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Both entertaining and touching

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 7 January 2016 12:32 (A review of Southpaw)

"God must have some kind of plan to teach me some kind of lesson. I just can't figure out what it is."


Southpaw is more or less an R-rated Rocky flick situated in a contemporary setting, but I do not use that designation to be flippant nor entirely critical. Even though the similarities to Rocky are undisputable, director Antoine Fuqua and writer Kurt Sutter have nevertheless created a solid sports drama taken on its own merits, buoyed by exceptional performances across the board and a sense of realism that's enormously appreciated. Southpaw is the kind of drama that manages to be entertaining as well as affecting, and though it may not be a serious awards contender, it has more replay value than the usual Oscar bait.




Light heavyweight boxing champion Billy Hope (Jake Gyllenhaal) is riding high, with a hugely impressive undefeated record after forty-three bouts, and a vast fortune that allows him to live comfortably with devoted wife Maureen (Rachel McAdams) and young daughter Leila (Oona Laurence). At a charity function, Billy's anger issues unfortunately get the better of him, with fellow fighter Miguel Escobar (Miguel Gomez) baiting him into a burst of violence, leading to a scuffle that accidentally puts Maureen in the line of fire. Left utterly devastated, Billy's life begins to unravel, with suicidal tendencies and substances abuse exacerbating the situation, while his professional boxing license is suspended after he head-butts a referee. Worse, he runs out of money, loses his house, and Leila is taken away by child services. Left with nothing, the volatile boxer seeks to rebuild his broken life, turning to veteran gym owner Tick Wills (Forest Whitaker) for his chance at redemption.


Scripted by Kurt Sutter, there's little doubt that Southpaw is a formulaic sports drama, taking its cues from the Rocky series in particular. Indeed, the fall from grace and the death of Maureen brings back memories of Rocky III and IV, while the subplot of Billy losing his fortune seems reminiscent of Rocky V. Worse, even though the picture runs a sizeable two hours, it does feel undercooked from a dramatic perspective; the police investigation into Maureen's killing leads nowhere, Tick's willingness to take on Billy needed more motivation, and the script abandons the punch-drunk aspect of Billy's boxing career that Maureen brings up early in the movie. Furthermore, the ending falls short - the film tries to avoid the obvious outcome, instead opting for an alternative that's just as predictable and overused. But although Southpaw has its obvious shortcomings, it miraculously manages to stay afloat thanks to the execution, with Sutter and Fuqua carving out compelling characters that are easy to latch onto.




Whereas the Rocky films are a bit more family-friendly, Fuqua pulls no punches here, creating a visceral, distinctly adult boxing movie, in terms of violence, content and themes. Even though Southpaw can be dour as it observes Hope's dark side, Fuqua displays appropriate tact, preventing the movie from deteriorating into an uncomfortable watch. Furthermore, Fuqua has continually shown he has a keen eye for action, and while this isn't exactly an action flick, the boxing sequences truly are a sight to behold. Visceral and hard-hitting, not to mention proficiently shot by cinematographer Mauro Fiore (The Equalizer) whose shallow-focus camerawork captures every drop of blood and sweat, it's easy to become invested in the boxing bouts throughout the picture, and it's even easier to root for Hope to succeed in the ring. The late great James Horner actually agreed to score the picture for no money, as he was touched by the story and Fuqua had limited funds left in the budget for music. As to be expected, Horner's contributions are exceptional, with subtle, tender, emotive notes which gently enhance the movie's power. Even the Eminem songs suit the movie, which is a rare compliment. (Eminem was originally slated to play the lead role, but that thankfully did not pan out.)


Gyllenhaal's career has had its ups and downs, but Southpaw continues the performer's recent winning streak after his exceptional work in movies like End of Watch and Nightcrawler. This is career-best work for Gyllenhaal, who throws himself into the role of Billy Hope with total conviction; he trained for months to get in proper shape, and he believably handles the layers of the character. Indeed, he's believable as a beefy, aggressive man of below-average intelligence, and he's still convincing as Billy rehabilitates himself over the course of the movie. There isn't a single moment throughout the film in which Gyllenhaal displays any trace of artifice, with the illusion being unfailingly maintained. McAdams also leaves an indelible impression, while newcomer Oona Laurence is one of the most convincing child stars in recent memory. The first act of the movie properly introduces Billy, Maureen and Leila, creating authentic characters and a believable familial unit, and the scene of Maureen taking a stray bullet is extremely powerful. Maureen's demise is utterly wrenching to watch, with tremendous performances and a harrowing sense of realism. Southpaw also benefits from the presence of Whitaker, a reliable thespian who breathes incredible life into the role of Tick Wills. Fuqua even manages to coax a watchable performance out of 50 Cent, a miraculous achievement in its own right.




Due to its narrative shortcomings, Southpaw falls just short of reaching the upper echelon of boxing dramas, but it is a respectable effort that's worthy of recent Oscar-nominated movies like Million Dollar Baby and The Fighter. It's another winner for director Fuqua, who has established himself as a reliable purveyor of masculine entertainment.


8.0/10



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It worked for me

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 5 January 2016 08:09 (A review of Vacation)

"The new vacation will stand on its own."

Talks of a soft reboot of the National Lampoon's Vacation franchise started all the way back in 2010, with John Francis Daley and Jonathan Goldstein tapped to write and direct the movie, but production wound up stalling. However, the unexpected runaway success of 2013's We're the Millers evidently prompted Warner Bros. to finally give 2015's Vacation the green light, as this is a blatant attempt to ape the earlier movie, right down to the modest budget, an R rating, and a similar release slot. Happily, this new Vacation is a lot better than it had a right to be, passing the most pivotal litmus test for a comedy: it's actually funny. Even though it lacks the sheer wit and ingenuity of the immortal 1983 classic that started it all, it's a worthy follow-up, effortlessly surpassing both European Vacation and Vegas Vacation. This is exactly the type of crude R-rated comedy that critics love to hate, but I cannot deny that it worked for me.




Rusty Griswold (Ed Helms) is all grown up, caring for a family of his own while working as a budget airline pilot. Every year, Rusty takes wife Debbie (Christina Applegate), and sons James (Skyler Gisondo) and Kevin (Steele Stebbins) to a cabin for a holiday, but the annual tradition has grown stale. Hoping to reinvigorate his marriage and reconnect with the kids, Rusty decides to take his family on a road trip across the country to Walley World in order to recreate the memorable vacation he took thirty years earlier. Although his wife and sons are reluctant, Rusty fearlessly leads the gang on a series of misadventures, driving the bizarre Tartan Prancer minivan for the interstate journey. As to be expected, everything soon begins to go wrong, with Rusty trying to maintain his sanity as the accidents pile up, while the siblings fight and Debbie has her own worries.


Vacation undeniably starts out on the right foot, opening with a montage of old holiday photos set to Lindsey Buckingham's song "Holiday Road," which is essentially the franchise's anthem. Better, the photographs that are shown here are often very funny, containing quirks that had this reviewer in stitches. Despite the humour here being raunchier than its 1983 counterpart, Daley and Goldstein display a palpable reverence to the original film, making no bones about the fact that their movie is more or less a retread. There's even some amusing meta dialogue, while the script also acknowledges that Rusty is idealising past events, given the disastrous outcome of the first trip to Walley World in 1983. There are a few direct call-backs to its predecessor as well, including a scene of Rusty encountering a flirtatious beauty in a convertible, but Vacation establishes its own vibe and identity, and doesn't merely come across as a beat-by-beat remake of the comedy that John Hughes and Harold Ramis pulled off three decades ago.




