My top 5 blockbusters of the year

This time last year I did a list of my favourite films of 2014. I’ve decided to make that a tradition of that but with a tweek: I’m going to do two lists. I find blockbusters hard to compare with arthouse and indie films. So I’m doing a separate countdown for each.*My list of favourite smaller films will be along shortly but to start here are my top blockbusters.

Obviously, this is a subjective exercise and my list is only going to include films released this year that I’ve actually seen. That’s much less of a constraint with this list than it will be when we come to arthouse stuff. I’ve seen most of the year’s ‘big’ movies – Furious 7 and American Sniper are the most conspicuous exceptions – and I can venture a guess that the ones I haven’t seen probably weren’t going to appeal to me enough to make the list.

Last year, I felt that the big budget action films I saw were rather dependable. This year, by contrast they’ve been patchy and unpredictable. Back in January, I would have given you long odds on my preferring Ant Man to Age of Ultron. A fair number of films were disappointing – Spectre being the worst example.  And a lot of films that wound up being much discussed – though not necessarily liked by me – were things like Fury Road, Kingsman and above all Jurassic World were things that weren’t high on many people’s agendas at the start of the year. As a result my top 5 is quite an odd list.

Despite that it’s an impressive collection of films. When this year’s blockbusters have worked they’ve really worked. It’s just not necessarily been the films I was expecting that did that. However, I’m not going to be complaining about mainstream cinema surprising me once in a while.

Honourable mentions: Minions, Ant Man and the Man from Uncle.

Dishonourable mention: the Fantastic Four

#5 Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation

This wound up being considerably better than it was trying to be. Rogue Nation was a departure for the franchise. Previously a succession of directors were given apparently free reign to imprint their signature style on the different episodes. But Rogue Nation’s director Christopher McQuarrie blends the styles of his predecessors. So we get the ludicrously over the top visuals, stunts and banter of the third and fourth films. But that’s counterpoised with some of the darkness and pathos of the David Mamet penned first film. This balance exists largely because of Rebecca Fergusson’s performance. She’s a spy adrift in amongst a global conspiracy – sympathetic but definitely not trustworthy. She and McQuarrie manage to make a film that might be cartoonish fun seem like it has some stakes and emotional depth. And do it without sacrificing the fun.

#4 Trainwreck

Normally, I wouldn’t have gone near this one. But I was stuck on a plane for sixteen hours. Seeing it almost made the experience worthwhile. Not that it’s a film I would recommend watching on a plane. Unless of course you enjoy wondering how many of the sex scenes your fellow passengers have noticed.

It’s Incisive and funny. The opening sequence of a dad trying to excuse his philandering by telling his pre-teen daughters that monogamy is like being told ‘you can only play with one doll for the rest of your life’ is one of the funniest things I’ve seen this year. There are plenty of other great scenes along the way.

#3 The Martian

A film about the will to survive and the power of science could easily have been hideously sentimental. A witty script, a talented ensemble and a massive dose of disco music ensure that isn’t a problem.

#2 Inside Out

Even by the Pixar’s standards Inside Out has a strange premise but it’s genius. It allows for a story as mundane as a girl struggling to fit-in in a new town to be told as the most fantastic, exuberant colourful epic imaginable.

It’s remarkably profound. It touches on a lot of real psychology and neuroscience. Its touching conclusion is that all emotions, even sadness, are valuable. So ever so subtly it becomes a critique of the cult of positive thinking.

Also the running joke about the jingle from a gum commercial becoming an earworm is inspired.

#1 Star Wars: the Force Awakens

If there were an objective way to judge these things then that would probably reveal that Inside Out is better than the Force Awakens. But this is a list of my personal favourites and no other film has given me anywhere near as much joy as this one. That’s partly a function of the fact that I’m probably more emotionally invested in Star Wars than in any other franchise. But this was a film that knew how to put plentiful audience excitement to good use. Indeed the anticipation of this film, heightened by a staggeringly good marketing campaign that made it look awesome without revealing much, was more fun than actually watching 95% of films. It successfully harnessed the nostalgia for the original trilogy whilst creating its own immediately lovable cast of characters. And as you would expect of a film directed by JJ Abrams it looks amazing. It’s a year till Rogue One is released and I’m already bursting to see it.

 

*As a rule of thumb I am taking a blockbuster to be a film with a budget of more than $30 million.

