In the Heart of the Sea / Joy Cineworld Haymarket 26/12/15

Yesterday’s Christmas leftovers put between buttered toast and devoured, it was out for a day at the movies to catch the last releases of the year. A more different double you’ll struggle to find yet similarities abound if you look hard enough.

Both are films made with an eye on Awards Season that don’t seem to have that buzz or momentum now we’ve reached their release. They both, on paper, should have more mainstream appeal than the standard Oscar fodder they are competing against (In the Heart of the Sea is a big manly seafaring epic with Thor in the lead and Ron Howard back with a blockbuster budget and effects team. Joy sees box office darling Jennifer Lawrence in an appropriate vehicle surrounded by the cast and director of previous hits). They are both true stories given a fair bit of Hollywood spit and polish so the narrative outshines the facts. And if you dig even deeper both follow a hard working protagonist trying to make their fortune in a harsh capitalistic environment where misfortune and failure are expected and directed at them.

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I can’t be the only one that really, really wanted In the Heart of the Sea to work. The scale and cost required for these water set historical actioners means studios only seem to forget how risky they are and only greenlight one every decade if we are lucky. An account of the true tale that inspired Moby Dick promises some large scale re-enactment of 19th century sea faring life. The kind we have not enjoyed since Peter Weir’s big budget Master and Commander film that merely broke even, so did not be come a planned franchise 10 years ago… Though I wish it had. That film had benefited from a made to measure lead in Russell Crowe and an eye for the dynamics and practicalities of being a crew on the open seas. Ron Howard has felt wasted on Da Vinci Codes and Grinches since the turn of the century and this appeared a tailor made opportunity for him to return to the quality ensemble pieces he made his name on, often with a focus on tribes and cultures within their work place (see Gung Ho, Backdraft and the underrated The Paper). His magic touch with such material is still lost as In the Heart of the Sea just doesn’t gel as an experience – often as there seems no flair or care in the storytelling.

The plot basically follows some whalers who kill the creatures for their oil yet come up against an orca who thwarts them at every turn. Some attempt to give the half dozen crew members we focus on some backstory is made but once we hit the water the character work vanishes, the peril becomes repetitive and some of the bigger horrors (the destruction of their vessel, cannibalism) lack depth and impact when they should be the most engaging elements of the film. In fact, whenever we hit dry land the film seems to return to a stronger earlier draft abandoned to get more shots of haggard eyes spotting sea spray, climbing rigging or repeating orders. It’s the kinda film that lingers on exhausted men, wasted to the bone by their endeavours, unable to move their lips to even speak… who a minute later are springing up to their feet, brandishing harpoons in another pointless attempt to kill the stalking whale.

I struggled to feel anything but poetic justice for the whalers’ plight. By the third act I would have much preferred to be actively following the whale’s quest for revenge rather than the sailors’ fate at his destructive fins. Possibly this was mostly inspired by extreme close ups from strange angles of the goliath’s eye, as whenever the camera stays with Moby Dick’s inspiration it ignites sympathy and awe as a modern viewer for the endangered wildlife. Anthony Dod Mantle’s framing is often captivating – the wide shot of the ship at sea have Turner-esque quality, while those tight shots expose the grotesqueries of nature but from a storytelling point of view their painterly nature took me out of the action too often.

