something he’s in complete mastery of. The creative team involved have managed to find a new angle from which to approach the idea of a force using bad guy, and I’m really excited to see where the story goes from here.

Of course, Ren’s identity was hotly debated before the beginning of the movie, with two theories starting to prevail. Quite a few people believed it could be Luke Skywalker (under the tutelage of Supreme Leader Snoke, also known as Darth Darth Binks)… but there was another. The other prominent theory was that Kylo Ren was, in fact, Luke’s former apprentice, and the son of Han and Leia. This was, of course, proven to be true. And then, of course, Kylo – or rather, Ben – eventually killed his father Han.

It was an interesting moment, but I’m not convinced of how well it was handled. The actual demise of Han worked very well (though I’d have preferred it if he had some final lines), and I think it’ll serve to emphasis the danger that Kylo Ren poses in later movies. I do think the actual reveal of Kylo’s identity could have been structured much better; the information is given across as little more than some throwaway dialogue, rather than built up as the seismic revelation it should have been. That is, I think, a bit of a failing on the film’s part – not a debilitating one, but certainly a notable one.

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That predictability, though, is something that hampers the film throughout. It’s two major moments were far from surprises – the identity of Kylo Ren, and the death of Han Solo, were both fairly obvious. Or at least, they were to me; the average movie goer isn’t going to have been sat theorising about the movie for months, considering whether Kylo Ren would be akin to a new Jacen Solo, or if Harrison Ford would finally have convinced them to let Han Solo die. So, in fairness, it’s difficult to honestly and legitimately argue that this is a serious fault or detriment to the plot.

No, the main issue with the plot is how derivative it ultimately proved to be. We’re watching a remake of A New Hope; the plot strays too far into nostalgia territory, and ends up dangerously close to being a perfunctory remake. We have something of a remixed collection of Star Wars’ greatest hits – a desert planet, an aerial battle over an ice planet, and even a brand new Death Star. It’s this last one that was, I’d argue, the worst – a huge superweapon was introduced, simply so that it could be destroyed in an essentially identical way to the original Death Star. There was little interesting to the concept – yes, it’s a planet, and yes, it drains stars, but so what? Essentially, all it is is a massive Death Star. They even make this comparison explicit within the story.

In fact, the only narrative purpose this Starkiller base serves is to destroy what appeared to be Coruscant; the new Republic has been destroyed, and our heros are reduced to a small group of ragtag soldiers with limited resources – the Resistance – fighting against a much larger and more powerful organisation, the First Order. Sound familiar? That’s because it is.

The Force Awakens is, in essence, hiding in nostalgia. For fear of alienating audiences in the same way the prequels did, they undid much of the development of the Original Trilogy to try and re-establish the status quo from A New Hope. I think that can only really be considered a mistake; the Empire and the Rebellion wasn’t what made Star Wars great, it was the struggle between good and evil. You don’t need to simply redress the originals to bring that back, particularly when it takes away the triumphant ending of Return of the Jedi. Leia’s role here, even though she’s a General rather than a Princess, is ultimately a regression.

I always kinda thought that the Yuuzhan Vong were a bit of a stupid idea – for those of you who don’t know, they’re aliens from another galaxy who, in the novels and EU, invaded some time after Return of the Jedi. They seemed to me to be too much of a departure from the Star Wars I knew, but I do think I appreciate them a lot more now – they were a new idea, and that’s important, it really is.

That lack of new ideas in The Force Awakens – in terms of the plot and general status quo, I mean – is a real disappointment. I do think the movie would have been strengthened had they approached it from a different angle; make the First Order the small, ragtag group this go around. Show that the new Galactic Alliance is struggling to succeed as a young intergalactic government. Emphasis the intimate, personal, small scale struggle caused as Ben Solo became Kylo Ren.

Just don’t give us reheated leftovers.

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Now, honestly, I really did enjoy The Force Awakens. It’s a stunning film, visually speaking – it looks amazing, moreso than any of the other Star Wars movies than preceded it.

And, even despite the issues I highlighted, the plot issues aren’t hugely noticeable whilst watching the film – JJ Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and all the actors involved did such a genuinely compelling job with the character arcs throughout that the plot problems almost just didn’t matter. Finn, Rey and Poe Dameron are a great new trio for us to be introduced to; Kylo Ren is an intimidating villain with a lot of potential, and it wonderful to see characters from the original trilogy again.

