Did We Need Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

In 1977, no one could have predicted the success of the Star Wars franchise. No one could have imagined that, almost forty years later, they would be reviving the movies for the their seventh episode – and third trilogy – and that the original cast members would be making an appearance.

I’ve been to see The Force Awakens, and the question remains: did we need it?

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Full disclosure: I really enjoyed the movie. I thought it was a lot of fun. I loved that the traditions of the original movies have remained in place, from the scrolling text to the screen wipes, to beginning with a camera pan to the first planet of interest. All of that was greatly appreciated.

It does not answer the question. When we left Luke, Leia and Han – and all the other assorted characters in the original trilogy – we were given a sense of closure. There was peace in the galaxy. Anakin Skywalker was at peace. Leia and Han could begin their relationship in earnest in the knowledge that Luke was Leia’s brother – so that was a no-go area. Even if she did already kiss him to make Han jealous.

Closure.

It would have been the perfect happy ending, if not for a little thing called the Expanded Universe. Between the countless books, various comic books, games and follow up animated television shows, Star Wars did not end with Return of the Jedi. Far from it.

Daisy Ridley as Rey
Daisy Ridley as Rey

With the first trailer of The Force Awakens, fans began putting together theories over the identities of the only-named characters we’d been introduced to – Rey, and Kylo Ren. I won’t give anything away. While a great number of people have already seen the movie, it has only been out a few days at the time of writing. But the mention duo are important for this discussion. It was who they might be that made the story appeal to so many fans so much. People needed to know if their suspicions were true, and, if they were, what was going on with these two characters.

(If you’re curious, and you’ve already seen the movie, USA Today kindly put together a list of fan theories that covers this issue. Otherwise, I’d leave it be for now. Some people have taken it upon themselves to ruin Google searches for the movie already.)

The simple fact is, simply by releasing a trailer, they’ve garnered the attention of the fans. In the removal of the canonical state of the Star Wars novels, Disney ensured that whatever story they chose to tell would not be directly influenced by the expanded universe, which filled in the gaps before, during and beyond the scope of the pre-existing movies. The end result is that, for the regular fan who doesn’t have access to all of that information on the host of characters explored in the universe, there are new stories to be told.

Kylo Ren
Kylo Ren

It isn’t certain that we really needed to have this movie exist, except that – now – it might offer younger cinema fans the opportunity to know and love the franchise in the same way people of generations before them did. The original trilogy might not have lived on for younger audiences the way it has done so far. Even the awful arrival of Jar Jar Binks into the franchise served the purpose of giving the story another episode, another opportunity to appear in the public sphere.

If, generally speaking, the third trilogy fails to capture and retain public interest, it can still serve the purpose of re-introducing Star Wars into the lives of so many people. We might not need the new story, but for the originals to survive, we do need the new fans. At least The Force Awakens achieved that much.

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Carol: Circular Narrative and Mirrored Characters

2015 has been a big year for the LGBT movement – not least of all in Ireland, with the world’s first passing of a bill legalising same-sex marriage by popular vote. In Hollywood, perhaps entirely by accident, we’ve been hit with two films that address homosexuality and transgenderism in a world not yet ready for such phenomena of social acceptance: Carol, and The Danish Girl.

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Since 2007, I’ve made it a habit of going to the cinema at least once per week; most recently, I sat down to watch Carol, not sure what to expect before heading in. I don’t read reviews before I watch a movie – my cinema has a membership card that allows me to see as many movies as I want for a monthly cost, so I don’t need to be overly picky – so I missed all the positivity that Carol had already generated, and instead went in with the mind-set that, given it’s December, we were looking at Oscar-bait. I’m of the opinion, now, that it deserves any and all nominations it receives. Be warned, while I’ve attempted to avoid specific details of the plot, there will be general spoilers in this article.

As the trailer suggests, Carol is a circular narrative. This is a fact clearly stated and barely understood until it has been seen; the film does not seek to explain itself, much in the same way that Cate Blanchett’s Carol Aird denies any explanation about herself to the people she meets throughout the events of the film. Set in the 1950s, she’s a closeted lesbian in a failed marriage, spending more time with her female friends than her husband. She’s figure of mystery and adversity, seemingly unconcerned with the consequences of her actions.

Therese Belivet, played by Rooney Mara, is her opposite. Unassuming, petite, and plainly dressed, she is everything Carol is not. Where Carol is presented as a wealthy socialite, Therese is a working girl living the daylight of New York, an aspiring photographer unwilling to accept the bonds of social pressure in the same way Carol did in her youth.

