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Star Wars: The Force Awakens

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Has any filmmaker borne such a brunt of expectation as J.J. Abrams has with Star Wars: The Force Awakens? Already a ticket-burning record setter, the film has been tagged as a possible eraser for the memories of George Lucas’ unfairly derided prequel trilogy, and also as a springboard for a whole host of new Star Wars films, and possibly even TV series too. Could any film really live up to that kind of hype and pressure? Unbelievably and joyfully, the answer to that is a resounding yes. And while Mad Max: Fury Road and Jurassic World proved that a dormant franchise could be effectively resuscitated and brilliantly reconfigured, both of those success stories came partially out of left field. With Star Wars: The Force Awakens, however, there is nowhere to hide. But with this gargantuan effort, J.J. Abrams will have no problem standing tall and in plain sight.

Beginning with that iconic expository scene-setting title crawl, Star Wars: The Force Awakens sends you back to that galaxy far, far away with jolting immediacy, describing a new galactic power structure, where The First Order has risen from the ashes of Darth Vader’s empire, and The Resistance still stands steadfast under the leadership of General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher). We then meet a trio of likeable and engaging new characters – cocky Resistance pilot, Poe (Oscar Isaac); runaway Stormtrooper, Finn (John Boyega); and young scavenger, Rey (Daisy Ridley) – before the show stopping arrival of Mount Rushmore-worthy cinematic icons, Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew). They have a menacing adversary in the form of masked Force practitioner, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and a missing touchstone in mythic Jedi fighter, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hammill).

After his successful reboot of Star Trek, Star Wars: The Force Awakens will make J.J. Abrams the most loved man in cinematic sci-fi. The Force is indeed strong with this one. Scripting with Lawrence Kasdan (who penned The Empire Strikes Back and Return Of The Jedi) from an original draft by Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3, Little Miss Sunshine), Abrams gets everything right here. The nods and winks to the beloved initial trilogy come thick and fast (there are Stormtrooper sight gags, a trash compactor mention, and visual echoes galore, along with a plot obviously templated by the original films), but they’re never laboured or gratuitous.

Everything in Star Wars: The Force Awakens is there to serve the story, whether it’s the appearance of treasured vintage characters, or the moments of genuine shock and surprise that punctuate the narrative. Though there is plenty here for the fans, they are never cheaply pandered to: seeing Han and Leia again is a true delight, but seeing them in the middle of a story to which they are key is even better. Their performances are full bodied and real too, with Ford once again channelling the charm and rebellious sass that made him famous in the first place. The film’s new stars – Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, and Adam Driver – match them at every turn (though Andy Serkis’ CGI string-pulling, monstrous bad guy is a little distracting), and provide great optimism for the franchise’s future. With its breakneck pacing; intelligent and measured reverence for the original films; punchy action sequences; and ambitious plotting, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a near perfect continuation of the most beloved movie franchise of all time.

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The old idiom goes that cleanliness is next to Godliness, and according to the stunning new film from writer/director, David O. Russell, the creation of The Miracle Mop should indeed qualify its inventor, Joy Mangano, for sainthood. A profoundly unusual rattling of the Christ story, Joy is the tale of a woman with a vision surrounded by fools and doubters, who – with the support of a small few – makes her vision a reality, scarring the halls of commerce along the way, and dispensing decency on her hero’s journey, while beset by temptation and delayed by lies. Punching it home one yard further, Joy actually has her vision for The Miracle Mop while staring at broken-wine-glass-inflicted “stigmata” on her hands. Even by the heady, uncompromised standards of David O. Russell – the director of such in-your-face belters as Three Kings, The Fighter, American Hustle, and Silver Linings Playbook – Joy is a big, bold, daring reach, but this eternally brave director grabs the brass ring with both hands, and doesn’t even think of letting go.