The Force Awakens is, undeniably, better than all of the prequel movies. And certainly in some regards, it’s better than the original movies. Not in all aspects, though.

As a reintroduction to the franchise, The Force Awakens does a pretty stellar job. As a movie, it does a wonderful job – I’ve emphasised, all throughout this review, how genuinely fun it is to watch, and that’s true. Seeing this movie is a genuinely enjoyable experience, and I’d really recommend it to anyone who enjoys fun movies.

I’ll likely have a lot more thoughts on this over the coming week (obviously, I’m going to watch it again) but for now, this is essentially where I stand. A hugely enjoyable movie, with one fundamental flaw.

9/10

Related:

Star Wars Retrospective

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Film Review | Fantastic Four (2015)

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Hmm.

Okay. So. At the minute, this movie is on something like 9% on Rotten Tomatoes. (Wait, no, I just checked. Actually, it’s 8%.) The general consensus that the movie is “Dull and downbeat, this Fantastic Four proves a woefully misguided attempt to translate a classic comic series without the humor, joy, or colorful thrills that made it great.”

And, so, I thought that was a shame. Because I’ve been defending the movie for ages – whenever someone would complain about the trailer, I’d say that I actually thought it looked quite good (I did) and that it was probably too early to make any pre-judgments (it was). But that obviously became increasingly more difficult to maintain, especially as all the news of the troubled production came out. By the time Miles Teller was making excuses for the movies poor reviews, I’d essentially given up on it.

Thus I decided to go and watch it and basically just mock it. Mean spirited, I guess. But it’s kinda fun to sit and make jokes while watching bad movies – that’s why things like Sharknado exist. I was all set for a pretty awful movie, essentially.

So imagine my surprise when I actually really enjoyed it.

And I do mean I really, really enjoyed it. I thought it was excellent. The body horror angle was something that’s not really been explored before in the recent glut of Superhero movies (at least, not that I can think of) and I found that really interesting – beyond Ben Grimm’s general sort of “gosh it sure does suck to be a rock”, I’d never really thought about how scary and different it would be for these four people. It was an aspect that I genuinely believed worked really well, and I think they did an alright job of giving each character different reactions to it.

Obviously, it was not perfect. It was muddled in places, and I think the resolution was a little rushed. They had quite a few good character moments, I think, but they definitely needed quite a few more – I don’t think Reed and Ben ever really finished their arc, for example, and Sue definitely could have had her role increased. There just needed to be a little bit more to it – it’d have been nice to fill that “one year later” gap, rather than skipping right over it. (Also! At the beginning, when we see them as kids, Ben should have said “I want to be the second man to travel to a different dimension”, and that’s the beginning of their friendship.) You could tell that the actual production had been rushed; I think maybe the script needed another pass (if you never brought anything back, Sue, how did you have that extra dimensional dust?) and I do wonder how the film worked before the final last minute excisions were made.

Certainly, the “One Year Later” cut should have been reworked – given that the body horror aspect is reliant on their reactions to the changes they went through, I think it’s self evident that we needed to see more of their reactions to their powers. The initial fear was was well done, and I didn’t even have that much problem with the way they were shown to feel after the time jump, but I think the movie would have been a lot stronger had we seen the transition from point A to point B.

Overall, though, I think it’d give it, say, a 7/10, maybe? Possibly I could be lead to give it a higher mark, actually. Really, I thought it was that good…

…to the point that I’m actually questioning all the other reviews. Because I can understand hardcore fans of the comics taking issue with the movie – it is a very different angle from which to interpret the source material, and I know that a lot of comic fans wouldn’t be interested in that sort of thing. Equally though, a lot of them would, simply because it’s new and different and often there are merits to that sort of thing. More to the point, I’m surprised that so many casual movie goers and critics are reacting against this – in theory, it’s tailored quite well to them, given that it’s got some key differences to the majority of other superhero movies. It seems directly tailored to combat that idea of super hero movie fatigue that everyone drags out every so often.

Presumably for a lot of people this is their Man of Steel – a movie I totally and utterly hated, because I felt like it was just… well, bad. It didn’t feel like a Superman movie to me. It came across as poorly written and – well, actually, I’d say it matches up to this fairly well: “Dull and downbeat, this Fantastic Four proves a woefully misguided attempt to translate a classic comic series without the humor, joy, or colorful thrills that made it great.” Except, y’know, Man of Steel rather than Fantastic Four.

