Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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DIR: J.J. Abrams • WRI: Lawrence Kasdan, J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt • PRO: J.J. Abrams, Bryan Burk, Kathleen Kennedy, Tommy Gormley, Lawrence Kasdan • DOP: Dan Mindel • ED: Maryann Brandon, Mary Jo Markey • MUS: John Williams • CAST: Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Issac

We’ve been seeing the Disney machine pumping out every kind of Star Wars merchandise for months but now at last we can see the film. The first thing you’ll be wanting to know is is this: it is not another Phantom Menace.

The Force Awakens is a very good film with an excellent storyline and plenty of action. It starts some years after the events of Return of the Jedi and sees the old heroes from that hooking up with a new band from the next  generation. The light side of the force is threatened again. There is a new power growing  on the dark side. There is another compelling father-son storyline.

The new stars to the series all play good characters. Daisy Ridley plays Rey, who is living a subsistence lifestyle on a desert planet when events catapult her into the fight for the Galaxy. John Boyega plays Finn, a Stormtrooper who can’t stand his evil job any longer. Adam Driver is Kylo Ren, the new apprentice to the dark side and he is eager to fill Darth Vader’s shoes.

The Force Awakens was always going to make millions upon millions from ticket sales and merchandise but thankfully they made sure to get the story right. If they had messed up this time like they did with the prequels, the series may never have recovered. It pays homage to the original in parts while creating its own memorable moments. It has another massive Star Wars twist and a heart-breaking moment which will cause gasps and that I’m not sure some fans will ever recover from.

Harrison Ford returns as an aged but still inscrutable Han Solo. This time around he plays a father figure to the younger characters guiding them through battle and he slides into this role well. The film also stars the always good Oscar Issac as a pilot fighting against the Darkside. Although this isn’t the biggest role in the film, he plays it well and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see his character play more of a part in the remaining two films of the trilogy.

Boyega is endearing in the role of Finn. He is funny and has a deer in the headlights look for some time before growing in courage through the film as he continues to annoy those he once worked for. If it weren’t for the new robot BB8, he’d be the most likeable character in the film.

If R2D2 and a football had a baby, it’d be BB8. It’s hard to say anything steals the show in The Force Awakens, but BB8 comes closest. His beeps and mannerisms will have audiences laughing out loud all over the world and he will quickly become a beloved Star Wars icon. The familiar favourites of Chewbacca, C3P0 and R2D2 all return.

One of the criticisms of the prequels was that they were boring with long sequences of dialogue that didn’t add much to the plot. The Force Awakens avoids this. Nobody wants Star Wars to be just another CGI film with nothing much to it but animations blowing up. But the series is also called Star Wars. You want lasers flying, lightsabers smashing into each other and spaceships crashing into bigger spaceships. You get plenty of it.

At the end of the film major events have happened, heroes have been made or are on their way to being made, hatreds have been deepened and it’s set up well to continue for another two films. Bring on 2017 and the second instalment.

Colm Quinn

12A
135 minutes (See IFCO for details)

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is released 18th December 2015


Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Official Website

 

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What If

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DIR: Michael Dowse • WRI: Elan Mastai • PRO: David Gross, Macdara Kelleher, Marc Stephenson • ED: Yvann Thibaudeau  • DOP: Rogier Stoffers •  Cast: Daniel Radcliffe, Zoe Kazan, Adam Driver, Mackenzie Davis, Rafe Spall, Megan Park

 


What If
is a title just as suggestive and open to interpretation, if in a somewhat different register, as the original name for this film, The F Word. While the latter, former title hints at the raunchy humour that cuts through its sweetness, like the bacon in a Fool’s Gold Loaf sandwich, What If suggests the longing, romantic potential of unrealised desire which motivates the film’s leads.

What If you met a woman with whom you have an instant, mutual attraction but she is already in a happy, long-term relationship? This is a situation which Wallace (Radcliffe), a somewhat morose medical-school drop-out with trust issues, initially views as a dilemma after he clicks with the shy, betrothed animator Chantry (Kazan) at a party.  After she rightly calls him out on not wanting to be friends because she has a boyfriend (Spall), the two embark on a fun-filled and engaging platonic friendship, frequently tested by increasingly ludicrous situations (two of which involve partial nudity), Chantry’s boyfriend’s relocation from Canada to Ireland, and their growing emotional connection.

