jj abrams

Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Contains spoilers, although hopefully not the really big ones.

force-0With the Christmas and New Year revels behind us, this week I finally managed to haul myself to the cinema and see the latest instalment of the Star Wars saga. Miracle of miracles, despite the fact that Episode VII: The Force Awakens has been on release for three weeks now, I had somehow successfully managed to avoid even a whisper of any significant spoilers in the meantime – a feat that might well end up ranking as my most successful accomplishment of the year! – and I was duly rewarded with a completely unsullied viewing experience despite my tardiness.

Rather than play games and withhold my verdict to the end of this review, let’s start with the conclusion: this is a really enjoyable film. Exciting, emotional, funny and thoroughly entertaining, it barely pauses to draw breath even once during its 135 minute running time. The Force Awakens manages to recapture almost all the magic of the original trilogy while purging all that went wrong in the prequels.

I’m confident in saying that it’s almost certainly the best Star Wars film that anyone could possibly have made in 2015. Many congratulations to director JJ Abrams for managing to both keep the same feel of the 1977 original film while at the same time bringing a thoroughly 21st century updating to the pacing, look and feel, stunts and FX. That is one incredibly tough balancing act to accomplish – actually almost impossible, I would have thought – and he’s achieved it with aplomb.

So all these things considered therefore, I have no hesitation in proclaiming Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens to be a very robust … four star movie. Read the rest of this entry »

Star Trek Into Darkness (2013)

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These days I strictly ration my visits to the cinema, with the exception of two franchises that will immediately override the austerity lockout: one is the James Bond series, and the other consists of the Star Trek films. Currently the tally of each stands at 13 for the former up to last year’s Skyfall (or 14 if you include Never Say Never Again, which of course I don’t) while Star Trek Into Darkness marks the 12th film of the science fiction series that I’ll have dutifully trotted out to see during its initial theatrical run.

trek1Let’s cut through the suspense and deliver the bottom line: is it any good? The answer is yes, very. If you love the 2009 JJ Abrams-helmed reboot (see my contemporary review here) then you’re almost guaranteed to love this follow-up since it contains all the elements that made the first film so successful, including the jaw-dropping spectacular visuals, non-stop adrenalin-rush thrills, the jittery camerawork and jump zooms and of course the lens flare that slathers every shot to the point of self-parody. Of course if you were among that group that felt the first film made a travesty of the original spirit of the Star Trek series then none of this is going to do anything to persuade you to the contrary this time, either. And I confess, I had at least one foot in that camp and wasn’t as utterly thrilled with Abrams’ first outing as many people were as a result. Read the rest of this entry »

ArchiveView: Star Trek (2009)

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Ahead of seeing Star Trek Into Darkness, here’s a review of the first JJ Abrams that I wrote on its original release in May 2009 and reproduced from the general topic blog that I had at the time …

The new Star Trek movie is a great piece of entertainment and easily one of the best action movies of the year. As a relaunch of the Trek franchise, it’s an outstanding success. But for all that, don’t believe the hype – it’s good, but it’s just not great.

Viewed as an attempt to reboot, revive and recast a moribund franchise, it’s an unqualified success. While remaining true to the underlying Trek ethos, the film manages to be fast, funny and action-packed where the old series and movies could be slow, ponderous and preachy. Yet despite any carping from die hard fans, the film is remarkably true to Gene Roddenberry’s vision of an optimistic, altruistic and inspirational future. And despite the misgivings of many a fan, myself included, the recasting of iconic roles is almost without exception a collection of huge successes.

Zachary Quinto, for example – so great in Heroes, where he plays arch villain Sylar with an intelligence, subtlety and an outrageous amount of scene stealing that he’s almost the only reason for watching that show any more – is beyond perfect as Spock. He is both convincingly a young version of Leonard Nimoy’s character, and yet his own man as well, much more expressive, on edge and volatile than the refined and dignified Nimoy. He’s so good that you almost believe that this film and the entire Trek reboot has been sitting on its hands for seven years since the previous film just waiting for Quinto to be ready to accept the role. Read the rest of this entry »

Revolution S1 E1 (Sky One)

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There’s bad news and there’s good news about Sky One’s new tentpole science fiction series from the JJ Abrams stable, Revolution. The bad news is that it’s not very good at all and is only borderline watchable. The good news is that it’s not actually dire: just very, very disappointing.