Daley and Goldstein make their directorial debut here, after having penned Horrible Bosses and Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs 2 together. (If the rest of the world is willing to forget that The Incredible Burt Wonderstone exists, that's fine with me.) Standing in stark contrast to most recent comedies which are agonisingly overlong, Vacation moves by at an agreeable clip, rarely dwelling on a joke or comedic set-piece across its 95-minute runtime. Recurring jokes also hit their mark - the ongoing trials of the oddball Tartan Prancer are uproarious, with a remote control of baffling, mysterious buttons which serve questionable purposes. Easily offended viewers are advised to steer clear since this Vacation increases the lewd and crude factor, but thankfully the freedom of an R rating from the MPAA affords the humour an added punch. Not everything works, however - a predictable scene of the Griswolds swimming in raw sewerage really should have been excised, and some moments are perhaps a bit too mean-spirited.


The fourth actor to assume the role of Rusty Griswold (after Anthony Michael Hall, Jason Lively, Johnny Galecki and Ethan Embry), Helms is suitably endearing and earnest, and though he cannot reach the intimidating level of Chevy Chase, he does his job well enough. Christina Applegate, meanwhile, is incredibly appealing as Debbie. Even though Beverly D'Angelo was always likeable as Ellen Griswold, she was simply the straight woman to Chase, but Applegate is given far more to do here, taking the comedy spotlight on a number of occasions. Equally valuable are the supporting players; Skyler Gisondo plays the more introspective son James well enough, while Steele Stebbins delivers a lot of laughs at the crude, foul-mouthed, bullying younger brother with a never-ending supply of acerbic one-liners. Plenty of other recognisable actors also make appearances, including Chris Hemsworth who's a scene-stealing riot as an over-the-top weatherman. Leslie Mann, Charlie Day, Ron Livingston, Keegan-Michael Kay, Norman Reedus and Michael Pena also appear, contributing plenty of colour to the proceedings. And this wouldn't be a proper Vacation movie without Chase and D'Angelo, who are given the chance to reprise their iconic characters in a smaller capacity. It's wonderful to see them again, though their scenes aren't as funny as perhaps they should be.




Vacation proceeds with comedy logic, yet it makes little sense to nit-pick story or structure of a film like this. What matters is that Daley and Goldstein have created an episodic yet surprisingly cohesive road trip comedy, it's easy to like the characters, and it delivers on the promise of big laughs. It's baffling that overlong, subpar comedies like The Heat and Spy were adored by critics, while Vacation was a critical punching bag. For this reviewer's money, this is an extremely enjoyable sit, and the fact that it's actually hilarious is a huge deal.


7.2/10



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Unpredictable and deliciously intriguing

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 2 January 2016 02:16 (A review of The Gift)

"See, you're done with the past, but the past is not done with you."


Jason Blum has carved out a lucrative career as a producer by backing low-budget horror flicks, leading to about as many dexterous fright machines (Insidious, Sinister) as flaccid misfires (The Purge, Ouija, The Lazarus Effect). But 2015's The Gift is a different animal altogether. Rather than a tacky horror pic, this directorial debut for Joel Edgerton is a Hitchcockian psychological thriller, relying on proper suspense, competent storytelling and powerful acting. Also written by Edgerton, the narrative is built on the simple premise of what would transpire if the bully and the bullied are reunited decades on, and the result is confidently unpredictable and deliciously intriguing. It's the perfect antithesis to the year's noisy blockbusters, and though it does have its shortcomings, it's easy to admire Edgerton's valiant efforts on the picture.




Finding a new job outside the city, Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to a suburban Los Angeles neighbourhood where Simon grew up, ready for a fresh start. The couple are still haunted by traumas of the past, with Robyn opting to work from home while she deals with her mental roadblocks. While shopping, the pair are approached by Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon's who seems to have good intentions, latching onto the married couple instantly. In ensuing weeks, Gordon sends gifts and shows up at the couple's residence unannounced. Robyn finds Gordon to be nice enough, despite his social oddness and palpable loneliness, but something about Gordon just rubs Simon the wrong way. Moreover, Simon is uncomfortable discussing past events, prompting Robyn to investigate Gordon's history with Simon.


Edgerton, an Australian actor who has starred in dozens of movies over the past two decades, is not new to screenwriting; he wrote Felony and had a hand in penning the insanely underrated The Square. It's clear that his past experiences have served him well - The Gift may be imbued with familiar tropes, but the script manages to subvert expectations at every turn, creating an air of head-slapping ambiguity, and it helps that the execution is so thoroughly engaging, revealing darker depths and layers to the story that we might not have expected from the outset. It's the way Edgerton plays with expectations that elevates The Gift above less skilful thriller efforts, questioning who the real villain is and raising tension as the story plays out. Even though the story climaxes with a sense of righteous vengeance, the movie nevertheless closes on a note of solemnity and loss, with scars of the past still as tender as ever. Even though The Gift isn't the most pleasant motion picture, it's certainly a harrowing watch.




It's clear that Edgerton is a major talent behind the camera, drawing influence from the likes of Alfred Hitchcock and David Fincher, with a touch of Roman Polanski's Rosemary's Baby. The first-time director shows particular promise as an architect of discomfort, with the script merely suggesting that Gordon has an insidious plan for the couple, even when there's little evidence to definitively confirm the accusations. Admittedly, a few instances of jump-scare theatrics do not entirely gel with the slow-burning nature of the narrative, but the two or three silly moments aren't enough to undo the movie's limitless strengths. Edgerton was nervous about directing his first production, especially since he was also required to act, ultimately bringing in his more experienced brother Nash (who helmed The Square) to assist. The Gift benefits from the slick, polished cinematography by Eduard Grau, while the picture is tautly edited by Luke Doolan, with no scene or moment outstaying its welcome. Every cent of the $5 million budget was visibly put to great use, while the score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is pulsing and atmospheric, impeccably complementing the visuals.


Who knew Jason Bateman was such an adept dramatic performer? The actor is frequently the proverbial straight man in comedies, but here he utterly disappears into the role of Simon, and it really is a sight to behold. He sells fear and frustration, on top of being enormously charismatic and likeable, and an emotionally charged scene of Robyn confronting Simon about his past behaviours features the best acting of Bateman's career. Bateman nails it, showing that we really have underestimated him for so many years, and further roles in this vein would be an enticing prospect. Equally terrific is Edgerton, who puts his all into the role of “Gordo,” delivering a tremendously assured and above all nuanced performance unlike anything the actor has ever done. And best of all, no trace of artifice betrays his acting; his Aussie accent never shines through. A director starring in his own movie may seem gimmicky, but it's hard to imagine any other actor filling this pivotal role. Hall, meanwhile, confidently keeps pace with her co-stars, perhaps delivering the finest performance in the movie, which is not a statement to be taken lightly. Astonishingly believable from start to finish, Hall is able to convey what she's feeling just with her eyes; she says so much with minimal dialogue. This is very much an actor's movie, thus it's fortunate that the trio of leads are so pitch-perfect.




