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Rating History

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens
22 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

"That is not dead which can eternal lie" - the immortal line from H. P. Lovecraft's The Call of Cthulhu, which has increasingly become the mantra of Hollywood executives. The seemingly endless wave of remakes, reboots, re-imaginings and redundant sequels was bound to hit the Star Wars franchise sooner or later. It took less than ten years after Revenge of the Sith brought the ghastly prequel saga to a sorry conclusion for the powers-to-be (in this case Disney) to decide that audiences would be ready for another instalment or three.

Disney's acquisition of Star Wars from George Lucas, coupled with the involvement of J. J. Abrams, gave the sci-fi community and the film-going public reason to have positive expectations about this series again. Having already convinced themselves, like long-suffering Highlander fans, that things at least couldn't get any worse, the hype steadily grew as the old cast members returned and more and more details were affectionately teased. It seemed as though everyone was pinning their hopes on this film working, as though it was the last great hope that Star Wars could one day be good again. Sadly, that last great hope has ended up as just another version of A New Hope, leaving us dazzled by the modern visuals but otherwise disappointed.

It's true that I was initially dismissive of Disney's decision to buy Star Wars, back in the days when I regularly wrote for WhatCulture!. It's also true that I have never been the biggest fan of Abrams, branding him "the master of hype" and "our generation's Wizard of Oz", who is capable of making flashy, tempting trailers but less capable at telling original stories. But as someone who looks upon the originals fondly - or at least acknowledges their deserved place in cinema history - I still count myself among those wanting this to be good, rather than hoping that it would fail outright.

The single biggest problem with The Force Awakens is how desperately and despairingly unoriginal it is. It's positively flabbergasting how a film like this can be hailed as a masterpiece when it feels for all the world like watching a bunch of children dressing up and re-enacting their version of A New Hope. The toys may be faster, and the Death Star-that's-not-but-actually-is might be bigger, but it's still essentially A New Hope with modern-day editing. Whether you look at A New Hope as a Star Wars film or as a love letter to adventure stories, it still holds up well enough (for all its problems) to make this feel immediately superfluous.

I will give Abrams some credit, in that it is one of his better behaved efforts in terms of the camerawork. There is less of the irritating lens flare that there was on Star Trek or Super 8, and the action sequences don't look like they were assembled purely for the basis of making the trailer look exciting. But that being said, it's clear that the two 'Trek films he made were essentially just practice for this. The lightspeed sequences here are almost identical to the hyperspace sequences from Star Trek Into Darkness.

The presence of the older cast warrants a further comparison with 'Trek. There's a conscious effort here to bring back the original actors to give the project their blessing and pass the torch, just as in Star Trek Generations or certain episodes of The Next Generation TV series. There are some lovely moments here: the chats between Han Solo and Leia are the film's most human and emotional parts, and Mark Hamill's appearance, like an exiled King Arthur having Excalibur returned, is a nice touch. But their presence only serves to remind us how good the originals were, and adds doubt as to whether the new blood are good enough to hold things up on their own.

The Force Awakens is massively derivative from the outset, both in the general movements of its plot and its specific details. Jakku is just Tatooine by any other name, BB8 is R2-D2, the plans for Luke's home are the plans for the Death Star - even the early deaths are a straight lift from Anakin's vengeful slaughter in Attack of the Clones. It scores out over that film by at least pretending to break from the mould, rather than insulting our intelligence by trying to argue that everything fits in with the existing canon. But it's ironic that a film which claims to break with the Star Wars Extended Universe has ended up borrowing so nakedly from its forebears.

Not only are we in overly familiar territory, but The Force Awakens has moments where it is very unsure of itself. There are at least two occasions in the script where a dramatic situation is defused by the characters stopping to take the piss out of themselves, and both times it feels forced and underwhelming. You can't build up something as serious or significant, then slip into Spaceballs, and then back again as if nothing happened. It undercuts the stakes of the drama in a very jarring manner.

