Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Year: 1977
Director: George Lucas
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Harrison Ford
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

George Lucas created what is arguably the most iconic franchise ever when he introduced the world to the ‘Star Wars’ series. I’m just gutted I missed the first wave back in the 70s. What I would give to be there, among that generation who were so privileged to enjoy ‘A New Hope’ with no idea as to the phenomenon which would follow. Admittedly, I compensated for this with an abundance of enthusiasm as a child in the 90s. I must have been about six years old when my auntie – who introduced me to so many films as a youngster – took me to the cinema to see this film, and I was instantly hooked. I quickly accrued a formidable collection of toys, Pogs (remember those), costumes and of course, the hallowed lightsaber. I watched the original trilogy over and over so many times through my childhood. Now, with ‘The Force Awakens’ getting closer and closer, I decided to revisit the trilogy for the first time in around 14 years.

In a galaxy far, far away…an evil emperor has taken over, and equipped with his colossal Death Star, rules the galaxy with fear and ruthless intimidation. Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher), of the Rebel Alliance, has stolen crucial plans to the Death Star and stored them in an R2-D2 droid unit, who she sends to find the mystical Ob-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guiness) along with a plea for help. When the young farmhand, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) finds the droid, he is caught up in the rescue mission and helps lead the fight against the Empire and the menacing Darth Vader.

Mark Hamill is just like any moody teenager, but he soon perks up with the promise of fighting evil and becoming a hero. A little too enthusiastic if anything, with Luke toeing the line between endearing and overwhelmingly cheesy. As Princess Leia, Carrie Fisher is the perfect heroine and idol to the female demographic; a character with bags of attitude and a strong sense of control over her male accomplices. Completing the Harry Potter-esque love triangle of heroes is Harrison Ford, who brings humour and an odd likeability to the cocky pilot Han Solo. He’s got a pretty cool spaceship too.

It is just so uplifting to hear that familiar title music, the sounds of the galaxy and its various spaceships whizzing by. After a disastrous hour spent watching ‘The Matrix’ (don’t get me started), trusty, old ‘Star Wars’ was just what I needed. Guaranteed enjoyment every time. It is just plain and simple entertainment but at the same time, a film which has it all; action, adventure, a bit of humour and a bit of violence and chaos. The special effects might not be premium quality in comparison to the wonders of today’s cinema, but to achieve what they did in 1977 is truly awe-inspiring. And at the end of the day, what does it matter? The proof is in the lightsabers, they may not be convincing, but neither are those wrapping paper tubes we all used to swing around and play pretend with.

I have always said that any film which has an antagonist character, finds its success or failure in the standard of its villain. And they don’t come much better than Darth Vader. The Sith lord is literally the perfect, most fearsome villain the cinematic world has ever seen. In addition to the mighty Vader, you get loveable heroes, a fantastical world of adventure and iconic moments which are treasured by so many people the world over.

To say ‘A New Hope’ is the worst of the original trilogy feels sacrilegious, better to say it’s the “least amazing”. I enjoy these films just as much today as I did when I was a six year old boy first discovering the galaxy George Lucas created for us, and we certainly owe the man a great deal for THE film series of not just one generation, but every generation since. This is the magical film where it all started, and will always be a precious landmark in my cinematic history.

Jakob’s rating: 8.6 out of 10
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Mad Max 3: Beyond Thunderdome

Year: 1985
Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Tina Turner
 
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

How does this sound – a post-nuclear future where barbarians and scavengers roam the wasteland and Tina Turner is a power-hungry dominatrix. Wait, what!? This is the epic, final chapter of a legendary trilogy and it has to finish strongly. Doesn’t it feel a little absurd to throw Tina Turner into the mix now? Actually, go ahead and blow the budget on Tina, what better way to celebrate the madness of it all. At first glance, the synopsis and movie stills seem to suggest this is the key to the transition between the trilogy and the upcoming ‘Fury Road’; deserts filled with lost children, crazy matriarchs calling the shots and a hard-faced brute who may just be the hero.

Looks can be deceiving though, and the film begins with Max Rockatansky (still the coolest name ever) bullied out of his vehicle and seeing his camels stolen away. Max ventures into Bartertown to track down the thief, but soon becomes embroiled in a power struggle between Aunty Entity (Tina Turner) and her rival Master Blaster. To recover his stolen goods, Max strikes a deal with Aunty Entity – he will fight to the death and destroy Master Blaster. When Max backs out of the deal, he is exiled to death by desert, but is rescued by a tribe of lost children who worship him as their saviour. As always, Max just can’t help himself and undertakes the mission to steer the kids past the dangers of Bartertown, to a better life, whilst retrieving his beloved motor in the process.