The Gift does fall short of perfection, with subplots involving Robyn's drug abuse and Simon's paranoia that are ultimately undercooked, but it's nevertheless one of the strongest thrillers to be produced under the Blumhouse banner. What's particularly remarkable about The Gift is that it's not a thriller in which characters accept pre-defined roles of good and evil, with the layered, complex leads elevating what would otherwise be a paint-by-numbers fright machine. Add in a daring conclusion that examines the grey-scale morality of the parties involved, and you have one of the most satisfying movie-going surprises of 2015.


8.2/10



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Fails as both a comic book film and a blockbuster

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 1 January 2016 04:52 (A review of Fantastic Four)

"We are not gods, just people. And we are stronger together than we are apart."

It should surprise absolutely nobody to learn that 2015's Fantastic Four is garbage. The movie polluted multiplexes after months of bad press, with rumours about endless reshoots and battles between the creative team and the studio, to the point that director Josh Trank swiftly disowned the final cut. Fantastic Four attempts to spawn a new cinematic franchise for the Marvel brand after previous failures, this time shedding colour and all sense of fun for a darker, grittier incarnation, striving for a fresh take to distinguish itself in the superhero marketplace. Unfortunately, Fantastic Four was only produced because Twentieth Century Fox is engaged in a stubborn dick-measuring contest with Marvel Studios, and want to retain as many comic book characters as possible. In other words, the motivation behind this cinematic travesty is similar to the thought process that led to the horrendous, now-defunct The Amazing Spider-Man series. As an adaptation of the comics, Fantastic Four is a dismal failure, with Trank himself having discouraged the actors from picking up a comic book since he cared so little about fidelity to the source. And as a superhero blockbuster, this is still a pile of crap, lacking a clear vision and identity, let down by terrible scripting, terrible acting, terrible humour, ugly visuals and terrible pacing.


As children, Reed Richards (Miles Teller) and his pal Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) begin work on a teleportation device that could revolutionise science, with the pair eventually displaying their innovation at a school science fair. Although their demonstration is far from perfect, Reed and Ben gain the attention of scientist Dr. Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his adopted daughter Sue (Kate Mara), who believe that the teenagers may have cracked inter-dimensional travel. Invited to study and perfect his device with proper resources and funding, Reed jumps at the chance to help to construct inter-dimensional teleportation pods, joined by the unstable Victor Von Doom (Toby Kebbell), while Storm also brings in his rebellious son Johnny (Michael B. Jordan). With the project about to be turned over to NASA, Reed wants his team to be the first to test the pods, convincing Ben to tag along as well. But an accident occurs in the alien realm known as "Planet Zero" during the experiment, irreversibly changing the team.

Fantastic Four actually plays out a lot like an unofficial follow-up to Trank's 2012 directorial debut Chronicle, even rehashing the same basic story of arrogant teens inadvertently gaining superhero abilities through alien technology. After the lab accident, the movie randomly jumps ahead to find Reed, Ben, Sue and Johnny being held at an underground military bunker, and after one halfway interesting body horror sequence of the characters coming to grips with their powers, the movie randomly jumps ahead another full year, finding the protagonists conscripted as covert ops soldiers while they search for a cure. The transition is as baffling as it sounds, and it feels like a solid half-hour of content is missing. This bizarre structure could be forgiven to an extent if it was an excuse to jump straight into the action, but we aren't that lucky. Instead, the characters just spend their time moping, setting up crises of conscience so that they don't have to go anywhere that might be potentially too expensive for the budget.


In an attempt to distance itself from the previous incarnation of Marvel's first family, this Fantastic Four is almost a David Cronenberg-esque body horror flick, sold with the same brand of dour self-seriousness that has become prevalent since Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins. It sounds interesting in theory, but the execution is downright disastrous, hampered by terrible acting and woeful scripting, while the flick also forgets to be fun. The tone is excessively grim, but there are also horrendous attempts at comedy which were presumably added during the reshoot process. Problem is, the "humorous" dialogue is so witless that the movie would be better off without it. And considering how bad the movie is as a whole, that's a huge fucking call. The script for this muck is every bit as infantile and stupid as a Transformers movie, but the gritty tone wants you to believe it's smart and thoughtful. Although it is possible to create a reflective superhero picture that's low on action, such a movie needs actual, fleshed-out thematic undercurrents and genuine smarts, two base requirements that this Fantastic Four fails to deliver.

For a movie which boasts a respectable $120 million budget, Fantastic Four is oddly lacking in scope, with the latter half of the movie mostly taking place in labs and underground sets, only leaving the dank bunker for the computer-generated Planet Zero. Reportedly, three full action sequences were excised from the movie for timing reasons, and that's a problem. Pacing is all over the shop, and though the movie is relatively short at close to 100 minutes, it feels agonisingly long, because there are no surprises as the narrative progresses and there's no sense of fun, leaving us to wait for each narrative box to be ticked. The reshoot footage is mostly obvious, with Mara sporting a blonde wig that looks seriously comical, while Teller has facial hair that appears and disappears at its own leisure. Furthermore, the quality of the special effects is curiously mixed. The digitally-created Human Torch looks decent while the Thing is convincing to an extent, but Doom looks like digital vomit, Planet Zero resembles a PS2-era game environment, and some scenes boast green screen effects that would look too phoney even in a Sharknado sequel. Visually, the film is flat, drab and far too desaturated, making it impossible to derive any enjoyment from this cinematic black hole.


No thespians on Earth could have enlivened the woeful material, but suffice it to say, the acting here is genuinely ghastly. Although Teller showed promise in The Spectacular Now and Whiplash, he's a mostly awful actor, and it's a wonder why Hollywood insists on putting this irritating ten-year-old in movies. Mara is flat and unremarkable, while Jordan is so generic that he barely registers. Bell is hopelessly wasted as the Thing, mainly because his rock monster portrayal is too dedicated to "gritty realism," denying any flashes of actual personality to come through. It's hard to like any of the central characters, to be honest; we don't buy them as family or even as friends, and it's even harder to root for them as they work to defeat the saran-wrapped abomination that's supposed to be Victor Von Doom during the climax.

Speaking of Doom, he's one of the greatest comic book villains in history, yet his depiction here is outright insulting. Randomly reappearing towards the tail end of the third act, Doom's plan is hopelessly muddled - it's unclear exactly what his endgame is beyond "destroy the Earth," and his motivation is even vaguer beyond being annoyed that he was left for dead on Planet Zero, even though he seems pretty chuffed with his new abilities. Oh, and he's lovesick for Sue and resents her interest in Reed, because the script is a cliché breeding ground. The final battle should be an epic showdown that compensates for the fucking interminable build-up, but it's hampered by lack of scope, with the destruction of Earth limited to a couple brief cutaways right as Doom begins to execute his plan. The battle is oddly unremarkable and plays out awkwardly, lacking that spark of tension to keep us on the edge of our seats. The movie should keep cutting back to Earth to show what's at stake, and perhaps even check in with established characters in peril to establish a sense of threat, but no dice. The climax is a dud.


