Thursday, 17 December 2015

Review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens


JJ Abrams "Star Wars: The Force Awakens", probably the most anticipated film this decade, is a familiar thing, with the usual abundance of spectacle, dogfights and derring-do. It reminded me, in a good way, of John Peel's maxim regarding his favourite band, 'The Fall'; this new Star Wars film is always different, but always the same. The most immediate frame of reference for most people is going to be whether it's better than the dreadful prequel trilogy, or as good as the canonised original trilogy, and my answer is that it is probably good enough for us to forget the prequel trilogy, and if the next two films in this go around the fountain are as good as this one, then there could well be longstanding debate as to which trilogy is better.

What makes it more than just a new Star Wars is that it has a blistering immediacy and deep currents of emotional verisimilitude that for me were lacking from any other aspect of the saga. This is entirely the work of three new lead actors, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Oscar Isaac. Ridley is Rey, a scavenger on a lonely planet called Jakku who spends her days raiding the corpse-like shell of the fallen Imperial Star Destroyer; Boyega is Finn, a Stormtrooper from birth who, after being instructed to destroy a village, finds himself disillusioned with killing and escapes from his ship to Jakku, where he meets Rey. Isaac is Poe Dameron, the best pilot in the Resistance, who are this film's updated Rebel Alliance.

All three of these actors have charisma and charm; Isaac in particular, after Drive, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Ex Machina, is turning into one of those actors that Philip Seymour Hoffman was; magnetic, captivating, willing to transform himself for each role. Every time he was on screen I cheered for him, not just because it was him, but because he brings exactly what is required for each performance, and in this it was enough that we wanted him to survive.

But his character is the least developed, and the real weight of the film hinges on Ridley and Boyega, who make a fantastic central leads and without whom the film would fall apart. They are broadly working types, Ridley is Hermione-esque, uptight and guarded, but hiding deep inner-pain, and Boyega is eager to please, brave, and with a dash too much bravado. But within those types they find contours and modes in which to paint entirely new pictures, and we end up caring deeply about them. For me, the pair felt as well-drawn as any characters from a serious drama. I was deeply rooting for them, and I wanted them to succeed, and in an age where there is nobody to root for and too many special effects, that was the most pleasant surprise of the whole film.

The plot is, as I say, familiar, and is simply the Resistance attempting to defeat the new First Order, who have been set up to continue the work of Darth Vader. The name "The First Order" screams "Reich", and there is indeed a moment where Domhnall Gleeson's General Hux mobilises troops in a way that is reminiscent of Reifenstahl's propaganda films, and Gleeson, all but spitting into the camera, seems to be channelling his inner Adolf.

But the main big bad this time is Adam Driver's Kylo Ren, who has been painted in the promotional material as the new Darth Vader, but in reality comes across more as the new Anakin, his story not quite complete yet and there's plenty of material left to work over in the next two films. As Tom Hardy says in Bronson, "I wasn't bad, I wasn't BAD bad- not yet". But he is a convincing and watchable screen presence, and as various people have noted already, he does in this film what Hayden Christensen failed to do in three, which is give some sense of inner moral conflict and make us believe in him.

And, of course, there's the factor of Harrison Ford's Han Solo, Carrie Fisher's now General Leia, and Mark Hamill's Luke Skywalker, who do just what they did thirty-odd years ago, and bring the required grit and glint to make us believe in them, as we have before, as we will do forever. So much has been speculated as to each character's prominence and role in the film, so I'll keep it brief, other than to say that you won't be disappointed, and the fact that as a collective consciousness, we've come to care so much about these characters, goes respected.

It's fun. That's the big draw, here; it is tonnes of fun. The film reassures you from the opening scene that it's going to be what you'd expect, but done well, and with care and love. I felt like everyone involved had put their all into it. John Williams' score fits alongside the others; cinematographer Daniel Mindel has clearly studied the old films and replicated the look well; Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan and Michael Arndt's script gets the tone, balance and weight right, with an almost mathematically precise formula for what to get right.

It works on an immediate level and on a subtextual level (along with the Nazi parallels, there's also some good feminist and post-colonial stuff in there that I may write about later). It's a film that works for all people, and has been crafted immeasurably well. It won't satisfy everyone and it probably doesn't live up to the hype, but nothing was every going to. This is far better than we could have ever had reason to expect, and I already cannot wait for Episode Eight.

What a masterful piece of blockbuster film-making this is!