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Cate Blanchett as Carol Aird

Their lives are mirrored throughout the movie, from their simple beginnings and through their transformations. For Therese, her appearances in the park echo the changes in her life; her working life and the photographs on the way in her kitchen tell different types of stories, challenging her dreams and managing her expectations. Carol’s transformation is reflected in her lawyer’s office, in her restaurants, and in the appearances of her best friend, Abby Gerhard (Sarah Paulson). There is a role reversal in the relationship between these women from opposing worlds.

In a pair of scenes, the women look for the other in their worlds – Therese looks for Carol in the night, and Carol for Therese in the day – from the point of view of a cab, bookending the ways in which the women and their relationship changed them as people. In the beginning, they fulfil a need in the other. Therese needed direction in life, Carol needed love. As they drive through New York looking for one another at different points in the movie, we’re given the impression that what they need in someone else has changed – and neither woman feels fitting for the role, anymore.

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Rooney Mara as Therese Belivet

Alongside an incredibly powerful narrative, we’re given lingering shots of the women throughout their relationship. When they talk, when they drive, when they kiss, we are given an insight into the lives and their emotions, looking long enough at them as they listen to the other to more fully understand the weight of the words as they are spoken. The camera directs us to what is most important: how Carol and Therese make each other feel. It does not matter how one or the other looks as they speak. As their relationship is less conventional than we as an audience as used to, so too is the cinematography.

Powerful performances from Blanchett and Mara, with support from Paulson, Kyle Chandler and a host of others from Therese’s life guide us through a story that cinema needed, the normalisation of same-sex relationships on the big screen. This is a tale of love and transformation, and the effects of other people on our lives; while it seeks to challenge the romantic and sexual expectations of the women involved, such relationships are not uncommon in heterosexual circles. As Therese asks of her courter, Richard, “How many times have you been in love?”, we can be expected not to view Carol as a story of forbidden sexuality, but on the demands of love and romance on a life, and how it can bring out the best and worst in someone, regardless of gender or sexuality.

Carol has been nominated for several Golden Globes, including Best Motion Picture and Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion-Picture – Drama (both Blanchett and Mara). Have any thoughts on the film, or anything to contribute – comment away!

Chinatown: Love, Lies, and Conspiracies | Project 87

ChinatownposterChinatown hit the big screen in 1974, giving audiences a look at one of cinema’s greatest treasures in storytelling. We meet Jake Gittes (Jack Nicholson) at his office, a private investigator with a private collection of alcohol in his cupboards, and a distraught customer tearing at the blinds. He deals in break-ups, getting the dirt when the dirt in sought. This is the only thing we need to know about Gittes for a little while, before we enter a world beyond his control. (You should also note, there’ll be a few spoilers beyond this point. Consider yourself warned, if you care about that sort of thing.)

He deals in secrets and lies, and all the dangers they can cause. When Mrs Mulwray arrives at his office, we should be suspicious. She suspects her husband of cheating. When we meet Hollis Mulwray, questions begin to crop up. He’s a gentle looking man, thin and unassuming. He’s also the Chief Engineer of the LA Department of Water and Power, while the city’s gone into drought and he refuses to build a dam that might resolve the situation. There are so many triggers here that Gittes ignores, so many things that would make anyone else roll their eyes in disbelief that Hollis could be a cheater, and that anyone could even think he could manage it. He’s too public, and too decent, and still Gittes’s men find him with a woman that isn’t his wife.

Then, of course, the woman who hired Gittes to track Hollis wasn’t his wife, either. Her name is Ida Sessions, a woman whose significance remains in the dark for a large portion of the movie, beyond getting the photos from Gittes and into the paper. Enter Evelyn Mulwray, the real wife of our Chief Engineer – a man who subsequently proves incredibly difficult to get a hold of.

Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes
Jack Nicholson as Jake Gittes

When we finally get to see his face again, we’re also introduced to Luo Escobar- Gittes former partner in Chinatown. It’s alluded that Chinatown was a bad time in the PI’s life, a time he’d like to forget. Escobar’s moved up in the force, just enough that when Gittes sneaks onto private property – a freshwater reservoir – to see the body of Mulwray dragged into view, he’s able to allow Gittes to stay.