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Already a failure at the US box office, which might be put down to the lack of market for period naval thrillers,  but in all honesty In the Heart of the Sea is not a concept that is very likeable in subject matter or delivery even if you do like a good old anchor and sail epic. The blame for its losses could lie at Chris Hemsworth’s door. He makes a fine Thor and I enjoyed his lead performances in Rush and Blackhat (he often reminds me of a young Harrison Ford with his simple but direct charm which can be no bad thing, surely?) yet without double checking on Google I still struggle to tell he and his brother apart after a dozen movies now which really cannot be a good indicator that the public has embraced him either. Outside of Marvel, his choice of project seems to be solely old school, boy’s own adventures by respected directors on the slide. Admirable but if he wants to be able to open a movie on his name rather than as a comic book character, then he needs to build up audience demand and awareness that just is not there for him right now. Surely there is some role that plays to his strengths that doesn’t entirely rely on his current lack of draw to open it? Young Han Solo, perhaps? As it stands, Hemsworth just is not a bankable enough name to open a film about men in dirty tunics killing intelligent mammals, he needs a lead role in something that captures the zeitgeist fast otherwise he’ll be Christopher Reeve or Timothy Dalton rather than a Michael Keaton or a Sean Connery. Until then he should avoid projects with subject matter that is so risky, in waters so rarely tested.

Someone who has captured the movie ticket buying public’s hearts and minds is Jennifer Lawrence. She, in Joy, manages to do for the dormant ‘Woman’s Picture’ genre what a less proven talent like Hemsworth just cannot for a ‘Sea Epic’ – SELL IT. Joy is a film with weird pacing issues, lack of dramatic clarity in its resolution and, if we are being harsh, doesn’t really stretch Lawrence’s acting abilities all that much. What it does do is express our protagonist’s failures and achievements far more clearly and involvingly than the action film ever manages. Which is mental as a Miracle Mop is no less obvious a Macguffin than whale oil, a broken home in 90s America a less obviously harsh environment than the middle of the Pacific.  Yet where Howard and Hemsworth fudge their set pieces, David O Russell and Lawrence imbue the hunt for a mop’s creation and ownership with more defined structure and power than the bigger budgeted film. Whereas whale oil just has a cash value, the Miracle Mop’s conception and eventual victory both mirror and tie into a young woman’s rediscovery of her smothered potential.

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Rediscovering self worth and bankruptcy should not be as pressing issues as killer mammals and starvation yet fuck it… I cared a lot more about Lawrence selling 50,000 mops on a home shopping network before she loses her house as the stakes were relatable, the sequence delivered with vim and invention and the lead performance carried the full weight of vulnerability and likability from previous on and off screen association. You want Joy to survive and thrive, you want Jennifer Lawrence to (eventually) win. You can’t put a price on a film that offers us that, however quirkily framed and jarringly rhythmic.

Films about women balancing relationships (with romance often a background concern) with personal success were all the rage in the 1940s and 50s. Bette Davis cranked out a Women’s Picture four times a year. When did they go out of fashion. Working Girl? I’m struggling to think of a good one since In Her Shoes and that felt like a blip. Yet this year we have had two cinematic highlights from this dead genre in Joy and even more so in Brooklyn. Joy in particular though should be shown to all teenage girls as a fable for not to accepting the limited role society wants to keep them in. It is a hymn to the tough realities of female empowerment, expressing the strength found in succeeding on your own terms. O Russell ably illustrates the battle to create your own freedom, whether financial or in terms of personal responsibility.

Joy finds captivating drama and humour from the sad reality that not just submitting to the safe, predetermined trap of family above all else will unfortunately involve opposition from the people you love. Rewriting the American Dream by acknowledging the failures and adversity on the way, making clear that those likely failures often mean most will quit when faced with the overwhelming odds against being a success. And reminding us that we should be the sole authors of our own dreams. Not matriarchs, patriarchs, soap operas, QVC or shop windows. It also features the first consistently decent dramatic performance from Robert De Niro since Casino / Ronin. And if that does not spear you and drag you into the multiplex then very little will.

