Thursday, 24 December 2015

'Star Wars The Force Awakens' Review (2015): A NEW New Hope.

I'm not a huge Star Wars fan, I'll start out with that. I watched the movies when I was younger, it didn't really register with me the same way something like Terminator or Spider-Man did. I thought lightsabers were cool and Darth Vader was bad ass but for whatever reason, I could always take or leave Star Wars at the door. Having rewatched the films in preparation for Episode VII, I don't think that's changed, but I think I do "get it". It's a classic good vs evil story, not very nuanced, kind of loud, and pretty damn fun when it's good. Of course, I'm of the opinion there are only 2 good Star Wars films, of which one is half of A New Hope and half of Revenge of the Sith, so maybe I'm not the best judge. Regardless, I went into 'The Force Awakens' not too hopeful, but I wasn't down on the movie either. At the very least I was happy to be back in a galaxy far far away.

And for the most part, the movie did it's job. It got me invested in the larger plot of it and it gave me moments that felt like Star Wars at it's best. The story goes that 30 years after the events of the Return of the Jedi, The First Order has risen from the ashes of The Empire. Kylo Ren, the new avatar of the dark side sees it as his personal mission to wipe out the light. On the other side of things, new additions to the cast are Rey, Finn and Poe, who serve as the new generation of heroes to fight in The Resistance against The First Order and restore balance to the galaxy. Again.

So not exactly a new tale.

There are a few familiar beats, in fact, there are a lot of them. The parallels to the original trilogy are strong with this one and sometimes it works as a nice call back, but then 10 minutes later the familiarity becomes uncomfortable. In my review for Creed I talked about how that film had a perfect way of blending in references and themes of the old films, and incorporating them with all the new content. 'Force Awakens' has a few moments like that, but it always feels like it's being held back by it's gargantuan history. The movie actually works best when it lets go of it's past, which is interesting considering the movie contains themes of...letting go of your past.

Those new things that work are peppered throughout the film but they're never given time to come into fruition. Perhaps the most notable new is the younger cast. Oscar Isaacs, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, and Adam Driver make up the new star kids on the block and for the most part they all do a great job selling their roles, and giving us reasons to care about this new adventure aside from the fact that it's Star Wars. Daisy Ridley is very much the main character of this tale and while she is good, I felt like I lacked something from her character. There seemed to be something that the movie didn't want me to know until a later installment, which is fine for the franchise, but for this movie itself, I couldn't help but feel like the television tactics of flashbacks and vague descriptions wasn't enough, especially when it's another 2 years until the supposed payoff.

Directed by this guy, who's best work is in tv

I also have come to the conclusion (after a night of constant deliberation) that I flat out did not care for Adam Driver as Kylo Ren. Adam Driver as an actor is someone who I've had disdain for since 'Girls' but that's neither here nor there. Without delving into his character, I thought the way they explained his motivations and his portrayed his "evil" was so obvious and shoddy. The way he acted was like a parody of any villain without any proper backstory, even though Kylo's backstory is the best thing about him.

Boyega is good in his role of Finn, the stormtrooper with a heart of gold, and while his character is an interesting idea, his development is sort of lax and kind of asks you to dig for it. Oscar Isaacs is definitely my favourite of the bunch as he gets to show a little bit of why he's so revered and plus he's Oscar Isaacs. The general problem across the board with these character is that the movie moves at such a brisk pace that there isn't really enough time to get to know them. The down moments it does have are used to lay vague groundwork for the rest of the new trilogy. That aside, I did enjoy the way the characters interacted with each other and felt a sense of camaraderie among them and thought that while individually their development was lacking, it was cool seeing them all together fighting the good fight.

