Tuesday, 22 December 2015

Star Wars - The Force Awakens - SPOILERS

If you haven’t seen Star Wars Episode VII The Force Awakens yet then please leave now. Assuming that you haven’t seen it and you still intend to, that is. What follows is positively spoilertastic, and I don’t want your ruined Christmases on my conscience. If you haven’t seen it and don’t want to then feel free to stay, though it is unlikely that you will make it through this paragraph without nodding off if you are going to be that much of a philistine about it.

Still with me? Then we’ll crack on. We’ll start on the bombshell that is the news that I am that one, the only person in a sea of galaxies far, far away who was not overly impressed by The Force Awakens. As someone said recently, the Force could have done with five more minutes. Everything I had read beforehand, and most of what I have read since, has seen nothing but praise heaped upon the seventh instalment of the Star Wars saga so what could I, a self-confessed Star Wars devotee, possibly have to complain about?

Basically, The Force Awakens is a remake or rather an amalgamation of previous episodes, in particular IV and V, A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back. The plot contains scarcely anything in the way of original thought to the point where it insults your intelligence. Set some thirty or so years after Return Of The Jedi (which is handy because it is some thirty or so years since Return Of The Jedi), The Force Awakens finds us in a universe controlled by fear by the First Order, who let’s be clear are not the Empire. Well they are a bit like the Empire, but not the Empire. The Stormtroopers have changed anyway. Forget everything those miserable prequels told you about clones with Kiwi accents, Stormtroopers in this day and age are snatched from their families at birth and brought up to kill anyone who finds First Order rule disagreeable.

One such unfortunate is the man who soon comes to be known as Finn (John Boyega), whose insider knowledge will come in very handy once he’s freed imprisoned pilot Po Dameron (Oscar Isaac) from the clutches of Darth Vader tribute act Kylo Ren. Ren is played admittedly with a nice mixture of menace and vulnerability by Adam Driver. So enamoured is Ren with the redeemed Dark Lord that he insists on wearing a mask that he has no obvious need for, and on impersonating James Earl Jones’ vocal talents. Amusingly he is prone to temper tantrums that Vader would have found wholly undignified, though not quite as undignified as the flagrant recycling of a classic Star Wars plot twist with which Ren's origins are established. At this point Ren lost some if not all credibility for me, and it was all I could do not to leap up in the cinema and shout ‘noooooooooooooooooo!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ as Star Wars characters are wont to do. Quite why Ren wants to use the dark side to emulate a man who last we heard had been dragged back into the light is not yet explained. Maybe in Episode VIII....Ren also has to battle Domnhall Gleeson's shouty General Hux for the attentions of the supreme leader and suspiciously Palpatinian Snoke, a dynamic which I found strangely odd. Always two there are, Yoda once told me, a master and an apprentice. Here there appears to be three, and it is not clear what Hux is for other than to shout, shout and shout again in a manner which deliberately evokes images of Hitler and his friends.

At that point I was already struggling with my own dark side as I decided whether or not to allow the film’s other significant plot set-up to stand, or whether to just get up and leave. But this is Star Wars and so I had to stay. No matter how much we Star Wars fans are suffering through another Star Wars foul-up, we’re staying and we’re probably coming back just to make sure that the whole affair is as much of a travesty as we think it is. I’m planning a second viewing as I write. Back to the plot, there’s a cute comedy droid beeping around on a sandy planet, annoying people. But he has important information which only he can access. Now where have we seen this before? But before you can say ‘help me Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope’ it is revealed that the droid, BB-8, has a map to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker who is still, after all these years, the last remaining Jedi Knight. Apparently he had been training some others, but somewhere along the line it had all gone At-At’s up so he just got off, like an inter-galactic Reggie Perrin. Mark Hamill’s contribution to The Force Awakens is significant in terms of where the story might be heading, but in terms of actual time and effort it only just outweighs my own.

BB-8 is not just there for comedy and the re-telling of old tales, mind. He’s used quite well as a comic device also, and to help introduce the film’s female action hero. Rey (Daisy Ridley) is just a mere scavenger on a planet called Jakku when BB-8 insists on following her around and well…….who can resist a cute comedy droid that knows where Luke Skywalker is? This brings Rey together with Finn (remember him?) and in turn that leads to the re-introduction to the Star Wars universe of Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew and Carrie Fisher, reprising their original trilogy roles as Han Solo, Chewbacca and Princess (now General) Leia Organa respectively. Ford and Mayhew provide the film’s best comedy moments and I will concede the view of most others that their double act outshines any of the clunkingly awful attempts at humour in the prequels. We’re back in original trilogy territory here and refreshingly it feels like a continuation rather than a re-hashing. Excellent performances from Boyega and Ridley add to the chemistry between the whole group. But alas it does not last as the need to move the plot along takes over, and the inability to come up with a new idea paralyses the whole project.