Force Awakens spoiler post

So I’ve written a spoiler free review of the Force Awakens, a post about why its better than the prequels and why its a step forward for women in sci-fi. But there is one scene I want to talk about but which demands particular care with regards to spoilers. If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know which one. So before reading any further please be clear that:

  1. This post contains spoilers for the Force Awakens.
  2. If you read this post before seeing the Force Awakens you will learn plot points that will reduce your enjoyment of the film.
  3. The kind of things I will be revealing about this film are the kind people tend to be disappointed to learn in advance.
  4. I would advise not reading this post unless you have seen the Force Awakens.
  5. And just to repeat, this post will contain spoilers.

I expect that the most divisive scene will be Kylo Ren killing Han Solo. There’s probably no popular way to write out the most loved character in the franchise. However, it was probably necessary. The elder cast members will naturally move aside over time and the biggest star of them all is the most liable to outshine the new cast. It also wouldn’t surprise me if given Ford’s long standing antipathy to the series he may well have made it a condition of his return. I’ve seen some criticism that the scene was abrupt. On the contrary I would suggest it was four films in the making. His character has always been marked by a tension between rougish instincts telling him to run and a noble core calling him to greatness. He’s not called ‘Solo’ for nothing but he also can’t quite shake a connection to something bigger than himself.

In his death scene his noble side decisively wins out as he sacrifices himself to try and save someone else. And fitting also that it should be the family he has started with Leia that takes him to that place.

Oh and I think it provides the best illustration of well this new instalment fits with the rest of the cannon. Because of course Han and Leia would have named their son after Obi Wan Kenobi.

The Force Awakens is also a fitting valedictory lap for Han. It feels like Abrams has one won Ford over to Star Wars. And one can see why that might be. The man who reputedly told Lucas George, you can type this shit, but you sure has hell can’t say it is given the kind of sharp dialogue that Lucas wasn’t interested in but which Abrams clearly see the value of. And Ford seems more enthused in this role than he’s been in anything for a decade at least.

While we are doing spoilery stuff:

I like that Abrams managed to sneak Obi-Wan and Frank Oz in. Apparently when you Rey picks up Luke’s lightsabre you hear Ewan McGregor, Frank Oz and even Alec Guinness. That seems a good way to deal with the prequels: acknowledge the through threads that link it to the original trilogy and the new films like Yoda, Obi Wan and that sabre, but don’t remind us of things best left forgotten.

10 reasons why the Force Awakens is so much better than the prequels [Moderate spoilers]

It goes well beyond a lack of Jar Jar.

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Just to reiterate spoilers ahead.

1. More careful casting

One of the most striking ways the prequels fail is that there’s a real dearth of good performances despite having some really great actors working on them. A lot of that is probably down to the fact the script is rubbish and the fact Lucas doesn’t really give his actors any direction. But the some of it comes down to a mismatch between role and performer. Indeed the casting for the prequels often seems more like fan casting than the work of professionals. Sure it sounds like Samuel L. Jackson as Jedi master would be cool but actually his charisma was wasted on an inert character like Mace Windu.

By contrast, one senses that there’s been quite a bit more auditioning and lateral thinking going on in the run up to the Force Awakens. Fresh talent has been favoured over big names. And even when well known actors were cast it seems to have been with more focus on what they could do in this film than what they had done in others. I doubt for example that many fans were asking to see Domhnall Gleeson as a villain but he’s great as a strutting, sneering imperial commander.

2. JJ Abrams gives actions scenes a focus

During even the biggest and most complicated action sequences in the Force Awakens, it is clear where you are supposed to be looking and what you should be paying attention to. The result is that all that action doesn’t simply become a blur.

3. The lightsabre fights are slower

There’s an in-universe explanation for why this is. Neither Rey nor Kylo Ren are as experienced force users as Obi-Wan, Anakin, Yoda, Grevous, Duku, Sidious and the other characters we see wielding lightsabres in the prequels. Plus Ren is wounded. But I suspect that the driving reason is (similarly to the previous point) Abrams wants to make these scenes legible to the audience.  And it works. Rather than looking like an overchoreographed dance with glow sticks, Rey and Ren battling gives you a real sense of two people trying to kill each other. A more human speed allows for more human emotion.