Joy Mangano (a fierce, funny, wonderfully controlled turn from the great Jennifer Lawrence) is a working class girl with an over-active brain and a facility for thinking up and making new things. But her big, messy, over-involved family – TV soap-addicted mother, Terry (Virginia Madsen); who is divorced from her blustery, bullish, big-mouthed father, Rudy (Robert De Niro); and her jealous, duplicitous, aggressive half-sister, Peggy (Elizabeth Rohm) – have always prevented Joy from taking a run at the big time. Like a human packhorse, she carries them all on her back, until she’s finally had enough, and risks it all on the creation of The Miracle Mop, a self-wringing wonder, and “the only mop that you’ll ever need.” In Joy’s corner are her sagely but nutty grandma, Mimi (Diane Ladd); her wannabe singer ex-husband, Tony (Edgar Ramirez); her childhood best friend, Jackie (Dascha Polanco); and Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper), a bigwig at the nascent home shopping cable network that provides a platform for Joy and her Miracle Mop, to the ultimate tune of millions. This, however, is no standard rags-to-riches story – Joy is far more strange, relatable, and inspiring than that.

With its mad and maddening familial unit hotly reminiscent of those in Russell’s The Fighter and Silver Linings Playbook, Joy shows in no uncertain terms that family ties can potentially slowly strangle the life out of anyone, but the film’s heroine – and make no mistake, Joy is every inch as admirable (though far shabbier) as any hero played by James Stewart, Gregory Peck, or Tom Hanks – is a shining beacon to the power of rising above and, cough, following your dreams. Yes, it might sound corny on paper, but David O. Russell sucks all of the potential sentimentality out of the film, and replaces it with warped humour and earthy honesty. Joy Mangano might be a pillar of virtue, but her marble comes with scuff marks and scratches. The wildly entertaining Joy has the same kind of restless spirit as all of Russell’s previous films, complete with swirling camera work, a time jumping narrative, and jittery editing. And once again, he teams with Jennifer Lawrence (and other essential cast members) to devastating effect, with the performances flighty but grounded, and across-the-board brilliant. Devoid of special effects, but supercharged through the wit of its writing, the richness of its characterisation, and the evangelical profundity of its subtext, this film about one truly amazing woman rates as an eye-popping, breathtaking achievement. All bow before Saint Joy.

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Spooks: The Greater Good

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Spooks: The Greater Good, picking up where David Wolstencroft’s acclaimed TV series left off, fits comfortably between James Bond and Ethan Hunt – aptly balancing straight-edged surveillance drama and light-hearted thrills.

Spooks: The Greater Good kicks off with your typical convoy-attack sequence within London’s CBD. A small terrorist cell attacks the MI-5 unit, freeing apprehended leader, Adem Qasim (Elyes Gabel). The disaster shakes MI-5’s foundations, making the British Government, press, and fellow agencies question its purpose. Counter-terrorism department head, Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), soon disappears, further fraying relations between American and British intelligence. Pearce, investigating Qasim’s movements, believes that a top MI5 official seeks to destroy the agency from the inside. Enter decommissioned agent, Will Holloway (Kit Harington), to track Pearce throughout Europe.

The production resembles a two-part miniseries/ spin-off of the Spooks series. There is also little separating the plot from that of the Bourne or Mission: Impossible entries – checking off everything from double crosses, to a lead character on the run scenario, to a strained mentor/protégé dynamic. Director, Bharat Nalluri, working from Jonathan Brackley and Sam Vincent’s screenplay, knows how to up the ante. Aware of the original’s appeal, Nalluri delivers multiple foot chases and gun fights. Fittingly, its focus on tech-driven, nose-to-thegrindstone surveillance highlights the franchise’s immense scope. Teaming up with returning Spooks cast members, newcomers, Kit Harington and Jennifer Ehle, match the series’ whip-smart, assertive attitude. Spooks: The Greater Good, though nothing entirely new, is a pacy, well-crafted spy-thriller that certainly matches the competition.

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In The Heart Of The Sea

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Actor turned director Ron Howard has made a lot of films now and they have been very different sorts of films too (Rush, Frost/Nixon, A Beautiful Mind). However, he always brings a sure hand and, like his contemporary, Spielberg, knows how to pace a long film without it seeming to drag.