Then there is the plot to consider. On top of its overt resemblance to (and invocation of) A New Hope, The Force Awakens has several moments of narrative carelessness. The biggest one is the scene with Darth Vader's helmet; we don't get any explanation as to how Kylo Ren got it, or how it survived being incinerated at the end of Return of the Jedi, it's just foisted upon us because it's a dramatic image. Additionally, the film makes us feel like Poe is dead less than 30 minutes in, and then provides no explanation for his survival when he turns up again. The original trilogy had plot problems too, but at least the big stuff was explained away sufficiently to maintain our suspension of disbelief.

This lack of complete care translates into the character construction as well. Rey as a character is a welcome addition to the franchise; Daisy Ridley makes the character fun and appealing, her interplay with Finn is amusing and well-written, and she is undisputedly the lead for two thirds of her screentime. But having started on so strong a footing, the filmmakers chicken out about halfway through and turn her into a damsel in distress whom Finn has to rescue. It's all well and good that Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan wanted to make Star Wars more diverse and equal ops, but surely the more interesting angle would be for Rey to use the Force to rescue Finn?

The character disappointment also seeps through into the villains, which range from good to bafflingly timid. At the good end, we have General Hux; Domhnall Gleeson gives a committed and ambitious performance, believably conveying someone who is power mad and intimidating. In the middle is Snoke, realised by Andy Serkis; it's fine, though at this stage it's little more than Palpatine's appearance in The Empire Strikes Back with snazzier graphics.

And then, at the bad end, we have Kylo Ren, who is little short of pitiful as a villain. As much as the trailers tried to make him threatening, he's ultimately just Darth Helmet, trying to be all big and terrifying but coming across as anything but. As Sylvester Stallone found out in Judge Dredd, walking around with a bucket on your head stops being scary if you're just going to keep taking it off. In the climactic lightsaber duel in the snow, his long hair and gormless expression may him look like a wetter, less capable version of Prince Caspian from The Chronicles of Narnia, and the film's attempts to set up daddy issues with Luke feel very half-baked.

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is a disappointing and derivative start to the new Star Wars trilogy. It cuts the mustard as two hours of empty popcorn fun, and it is slightly better written than Revenge of the Sith, but after all the hype and promise it needed to be a whole lot better. The involvement of Looper director Rian Johnson in the upcoming Episode VIII does leave some cause for hope, just as The Empire Strikes Back managed to improve by having a different director. But putting that and Rogue One out of our minds for a moment, this film remains staggeringly mediocre.

Die Hard
Die Hard (1988)
34 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

We are rapidly approaching Christmas, and with it comes the usual slew of articles and listicles about the greatest Christmas films. And regardless of what film may top said lists - Whistle Down The Wind would be my personal choice - there is one thing of which you can almost be certain: Die Hard will be somewhere on those lists. In the 29 years since it first graced the silver screen, John McTiernan's tour de force has become regarded not just as one of the definitive 1980s action films, but also the definitive alternative Christmas film.

It is tempting to presume, in light of all its inferior sequels featuring an increasingly uninterested Bruce Willis, that the original has become a victim of its own hype. We remember it as being great, not because it is great, but because everything that has tried to imitate it has paled in comparison. It is certainly true, with the benefit of hindsight, that it is not quite the best action film of the 1980s; Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade would take that crown, with Raiders and Mad Max 2 vying for second place. But it remains a really entertaining, well-assembled spectacle, with humour, bravado and efficiency to spare.

One of the little-known bits of trivia about Die Hard is that it was quite closely based on a novel. An awful lot of the structure and storyline of Robert Thorp's 1979 thriller Nothing Lasts Forever has survived in the finished film; many of the character names remain the same, the plot still revolves around terrorists attacking a corporation's headquarters at Christmas, and some of the set-pieces are replicated exactly, including the sequence with the C4 in the lift.