Which brings us to the spew-chuckingly dismal denouement. The First Order may not be the Empire, but they have a very similar view of how to rule a universe and eliminate a rebellion. What you do is you build a huge space station which has the power to destroy whole planets. But crucially what you must also do is neglect to attend to one small flaw in the system which will allow a fleet of X-Wing pilots to swoop in and shoot the shit out of the weak-spot. Of course, you will need to lower the deflector shields on the thing before you can send in the pilots. All that is missing are the fucking Ewoks! The X-Wingers are led of course by the returning Po. He had been feared dead after crash-landing a stolen First Order spacecraft from which Finn escaped (you can’t call it Imperial, I wouldn’t have thought) but here he is rocking up for the glory, a Han Solo for a new generation.

If the original trilogy had never been made then The Force Awakens would have been a highly convincing, thrilling ride, beautifully setting up its inevitable sequels where the destinies of Rey, Finn and the others might slowly unfold. But the awful truth is that we have been here before, twice in some instances. If this is going to convince people that this is how you go about continuing the Star Wars saga, then we could be using the same plot devices for generations, to the point where the great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great grandson of a Sith Lord wakes up one morning feeling a little bit like I used to on a Tuesday when I was unemployed and all of a sudden you have a synopsis for Episode XXVIII.

Maybe it will be better second (or third, or fourth, or fifth) time around.......

Tuesday, 8 December 2015

Bridge Of Spies (spoilers)

I've been to Berlin. I didn't like it very much. If you were of a mind to do so you can read about it in this column's big sister, Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard. I mention it here because I was reminded of it by Bridge Of Spies, a new Tom Hanks film that is part courtroom drama and part espionage thriller. And wholly and refreshingly good.

It's 1957 and the height of the Cold War. Tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union are at their frostiest. Both sides have developed an intense paranoia about the possibility of being nuked to extinction by the other, and so both use spies to try and gather the information they think they need to survive. Or at least get their retaliation in first. Pick up a paper or turn on your television in 2015 and you will see that levels of paranoia are only just below what they were 58 years ago. Only the list of people we're supposed to fear has got bigger.

Back in '57 one such Soviet spy is Rudolph Abel played by Mark Rylance. Abel's house is ransacked by US police looking for evidence of espionage. They find some stuff, but it turns out that they haven't got a warrant so none of it is admissable. Not that this bothers cranky, Soviet hating, God-fearing, salt of the Earth Judge Byers (Dakin Matthews) when Abel is charged regardless and brought to court. Defending him is insurance lawyer Jim Donovan (Hanks) who seems to know very little about criminal law and appears to have been appointed by the government for that very reason. Never mind due process. There is too much at stake and Abel must not go free. Yet he must be seen to have been given a fair defence, hence Hanks must take the fall. The best he can do is to persuade Judge Byers not to hand Abel the death penalty, successfully arguing that it would be useful to have a Soviet spy in their possession should they ever need one to trade for one of their own.

Lo and....yes......behold that is exactly what happens. While Abel is at kangaroo court a US pilot is shot down over Soviet airspace while on.....you guessed it.....a spying mission. In the briefing before the mission he and his colleagues are expressly ordered to sacrifice themselves to avoid capture if necessary. They don't want secrets about their new technology getting out, nor do they want the Soviets to know that they've been spied on from above with what at that time constituted state of the art camera technology. One pilot, Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) loses his bottle on the whole sacrifice thing and so eventually, after a bit too much deliberation and debate, a trade looks on.

But there's a complication. At around about the same time an American student is captured trying to escape East Berlin as the Berlin Wall goes up. This is where my memories of Berlin come in. It was snowy and -13 and we couldn't get hime for days because English airports had closed. Yet it was an awful lot worse in the 50's and 60's . As the student tries to flee several people are shot dead trying to get over the wall while at Checkpoint Charlie a stream of unfortunates are routinely stopped, questioned, threatened and generally bullied by the authorities. Communism is rising, and suddenly the Americans have two people to retrieve and only one spy to trade with.