Look how chummy they are

It probably seems like I didn't like the movie. I did. It's just there were some gripes with character and originality that have stuck with me more than anything else in the film. That's exactly the problem with it. It doesn't have a moment to make me forget the things that bugged me. Overall though the film is very well made, the action is very well done and is shot in a way that really puts it on display as a spectacle and lets you see every frame of the action coherently and clearly. One thing I thought was interesting was just how funny the movie was, not that the Star Wars movies were devoid of humour, I just noticed there were quite a few direct jokes in the film instead of just snappy dialogue. I don't quite think it fit with the movie I was watching, but the movie dispatched with the quipping whenever it would've sapped away the needed tension.

The best part of the movie is definitely Han Solo. Harrison Ford is doing his best job in years for playing the old scoundrel. There isn't the lingering feeling that he's outgrown his character like there was in Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Aside from that Carrie Fisher, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, all the old guard feel organic with a new story and don't distract you from the new things like the real best part of the movie BB- 8. I know I said Han Solo was definitely the best part of it but he's not, it's BB-8. BB-8 has the perfect blend of humour, utility and heart for a droid. He's like the more emotionally stable younger brother of R2-D2 and C-3PO.

R2 is old and busted, BB is the new hotness.

I'll close out by saying that this movie has it's issues but it's in no means a bad movie. It's in fact a very good movie and it'll probably be discussed ad nauseum for the years to come, but it's not a perfect movie. It's problems will probably be rectified and explained in later episodes but as it stands for this film of 2015, they're still there. The problems though can be overlooked in the overall escapade of the film as the movie gives you an adventure you can follow and a spectacle that definitely deserves to be seen on the big screen. I can't think of a better film experience than sitting in the theatre that cheered at the opening crawl and the return of John Williams' classic theme.

A.N.R = 8.4/10

Thanks for reading and if you had any thoughts on the movie you can leave a comment and if you'd like to listen to Take 4's thoughts on the rest of the Star Wars films you can listen to that here:

Tuesday, 22 December 2015

'Creed' Review (2015): Rocky Episode VII

In my review for Southpaw, I mentioned how the sports movie, and more specifically the boxing movie, is a rarity in film in that, rather than evolve from the tropes and cliches it's known for, it revels in it. Audiences even find it a travesty if the film doesn't include the things they came to see. Of course, you can't talk about that phenomenon without mentioning the OG boxing film, Rocky. The Rocky franchise is a perfect example of repeating a winning formula to the point of self parody. From a first film about rising out of the gutter to be a superstar, to symbolically winning the cold war in a fist fight with Russia incarnate, Rocky has always been about something, just not with as much subtlety as it used to. Each film is a take on the first Rocky, just with a twist that's usually preceded by "Except this time...". This is something that breaks most franchises, but like the titular main character, it just keeps getting back up. One thing is for certain though, there must be montages.

With that in mind, I went into the newest film in the Rocky franchise, 'Creed', expecting to be entertained as I always was with these movies. I'd be engrossed in the main characters plight, watch him fail, train, and then win in a way that meant he'd overcome his personal obstacles, but may or may not have actually won the fight. Of course, I got exactly what I expected, but what I didn't expect was to see one of the best films of 2015.

As Mr. Balboa had his last one last fight in 2006's 'Rocky Balboa', this new film follows the story of a young Adonis Creed, illegitimate son of Rocky's first major adversary, Apollo Creed. A small time fighter with a lot of heart, Creed jr. is somewhat of a lost soul at the point of his introduction. Because of his name, he's unable to move beyond his father's shadow and can't find anyone to take him seriously and train him. Adonis recognizes his need for focus, and thus leaves his home of L.A for the mean streets of Philly, seeking out the tutelage of the people's champion himself, Rocky Balboa. The two engage in a meaningful mentor/trainee relationship that provides the movie's heart.

Rocky becomes Mickey in this later edition to the 'Rocky' franchise.

