The Holiday watchlist, Part 1: The entertainers

It’s that wonderful time of the year when I put in a concerted effort to watch all the year-end blockbusters and award contenders and also catch up on any notable indie films I may have missed out on from earlier in the year. In the past month, I’ve managed to watch about a dozen movies. They seem to fall into about 4 categories – pure ‘popcorn’ entertainment, action movies with a ‘message’, movies about the human condition (guilt is a common theme this year) and one set which I classified as ‘educational’, because I learnt something about history or society through watching them (with varying degrees of entertainment value).

Today I will cover the 2 straight up entertainers I’ve seen in the past month.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi – This movie has been subject of much more controversy than should be necessary for a piece of pure popcorn entertainment. When The Force Awakens came out 2 years ago, critics and audiences both enjoyed it, but they also noted that the film rehashes several story beats from the 1977 Star Wars; too safe, too much comfort food. Now with The Last Jedi, critics appreciate the creative risks taken by director Rian Johnson, but fans are incensed that he is messing with their beloved recipe. Which leads to the question: what is the vision for any beloved long-running series of books, TV shows or movies? Fans expect their beloved characters to stay consistent (or at the very least, evolve gradually over time), but want to see them in new settings, facing new challenges. Something about this basic equation has not worked with The Last Jedi. I did feel impatient with Rey chasing a whiny Luke around that island and felt the plot get very thin with the codebreaker on Canto Bight. That middle part of the narrative was choppy and uneven. But equally, there was plenty to enjoy – the opening bombing sequence featuring the heroic Paige Tico, Vice Admiral Holdo’s stunning act of bravery, the visually inventive battle on the planet Crait, the porgs, the beautiful crystal vulptices, the repeated humiliations of General Hux, the reunion of Luke and Leia, etc. Overall, I came out of the theatre happy, but now all the online criticism has amplified the faults of the film and seems to have spoilt my memory of the experience. I definitely need to watch it again to ‘reset’ how I feel. In the long run, I think audiences will forgive Disney for this film. After all, in six months’ time, we’ll have some light-hearted fun in the spin-off movie Solo: A Star Wars Story which has been put together by the ever-dependable Ron Howard. And I am pretty sure JJ Abrams will wrap up the final trilogy nicely with Episode IX in Dec 2019.

Murder on the Orient Express – I enjoyed this movie sufficiently enough to watch it a second time with my kids a few weeks later. I haven’t read Agatha Christie’s book so cannot comment on how faithful an adaptation it is. I have seen the celebrated 1974 version which was very engaging, but I had actually forgotten the plot and the outcome, so I was fully engrossed while watching Kenneth Branagh’s version. I believe that the new version can be rated one notch better, mainly because of that element of twinkly-eyed mischief which seems to permeate the film and the character of Poirot himself. The production design and Haris Zambarloukos’ lush cinematography both do a superb job of evoking the romanticism of that era. And every single member of the ensemble cast is pitch perfect – from the big names like Johnny Depp, Michelle Pfeiffer, Penelope Cruz and Dame Judi Dench to the dependable character actors like Willem Defoe, Derek Jacobi, Olivia Coleman and Josh Gad to relative unknowns like Tom Bateman (Bouc, the director of the train), Leslie Odom Jr. (Dr. Arbuthnot) and Marwan Kenzari (the conductor Michel). Of course, in this era of political correctness and fair representation, people may ask if there were no talented Belgian actors available to play Hercule Poirot, but Branagh inhabits the character with such flair, that it is difficult to imagine anyone else playing the role now. I am very much looking forward to having him return as director and star in A Death on the Nile. And hopefully with a star-studded supporting cast.

In my next post I will cover the two Netflix ‘movies with a message’, Okja and Bright.


Rogue One – not just ‘A Star Wars Story’ but a bona fide prequel to the original

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Ridley Scott made headlines a few years ago by jumping back into the Alien franchise with Prometheus, giving franchise fans much hope after several misadventures by Fox studios in previous years. However in the months leading up to the release, Mr. Scott was reluctant to refer to the new film as a sequel or prequel. Instead, he stated that “while Alien was indeed the jumping-off point for this project, out of the creative process evolved a new, grand mythology and universe in which this original story takes place.” This created an expectation that the movie would be unconnected with the titular aliens and would just take place “in the same universe”. Eventually, Prometheus was nothing more than a prequel and I wondered if all that dissembling was just a marketing gimmick, or if it was to manage the expectations of fanboys because the film did not feature any of the actual alien creatures which were a staple of all the previous films.