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Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens Empire Tower Park, Poole 19/12/15

 

We settle in – an extended family of ten, ages ranging from just 5 years old to mid sixties – at a packed Saturday afternoon screening. We booked our seats long ago. There’s a struggle over who’ll get the premium aisle seat of the row we’ve booked out and then who sits next the youngest and potentially least invested of us, potentially most distracting. My wife draws the short straw and the tiny Darth Vader fan starts off on her lap, moving to her Daddy, the toilet and finally a little scared and squeaky for the dark conclusion with her Mummy. When the droids are on my niece is quietly rapt, during other parts wriggly but surprisingly focussed and on exit to the lobby she seems uncheated by the few mere scraps of long dead Vader action held within. She ruins no one else’s trip to the cinema by giving up on the experience we were all looking forward to for nearly 30 years. A Star Wars sequel. The return of Han, Leia, R2D2, C3PO, Chewie, the Force, the Millennium Falcon and Luke Skywalker.

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JJ Abram’s triumphant revival of modern cinema’s most beloved universe starts faithfully. I am surprised at how much I felt the lack of the the Fox fanfare (it’s as embedded in the SW experience as anything replicated here) but then the silence dominates as that setting defining title card reappears. John Williams pipes up, the latest screen climbing, yellow prologue starts its ascent. This time, however, the précis isn’t political gobbledygook but a declaration that our hero Luke Skywalker has long disappeared and everyone is still searching for him including the even longer defeated Empire’s replacement baddies – The First Order. The expected establishing shot of a mega (this time planet eclipsing) spaceship fills the screen. I’m not underwhelmed or overwhelmed. The goosebumps still are not there but happily there’s also no feeling of dread that George Lucas’s misguided prequel trilogy brought on over three opening weekends between 1999 and 2003.

Max von Sydow pops up as a desert hermit who has a map with Luke’s location. Like Samuel L Jackson and Liam Neeson he seems to be an Oscar nominated actor who is in a race for as many different genre franchise appearances as possible in his long career. Who is he in this narrative? What is his back story? How has he got this map is still a mystery. Such an icon finally making an appearance in the SW universe gets the attention. There has to be more to him than a lost property clerk for the resistance surely?

JJ is the current master of more questions than answers. He was instrumental in the creation of Lost, he got us to see and treat the original concoctions of Cloverfield and Super 8 as blockbusters based on obtuse, hyped up trailers. The Force Awakens is full of such unanswered posers… some that fans have picked up on, some they haven’t. How did C3PO get his red arm? Why don’t we see Poe Dameron’s escape from the wreckage in Jakku? Who are Rey’s parents and why was she abandoned? Is shiny Captain Phasma really disposed of down a trash compactor or will she return? What made Finn the stormtrooper abandon his brainwashing – heart, or a more ‘forceful’ influence?

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Maybe we’ll get solutions or explanations in the sequel or expanded universe media of games, comics, novels and TV. Maybe we won’t… But like its source material, The Force Awakens plonks you into the narrative midstream and only explains what is pressing. Abrams is a more decisive and swifter storyteller than Lucas, his shorthand to move things along creates even more puzzles than the above wrinkles but it also obliterates the exposition that killed the prequels. We are back in a Star Wars where the plot is kinetic and rocket propelled. Luckily the cast bring their components in this efficient machine to life beautifully.

Our four new heroes are fine creations. Primarily Daisy Ridley’s Rey is an almost supernaturally capable woman on the verge of adulthood. She is introduced heroic but striving. Decent with a sense of wonder but in a world that is gritty and unsympathetic. There’s a nice sense of childish adventure: the pew pew noises she makes with a salvaged blast helmet on in some downtime; a homemade X Wing pilot doll among her meagre belongings. She is a less whiny and more proactive hero in waiting than Luke Skywalker was when we met him. There’s no Uncle Owen or Aunt Beru to coddle her or to rebel against. Rey’s survived by herself and in all the subsequent action sequences she is in the mix and exceeding our expectations. Those Abram’s ‘wait and see’ mysteries surround her. How does she know the workings of the Falcon quite as well as she does? If the force is so apparently strong in her why is she not thought of a Jedi? All this hints to an unspoken past somehow interlinked with the original trilogy’s tangled family tree as by the end of her journey she is a victor and a Jedi in training with neither an Obi Wan figure to direct her nor a Han or Leia have her back en route. Tantalising stuff and a star is born all in one.