But I felt like this worked. I mean, my Fantastic Four knowledge is about the same as my Superman knowledge, and I’m probably better acquainted with those characters than I am with Superman. Broadly I felt like they were better served by this film than Superman was by Man of Steel.

Man of Steel, though, was controversial at least. There are enough people on either side of the debate that it’s still going on. But with Fantastic Four, there isn’t even a debate.

All of which is leading me to think that maybe my personal taste is a weird and idiosyncratic thing. (After all, Cars 2 is the only movie I’ve ever enjoyed enough to watch in the cinema twice.)

So, to sum up. Fantastic Four had a lot of genuinely very interesting ideas in play, and I think it needs to get a lot more credit for those ideas than it has so far. It was not perfect, and I think had it had a longer development time, then it would likely have come out as an overall stronger movie. As it is, though, I enjoyed it a lot, and it deserves a far better reputation than it has.

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On Hitman: Agent 47, movie trailers, and spoilers

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So, I was at the cinema yesterday, and I saw the trailer for this film. ‘Tis based on a video game, but I must confess, I’d never actually heard of it before. I’m not really big on video games, to be honest. Really not particularly good at them. Often lose. (I’ve gotten quite good at Tetris, though.)

Anyway, though, the trailer for this film came up, and it looked pretty good to me. Not necessarily the sort of thing I’d watch in the cinema, but if ever it was on TV, I’d probably look into it – action movies about hypercompetent people tend to have potential, I think, and from the trailer it looked cool enough. I quite liked the opening scene, and Zachary Quinto was in it, who’s an actor I typically tend to like. So, yeah, that alone was enough to pique my interest.

But! The trailer then continued, and imparted some more information about the plot to me. And I found that quite interesting, actually. Because up until that point, it looked like our Agent 47 fellow could be broadly termed as the bad guy, and Zachary Quinto as the good guy. Except that’s not the case – there’s a twist!

Quinto is in fact a government agent type with nefarious schemes, and Agent 47 is trying to stop him. The woman it seems like he’s trying to kill isn’t an innocent woman, but is in fact another Agent (number 46?) who was raised with him and just doesn’t remember. Something like that.

It surprised me, though, and it really made me think about the current debate about spoilers in movie trailers. This is, obviously, the sort of thing that will probably be framed as a twist in the actual movie. Which makes sense – the person you thought was the bad guy is infact the good guy, and indeed vice versa. It makes sense for that to be a twist. And yet, here it is, laid to bare.

Which is an odd thing, I think. I mean, it;s not impossible to create a trailer without that reveal – because, look, they actually have. When I was searching for the link to the above trailer, I found this other one, which preserves the twist, and offers a level of set up that could still intrigue someone. Perhaps the studio weren’t particularly confident in the trailer as it was?

A comparison that sort of jumps out at me is Marvel movies, particularly The Winter Soldier. Here’s the trailer for that one. Interestingly, none of the three major twists are present in the trailer. Well, I say interestingly, I mean appropriately. Even the one that isn’t really a twist, and would have been spoiled fairly frequently beforehand, given that it actually comes from the comics – the identity of the Winter Soldier, that is.

I mean, I jumped to that comparison because, arguably, they’re in the same place as adaptations – someone is going to know the plot, and indeed how it ends, before they see the film. The Winter Soldier maybe wasn’t the best example given that it didn’t adapt a specific story – maybe a book is more accurate? Books feel a little too high profile, though, and I assume this particular film is going to reach a far wider audience than the video game did.

This is a little rambling, I suppose, given that I don’t actually have an new or interesting insights – I can’t explain exactly why Fox decided to put the reveal in the trailer, nor do I have any argument beyond “spoilers in trailers are bad”. I mean, I have a bit of a case-by-case view of spoilers – a lot of the time, knowing the ending doesn’t matter, because it’s how they get from A to B where the story is. I kinda feel, though, that in the case of this particular spoiler, it’s revealed far more than necessary – I’m a lot less likely to watch this movie, now, because I think I can more or less guess the plot with a fair degree of accuracy, and action scenes aren’t always the most interesting things on their own anyway.

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Film Review | Ant-Man (2015)

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I watched this today! It was a rather excellent movie. Lots and lots to like about it. Very funny; I think one my favourite jokes was towards the end, when Michael Peña’s character was giving the second tip, and he started talking about the art he liked. It amused me, because normally the joke would be “this guy doesn’t get art”, but it’s subverted when he goes off on a tangent about how he prefers one artist over another. Very good. Lots of excellent jokes.