With Mulwray dead, and Gittes still considering himself a client of Evelyn’s, the threads of the story finally tie themselves together: Gittes’s new life digging up dirt meets the water crisis of LA, and his old life in Chinatown tags along for the ride. Three stories, two happening concurrently. This is why we study Chinatown, why Syd Field writes about it in such detail in Screenplay, and presumably why it made Spike Lee’s list. A complicated set of tales wove into a single movie.

Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray
Faye Dunaway as Evelyn Mulwray

Under contract with Evelyn Mulwray – and faux-Mulwray – Gittes uncovers a lot about the water conspiracy of LA. From dried up relationships to dried up water reserves, his work keeps him tangled up in the biggest political issue the movie can muster: keep the desert off the streets. LA is focused on the water – where it is, and where it isn’t. Hollis uncovered the truth before his death – it led to his death, and subsequently to the reunion of Gittes and Escobar. It was an obsession for Hollis Mulwray – always looking for water. From the beach, Echo Park, and his own back yard, and let us not forget his position in the Department, water is Hollis Mulwray’s life, right from the beginnings of his fortune, when he and Noah Cross owned the city’s water.

Cross is important. He’s a vile man, with a wicked temper, a sense of greed greater than the devil’s, and a daughter in Evelyn Mulwray. He was critical in the construction of the Alto Vallejo, which later burst – an event that resulted in Hollis’s refusal to build another reservoir for LA. He knows what will happen – or at least suspects it – and when the water is dumped from the city’s supplies during the drought, Cross enters Gittes’s sights. Cross who owned the water, and whose fishing club is revealed to support a group of elderly men and women whose names come up on Gittes’s radar.

Remember Ida Sessions? Her involvement in the case, in getting Gittes involved, resulted in her murder. Gittes receives a last note from her, to look at the obituary column. He also runs into Escobar again. Old lives cross in new stories.

Between the obituaries and the public records for land purchases in LA, the puzzle begins to fall into place. The men and women Cross supports own the desert, where the land is cheap, and none of them even know it. With Cross intending for the land to receive LA’s new reserves of water – and with Mulwray out of the picture – the plot turns towards keeping Evelyn safe. Evelyn, and the woman we once suspected of being Hollis’s girlfriend.

John Huston as Noah Cross
John Huston as Noah Cross

Her name is Katherine Cross; she’s one more reason to hate Noah, and one more reason to keep Evelyn safe. Hollis’s death was no accident, his lung’s flooded with saltwater, and Noah Cross the number one suspect. With Noah on the lookout for her, after a dirty affair years before, and both Evelyn and Katherine sent to Chinatown for protection, the threads of individual stories that tied together at Hollis’s deathbed meet the point where they’ll become untangled.

In a flurry of activity that sees Evelyn dead and Katherine leaving with Cross, Gittes’s past has finally caught up with him.

This is what we’re dealing with as an audience of Chinatown, a mish-mash of stories that somehow manage to work. Looked at together, it takes some attention to put it all into a cohesive plot. Separately, we’ve got a PI who can’t get away from the trouble he left the police force over entangled with a woman whose past relationship with her father has led to the complete downfall of her life. The history of Chinatown, and the history of the Cross family, meet in a bloody end, with Gittes dragged back into one to mingle with the other.

Chinatown is as much the story of the water crisis of LA, and the supposedly failing marriage of an engineer, as it is the story of a PI who never conquered his demons, who instead took up showing others everything wrong with their lives.

Mulwray’s death is a message no one received, but for the audience, and for readers of the script, it marks a significant turning point in the story. It’s the point at which everything comes together almost entirely by accident, and sparks the events that won’t end until the death of the second Mulwray.

We study Chinatown for the way in which these stories are told, stories of life and death, love and abuse, and the politics of need and greed. We remember it for its closing line: “Forget it, Jake. It’s Chinatown.”

Six Christmas Movies to Get You in the Mood (Whatever Your Mood)

Christmas is coming. It’s December, so it’s finally okay to admit it, to let those words come out of your mouth. As I write this, there are less than three weeks before the big day. To help get you in the mood, here are six Christmas movies, whatever sort of mood you might be in.

1. Elf

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Let’s get things started with one of my all-time favourite Christmas movies, and one of my favourite Will Ferrell movies: the tale of Buddy the Elf on a great big adventure in New York. Featuring many other things I love, like Zooey Deschanel’s singing voice, Peter Dinklage’s almighty acting talent, and book publishing, along with many critical lines such as “Smiling is my favourite” and “The best way to spread Christmas cheer is to sing out loud for all to hear”, it’s sure to get the whole family laughing.

