The Force Awakens – Do your homework

The original Star Wars film was released on 25th May 1977. In the intervening years the dialogue, costumes, storylines, goofs, action figures, trading cards and just about everything else has been cross-analysed and dissected to the minutest of details, leaving the world full of Star Wars nerds always willing to provide you with an additional piece of information to “impress” you. Fans of the films hate being left behind on the details and the dedication to all things Force-related has subsequently reached unrivalled levels.

However, as Star Wars Fever grips to world again in the run up to the release of The Force Awakens, it’s difficult to stay on top of the facts of the new films. There are a few familiar faces but for the most part it’s new characters, creatures and worlds. Whilst the only way to secure your status as Force Awakens Trivia King is to watch the film several times when it hits cinemas, the film is over three months away from the big screen. What if there was a way to get ahead of the game?

Thankfully, this article is on hand to provide the lowdown on the best previous acting efforts of the main characters of the film, meaning you are familiar with their body of work and can show off your wider cinema knowledge closer to the time.

JOHN BOYEGA AS FINN
Essential viewing: Attack The Block

C'est Finn

C’est Finn

Surnameless Finn is the lead character in the new film, seemingly the good guy with a dark past as a stormtrooper. The scant details we’ve had on the character is mirrored by the limited previous performances by the actor portraying him, John Boyega.

His biggest role by far was in the much-celebrated Attack The Block (Joe Cornish, 2011), the British sci-fi coming of age action film where Boyega played Moses, the leader of a gang of youths fighting back against an alien invasion. It was an impressive turn and as a newcomer garnered him with a lot of attention, and rightly so.

If you want to go that extra mile you could seek out the wonderfully gritty British drama Junkheart (Tinge Krishnan, 2011). He has a small role as Jamal in a film that’s really all about its two lead characters, but you will get to see a fantastic film and out-nerd all your friends.

Of course, all of this will be dwarfed by his appearance in The Force Awakens and he is entering a world of super-stardom along with Daisy Ridley, another relative newcomer.

DAISY RIDLEY AS REY
Essential viewing: Star Wars: The Force Awakens Trailer

Who Rey?

Who Rey?

If a small proportion of Star Wars fans had heard of John Boyega before they announced he’d bagged the lead role, an even smaller proportion had heard of Daisy Ridley. Outside a handful of one-off appearances in the likes of Casualty, Silent Witness and Mr Selfridge, she also acted in The Inbetweeners 2 (Damon Beesley and Iain Morris, 2014) only for her scenes to be deleted. She has voiced Taeko Okajima in an English dub of Japanese anime おもひでぽろぽろ / Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991), though that hasn’t been released yet (there is a perfectly good version already available on Blu-ray and DVD should you want to check out a fantastic film).

So that brings us to the one thing she has been in that’s readily available to us all: the video to Wiley’s track “Lights On”, which you can see below.

There’s also an interactive film at the Life Saver website, though you’re going to have to play through parts one and two to get to part three.

OSCAR ISAAC AS POE DAMERON
Essential viewing: Inside Llewyn Davis, Ex Machina, A Most Violent Year

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

I knew the new Star Wars film would get an Oscar.

If there’s one actor in the new film you’re going to get a lot of joy out of, it’s Oscar Isaac. He has a filmography covering a wide range of genres and they’re mainly hugely enjoyable. Your starting point should be Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2013). It’s especially good if you’re a huge fan of folk music, but his performance in the title role as a struggling and troubled artist is a great example of the depth he can bring to a character.

Ex-Machina (Alex Garland, 2015) should be a high priority. Not only does it tick two The Force Awakens actors off your list (Domhnall Gleeson also stars), it is an excellent piece of science fiction cinema.

A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014) shouldn’t be overlooked. Whilst it isn’t one to make an immediate impact, it was critically acclaimed at the time and shows another side to his abilities.

He’s had featured roles in a number of big-budget films, though you may, in hindsight, have forgotten he was in them. Agent Number 3 in The Bourne Legacy (2012), annoying Prince John in Robin Hood (2010) and the hammy Blue Jones in Sucker Punch (2011) all fall into this category. You could track down the film In Secret (2013), which is largely terrible and features Isaac in scenes of an erotic nature with Elizabeth Olsen. One to forget.

ADAM DRIVER AS KYLO REN
Essential viewing: While We’re Young, Girls (TV)

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we've seen so far.

Kylo Ren looks pretty badass in everything we’ve seen so far.