Yet she is not alone for this adventure. John Boyega’s Finn is a next generation stormtrooper turned good guy. The most fully rounded of the new class he hesitates at the opening village massacre and the film follows his escape from the regime to fully fledged member of resistance. By the end of the film he has kind of outlived his usefulness – he uses Poe to escape, hooks Rey up with the resistance (exactly how long have they been resisting various factions now?) and leads the charge into the new Death Star with his defector’s intel and desire to rescue Rey. In Episode VIII, he’ll be in most need of a fresh plotline or he risks being a mere romantic interest for newly minted Jedi Rey.

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The most established of our reboot crew is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. A cool and cocky pilot ingrained in the resistance. He orbits the action and does so with a fair amount of swagger and aplomb. He symbolises another stark gearshift from Lucas’s last failures. Abram’s and SW veteran Lawrence Kasdan understand these characters need to be above all fun, not dour and serviceable. We learn little about him but he’s a hoot whenever he’s on screen.

In fact the dialogue is often markedly breezy and fun banter. I read a 1999 interview with Lucas where he excused The Phantom Menace’s turgid script by saying his mythical world couldn’t co-exist with the flip ironic modern action movie joking that audiences now prefer. The Force Awakens proves him wrong. The snappy interplay works just fine – Poe’s opening sass to our new villain being a standout, and a running joke (literally) about hand grabbing during dangerous set pieces is a constantly rewarding gambit. Only a few moments with Finn break you out of the movie’s spell. His delivery and vernacular just don’t seem right for a child raised as a brainwashed killing machine until 24 hours before. A minor wobble.

But the real stand out among the new “goodies” is young droid BB8. He slots into the mythology and Star Wars dynamic perfectly and is invested with as much personality and likability as R2 or good ole Gold Butt. Nothing gives you a sense of scale in this reality as a little vulnerable droid fulfilling his mission loyally for creatures whose motivations, emotions and values he probably doesn’t share. In a movie where so much is gotten right, the design, use and delivery of BB8 ranks highest. He brings out the kid in all audience members, faithful and casual.

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The plot that introduces and binds these new elements together will be very familiar. An orphan on a desert planet comes in contact with a droid with valuable information embedded inside it. On delivering BB8 to this resistance Rey hooks up with a gang of new friends and old heroes, leading to a full on assault to a planet-destroying super weapon. I’ve read many grumbles about how faithful the plotting is to A New Hope (itself already retrodden by my personal favourite entry Return of the Jedi) but that familiar line represents the tightrope the new filmmakers had to carefully walk.

A completely revolutionary adventure would not have felt like Star Wars, while the strong echoes from the past add to the sense of a core mythology and give all the new characters a bit of safe time to make their mark. The resurrection of the old familiar tale risks alienating the fan base the least and provides a strong framework for the new crew to indoctrinate a new generation into the universe we love. When it comes to SW fans you are dammed if you do and dammed if you don’t. The remix of the old standard plot feels like the correct step forward in sating grumblers who will always find fault. All they can really say is we were given exactly what we we wanted. Old school Star Wars again.

In fact the movie visually spells out its intent in the stark ruins of derelict Stardestroyers and AT-AT of Jakku. Rey is introduced mining the past, recycling the wreckage of a 30 year old battle for begrudging returns. It is an epic piece of scene-setting evoking Lucas’s original touchstone of David Lean. But as a neat piece of new world building its message is very clear. The Star Wars trilogy we embraced in our youth has left a war torn universe of exploited orphans and devastated landscapes. Then within an hour we have our first thrilling set piece: the Millennium Falcon itself being chased through the derelicts by a new crew we already care about. The villains themselves are youths, lost boys and girls, aping the Galactic Empire that no doubt killed their parents. A Force Awakens is a fatherless generation mimicking the glory of thirty years ago. Message received: Lucas may have conceived this playset but his spiritual children have their own ideas over what to do with the toys.