Thorp had written Nothing Lasts Forever as a follow-up to his 1966 novel The Detective, and had hopes that any film version would star Frank Sinatra, who had played the titular character in 1968. Sinatra, who was 64 when the novel came out, declined the role despite the acclaim which the original film had received. The project was subsequently declined by Sylvester Stallone, Don Johnson, Harrison Ford and Arnold Schwarzenegger (though stories of it being shaped as a sequel to Commando have been denied by co-writer Steven E. de Souza). The script was eventually retooled as a stand-alone and the studio took a big gamble on Bruce Willis, then best known for his work on the TV series Moonlighting.

One of the single biggest assets of Die Hard is the simplicity of its execution. While McTiernan's previous work Predator took a long time to figure out what kind of film it was, it's very easy to get into the zone with Die Hard. The good guys and bad guys are clearly defined, the action unspools at an efficient yet methodical pace, and the editing manages to keep things sharp while resisting endless fast cuts or needlessly complex camera angles. It is, as Mark Kermode once described it, "cowboys and indians in The Towering Inferno" - a reference to the fact that Thorp's novel was originally inspired by the John Guillermin film, produced by 'the master of disaster' Irwin Allen.

In light of this, the phrase that springs to mind about Die Hard is that it "comes from a simpler time". The argument goes that it was made during the Cold War, when we knew exactly who our enemies were, and at a time before technology and digital surveillance superseded macho, hot-headed mavericks who could take down said enemies single-handed, a la James Bond or Riggs and Murtagh in Lethal Weapon. You couldn't make an old-school action film like Die Hard today, just as you couldn't make an old-school western after Unforgiven. Audiences are increasingly aware of how complex and nebulous the world and people are, and just falling back on lazy stereotypes isn't going to cut it any more.

This is an enticing line of reasoning, especially given the popularity of films like Skyfall, The Bourne Ultimatum and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which focus on infiltration, betrayal and the system turning on itself to justify its existence. But while the argument broadly holds up, there are certain aspects of Die Hard which remain relevant, if not forward-looking. The terrorists who hold up the Nakatomi Plaza are not after political power or ethnic cleansing; they have financial motivations, foreshadowing the electronic terrorism of Goldeneye or the rise of hacking in the internet age.

The film also teases the idea of such groups using politics as a means of leverage rather than a goal in itself. Hans Gruber makes demands regarding the freedom fighters (which he only knows about because of Time magazine) to distract the authorities - a tactic that could easily be employed by contemporary terrorists, using awkward relationships between states to buy time for their own ambitions. The clash between John McClane and Gruber is to some extent one of class and culture - the earthy, street-smart, lowbrow cop against the erudite, snobbish and book-smart criminal.

One of the most common complaints made about action films, both then and now, is that they come with such poorly-written characters that the audience has nothing to connect them to the pyrotechnics. Characters in such films are often written so closely to an archetype - the hero, the villain, the love interest and so on - that they lack distinctive personality traits, and with it the ability to behave in an empathetic, idiosyncratic manner. Die Hard may be structured as a straightforward fight between good and evil, but the characters feel three-dimensional, with flaws and foibles which keep them memorable and make the film all the more rewarding on repeat viewing.

German film critic Philipp Bühler said, very accurately, that McClane works as a character not because of his strengths, but because he is vulnerable. Writing in Movies of the 80s, he said: "He's scared of flying, and he's scared of a world that no longer has a place for men like him... What distinguished him from human tanks like Schwarzenegger and Stallone was his sensitivity and vulnerability, which helped make Die Hard an action movie for people who don't generally like action movies." I said in my review of Red 2 that Willis often betrays in his performances how much he really wants to be in a given film. Here, his performance is disciplined, responsive and very convincing, and besides Twelve Monkeys it remains his finest hour.

Alan Rickman's career-making performance as Gruber is a similar indication of the quality of the script. Rickman's villainous turns often get lumped together in such a way that they have become a pastiche of the archetype, but there is a world of difference between Gruber and the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. The Sheriff is nothing more than an over-the-top, pantomime bad guy, whose hilariously drawn-out death throes give Nordberg's calamities in Naked Gun a run for their money. Even when he's bellowing "where are my detonators?!", Gruber is a more complex, guarded and reptilian beast, who teeters between funny and terrifying thanks to a script which gives the character sufficient scope to explore motivations and pressure points in depth.