Likewise, when Disney purchased Lucasfilm, they announced a new trilogy of Star Wars films to be released every 2 years and in the intervening years there would be “anthology films set in the same universe, but not part of the storyline of the existing series”. The first of these ‘standalone films’ is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story and my thoughts after watching it this evening mirrors my reaction to Prometheus. This is a straight up prequel to the 1977 movie, with the last scene of the film literally leading to the first scene of Star Wars. So I’m guessing the reason the film makers were so coy about referring to this film as a prequel was to manage expectations that there would be no Skywalkers nor our two favourite droids nor any lightsaber duels in this film.

This says a lot about the pressures of making sequels/ prequels in this era of intense social media scrutiny by fickle fanboys (and film critics!) and the need to manage expectations of what they will or will not get to see in the film. Giving the audience ‘comfort food’ and getting that early positive buzz without any whines of disappointment from the first few screenings is so critical to launch these expensive movies onto a positive box office trajectory.

Rogue One tells the story of how the Rebellion came to be in possession of the detailed schematics of the Empire’s Death Star and indeed how such a formidable superweapon the size of a small moon ended up being vulnerable to Luke Skywalker’s tiny X-Wing fighter in Star Wars.

The movie essentially plays out like a World War II ensemble action film – think The Guns of Navarone or The Sea Wolves. And as with those 60’s and 70’s war movies, the ensemble is filled out by a wealth of acting talent. But what’s even more notable is ethnic diversity in this film – more than in any Star Wars film or perhaps any major blockbuster so far!

The lead character Jyn Erso is played by British Oscar nominee Felicity Jones; her partners in this caper include Rebel intelligence officer Cassian Andor (played by popular Mexican actor Diego Luna), defecting Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Pakistani-origin British actor Riz Ahmed), blind warrior Chirrut Imwe (Hong Kong martial arts star Donnie Yen), his mercenary friend Baze Malbus (award winning Chinese actor/ director/ screewriter Jian Weng) and a re-programmed Imperial droid K-2SO with a wry sense of humour (voiced by beloved American character actor Alan Tudyk). Also featured in prominent roles are veteran African-American actor and Oscar winner Forest Whitaker as Rebel extremist Saw Gerrera (yes, the same character from the Star Wars Rebels animated series) and acclaimed Danish thesp Mads Mikkelsen as Jyn’s father Galen. Australian actor Ben Mendelsohn graduates from a lifetime of supporting roles in indie films and generates massive screen presence as Director Orson Krennic, the ambitious and ruthless head of the Empire’s Death Star project.

Yup, there’s a lot of new names, but as we have been assured, this is a standalone film and no need to worry about remembering them for future sequels!

Standalone or prequel, Rogue One is filled with familiar beats and echoes from the original trilogy – words and phrases, human, alien and droid characters, spaceships, weaponry and other easter eggs – they’re all there for the hardcore Star Wars fan to recognize and enjoy. While this is welcome, what I found disappointing was the use of so many standard storytelling tropes and cliches throughout the movie. Jettisoning some of these would have brought an element of unpredictability to the movie in the same way that Game of Thrones has done over the years. This could have taken Rogue One from good to great. 

Among the parts that worked for me is the third act featuring the raid on the high security Imperial databank on planet Scarif. It is intense and beautifully choreographed; the action plays out like a three-ringed circus – in orbit above the planet, within the databank building and out on the seafront outside the building.

Michael Giacchino, who is one of Disney’s favourite composers (he won an Oscar for Up and was nominated for Ratatouille) seems to now have moved to the world of big budget action films, having recently composed for Jurassic World, Star Trek Beyond and Doctor Strange. I really liked his work for this film, very sparingly adapting parts of John Williams’ iconic original soundtrack and instead creating a predominantly martial score befitting a war film, but also keying in the emotional moments at the beginning and end of the film.

What a great commercial triumph for 41-year-old British director Gareth Edwards. His first effort in 2010 was the critically acclaimed indie scifi film Monsters, with all the visual effects created by Edwards in his bedroom using off-the-shelf software! He then graduated to the big league, directing the reboot of Godzilla in 2014 which successfully launched a new franchise for production company Legendary Pictures. And now here he is with a USD 200 million budget, successfully delivering a new entry to one of the most beloved film series of all time.

I don’t agree with the initial gushing reaction of some critics that this is the best Star Wars film since The Empire Strikes Back. But replicating the same ‘comfort food’ approach of last year’s The Force Awakens, it certainly looks like Disney and producer Kathleen Kennedy have made sure that their goose will keep laying golden eggs for some time to come.

Studios race to build cinematic universes

We’re all familiar with the Marvel Cinematic Universe which so far has given rise to several highly successful and mostly well-regarded movies, not just from Marvel’s parent company Disney but also from other studios like Fox and Sony which own the franchise rights for the X-Men, Fantastic Four and Spider-Man respectively.

The interconnectedness of their titles allows Marvel to launch movies based on new and sometimes little-known characters with the knowledge that they can reduce the financial risk by introducing the character in a related (and already successful) movie series. Some members of the Avengers like Hawkeye and Black Widow were introduced in the Iron Man films and Black Panther was recently introduced in Captain America: Civil War.

Rival comic book powerhouse DC Comics (which is owned by Warner Bros.), actually has the more iconic superheroes by far and has successfully brought both Superman and Batman to the big screen, but had previously been unable to use either film series to launch other characters from their staple. They finally put a roadmap together a few years ago to build a series of films around the Justice League (DC’s version of the Avengers). This started off with Man of Steel in 2013 and followed up with this year’s Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, both directed by Zack Snyder and both somewhat disappointing. In the past few months, a senior task force has been assembled to sort out scripting and creative issues. Today’s release of the first trailers for Wonder Woman and Justice League (both due in 2017) indicate that they may have got their act together. As a bonus, Suicide Squad, an R-rated anti-hero movie which was once considered a ‘side-show’ in the DC Cinematic Universe is now among the most anticipated releases of the year and may fuel public interest in the movies to come, possibly even forcing Warner Bros. to include Suicide Squad characters in the other films.

So it’s clear that studios are now looking not just to create franchises but cinematic universes. As per the Marvel formula, a universe can be created by starting with a series featuring one character (e.g. Iron Man) and then by launching new series featuring other lead characters, who were introduced in the original series. Another way to milk an established franchise is by creating spin-off films starring supporting characters or by going backwards or forwards in time within the franchise timeline to tell the story of an earlier or later generation of characters.

The latter approach is exactly what Warner Bros. is trying with the forthcoming release of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. This is the first in a new trilogy set nearly a hundred years before the events of the Harry Potter films. It narrates the adventures of ‘magizoologist’ Newt Scamander whose book on magical beasts was one of the required school textbooks at Hogwarts. Talk about inventive thinking! I’m sure the folks at Warner Bros. must be looking through all the Harry Potter stories to figure out how many other characters or references can be spun off to further expand the Potter Cinematic Universe.

Disney is employing a combination of both strategies to rejuvenate and extend the 40-year-old Star Wars franchise. Faced with the reality that the original cast are ageing, they introduced a new generation of  characters in last December’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens to whom the torch is passed to continue the good fight against the evil empire. But that’s not all. Disney is also doing a ‘Newt Scamander’ by creating a series of spin-off ‘anthology’ films, which expand on characters and situations from the original trilogy. The first of these is Rogue One: A Star Wars Story releasing at the end of this year. This will be followed two years later by an origin story for Han Solo.

A new universe in the making that I am very excited about is the one coming from Universal Studios. This one will bring together the classic horror monsters which brought the studio great success from the 1930s to the early ’50s. If all goes according to plan, we will get to see Count Dracula, Frankenstein’s creature, The Mummy, The Wolfman, The Invisible Man, The Gill-man (from 1954’s The Creature from the Black Lagoon) and Dr. Jekyll all occupy the same cinematic space over the next few years. The first movie in the series was a bit of a misfire – Dracula Untold from 2014. Presumably the studio already knew they had a dud on their hands and therefore refrained from publicly marketing this film as part of a future franchise. Instead, they will launch the franchise with a far surer bet – a new remake of The Mummy set in modern times, starring Tom Cruise scheduled for release in 2017. Russell Crowe will appear in the movie as Dr. Jekyll, perhaps testing waters for a stand-alone Jekyll & Hyde feature. Earlier this year, it was announced that Johnny Depp would star in The Invisible Man for a 2018 release.

Meanwhile, Warner Bros. with production partner Legendary Pictures is attempting to create a universe which brings together King Kong and Godzilla. The 2014 remake of Godzilla is being treated as the first film in the ‘giant super-species cinematic universe’ to be followed by Kong: Skull Island in 2017 and Godzilla 2 in 2018.The first trailer for the former was released yesterday and showcases the powerhouse cast of Tom Hiddleston, this year’s Oscar winner Brie Larson and veteran actors Samuel L. Jackson and John Goodman. As can be expected, the trailer gives only brief and incomplete glimpses of King Kong. The Godzilla reboot cast the giant reptile as mankind’s savior against two other monsters. Fanboys refer to these monsters by their Japanese appellation kaiju, but in the film they are referred to as MUTOs (Massive Unidentified Terrestrial Organism). Obviously, we will see more MUTOs in Godzilla 2 in 2019, possibly from original rights holder Toho’s collection of baddies such as King Ghidorah, Mothra, and Rodan. And so, when Godzilla and Kong meet on-screen in 2020’s Godzilla vs. Kong, one can expect city-levelling mayhem that would put even Zack Snyder’s DC films to shame. An intriguing possibility is that Legendary Pictures may find a way to fuse this universe with Guillermo del Toro’s Pacific Rim series which it also produces. This seems highly unlikely though it would be the ultimate kaiju wet dream!

For fans of epic/ big effects films, the next few years promises to be very exciting with superheroes, monsters, aliens and giant creatures invading our theaters. Just make sure you can keep track of how they are all related to each other!

And the alternative awards go to…

Since it’s awards season, I thought I would come up with a few of my own.

The whole is greater than the sum of its parts Award

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

A familiar script and conventional special effects would not be a recipe for success these days, but combined with some earnest acting we had the most satisfying movie of the year. Full credit to director JJ Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy for figuring out the pulse of the audience.

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Best opening scene

Bridge of Spies

The wordless opening sequence shows Russian spy Rudolf Abel start the day by putting the finishing touches on a self-portrait in his cramped apartment, then step out and walk through the streets of 1950s Brooklyn on his way to a rendezvous. The lighting and composition in those few minutes in the apartment can be a visual textbook for any student of filmmaking. And you already see why actor Mark Rylance deserves that Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Best ending scene


Retired composer Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) conducts a performance of his Simple Songs, sung by Korean soprano Sumi Jo.


Nelly (Nina Hoss) sings Speak Low and her husband slowly realizes who she is; the phoenix has risen from its ashes.

Danny Collins

Danny Collins (Al Pacino) and his son (Bobby Cannavale) wait for the doctor’s verdict.

Infinitely Polar Bear

Cam Stuart’s (Mark Ruffalo) playful emotional blackmail almost works as his two daughters choose a play date over his offer to go boating on a beautiful day

Most disturbing/ unresolved ending

Z for Zachariah

John (Chiwetel Ejiofor) and Ann (Margot Robbie) lose their innocence in the garden of Eden

Best post-credits scene


Shameik Moore shows us his moves to The Humpty Dance by the Digital Underground. Pharrel Williams and Sean Combs were executive producers for this delightful coming-of-age dramedy.

Most horrifying scene

Agu’s (Abraham Attah) first kill (Beasts of No Nation)

Most emotional moment

Rocky confronts his own mortality in Creed

Mark Ruffalo and Zoe Saldanha break down as they try to figure out their lives towards the end of Infinitely Polar Bear

Best dance sequence

Oscar Isaac and Sonoya Mizuno boogie to Get Down Saturday Night in Ex Machina.

Best action sequence

Everything in Mad Max: Fury Road

Everything in Sicario

Everything in The Revenant

Best single shot

Adonis Creed and his team enter the ring for his title fight against Ricky Conlan; the camera follows them from the back room through the corridor into the packed stadium. Goosebumps.

Most disappointing character

Captain Phasma from Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Best (wordless) introduction to a character

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance) in Bridge of Spies

Most over-the-top characters

Daisy Domergue played by Jennifer Jason Leigh (The Hateful Eight)

Coma-Doof Warrior played by Australian musician iOTA (Mad Max: Fury Road); check out the montage of scenes below

Best dialogue

Far From the Madding Crowd

“I shouldn’t mind being a bride at a wedding if I could be one without getting a husband!”

“It is difficult for a woman to define her feelings in language which is chiefly made by men to express theirs.”

Best songs

Straight Outta Compton (songs by NWA)

Best color palette

The Danish Girl 

DP Danny Cohen captures the beauty of the Dutch skies and architecture while set decorator Michael Standish, production designer Eve Stewart and costume designer Paco Delgado skillfully coordinate the interior look (all 3 have been Oscar-nominated)

The Man from UNCLE

Costume designer Joanne Johnston and set decorator Elli Griff bring to life a glorious Italian summer by clothing their glamorous stars in 60s’ high fashion


DP Luca Bigazzi juxtaposes the cool beauty of the Swiss Alps and the opulence of a luxury resort against the barren lives of its residents

Most ubiquitous male actor

32-year-old Irish actor Domnhall Gleeson seemed to be everywhere this year. He played the naïve programmer who stumbles onto a dark secret in Ex Machina, the evil but needy General Hux in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, the well-meaning commander of an ill-fated hunting party in The Revenant and the attractive Rugby player who steals Saoirse Ronan’s heart in Brooklyn. He is the son of veteran character actor Brendan Gleeson. Harry Potter fans may remember him as the oldest Weasley son Bill from the last 2 films.

Most ubiquitous female actress

27-year-old Swedish actress Alicia Vikander is one of the most talented young actresses around today. She was an eerily sentient robot in Ex Machina, portrayed British pacifist Vera Brittan in Testament of Youth and played sassy East German auto mechanic turned spy Gaby Teller in the big-budget revival of The Man from UNCLE. She ended the year with an Oscar-nominated performance in The Danish Girl as Gerda Wegener, the Dutch painter who stood by her husband during his tragic transgender journey. She also had a supporting role in the little seen Bradley Cooper flop Burnt.

Important films

Irrespective of the level of critical acclaim, entertainment value or filmmaking quality (all of which are very good), I consider these 3 films to be essential viewing for their subject matter


The story of how the Boston Globe uncovered widespread cases of child abuse by Catholic priests in the Boston area and the efforts by the Church to protect the offenders. This documentary-style, no frills movie features pitch-perfect acting. The lack of melodrama makes the story even more hard-hitting.

Beasts of No Nation

Set in a West African country torn by civil war, this is a fictitious account of a how a young boy is separated from his family and forced to become a child soldier. Loss of innocence on every level. This movie features mainly non-actors (plus a brilliant Idris Elba) and at times is unwatchable for the real-life horror it puts on screen.


Set in the middle years of the suffragette movement, this is the story of a laundry shop worker (Carey Mulligan) who is drawn to the cause by sheer chance. As her involvement grows, her husband throws her out and she undergoes many physical and mental trials; all of which further strengthen her resolve. Although a work of fiction, it showcases the ridiculous attitudes that existed towards women’s rights in the early 1900s.

When beloved characters return to the screen after decades

With Star Wars: The Force Awakens and Creed opening within weeks of each other, we are getting a chance to see our beloved characters return to screen nearly 40 years after we first got to know them. Rocky came to theatres in December 1976 and Star Wars followed 6 months later.

Harrison Ford was last seen playing Han Solo in Return of the Jedi in 1983. Although I have seen the actor in countless movies over the years, it was still a shock for me to see an old Han Solo (and Leia Organa) on screen 30 years later. They never got their happily-ever-after. Although Mr. Ford the actor, looks incredibly spry and youthful for a 73-year-old, Han Solo the character carries emotional wear and tear beneath his usual cocky façade. Likewise, the feisty, glowing Princess Leia has been replaced by a world-weary, hard-faced General Organa.

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We all love fairy tales and the closing line ‘they all lived happily ever after’; it’s the only way to escape the realities of time that we are all subject to. The original trilogy played out like a fairy tale but because this latest episode has been shot 32 years later and uses the same actors, we are harshly reminded what real life is like. I respect the filmmakers for going there, but feel sorry for myself; it felt like a loss of innocence, like the time a child first understands the concepts of ageing and death.

Unlike the big 30 year gap for Han Solo and Leia Organa, boxer Rocky Balboa has made more frequent visits to the big-screen, with the last one – Rocky Balboa – released in 2006. For me personally though, the last film I watched was Rocky IV from 1985. So it was the same shocking experience of seeing a once-unbeatable man reduced to a shuffling shadow of his former self (well-played by 69-year-old Stallone who in real life is in great shape!). Creed is an excellent film; mature and measured, it packs an emotional punch. It is the coming-of-age story of Apollo Creed’s son, but equally compelling is the story of Rocky. His team is no more – his wife, his brother-in-law, his trainer, his rivals are all gone. He lives by himself, with only his memories. Yes, the unexpected appearance of the son of his late rival-turned-friend gives Rocky something to work towards. Even so, both his spirit and his flesh seem to have trouble rising up to the challenge. At the end of the movie, Creed Jr. helps Rocky climb those famous steps up to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the ones that he ran up so easily as a young man. It’s a poignant ending, both hopeful and uncertain.

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With both these films, I experienced the ageing of these characters in two snapshots separated by 25-30 years and it seemed to amplify my own personal experiences and fears related to growing older. I know there are plenty of US TV shows which have run continuously for decades, with the same actors ageing side-by-side with the viewers. I haven’t watched these shows and even if I did, I doubt the impact would be as strong, simply because we are seeing them continuously over a period of time.