Credit where its due, it has a great initial concept – what if all electrical power on earth suddenly stopped working? And it kicks that off with an effective first five minutes showing the lights go out all over the planet, including planes dropping from the sky. Visually this part looks great, and indeed the FX of the post-power landscapes are also genuinely eye-popping. Unfortunately all of this good stuff has already been shown in the incessant trailers for the series that have pervaded every ad break on Sky over the last month. Read the rest of this entry »

Person of Interest S1 E1-5/The Glades S1 E1

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Probably the most heralded recent new show from the US is Person of Interest, which started airing on Channel 5 a few weeks ago. With its pedigree of executive producer JJ Abrams and creator Jonathan Nolan (scribe of The Dark Knight), the premise sounded very promising: a supercomputer with access to Bourne-level surveillance technology predicts future crimes akin to Minority Report. It’s been a big hit in the States and I was looking forward to it airing here’ but I confess, it’s left me cold. Mainly that’s because the story of the week is usually fairly dull and uninteresting, and which require the protagonists to be seemingly wilfully blinkered as to the alternative interpretations of the supercomputer’s predictions in order to fit in the inevitable ‘twist.’ It’s all very dynamic and fast-moving, but also repetitive. It does nothing with the Bourne/Minority Report premise. The lead character is John Reese, and while Jim Caviezel is fine in the tall, dark and moody role as he spies intensely on this week’s subject and says his lines with a Batman-style gravelly rumble, I can’t say that I find him an interesting character. That’s despite the Lost-style flashbacks to his past which will doubtless be the series’ arc leading to some currently untapped development in the show. Far more interesting is Michael Emerson as the mysterious, quirky billionaire behind the project, but then Emerson always was one of the best things about the aforementioned Lost.

By contrast to the fanfare surrounding Person of Interest, while I’d heard of the A&E show The Glades I figured that we’d never get to see it in the UK as it sounded too vapid a show to bother brining over. But digital channel Alibi have a habit of picking up the cable channel programmes that the main broadcasters pass by (hence their expanding line-up which includes such shows as Rizzoli and Isles, Body of Proof, Murdoch Mysteries and Republic of Doyle.) In the case of this latest addition to the channel’s line-up, the protagonist is an ex-Chicago cop relocated to the laid-back Everglades who just wants a quiet time so that he can concentrate on improving his golf swing and chatting up the girls. As opposed to the usual obsessive/angst-ridden cops we get in cop shows (c.f. A Touch of Cloth), lead character Jim Longworth seems pretty disinterested in expending the effort to solve the case and is rather haphazard when he does investigate – but of course there’s method in his madness, and he gets his man at the end. The difference with Person of Interest is that the underlying case in the pilot episode, while simple, has enough twists and false leads and some interesting guest characters to make it appealing and engrossing, and which kept the surprise whodunnit reveal from being too obvious until the end. Moreover, when the answer came, you cared about who it was – in direct contrast to Person of Interest where you’re just pleased it’s done with.

Much depends on whether you find The Glades’ central character played by Australian actor Matt Passmore to be charming and appealing, or insufferably smug. I had my own answer when I realised I’d been watching the pilot show with a big smile plastered on my face for the last ten minutes. I simply enjoyed watching it, and hope that it keeps its sense of fun as the series beds in and doesn’t get tempted to get too deep, dark and meaningful. By contrast, with Person of Interest I found the latest episode was stored on my DVR for days before I finally got around to watching it, and while this week’s was one of the better outings (a money laundering gang kidnap a judge’s son for blackmail purposes) it still felt too much like a chore than it should have done.

Life’s too short. I think I’ll take the series that leaves me with a dumb smile on my face rather than one that feels like a duty to stick with.

Person of Interest and The Glades both premier new episodes on Tuesdays at 9pm on Channel 5 and Alibi respectively. Persons of Interest is due out on DVD on January 17 2013.

Super 8 (2011) [Blu-ray]

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Okay, that’s quite enough Christmas fare for one year I reckon. Although perhaps we haven’t moved too far away from the general feel of the time of year by going on to review Super 8, a film about families and childhood and overcoming painful loss. Oh, and a massive great alien monster, too.

Super 8 is a film that evokes instant nostalgia: it revives the spirit of the greatest films of my own personal childhood, and specifically those early films of Super 8′s producer Steven Spielberg. It’s hard not to have ET: The Extraterrestrial, Close Encounters of the Third Kind and The Goonies in mind as one watches this film, as well as the finest of Stephen King’s novels set in small-town Maine (It comes particularly to mind, especially toward the end with scenes of the monster in its den) and even the films of Rob Reiner such as Stand By Me in terms of the story of boys growing into young men.

Specifically it’s the way the film recreates and evokes what it’s like to live a normal suburban childhood in “The Most Normal Town In The World Where Nothing Happens” (TM). Most of the film is told through the eyes of a group of kids who are working together on making a no-budget horror movie of their own. The Super 8 of the title refers to the old film-based cameras they’re using, and it takes a little while to realise that Super 8 is not set in some unspecified “anytime” but is instead firmly anchored around 1979, as a mid-story reference to newfangled portable music players called “Walkmans” makes clear along with the evocative soundtrack comprising of hits of the period. In other words, the homage that Super 8 is paying to its Spielbergian antecedents is complete right down to its period setting.