Right of the bat that is what I love the most about 'Creed'. It takes elements of the old guard and tacitly vests it in with the new. As Rocky trains Adonis, you get the usual references to the fans which serves as great fan service, but as we've seen fan service alone does not a good movie make. Instead what you get here is a perfect meld of more contemporary themes of identity and self realization mixed in with the old familiar themes of legacy. As far as continuations of long standing franchises go, 'Creed' is probably the greatest example of this I've ever seen, and that's in a year which had 'Mad Max: Fury Road' in it and the critically acclaimed 'Terminator: Genisys'

Cinematic bliss

This is most evident in the music. 'Rocky' has always been a franchise in which the score has played a big part of it. You heard the lonely manesque version of 'Gonna Fly' when Rocky aimlessly roamed the streets of Philadelphia and then heard that same theme in full form when Rocky was at his best at the top of the steps of the Art Museum. Here, you still get that basic structure, but instead, Adonis' training sequences include that old theme, mixed in with contemporary hip hop beats. It's a brilliant way to invigorate this new story with a sense of momentum that wouldn't be there if you were listening to the same old songs, yet still maintaining that sense of comfortable familiarity.

Of course, another stride the movie makes is through character. We're introduced to Adonis at a young age with a strong penchant for violence and learn so much about him as the story goes on. The movie shows him as someone with intellect and the skills to do something other than fight, but can't escape his inner desire to do so. It's a flip on Rocky's character who famously fights because he can't sing and dance. There's so much work put into Adonis' character that is massively helpful seeing as this movie is at it's core a character piece, and would be a lesser movie with a character you didn't give a damn about. Michael B. Jordan helps this as he's as good as he always is, and it's good to see him given a script he can work with again.

You probably thought this would be a poster for 'Fantastic Four'. Well you were 1/2 right.

However the real acting powerhouse comes from Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone. Sly gives one of his best performances since...well the last time he played Rocky Balboa. He's playing a man who's been through uppest of ups and the downest of downs in life and at the end of it all is just kind of tired. When he meets Adonis, you're seeing hints of the character you knew come back but largely, his performance is subdued, always coming off as honest. He strikes you as someone at the end of his rope and gives the film some of it's darkest, most heartfelt moments that are sold by Sly's performance.

The fights themselves are interestingly shot. Rather than taken from the view of the audience, the fights are shot much more personal, almost as if from the referee's perspective. It's mostly one shot for these scenes, and takes you into the ring itself. I'm not sure how I felt about these scenes, as while I appreciated what I gained, in seeing Adonis' reaction to each and every punch thrown his way, I feel as though I lost the overall context in which these punches were thrown. Both approaches have their benefits and drawbacks but I think a mix of both ought to do the trick.

Something I did love about the fights though, is just how much the movie shows you the harshness of the boxing world. Phylicia Rashad plays Apollo's widow and Adonis' stepmother and you hear her describe the debilitating effect that fighting had on Apollo, something the Rocky films never shied from showing. 'Creed' not only gives you that post fight effect, but takes moments to show you the depravity mid fight. You see blood, scars, and spit in gruesome detail, and you also see how much this is the norm in a boxing match as the blood is simply wiped off the floor before the next bell.

'Creed' takes time to show the bad as well as the good of the boxing world.

I should take time to mention just how wonderfully grateful I am that Ryan Coogler exists. Coming off the back of 'Fruitvale Station', it was easy to see how he could fit in with a Rocky movie. Fruitvale has that style of filming that makes you feel as though the character is a real person, with the camera positioned in a way that I like to describe as professionally amateur. He also knows how to capture the film's most powerful moments in a way that surprised and delighted me as a viewer.

'Creed' is a great film that has a lot of character, a well paced script, and moments that made me literally jump out of my seat and cheer. It was not the movie I expected it to be, but I suppose in a series about underdogs overcoming odds and showing the world what they're really made of, I guess that's only fitting. There are a few nit picks here and there, and the fight scenes while thrilling, did leave me feeling slightly robbed of the wider context, I still very much enjoyed 'Creed' and would see it again in a heartbeat.

A.N.R = 9.6/10

You can listen to the Audio Review for Creed here: