My Favourite Films #49: The Running Man

It’s always interesting watching old sci-fi movies and seeing how quickly they imagined we’d balls everything up. George Orwell thought that by 1984 we’d be living under a totalitarian regime, constantly observed. John Carpenter went for 1997 as the year by which New York had become a prison colony. Of course, some of the joy watching them now is knowing they got it wrong.

And unless Donald Trump really cocks things up, The Running Man will join that list of films set in a future time we’ve now lived through. In 1987 they thought we’d really make a hash of things and live in a dystopian hell where the vicious government keeps the populace brainwashed with violence and glamour on telly.

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I know the poster says 2019, but the opening text says 2017

The film is based on a book by Stephen King (writing under the pseudonym Richard Bachman) and with all due respect to King, is far more entertaining, mainly because it was adapted to be a vehicle for Arnold Schwarzenegger who was at the height of his powers. This takes the bleak and grim novel and revamps it as an ’80s action movie.

Arnie plays, Ben Richards, a police pilot framed for the killing of unarmed civilians, despite the fact he was the one who objected and refused to follow his orders. Locked up on a working prison where they convicts are forced to wear exploding collars that stop them from leaving boundaries. I saw this movie as a kid, and the exploding collars are the thing that stuck with me the most.

 

He engineers an escape with rebellion members Laughlin and Weiss (Yaphet Kotto and Marvin J. McIntyre, respectively). They want to bring down the government and expose the brainwashing, while Richards wants to get the hell out of town and go into hiding. He plans to get his brother to help him but when he gets to his apartment finds that he has been taken for “reeducation” and that a new tenant is living there, musician Amber (Maria Conchita Alonso). Richards uses her to attempt to flee the country, but she blows his cover and he is arrested.

As a result he meets Richard Dawson’s Killian, the smarmy game show host who runs The Running Man, the world’s most popular TV show. Dawson is a fantastic villain, arrogant, scheming and utterly without compassion, all hidden behind a friendly, polished public image. A game show host himself, he captures the faux sincerity and interest, before revealing a stone cold side away from the cameras.

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Also, in a brilliant moment he responds to Arnie’s trademark “I’ll be back” line with a simple “Only in a rerun”.

Killian wants Richards for the show in order to boost stagnant ratings. The show involves criminals having to run through a series of challenges, with the promise of a blissful tropical paradise should they succeed. Stopping them are the colourful, flamboyant and vicious Stalkers, who are a combination of ITV’s Gladiators and the OTT wrestling heels of the ’80s.

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The Stalkers are good value, each with their own gimmick. There’s Jim Brown wielding a flamethrower as Fireball, an electric shooting opera singer named Dynamo (Erland Van Lidth De Jeude), Sub Zero (Professor Toru Tanaka) who wields an ice hockey stick fitted with blades and chainsaw wielding Buzzsaw (Gus Rethwisch).

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Each operates in a different section and attack Richards, Weiss and Laughlin. Amber is also thrown in with them as she starts to realize that the government has lied about things and is busted snooping.

Of course, every Stalker fails and Arnie dispatches them in short order. Each time with a quip ready to go- “Here’s your Sub Zero, now plain zero” and, having cut Buzzsaw in half, “he had to split”.

Killian becomes increasingly frustrated, and the crowd after initial horror begin rooting for Richards. Killian wants to send in Captain Freedom, the retired all time champ played by Jesse “The Body” Ventura, but he refuses.

The action is fast and well orchestrated, with a simple, ’80s bloodiness reliant on practical effects which sees Arnie hack, smash and incinerate his pursuers. Arnie can do this in his sleep, but his odd, unique charisma carries him through and it’s an interesting look at how audiences can be bloodthirsty and fickle.

Arnie’s physical appearance is necessary here, his strength is why he’s chosen as a contender and against better armed enemies it’s ingenuity and brute force that hand him the wins. As a character, Richards isn’t the most developed and we’re expected to just accept him as a hero because he refuses to kill innocents, is fleetingly sad about his brother and tries to protect others, but at the same time he’s rather cold blooded, and physically violent towards Amber when they initially meet. Of course, we root for him because he’s Arnie, which is a clear example of star power.

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The ending, where the truth is revealed to the audience suggests things may be about to change. But it’s an ambiguous ending, and while Richards is free and cleared, it seems unlikely that the whole system will come crashing down.

In taking a decent premise but injecting the drama and visuals of wrestling and game shows, the filmmakers take King’s decent idea and transform it into something far more engaging and believable. This seems more like a show people would get sucked into than the idea from the book, where they merely evade capture in the real world.

By upping the cheesiness around the spectacle, they actually make it feel more real. That people will swallow and enjoy blood and mayhem if it’s packaged the right way.

One of Arnie’s best films and hugely entertaining.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.

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My Favourite Films #46: The Return of the Jedi

In Clerks, Dante Hicks dismisses the third film in the Star Wars trilogy saying “All Jedi had was a bunch of muppets”. It’s a harsh assessment of the movie, but highlights a problem that some viewers have with the movie. The Ewoks.

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This alien race, who look like teddy bears, are the kind of thing that little kids love, but for older audiences appear rather cutesy and twee. Personally, I quite like the Ewoks, because their guerrilla tactics against a superior foe are surprisingly brutal and they are kinda cute. Also, they don’t look so bad after some later additions to the universe.

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While it’s not as good as Empire, I still love this movie, which continues the trilogy’s crowd pleasing, entertaining action. It brings the Darth Vader (the body of David Prowse voiced by James Earl Jones) story to an end, with him earning redemption thanks to the faith and goodness of his son Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). Their final showdown where the Emperor (Ian McDiarmid) attempts to get Luke to give in to the Dark Side is well done, with Luke finally realising what’s going on and stopping himself.

Vader, witnessing this mercy and then the Emperor’s attack on Luke finally rediscovers his good nature, lost years earlier. He sacrifices himself to kill the Emperor and Luke escapes before the Rebels manage to destroy the second Death Star, which they had been tricked into believing was yet to be operational.

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The Death Star, half built and hanging in space is visually striking and the revelation that the Emperor has set a trap for the good guys raises the stakes greatly and sets up the largest space battle of the series.

Meanwhile, on the planet there’s a different battle going on as Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) lead a small rebel force, and the Ewoks against the Empire’s forces to try and disable the force field that protects the Death Star. The fight, which sees the primitive Ewoks triumph through ingenuity and surprising viciousness (their cuteness distracts from the fact they are straight up murdering Stormtroopers).

Han Solo’s rescue from Jabba’s clutches is a cracker, providing some old school heroics from Luke Skywalker, and shows Leia is a badass herself, having posed as a bounty hunter she thaws out the frozen smuggler only to be kidnapped, but she gets free and kills Jabba. It’s a shame all these heroic moments have been overshadowed in the public consciousness by her golden bikini.

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Of course, the movie also includes the big reveal that Luke and Leia are twin siblings, which Luke discovers from the dying Yoda (Frank Oz). It changes the dynamic between the two, and works rather well. It also clears the way for Han and Leia’s relationship to blossom fully, and this is the heart for much of the movie, with the two’s bickering softening and Han confessing his feelings this time around.

What makes this movie work is the ending, where good triumphs and Luke makes peace with his father, and the galaxy celebrates. It’s an entirely satisfying ending to the series and while it’s since been added to, it still serves as a solid ending.

There’s heroism, resolution and some cracking intergalactic action, and just like the other two movies it continues to entertain years and many rewatches later.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #45: The Empire Strikes Back

Star Wars was a game changer in many ways, in terms of blockbusters and memorabilia but it’s the second movie in the original trilogy that’s impact is still felt. Countless film series made since has attempted to follow the Empire model with the second movie having a darker, more downbeat ending that leaves the heroes in poor shape before they rally in the third part.

But although often imitated, The Empire Strikes Back has never been matched and is still the stand out movie in the four part Star Wars saga. I fell in love with the first movie, but it paled when I saw this one, and this is where I became a lifelong fan of the series.

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Unlike a lot of movies which include a massive twist, this movie is more than just that big reveal. The moment where the villainous Darth Vader (body by David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones) reveals that Obi Wan was telling porkies and that he is actually Luke Skywalker’s (Mark Hamill) father is one that has slightly lost it’s impact thanks to countless rip offs and gags, but for audiences in 1980 it must have been an absolute stunner.

If I have kids I’m going to show them the Star Wars trilogy at a young age and hopefully ensure that this twist is fresh for them, as it’ll probably make more of an impact.

The reveal sets up the finale brilliantly, but it also contributes to the downbeat ending which made Empire so special. The end of the movie finds our heroes in a bad way, Luke is reeling from the news his enemy is his papa and has lost a hand, Leia (Carrie Fisher) has finally admitted that she loves Han Solo (Harrison Ford), only to see him frozen and taken prisoner.

But the ending doesn’t depress you. Luke has a robot hand and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) sets off to find Han. It leaves the audience hooked- will they be able to rescue their old friend? How will Luke and Vader’s next meeting go? And will the war with the Empire ever be over?

The defeat they suffer works because it delivers on it’s title. If a villain is always vanquished they begin to lose their edge for audiences (see the Daleks), what they got right in this series was that while the Empire had lost the first movie they win this one, and the good guys barely escape. It makes the villains all the more evil, and more of a threat, it’s a smart move.

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Of course, a solid ending isn’t enough and what makes this such a cracker is everything that builds up to it. We find the Rebels on a snowy planet and Han debating leaving as he needs to sort out the bounty hunters on his trail. His decision to leave causes an argument between him and Leia, and suggests that there is a growing attraction there.

Ford and Fisher, who we recently found out were getting it on behind the scenes, have phenomenal chemistry on screen and their bickering, flirty scenes together are among the best in film. The story splits up our group, leaving Leia, Han, Chewie and C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) on the run and trying to find a safe place to hole up, while Luke travels to continue his Jedi training.

This is another aspect that would work for first time viewers, the reveal of Yoda (Frank Oz). When Luke seeks out the Jedi Master who taught Obi Wan the audience expects a great warrior and intergalactic badass, the revelation that the little green man is actually the master is a nice subversion of expectations.

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Yoda’s wisdom and training sees Luke develop his skills, and this is an interesting storyline as we see Luke get stronger and discover more about the Force.

This movie improves on the first by adding to the characters and by having a superior script, shown not only in Han and Leia’s flirtations, but throughout. And there are memorable moments throughout- the AT-ATs advancing through the snow, the trippy sequence where Luke faces his fears, the climactic fight.

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I love this movie because it’s great fun, and shows us more of the universe. It also introduces Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams, who is pretty damn suave.

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It’s a perfect middle movie for a trilogy, which doesn’t just act as a bridge but serves to up the stakes, grow the story and ensure the audience is even more invested in the characters.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #44: Star Wars

Disclaimer: Before any fans get narked, I know that’s not the full title, but putting it all in would be awfully long and you all know which movie I mean.

I must have seen the Star Wars films as a little kid, but I can’t really remember much from those childhood viewings apart from the chase sequence in Jedi. What I do remember is the 20th anniversary special editions. I was almost twelve and they came out just as I was on the brink of geekdom, it was the perfect time for me to see them again.

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I can remember the music starting, and the opening scrawl and then that amazing opening shot with Leia’s ship emerging on the screen followed by the imposing Star Destroyer, chasing it across the stars. Even years later the sheer scale of that shot works well and on a big screen it was phenomenal.

The whole opening is done supremely well, especially the entrance of Darth Vader (David Prowse, voice by James Earl Jones).


A million lunchboxes and three dodgy prequels later, Vader has lost his edge somewhat, but on that first watch he’s a menacing presence. Striding imperiously over the bodies of the enemy, his raspy breath and dark, cloaked figure is memorable and has become understandably iconic.
The plot is known to many and quite simple, but a simple story executed well is far better than a complicated one that is bungled. Farm boy Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) dreams of adventure and the wider galaxy when he gets a hold of Princess Leia’s (Carrie Fisher) message for help.

He meets old warrior Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness) who explains that he was a friend of Luke’s father before Darth Vader killed him. He begins to train Luke in the use of the Force, a cosmic energy force that flows through all things.

They recruit roguish smuggler Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and his copilot Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They head for Alderaan, Leia’s home planet but arrive after it is destroyed by the Empire’s latest weapon the Death Star.

What follows is a story of adventure and heroism as our heroes rescue Leia and deliver the plans for the base. It has a single weak spot and Luke joins the pilots in the attack as the lethal space station closes in on the Rebel base.
It’s hard to look at Star Wars without the cultural baggage that it carries now, without nostalgia and as a movie on its own merits. But this isn’t a review, its a love letter.

I love the world of the movie, I love the bustling energy of the cantina, the scruffiness of Han Solo and his ship the Millennium Falcon. It has a lived in feel that the sterile ships of other sci-fi often lack. They want everything to look cool and shiny, forgetting that people are meant to live there.

I love the characters, from Hamill’s likeable goofiness as the space bumpkin Luke to the bickering droids. I love that Princess Leia takes charge of the guys who are trying, ineptly, to rescue her.

The late, great Carrie Fisher is superb. She makes Leia a strong, confident character who rolls with the bunches and who stands defiant against the forces of the Empire. She runs rings around the swaggering Solo and is an utter delight.

But let’s face it, Han Solo is still the coolest guy in the movie. Harrison Ford brings his easy charm to the role, with a laid back swagger and sarcastic, cynical outlook. But he’s winging it the whole time, surviving on a mix of luck, skill and his comrades.


He’s the old gunslinger who tries to play like he doesn’t care about anything other than money and his own life, but when the chips are down he roars back to make the save.

The action is well done, and while the Vader vs Kenobi fight is hardly a masterpiece of fight choreography it is well performed. Guinness delivers his lines brilliantly, giving depth and power beyond the cliches. He goes into the fight seeming to know that this is the end, but goes to it with dignity, knowing that this isn’t really the end.

The effects have aged in places, but the special edition make over makes up for it, and some of the sequences still hold up. In fact the models and costumes hold up better than most CG will in years to come.

I love the rousing ending, the glorious John Williams score and the ingredients mix to make a film that still fills me with the geeky excitement and love that washed over my twelve year old self.

I love the fun vibe, the dialogue which at times is a little clunky, I love it all.

A pure, simple treat of a movie. It holds up because of the great characters, the simple story of good vs evil and the bags of charm it has. It’s a movie I return to when I want that blast of childish joy, to lose myself in a simpler world with familiar faces.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: Serenity

In the early ’00s there was a horrible affliction that devastated the geek community. Like a vampire, the infected would be unable to stop themselves from passing it on and forcing others to endure their curse. And, to mix my monsters, like zombies it was often the ones you loved that you hurt. You’d resist, but finally the curse would out and you’d pass it on with one simple sentence:

“Have you seen this show, Firefly? It’s amazing!”

And you’d hand over your box set and see them fall as you had. But what’s worse than a fall?
A fall from a great height.

And so the show would raise them up, lifting them with the cool space western vibe. Higher as they embraced the charming, likeable characters and still higher through the witty, exciting writing.

BANG!

Fourteen episodes and you crash back down. Mid season. Mid story. Plot lines left dangling unfinished, questions unanswered. The most persistent nagging at you: What happens next?

Online complaining, love one and petitions alerted Fox that there was a market. DVD sales climbed.

And so Joss Whedon got a second chance. Serenity would fly again.

But would a standalone movie really satisfy the fans. Would it work? Could it avoid being a disappointment?
You bet your ass it could.

Picking up sometime after the show we find roguish smuggler Mal Reynolds (Nathan Fillion) leading his small crew on the outer reaches of space aboard the eponymous ship. 

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The young, frazzled genius River (Summer Glau) still struggles with the effects of government experimentation and her brother Simon (Sean Maher) tries to find a way to help her and work out what they did to her.
After a close call with the savage, mindless Reavers, Simon decides it’s time for them to leave. Mal agrees despite the protestations of some of his crew, particularly Kaylee (Jewel Staite), the engineer smitten with Simon. However, their plan to drop her off is abandoned after something triggers River to become a ruthless, skilled fighter. The only clue is that she uttered the word “Miranda” before her rampage.

Meanwhile, a shadowy government Operative (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is hunting for River who carries important secrets in her damaged mind. He seeks out Inara (Morena Baccarin), the “companion” who previously travelled aboard Serenity. He uses her to send a message to Mal and set a trap. Mal, despite knowing it to be a trap goes in anyway and they narrowly escape after a fight with the Operative.

Using the few clues they have the group set off to work out what River knows. On the way they find out more about what was done to her and discover the dark origins of the Reavers.

I remember going into this movie with nervous excitement and being reassured very early on as it nails the tone of the show. As a fan of the show I don’t know how it would play to newcomers to the world, but I think it fills in the gaps quite quickly and deftly. And I think the writing, which is sharp and witty would win people over and engage them with an involving plot.

Of course, some of it works more for fans. When two characters but the farm it’s bound to hit harder to those who’ve known them longer. One in particular, the sudden, shocking demise of slacker pilot Wash (Alan Tudyk) was a gut blow for me and several friends who had loved the show, and the character.

The death comes out of nowhere and leaves you reeling, and the impact it has on the other characters is keenly felt. In a later scene where his devastated widow Zoe (Gina Torres) rushes into battle and is injured left me with a sinking feeling we were headed for Dirty Dozen/Magnificent Seven territory where the bodies would pile up and only a couple would make it.

This last stand against the Reavers is wonderfully tense and well done, with Whedon injecting little character moments into the build up (Zoe’s devastation and loss of hope, Simon and Kaylee expressing their feelings for each other) and there’s a laugh when Zoe talks to the brutish Jayne (Adam Baldwin) about strategy.

Jayne: Can’t be thinking on revenge if we’re gonna get through this.

Zoe: Do you really think any of us are going to get through this?

Jayne: (slightly nervous)…I might.

The returning cast slip into their old roles with ease and for fans it’s a comforting and satisfying end to the story (although if they want to do more I wouldn’t complain).

It’s massively entertaining and I loved it.

And of course it gave Nathan Fillion a chance to pull on his old Browncoat again. No actor seems to have loved a project more than Fillion who complained about the cancellation and still seems sore about it. 

It’s easy to see why, Mal is a great role and a perfect fit for Fillion’s easy charisma. He gets to play the big damn hero who has a softer, less confident side underneath the swagger. Mal’s like Han Solo’s geekier little brother, someone who’s not quite as cool as they’d like to be and often caught off balance, but managing to make it through due to luck, skill and determination.

Smarter than he makes out, kinder than he wishes and quietly noble Mal is the heart of the film and a great hero. He can handle himself in a fight, but knows when to run, and keeps going against the odds to do what’s right. Fillion’s charisma, humour and enthusiasm shines through making him a supremely likeable protagonist.

Hands down one of the most entertaining sci-fi movies of the 21st century.
Gorram it, I’m gonna watch the series again.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


My Favourite Films #42: The Thing (1982)

My Dad introduced me to the films of John Carpenter, and this is one of my favourites, a tense, gripping sci-fi horror.

Set almost entirely on a remote Ameeican research base in the Arctic it deals with a group of scientists and their support team who must confront a shapeshifting alien beast that assumes the appearance and mannerisms of anything it devours.

The unease starts right at the top when a sled dog races across the icy wilderness, pursued by a helicopter. The pilot is killed in an accidental explosion and the passenger begins firing at the dog only to be shot by Garry (Donald Moffat) the commander. The dog is put in the kennels and after they ID the man as being from a Norwegian base they investigate.

Right away you have questions about what the hell is going on and why they wanted to kill that dog so badly, and then the plot thickens as they find the Norwegian base in disarray, with a burnt grotesque humanoid form outside in the ice.

It turns out the Norwegians found something in the ice and when it woke up it made short work of them and they tried stopping it. The alien being could change shape, hence the weird body, and escaped. Disguised as a dog.

At this point animal lovers might want to look away as the dog-Thing snacks on the dogs. It’s all pretty grizzly and they only stop it when one of the team blasts it with a flamethrower.

This member of the team, MacReady is played by Kurt Russell and that’s an indicator that this is going to be a good movie as the Russell and Carpenter team was dynamite (Escape from New York, Big Trouble I’m Little China). Russell is on great form here as the tough, quiet MacReady who is way out of his depth and not entirely sure how it all works, but who endures through grit and common sense.

“I want to set those people over there on fire, but I’m just not close enough to get the job done”

It’s his simple reasoning that leads to the blood test that sets up one of the film’s best sequences. Working out that every tiny part of the creature can live separately he comes up with a test. Using blood samples and a hot piece of metal he will work out who’s human and who isn’t.

The whole scene is grippingly tense with the characters eyeballing each other and the unease growing. The final jump scare still gets me out of my seat after repeated viewings and it’s this, not the gleefully gory physical effects that I remember.

Trust breaks down quickly

That’s not to say the effects aren’t great. I’m a big fan of old school effects that look like you can reach out and touch, and the grizzly creations here are very well done, especially a scene where the chest of one opens up to sever the arms of the man trying to revive him. My Dad is not a fan of this scene, possibly because he’s a doctor himself. 
The alien is gory and with no distinct shape it appears as mutant, horrifying blends of the forms it has devoured.

Dude, you fugly.

While the creature has an ick factor that holds up the film’s real success is the atmosphere of claustrophobia and paranoia that Carpenter creates. Just as the characters aren’t sure of who they can trust, the audience is never sure of who’s still human. Even MacReady’s movements can’t be accounted for.
It means you never know who is going to turn on who and it keeps you on edge for long periods.

This all builds to what I think is one of the greatest endings of all time. With the base in ruins after a massive explosion MacReady sits alone in the snow. And then Childs (Keith David) appears. Childs went missing a short while earlier and the two sit opposite each other, neither trusting the other, when asked what are they going to do MacReady delivers the last line of the movie; “Why don’t we just wait here a while? See what happens.”

It’s a remarkably bleak ending, but works extremely well and leaves lots of questions. Is the beast really dead? Is Childs human? What will happen if/when a rescue team arrives?

It’s a great movie, with solid performances from all involved this is an unsettling thriller that sticks with you and rises above the gore to be a genuinely clever thriller. And it can be rewatched over and over without losing it’s appeal.

This is the first John Carpenter movie I’ve included on my favourites list, but it won’t be the last.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Man in the High Castle by Philip K Dick

Last year I got really into the Amazon series The Man in the High Castle which was set in an alternate reality where the allies lost the Second World War and the US had been split between the Nazis and Japanese. It was a tense, gripping drama and finding out it was based on a Philip K Dick novel made me intrigued as I’d enjoyed some of his stuff before. I mentioned wanting to read it and MWF got me it for Christmas.

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Unfortunately it falls far short of the TV show, which I loved. The book is massively disappointing especially as early on it shows great promise and highlights PKD’s imagination as a writer. The world he crafts is intriguing, complicated and terrible, with the Nazis eyeing up their only remaining opposition.

The problem is that the story gets bogged down in loosely connected, uninvolving subplots, many of which add nothing to the story and could have been left out with no impact. There are hints of more but these get lost in a confusing and dull storylines that fizzle out. It took me the best part of a month to read because having put it down, the urge to pick it back up wasn’t that strong.

PKD’s failings as a writer are thrust to the fore, with stilted, unnatural sounding dialogue and characters who aren’t fleshed out properly and act in daft, illogical ways. The strong female lead of the show is here a hysterical, skittish woman who flaps about and who I found thoroughly unlikeable.

The ending feels like PKD himself just lost interest and was extremely unsatisfying.

Aside from The Godfather I can’t remember another time a screen adaptation has developed and improved on a novel to such an extent.

Verdict: While Dick has good ideas and a few moments which hold the interest poor dialogue and characters made this a bit of a slog and I struggled to get that involved in it. A waste of a good idea with an ending which infuriated me. 4/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Firstly, the good news, this is no Phantom Menace, and despite the hype surrounding its release this movie works and fits with the original Star Wars trilogy in terms of tone and story in a way the prequels never did.

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Set many years after the victory over the Empire the story finds Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) is missing and the Republic is in trouble from the threat of the First Order who seek to return the Empire. General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) despatches her best pilot, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to recover a map leading to Luke’s location. On the planet Jakku Poe gets it but the Order catch up with him.

He sends off the details in his droid BB-8, before being captured by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) the dark Jedi who works for them. During the attack on the village the civilians are slaughtered and stormtrooper FN-2187 (John Boyega) who refuses to go along and is horrified.

He aids Poe in escaping, and Poe names him Finn. They crash and wind up back on Jakku, separated. Finn finds BB-8 who has been found by Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger who scrapes by on Jakku. Finn pretends to be in the resistance and they flee aboard an ageing ship they find at the junkyard.

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Finn and Rey in trouble

The ship turns out to be the Millennium Falcon and they are soon tracked down by the former owners Han Solo and Chewbacca (Harrison Ford and Peter Mayhew, respectively). Finn just wants to get away to safety, while Rey, despite her desire to join Solo and travel the galaxy, feels she must return to Jakku to wait for her family to return.

But both find themselves drawn deeper into the resistance and have to decide what role they will play. Will they join the fight or run? What is Kylo Ren’s link to the original characters? And where is Luke?

For me this movie really worked, because it successfully bridged the gap between Return of the Jedi and this new trilogy. The old faces do their jobs well, particularly Ford who exudes the same roguish charm that made Solo a favourite and Fisher, who convinces as an older, slightly jaded Leia.

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Fisher on fine form

Their relationship hints at the difficulties that developed after the Empire fell and that it wasn’t the happy ending they hoped for. In their scenes together they capture a realistic sense of a couple divided and reeling from hard times, but still deeply in love.

But what gives a new hope (sorry) is that the new characters work well. Rey is a tough, resourceful heroine and the main character, and Ridley makes her likeable and easy to warm too. It’s also cool to see her stand up for herself and reject Finn’s well-meaning, if sexist, attempts to protect her. Throughout she appears capable, independent and a true hero.

Equally strong is Boyega’s work as Finn, as he manages to capture the former Stormtrooper’s inner conflict, with the character having to fight his instinct to run to do the right thing. He also has serious comedic chops and gets most of the film’s laughs. Oscar Isaac is the least used of the three, but makes Poe a swaggering, self assured hero and he shares good chemistry with Boyega.

The villains do well too, with the First Order capturing the menace of the Empire with a hint of fanaticism which makes them more dangerous. The other strong point is that Kylo Ren clashes with General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hinting at divides and that Ren doesn’t have the reputation or standing that Vader held in the Empire.

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The bad guys

Ren, who’s been plastered over the merch does make a solid villain and his lack of control makes him distinctly different from Vader and his raw anger makes him unpredictable. The back story reveals more and sets up some of the film’s key moments.

It’s not without flaws, some of the plot points have been seen before and a few events are easy to see coming. The final attack is almost an exact retread of the attack on the Death Star.

One character’s speech about “the same eyes in different faces” feels like a lazy explanation for repeated ideas and characters acting like others.

But JJ Abrams does his job well and the characters feel more real and natural than anything in the prequels and there’s genuine humour and thrills. MWF was more impressed than I was, but I still left happy and keen for the saga to continue.

Verdict: Abrams makes this more fun and engaging than the prequels and the balance between new and old faces is about right. Some of it gives a feeling of déjà vu but for the most part it succeeds. It has warmth and a sense of scale which will please old fans and win over a fresh generation to the series. 8/10.

Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Book Review: The Chessmen of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The final installment in the Barsoom series of omnibus this sees Edgar Rice Burroughs again change focus, with hero John Carter only briefly appearing. The main characters here are Carter’s daughter Tara of Helium and Gahan of Gathol, a prince of another kingdom.

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Tara, engaged to another, is outraged when the uncouth Gahan declares his love for her. In a sulk she takes her flier off to clear her head, only to get caught in a massive storm which sends her flying off into unchartered lands.
Gahan, who gave chase to rescue her is also cast away in a strange corner of Barsoom. First they encounter the kaldanes, intelligence obsessed spider-like creatures who have evolved to ride brainless humanoids called rykors. Tara is captured but wins over one of her captors, Ghek, who begins to doubt if logic and intellect are really the best things. Gahan rescues her and the three flee, but the next settlement they find is little better, with all three captured, although Ghek can escape. Tara initially pleases the ruler but her sharp tongue angers him and he places her as the stakes in a human version of jetan (the Martian version of chess) where the “pieces” fight to the death. Can Gahan triumph to rescue Tara? Can they benefit from unrest in the kingdom? Will they ever get home?
I found this a frustrating book because while ERB has some decent ideas (the kaldanes are interesting, and the premise of the chess-like gladiatorial game has promise) but the execution lets it down.
For starters, there’s less action here, and it lacks the zip of previous instalments. It drags in places and too much of the fighting is rushed or happens off the page, only mentioned later.
The major flaw is the ending, which is terribly rushed. The tension builds only for the cavalry to arrive and everything to Be resolved in a couple of pages. It robs the book of a satisfying conclusion, and feels lazy and slapdash.
The Barsoom series has been a frustrating read, while they are quite fun in places, and some quite gripping, they are riddled with flaws and a couple of the adventures are shaky. I doubt I’ll read any more of the series, unless a second omnibus is ridiculously cheap.
Verdict: Despite good ideas and fresh characters this falls flat, lacking Burroughs’ usual skill for fast flowing action. The ending in particular is weak. 5/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.