Comparisons to (500) Days of Summer have been rife, and it’s easy to see why – the films share a quirky sensibility, a former child actor and indie darling as its stars, and forego some of the traditional beats and expectations of the genre. What If also manages the sadly rare feat of being a romantic comedy that is both convincingly romantic and actually funny.

With the central concern of the film’s plot  – can men and women be friends? – so reminiscent of a certain Rob Reiner comedy, and the frequently unlikely sources of deadpan humour, this could just have been When Harry (Potter) Met Sally, 2.0. What If, however, gives us slightly younger leads and takes some risks with its storytelling to make us second-guess the generically foregone conclusion. For example, the temptation to make Chantry’s boyfriend Ben a boring, careless loser we root for her to lose to be with Wallace is avoided. Instead, he is successful, intelligent, handsome, and a largely reasonable fella – complicating the rom-com route from A to B a little more than usual. Similarly, the intense parallel relationship of Allan (Driver) and Nicole (Davis) is another that has a less-than-fairytale structure, which makes it all the more interesting to watch its rapid development.

Occasionally, the film’s quirkiness is a bit cloying: Its animated interludes, non-sequitur in-jokes and hallucinated sequences are somewhat hit and miss. Similarly, the increasingly contrived situations ‘testing’ Wallace and Chandry’s friendship do detract from the naturalistic scenes where they just casually hang out and have believable, if earnest, conversations – scenes fizzing with good humour due to Kazan and Radcliffe’s effervescent chemistry.

The performances carry this film even through its weak points – these two light each other up, and the ultimate emotional denouement between the two is a really moving moment.  Kazan fleshes out her dithery character as a somewhat overwhelmed young woman with a lot of choices and potential, making her decisions or lack of decisions understandable and relatable. It’s great to see Radcliffe not only coming on as a talented comedic actor, but in a contemporary setting for once, even if the larger-than-life rising star Adam Driver, at 6 ft. 3, overshadows him both figuratively and literally as his flatmate. The unlikely presence of gawky Girls star Driver as a brash alpha-male actually sums up the type of romantic comedy What If is trying to be and what films in this recently weak, uncertain genre need to do to succeed – challenge expectations, balance romance and comedy, and have a deep bench of supporting players. Of these supporting players, as aforementioned, Rafe Spall makes for a winning spanner in the works; while Megan Park as Chantry’s sister Dalia, eschews the ditzy blonde stereotype she initially appears to fill in favour of quick, well-timed comedic relief; and Jemima Rooper, in a brief appearance as Wallace’s sister Ellie, has an impressively high laughs-to-screen-time ratio.

What If asks if we think these kinds of relationships can ever work, and is surprisingly mature in presenting its answers, even if the conclusion does feel a little neater than the sum of its parts and the complex, grey, follow-up questions.
What If your best friend is the love of your life? What If you went to see this smart, quirky and emotionally-engaging film, with sparkling lead performances, to find out?

 

Stacy Grouden

15A (See  IFCO for details)

101 minutes

What If is released 22nd August 

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Cinema Review: Tracks

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DIR: John Curran  WRI: Marion Nelson  PRO: Iain Canning, Emile Sherman  DOP: Mandy Walker  DES: Melinda Doring  Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Adam Driver, Emma Booth, Jessica Tovey, Melanie Zanetti

 

Since taking on the title role in Tim Burton’s long-awaited adaptation of Alice In Wonderland four years ago, Australian starlet Mia Wasikowska has seen her stock rising considerably with each passing performance. A noted ballet dancer in her youth, the Canberra native had previously featured alongside Gabriel Byrne in the critically acclaimed HBO series In Treatment, and could also be seen opposite Daniel Craig and future co-star Jamie Bell in Edward Zwick’s Defiance.