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It also features many great gift ideas: a good book, some classic toys, clothing, and candy. Also creative gifts, like handmade decorations, or songs.

2. The Muppet Christmas Carol

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If you’re too much of a Scrooge to really get in the spirit, then meet the original Ebenezer himself. Dickens’s classic Christmas story is reinvigorated with the Muppets, and caries the plot along with whimsical music and an array of early 90s special effects.

3. Jingle All the Way

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Maybe you’d prefer a more modern example of the extents to which people go for their children. Maybe Scrooge isn’t doing it for you, and you need Arnold Schwarzenegger to make the season truly jolly. It’s cheesy, but it’s fun, and it’s held a special place in my heart since I first saw all those years ago. (I seem to recall seeing it in my Nanny’s house before she passed away, so it must have only made it onto the television a bit before that. Or I’m misremembering it.)

4. Bad Santa

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All those are very well and good for the kids. But when they’ve gone to bed, the adults need something. Something with some violence, some drinking, some swearing – a bad sort of Christmas. While some families honour the tradition of watching It’s a Wonderful Life every year, we watch Bad Santa. I never said my family was normal, but we know how to have fun.

5. Love, Actually

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For something a little bit different, try a Rom-Com on for size. It has the kid from A Game of Thrones in it, with Liam Neeson trying to be a good father. It’s one of those large-cast, many-stories sort of movies, but it manages to pace itself well enough that we get a sense of who they all are, what they want, and the different sorts of Christmases there are to be had. But before you watch it with your kids, maybe skip the opening scene.

6. A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas

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Last, and most certainly not least, the third instalment in the Harold & Kumar series. I developed a soft spot for these movies when I saw this one, with its intentionally bad 3D effects, its portrayal of Neil Patrick Harris as Straight Neil Patrick Harris, and the tale of friendship it tells over it extended arc. It’s crude, rude, and a little bit filthy, but there’s an awful lot to love about this movie. Not least of all being Jake Johnson as Jesus.

On my watch list this Christmas: Krampus and The Nightmare Before Christmas – which I still haven’t seen! What about you? What are your Christmas favourites that I should check out this year?

Seven Sci-fi Movies to See Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes to Ireland

Curated by @SimonCocking guest post by Paul Carroll

As we get closer to the holiday season, it’s coming, no matter how much we try to deny it, and, unless you’ve been living on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, the 7th coming is just around the corner. Of course if you’re living on a certain island off the South West coast of Ireland, then you’ve probably already seen some of part VIII already.

Source: Seven Sci-fi Movies to See Before Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes to Ireland

My article on Irish Tech News went live this morning. As a companion piece to my post here – 8 Sci-Fi Comedies to Watch Before The Force Awakens – I present to you a list of alien-featuring movies to accommodate for the lack of attention all the interesting aliens get in the Star Wars movies.

Even the most annoying aliens can sometimes get a write-off. Maybe. If you’re trying to get into the Star Wars mood, check out the fan-theory about Jar-Jar Binks below. It’s a little bit redemptive of our least favourite character in the franchise.

Thanks again to Simon Cocking of Irish Tech News for the opportunity to write for them. If you like the list, and want to add your own recommendations to it, leave a comment on their website.

8 Sci-Fi Comedies to Watch Before The Force Awakens

Star Wars: The Force Awakens is coming out on December 17th. For many, that seems like a long time away. For those of us who attend the cinema on a regular basis, we’ve already reached saturation point with advertising. A walk through Dublin city centre is a painful experience, with Star Wars clothes on sale in Penneys, LEGO on sale in Arnotts, assorted merchandise  on sale in Forbidden Planet, a new game available in HMV and Gamestop, and books and other items to be found in Eason – all within a short walk of one another.

Remedy time: Sci-Fi Comedy movies. They’ll keep you in the mood, but you’ll get a whole other experience.

1. Attack the Block

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Set in modern-day London, Attack the Block pits a gang of inner-city kids against a pack of furry aliens. There’s swearing, there’s banter, there’s a whole heap of laughs, and there’s a sense that – while these kids were more than willing to mug a stranger in the street – the hooded youths really care about their flats and the people in them.

2. The World’s End

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In a similar vein, we have Simon Pegg on a session in his home town. Who doesn’t love a good drinking movie, right? Well, when people start acting strangely – as they do in Pegg’s movies, quite often in fact – we get a whole different sort of film. With a great supporting cast (including Martin Freeman and Nick Frost), and the relatability of Pegg’s character Gary King to the audience, it’s one to watch during these dark winter nights.