At this point it becomes very hard for me to give an objective review of this film: it’s reviving so many of the sights and sounds (both cinematic and real life) from my own childhood, and the kids here are so close the age I myself was in 1979, that it’s a powerfully accomplished nostalgic syrup from which it’s impossible for me to extract myself and find an objective stance. As far as I’m concerned, this is pretty much how every film should be: a film more focussed on creating a believable atmosphere and authentic setting, of bringing its characters to life and making the real life anxieties and concerns of those characters the real focus of what happens rather than just been an exercise to demonstrate the latest CGI breakthroughs – as we get these days in the latest instalment of the Transformers or Pirates of the Caribbean franchises.

The film takes its time establishing its small town location and the inhabitants thereof. And it also takes a long time to allow the science fiction alien/monster element to build as well, a top-notch demonstration of effective tension building worthy of the masters (i.e. Spielberg again, and also Alfred Hitchcock.) As far as I’m concerned this is time well spent, but I can understand that modern audiences are used to far faster story development and more instant gratification, and I wouldn’t be surprised if many now found this to be a rather slow-paced and possibly even dull film for its first half – perhaps that’s why it didn’t seem to make nearly enough of an impression at the box office when it was on general release earlier in the year. But let me make it quite clear: any modern audience that thinks this way is profoundly wrong, and they should immediately sue Michael Bay, Gore Verbinski, Stephen Sommers et al for the grievous harm inflicted on their artistic sensibilities and for the damaged childhoods that have left them tragically impervious to quality cinematic wonder.

Later on mayhem does break out to sate the modern viewing taste, and it all starts to become a little Cloverfield-ish. But by then it’s earned this freedom because of the amount we have invested in the totally truthful characters who have been wonderfully brought to life by an outstanding young cast who really do feel like a group that have been friends since infants school. Joel Courtney as the lead character Joe Lamb doesn’t make a single misstep in the entire film and is captivating in every frame, despite playing a really quite complex character who is required to develop believably from the introverted grief-stricken boy we meet at the start, to the bravest leader of the gang who has discovered not just his first love but also the courage to let go of his earlier grief in order to start to live again. Elle Fanning (younger sister of Spielberg’s War of the Worlds star Dakota – another film somewhat referenced at times by Super 8) is also terrific as Alice, and her early display of in-film acting talent it both believably raw (so as to be clearly acting) and yet sufficiently glowing to make it easy for us to understand why the rest of the gang of boys instantly fall in love with her on the spot.

Adult stars are thinner on the ground, but Kyle Chandler does a huge amount conveying depth and detailed to a not particularly large role as Joe’s father; Ron Eldard is peculiarly heart-breaking as Alice’s guilt-ridden failure of a single father; and Noah Emmerich gives sufficient nuance to the role of Nelec to avoid him becoming too much of a pantomime villain.

Beware the audio track volume levels, however. The earliest scenes are set just after a funeral and everyone is speaking in hushed tones; the soundtrack continues in that vein for a while and you’ll be tempted to crank up the sounds, but whatever you do make sure you have the remote to hand when it comes to the train station or you (and your long suffering neighbours) will be rocked by the explosion of sound that follows. It’s a really lively, state of the art sound mix which conveys suspense and atmosphere as much through the use of implied audio effects as anything actually on screen, and the Dolby TrueHD 7.1 is stunningly good at bringing this out.

The film looks wonderful throughout. Abrams manages to bring out the beauty even of a nondescript backwater hick town in the middle of nowhere, lost in heartland USA. Rundown houses, struggling factories, peeling paint on wooden doors and sagging chainlink fences all acquire an appealing polished veneer under Abram’s eye, with a lovely mix of shadows and colours playing over every scene, nicely captured by the immaculate high-def transfer on Blu-ray. The effects are seamlessly integrated – not a single image feels false or overtly CGI’d, although the monster when finally revealed is rather disappointingly generic – and the main train sequence is stunningly conceived and executed to take your breath away, coming as it does more or less out of the blue compared with what’s gone before.

One thing, though: Abrams really needs to do something about that lens flare gimmick. Originally it was stylish, audacious and new; then it came a little too easy to mock by being self-referential and clichéd. Now it’s just irritating, self-parody and distracting. Abrams is far too good to need such little tricks, and now his film-making has grown up to such an extent as evidenced here, he can surely put away his lens flare filter for good.

(Also check out the cinema review of the film over at Generation Star Wars.)