This is an historical seafaring drama. In the early part of the 19th Century Herman Melville (Ben Whishaw) is not yet an established writer. He fears that he will never be great but when he finds a tale of seafaring heroism he heads to the New England whaling community to do research. There he finds a morose old sailor called Thomas Nickerson (Brendan Gleeson). As a mere cabin boy Thom was aboard the whaling ship, The Essex and, during the course of a long night, he reluctantly recalls all the terrible adventures that befell them hunting a giant sperm whale (said whale would of course become fictionalised/immortalised as Moby Dick).

We soon learn that the expedition was marred by the clash between its two protagonists. George Pollard (Benjamin Walker) is high born but he doesn’t really have the substance to be a Captain. The effective captain is the seasoned whaler Owen Chase (Chris Hemsworth) who feels he deserves promotion on merit. From the start the atmosphere is tense but in the course of the long voyage even greater trials await them.

Most of the film takes place on board so it is all heaving and swaying. All this is well done and, now with special effects, you can create not only perfectly realised storm sequences but eye-popping visuals such as a huge whale the size of three boats. The film is also in 3D which can be a mixed blessing. Fortunately, Ron Howard resists the temptation to have too many objects flying off the screen but there are a couple of harpooning sequences that will have you involuntarily ducking in your seat. It’s not a shaggy dog story incidentally. The almost mythic gargantuan whale exists and we get to see it in all its CGI glory. It is a PG-level film for teens and up. What the film lacks in terms of Melville’s thunderous exposition of human frailty and obsession it makes up for in rollicking entertainment.

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High school student Lawrence (John Luc) goes from class cheat to professional swindler in this Australian take on the classic con movie.

Having been thrown out of school, he meets ‘The Professor’ (Timothy Spall) when his soon to be tutor turns up at his uncle’s chess club and takes all the players for fools in Sucker’s most entertaining scene, to which the rest of the film never lives up.

Soon he joins The Professor and his daughter Sarah (Lily Sullivan) on the road, pulling nickel and dime jobs, some entertaining but nothing as creative or fulfilling as the tricks pulled by both Lawrence and The Professor in the film’s opening sequences.

The latest in a long line of con films, Sucker, like this year’s Focus, just can’t decide what it wants to be; its enjoyable confidence machinations often playing second-fiddle to a less than interesting love story. Flip-flopping in style and tone throughout the film, there is a completely incongruous scene where the characters take us on a visual journey of card tricks in centuries past, while the film’s opening and closing monologues, a technique also used in Inside Man, were an ill-advised tool much better integrated into Spike Lee’s heist thriller.

Timothy Spall delivers a satisfying if ill-conceived performance. His con-man is gruff and mysterious but barely charismatic, holding us by sheer virtue of his competence as an actor who along with Jacek Koman as Sucker’s villain come off the best from this flick.

The potential foreshadowed in the film’s opening moments not panning out, Sucker errs by not spending enough screen-time devising and carrying off creative cons; instead, it invests too much in sub-stories that are never fleshed out, nor as engrossing as the cons these promising characters could have pulled off.

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Berlin, 1945, and Nina Hoss (Nelly Lenz) emerges from the horror of German concentration camps with her face grievously disfigured.  A genius surgeon restores her features, and she sets off to find the husband who believes she is dead and who may have betrayed her to the Nazis. Johnny, the said husband (Ronald Zehrfeld), stumbles on Nina in the Phoenix nightclub, and struck by her uncanny resemblance to his dead wife, he hatches a scheme: if Nina will pretend to be his wife, alive and returned, they can collect the recompense money owed her and split it down the middle. The scheme set in motion, they incrementally begin to learn the truer nature of one another’s identities.

Phoenix is an understated film with an intriguing synopsis that belies the ordinariness of its actuality. The problem is that it relies on holocaust signifiers to automate a meaningfulness which is otherwise absent. Instead it falls back on the reverence of the viewer to deviate attention from its own tepidness, glacial pace, and borderline ridiculousness: that Johnny is so incapable of recognising his own wife, or that immediately released from a concentration camp she undergoes world-class surgery and commits to playing the ingénue are both facets which require accentuated degrees of belief suspension.

