Star Wars: The Last Jedi – progress, this is

Staaaar Waarrrs, na na na, Staaar Waaars. So sang my partner Saturday morning as we strolled down to the rather lovely Olympic studios cinema in southwest London to catch the latest in the franchise, Star Wars: The Last Jedi, directed by Rian Johnson.

This film continues events from The Force Awakens, one which saw the return of old characters that many of us loved so dearly from the original films: Han Solo (Harrison Ford), Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill); although the latter only appeared in a single scene.

It also ushered in a new generation of heroes that mixed it up well with the golden oldies: scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley), Stormtrooper turned rebel Finn (John Boyega), X-Wing pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac) and a few others. Plus, a new bad guy, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), taking on the heavy burden of Darth Vader’s mantle, but giving us a more layered, nuanced and conflicted antagonist than Vader ever really was.

At the end of The Force Awakens, (SPOILER if you’ve not seen it) Rey, realising she was naturally strong with the force, went off in search of Luke and found him living as a recluse on a windswept island, the spiritual home of the Jedi.

So, logically, we pick up (with a brief detour with prequel Rogue One) where we left off and The Last Jedi’s focus, in part, is Rey’s quest to find out why Luke has hidden himself away, and what happened with Ben that caused the young apprentice to bat for Team Evil; causing Luke to blame himself and ultimately retreat to a corner of the galaxy, Obi-Wan/Yoda style, to live out his days.

The Last Jedi is also very much Rey’s journey – who is she, really? Why does she have such power? Who are her parents? What connection does she have to Kylo? What can Luke teach her? Does he even want to teach her? For me, this exploration of character is the most interesting part of the story.

Alongside Luke’s holiday island getaway storyline we have the usual cat and mouse back and forth space tangles across the galaxy, with the First Order chasing rebel scum. Big ships, little ships, cardboard boxes. Although, cleverly, Johnson turns this into a slow burn strategic battle, with the rebels staying a safe (ish) distance from the First Order as they inexorably run out of fuel.

This chase is led by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson), hamming it up and spitting venom with every chance he gets. On the side of the rebellion we have General Leia, but also a new addition, Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern, with tremendous purple hair). She lends an air of calm, warmth and gravitas to the impulsive rebellion. Leia version 2.0, in a way.

Her addition helps the gender balance too, with all the big swinging light sabres around the place – something her character directly addresses when putting Isaac’s flyboy Poe in his place, following Leia doing much the same to him in an earlier scene. Both women criticise him for acting the hero no matter the cost, saying that true leaders are less cavalier with the lives of those they’ve said they’d protect. Which is actually a pretty refreshing shift in character for a blockbuster to take.

Moreover, this could be a giant flag planted in terms of where Disney want to take the franchise, reinventing and progressing it and moving it away from the Alpha male Han Solo types, to perhaps a more considered protagonist. Which can only be a good thing for future films. If it works with Stars Wars, it’ll work with most big movies they put out.

So, Johnson has written and directed a film that’s in keeping with – and respectful of – existing Star Wars canon, but also paves the way for the future, with an engaging, progressive story and compelling (largely modern) strong characters (that are both men and women) and feels logical, in terms of a narrative, in that the first film, The Force Awakens, is Han’s story, therefore The Last Jedi becomes Luke’s, with Leia the glue between the two.

(As one internet meme suggested, it’s basically the galaxy’s most dysfunctional family inflicting their woes on everyone else, resulting in decades of war).

Roughly a week since the film’s release it’s also a funny thing because there has been massive backlash, much more so than The Force Awakens, with some have accusing it of being ‘too Disney’, whatever that means. These were always kid’s films, so yeah, odd. Moreover, there’s a lot of adult material in them, but they’re fun adventures. I mean, Wikipedia describes them as ‘epic space operas’, so we shouldn’t really hold them to a higher bar than that.

Then there’s the diversity criticism: all these women, shock, horror, where did they come from? Or a black guy and an Asian woman in such prominent roles? Who the hell signed this off? People of colour can’t be Stormtroopers, women can’t be rebels, admirals, generals, blah, blah, whatever. These people can crawl back under the rocks from whence they came. I mean, honestly.

Hey, listen, this is progress. Whatever the film, however one interprets it, this is all moving in what, presumably, is the right direction in terms of modern cinema. Unless you’re some sort of misogynist, racist, luddite, who considers a ‘modern’ hero to be Harrison Ford leering over Carrie Fisher’s Leia, not letting her escape, then forcing a kiss. Or the fact that the original films had one person of colour, Lando; the satisfaction of a diversity box ticked and a job well done at the time.

Anyway, digressing. To put things in perspective, this film has had the second biggest opening weekend in movie history, $450m worldwide. So, someone is watching (and enjoying it), yet online trolls have loud voices, so we just must remember to take them with a pinch of salt. And not feed them.

For my part, the cast (the new lot) looked much more settled in their roles. The comedy largely works, despite what backwards fanboys/man-babies cry about on the internet. There’s a lot more flesh on the bones of characters, in particular Kylo Ren and Rey and the dynamic between them both. The way their relationship plays out is one of the most interesting things about the film.

And Luke. Good old Mr Skywalker.