Film Review: Ex Machina

This is a movie I really wanted to see in the cinema but missed out on, so I was stoked that I got to catch it recently.

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Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), a programmer at Bluebook, a tech company wins a staff lottery. The prize is to travel to the secluded research facility of the CEO Nathan (Oscar Isaac), a reclusive genius. Despite initial awkwardness Nathan encourages Caleb not to view him as his boss, just as a guy. He also reveals that he wants Caleb’s help in performing the Turing test on a robot he has made.
The Turing test is basically a way of testing an artificial intelligence to see if it can convince as a human. Normally performed anonymously so the person doesn’t know who or what they’re talking to. Here, Caleb knows its a robot, but can it still convince him it has proper intelligence.
Caleb then begins a series of sessions with Ava (Alicia Vikander), and is impresses. Their meetings continue, with Nathan observing, and over time Caleb finds himself oddly attracted to Ava. She seems flirtatious at times and Caleb struggles to work out how she operates.

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Ava and Caleb having a chat

Things become even more complicated when during a power cut Ava warns him not to trust Nathan.
Who can Caleb trust? The eccentric and slightly creepy Nathan or Ava, a machine? What secrets does the remote house contain, and was Caleb really a random winner or has his presence been engineered? And if it has, why?
This movie really blew me away, essentially a three hander (there is one other, mute character in the house) it boasts three amazing performances. Gleeson impresses as the nerdy Caleb who finds himself out of his depth and struggling with how to proceed. He’s our eyes into the world, and like the audience he’s constantly trying to work out what’s going on.
Alex Garland proves himself an accomplished director, shooting this in a cold, detached way which enhances the feeling of being on the outside and makes everything eerie and tense. His script is wonderfully minimal, with long silent stretches capturing the isolation, but the dialogue sparkles, with the tension and unease building nicely throughout.
As Ava, Vikander impresses playing the role with disconcerting calmness, but with occasional flashes of humour, flirtation and character which leaves the audience trying to figure out what she is. Are the emotions she shows real? Or is it just mimicry to trick and manipulate Caleb?
She keeps you guessing throughout, and the “what is humanity” and “can a robot feel” themes, sci-fi tropes are done well. You start wondering about Ava, and watching her closely for clues as to what’s going on under the surface and it’s to her credit that under this scrutiny Vikander’s performance holds up.
As the third lead Oscar Isaac is a powerhouse as the weird, enigmatic Nathan.

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Powerhouse- Isaac as Nathan

You find yourself questioning his motives and his initial weirdness transforms into something more menacing, but is this because of him or Ava’s accusations. Are we being influenced by her just as much as Caleb is?
The weirdness continues, and Isaac is an unsettling presence. It seems that Nathan may have lost it in his isolation, and he takes part in a weird, incredibly awkward dance sequence, which only enhances the audience’s confusion and the sense of weirdness.

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Awkwardness

A few plot developments I guessed early, but for the most part it keeps you guessing and is an engaging movie and the ending is powerful and well done. Garland should be applauded for crafting a solid science fiction piece and the three leads are amazing.
Verdict: A wonderfully done sci-fi movie that boasts three great central performances. It treads familiar genre ground, but in a mesmerising, engaging way. It keeps you thinking and wondering right until the end, and doesn’t disappoint. 8/10.
Any thoughts? You know what to do. BETEO.