This would be less problematic were Phoenix an unabashed potboiler, but its earnestness, however well-meaning, suggests only serious-holocaust-drama.  In other words, it trips itself up by being squarely neorealist on one hand, and imposing Hitchcockian artifice on the other, so that it fails to work as either because its narrative artifice and its sombre realism are incompatible. What redeems Phoenix somewhat is that the performances are moving enough to preclude the environment that situates them, although that same talent also means this is even more a missed opportunity.

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By The Sea

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Brad Pitt plays Roland, a boozy, Hemingway-esque writer who spends his time in bars talking up his own misery and getting nothing done. Vanessa (Angelina Jolie-Pitt) spends her time lounging around their hotel room, made up like a garish China doll doped on wine and Quaaludes. She spurns the advances of her husband and takes to watching the newlyweds next-door copulate through a pipe hole in the wall. When Roland begins to watch as well, she takes to courting the couple and makes active attempts to sabotage their marriage by imposing on them elements of her own neuroses.

Set in lush coastal France, Jolie-Pitt’s third film behind the camera is an unabashed homage to 1960s & ‘70s European art-cinema, filled with extended moments of silence and brooding marital malaise. Given his songs on the soundtrack and the voyeuristic nature of the material, By the Sea is somewhat reminiscent of Serge Gainsbourg’s directorial vanity project, even if Antonioni was more of an aspiration. Unfortunately, By the Sea is less L’Avventura than it is Je t’aime moi non plus, or for that matter, Swept Away.

Part of the reason, albeit inadvertent, is that Pitt and Jolie struggle as Roland and Vanessa to overcome the magnitude of their own celebrity. The impression of Brad and Angelina playing charades is often difficult to suppress, especially when Jolie-Pitt as a screenwriter, who underwent a very public hysterectomy, confuses fiction by playing a woman gone to pieces because she is reproductively barren.

That aside, the dialogue – from the Eyes Wide Shut school of subtlety – is ham fisted, and at over two hours, the film runs far longer than it merits, given how very little happens and how repetitive it gets. More positively, the cinematography is gorgeous, and it may indeed be the setting that makes this beguiling to watch in spite of itself. As a filmmaker, Jolie-Pitt is competent, but her judgement is confounded. By the Sea is a fascinating mess.

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Creed should be a disaster. The seventh (!) Rocky film in the wildly patchy, almost-40-year-old series sounds like a cynical cash grab: Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) is the son of famous boxer, Apollo (Carl Weathers from Rocky IIV), and wants to prove his might in the ring, but on his own terms. Adonis has a massive chip on his shoulder, mainly about the fact that he is the product of Apollo’s extramarital affair, and refuses to use his famous father’s name. He does, however, want to be trained by the best and Rocky Balboa, now very retired and living a quiet life in Philadelphia, fits the bill.

In lesser hands Creed could have been a tepid soft reboot, endemic of everything wrong with current blockbuster filmmaking. The fact that it’s one of the better films of 2015 is due to the exceptional team of director, Ryan Coogler and actor, Michael B. Jordan. The pair previously collaborated in Coogler’s critically lauded Fruitvale Station and their stellar work continues here. Jordan manages to make Adonis a character with depth, petulant and violent, but also surprisingly soulful and genuinely passionate about boxing. Coogler’s roaming camera showcases Jordan’s impressive physicality, with exciting, kinetic sequences like a midpoint boxing match shot in one electrifying take.

That’s not to take away from Sylvester Stallone, who gives an understated performance, rich with pathos, but the fact that this is the first Rocky film without “Rocky” in the title is telling. Sly knows to get out of rising star Jordan’s way and in doing so gives us his best work in years.

Creed is, ultimately a simple story. If you’ve seen Rocky films, or other boxing movies, you can predict the basic beats. Yes, there will be a training montage and a stirring speech and various setbacks along the way. However, Creed manages to rise above its well-worn premise and deliver a film that is at once stylish, engaging and ultimately moving. In a series whose low point hadRocky punch the shit out of Soviet Russia, that’s a profoundly unexpected and deeply impressive feat.