As far as its spectacle is concerned, Die Hard still holds up extremely well thanks to its use of physical effects. The set used for the Nakatomi Plaza was at the time the headquarters of 20th Century Fox, with several scenes being shot on floors which were still under construction. Not only did this give McTiernan the power to wreck things as he saw fit (captured by Paul Verhoeven's cinematographer-of-choice Jan de Bont), it also brings an organic sense of entropy to proceedings which CGI cannot match. The injuries McClane sustains are mirrored by the growing destruction of property, and all the set-pieces connect and flow beautifully.

For all its good points, Die Hard does have a couple of flaws which somewhat tarnish its glowing reputation. Roger Ebert, who did not like the film, made a valid point about the role of the police as the action unfolds. The stupidity of Al's boss, and by extension the journalists and the FBI, serve as a distraction from the central conflict and undermine the script's hard work on making the central characters relatable. Al himself is likeable enough, but he's still an unnecessary concession to generic convention, and the resolution of his arc is far too neat.

The other flaw with Die Hard is its ending. McClane's fight with Karl has such a fitting climax that to bring him back seemingly from the dead for one last jump-scare moment is cheap and unnecessary. After that, the film winds down into standard, American yuletide schmaltz; having held off for so long, it suddenly remembers that it's Christmas and gives us a jarring, sentimental ending, rather than saying true to the novel and letting McClane die. We forgive the film of these fumbles because of how good it has been up until then, but it's still a shame to finish things off so illogically.

Die Hard remains one of the must-see films of the 1980s, being an action film with brains and heart rather than just brawn. Willis is excellent in the role which made him a star, ably supported by Rickman, and it remains as entertaining on the first watch as it does on the 50th. Aside from a few niggling flaws, it is both an easy film to relax into and a must-see for anyone interested in the language of Hollywood cinema. Whatever happens to John McClane in the future, this will always be the gold standard.

Suicide Squad
Suicide Squad (2016)
40 days ago via Rotten Tomatoes

It's increasingly hard to remember a time when every superhero film made wasn't made as part of a wider universe, as instalments in an ever-growing web designed to bring the head-scrambling continuity of comics to the big screen. Even with the enormous success of Christopher Nolan's Gotham trilogy, the modern approach to the comic book blockbuster is for each film to form a mere link in a seemingly infinite chain. Depending on your viewpoint, the consistency present within the Marvel Cinematic Universe is either God's gift to fandom or an accountant's wet dream, with Marvel Films churning out instalments which are marketed to the hilt as big events while essentially telling the same story over and over again.

Suicide Squad is the third instalment of DC's Extended Universe, a.k.a. the biggest and perhaps most pointless game of catch-up in cinema history. Following the mixed reception for both Man of Steel and Batman vs Superman: Dawn of Justice, this was hyped to the gills as the time when DC would get it right. In hindsight, it's a good thing that Wonder Woman game along the year after to set things on the proper path; while it has much by way of disposable spectacle, it amounts to little more in the end than a disappointing muddle.

Even a relative outsider like myself, whose knowledge of DC Comics comes primarily from film adaptations, can see the potential in Suicide Squad's basic story. There is a rich tradition in Hollywood and trash cinema of a disreputable bunch of heavies - whether criminals, ex-soldiers or anything else - who are sent into the pits of hell to carry out a task that no-one else wants to do. That basic premise has inspired everything from The Dirty Dozen to Escape From New York - not to mention the 1978 revenge film Inglorious Bastards and Quentin Tarantino's similarly titled effort.

While its basic premise may amount to The Dirty Dozen in hot pants, the influence of Tarantino is writ large over Suicide Squad. This is particularly the case during the set-pieces, in which the prevalence of pop music in the soundtrack is combined with dark humour and a devil-may-care approach to violence (albeit framed for a 15 certificate). Sometimes this works rather nicely, such as during Harley Quinn's fight scene in the lift, but a lot of the time the song choices feel all too obvious or the action to accompany them is very routine. For all his faults, Tarantino always had an ear for the disjunct between music and the visual image, and there is nothing in here as witty as the Stealers' Wheel section of Reservoir Dogs.