Mel Gibson offers nothing new really, in fact he has regressed if anything. He started the film as powerfully as he ended the last, but soon retreated to the safety of cheesy, mediocrity and stayed there right until the bitter end. As I mentioned, Tina Turner is quite a bizarre inclusion, but if you ignore the cultural significance surrounding the woman, she’s actually rather impressive as the lead villain. She is nothing like the genuinely horrifying villains of the previous films, which is a shame. But she does get herself a sweet soundtrack deal, so I don’t imagine she’s too concerned with the fear factor.

The film starts with the exciting prospect of a vicious battle in Bartertown and the thrilling Thunderdome arena. Unfortunately, any hope of this soon fades and we are left watching Max Rockatansky babysitting a tribe of children for a good portion of the film. Not so cool anymore. Surely the ending saves it, right? Not quite, as Max drives a big truck full of fleeing citizens, fighting off a barrage of attacks from lunatics, sound familiar? The concluding film in the trilogy carries over all the same elements which were so successful in ‘Road Warrior’ – interesting setting, a desperate situation and unusual characters – but it all just seems a lot less impressive this time around. It’s as though Hollywood got hold of this one, took the film under its wing and just censored all of the fun out of it.

All in all, a disappointing and rather dull end to a pretty good trilogy. ‘Beyond Thunderdome’ promised so much, but delivered arguably the worst of the three films. Where are the explosions? And the thrilling action? And the violence? Even the first film had an excess of violence, if not much else. Let’s just hope Tom Hardy – yes, the Hardy embargo is lifted – brings a fresh and dangerous edge to the franchise to compensate for this anti-climax.

Jakob’s rating: 6.2 out of 10 

Ida

Year: 2013
Director: Pawel Pawlikowski
Starring: Agata Trzebokowska, Agneta Kulesza , Dawid Ogrodnik
Written by Wan Tyszkiewicz

Spoiler Alert: This film has sub-titles and it’s black and white!

Okay – that wasn’t really a spoiler, but my point is that many people wouldn’t bother going to see a black and white film let alone one with sub-titles. Unlike our European cousins, UK mainstream audiences are pretty close-minded when it comes to anything less than Technicolor, full Dolby Digital surround sound and actors speaking in our native tongue. This reluctance to leave the comfort zone is a real shame, because it means missing out on a fabulous smorgasbord of international film excellence that includes the Oscar winning foreign language masterpiece ‘Ida’.

Set in 1962, ‘Ida’ is an evocative rendition of everything that unified The Polish Film School after World War II and gave this film movement global recognition. Politics and ‘the message’ in cultural products (film, music, literature) that originated during Soviet rule from 1945 to 1989, had to adhere to the dominant ideology. But many Polish and Soviet filmmakers during this period found ways to tell their story, to hide their politics and appear to tow the line at the same time. In many ways it wasn’t very different to Hollywood cinema today. Writers and directors often have an agenda that would never get funded or produced if their real intentions were declared. That’s one of the things that makes Hollywood cinema so interesting and vacuous at the same time.

Moving on…

‘Ida’ introduces Anna, an 18-year-old novitiate who was orphaned as a baby and has grown up in a convent. A few weeks away from taking her final vows, the Mother Superior instructs Anna to seek out her only living relative – an aunt called Wanda Grub. Anna is the antithesis of her chain-smoking, hard-drinking, sexually promiscuous aunt, who it turns out, is also a state magistrate. Wanda informs Anna that her real name is Ida Lebenstein and that she is Jewish. During the Nazi occupation of Poland, a Christian family hid Ida and her parents as well as Wanda’s young son while Wanda was away fighting with the Resistance. But fearing for their lives should they be found hiding Jews, the family murdered Ida’s parents and Wanda’s son. Only Ida was spared because she was young, light skinned and could pass for a Christian. Ida was subsequently left with the nuns and the murderers took possession of the Lebenstein home. Anna/Ida (Agata Trzebokowska) and Wanda (Agneta Kulesza), in the middle of winter, reluctantly team up and head off on the most unlikely road trip. Together they must track down the people who hid their relatives during the war and find out what became of them. For Anna this journey becomes a rite of passage for an innocent girl with no life experience. Wanda on the other hand is a woman of the world – fearless, harsh and deeply troubled.

Agata Trzebokowska plays Anna/Ida flawlessly. Her performance is truly exceptional, particularly so because Trzebokowska has very little acting experience. On the other hand, experienced actress Agneta Kulesza has gravitas as Wanda and together the neophyte and the veteran play out a parallel scenario in the narrative. The film also uses an unusual aspect ratio of 1:37:1, (1:1:37) which gives a boxed in feeling, the dominant ratio used by Polish filmmakers during the sixties. So once again Pawlikowski has resorted to history and the archives to make his point. The characters and the action in ‘Ida’ are located in the lower half of the frame throughout the film. This means that we see huge vaulted ceilings or vast empty skies and landscapes where the people are firmly rooted to the earth with an ever-present sense of something greater happening above. The film is loaded with signifiers – an enigmatic cartography of everything that has gone before but remains concealed.