Kylo Ren has been the subject of much speculation, perhaps more so than any other character. He’s dark, he’s mysterious. The anticipation is similar to that of Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace (one thing they did get right in that film). The fact he’s hiding behind a mask helps, and his role is probably set to be similar to that of Darth Vader, with Supreme Leader Snoke as this film’s Emperor. Maybe.

As stars of the new Star Wars film go, Adam Driver strikes a friendly balance between having done enough films to show off his talent without having too many to watch to ever get on track. Additionally, for anyone who was longing for the Noam Baumbach film series action figures (strangely yet to appear), you can finally get your hands on a Driver action figure – actually the Kylo Ren Elite Series one is one of the coolest on the market (especially when it is in cosplay).

For a fantastic look at how two-faced he can make a character, then While We’re Young (Noam Baumbach, 2015) is essential viewing. He starts the film as a seemingly innocent and eager filmmaker, only to later turn out to be wholly manipulative and power-hungry individual. It’s likely light-going in comparison to The Force Awakens, but as it’s a rom-com you might be able to have a quiet night in with your other half without them realising you’re researching the new Star Wars film.

He had a brief appearance as a musician in Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel and Ethan Coen, 2014), which is covered in more detail in Oscar Isaac’s section. Driver has a cameo as a deep-voiced musician and his role is almost entirely covered in the clip below, which also features other Star Wars key player Oscar Isaac (as well as Justin Timberlake!).

The quintessential role for him thus far has in fact been on the small screen with his role as Adam Sackler in the series Girls. His role is the boyfriend of the lead character, but it has been celebrated critically and he has received three Emmy nominations for his efforts.

Elsewhere, he had a cameo of note in Lincoln (Steven Spielberg, 2012) as Samuel Beckwith, a brief appearance in another Baumbach film Frances Ha (2013) and recently starred in the lead role in indie film Hungry Hearts (Saverio Costanzo, 2015). There’s plenty to choose from and it won’t be difficult to get up to speed with his work.

ANDY SERKIS AS SUPREME LEADER SNOKE
Essential viewing: The Lord of the Rings, King Kong, Rise of the Planet of the Apes

Welcome to the Serkis

Welcome to the Serkis

If Kylo Ren is a bit mysterious, then Supreme Leader Snoke is a stealth ninja, The Third Man of Star Wars villains. Who knows what he’ll look like? Probably quite a few people by now but they’re all tight-lipped. Let’s say he’s somewhere between a small green goblin creature, a 25 ft. tall colossal gorilla, a seafaring merchant marine captain and solid sound.

What we do know is that Andy Serkis has been involved in a lot of motion capture in his time, receiving many awards and accolades for his efforts. It’s fairly easy to pick a handful of films to get you started, so much so they’re hardly worth mentioning. If you haven’t seen him as Gollum in the Lord of the Rings Trilogy (Peter Jackson, 2001-2003) then stop reading this and immediately go and watch them. All three. Extended versions if possible. After this he put in a criminally underrated performance as the titular King Kong (Peter Jackson, 2005). He also starred as Caesar in Rise of the Planet of the Apes (Rupert Wyatt, 2011) and Dawn of the Planet of the Apes (Matt Reeves, 2014). There are six huge films there, a great weekend to be had by any fan of cinema. The reason he works so well in motion-capture roles is his level of acting and the way that translates to the big screen. One thing’s for certain – Snoke will be a dynamic character with a believable drive.

If you ever get to see the episode of Pie in the Sky titled “Passion Fruit Fool”, you will see the origins of a great actor in a completely throwaway role. Actually don’t. It’s awful.

DOMHNALL GLEESON AS GENERAL HUX
Essential viewing: Ex Machina, Black Mirror: Be Right Back

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

He must be evil. He has a British accent.

Little is known about General Hux at this stage. He’s not really featured much in the trailers and none of the merchandise has featured him prominently. What we do know is that he’s part of the Dark Side, a senior figure in the newly formed First Order – an organisation build from the embers of the downfall of the Empire in Return of the Jedi.

Whilst Gleeson might remain a bit of an unknown to the wider public outside his appearances in the two Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows films (David Yates, 2010 and 2011) as Bill Weasley, he has actually been in a plethora of excellent films since then.

The pick of the bunch is going to be the afore-mentioned Ex Machina (Alex Garland, 2015). It’s a no-brainer as you get to see excellent performances from both Gleeson and Oscar Isaac. Frank (Lenny Abrahamson, 2014) is worth watching, despite its pitfalls as a way of ruining the legacy of a well-regarded British entertainer. British romantic comedy About Time (Richard Curtis, 2013) is one to avoid. The Black Mirror episode Be Right Back (Charlie Brooker, 2013) is a short slice of ingeniously dark satirical comedy and a great way to spend an evening.