3. The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

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If drinking movies aren’t your thing, but you still quite fancy the idea of seeing Martin Freeman in a Sci-Fi movie now that it’s been brought up, then look no further than The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Based on the novel of the same name, it’s a film full of weird aliens, improbabilities, and British-isms, and the voice of Alan Rickman as Marvin the Paranoid Android.

4. Evolution

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If the witticism of British writing and actors are too much for you, and you want something a bit sillier, there’s always Evolution – a humorous flick exploring extraterrestrial lifeforms, shampoo, and Darwin’s theory of evolution on overdrive.

5. Dude, Where’s My Car?

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Considered more of a stoner film, it still passes my base-level Sci-Fi test: it has aliens in it. In this case, you have a choice between a pair of vaguely Norwegian muscle-men, and a pack of incredibly attractive women with a fetish for sexual innuendos.

6. Paul

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If human stoners aren’t your thing, perhaps an alien one would be better for you. Featuring Seth Rogen as the voice of Paul – and essentially playing the same role he plays in a number of his other films – with Simon Pegg, Nick Frost and Kristen Wiig, it’s the story of grown-men with alien-obsession meet real-life alien, and all the disappointment that usually goes with it.

(Side note: My name is Paul, and I was essentially a third wheel when I went to see this with some friends a few years ago – they took a lot of pleasure out of the fact that I shared the name of the titular character. It didn’t help that one of the toilet paper companies ran an ad at the same time with the line “I’m going to have a poo at Paul’s”. That made for an interesting few months.)

7. Guardians of the Galaxy

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Okay, not exactly a comedy, but given the comedic tone of the film, the 80s cringe, and some of the best dialogue of the summer blockbusters that year, and the fact that I’ve already included a stoner film in the list, I’m giving it a pass.

Pelvic sorcery

Fun for all the family, and equipped with exactly the sort of emotional manipulation Disney depends on to make people care about Groot. It’s also got an amazing soundtrack to help make your Christmas/New Year’s playlists that much better.

8. The Rocky Horror Picture Show

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If you’re still not satisfied, and you just want something a little bit freaky to go with your funny, look no further than cult-classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Featuring the most remarkable transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania – Frank N. Furter, played by Tim Curry – and a whole host of weird songs and weirder characters, it’s one for when the kids are in bed, and the wine bottle’s been opened.

And there we have it! 8 comedies. 8 vaguely-Sci-Fi movies. Less than three weeks to go before The Force Awakens. What would you add to the list? Which would you recommend most highly? And how many times do you think we’ll need a list like this to distract ourselves from the Disney marketing budget for Star Wars movies?

Project 87: An Introduction

In 2013, Spike Lee released a list of 87 films that every film student entering the Tisch School of the Arts in New York should see. While this list is lacking in the works of a number of esteemed directors – and notably, lacking any female directors – it can be considered a good starting point on the road towards seeing the “essential” movies for every director and producer in the industry. He explains it all briefly in the video below.

When I first conceived of the idea of starting The Cinema Freak, it was this list that pointed me in the right direction. I’ve dubbed the undertaking of its viewing and analysis Project 87, a task that will take me through time, genre and language, and force me to address a lot of work that, until now, have been viewed on a for-pleasure basis only.

As well as the challenge of dealing with this massive list, I’ll be addressing other movies that I have always held in high esteem, movies that changed the way I thought about cinema and storytelling. The concern about dealing with movies in this way, ones I have developed feelings for in repeated viewings, is that any criticism of them might be tainted with the stench of bias – which is precisely why I’ll be avoiding “reviewing” a movie.

Of course, Project 87 is more than an excuse to watch movies and write about them. While I undertake the process – which I anticipate taking well over a year to complete – I’ll be attempting to develop fresh eyes for movie making, studying in what spare time I have the art and craft of production, and beginning my own independent productions.

I have always had a deep fascination with the production of film and television, from the writing all the way to the post-production and marketing. Simultaneous to my viewing experiences and criticism, I’ll be keeping a record of my own struggles and (hopefully) triumphs in the business.

Project 87, at its core, is a starting point. It’s not the be-all and end-all of The Cinema Freak, nor is Lee’s list the definitive version to follow for anyone looking to enter the industry as informed as possible. The question should be raised – both for my benefit, and for the benefit of anyone looking to search beyond Lee’s list: what movies would you add to the list? Which directors are missing?