Director and co-writer Pawel Pawlikowski was born in Poland and moved to the UK when he was a child. An academic and also an award winning documentary filmmaker, Pawlikowski has made a handful of feature films to date. But ‘Ida’ could easily be mistaken for the work of Andrzej Wajda, a renowned Polish film director much admired by Pawlikowski. The enigmatic quality of the narrative, the content, the direction and the use of black and white, seamlessly leads us to the work of former masters. In particular, the hotel scene in ‘Ida’, where Wanda’s promiscuity is juxtaposed against the innocence of Anna, evidences the influence of Wajda’s classic ‘Ashes And Diamonds’.

Pawlikowski never fully explains any of the characters or events in the story. Instead through the use of close-ups that linger on Anna, Wanda and objects, the audience is forced to draw their own conclusions about events in the film. This creates an eerie quality that is almost abject in its lack of precise explanation. When Anna and Wanda are eventually confronted with the mass grave containing their family, we are spared the remains. Instead Pawlikowski shows a hole then a mound of earth before jumping to the next image, which shows the women wrapping something in a cloth. All of this is conducted in silence and the effect is powerful and haunting. It’s also a perfect example of a montage sequence; subject, object, subject and then our own conclusions must be drawn.

This probably isn’t the sort of film that you watch with the family on a bank holiday Monday. ‘Ida’ certainly isn’t action driven; instead it has a rhythmic almost poetic unfolding of the truth. And it unwraps some ugly and disturbing periods in history that many might prefer to keep buried. It garnered strong opposition from Catholic factions in Poland upon its release. But it is worth watching and then watching again. By the end of the film, you won’t remember the sub-titles and you might not even care that it was made in black and white.

Wan’s rating: 7.5 out of 10

A Long Way Down

Year: 2014
Director: Pascal Chaumeil
Starring: Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Paul, Toni Collette, Imogen Poots
Written by Andrew Garrison
Edited by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Occasionally, I sit down and look for films I’ve never heard of. Sometimes I come across very good independent and/or foreign films worthy of my time.  This was the case with ‘A Long Way Down’, a movie that I stumbled across on IMDB and managed to find on Netflix. I didn’t look for reviews or anything beforehand, instead deciding to just go in with a clean slate approach and see what came of it. Turns out I had a decent time watching this film.

The plot revolves around four individuals – Martin, Maureen, Jess, and J.J – who meet by chance on New Year’s Eve on a rooftop where all of them planned to commit suicide.  For some reason or another, they don’t, instead this moment unites them. They all have troubles in their life and all had a reason to escape it. As the movie progresses, their story gets out to the press and complications arise,  so the group go into hiding together in the hopes of finding something meaningful to live for.  Having lost people to suicide, I do take the subject rather seriously, so I was curious to see how this movie would approach such a delicate matter. I hoped it would perhaps inspire those with problems to look at life in a new angle and to seek help.

The movie had such potential, that it never really tapped into. The cast is wonderfully talented, but unfortunately the script didn’t make use of that as well as it could have; a weak script can hold back even the strongest set of actors. That said, Pierce Brosnan, Aaron Paul, Toni Collette, and Imogen Poots all worked really well together. Throughout the movie you were given an insight into their character and for many, you learn why they considered suicide in the first place. With an interesting concept and impressive cast, it’s a shame that the film just lost its way somewhere in the middle, after a strong start.

The movie will certainly take you on a tumultuous journey; it leads you in one direction for a while, and then very quickly changes course. Be prepared, it will do that three or four times throughout the movie. Whilst that helps to keep it from being completely predictable, it also feels like it wasn’t necessary at times. Sometimes the best route is the most direct one. That was the films biggest issue, it fell apart a bit and instead of hitting something legitimately unique, it ventured down a more familiar path. There was no sign of the insight or inspiration for change that I was hoping to see. Not that there has to be this great epiphany at the end of the movie or anything, but you do find yourself attached to these generally likable characters. We root for them to find reasons to live, they get tangled in this mess together and it kind of drifts off topic for a while before wrapping things up.

This isn’t the greatest film ever made, not even close. There is so much untapped potential that will never be. However, the cast is lovely, providing some very touching moments, and plenty of dry humor to contrast to this. ‘A Long Way Down’ takes a very personal and serious topic and sheds some light onto the subject even if it is unpleasant to consider. If you find yourself bored and just want to put a film on and relax for the evening, this movie would work nicely.   

Andrew’s rating: 6.5 out of 10

Avengers: Age Of Ultron

Year: 2015
Director: Joss Whedon
Starring: Robert Downey Jr, Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson, James Spader, Jeremy Renner
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

My expectations for ‘Age Of Ultron’ were high. Thinking about it, my expectations have probably never been higher. I consider ‘Avengers Assemble’ to be truly amazing, and this sequel promised to be even better, but how? Impossible, I thought. But from the vast collection of trailers we were treated to, the action elements looked incredible and the star of the show, Ultron, hinted at being the villain of all villains. Maybe they could pull it off after all.

