25 December 2015

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens


"Luke Skywalker has vanished." No mention of taxes or blockades to be found anywhere. While not a significant sentence, those four little words signal that the prequels are a thing of the past, and a wave of relief washes over the faces of spectators in the dark auditorium. It's been thirty years since the events of Return of the Jedi, but the Rebels haven't had much time to rest. While the Empire vanished with the death of the Emperor, power seeks a vacuum, and the void is filled by The First Order and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).

The only whereabouts of Luke's location are inside a BB-8 droid that ends up in the possession of young Rey (Daisy Ridley). Rey yearns for more but is trapped living as a scavenger on the unforgiving desert landscape of Jakku. This droid tasked with finding a reclusive Jedi offers her new purpose. Sound familiar? References to the original trilogy are sprinkled heavily throughout the film, and while the consistent call-backs restrict The Force Awakens from breaking out in its own right, it fits in perfectly with what Star Wars serial structure. And, to be honest, after the plight of the prequel trilogy, some reminders of A New Hope can be forgiven.

The cyclical handoff from generation to generation has been an ever-present theme of Star Wars, The Force Awakens merely validates that the theme will be continued. The script, penned by Lawrence Kasdan and J.J. Abrams makes the events of the original trilogy a lived-in myth. A scene where Han tells Rey and Finn (John Boyega) that the force, Jedi, and the Rebellion were "all true" almost shouldn't have been in the trailer because letting that scene unfold for the first time in theatres would've been truly special. Harrison Ford, a man who clearly isn't the most reverential of Star Wars fans, gives perhaps his most energetic performance of the last decade.

Acting has never been a strong point of any Star Wars, yet this is only the second Star Wars film after Empire Strikes Back to be sold first and foremost on its acting. Audiences just met these new characters, but they already feel iconic. Oscar Isaac, Boyega and Ridley all have an absolute blast taking part in a global phenomenon, and that infectious energy just bleeds into every aspect of the picture. Yet Awakens isn't afraid to go to places that tug the heart either. As Rey extends a lightsaber to a hero reluctant to rejoin the battle, the pleading in her eyes almost breaks the audience. If that moment doesn't, then the look of fear and sorrow that follows definitely will.

Industrial Lights and Magic has been spread thin between the Marvel pictures and other work, but the ILM team spared no expense in creating the most photo-realistic CGI onscreen of the Star Wars saga. The thrilling aerial sequence where Rey and Finn pilot the Millennium Falcon to evade TIE fighters is maybe one of the best scenes 2015 has to offer. The camera follows the Falcon through every flip, dive and tight squeeze in a downed Imperial Destroyer. The escape doesn't drive the story, but it serves as a character building moment where Rey learns how to be a pilot and Finn hones his skills at the blaster.

For the first time in years, the mindset going in to the next Star Wars sequel isn't "Well, hopefully, the next one will be better." Viewers are actively anticipating the next chapter of the saga. The questions that lay unanswered at film's end are intriguing and watching where Rey, Ren and Finn will go next is an awesome prospect. 2017 might seem like it can't get here soon enough.

04 December 2015

Review: Macbeth


There have been countless adaptations of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet, but with the exception of Roman Polanski’s 1971 film, Macbeth has largely gone ignored by cinema. Justin Kurzel, fresh off the success of The Snowtown Murders, may have delivered the definitive take on the Scottish Thane. From the very beginning Kurzel marks that his vision will be different, as the film opens on the funeral of a small child, then transitions to bloody combat. Usually set on the stage, depictions of war in Macbeth are avoided because of budget constraints and available space–a shame considering how influential those scenes prove to be. The violence and trauma of the warring tribes and his child’s death sets the stage for Macbeth’s lust for power later in the film. Blood begets more blood.

In this beleaguered state of mind, a prophecy from three witches becomes the driving force behind his madness. Left with no heirs of his own and a fractured relationship with his own wife, the crown is the only possession that will give Macbeth solace. Murdering the king in cold blood in order to take the throne only makes sense for a man consumed by ambition. Most of the talk regarding Michael Fassbender has been about his excellent performance in Steve Jobs, and while that is a solid piece of acting, it pales in comparison to the mentally scarred Macbeth that Fassbender creates. The first half’s whispers of self-doubt turn into the paranoid ravings of a man who has lost his mind by the film’s end.

Not to be outdone by her co-star, Marion Cotillard’s Lady Macbeth is as conniving as her husband is unraveled. Left bitter about the death of her children, her cunning seduction of her husband to to end the bloodlines of his competitors is absolutely Machiavellian. Now, a Lady Macbeth that is only presently evil is uninteresting- however, Cotillard dabbles in the despair with just as much conviction. A lot of actresses might be exposed by an unbroken close-up, but Cotillard relishes the spotlight of the infamous “Out, damned spot!” scene.

If this sounds like it may be a tough watch, it is. Make no mistake, this is certainly the grimmest interpretation of the Scottish play, but a true artistic vision unencumbered by the need to make it for everyone is something to be celebrated in today’s film market. Justin Kurzel manages the difficult task of being having to be faithful to the source material, while also offering new insights into a character that’s been around for centuries. Too often directors adapting stage plays let the prestige of the material overwhelm them, and leave out any stylistic choices. While Kurzel does set the film in the Highlands (and goes as far to accurately research the tribal colors for the soldiers’ face paint and kilts) for authenticity, he resists that urge to go prim and proper in staging the story.

The director, along with cinematographer Adam Arkapaw, shoots the film in a deliberate horror style, utilizing yellows and grays to display the sickness inherent not only to the Lord and Lady Macbeth, but the hell present all around them. These are storytelling choices determined to set this Macbeth apart from the others, but none are as invigorating as the choice to paint the screen crimson for the finale.

Amidst a hugely talented ensemble (featuring David Thewlis, Paddy Considine, Sean Harris, and Elizabeth Debicki) Fassbender and Cotillard stand out for their lived-in performances. There is a long history of storied actors and actresses taking part in Shakespeare’s works, but the sheer intensity Fassbender and Cotillard deliver is unrivaled. Macbeth serves as a reminder that without all the frills of special effects and shared universes, great acting still mesmerizes audiences when given the chance. Don’t miss the chance to catch this in theatres.