The only other lead character I am aware of who has been played by the same actor over an extended period is François Truffaut’s on-screen alter ego Antoine Doinel. First seen in the iconic The 400 Blows (1959), actor Jean-Pierre Léaud returns in 3 more feature films spread over 20 years. I have seen the first and the last movies. The first had a poignant ending, with the famous freeze-frame of the 12-year-old Doinel facing an uncertain future after running away from a reform school. It kept me awake for many nights, wondering how this child could possibly survive on his own in a cruel uncaring world. Twenty years later, against all odds, Doinel is living a normal life, dealing mostly with challenges in his love life. Although I should have been happy for him, given how the ending of the first film had affected me, I actually felt a bit let down that the intensity had not been maintained in the sequel! So, this was the reverse of the Star Wars and Rocky experience – first because the character has only aged from 12 to 32 and second because he seems to be in a better place in his adulthood than he was in his youth.

It is worth referring to Granada TV’s well known socio-cinematic experiment, the Up documentary series. Starting with Seven Up! in 1964, this series of documentaries chronicles the lives of 14 individuals, starting when they were 7 years old and revisited every 7 years since. The latest instalment in the series is 56 Up released in 2012. All except the first one have been directed by British director Michael Apted (himself now 74 years old). I haven’t watched any of them, but I imagine that anyone who has watched some or all of them in real time over the years would have experienced the same emotional effect that I did with Han Solo and Rocky Balboa. Richard Linklater did something similar with Boyhood, although he shot the scenes over several years and cut it all into one film. So it’s not the same experience for the viewers. Of course, it also depends on the film; Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return as Terminator after a 12 year gap in Terminator Genisys this year didn’t get anyone emotional.

Knowing how Hollywood works, studios must be wondering which hit movies from the 1980s would be worth creating a sequel for, provided the original actors are still alive and willing to return. For example, could we get to see 50 year old Marty McFly in Back to the Future IV? Or a 53 year old Matthew Broderick in Ferris Bueller’s Son’s Day Off? It would be interesting to see what Michael Dorsey aka Tootsie is doing at the age of 78. Did he and Julie stay together and get their happily ever after?

I think some stories are indeed better left in the realm of fairy tales.

The Force is indeed strong with this one (SPOILER FREE)

Yes, I’ve already seen two other websites use this headline for their Star Wars story today, but I think it’s appropriate enough that a few more will be repeating it through this weekend.

After the first full trailer earlier this year, I avoided watching any of subsequent trailers or visiting message boards about Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The only exception was that I knew in advance where Daniel Craig’s invisible cameo would happen. You will neither see his face, nor recognize his voice; but it’s an entertaining and important moment from a narrative point of view and he will be forever grateful to JJ Abrams for this gift!

I didn’t catch the first 2 films on the big screen and although I saw Return of the Jedi in the theatre in Bangalore in 1985, I just can’t remember the moment when the crawl came up on screen along with John Williams’ iconic theme (for the academically minded, I highly recommend this excellent article published yesterday by Billboard on why this score is so powerful). When I went back to the theatre in 1999 for the re-release of the original film, I felt the full force of emotions during those first few seconds. I had a similar (even stronger) experience during the opening exposition of The Lord of the Rings in December 2001. Well, it was the same feeling last night as three years of hope and prayers were finally fulfilled; in fact a cheer went up in the audience already when the Lucasfilm logo came up!

The opening scene which introduces a couple of the new characters and later, the extended introduction to the central character Rey (Daisy Ridley, pictured below with John Boyega and BB-8) are pitch perfect. I had mentioned in my series of posts about next gen British actresses that this film could be a springboard to a successful career for Ms. Ridley. Based on what I’ve seen, I believe we have just been introduced to a major new acting talent. Rey is the heart of this film; it’s her coming-of-age story just as the original trilogy was Luke Skywalker’s. Every scene she’s in carries weight because she is able to project a mélange of emotions – hope, despair, resilience, fear, determination, pride, love – giving us a sense of her character’s backstory. I can’t remember the last time I have felt this strongly about a major big-screen debut and I sincerely hope that she will be able to realize her tremendous potential.

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The new villain Kylo Ren (played by Adam Driver, pictured below with General Hux and Captain Phasma) will be Rey’s nemesis through this trilogy. This is a more nuanced villain than Darth Vader, but equally hateful…perhaps even more so because of what happens in this film.