You can also see the whole of the Academy Award-winning short film Six Shooter (Martin McDonah, 2004), in which Gleeson cameos as a trolley cart attendant (his first ever role), below.

He’s an actor of real ability and will undoubtedly deliver a haunting performance despite the fact he’s such a nice chap in real life.

By the way, you pronounce his name as if& it is spelled “Donal”.

GWENDOLINE CHRISTIE AS CAPTAIN PHASMA
Essential viewing: Game of Thrones

Phasma girl

Phasma girl

If you’ve been living under a rock for the last few years then you may not have heard of a little show called Game of Thrones. If you’re THAT person, then please leave this blog straight away and catch up with the rest of the geeky world. Brienne of Tarth is a key character from the second series onwards and is also a fan favourite.

Outside of this, her most prominent role to date, Christie has also featured in two Terry Gilliam films – The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and The Zero Theorem – though only in minor roles. She will also appear in the new Hunger Games film, Mockingjay (Part 2) as Commander Lyme. So now you have a legitimate reason to go to a screening of that film other than the strangely taboo reason that they’re all excellent films. The Force Awakens will be her biggest film role to date.

LUPITA NYONG’O AS MAZ KANATA
Essential viewing: 12 Years A Slave

Spot the difference

Spot the difference

Maz Kanata is, apparently, a female pirate who resides at Maz Katana Castle. The castle serves as a base for other pirates and smugglers and will undoubtedly play a big part for our heroes’ journeys as they beg, steal and borrow the MacGuffins to get to their end goals.

Lupita Nyong’o is a wonderful actress. Originally from Mexico but with a Kenyan father, she had her breakthrough role as Patsey in Steve McQueen’s excellent 12 Years A Slave (2013), for which she won an Academy Award for Best Actress (the first Kenyan and Mexican Academy Award winner). There really isn’t much else to look back on throughout her career (she breifly appeared in the film Non Stop in 2014), but if you’re going to be picky you might as well get an Oscar for your first big role then land a part in one of the biggest events in cinema this century.

Check out a clip from her amazing performance below.

The only reservation about her character is that it is completely CGId. Unfortunately there will inevitably be some CGI in the film but they are rather sneakily completely playing all of it down due to the negativity around Jar Jar Binks. A quick glance back to the Marvel Cinematic Universe films and Guardians of the Galaxy prove that Disney probably won’t get it wrong.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens will be released in the UK on 18th December 2015.

A Most Violent Year (J. C. Chandor, 2014)

J. C. Chandor’s crime drama A Most Violent Year is a well produced piece of cinema that tells an interesting story in a solid manner. However, after sitting through over two hours of its mid-paced plot development, it failed to wow me.

The film stars Oscar Isaac as Abel Morales, the hard-working owner of Standard Oil, and Jessica Chastain as Abel’s wife Anna, with supporting roles from Alessandro Nivola, David Oyelowo, Albert Brooks, Elyes Gabel and Catalina Sandino Moreno. It covers a short but crucial period in Abel’s career as he battles against police and corruption to pull of a deal that will see his small company become a big player in 1981 New York’s oil and gas buying and selling industry.

Isaac looks uncannily like a young Al Pacino in his lead performance, and that may accidentally be to the film’s detriment. Essentially, what we aren’t going to get from this quite understated film is a shot of Isaac gunning down thugs and gangsters from a pile of bank notes and drugs, although the tone of the film could easily have ramped up to this had they wanted to go there. It’s a serious story that didn’t need to fall into some over-the-top cliches, and the film is better for it.

That said, when you’re watching such a long film you’d want slightly more to the plot than a seemingly nice but hard-working guy trying to pull off a financial transaction by going around and asking a few people nicely if they could lend him the money. It is executed very well, but the final product is a little underwhelming.

A Most Violent Year is out at cinemas now.

Oscars 2014 – What missed out

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With the Oscars taking place later tonight, I look at the films that have been overlooked by the Academy.

Monsters University
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Okay, it wasn’t the best picture Pixar has come up with over the years. It wasn’t even the best Monsters film they’ve produced. That said, they did find space for The Croods in the nomination pool, which was fine but could you really say it was better than MU? If Pixar had released The Croods, there would have been mass derision. Miyazaki’s The Wind Rises is a hot tip to take the prize this year, but I can’t comment until it gets a UK release.