4. It manages to surprise us

Abrams deserves a lot of credit for forcing the marketing team to hold back spoilers. And while fans worked out a fair amount of stuff in advance, there were still surprises. There were precious few in the prequels as they had to tread a path that had already been laid out by the original trilogy.

5. It is not redundant

You remember how the first time you saw Darth Vader kill Obi-Wan you thought “this is alright but I need the back-story of these two spelled out in much greater detail before I can emotionally invest”. No? Me neither! Within its own parameters a New Hope had established the dynamic of that relationship. We didn’t need to see it spelled out. Indeed, the prequels never quite explain why they exist.

By contrast, the Force Awakens explores questions that the original trilogy left hanging. How would Luke cope with being the last Jedi? Could Han and Leia live happily ever after? Would supporters of the Empire just give up or would they keep fighting? The only way to answer those questions was to carry the story forward as the Force Awakens does.

6. Showing rather than telling

Honest Trailers make a running joke out of how much of the prequels consists of ‘people sitting in semi-circles’. Numerous talky council meetings have precisely the effect you would expect on the drama.

Abrams avoids this problem. Action and characters moments are interspersed and indeed often occur simultaneously. Even when he needs someone to deliver a chunk of exposition, he finds an interesting way to stage it. Take for example, the scene that features heavily in the final trailer during which Han reveals that the Jedi are real. The Galaxy shaking importance of this news is underlined by surrounding the characters with a holographic map of the galaxy.

7. Decent dialogue

Lines like “That lightsabre belongs to me. Then come and get it.” are not exactly Shakespeare. But they are perfectly adequate. They don’t take the audience out of the moment nor presumably do they make the actors saying them feel stupid. By contrast, Anakin Skywalker talking about sand more or less ruins the scene for everyone.

8. Better roles for women

I will blog more about this tomorrow but apart from Padme there aren’t really any notable roles for women in the prequels. And even she ultimately winds up being defined by her relationship with a man and rather boring.

There is no equivalents to Rey, Captain Phasma nor Maz Kanata. And of course Leia – the character Padme was an inferior substitute for – is back.

9. A real interest in its characters

This difference is a sufficiently pronounced that I spotted it even in the teaser trailer:

….Lucas was really good at coming up with cool things to fill a universe with but hopelessly inept at using them to build an engaging story. Watching the Phantom Menace one feels that not only were the special effects computer generated but that the plot and dialogue were too. It’s lifeless and lacking in pathos.

Compare that with the shot of John Boyega that opens the trailer:

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His expression, the sweat pouring from his face and his isolation all combine to make one feel his utter terror. This single shot generated more empathy from than anything in the entire prequel trilogy let alone the Phantom Menace trailer.

10. Collaboration

It is easy to attribute the rest of these differences to Abrams being a better writer and director than Lucas. And there’s probably some truth to that and Lucas probably deep down knows that’s true. He allowed other people to direct the Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, and he appears to have approached Ron Howard among others about directing the Phantom Menace.

That still leaves open the question of why the prequels are so much worse than a New Hope. Part of the reason may have been that in twenty year gap between them CGI came along and allowed him to indulge himself. But that wouldn’t explain the differences in say casting.

A better explanation is provided by a ridiculously detailed and persuasive 70 minute video made by a random Star Wars fan. He tracks the problems with the Phantom Menace and attributes them to the fact that there wasn’t anyone at Lucasfilm who could tell Lucas when he was going wrong. It was his company, he was creator of the franchise and he didn’t have any proper oversight.

It seems likely that even had Abrams wanted total and unchecked control of the Force Awakens¸ Disney – who now own Lucasfilm – would have refused to give it to him. He therefore had to work and take ideas from a large team of people. And in interviews Abrams himself has praised the quality of that team.

We tend to think of art as the product of a solitary genius and criticise works that don’t appear to fit that mould. For example, Vox’s review of the Force Awakens complained: “[t]his film feels committee-approved to delight fans”. But film is an inherently collaborative medium. It takes a whole cast and crew to make not just some grand visionary. And I’m glad that ensuring audiences are delighted with the film is considered worthy of a whole committee rather than being left to the temperamental ego of a lonely individual.

The force is strong with this one

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The first good Star Wars film of my life time has arrived!

