From the Vault #21: STAR WARS EPISODE VIII: THE LAST JEDI (2017)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 20th, 2017, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

“This is not going to go the way you think!”

That line, spouted in pained fashion by Luke Skywalker, stood out in the intriguing trailer for Star Wars: The Last Jedi. It felt like more than a suggestion from Disney aka LucasFilm aka director Rian Johnson that the second film in the newest Star Wars trilogy would not follow a familiar template, as many have accused its predecessor The Force Awakens of doing. Luke’s words would turn out to bear fruit in a film which feels both like the box office shattering ultimate expression of Hollywood blockbuster it no doubt will be, and at the same time something wilfully subversive. Johnson started with small beginnings, with a precise and almost poetic low-budget modern noir, and you can still feel the pull of a director who wants to do things his way.

Doing things your way as a creative force on a series like Star Wars is no mean feat. Despite how Marvel have dominated the cinematic landscape in the last decade, Star Wars has no equal in terms of scope, scale and fan anticipation. When Disney bought the franchise from George Lucas in 2012 with the intention of relaunching the saga, it was the biggest news in filmmaking for many years. Considering it was originally just three space fantasy movies, and subsequently three maligned and ill-judged prequels from Lucas, the fact Star Wars as an entity has never left the public imagination or consciousness speaks to its power. Not everyone loves it, but those who do understand Star Wars has a special alchemy no other franchise can boast.

The Last Jedi is Rian Johnson asserting himself in striking fashion, with a script and story which determine to rip up the Star Wars rule book and potentially set the franchise in a bold new direction, while still honouring what came before. The fact producer Kathleen Kennedy and those at LucasFilm loved Johnson’s take so much that he has now been gifted his own unique Star Wars trilogy to devise—not just film, trilogy—shows they too are keen for Star Wars to spread its wings and embrace the future. The Last Jedi doesn’t entirely detach from the mythological themes and fantasy tropes Lucas’ movies, and indeed The Force Awakens, played with – but it feels like the start of a brave new world.

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From the Vault #20: STAR WARS EPISODE VII: THE FORCE AWAKENS (2015)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from December 17th, 2015, as we close in on Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker

A million voices suddenly cried out, not in terror, but rather jubilation, upon watching Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. The most hyped, anticipated and promoted motion picture probably in the history of cinema came with enormous expectation and pressure on JJ Abrams, an oft-divisive filmmaker (though heaven knows why), to equal the original Star Wars trilogy by George Lucas, which again are probably three of the most beloved, iconic movies in the history of the form.

What people wanted perhaps even more, however, was the lingering stench of Lucas’ three prequels to be expunged, having disappointed an entire generation of fans with three stilted, lacklustre additions to the Wars canon. Upon Disney’s purchase of LucasFilm three years ago, and Lucas’ subsequent relinquishment of the reins to his creation–having long insisted he would never make sequels to his original trilogy, even claiming so much as no plans ever existed (a blatant lie)–the universe lay open once again, ripe for reinvention and reintroduction. In a world of Marvel cinematic universes and multi-film franchises, Star Wars returning to claim global cinematic dominance was an inevitability. Multiple generations now, from kids new to the world to grandfathers who saw the movies as children themselves, all asked one unified question… would the Force be with a new trilogy?

The answer, resoundingly, is yes.

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From the Vault #11: CLOVERFIELD (2008)

From 2012 onwards, before developing this blog, I wrote a multitude of reviews on the website Letterboxd. In this irregular series called From the Vault, I’m going to haul these earlier reviews out of mothballs and re-purpose them here.

This one is from May 20th, 2014…

The secrecy and curiosity surrounding what would become known as Cloverfield remains seven years on as memorable as Matt Reeves’ resultant movie itself.

Shot in complete secrecy by Bad Robot, with Paramount’s backing, and inspired by BR’s founder JJ Abrams looking at Godzilla toys in Japan with his son and thinking how the movie world needed an American version, Cloverfield was trailered as simply 1-18-08 with no fanfare and took the world by storm – what was this mysterious found footage piece that seemed to simply be a light, preppy relationship drama until the Statue of Liberty head came crashing down the street?

Speculation was rife for months and finally the answer came as Cloverfield presented itself as a monster movie classic for the YouTube generation – a lithe, intense, chaotic piece of work with an emotional tether at its heart and a frenetic refusal to take a breath.