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In fact, full marks to the filmmakers for all the casting. Just as it was with the original trilogy, the fresh young faces (Daisy Ridley and John Boyega) and the rising young actors (Adam Driver, Domhnall Gleeson and Oscar Isaac) are excellent in their roles. The non-human characters like Maz Kanata (voiced by Lupita Nyong’o), Unkar Plutt (voiced by Simon Pegg, sounding uncannily like the butler from Downton Abbey, I thought) and Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis doing his usual evil thing) are brought to life either through prosthetics or mo-cap CGI. No worries about a bumbling Jar-Jar Binks or a whiny Annakin Skywalker or an emotionally repressed Padmé Amidala here. And of course, the new generation BB-8 astromech droid steals the show, expressing a much wider range of emotions and solving all the mobility issues that George Lucas faced with R2-D2. This droid is truly an engineering marvel and I imagine that for those who don’t mind spending USD 150 on a ‘toy’, this will be a must-have purchase for the family.

The plot is easy to follow unlike that of the prequels. As with any JJ Abrams film, pace, editing and action are all top notch. It’s only towards the end of Maz Kanata’s castle sequence when several of the characters were at a loose end about what to do next, that I felt it was the scriptwriters who were unsure about what to do with the dialogue! There are of course, copycat situations from the beloved original trilogy and I think this was necessary to give hard core fans a ‘soft landing’ into the new trilogy. I suspect that the next two films will dispense with these and will take on a style and tone of their own. The original trilogy achieved this variety simply because The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi were directed by different directors with their own filmmaking style. Likewise, Episode VIII will be directed by Rian Johnson and Episode XI by Colin Trevorrow. Johnson has directed 3 very different films – a noir thriller, a caper comedy and a time-travel scifi thriller (Brick, The Brothers Bloom and Looper). It’s notable that he has written the scripts for all of these and will have a writing credit for both the upcoming Star Wars sequels. Colin Trevorrow directed an indie scifi film called Safety Not Guaranteed and then hit the big time with Jurassic World this year.

A few words about the visual effects. I respect JJ Abrams’ approach of moving back to more practical effects and doing away with the overly digitized look of the prequels; this once again looks like a lived-in world rather than a video game. However, the fact is that while the first Star Wars invented a new category of special effects 40 years ago, the new film does not create a breakthrough of the same magnitude. In the past 30 years, we have had the water pseudopod in The Abyss, the liquid metal man in Terminator 2, the CGI dinosaurs of Jurassic Park, the bullet-time action sequences in The Matrix and a fully expressive CGI character Gollum in The Lord of the Rings. In terms of movie formats, it was Avatar that ushered in the new 3D era in 2009 and filmmakers like Christopher Nolan and Michael Bay who have leveraged the IMAX format impressively with The Dark Knight, Inception, Interstellar and the Transformer sequels. Even in 2015, the most unique visual experience I had would probably be Mad Max: Fury Road. So, there is no single unique or memorable visual effect in The Force Awakens, but safe to say the movie is not poorer for it; I think it was a choice to focus on the story/ characters and not create any visual gimmicks.

So, a huge round of applause to JJ Abrams and Kathleen Kennedy for delivering on this movie. Disney had a USD 4 billion investment in Lucasfilm at stake. Long term fans had been burned by the prequels (which have not improved in perception with time). But now, everything is well set up for 4 more years of Star Wars films – the sequels in 2017 and 2019, a standalone film titled A Star Wars Story: Rogue One next December (featuring Felicity Jones) and a Han Solo adventure film (wonder who they will cast as a young Solo) in 2018.

PS: Here’s a wonderful picture of the cast at a table reading at the start of the project.

Why some film makers ‘lose it’ – Hubris or Exhaustion?

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This weekend I read a couple of articles related to M. Night Shyamalan and Cameron Crowe, two of my favourite film makers from the late 1990s/ early 2000s. Shyamalan has finally found some mild success with his new TV show Wayward Pines after several years in the Hollywood wilderness with a string of critical and commercial flops. Cameron Crowe I think is still in the wilderness with his latest film Aloha opening this weekend to scathing reviews and tepid box office numbers.

Shyamalan released The Sixth Sense when he was 29 and was nominated for Best Director and Best Original Screenplay Oscar. He had also written the screenplay for much beloved Stuart Little the same year. He then released the widely praised superhero origin movie Unbreakable before hitting even bigger box office heights with the alien invasion thriller Signs. Around this time, Newsweek ran a cover story referred to him as ‘the next Spielberg’. Indeed, like Spielberg and a few other celebrity directors, studios could market a film on his name alone, as they did with subsequent releases like The Village and Lady in the Water. Things went steadily downhill and for his last film After Earth in 2013, the studio famously left Shyamalan’s name off the marketing material.