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Which is not to say the film isn’t respectful to what we loved for all these years. Han and Chewie are reintroduced with a fun (again!) and silly set piece of chaotic tentacles and smuggler shenanigans. There’s a pure and incomparable joy in buying a ticket for Harrison Ford in a film you actually want to watch again. He revels in the old scoundrel’s boots.

And is given a fitting send off. His own son stabs him in the heart, to fall into the synthetic abyss of another super weapon. Emotional, and against his better instincts, as always in an attempt to do the right thing (people ignore that Han always chose the quest rather than Leia and Luke, who through the force, were destined for it) he walks to his death in the slim chance of saving his son. That soft hand on the face of his estranged Kylo Ren as he is slain by him rather than a quip or fighting back. A gracenote proving that for all his cool bluster, Han was always quietly the character who needed the relationships the series threw up the most. Ford once pushed for the space pirate to take an early bath in Return of the Jedi claiming “He’s got no momma, he’s got no papa and he’s got no story” yet when we leave him it couldn’t be further from the truth and that’s what makes his demise so powerful, not our long term investment in Solo cool.

Han Solo is the boy who grew up in space, not on a planet surface with a family, and he embraced his partnership with Chewie, his romance with Leia and friendship with Luke more proactively than any of his contemporaries, albeit hidden in braggadocio. Han has already had adventure and found a family throughout the films. His attempt to hold that family together at all costs is his undoing here and his death at the hand of his own child proves the most affecting of any death in what is an always kill-happy series.

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Should the coolest character in the galaxy have gone out in a blaze of blaster fire? Or be mourned more? No – this death felt in the moment and right. He ain’t no Jedi, no mumbo jumbo is bringing him back. Ford probably begrudgingly did one more IF it was just one and the adventure moves on without him. His legacy… The Falcon and (always excellent value ) Chewbacca passed onto Rey. We have a big bold reminder that the nerfherder-ish rogues are as important to this franchise as the Jedis. And Adam Driver’s adolescent Sith is set up as a conflicted but genuinely dangerous central villain. He kills his father, and finally we know this disciple of grandad Darth Vader has passed the point of no return rather than hesitating on it. He may not have full control of the force yet but he’ll be an established threat when we buy a ticket to VIII. Redemption appears unlikely.

So fun, efficient, epic and faithful – yet it is not a perfect film. A mid section on Takodana to meet Maz Kanat and learn their destinies manages to feel truncated yet overlong, misdirected and superfluous. The final battle to destroy the new Death Star is also a bit wobbly. The space dogfight is distracting from the drama and hand to hand combat on the surface; the final laser explosion feels too easily won when we now care about the small scale but high stake lightsaber battle so much more. Niggles for sure, but in a year when Mad Max and The Martian were near flawless popcorn confections of similar size and breadth, you can’t give a film a free pass merely because it’s a great Star Wars movie again… And at last.

JJ Abrams does career best work and his standing in Hollywood as the voodoo witch doctor for terminal franchise reboots and redesigns is now unparalleled. Yet, as a fan of Super 8, can we not give him a few more original drawing boards to start his next intricate blueprint, rather than another redrafting exercise? He leaves the franchise in rude health. Even managing a neat final scene set-up that means we can start Episode VIII with Rey as fully trained Jedi, ready to kick First Order ass and take names, rather than have to sit through training again.

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If Star Wars VII: The Force Awakens resembles any film it is closest in spirit to Goldeneye. The film that realigned Bond for a new generation and set of creatives, while satisfying and exceeding the expectations of a loyal but ageing fan base. The mythology is moved forward, key new essential pieces are in place. So it isn’t as brilliant a film as it could be but it wears its small risks and needed compromises on its sleeves with no need to apologise for them. Well done to everyone involved, the force is strong in you all.