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.

X-Men: Apocalypse – review

The thing about superhero movies (as some geeky pub conversations may go), is that they have to get bigger and more spectacular each time. To the point where there’s nowhere left to take the story. And, whilst previous X-Men films have destroyed the Golden Gate Bridge and football stadiums and such, the only logical way to head, if we’re honest, is up. All the way to an apocalypse, total annihilation. (Something of a theme this summer, I thought, having sat through the new Independence Day trailer before this film began.)

Luckily for Marvel they have a character called Apocalypse aka En Sabah Nur – the first mutant; one who absorbs other mutant’s powers and who we first encounter in the film’s opening sequence in ancient Egypt (although he may be much older). During the scene he gets betrayed by his followers – who claim he’s a false God (one of the movie’s recurring themes) – and so he ends up trapped underground, in stasis and dormant. Until… thanks to some fortune (for him, more than the rest of the world) he awakes and decides that humanity needs an Etch A Sketch style reboot.

Enter our (slightly reluctant) heroes.

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They’re all back, for the most part. We’ve got Raven/Mystique (Jennifer Lawrence), now a freedom fighter, roaming the world setting fellow mutants free; Hank/Beast (Nicholas Hoult), rocking the bespectacled Professor look, helping out Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) in his house for the gifted. Then there’s Erik/Magneto (Michael Fassbender), holed up in Poland pretending to be normal, until events cause him to somewhat snap and return to the fold in a fury.

There’s also a load of newbies. Some younger versions of characters we’ve seen before and some are entirely new. We have: Jean Grey (Sophie Turner), Storm (Alexandra Shipp), Archangel (Ben Hardy), Psylocke (Olivia Munn), Kurt/Nightcrawler (Kodi Smit-McPhee), Peter/Quicksilver (Evan Peters), Scott Summers/Cyclops (Tye Sheridan). Plus a few more. It’s X-Men remember, character overload aplenty.

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That said, Bryan Singer really is some sort of genius when it comes to making these characters zing. Having seen three superhero films in a row recently (Batman v Superman, Captain America: Civil War, and this) I’d say this X-Men – the ninth in the series – is, to me, not only the most complicated in terms of character juggling, but also the funniest and the most emotionally resonant.

There I’ve said it. In your face Avengers.

For those of you that keep up to date with film reviews I may sound out of step at this point. At least with critics, who have largely laid into the movie saying it’s repetitive and downbeat – and Rotten Tomatoes seems to back this up, rating it at 52%, which isn’t great. But don’t get me wrong, I don’t put this too far above Captain America: Civil War (quite possibly the best Avengers film so far), I just think this X-Men entry takes it by a nose.

I felt I cared for these characters more than Steve Rodgers and Tony Stark. I felt invested in their fates.

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Maybe it’s just that I prefer Fassbender, Lawrence and McAvoy as leads compared to Chris Evans and Robert Downey Jr. Maybe I bought into the emotional beats more readily? Maybe it’s the comedy? Maybe this just seems more ‘Marvel’ in tone than the last Cap film. I genuinely think this X-Men is funnier than Captain America; not only for successful jokes throughout, which all land well, but in particular for another outstanding Quicksilver sequence; one which beats the last one hands down for its complexity, comedy, inventiveness and sense of danger… in that the stakes are upped from the last time he did his thing.

Whatever connected with me with this film, it remains a mystery. Maybe it’s just it had more of a sense of fun? Anyway, it was time well spent at the cinema.

And, as you’d expect with new blood coming in, it is, of course, left open for a tenth film. Which is quite some achievement for a franchise that’s been going so long. Although in terms of where we go next, that’s rather up in the air. Singer has spoken about taking the X-Men into space or exploring more of Jean Grey’s story. Now the space plot sounds like mad genius, so maybe that’s the best play. But… Jean Grey is insanely powerful as a character, so that could be good route too. Either way, with the young cast all bedding in nicely the future remains bright.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens review

Is it acceptable for a 33-year-old man to well up multiple times during this film? Probably not, but it happened. It was bound to happen. I mean, from the opening shot of the logo I was struggling to hold it together. Perhaps because I’ve now finished work and it’s been a long year, but it’s more than that, it’s Star Wars. And we’re all hoping beyond hope that J.J. Abrams will give us something good and help take away the pain of the last lot of films.

Happily, I’m pleased to report he does. The Force Awakens is set a few decades after the events of the original films and the First Order has risen as the new evil power led – in part – by Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who looks to the memory of Darth Vader as his inspiration to do bad things. Incidentally, Driver is impressive as the new bad guy. Stepping into the shoes of cinema’s greatest villian is no easy task, but his evolution is a compelling one.