At the tender age of 22, Cameron Crowe made his mark in Hollywood when his book Fast Times at Ridgemont High was adapted into a sleeper hit film that kick-started the careers of actors like Nic Cage, Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker. Ten years later, he directed his first film, the rom-com Say Anything followed by another rom com Singles, set during the Seattle grunge scene. Both were very well received and were relatively profitable given their low budgets. Crowe then hit the big time with two back-to-back studio films, Jerry Maguire and Almost Famous. The latter was based on his own experiences as a writer for Rolling Stone magazine in the 70s…can you imagine in today’s world a 16-year-old being officially commissioned by a respected industry magazine to go on the road with a mega rock band like Allman Brothers, surrounded by road crew, groupies and who knows what else? He was nominated for Best Screenplay for both these films and won for Almost Famous. Then what? Vanilla Sky, an adaptation of the Spanish thriller Abre los Ojos came across as nothing more than an emotion-less vehicle for Tom Cruise, probably known more for its elaborate shot featuring Cruise running through a deserted Times Square. Subsequent films Elizabethtown, We Bought a Zoo and now Aloha have brought in steadily diminishing returns.

Both these film makers are great writers and storytellers, established their credentials with original material (something that critics are constantly crying out for in Hollywood) and yet, just when they seemed to be reaching their peak, something happens and now they can do nothing right. Is it hubris? Quite likely that was the case with Shyamalan when he thought he could do no wrong after the Newsweek article and the global success of Signs. Is it creative exhaustion? Could be the case with Crowe; by the time he finished making Vanilla Sky, he had been writing, traveling and making films for 30 years and with an Oscar under his belt, he may have just run out of juice.

There are two similar cases from an earlier era – William Friedkin and George Lucas. Like Shyamalan, Friedkin was the director who could do no wrong, winning the Best Director Oscar for the French Connection and being nominated again or The Exorcist 2 years later. He then let it all go to his head and made the movie that ruined him – Sorcerer, an adaptation of the classic French thriller The Wages of Fear. His obsessiveness sent the film over budget and lost a lot of money for the studios. He became box office poison after that and was ‘reduced’ to becoming a director-for-hire, mainly for TV material. Ironically, the box office failure of Sorcerer was attributed to the unexpected success of another film released a few weeks earlier – Star Wars. We all know how George Lucas emerged as a hero of the 1970’s indie film scene, a true American auteur with two films THX 1138 and American Graffiti before changing the commercial landscape of Hollywood with Star Wars. He was double-nominated for Best Screenplay and Best Director Oscars for both American Graffiti and Star Wars. His creative streak continued with the rest of the Star Wars trilogy and the birth of Indiana Jones, but when he came back in his mid-50s to direct the new trilogy, it was clear that the creative force was spent. Who could blame him, considering the creative empire he had built in the past 30+ years.

For me, these stories highlight the two enemies of creativity – arrogance and exhaustion – and how it is so difficult to escape from both when working in the Hollywood studio system. I think about two other young film makers of today who appear to be in danger of falling into one or the other of these pits – Neill Blomkamp and Josh Trank. Blomkamp released the highly acclaimed short film Alive in Joburg at 27, which he then made into full length feature District 9 three years later for which he received an Oscar nom for Best Screenplay. His two subsequent films Elysium and Chappie have disappointed and we now wait with bated breath for his new take on the Alien franchise to see if he’s still got it. Josh Trank burst onto the scene at the age of 28 with the found footage superhero film Chronicle, but there are already disturbing rumours swirling around his upcoming 2nd film Fantastic Four and he’s been thrown out of the director’s chair of an upcoming Star Wars Anthology film. Hollywood will forgive you for making movies that no one wants to see or movies that are bad (there’s a difference between the two) but not for being a difficult person to work with; I think that’s pretty much the case in any industry, right?

It’s when reflecting on cases like these that one develops such overwhelming respect for the long-lived success stories, the ones who are able to maintain the steady level of commercially successful, critically acclaimed output year after year AND are considered desirable to work with by the movie making community. I’m talking about the likes of Steven Spielberg (first hit Jaws – 1975, latest hit Lincoln – 2012), Ron Howard (first hit Splash – 1984, latest hit Angels & Demons – 2009), Robert Zemeckis (first hit Romancing the Stone – 1984, latest hit Flight – 2012), Peter Jackson (first hit Heavenly Creatures – 1994, latest hit The Hobbit: BOTFA – 2014), Bryan Singer (first hit The Usual Suspects – 1995, latest hit X-Men: DOFP – 2014) and of course, my man James Cameron (first hit The Terminator – 1984, latest hit Avatar – 2009). All of them have survived ups and downs and continue to work on great new projects into their 3rd, 4th or even 5th decade in the business.