 

It was the coveted role of Alice Kingsleigh that truly put her on the Hollywood map, however, and although Burton’s CG-heavy re-telling of Lewis Carroll’s fantasy novel wasn’t necessarily the ideal scenario for her to display her acting chops, subsequent parts in The Kids Are All Right, Jane Eyre, Lawless and Stoker have shown that she can hold her own in A-list company.

 

She was also seen recently in the Jesse Eisenberg vehicle The Double, but in bringing Robyn Davidson’s award-winning book, Tracks, to the big screen, American filmmaker John Curran has opted to give Wasikowska centre stage. Girls star Adam Driver (whose silver screen credits include Lincoln, Frances Ha and Inside Llewyn Davis) does offer dependable support, but for much of the film’s running time, the 24-year-old is sharing the screen with four camels and her faithful dog.

 

Curran’s fifth feature film depicts a remarkable nine-month period in Davidson’s life, when she embarked on a 1,700 mile journey from Alice Springs to the Indian Ocean across the vast terrain of the Australian deserts. Having worked with camels for two years in Australia’s Northern Territory, Davidson finally began her arduous journey in 1977, with all her trials and tribulations captured by Driver’s inquisitive photographer Rick Smolan.

 

Davidson was originally reluctant to chronicle her adventures, but after recognising the sponsorship benefits that are available, she eventually decides to write an article for the famed National Geographic Magazine. Tracks was later spawned from this immensely popular piece, and was given the inaugural Thomas Cook Travel Book Award in 1980.

 

The importance that was attached to Davidson’s story inevitably attracted interest from the film industry, and in the years that followed the book’s release, Julia Roberts and Nicole Kidman (Wasikowska’s Stoker colleague) were linked to the lead role. Indeed, development on a potential movie adaptation started before Wasikowska was born, but for a variety of reasons, it has taken more than three decades for its arrival into multiplexes.

 

While the passing of time has perhaps made it difficult for the film to have the same relevance to a modern-day audience, the response at a variety of film festivals (including the Jameson Dublin International Film Festival) has made it a worthwhile venture.

 

In a physically demanding role, Wasikowska is in terrific form, and perfectly embodies the spirit that helped to make Davidson an enduring figure in her native country. She experiences an array of emotions during her expedition, but while there are times that she considers bringing her trek to an abrupt halt, she is ultimately determined to achieve her goal.

 

Whereas films of this nature normally focus on a singular journey, it is actually the people that Davidson encounters en route to her final destination that give us a true glimpse into the heart of the story. The inhabitants of Australia’s outback certainly have an impact on her journey, and force her to emerge even further from her comfort zone.

 

The most significant relationship of the film is undoubtedly the one between Davidson and Smolan, which is initially quite distant (Davidson views Smolan as both a nuisance and a distraction), but later becomes much more intimate. It takes a while for Davidson to fully realise how important Smolan is to her voyage of discovery, but the arrival of a more intrusive media presence shows us how sincere his motives are.

 

As with any film that aims to capture the Australian landscape (and it is a scenery that has been featured in a whole host of genres), Tracks has a very strong aesthetic, and in the capable hands of cinematographer Mandy Walker, it is beautifully realised.

 

The career of Curran as a film director has been erratic up to this point, and while he was lauded for his 2006 version of W. Somerset Maugham’s The Painted Veil, he was accused of self-indulgence in his sophomore feature, We Don’t Live Here Anymore. His most recent film was 2010’s Stone, which was a major box-office disappointment despite the presence of Robert De Niro and Edward Norton, and he will hope that Tracks will have a bigger reach in his home nation when it enjoys a general release in late May.

 

He has certainly done everything in his power to make the story accessible, and though some may feel that it falls into repetition at times, and allows its plot to meander, there is more than enough to keep cinemagoers onside. An autumn release may well have given it more sleeper potential, but it will pass through cinemas before the congested summer schedule, which can only benefit the film’s prospects in the long run.

Daire Walsh

12A (See IFCO for details)
112 mins

Tracks is released on 25th April 2014

Tracks – Official Website

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