Thursday, 3 December 2015

Review of Carol (2015)

Todd Hayne's "Carol" is a remarkable film, remarkable because it is sensual, sad, sorrowful subtle and supremely stirring, simultaneously emotionally complex and rich and yet telling a very simple story. Composed almost entirely of shots that take place outside of the rooms where the action is, with the viewer peering in, it is remarkable how immersive a film experience it is. A close friend remarked how it resembles a painting by Edward Hopper, and I think this is fitting; it is the principally a mood piece, that in any scene you are watching transports you to that scene. It draws you in on a profound, and not a superficial level. 

Therese (Rooney Mara), pronounced "Teh-rez", (which immediately indicates something of the wilfulness about her character), works on the toy floor of a large department store, stuck to her counter, as she puts it. After a prologue which serves as framing device, the first ten or so minutes of the film are spent observing her behaviours. She lives alone, but a man named Richard (Jake Lacy) calls on her each morning. At her workplace, she is henpecked and ordered by her boorish staff. Her mind wanders, and she often has to be called back into the task at hand by others. You immediately sense her lack of fulfilment; she needs more than this. 

One day she spots Carol (Cate Blanchett) playing with a train-set on the other side of the store; Carol approaches her, asking Therese's opinion of what is a good present for a young girl. There is a richness to their interaction in this scene, something unspoken, a harmony in between the words which technically constitute their exchange. They are at once, palpably, in tune. It is the first great scene in a film which has several. Therese recommends a train set; Carol immediately, almost without thought, buys it. It will be delivered to Carol's house in the next few days. 

Upon leaving the store, Carol leaves her gloves behind; Therese posts them to her, Carol rings the store thanking Therese and inviting her for lunch, and from there, the central love story begins to blossom.

But there are other factors, and this is no easy love story. Carol is going through a divorce with her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler), and there's a nasty custody battle looming involving their daughter Rindy. Harge clearly is deeply, deeply in love with his wife, and whilst some might interpret his actions later on as those of a selfish, piggish man, whilst he's no saint I think everything he does is because he does care for his wife, and is incredibly hurt by her refusal to be with him. The central portion of the film is essentially a road trip, as Carol and Therese trek across America throughout Christmas and New Year, going from hotel to hotel, escaping Therese's mundane life and Carol's difficult divorce proceedings.

What makes the film great is in the composition. This is a delicate piece in theme and in how it's been made, and there are five or six individual moments which transcend the film itself and become transportative. The central love scene between the pair is the most prominent example; it is a profoundly erotic scene that works not because of lurid detail, but because of sensitive detail. The way their hair almost fuses together into one; the way they break their kissing to place their faces into one another, like they want to become one; the way they communicate to one another about what they both want from this exchange. 

It is cinematic poetry, and the film sings. Every technical aspect is perfect, and I mean perfect; Judy Becker's production design is exemplary, and every location feels in service to the theme; Edward Lachmann's creamy and dreamy cinematography conjures up a magnificently immediate sense of place; Carter Burwell's score is unobtrusive but delightfully mood-setting, rising to the occasion of each scene and placing a perfect stamp on it; Phyllis Nagy's script, working from Patricia Highsmith's novel, is an unfussy delight, with some of the richest and most understated dialogue I've heard in an American film for some time. 

The acting on all sides is magnificent, but Cate Blanchett's performance goes beyond even the highest expectations you could have of her (and will likely net her an Oscar). The control she displays in her posture, placing and inflexion is masterly; it's the kind of performance you can picture drama students studying years down the line. Her near constant sense of hurt, and longing, are within arm's reach for the audience at all times, and she walks a thin line between desperate and needy, and someone with a lot of love to give. Her courting of Therese is believable, and you can believe this pair as a couple, the kind you can't picture not being together. The way they reach out for other is a most beautiful thing, and little details, like the gifts they buy for each other, left me with an unashamed lump in my throat (and, indeed, I quietly cried through the credits).

Most thankfully of all, the film seems reticent to peddle a trite or patronising pro-LGBT line, or to make a comment about how things "back then" weren't so great, and how much better society reacts to non-hetero people. There are maybe two brief discussions of homosexuality in the film; ultimately it is about nothing more than Carol and Therese's relationship and the surrounding plot, and it is not serving a higher agenda or making a point about anything else. As a result the film feels pure, and this is what, I think, gives the film its greatness.

Ultimately, "Carol" represents a triumph of the melding of form and content; a film of the highest craftsmanship servicing a love story that runs deep and has rich multitudes. It does not proffer a cheap or an easy outcome, and understands that things involving people don't tend to really resolve themselves for the movie's sake; it relies on character motivations, and thankfully we are given two characters here who will endure, in a film that will no doubt go on to be a received and respected standard classic in so many years time. I cannot fault it, and I cannot wait to revisit it.