There's no joy to Fantastic Four, which is devoid of blockbuster thrills and rich characters, with the titular team reduced to a sullen, bitter group of people lacking believable camaraderie. It doesn't even have a fucking Stan Lee cameo! And just as the film begins winding down, the team engage in a horrendously written talk about their powers and discuss what to call themselves; the film might as well have ended on a freeze frame of the cast in mid-laugh like some cheesy old television show. Fantastic Four is one of the very worst comic book movies ever produced, a travesty on the same level as Green Lantern, X-Men Origins: Wolverine and Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. This is the golden age of superhero blockbusters, yet we're still left waiting for, and wanting, a worthwhile Fantastic Four movie. Interestingly, Fox were so hasty to make a franchise out of this property that a release date for Fantastic Four 2 was pencilled in fifteen months before this instalment even came out. Let’s just be thankful that this movie bombed and the sequel has been removed from the release calendar. We have suffered enough.

3.1/10


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Uniquely excellent western oddity

Posted : 1 year, 7 months ago on 27 December 2015 12:27 (A review of Bone Tomahawk)

"Say goodbye to my wife. I'll say hello to yours."

It's difficult to pigeonhole 2015's Bone Tomahawk into a single category. On the surface, it's a western, with a 19th Century setting, the threat of Indians, and a story concerning gunslingers. But it's also a horror movie, at times staging vivid, gory scenes reminiscent of 1980's Cannibal Holocaust. Written and directed by S. Craig Zahler, who makes his directorial debut here, Bone Tomahawk is both unique and unpredictable, with controlled bursts of violence breaking up an otherwise incredibly talky, often meditative 132-minute motion picture. It's atmospheric work bursting with period authenticity, and it shows that low-budget westerns are not necessarily cheap or nasty. Indeed, films like 2014's The Salvation and Bone Tomahawk demonstrate that indie filmmakers with limited funds can oftentimes surpass big-budget Hollywood westerns. (Who remembers The Lone Ranger or Cowboys & Aliens?)


Sheriff Hunt (Kurt Russell) maintains peace in the flyspeck frontier town of Bright Hope, but a grubby drifter named Purvis (David Arquette) stumbles into view, piquing the curiosity of the locals. The next morning, word spreads among the community that local doctor Samantha (Lili Simmons) has been abducted by cannibalistic, cave-dwelling savages, who also took Purvis and the town's Deputy (Evan Jonigkeit). Hunt is quick to assemble a posse for a rescue mission, but he isn't exactly spoiled for choice, with local womaniser Brooder (Matthew Fox) and "Back Up Deputy" Chicory (Richard Jenkins) volunteering for the dangerous undertaking. Samantha's husband Arthur (Patrick Wilson) is also determined to tag along, despite nursing a horrible leg injury that has essentially left him crippled.

Bone Tomahawk is the furthest thing from an upbeat American western, with its solemn tone of horror leeching into most every facet of the narrative. No heroics are associated with the rescue mission, finding the four men mournfully saying their goodbyes, not expecting to survive and make it back home after the ostensibly impossible fight. Zahler spends the majority of the picture observing the four men as they travel across harsh terrain, enduring the inherent dangers of the land. Character development runs rampant, with the movie successfully carving out four distinct, identifiable central characters, with full personalities being moulded. Although none of the four men are especially savoury or heroic, it is easy to root for them, and it's interesting to see how each participant is challenged throughout the journey. Particularly unconventional is Arthur, whose gaping leg wound leaves him struggling to keep up with the others, but who's determined to press on nevertheless. Bone Tomahawk is minimalist in the truest sense - it even contains practically no music - and it's not thankfully weighed down by artsy pretentiousness.


Zahler creates a sense of vulnerability, and consequently it feels as if the main characters are in actual danger and might not even fulfil their task, a masterful subversion of classic cowboy pictures. Indeed, the fun of most westerns and action movies is derived from seeing how the heroes will emerge triumphant, but Bone Tomahawk is riveting because it's unclear if any of characters will survive, let alone achieve their objective. In its final act, the movie develops into a survival horror, and heavens me, it's extremely unnerving. Zahler refuses to skimp on the gore, staging vivid scenes of cannibalistic terror, and the vocal "call" of the troglodytes is genuinely petrifying. But the flick also satisfies in its scenes of righteousness, giving the characters a chance to dispatch some of these savages in a badass fashion. Bone Tomahawk is well-made to boot, even with a reported $1.8 million budget, bolstered by focused cinematography and a sense of authority pervading most every frame.

The actors carry the movie ably, with not a dud performance in sight. This is Russell's first western since the 1993 manly classic Tombstone, and he shows that he's still a badass presence. Sporting an incredibly masculine moustache, Russell is in charge of every frame, showing he still has what it takes to be a star despite being in his 60s. Equally impressive are the other main players, with Wilson showing plenty of gravitas as Arthur, while Jenkins is unrecognisable as the faithful elderly deputy, carving out a believable, lived-in role without a trace of artifice. Former Lost star Fox is exceptional as well, despite being an odd choice for a western of this ilk.


Admittedly, Bone Tomahawk is perhaps a bit long in the tooth, with a slow-going first act in particular, and viewers may grow restless waiting for the story proper to begin. At over two hours, the film is a full meal, but it might have been more effective with a tighter final edit. Nevertheless, this is a uniquely excellent oddity which has the potential to become a cult classic. Far grittier and more measured that Hollywood westerns, Zahler places his audience in the midst of the realistic old west, far removed from the romanticised old-world Hollywood depiction that is ingrained in our minds.

8.2/10


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A promising new beginning

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 19 December 2015 11:36 (A review of Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens)

"The Force, it's calling to you. Just let it in."

From the moment that the iconic opening title crawl begins - accompanied by John Williams' exhilarating, iconic Star Wars theme - it's clear that 2015's Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is in safe hands. With George Lucas stepping aside, Star Wars is finally being handled by filmmakers who actually care about the beloved franchise and know how to create genuine big-screen excitement. Ignoring all the prequel trilogy nonsense, The Force Awakens is more interested in recapturing the magic of the original trilogy, picking up thirty years after 1983's Return of the Jedi left off and bringing back familiar faces to kick-start a new slate of sequels and spinoffs. Under the watchful eye of director/co-writer J.J. Abrams, who also enlisted the help of The Empire Strikes Back scribe Lawrence Kasdan, it's a phenomenal nostalgia trip as well as an efficacious world-building exercise, and it genuinely feels like Star Wars in all the right ways.


Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has vanished, and in his absence the tyrannical First Order have risen from the ashes of the Empire, led by the shadowy Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). A critical piece of information pertaining to Luke's location is discovered, but Resistance pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) is compelled to hide the map in his droid, BB-8, when stormtroopers destroy his ship and capture him. Finn (John Boyega) is a stormtrooper who feels disillusioned after his first taste of combat, breaking Poe out of his cell in the hope of escaping the clutches of the First Order. After crash landing on the desert planet of Jakku, Finn meets scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), who's in possession of BB-8 and feels determined to deliver the droid to the Resistance. Reluctantly teaming up, the pair soon encounter Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew), who have tried to avoid getting involved in the fight against the First Order. Meanwhile, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) leads a frantic search for BB-8, assisted by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson).