Rush
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I feel like this film has suffered because it wasn’t released in the typical awards season. It didn’t play by the book. It came out back in September 2013 and performed well at the box office without an Academy recommendation. Bruhl and Hemsley were both outstanding, not just as eerily accurate take-offs but as flawless acting performances in their own right. The recreation of the classic races was spot on from Howard and the story was as exhilarating as the action. In my eyes, it could have easily come in as the 10th film on the best film list. To not even get an appreciative nod for best makeup (Bruhl’s scarring was critical and spot on) or visual effects (though admittedly this was a strong category this year) is surprising.

Inside Llewyn Davis
It’s the Coen brothers latest release and they usually get nominated, right? Not this year. Whilst it’s a strong year for nominations in the Best Picture category, it should have received a nod for best song. In fact, whole soundtrack could have been considered. It received one for best sound mixing, which is a bit of a throwaway category overall. At least it was appreciated on some level.

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire
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Okay, I don’t agree that this film should have been nominated for best film or best acting or anything else. However, the song “Atlas” by Coldplay is easily one of the best original songs in what was admittedly a poor year for soundtracks. It’s a shame they had a song on the list that was later disqualified, especially one as awful as “Alone, Yet Not Alone” by Bruce Broughton and Dennis Spiegel. There was also space for the bland “Ordinary Love” by U2. Neither of these should have made it and they would have made room for “Atlas” and, well, anything from Inside Llewyn Davis or Her.

Saving Mr Banks
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One of the biggest and most talked about shocks was the lack of a nomination for Emma Thompson in Saving Mr Banks. It’s frustrating to see Meryl Streep nominated for the 18th time for a role that she will never win the top prize for when Thompson could have been a front runner for.

Nymph()maniac
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I would have loved it if the Academy could have found it in themselves to nominate Uma Thurman’s fantastic supporting performance in Lars Von Trier’s latest film. It blew me away and really stood out in what was otherwise a pretty bland film. That said, it may not have qualified this year so we may have to wait another year before we see if this – and indeed Christian Slater’s excellent performance – was overlooked.

Elsewhere
Tom Hanks missed out twice for Saving Mr Banks and Captain Phillips, the latter being the biggest shock as it is probably his best performance for over a decade. Whoever thought the cinematography in 12 Years A Slave wasn’t worth noting must have been on drugs. Nothing for Robert Redford’s performance in All Is Lost was also a big surprise, though I’m not convinced Redford lost any sleep over it. The Butler was a massive omission but maybe a little too much like a typical Oscar nominee.

Inside Llewyn Davis (Joel Coen and Ethan Coen, 2014)

Before I start I must confess I’m a huge Coen brothers fan. So much so that I recently went on a day-long course at Broadway Cinema (which was excellent by the way). I look forward to every Coen brothers release and when it’s coupled with a Palme d’Or win then you know you’re in for an entertaining two hours.

The looping storyline concerns the struggling titular character, a performing artist in New York’s Greenwich village, as he tries to make ends meet and regain the popularity he once had with his former singing partner Mike Timlin (who has since committed suicide). It is packed full of astonishing musical performances, not least from Oscar Isaac (previously famed for the King to Russell Crowe’s Robin Hood, though set to become quite well known when he stars in the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII). Joining him are Justin Timberlake and Carey Mulligan as the main stars of the film, though they are definitely in supporting roles. There are also cameos from heaps of great actors, my favourite being the highly comical contribution from John Goodman.

Llewyn Davis Singing

The soundtrack is clearly the driving force behind the storyline. One of the greatest achievements the Coens manage is to allow our attention to be fully dedicated to the music. It’s never a case of starting a song and cutting away to a montage or separate conversation whilst the song goes through the motions of a second verse or middle 8. It is clear they are truly passionate about the music that drives the story and in almost every case the song is uninterrupted from start to finish. It could well be the greatest Coen Brothers soundtrack yet, and if you’ve heard the O Brother Where Art Thou? OST then you know what a compliment that is.

If you’re looking for something to lift your mood, steer clear. Indeed, if you are a struggling artist yourself, you might also want to give it a wide berth unless you are just interested solely in excellent musicianship. With someone this talented struggling to make ends meet and not showing any sign of getting anywhere with his music, you might leave convinced to never pick the guitar up again. If you can put all that aside and simply appreciate the (perhaps surprisingly) excellent musicianship captured so perfectly here then you’re bound to be a happy viewer.

This film is not going to go down as one of the great Coen Brothers films. It just doesn’t have the indescribable magic of, say, The Big Lebowski or Fargo. It is by no means a terrible film, but I just don’t think it has the widespread appeal of some of their other releases. It’s well worth checking out, though I recommend you give it your full attention.

Inside Llewyn Davis is out now in UK cinemas.