When Bruce Banner (Mark Ruffalo) and Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jr.) get their hands on technology which could finally lead to the development of artificial intelligence, the pair secretly begin work on building “a suit of armour around the world”. Inevitably, this doesn’t end too well; no world peace this time guys. Instead, Ultron is born, and he intends to create a better future for the human race with the extinction of The Avengers. Earth’s mightiest heroes are understandably unhappy about this plan and embark upon an epic battle to bring down Ultron and stop his reign of widespread destruction.

The returning cast – Chris Evans, Chris Hemsworth, Mark Ruffalo, Scarlett Johansson and star man Robert Downey Jr – are all up to their usual tricks, balancing hard-hitting action with moments of genuinely laugh out loud humour. Jeremy Renner however, has been rewarded with more depth and focus for ‘Age Of Ultron’, with his Hawkeye character getting some much needed development. New characters Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch are brought to life rather brilliantly, by Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Elizabeth Olsen respectively. Olsen in particular really threatened to steal the show, if you can see past her dodgy Eastern European accent. Unfortunately, the master villain I was hoping for, ended up being just another typically mild, Marvel character. Why did they have to turn Ultron into a big joke? The Ultron we first meet carries a dark and menacing aura, but this quickly becomes much less threatening when he starts cracking jokes with the Avengers. All credit to James Spader, who lends his chilling voice to the role, but the character as a whole is a real letdown.

As far as action scenes go, ‘Age Of Ultron’  offers some of the best I have ever seen in a film; the use of special effects and slow motion frames are a real triumph. This is a thrilling and entertaining film, providing just about everything you could ask for from a superhero flick, apart from the perfect villain. Like many of Marvel’s projects, ‘Age Of Ultron’ errs on the side of caution and goes for the lighthearted approach, perhaps a little too often for my liking. It just seems to take away that dark edge that we all secretly crave.

In comparison to ‘Avengers Assemble’, I would say this sequel pretty much matches up to its predecessor, but it’s certainly no better. There’s no progression, no substantial development, it all feels far too familiar, with the two films bearing striking resemblances to one another. Fortunately, the ending to this film suggests big changes to The Avengers series, and with Joss Whedon moving away from the director’s chair, the franchise could receive a much needed, revitalising boost. I absolutely enjoyed ‘Age Of Ultron’, a hell of a lot, that’s not in question. I set the film up for a fall with my astronomical expectations, which admittedly it could never meet, but I couldn’t help feeling somewhat underwhelmed by my most anticipated movie of 2015.

Jakob’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

That Awkward Moment

Year: 2014
Director: Tom Gormican
Starring: Zac Efron, Miles Teller, Michael B Jordan, Imogen Poots
Written by Patrick Alexander
Edited by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Whenever I scour Netflix (other film and television subscription services are available) for an interesting movie, I’m always wary of those titles you’ve never heard of, the ones that probably went straight-to-DVD. You know the type; they have an appealing cover picture to draw you in, a clever little description and the odd actor you recognise to make it worth a gamble. You can guarantee, 9 times out of 10 you’ll end up turning it off after half an hour and questioning your sense of judgement. But there’s always that rare occasion, the 1 out of 10 chance, that you pick a winner. That is exactly what ‘That Awkward Moment’ is – a deceptively good, underrated modern comedy with an eclectic mix of unpretentious, genuine moments and a real energy and enthusiasm to go beyond what is expected of such a film.

The movie’s title perfectly explains its simple premise; what happens when you get to that awkward moment in a relationship where you ask “so where is this going?”, we’ve all been there right? See, it’s relatable. Three best friends, Jason (Zac Efron), Mikey (Michael B. Jordan) and Daniel (Miles Teller), all find themselves single at the same time. The boys now start to enjoy single life, playing wing-man for one another, but along the way there’s bound to be lots of tangled love affairs and awkward moments.

By casting Zac Efron in the lead, you’re already guaranteeing a certain demographic will faithfully watch your movie. He is the guy that men love to hate and women love to love. All of Zac Efron’s characters embody everything a woman wants – looks, power, fitness, intrigue, charm – making him the perfect alpha dog character whether you like it or not. In support there’s ‘Fantastic 4’ co-stars Michael B. Jordan and the impressive Miles Teller. I have to say, Teller’s daring performance in ‘Whiplash’ is one of the main reasons I pressed play on this one in the first place, and he is damn near just as brilliant as Efron’s partner in crime. The pair seem to go through a genuine evolution from sex-obsessed drones prowling the Big City nightlife, to become men transformed by the power of love. Throw in Imogen Poots – my favourite actress – and you got me.