Undertaking a project like The Force Awakens would be intimidating for any writer. On top of the obvious cultural significance surrounding the production, Abrams and Kasdan were tasked with bringing back old characters, introducing new characters, and establishing a fresh direction for this new trilogy. Hence, the script has ample baggage to deal with, so The Force Awakens does contain a fair amount of set-up that will likely pay off further down the track. Added to this, there is a certain degree of familiarity permeating the material; this is more or less A New Hope 2.0, borrowing elements of the 1977 hit which started it all, as well as aspects of the original trilogy in general. The film does threaten to come apart at the seams due to this, but The Force Awakens overcomes its noticeable shortcomings by concentrating on what matters most: compelling characters, focused storytelling, rousing action, and a sense of humour. There is more humanity here than ever before, with some worthwhile comedy to break up the drama that miraculously comes across as organic rather than cheap.


Abrams is renowned for his "Mystery Box" approach to moviemaking, determined to keep a lid on practically everything in an attempt to restore some of the sense of surprise that movies used to afford before internet spoilers and online gossip. What's particularly remarkable about The Force Awakens is that the returning characters have a bearing on the narrative at large, and they serve a purpose beyond the obvious passing of the torch. This is especially true of Han and his ever-dependable walking carpet, with Abrams ensuring the pair are vital participants in this story - and they also have a part to play in the overarching narrative leading into Episode VIII. Even more critically, Han feels like a three-dimensional character, as does General Leia (Carrie Fisher, who has aged surprisingly well), and their relationship does strike an emotional chord. Ford is an absolute joy to watch, with the aging thespian showing a surprising amount of enthusiasm throughout; he's effortlessly charismatic, and he's a believable man of action. The Force Awakens also finds time for effective fan service, with the characters here perceiving Han, Leia and Luke as legends due to the events of the original trilogy. (Heh, that's subtle.)

The new characters unquestionably work, which is a huge deal in the Star Wars universe, and I already look forward to spending more time with them in future instalments. And despite the strong sense of homage, there is far more nuance and depth to all of the fresh faces, who bely simple labels like "The New Luke" or "The New Han." What's interesting about Kylo Ren is that he's not Darth Vader; he's a disgruntled Jedi student who aspires to live up to the legacy of his personal deity, but lacks the skill and refinement to reach that level. Ren is more fallible than expected, and his character development is intriguing. Also remarkable is new droid BB-8 (an astonishing practical effect), who actually gives a better performance that most of the actors in the prequel trilogy. Through well-timed bleeps and bloops, and some expressive movements, the droid is able to convey humour, frustration, exasperation, excitement, and other emotions. In short, he's an absolute scene stealer.


Free of the acting vacuum that is George Lucas, the actors here are allowed to emote and express passion, carving out characters we can instantly latch onto. Choosing little-known thespians for Finn and Rey may seem like a calculated attempt to recapture the magic of the original trilogy, but both Ridley and Boyega convincingly knock it out of the park. Ridley is a thrilling screen presence, radiating welcome spirit and emotion, while Boyega can actually act. However, it's Isaac who ultimately steals the show as the pilot Poe Dameron, arguably the best new character. Almost effortlessly, Isaac makes one of those rarely-seen instantaneous turns from "good actor you've seen in a few movies" to "bona fide fucking movie star." Driver is just as promising, essaying a wonderfully nuanced villain, while British actor Domhnall Gleeson makes a great impression as General Nux. A handful of recognisable names do pop up who will presumably return in the future, but the film unfortunately wastes three cast members from The Raid, who aren't even given the opportunity to show off their insane fighting abilities. What was the point?

A large chunk of Disney's marketing campaign has revolved around addressing fan complaints towards the prequels, most notably in regards to the visuals. Indeed, Lucas lathered the prequels in an unholy amount of CGI, but Episode VII harkens back to the old-school approach, with a heavy reliance on practical effects and vast sets. Computer-generated imagery has undeniably reached breaking point due to overuse; blockbusters look too digital, with visual effects shots frequently coming across as workmanlike and phoney. But with a heavy element of practicality and tangibility to the action scenes, there's a level of excitement here that's seldom glimpsed in contemporary blockbusters. We have never seen spaceships look so vivid and utterly real, and it's often impossible to discern what's digital and what's practical. Above all, The Force Awakens is comparatively modest, with realistic physics, and at no point looks like a cartoon. Admittedly, there are a few motion-capture characters who do not look as impressive, including Snoke and Maz (Lupita Nyong'o), but this isn't not a deal-breaker - it's just that the puppetry and make-up is far more appealing. Furthermore, Abrams and cinematographer Dan Mindel elected to shoot on 35mm film stock to emulate the look of the original trilogy, affording a fine grain structure. Better, the picture has not been colour-corrected to death. And by mixing old-fashioned special effects techniques with the new, Abrams and his crew have not only created a film that's aesthetically similar to the original Star Wars trilogy - they have also constructed the most convincing, visually distinctive sci-fi blockbuster in recent memory. 


Compared to the other entries in the Star Wars franchise, The Force Awakens does not have a great deal of lightsaber action, and any fans expecting plenty of heavily-choreographed fights will be disappointed. Ren only crosses blades at the climax, and with the budding Sith and his opponents lacking in training, the resulting battles are rawer than ever, on top of being full of humanity, and it's an utter joy to behold. Furthermore, there is no irritating shaky-cam to speak of. The Force Awakens also sees the return of composer John Williams, which is an exceptional touch. Williams' music is reliably grandiose, though it's perhaps not as impactful as it was in the original trilogy.

The Force Awakens was never going to please everybody. Star Wars fans across the world have already mapped out their dream Episode VII in their heads, and it is simply not feasible for one two-hour motion picture to fulfil millions of different mental checklists. No matter what, there was always going to be a contingency of disgruntled cry-babies. At the end of the day, The Force Awakens is not perfect, and falls short of delivering the same gooseflesh-provoking high that Star Wars provided in 1977, but it is a promising new beginning, an almost "safe" way to launch this new franchise on the right note to win back erstwhile fans and bring in a whole new generation of young viewers. It's accessible without being pandering, deep without being pretentious, and reverent to the original trilogy whilst still feeling fresh. Ultimately, we are now left hoping that Episode VIII will be the Empire Strikes Back of this new trilogy.

7.9/10


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A spectacular, though flawed conclusion

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 16 December 2015 11:33 (A review of Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi)

"You underestimate the power of the Dark Side. If you will not fight, then you will meet your destiny."

Disclaimer: Although I will discuss the changes made to Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi over the years, this is a review of the original theatrical cut of the movie.

The release of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 solidified Star Wars as one of the greatest franchises in motion picture history, as well as one of the most profitable. And with The Empire Strikes Back managing to surpass the quality of its excellent predecessor, expectations were understandably even higher for 1983's Star Wars: Episode VI - Return of the Jedi, which was directed by Richard Marquand while George Lucas co-wrote the screenplay with Empire scribe Lawrence Kasdan. Alas, Return of the Jedi is easily the weakest entry in the original Star Wars trilogy, and anybody who genuinely believes that it's a masterpiece on the same level as its forerunners must be blinded by nostalgia. However, while it's not the knockout conclusion that it should have been, Return of the Jedi is nevertheless a thrilling final chapter which closes the original trilogy on a sufficiently satisfying note.