As that spy Rylance has been in several Oscar conversations. His performance is solid, even powerful, but the calm indifference of his character has to make things easier. It's surely easier to act indifferent to your fate when it's all pretend anyway. It may have been more challenging for Rylance if Abel had behaved like the gibbering, desperate wreck most of us would be if facing charged of espionage in the US, and then having to worry about what might happen to you if and when you are turned back over to your own side. Will they accept that you did your job well or will it be assumed that you betrayed your country as a bargaining tool?

Hanks is his usual colossal presence in screen while still managing to make you believe he's plain old Jim, while my only real gripe is with the pacing. It becomes fairly obvious what is going to happen at a certain point, but it still takes an awful lot longer than it should to get there. I guess that is what happens when you are dealing with material based on a true story. You have to stay true to it where possible, but a little side-step over the minutae here and there would have made this belter of a film perhaps even better.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

The Theory Of Everything (spoilers but come on, it's been ages)

Sometimes I surprise myself. I remember starting a blog about film some years ago, and then giving up on it shortly afterwards due to lack of interest. Both my own and yours. It made sense to me that less of you would be interested in reading about what I think of various films than in reading about me slipping down the slope through Thatto Heath Park and falling on my arse.

But I didn't give up quite as quickly as I'd thought. There are 15 or 20 reviews on the clumsily named Film Musings Of A Fire Hazard, spanning a two-year period. Not all of them are any good but they were interesting to look back on. Having made a tentative return to the subject of film with last week's utterings on Mockingjay Part 2 on my regular Memoirs Of A Fire Hazard I thought I'd take another dip at it. You know? Just for my own interest if nothing else.

So finally arriving at the point the subject of this piece is The Theory Of Everything, the Oscar-hogging biopic of physics boffin and miraculous motor neurone disease survivor Professor Stephen Hawking. Emma never fancied this one, so I never got along to the cinema to see it. I had to wait until just the other day to find the time to watch it at home. Not that I'm always busy particularly, but more that there is always some sports-related material clogging up my planner which needs watching before it becomes history material fit only for Yesterday or Sky One. I'd actually recorded The Theory Of Everything a few months ago, but those Bundesliga highlights continued to take precedence until now.

The other reason I hadn't got to it if I'm totally honest is that I'd kind of been putting it off. I'm always very wary of any film dealing with the subject of disability. So often they are either a massive let down or just downright offensive. I get enough of that in the real world without escaping to it. Yet The Theory Of Everything pleasantly surprised me. It's moving without being mawkish, funny without being patronising, and clever without bamboozling the viewer.

Hawking, played by posh gong gatherer Eddie Redmayne, is perhaps best known for his research into the origins of time and the universe and well.....everything........but it is his almost 30 years of marriage to his first wife Jane that provides most of the narrative here. Lazy people like myself might have assumed that Jane, played beautifully here by Felicity Jones, got the rock out of dodge pretty quickly when the full implications of Hawkings' illness took hold. She did no such thing. Hawking was given just two years to live at the time of his diagnosis in the mid 1960's, yet is still with us some 50 years later. Jane continued to be devoted to Hawking, attending to his every need until 1990 when they eventually divorced. And that wasn't to do Hawking any favours or to show a united front in public. She genuinely loved the great man and yes.....continued to enjoy a physical relationship with him. The youngest of their children was born in 1979, over a decade after his diagnosis and way beyond the point at which his body had failed him. True, she eventually drifted in to the arms of Jonathan Hellyer (played here by Boardwalk Empire and Stardust's Charlie Cox) who she met at choir practice and who had helped with Hawking's care for years, but only after Hawking had taken a shine to his therapist Elaine (Maxine Peake). She had been hired by Jane to help with Hawking with his communication after a bout of pneumonia finally robbed him of his speech. Eventually he would develop the now distinctive speech synthesiser which led a generation to believe he is an American. British accents are available with that technology now, but the shrewd astro-physician knows a saleable trademark when he sees it and has left well enough alone.

What the film fails to explore is just how the blazes Hawking has managed to survive for so long with a disease that does for most of its unfortunate sufferers in less than two years. Perhaps medical science has not deciphered that conundrum yet, or perhaps it really is down to his indomitable spirit and ludicrous work ethic. He's just been too busy to be ill for very long over these last few years. He continues to inspire, and to be 7,000 times more capable than most folk who would offer their pity. To that end, if we really want to educate people about what can be achieved by people with disabilities we should do away with disability awareness courses and international days of disability and just get people to watch films like Inside I'm Dancing and this excellent addition to the debate.