Through the multiple love story arcs, the flagrant efforts at impressing hip, fresh lingo on its viewers and the forlorn attempt to create commentary on the fine line between sex and love, ‘That Awkward Moment’ still comes out fighting, with the clever writing and touches of modernity keeping it from flat lining. Be it Zac Efron mistaking Poots for a hooker or Miles Teller running off to meet the woman of his dreams only to be immediately hit by a car, ‘That Awkward Moment’ is not without genuine, physical comedy – the kind of scenes a comedy needs to thrive.

If you can bear the cheesy but candid lovey-dovey aspects, you will find frank, emotional depth and relational insight somewhere in between the cracks. Add some timely comedy and sharp one-liners, and out of nowhere, you will find yourself thinking “this actually ain’t bad”. Whether you love or hate the polarizing Efron, I guarantee you won’t leave ‘That Awkward Moment’ disappointed. It has stars, but it also has a deeper contemporary commentary on love, sex, life, and friendship. What more can you ask for?

Patrick’s rating: 7.2 out of 10 

The Culture High

Year: 2014
Director: Brett Harvey
Starring: Snoop Dogg, Joe Rogan, Wiz Khalifa, Sir Richard Branson
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

I am heading into uncharted territory here, writing my first documentary review. It is new territory upon which I am excited to trespass, because I strongly believe it is important to draw people’s attention to a very clever, impressive and important documentary. Unlike any other review, there are no acting performances to analyse, no filmmaking techniques to discuss and no plot structure to criticise; this is a hard-hitting, serious, factual film and it’s those facts that are all important. 

‘The Culture High’ ropes in the help of scientific experts, politicians, law enforcement officers and celebrities such as Snoop Dogg to debate the issue of cannabis prohibition across the world. The documentary of course, has a vested interest in lifting the prohibition laws, and as such presents an inevitable bias in its argument, strongly suggesting that cannabis is the be all and end all, the bee’s knees, a-ok. I’m well aware that there is evidence out there which opposes this stance, that the makers of this documentary don’t provide us with, but the evidence they do supply is incredibly strong. Besides, you can get a healthy dose of anti-pot propaganda in your daily paper, on the news, anywhere you look across the media today. The filmmakers take us on a journey to banish all the stigma attached to the use of marijuana; from addiction and health risks to crime and social issues. On each topic, an array of respectable figures argue that cannabis is far from the dangerous and destructive drug that many would have us believe, and that in actual fact, the prohibition exists only to serve the financial benefits of the government and their big money friends.

Director Brett Harvey establishes a very pro-cannabis argument throughout. Very rarely do we get the other side of the argument, but with an argument so strong, it is hard to imagine being persuaded to accept the maintenance of prohibition laws which exacerbate street crime, death, pain and suffering the world over. You only have to look at the situation in Mexico, where more people have died because of drug related crimes than Americans died in the Vietnam war; dying because of drugs and weapons which the US government supply to Mexican criminals. The health benefits of cannabis use heavily outweigh the health risks too. Nobody dies from smoking cannabis, nobody rushes to A+E because of cannabis, nobody goes out and hurts someone because they’re stoned. Long term or excessive use can, of course, be damaging. But as writer and comedian Joe Rogan states, everyday substances such as salt can be extremely harmful if you don’t use them responsibly. 

For proof of the medicinal benefits of marijuana use, look no further than the heartbreaking story of young Jayden David, who suffers from a rare form of epilepsy, which debilitated him with up to 500 seizures a day. Jayden was addicted to 22 forms of prescribed medication, pills which fuck up even the most hardened adults. His father, Jason, turned to medical marijuana and together he and ‘The Culture High’ speak of the improvements in his health since. If marijuana can help reduce 500 seizures a day to just a few, ween Jayden off harmful drugs and allow him to run, smile and enjoy his childhood, how can it be regarded as so damaging and illicit.

This is arguably the best documentary I have ever watched. By using very distressing and poignant stories alongside strong evidence, Brett Harvey has put together an intelligent, thought provoking and emotional documentary to inspire change. I urge you all to watch this (it’s on Netflix), and develop your own understanding and opinion on one of the biggest and most divisive issues in the USA and indeed the world. We all know there is hypocrisy, corruption and greed in the political system; this documentary stands firm in the face of it all and says “don’t tell me what to do!” 

Jakob’s rating: 8.8 out of 10

Mad Max 2: Road Warrior

Year: 1981
Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Bruce Spence, Vernon Wells
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

After watching the first ‘Mad Max’ film from the original trilogy, I was feeling pretty positive about the sequel. I now know Max Rockatansky a little better, he’s got a back-story and a trauma, so this time around I’m expecting a more gritty and dark character. The first film was adequately action-packed and entertaining, but this second installment needed to be much more than that to persuade me of its value as a cult classic. Just by looking at the DVD case, I could tell this was going to be a very different film to the first; a title like ‘Road Warrior’ is exciting enough, but promise me a post-apocalyptic world, and I’m sold.