A few years have elapsed since the events of The Empire Strikes Back, and the Galactic Empire are in the process of constructing a new Death Star under the supervision of Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid). Han Solo (Harrison Ford) is still frozen in carbonite and being held at Jabba the Hutt's seedy palace on Tatooine, while Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) is also captive. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has grown in his Jedi training thanks to the teachings of Yoda (Frank Oz), and spearheads a rescue attempt, enlisting the help of Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and protocol droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). With the new Death Star nearing completion, the Rebel Alliance seek to destroy the space station before it becomes fully functional, with Han leading a strike team on the forest moon of Endor to take out the Death Star's shield generator. Meanwhile, Luke also has unfinished business with Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse).

Star Wars producer Gary Kurtz ended his collaboration with George Lucas after The Empire Strikes Back, as he was concerned that Lucas was too blinded by marketing prospects and toys, with his priorities shifting away from story and character. Screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan also clashed with Lucas, as Kasdan wanted to further explore the themes of Empire, but such a dark tone did not suit Lucas' vision. The original script draft for Return of the Jedi was much darker: it was free of Ewoks, it fulfilled Ford's longstanding wish to kill off Han Solo, and Luke would have walked off alone at the end, "like Clint Eastwood in spaghetti westerns" as Kurtz himself puts it. But none of this appealed to Lucas, who was afraid that this chain of events would harm toy sales.


Ultimately, a lot of Return of the Jedi's flaws do stem from its screenplay, which plays things overly safe and panders to merchandising. The fucking Ewoks are still as irritating as ever and the film has its idiotic moments (Boba Fett's demise is embarrassing, Chewie swings on a vine yelling like Tarzan, and so on), while the ending is far too sappy, saccharine and upbeat. The problems with the Ewoks stretch beyond being simply annoying; it's also not believable that these furry Care Bear lookalikes could fight against armed Imperial stormtroopers and come out on top. And who else finds it a little bit disturbing that the Rebel victory is literally all attributable to Han accidentally stepping on a twig? Furthermore, another assault on the Death Star does carry a bit of a "been there, done that" feeling, an issue that Kurtz even brought up with Lucas in pre-production. But while these issues are bothersome, they are thankfully not enough to sink the entire enterprise.

With The Empire Strikes Back having grossed more than A New Hope at the global box office, another budget increase was permitted for Return of the Jedi, and it's easily the most visually impressive of the original trilogy. The film may be marred by its mediocre script, but this Star Wars instalment really delivers in terms of big-screen entertainment, and it's still downright tremendous in 2015. Marquand reportedly received help from Lucas throughout shooting due to his inexperience with special effects, and the two men reportedly clashed numerous times on set, yet the finished product looks astonishingly assured. As with its predecessor, the practical effects are simply sublime, and the 35mm photography affords a tangible aesthetic that's easily superior to the glossy, digital-looking movies that are produced so often in the 21st Century. Puppets are also used to great effect, with Yoda coming across as a believable, flesh-and-blood character, while Jabba's palace is populated with colourful specimens brought to life through excellent make-up and puppetry. And as per usual, John Williams' enrapturing soundtrack is the cherry on top.


Return of the Jedi received a whole heap of egregious changes courtesy of Lucas, culminating with the borderline unwatchable Blu-ray edition. One of the worst offenders is the addition of a hugely irritating song at Jabba's palace which replaces a far grimier musical number in the theatrical cut. The new song is grating, while the digitally-created singers are hard to look at, especially with the shonky '90s CGI that has dated tremendously. It's also far too upbeat, standing in stark contrast to the unnerving disposition of Jabba's dangerous palace. Worse, Lucas fucks up Vader's epiphany by repeating the "Nooo!" sound-byte from Star Wars: Episode III - Revenge of the Sith (seriously, he must be trolling), on top of changing the celebratory music at the end, adding a shot of Naboo (from The Phantom Menace), and even inserting the ghost of Hayden Christensen, which is one of the biggest betrayals in Star Wars history. Other superfluous CGI shit is added, too, including a bewildering digital extension of the door to Jabba's palace. Ultimately, the original unaltered version is the one and only way to watch Return of the Jedi, for my money.

As with the previous Star Wars pictures, some of the proceedings do border on melodramatic soap opera, especially with Han and Leia's romance, lots of talk about Luke's destiny, and some cheesy dialogue. However, it all comes together nicely thanks to the sincerity of the material and the easily sympathetic characters. And speaking of the characters, it's amazing to witness Luke's character growth across the trilogy, and Hamill sells the transformation magnificently. The Luke Skywalker who battles Lord Vader here is not the same gee-whiz farm boy we first saw in A New Hope, and he has also grown more mature since his reckless actions in The Empire Strikes Back. Equally assured is the perpetually-reliable Harrison Ford, once again an ideal, badass hero as Han Solo, while the rest of the actors hit their respective marks with confidence.


Return of the Jedi undeniably roars to life during its final act, when Luke confronts Vader and Palpatine. The drama throughout the conflict is riveting, and the excitement is amplified by the concurrent battles, as Luke fears for the safety of his friends. And ultimately, the resolution is both satisfying and touching. Return of the Jedi is not a bad movie by any stretch, but it is a tad disappointing when placed alongside the other two entries in the original Star Wars trilogy. Despite the occasionally distracting sense of commercialism, this is still a slick, exciting way to close to the sacred trilogy, and the flaws are overcome by the sheer charm and sense of escapism it manages to generate. And compared to the Star Wars prequel trilogy, Return of the Jedi is perfectly fine.

6.7/10


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Darkest, deepest, most mature Star Wars film

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 15 December 2015 04:18 (A review of Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back)

"Control, control, you must learn control!"

Disclaimer: As with my critique of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, this review will be in reference to the theatrical cut of The Empire Strikes Back, unless otherwise specified.

Surpassing even the most optimistic of expectations in 1977, Star Wars became a phenomenon, earning a mint at the box office and bringing in millions of additional dollars in merchandising. Producing a sequel to such a much-loved motion picture would be daunting for any filmmaker, yet, like its predecessor, Star Wars: Episode V - The Empire Strikes Back managed to transcend all expectations with ostensibly effortless aplomb. Released in 1980, The Empire Strikes Back succeeds because it's not just a simple, light-hearted victory lap for George Lucas and his crew - it's a bold, dark sequel which closes on an uncertain note and leaves more questions than answers. It isn't just a terrific sequel on its own terms, but also one of the best follow-ups in feature film history, and it's arguably superior to the motion picture which spawned it. Boasting terrific special effects and the confident directorial hand of the late great Irvin Kershner (RoboCop 2), The Empire Strikes Back is a masterpiece that still endures in the 21st Century.


Three years after the successful assault on the Death Star, the Rebel Alliance have constructed a new base in secret on the ice planet of Hoth, hidden from the Galactic Empire. But when probe droids alert Imperial forces about the location of the rebels, Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse) spearheads an invasion, forcing an evacuation of Hoth. While Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is instructed by the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) to travel to the Dagobah system to seek out Jedi instructor Yoda (Frank Oz) for training, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) seeks safety elsewhere, travelling with Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and trusty protocol droids C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) and R2-D2 (Kenny Baker). But Vader summons multiple bounty hunters, including the notorious Boba Fett (Jeremy Bulloch), to hunt down Solo's ship.