Also! I particularly liked the shift to the legacy orientated way of looking at things. One of the more interesting superhero concepts, which isn’t really explored so much, is the fact that mantles often are passed on. Because the movies tend to start with the “original” character, rather than their successors, we haven’t seen that yet – it’s entirely possible, though, we might yet see Anthony Mackie or Sebastian Stan becoming Captain America at some point in the future.

Anyway, though, I digress. (Wasn’t Anthony Mackie very cool as Falcon?) I quite liked the fact that we saw Hank Pym passing on the mantle of the Ant-Man to Scott Lang – it wasn’t perfectly done, but it was quite well handled, I felt. I’m hoping that, eventually, whenever we next see Ant-Man, we see Hank and Scott, to further this mentor relationship.

But, on the other hand, the flaws were very much apparent in the film. I’m not sure whether this is because of the films troubled development, or just some general flaws, but whatever.

First up is going to be Darren Cross, AKA Yellowjacket. In the run up to this film, the question of weak/underdeveloped Marvel villains has been floating around a fair bit, so the question was closer to the forefront of my mind while I was watching this than usual. Aaand… I mean, I understand the basic idea of wanting to focus on the hero, rather than the villain, especially in the first movie, and especially one in which you’re trying to set up essentially three main characters – Scott, Hank, and Hope.

But I really do think that Cross could have been much, much better. He was a rather two dimensional character, I felt; acting like a megalomaniacal villain simply for the sake of it. For consideration: What if Cross didn’t want to militarise the Pym Particles, but to use them for altruistic purposes? That sort of shrinking/growing technology could solve more than a few food shortages with relative ease. I always think that the best villains are the ones you can entirely understand the motives of, and perhaps even agree with. You’ve got a very easy set up here – Cross wants to use the technology to help as many people as he can, but Pym is reticent, selfish even, about sharing the technology, because of what happened to Janet. The conflict comes from that – it’s far more morally grey, because both parties are technically “right”, yet neither will compromise. It’s a little bit different, it’s more nuanced, and wouldn’t even require much more screentime for Cross. Just a few tweaks, and the film is likely a lot stronger, in terms of it’s narrative. You can still have Cross suit up to fight Scott, because he wants to stop Scott from, as he sees it, hurting a lot of people.

(Oh, and, hey, there’s another angle for the mentor thing – because Cross was once Hank’s protegee, he could have been the Ant-Man. Differing views split them apart though. Is that correct? Who deserves to be the hero? Etc etc etc.)

Second problem, or noticeable error, would be in the treatment of Hope van Dyne. And that’s… difficult. I mean, it’s already been extensively discussed about the fridging of Janet (though it seems like she’ll be back eventually), but that’s not quite what I wanted to talk about.

Ant-Man does arguably have some similarities to this comic here, which did stand out as I was watching it. Hope was essentially already far more competent than Scott, and probably a better choice for the job than he was, yet Hank was making choices for her (Hope: “Don’t blame yourself for mum’s death, it was her choice”). And… Well, to be honest, I think it was actually “okay” here, insofar as this sort of trope can be okay. It’s obvious that Hank is grieving, and he’s determined to keep her safe – the movie straight up says that Scott is expendable. (Which made me feel validated, albeit less smart, because I’d been sat there going “oh yeah this is obviously because Hank thinks Scott is expendable, wow I am so great at picking up on this admittedly quite obvious subtext”)

But then at the end, Hope does get the Wasp suit, which is a culmination of the arc between her and Hank, so I think this is probably not going to be much of an issue should the characters ever return. I mean, taken on it’s own, I think this film actually doesn’t do so badly – it’s just that in context of everything else, it’s a little difficult to completely give this film the all clear.

Though, you know, those are both fairly mild concerns. It really really was an excellent film, that was really enjoyable to watch – it was refreshing to meet a new character, but I appreciated the inclusion of other MCU elements to give a bit of texture to the film and it’s world. I thought Paul Rudd was brilliant, I thought Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lily were brilliant – the whole cast did really well. Fantastic visual style to it all as well – the shrinking elements worked excellently throughout. They were one of the most important things to get right, and this film absolutely got it note perfect.

I enjoyed Ant-Man very much, and I am really looking forward to seeing him return.

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