Years after the first film, Max Rockatansky (Mel Gibson) is now known simply as ‘The Road Warrior’, an enigmatic, mysterious loner who trawls the Australian outback in the search of gasoline. In a land devastated by the effects of nuclear conflict, gasoline is now in short supply and dangerously high demand. When Max meets an oddball inventor (Bruce Spence) – an unusual man even by the standards of characters in this world – he is led to a community of survivors who are guarding their haul of gasoline from the threat of a brutal motorcycle gang. Max soon finds himself stuck in the middle of the hostile battleground and negotiates an advantageous contract for himself. All he has to do to earn a supply of gasoline to continue his journey, is help the community escape The Humungus and his tribe of psychotic bandits, easy!

Once again, the film doesn’t really allow for support characters to shine; this is Max’s story and everyone knows it. Mel Gibson benefits from his character’s tragedy and new found depth, to produce a performance which is far more dark and disturbing than in the previous film. Long gone is the cheesy Max (for the most part), replaced by a dangerous, more dimensional character who completely runs the show. Bruce Spence delivers an interesting and rather believable performance as the desperate, deranged inventor. Not only does he look the part but he adds a quirkiness and peculiarity to the character, putting him right at home in the mad atmosphere of the film. From the array of antagonists in the film, by far the standout act is Vernon Wells, who plays the rabid, volatile biker Wez. Similarly to the character of Toecutter from the first film, Wells portrays a vicious and ruthless villain with an unerring and terrifying accuracy.

‘The Road Warrior’ opens with the same action-packed intensity as its predecessor, which denies us any dialogue for the first ten minutes. The whole setting of this second film allows for a much more interesting and exciting story, against the backdrop of a bizarre, dystopian world. You could argue that the use of biker bad guys is a little repetitive, but this gang are head and shoulders above their counterparts from the first film, in terms of brutality and malevolence. Director George Miller, and writer Terry Hayes, have put together a very original plot concept with an other-worldly feel. Yet the notion of oil wars and territorial conflict carry unavoidable connotations and resonance with our own current global climate, a very clever juxtaposition.

This is a sequel which accomplishes a rather difficult task; to improve on a successful first film is no mean feat. ‘Road Warrior’ is exceptionally more brutal and gory, besting ‘Mad Max’ on the violence, crashes and explosions which made that film so appealing. Everything that was wrong with the first film is rectified with this follow up, the characters are darker and more interesting, the story has much more substance and the environment it is all framed within is so unusual and exciting. Now I can really understand the cult status ‘Mad Max’ carries, this film is exactly what people want; hard-hitting action, blowing stuff up and killing each other, fast cars and raw, unadulterated entertainment.

Jakob’s rating: 7.4 out of 10

Mad Max

Year: 1979
Director: George Miller
Starring: Mel Gibson, Joanne Samuel, Hugh Keays-Bryne
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

With ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ less than a month a way, I turned my attention to exploring the original trilogy to prepare myself for the upcoming reboot. In truth, ‘Mad Max’ is a series which I knew very little about, and one which only came to prominence for me because of the hype surrounding ‘Fury Road’. But I will forget about the new instalment, and focus on each movie from the original trilogy in their own right. You won’t even hear Tom Hardy’s name mentioned once.

The first of the three films by director George Miller, simply titled ‘Mad Max’, introduces us to Max Rockatansky – cool name right? Max (Mel Gibson) is a badass, leather clad, thrill-seeking cop, respected by his peers and revered by criminals. His ruthless precision and expert control behind the wheel of his turbo-charged cars make him a hero, but when he causes the death of a notorious biker gang member, Max becomes their number one target. To protect himself and his family, Max quits the force and retreats to a peaceful life, but no matter where he runs, he can’t escape Toecutter (Hugh Keays-Byrne) and his deadly tribe. What they don’t know however, is that Max is about to become just as mad as they are.

There are very few actors and roles worth mentioning from this film; it really is all about Max to be honest, so it’s hard to justify discussing anyone else. Although Mel Gibson doesn’t come across as being too “mad” or dangerous for much of the film, there are glimpses, and he certainly transforms as the film reaches its conclusion. Gibson is guilty of pretty poor, cheesy acting, which adds to the entertainment factor, if nothing else. The leader of the gang of psychopathic bikers, Toecutter, is a vile character, portrayed very convincingly by Hugh Keays-Byrne. As far as movie villains go, he is right up there as one of the more disturbed and horrifying characters.

I was captivated by the strong, exhilarating opening scenes of ‘Mad Max’, involving a lengthy, high-speed car chase. Once that’s over, we are subjected to a slow, steady build up, with lots of tension, before the film explodes into a climactic, final 20 minutes full of action, energy and a lust for violence. ‘Mad Max’ is a rather hard-hitting, brutal film at times but all the while oddly entertaining. George Miller must have been given a fairly sizeable budget for all the explosions and car chases, which in 1979 would have been relatively impressive, I’m sure. The atmosphere of the film feels very theatrical and dramatic, with ominous sound accompaniment right out of the cliché book, and a self-consciously cheesy, campness to the whole spectacle – an interesting juxtaposition to the testosterone-heavy action genre.