Although George Lucas wrote and directed 1977's A New Hope, he wisely enlisted outside help for this instalment, with screenwriters Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan working from Lucas' story outline. Due to this, The Empire Strikes Back irons out the little imperfections of the original film, particularly in regards to dialogue. Furthermore, whereas A New Hope was on the simplistic side, this sequel ups the ante and expands the franchise's scope, ditching the light popcorn serial mentality in favour of a darker tone, with its daring ending demonstrating that the good guys do not always win. This is also a far denser tale, even adding a layer of romance by exploring the sexual tension between Han and Leia that was palpable in A New Hope. Furthermore, The Empire Strikes Back expands upon the Jedi religion by introducing Yoda, a wise old Jedi Master who once instructed Obi-Wan. Yoda was brought to life by Jim Henson's legendary creature shop, who created an astonishingly expressive puppet, while Muppets veteran Frank Oz voiced and performed the role to perfection.


A New Hope was produced for a meagre sum, and barely any executives at 20th Century Fox had any faith in the production. But the extraordinary box office performance led to a generous budget boost for The Empire Strikes Back, and as a result this is a more polished, visually striking endeavour. The crew did not have to take as many shortcuts this time, with production design and special effects looking as slick and impressive as ever. Even by 2015 standards, The Empire Strikes Back looks extraordinary, with its reliance on practical effects and location shooting affording the film a tangible, realistic visual aesthetic, while the proficient sound design gives vivid life to this sci-fi fantasy world. Moreover, the spectacular action sequences are also hugely exciting, from the riveting Hoth battle to an exhilarating asteroid field chase, as well as the climactic lightsaber duel between Vader and Luke that doesn't disappoint in the slightest. What's especially notable about the Luke/Vader conflict is that it’s not all about fancy fight choreography, as the duel actually means something and is brimming with emotion and drama. Consequently, it's one of the greatest sequences in the Star Wars saga. Furthermore, The Empire Strikes Back is given an additional boost in the form of John Williams' enrapturing original score. Williams creates an array of effective themes beyond the insanely memorable Star Wars title music, perfectly accompanying the spectacular visuals. It's hard to imagine Star Wars being as exhilarating as it is without the iconic soundtrack.

The acting here is a bit more refined, with Hamill in particular seeming more comfortable in the role of Luke Skywalker. Since The Empire Strikes Back is a darker movie, the characters are given more depth than before, and Hamill's performance during the emotionally devastating climax is really remarkable. Meanwhile, Ford remains effortlessly cool, embodying the kind of edgy, badass hero that all kids aspire to be. The movie also introduces Billy Dee Williams, who's another bright spot playing Han's old friend Lando. But the best newcomer here is fan favourite Boba Fett. The design of Fett's trademark armour is iconic, while his badass demeanour and imposing voice solidifies his status as a memorable character. Fett is perfectly voiced by Jason Wingreen; we will ignore that his voice was replaced with Temuera Morrison for the DVD release in 2004, with the change being carried over to the movie's Blu-ray debut. Admittedly, though, this is the only overly vexing alteration that Lucas has applied to the movie, with the minor digital touch-ups actually serving to bolster the already impressive visuals.


Everything in The Empire Strikes Back simply works, from the flawless action sequences to the incredible visuals and memorable characters, while its thematic undercurrents elevate it above more run-of-the-mill blockbusters. As with A New Hope, some content does border on the cheesy side, yet it's sold with so much sincerity that it's not bothersome at all. This is a superlative movie; the darkest, deepest, most mature and most thoughtful instalment in the Star Wars franchise to date. It's a rare type of classic blockbuster that can be adored by film fans and critics alike without needing to rely on nostalgia, as it confidently holds up years later. If anything, the movie is more breathtaking in 2015 simply because of how convincing the visual effects still look, despite being executed in 1980.

10/10


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Still hugely satisfying and enjoyable

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 15 December 2015 07:25 (A review of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope)

"The Force is strong with this one."

Star Wars is so much more than just a movie - it's a cinematic experience; an event picture with the ability to appeal to adults, teenagers and children in equal measure. It's an influential pop culture phenomenon which has become omnipresent over the last four decades, leading to video games, comic books, toy lines, animated television shows, and every type of merchandise you can possibly imagine. When it was released in May 1977, there had never been a motion picture quite like Star Wars before. Sure, there had been goofy science fiction flicks, but George Lucas and his team created a believable, successfully straight-faced spectacle, executing an involving character-driven story with state-of-the-art special effects. And in 2015, this first Star Wars movie - which was later re-titled Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope - has lost none of its potency; it's still an insanely enjoyable space opera fantasy epic, imbued with breathtaking action scenes and top-flight technical specs. Adults will appreciate the compelling storytelling, while kids will be enraptured by the film's colourful special effects.


Civil war has broken out across the galaxy, and the Galactic Empire have finished constructing a heavily-armoured space station known as the Death Star, which is powerful enough to destroy entire planets. The Rebel Alliance manage to steal the plans for the Death Star, but Imperial forces led by Lord Darth Vader (David Prowse) board a rebel spaceship, capturing Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) who manages hides the Death Star plans in small droid R2-D2 (Kenny Baker), along with a desperate message for a certain Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness). R2-D2 and fellow protocol droid C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) escape the captured ship, landing on the desert planet Tatooine. The droids wind up in the possession of young farmer Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who dreams of a more exciting life. Finding Leia's message, Luke sets out to find Obi-Wan, but the Empire is also on the planet searching for the droids. Luke and Obi-Wan enlist the help of space pirate Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his Wookie associate Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) to help rescue the princess.

Many different iterations of Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope exist, with Lucas having altered the film for its 1997 Special Edition re-release, its 2004 DVD debut, and its 2011 Blu-ray release. To avoid confusion, I will concentrate on the original 1977 theatrical cut for this review, which is the preferred edition of myself and the majority of the world's Star Wars fans. Furthermore, even though the film was not initially called A New Hope, I will utilise its newer title in reference to the movie during this review. Got it? Good. We can proceed. 


The central storyline of A New Hope is simple, to be sure, but this is perhaps one of the movie's primary charms. Whereas comparable sci-fi films like 1979's Star Trek: The Motion Picture get bogged down in chatter and big ideas, A New Hope is, at its core, an engaging Hero's Journey-esque narrative, with background details to enhance the story without harming pace or taking too much focus away from Luke. This first Star Wars movie continues to hold up because it doesn't forsake emotion for action. Whereas the Star Wars prequels amount to self-indulgent special effects demo reels with little in the way of heart or emotion, A New Hope takes its time to develop the roster of heroes, which amplifies the excitement of the action scenes since it's easy to care when the characters are put in danger. A sequel was never a sure thing during filming (what an amusing notion, looking back), thus A New Hope is a self-contained story, and does a superlative job of introducing the world and characters of Star Wars better than any of its sequels or prequels.

A New Hope demonstrates the old adage of "art through adversity." Lucas did not have a blank cheque to fulfil his vision, consulting his talented collaborators to create an achievable vision with the limited funds at their disposal and within the inherent restrictions of the era. It's the resourcefulness of the crew behind Star Wars which gives the picture its magic, as it's amazing what they were able to achieve considering the less-than-ideal conditions. Perhaps the greatest unsung hero of Star Wars is producer Gary Kurtz, who had previously worked with Lucas on American Graffiti and who was hugely influential as Star Wars took shape. Basically, Kurtz overturned many of Lucas' bad ideas and even coached the actors, but he gets barely any credit; people still mistakenly believe that the success of Star Wars is all attributable to Lucas.