But, to backtrack a moment, we begin the film with Finn (John Boyega), a stormtrooper with a crisis of confidence who teams up with resistance fighter Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) to escape Ren’s clutches. Finn quickly meets resourceful scavenger Rey (Daisy Ridley) and they – in turn – meet Han Solo (Harrison Ford, as if you need telling) and Chewie and things kick on from there. And this feels good, natural, a nice blend of newcomers and classic characters we know and love. We’re in a safe place. Ok, now we can relax and enjoy it all.

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The plot largely revolves around the First Order and the Resistance both hunting for Luke Skywalker who has gone into hiding, Yoda style. At the same time the First Order have built an upgrade to the Death Star, which the Resistance must destroy or face being wiped out by themselves; so what we have is a partial retread of the original first film with touches of the other two originals, for the most part.

Abrams, being a lifelong fan, has gone for the look and feel of the original as much as he can too, with practical effects making a welcome return. And The Force Awakens also manages to balance the light, adventurous tone we originally loved with the pathos and torture of the dark side well, which is no easy thing. Recently I criticised SPECTRE for feeling like Bond’s greatest hits, yet here Abrams does a similar thing. Although there’s a difference between a loving nod and a lazy reference, and I think Abrams succeeded where Sam Mendes mostly failed.

Perhaps what it all boils down to is character and emotional connection (a tricky thing with Bond as he reinvents himself every few years, and is a bit of a cold fish). With Star Wars the audience is full to bursting with nostalgic love before the film has even begun, so it’s more a case of the filmmakers just not dropping the ball.

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Give us what we love, but give us new stuff too. Which they do. (You’ll grin like a kid at Christmas – and it almost is Christmas, so everyone’s a winner!)

So whilst this film starts with newcomer Finn, it’s more other newcomer Rey’s tale really. And she gets thrown into the action from the off, but definitely not as arm candy for the male characters, she kicks ass better than most – something it’s clear Abrams is keen to show (and on strong female characters he has past form) so it’s refreshing to see her front and centre of this story.

In some ways she reminded me a lot of Keira Knightley in Pirates of the Caribbean, in terms of both how she looks physically and how her character reacts to situations, fighting her corner and forging her own destiny.

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Although, even with Pirates Knightley’s character often found herself having to be rescued by the guys (but this was almost a decade ago, so she sort of paved the way a bit for characters like Rey). And with Rey she is rarely at the mercy of a male character, unless it’s Ren – even then there’s stuff she does which will surprise you, without giving too much away.

But just so it’s not all Daisy Ridley, others should get a mention too. John Boyega, for example, is much funnier than I expected him to be. Having only seen him as the strong and silent type in Attack the Block he’s done pretty much a 180 to play talkative Finn, balancing comedy with the film’s more dramatic moments. And it’s so reassuring to have Han Solo knocking around the place, too. He gives the film a gravitas and legitimacy playing the elder statesman role, but still with a growl and a cocky line or two to remind you who you’re watching.

As far as the rest of the cast go, the movie flies along at such a pace that many other characters (originals and newbies) get scant screen time, but you get the sense their stories will be expanded during the next two films and there’s a lot more to come. So that’s OK then.

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All in all, it has to be a big thumbs up and a hurrah for Abrams. He’s made a Star Wars film that people will come back to time and again, one that fits in well with the franchise and tees things up nicely for the next two. He’s also (arguably) repeated his trick of rescuing another franchise (after Star Trek) and restored faith in these stories for many round the world. And all in time for Christmas.

Thanks J.J. We owe you one. May the force be with you.

Trailer park: The Jungle Book, X-Men, Warcraft

Continuing my run of ‘trailer park’ blogs, here’s another. This one focusing on sci-fi, fantasy, adventure and action. ‘Tis the season to fight monsters, tra la la la laa.

The Jungle Book
(out April 2016)
Picking up (in a way) where Life of Pi left off, this film takes the technology further in what looks to be a frankly awe-inspiring version of this classic story. With a strong cast expect to be dazzled and delighted.

X-Men: Apocalypse
(out May 2016)
Upping the ante, that’s what superhero films are all about. For the latest in this franchise the gang face Oscar Isaac’s Apocalypse, the first mutant, and immensely powerful to boot. This has promise.

Warcraft
(out June 2016)
Aiming to be perhaps the first director to create a successful film based on a computer game, Duncan Jones could well pull this off. It’s not holding back either, with an epic trailer promising spectacle and character in spades.