Admittedly, the film is extremely dated, looking back now and comparing to the kind of action movie we expect these days, but I can see why ‘Mad Max’ gathered such a cult following at the time. I think it all just lacked a darker, more dangerous edge, and suffered from a lack of character development. That said, this is an adequate introduction to the ‘Mad Max’ franchise and one which filled me with high hopes for the ‘Road Warrior’ sequel.

Jakob’s rating: 7.0 out of 10

Starred Up

Year: 2014
Director: David Mackenzie

Starring: Jack O’Connell, Ben Mendelsohn, Rupert Friend
Written by Nick Deal

I will keep this review short and sweet, otherwise I could find myself writing a dissertation length piece on what is truly an incredible piece of British realist cinema. There is so much to love about ‘Starred Up’, and I shall do my best to concisely present my response to what has become one of my favourite films of all time. Yes, it is that good.

‘Starred Up’ follows Eric Love (Jack O’Connell) upon his transfer from juvenile prison to an adult offender’s institution. Eric is a “high risk”, volatile and hotheaded individual, who quickly learns that prison is not a game, finding himself embroiled in terrifying, life-threatening situations. His struggle is compounded by the presence of his father, Neville Love (Ben Mendelsohn), an equally explosive and unpredictable character. This father-son duo forms the basis of the film’s narrative, with a dangerous tension existing between the two characters who enjoy the most unusual of love-hate relationships. There is a third influence in this decidedly confused and complicated relationship, in the form of social worker Oliver Baumer (Rupert Friend), who heads a counselling group for inmates who wish to discuss their problems in a safe environment. Eric becomes a part of this group, who in turn become his family of sorts, with Baumer fulfilling the role of his father – a notion which doesn’t go down too well with his actual father. Neville’s childish nature, lack of self-control and inability to accept that his son might just be better off without him, is a recipe for disaster.

There are three performances of note, with all of the aforementioned roles brilliantly performed by their respective actors. Jack O’Connell continues his stunning rise to super-stardom with an impeccable display, and arguably his best to date. His accomplished portrayal of the troubled, socially inept and violent protagonist is hard to criticize. At times it is easy to lose yourself in the film, and forget that what you are watching is fiction and not a documentary; the journey O’Connell  depicts is full of very genuine fear, anger, hostility and desperation. The same can be said for Ben Mendelsohn and his portrayal of Neville Love. In a very different role to anything I have seen him take on before, Mendelsohn shines just as much as his on-screen son and the two of them form a deadly double act, albeit a dysfunctional collaboration. With Neville, we again feel every moment of his frustration and hopelessness, as he sees his son pulled away from him by Baumer – with Rupert Friend providing the third performance worthy of note. A “posh boy” with a troubled past, he is just as much of a sorry case as Neville or Eric, and Rupert Friend fulfils this role with absolute aplomb. All three of these lead actors are supported by good performances everywhere you look, and as an ensemble it is arguably one of the best group of performances I have seen, a factor that contributes to the realist nature of this film and makes it so impacting.

For this film to be successful, it was important that the film felt real, and as I have mentioned previously it does this remarkably well. The severe sense of claustrophobia creates an unsettling atmosphere and we are often thrust into the centre of the action alongside Eric. I cannot praise highly enough how powerful and intense this film is. It’s certainly not pleasant to watch, but it does make you want to relive the drama all over again as soon as the credits begin to roll. This is a film which perfectly balances violence and brutality with a heartfelt narrative and character interaction. ‘Starred Up’ is another fantastic film for Jack O’Connell to add to his portfolio, and if he carries on producing performances of this manner, it wont be long before we have a heavyweight, Hollywood name to call our own. Huge congratulations to all involved.

Nick’s rating: 9.3 out of 10

Selma

Year: 2014
Director: Ava DuVernay
Starring: David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Stephan James, Wendell Pierce, Common, Tom Wilkinson, Tim Roth
Written by Jakob Lewis Barnes

Oscar nominated in the Best Picture category – but not much else – ‘Selma’ became the poster-boy for the under representation of black people in the film industry at this year’s ceremony. The film did however, win the Oscar for Best Original Song, with John Legend and Common performing an emotional rendition of ‘Glory’ before delivering an equally powerful acceptance speech which moved much of the audience to tears. Away from the controversy of the 2015 Academy Awards, is a film which tells the story of one of the most important and most horrifying periods in modern history. A film which celebrates the triumphs of humanity, as well as highlighting the overwhelming ignorance and brutality which tarnish our past.

‘Selma’ takes us to 1965, during Martin Luther King’s battle to secure improved voting rights for black Americans. Although black citizens were legally given the vote almost 100 years previous, hostility and violence from white people in many states and counties meant that very few black people actually made it to the ballot boxes. Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) embarks on a dangerous, three month campaign based in Selma, Alabama, where white supremacists run riot and the black community suffer day-to-day at the hands of racially motivated attacks from law enforcement officers. Constantly faced with the threat of prison, violence and death, Dr. King leads his brothers in arms, alongside white activists, on a march from Selma to Montgomery. A peaceful protest which would change the law, and the course of history, forever.