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ALIAS – ‘Dead Drop’ (2×04 – Review)

Over the course of last year, I began my first deep-dive TV review series looking at JJ Abrams’ Alias, which ran from 2001-2006. Over the next year, I’ll be looking at Season Two’s 22-episode run in detail…

Dead Drop is far more of a confident, layered episode of Alias than it is perhaps given credit for. While Cipher worked too hard to balance the colour of Season One with the myriad narrative aspects of the second season, Dead Drop contains a similar strong dramatic through line as we saw in Trust Me, only flipped.

Trust Me explored Sydney’s relationship with her mother Irina in light of her surrender to the CIA and how this rippled out to affect the characters around her, bringing Syd from a position of weakened denial to empowered strength. Dead Drop does the inverse through her relationship with her father Jack, taking her from a position of personal security to utter, child-like weakness. Syd is manipulated by both of her parents across the course of Season Two, but while Irina passively infiltrates the heart and mind of her daughter, Jack’s tactics are overt levels of psychological and emotional control. Dead Drop in many respects is Jack at his absolute worst – bitter, angry, completely lacking objectivity, self-destructive and ultimately corrupt, giving into his darkest instincts to sabotage a mission—even technically risk Syd’s life—in order to establish control over his grown up daughter’s life.

This is what makes Dead Drop as an episode so compelling because Jack’s twisted psychology is front and centre. Cipher did much of the leg work on this, establishing Jack’s growing frustration at Syd’s professional relationship with Irina, and Dead Drop dials in particularly on those character points. Jesse Alexander’s first script for the season therefore has a strong spine on which the rest of the narrative hangs, a clear internal arc as Jack’s manipulation affects Syd and the CIA’s dealings with her mother. It continues the second season’s initial trend of the missions no longer being the most important framework on which Alias episodes hang. The show now has enough dramatic meat on the bone, enough going on in terms of character and theme as well as plot, to justify fewer moments of pure action stylistics.

Though not a showy or particularly individually memorable episode of the show, Dead Drop is surprisingly essential to the establishing phase of the season.

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New Podcast Guest Appearance: Trek FM’s Primitive Culture #67 – ‘Everyone’s a Captain’

Hosted by author Duncan Barrett, Primitive Culture is a Star Trek history and culture podcast we co-created in 2017 on the Trek FM networking, looking at the 50+ year old franchise through the lens of our world today.

In this episode, Duncan and I discuss the difference between revivals and reboots on television, particularly in Star Trek – how The Motion Picture revived the 60’s TV series and the manner it did so in the late 1970’s, through to how it filtered down into the 80’s, quite how JJ Abrams rebooted the franchise in the late 2000’s, and whether Discovery and Picard fall into these camps.

A good, free-ranging discussion, this one, with lots of discussion about Trek old *and* new, with some speculation along the way…

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Scene By Scene: STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN – Pt I – ‘A No-Win Scenario’

As voted for on Twitter by followers, I will be analysing Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan scene by scene in this multi-part exploration of Nicholas Meyer’s 1982 sequel…

In many senses, Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan was the second coming of the Star Trek franchise.

While 1979 had given us The Motion Picture, a film which has improved like a fine wine with age, The Wrath of Khan imposed a framework and iconic visual structure which defined Gene Roddenberry’s creation across the subsequent films of the 1980’s and into The Next Generation sequel TV series and spin-offs over the next two decades. The Wrath of Khan, under the guiding hand of Nicholas Meyer, rediscovered a humanity within Star Trek that the elegant but stale The Motion Picture struggled to recapture, existing at the end of a depressed 70’s where the optimism and colour of the original 1960’s show had been ripped from the American psyche.

That film removed certain key principles of Star Trek’s original mission statement. Time had passed and the crew of the USS Enterprise were, to a degree, diffused. James T. Kirk had been promoted. Spock had left Starfleet. Leonard ‘Bones’ McCoy grew a beard and went through a failed marriage. The ship even had a new Captain in the young, handsome yet naive Willard Decker. Come the end of The Motion Picture, the crew were reunited and, as the film promised, ‘the human adventure is just beginning…’, but what would that voyage look like? The world of the 1980’s was a far different one from that of 1969, when the Original Series of Star Trek was initially cancelled after three seasons.

The Motion Picture proved it could never entirely return to where it began.

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ALIAS – ‘Masquerade’ (1×18 – Review)

Masquerade operates in a tricky position within the scope of Alias’ debut season and, arguably, marks the beginning of what in any other series would be a clear, delineated two-part episode.