It would be fair to say that not every Star Wars fan appreciated George Lucas’ decision to go back and redo the special effects in the original trilogy. Indeed ‘the special editions’, as they became known, were one of the reasons that Star Wars fans – uniquely among fandoms – talk about the creator of their obsession with derision. Yet for me ‘the special editions’ are Star Wars. Had they not been made I never would have gotten to see the Star Wars trilogy – at the time it was still the trilogy – in a cinema. And had that not happened I doubt it would have made such an impression. If you are eight then Darth Vader is probably scary on any size screen. But when he’s lifesize and Dolby surround sound makes it seem like he’s behind you, he’s terrifying. I couldn’t watch the scene from the Empire Strikes Back where he toys with Luke Skywalker. Yet I immediately knew I wanted to see it again.

That experience begat an obsession. First, I collected some Star Wars pogs. Then my parents bought me the trilogy on VHS and I rewatched them obsessively. And then I discovered the books that made up the ‘extended expanded universe’. Indeed for much of my teens I was writing what would now be called ‘fanfic’ – only being something of a slow adopter I wrote mine in notebooks rather than online. That doesn’t make me the ardent Star Wars lover by any stretch of the imagination but that just shows you how truly fanatical some fans are. For the formative years of my life when my mind wondered it tended to go to a galaxy far far away and the friends I made tended to be people with whom I could discuss the series.

Now those of you familiar with the history of Star Wars will notice there’s something I haven’t mentioned. My period of greatest devotion to the franchise coincided with the release of the first new films in a decade. This wasn’t quite the trauma for me that it was for some fans. I wasn’t yet a sophisticated enough viewer to digest quite how bad they were. And I appreciated the avalanche of new toys and books they precipitated. But I knew there was something missing. Whereas the original trilogy was endlessly rewatchable, the Phantom Menace was instantly forgettable.

Except geek culture has not forgotten that moment. The disappointment of waiting so long for something derisory has lingered over the run up to the Force Awakens. Sure the marketing campaign – which has been scarily effective – made it look awesome but was that just setting us up to be deflated again?

Having now seen the Force Awakens, I am happy to report there is little risk of that. It’s the best Star Wars film since at least the Empire Strikes Back. Perhaps even the best ever. As I see reviews and speak to others about it I may pick up on mistakes or missed opportunities. But walking out of the cinema I had no complaints. This was precisely the film I (and I suspect many others) had been hoping for.

After three sterile prequels we now have a Star Wars sequel with blood in its veins. There are glances in this film that convey more humanity than the entire prequel trilogy. It made me grin and gave me goosebumps more than any other film I’ve seen this year. A sense of joy permeates the Force Awakens much as the force does the fictional universe. But that is balanced by real moments of darkness and dread. So it gets big emotions but manages them without being mawkish or melodramatic.

It harnesses the mythology of the series rather than being bogged down by it. Instead of slowing down to justify itself it bounds along, and as it goes shows us the immensely rich universe in a way that feels familiar yet is still fresh. That extends to its use of the classic characters who are reintroduced but as supporting players to the new characters who will carry the series forward. And on the evidence of the Force Awakens I look forward to seeing a lot more of them.

So thank you J.J! All hail Disney! Roll on Rogue One and Episode VIII! May the force be with you each and every one!

Some predictions for 2015

Umunna as leader of the opposition? My most tentative prediction.

My more or less educated guesses for what will happen in the next year. I’ve put a % by each one to indicate my guess as to the probability that it will happen:

  1. The UK general election will result in a hung parliament (80%). I’m reasonably sure about that but not much else. If I had to take a stab in the dark I’d say that we’ll end up with a minority Conservative government (40%).
  2. Ed Miliband (60%) and Nick Clegg (90%) will not survive as leaders of their parties and will be replaced by Chuka Umunna (30%) and Tim Farron (50%). In the event, David Cameron ceases to be leader, I would think that Theresa May is his most likely replacement (50%).
  3. Hilary Clinton will announce she’s running for President (90%).
  4. Greece will exit the Eurozone (60%).
  5. The highest grossing film globally will be Avengers: Age of Ultron (60%). However, in the US it will be Star Wars: the Force Awakens (60%) and in the UK Spectre (50%).

UPDATE (30/01/15): When I made the predictions regarding the highest box office takes I did so under the misapprehension that the Force Awakens was being released this summer. In fact, it’s not out till the final week of December. Therefore, I now think there’s a 70% probability that the Avengers will top the US box office and am prepared to raise the probability that Spectre will top the UK box office to 70%.