There are other derivative touches on show as well. Cara Delevigne's performance isn't great by itself; she is visually striking, but doesn't have the deep-rooted charisma needed to wade through the special effects which grow as the film rolls on. The entire climax borrows heavily from the Galadriel scenes in The Fellowship of the Ring and by extension The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies. The witch's entire appearance is all too close to Cate Blanchett's 'dark queen' look, right down to the distorted voice, and Delevigne's dancing and arm-waving only serves to make the whole thing sillier. As if that wasn't enough, the monsters which serve as the Squad's cannon fodder resemble nothing more than pumped-up versions of the Jagaroth from the celebrated Doctor Who serial City of Death.

If you go into Suicide Squad expecting depth to rival Nolan's Batman films, you will obviously be disappointed. But even setting that aside, it is sad at just how shallow and lacking in motivation the film is. David Ayer's presence behind the camera has been a major talking point; for all the qualities of his previous films, he is essentially a workmanlike gun-for-hire, who occasionally seems lost in the more fantastical elements of the DC world. The real auteur of this film is executive producer Zack Snyder; the whole project is so caught up in surface and style that it either fails to find time for more or it simply cannot be arsed.

What results from Snyder's presence is a film which loves to focus on the characters' costumes and striking poses, but which is deeply repetitive. This is fine in the first ten minutes or so where the characters are being introduced and the Squad is being assembled; there's a lot of welcome black humour, particularly from a well-cast Margot Robbie, which serves to separate her version of the character from that in Batman: The Animated Series. But this section also illuminates the ongoing double standard regarding costumes in comic book films; while the man are always fully suited and booted, Harley gets relatively little with which to work.

Once the mission starts, the film settles into a very predictable rhythm. It goes as follows: something blows up or attacks, lots of gunfire, then quiet, repeat until they get to the witch. Conceding to formula so easily, without resistance or hesitation, has the effect of halting any real character development; the characters begin as the supposed epitome of bad taste and tough talking, and stay that stand-offish ad nauseum. By the time we get to the bar scene, we're willing them to get with things so much that we don't really mind whether they grow as people or not, and at the end of the film everything goes (more or less) back to the way things were.

In the face of this boilerplate tedium, you might expect Jared Leto's performance as the Joker to be just the lift that things need. There's no denying that he's visually striking, borrowing heavily from Marilyn Manson with just a touch of Alice Cooper thrown in for good measure. But while he's psychotic enough to be scary and unpredictable, he ultimately lacks the flashes of coherent insight which made Heath Ledger's Joker work. Both incarnations deal in chaos, but one is a dangerous mastermind while the other is a gun-happy playboy.

In the midst of all this mediocrity, there are things about Suicide Squad which are enjoyable. Like the early Harry Potter films, the main saving grace is the cast itself. It's nice to see Will Smith playing against type without making a big deal of it, and Robbie's performance does have a gleeful quality which sets it apart. The rest of the ensemble struggle to get the character development or screentime they deserve, but they all have little moments when they impress.

The film also has a number of moments which are very visually impressive. The best of these is the sequence involving the Joker and Harley kissing in the vat of chemicals as their respective colours blend together. It's a nice, macabre twist on the traditional origin story of the Joker which gets across the characters' insanity but also how much the latter cares for the former (whether it's reciprocated is another matter). There is enough artistry in moments like this and sections of the subway fight which makes you wonder why there isn't more of it in the finished film.

Suicide Squad is a disappointment which shows how far DC has to go to reach either Marvel's consistency or Nolan's brilliance. For all the moments in which it comes together, whether visually or narratively, it's marred by a poor script, derivative aesthetics and a lack of character or soul. As muddled, bombastic, disposable fun, it gets the job done very nicely, but our end reaction is the same as that of Mark Kermode: "Is that the best you can do?".