In all honesty, Mark bloody Hamill is perhaps the coolest character to make a return to this franchise. Whilst Leia, Han, Chewie and others left me with a warm, fuzzy feeling, Luke returning was actually just hands-down cool. Particularly one or two scenes in the film’s final third, which basically cemented Luke as one of the most compelling (and bad ass) heroes to grace the franchise. Straight out of a Western, in the best sense.

Thinking back, I found him a fairly straight arrow hero in the original films, but here he’s so much more layered. Taking a leaf from Alec Guinness’s Obi-Wan in the originals, here Hamill gets to showcase a lot more of his acting chops, and it’s a delight to see.

I’ll need to see Rogue One again to be sure, but I think this might possibly pip it to the post as the best of the new Star Wars films yet. Simply because it’s trying a few new things, which is, frankly, what this franchise needs if it’s going to stay relevant to a modern audience.

The Jungle Book: safe and sweet

Jon Favreau is a funny old chap. He started out with his buddy Vince Vaughn in Swingers (1996) then leapt up to the big time directing Iron Man (2008). He now gets the big gigs, inasmuch as The Jungle Book is a beloved children’s story by Rudyard Kipling – and also a 1967 film by Disney – so he’d better not mess it up.

Happily he doesn’t, but nor does he take any huge risks. What we get is The Lion King (sort of) done Life of Pi style. In case you’ve never heard of the story it centres on young man-cub Mowgli (Neel Sethi), found in the forest as a toddler by panther Bagheera (Ben Kingsley) and raised by a pack of wolves. Then pissed off tiger Shere Khan (Iris Elba) learns of his existence and vows to kill him; as man is not meant to belong in the forest.

The-Jungle-Book

So, to protect his animal friends from the wrath of Khan (when did this turn into Star Trek?), Mowgli goes on a little adventure to find the man village and be with his own kind. On the way he meets seductive snake Kaa (Scarlet Johansson) and Baloo the bear (Bill Murray) then gets captured by monkeys and meets King of the Apes Louie (Christopher Walken); the latter who wants to learn the secret of man’s fire by way of catchy song.

He then has a big showdown with the cockney tiger and it’s all very exciting. You could say what I’ve described – basically the film – is a huge spoiler but c’mon, it’s The Jungle Book. For most of us we’ve known the story for decades and Favreau doesn’t do a huge amount to play with the formula.

Jungle_Book_2016_103

Granted, he’s cast the actors well enough – Elba is menacing as Khan and Murray as Baloo is a treat and helps lightens things up – but the story is fairly straightforward and doesn’t hit you with many surprises. But maybe that’s what people want from something so nostalgic and beloved? Just don’t mess it up, it’s our childhoods.

Can Disney save Star Wars?

Upon hearing the news that Disney have recently acquired Lucasfilm I asked myself this question. Good old George, the 68-year-old filmmaker sold Lucasfilm for $4.05bn (£2.5bn), my initial reaction was not exactly excitement, more tentative hope.

Lucas is more or less a pensioner and his heart went out of making these films a long time ago. In some ways I’m amazed he managed to get the latest trilogy off the ground at all. Selling to Disney at this point was perfect timing and great business sense. How many other pensioners do you know that increase their fortunes by $4bn a couple of years before they turn 70? No wonder he looks smug.

He has said he wants to pass the franchise on to a new generation of filmmakers, with episode 7 being set for release in 2015. Episodes 8 and 9 will naturally follow, completing a 9-film trilogy spanning decades. Quite a legacy.

The force is strong in this one
Some die-hard fans have been moaning that Disney without Lucas means the corporation will be butchering the beloved world Lucas has created. I think that’s unfair.

Disney has moved on in the last 10 years. It’s worth pointing out they have a savvy – albeit slightly bullish – track record of acquisitions, with Pixar in 2006 ($7.4bn), Marvel in 2009 ($4.2bn) and now Lucasfilm in 2012 ($4bn).

With Marvel and Pixar, Disney have – to their credit – allowed these studios to approach their films, characters and stories in a way that stays true to their philosophy.

For Marvel, they’ve also chosen wisely in terms of Directors: Kenneth Branagh (Thor), Jon Favreau (Iron Man), Joss Whedon (Avengers). When Disney and Pixar merged in 2006, it was explicitly laid out that Pixar would maintain its identity and creative control, allowing this has meant their philosophy of filmmaking has continued and given us films such as: Up (2009), Toy Story 3 (2010) and Brave (2012).

I see no reason why Disney won’t continue in a similar fashion with new Star Wars films. This cinematic franchise has been around a hell of a lot longer than Marvel or Pixar films, with an incredibly devoted fan base to match.

I don’t believe it. That is why you fail
Make no mistake episode 7 is going to be a massive challenge for whichever Director Disney put in charge. It will be a continuation of Luke, Leia and Han’s story, so it’s completely new territory. There has been brief – probably comical – mention of the original actors returning, but they’re all pensioners now and it’s not worth entertaining the thought.

I’m not going to start dictating the best way Disney should approach these films, I genuinely have faith they’ll treat the brand with respect – and hopefully take it back towards the look and feel of the original films.  Either way, Lucas remains a ‘consultant’ for the next trilogy, so his reign of terror is largely over. Onwards and upwards!