The difference between A New Hope and more recent sci-fi movies is substantial. Produced before the advent of digital effects and computer-generated imagery, this first Star Wars is reliant on vast sets, location photography, skilful matte paintings, models, and other methods of special effects that were an absolute breakthrough at the time. And with the movie having been lensed on 35mm film stock, it carries a natural grain structure which makes the enterprise look tangible and real. Moreover, the fact that the props and sets aren't glossy or perfectly polished adds to the movie, as it gives the environment a properly lived-in feel. A New Hope is a movie that you can still watch and enjoy in 2015 without needing to cut the special effects any slack, because the grand illusion still stands. Convincing make-up and prosthetics were used to create the aliens, while the space battles were the result of a lot of hard work using miniatures and model ships. Even though the set-piece are not as dynamic as more recent action-adventures, it hardly matters; if anything, its modesty is precisely why the movie still works.

As stated previously, A New Hope's theatrical cut is the best way to watch the movie. Though some of the tactful digital touch-ups do work, the additional CGI creatures are unnecessary (the Jabba the Hutt scene is dreadful, with dated '90s CGI taking you out of the movie), and there are numerous other alterations which only serve to undermine the visuals and the story. Hell, even the colour grading has changed, making laser bolts look pink at times.


Star Wars is not exactly an actor's movie, but performances across the board are nevertheless effective, particularly Harrison Ford who's an impeccable Han Solo. The cast also boasts some veteran performers, with Alec Guinness and Peter Cushing playing vital roles in the proceedings, affording the production a degree of welcome gravitas. And then there's Lord Darth Vader, who was performed by David Prowse while James Earl Jones provided the unforgettably authoritative voice. Everything about Vader is memorable, from the design of his badass outfit to Earl Jones' ideal vocal performance, making him one of the great all-time villains of cinema. Furthermore, A New Hope benefits from John Williams' iconic score. There are not many themes as instantly recognisable as the Star Wars title music, as it's perfectly majestic and instantly evokes exhilaration. Williams' compositions across the board are note-perfect, amplifying the drama and excitement.

Admittedly, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope is not a perfect film - it can be nit-picked in a few areas, and the dialogue can be clunky and stilted. Nevertheless, it remains hugely satisfying and well-made, especially in the wake of the abominable prequel trilogy which lost sight of the factors which made A New Hope such a great movie.

9.3/10


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It's best to continue ignoring it

Posted : 1 year, 8 months ago on 13 December 2015 01:57 (A review of Bates Motel)

"Oh, by the way, if you ever need a room, come on by. Can't say for sure what you'll find, but that is what makes the world go round."

Long before A&E's Bates Motel premiered in 2013, there was the 1987 telemovie Bates Motel, which was designed to be a pilot for a potential television show. Suffice it to say, the show was never picked up by any network, and it's not hard to see why. Written and directed by Richard Rothstein, the movie disposes of everything that made Psycho so fascinating in the first place, and it doesn't even focus on franchise lead Norman Bates. Rather than a disturbing horror like Alfred Hitchcock's timeless classic, Bates Motel is a bewildering thriller/fantasy concoction with very little merit in its premise or execution. For Hitchcock fans, it's a frustrating insult.


After the events of the first movie, Norman Bates (briefly played here by Kurt Paul) is sent to a mental asylum, where he meets troubled young boy Alex West (Bud Cort) who murdered his abusive stepfather. Norman takes Alex under his wing, essentially acting as his surrogate father. Coincidentally, Norman dies in the same year that Alex is set to be released, and Norman's will specifies that Alex is to inherit the Bates Motel as well as the nearby family home. Travelling to the rundown motel, Alex meets a plucky squatter named Willie (Lori Petty), who convinces Alex to let her hang around. Wanting to honour Norman, Alex becomes determined to renovate the old Bates Motel and re-open the establishment to the public. However, Alex begins to see a dark figure lurking around the residence who looks like Mrs. Bates, and things begin to happen which threaten Alex's dream.

Bates Motel ill-advisedly and inexplicably retcons the Psycho sequels, playing out as a direct follow-up to Hitchcock's Psycho. However, there are fundamental flaws and inconsistencies that cannot be ignored by anybody who has actually watched Psycho, let alone those who know it intimately. For instance, in Hitchcock's movie, the motel resides about fifteen miles outside of Fairvale, but in Bates Motel, the establishment is a half-mile away from "Fairville." Worse, in the movies and in Robert Bloch's Psycho novel, Norman's mother is named Norma, but all the characters here seem to think that Mrs. Bates' first name is Gloria. And while the construction crews are working on the motel here, they stumble upon the body of Mrs. Bates, which makes no sense since her body would have been properly laid to rest after being found in Hitchcock's movie. Unless Norman broke out of the asylum to specifically steal his mother's body again, just to bury it at the motel... See how none of this makes any sense? One has to seriously wonder if Rothstein has even seen the Hitchcock film - in all likelihood, he just read a brief plot outline of Psycho before working on his screenplay.


Bizarrely, Rothstein turns Bates Motel into a saccharine supernatural sitcom, with kind-hearted ghosts and no murders. It's a peculiar knockoff of the likes of Twilight Zone and Fantasy Island, involving guests checking in where they confront their fears and emerge as a whole new person. Out of nowhere in the final act, a woman (played by Kerrie Keane) checks into the motel looking to commit suicide, but a group of deceased teens rise from the grave to have a '50s-style party and persuade her to change her mind. Jason Bateman even stars as one of the teens, and all the ghosts pay Alex to rent rooms in the motel. Despite the fact that this subplot is utterly ridiculous, the supernatural has never been part of the Psycho mythology; it's a tale about monsters within. By leaning on this crap, Bates Motel negates the very thing that made the original movie such a unique entity.

The only noticeable tie-in to Psycho is the Bates Motel setting (though it's renovated beyond all recognition), and the brief appearance of Norman, who isn't even played by Anthony Perkins. Worse, the majority of the movie is concerned with the hopelessly humdrum machinations involved in getting the motel up and running again, lacking the type of Hitchcockian suspense that should be omnipresent in a production like this. Even though ostensibly spooky things do happen, such sequences are not scary or unnerving, and climactic reveals fundamentally transform the entire enterprise into an episode of Scooby Doo. On this note, the movie's tone is all over the place, with irritating attempts at comedy - Willie is even introduced wearing a fucking chicken costume. It's an outrage to see such content in a Psycho spinoff, and the film even ends with Alex breaking the fourth wall, because TV.


Things were eventually set right in the Psycho universe with the release of Psycho IV: The Beginning in 1990, which ignores Bates Motel and exists in the same continuity as the other Psycho sequels. Thus, it's easy for fans of the Psycho film series to continue happily ignoring Bates Motel, which is in the same league as the Star Wars Holiday Special - a historical curiosity that's probably better left unseen. Hell, even Anthony Perkins himself detested the film.

2.8/10


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(or click)
or enter URL:
 link image?  square?

Insert video

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