I am incredibly surprised that David Oyelowo didn’t win an Oscar for his portrayal of Martin Luther King. To be honest, it is a real travesty that he wasn’t at least nominated in the Best Actor category. It is close, but I believe he probably just edged the eventual winner, Eddie Redmayne (The Theory Of Everything). David Oyelowo gives a powerful, charismatic and moving performance, which I consider to be one of the most exceptional acting displays of recent years, not just the past 12 months. Alongside him, special mention should go to Stephan James, Common, Wendell Pierce and also to Carmen Ejogo, for her role as King’s wife, all of whom offer fantastic support. Tom Wilkinson is a refreshing character in his role as President Lyndon B. Johnson, especially when you place him against the repulsive Governor George Wallace, played by Tim Roth with disturbing effect, as the man who typified all which was wrong with society at that time.

The film is actually rather slow moving for the most part, but quickly turns very ugly, with an assortment of extremely uncomfortable and hectic scenes of severe violence to quell the peaceful protests of the black citizens of Selma. Director Ava DuVernay really does hold nothing back, and rightly so, this is a story which deserves an honest and unflinching representation; a real achievement in realist cinema. There is so much detail and emotion put into the production of ‘Selma’, which is clear to see and makes for a harrowing and intense recollection of one of humanity’s most shameful, modern tragedies.

‘Selma’ is quite simply a must-see movie, mainly for its historical, political and social context. From start to finish, there is an unquestionable beauty about the way the film has been put together to produce a powerful and poignant reminder of how terrible the world was not so long ago. David Oyelowo deserved an Oscar for his involvement, and the film was undoubtedly impressive. But in the grand scheme of things, ‘Selma’ wasn’t even close to the likes of ‘Whiplash’ and ‘Boyhood’ and certainly wasn’t an Oscar winning feature.

Jakob’s rating: 8.0 out of 10

RED 2

Year: 2013
Director: Dean Parisot
Starring: Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Anthony Hopkins
Written by Andrew Garrison
Edited by Jakob Lewis Barnes

If you read my last review, you will know I loved the original ‘RED’, which left me feeling rather optimistic about the sequel. I know sequels have a tendency to fall short and falter in the areas which the first film succeeded, and ‘RED 2’ was certainly guilty of that at times, but there were still plenty of redeeming features to make this an enjoyable film.

As in the original film, there are multiple storylines and plot twists to ‘RED 2’, but unfortunately these are not nearly as satisfying as those of the predecessor. The various storylines also seem to drag on a bit too long too. The premise of the film is much the same as the original concept – retired agents rolling back the years – but the problem this time is that the story is no longer fresh or original, and therefore not as interesting. The sequel is more crazy however. This time around, another, more deadly and disturbed government agent is hunting down Frank Moses (Bruce Willis) and his crew, with many of the characters from the original reprising their roles as well as a few new faces.

Once again, I marvel at how amazing Helen Mirren is as the strong, female assassin Victoria. From the moment she gets involved, the film drastically improves. Anthony Hopkins is one of the new additions, and he does a fantastic job, as you would expect from an actor of his pedigree. John Malkovich and Bruce Willis work well together; they have this special blend of crazy and serious that I really enjoy. Mary-Louise Parker is just as adorable and fun as the last time, but I never really understood Catherine Zeta-Jones’ involvement. Some of the characters are more defined than others, but a couple of the villains are just straight-up cartoonish, and I don’t like that. Part of the reason I enjoy these films is because you get to see older actors kicking the ass of the new generation. This movie still allows for a substantial amount of that, but also gives room for the younger actors to get their action scenes too.

The element of humor is still present from the previous film, but it doesn’t combine as effectively with the violence as it did in the first outing. There are actually a couple of violent scenes that actually bother me in this film, whereas the original toed the line perfectly. ‘RED 2’ feels much more like a comic book coming to life, which is a reasonable approach, given that the story is based on a comic book. However, whilst the first movie kept that fact more in check, this time it seems the director just wants to have fun and show off all the neat action scenes it can.

Now despite the flaws I mentioned, don’t completely dismiss this movie just yet. As I said before, there is plenty about it which is worthwhile and while ‘RED 2’ doesn’t hold up as well as the original, it isn’t actually a bad movie. There is some decent humor scattered throughout the movie and a lot of great action. In truth, this film is probably best left to the people who enjoyed the original film. If you didn’t like that one, then you almost certainly won’t enjoy this one. But if you did enjoy the original, the characters you love are still here (and as awesome as ever), and the action and humor are still here too. Change isn’t always a good thing.

Andrew’s rating: 6.6 out of 10