Alias may appear ostensibly to be a highly serialised, propulsive rocket of a series, but it has flirted with trying to tell smaller, condensed arcs within that broader structure, often connecting episodes with specific themes or characters. Color-Blind and Reckoning, for instance, which focused on Sydney Bristow coming face to face with her fiancee Danny’s assassin; Mea Culpa and Spirit, which dealt primarily with a mole hunt in SD-6, and of course The Box which actually *was* a two-part episode and condensed Alias’ format down in a way the show would never as tightly repeat again, despite directly playing off a major narrative beat in the previous episode.

Masquerade is the beginning of such a double episode and the epilogue to, essentially, a three-part story.

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ALIAS – ‘Q&A’ (1×17 – Review)

While on the surface, Q&A may be Alias falling back on a tried and tested televisual trope, this epilogue of an episode is remarkably concentrated around testing philosophical concepts of fate, destiny and free will.

Alias has experienced a succession of earth-shattering revelations since the climax of The Confession that Sydney Bristow has been increasingly struggling to digest. She pulled back from quitting her life as a double agent in The Box, only for the stakes to infinitely rise as ‘The Man’ aka Alexander Khasinau emerged on the scene as a direct challenger to the Alliance and SD-6, before Page 47 and The Prophecy personalised the central Rambaldi mythology for her in a way which added a further reason why escaping this life in the short term would be impossible. Q&A may appear to be a time out from these escalating narratives but in real terms it serves more as a point to pause and take stock of where we have ended up over the last sixteen episodes.

It dispenses with Alias’ uncommon ‘double previously’ sequence, which for the entire season has reminded viewers of the complicated central concept of the series before segueing into a more immediate reminder of recent events. Q&A throws us straight into the action using the tried and tested J J. Abrams trope of ‘in media res’ storytelling, which he used to fine strategic effect in pilot episode Truth Be Told, as we see a bewigged Sydney—in full Thelma & Louise-mode—on the run from a flotilla of cops before barrelling into dockside water in either an apparent escape or suicide attempt. Q&A doesn’t need a contextual reminder because the entire episode is structured as one big ‘previously’.

Welcome to Alias’ first, and indeed last, ‘bottle episode’.

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Skywalker Rising: Star Wars, Abrams and familiar territory

Until this weekend, Star Wars: Episode IX was in serious danger of having its thunder well and truly stolen by the twin pop-culture giants on the immediate horizon – Avengers: Endgame and Game of Thrones’ final season.

As if sensing a disturbance in the Force, Disney—who bear in mind own Marvel so control two of the biggest cultural entertainment events of 2019—released to much fanfare, including an entire live-streamed celebration event, the long-awaited trailer to a film we now know will be subtitled The Rise of Skywalker. The trailer naturally didn’t give all that much away – Rey doing a neat Jedi flip over a tie fighter, a desert barge fight channeling major Return of the Jedi vibes, what looks like a crashed Death Star on a watery world, and a very gleeful old Lando Calrissian back behind the wheel of the Millennium Falcon. Enough to stoke some fan theories for the next few months and keep the wheels of speculation moving.

There was, however, one final part of the trailer which seems to have confirmed a suspicion on many fans minds. Namely that returning director JJ Abrams is steering the Skywalker saga back into safe, familiar territory for the climactic beat.

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Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

If Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation confirms anything, it’s that the Tom Cruise-fronted franchise has spent almost two decades trying to work its way back to Brian De Palma and back to the roots of where the series began.

In some of my previous pieces on the earlier films in the Mission Impossible franchise, one fact that remains true is how the series consistently reinvents itself every few years in order to stay vibrant and relevant, but oddly enough Rogue Nation on reflection is not as bold a reinvention after 2011’s Ghost Protocol as you might remember. There is greater filmmaking skill involved, with Christopher McQuarrie imbuing more heft into his set pieces than Brad Bird managed in the previous film, while McQuarrie’s script (revised after efforts by Will Staples and before that Drew Pearce, with whom he shares a story credit) certainly has more depth to the storytelling. Beyond that, there is a consistency framing itself between this and Ghost Protocol, one which may well carry through into the next film, Fallout.

Rogue Nation is consistent in how it stylistically reaches back to the first film in the franchise while further mythologising Cruise and his character Ethan Hunt.

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