My top seventeen films of 2017

This year has been a bit of a bumper for good films. Putting together a list, yet again, I realise there are so many I haven’t seen. Here’s those that I have, a top seventeen and the order in which I liked them. Plus a rather large number that I am yet to see, but want to, and have heard good things.

1. Get Out

Off-kilter and deeply unsettling. The first two thirds of this film puts certain deeply held prejudices into stark focus. Little micro-aggressions of racism that people of colour experience, in a way that white people simply cannot comprehend. This film achieved big at the box office, from a miniscule budget – doing strong numbers in the States. Frightening, vital storytelling.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

Taiki Waititi is an odd man. This is not an understatement. His past work includes a documentary style vampire film, What We Do In The Shadows and a highly unusual road chase movie Hunt For The Wilderpeople. Then Marvel gave him a superhero sandpit in which to play. The result is Ragnarok, the funniest, strangest film to come out of a studio that’s seventeen films in.

3. Baby Driver

Edgar Wright left Ant-Man over creative differences to go and make this. Silver lining and all that, because this is, by far, Wright’s best film. It’s practically a musical, in terms of how effortlessly and brilliantly songs are weaved into its DNA. And the performances across the board are surprising and inspired. A helluva lot of fun.

4. A Monster Calls

This came out New Year’s Day 2017, so you can be forgiven for forgetting it. But you shouldn’t, because it’s one of the most emotionally affecting films I’ve ever seen. Utterly heart-breaking stuff from director Juan Antonio Bayona.

5. Moonlight

Oscar winner (eventually), this film should be on your ‘must watch’ list. A big break for director Barry Jenkins, with outstanding performances from all three leads, playing the same man at three key points in his life. Languid, dreamy, painfully well observed.

6. Logan

It’s nice that director James Mangold got another crack at Wolverine as a character, because he could finally create the film he wanted to create, with the studio giving him a huge amount of freedom. The result being a very much stand-alone X-Men film, but also the best Wolverine story by some distance. And a fitting send-off for Jackman in the role.

7. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol 2

The first Guardians film had little expectation, but surprised everyone, particular in terms of comedy. And then came the difficult second album. It doesn’t quite have the emotional impact of the first film, but there’s loads of good stuff in it, and it comes darn close to topping the first.

8. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield, two chaps that had a crack at the role. Neither are as good a fit as the latest bloke, Tom Holland. It helps that this film is now part of the MCU and Iron Man’s inclusion adds a nice wrinkle to Peter Parker’s progress as a hero; in that Tony becomes a sort of surrogate father figure. Plus, Michael Keaton as a bad guy. Someone you’d want in any movie, if you can get him.

9. mother!

Darren Aranofsky is no stranger to controversy. He wrote this script in what he described as a ‘fever dream’, with star Jennifer Lawrence reportedly throwing it across the room after reading it and telling the director there was something wrong with him. Only to later say he was a genius. This film works on many allegorical levels and granted, it’s a tough watch, but a visceral one from an auteur filmmaker.

10. Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Coming from a background of indies such as The Brothers Bloom, Brick and Looper, Rian Johnson was an interesting choice for Disney, in terms of continuing the story of Luke, Leia and the gang with all that force stuff. It’s hugely polarised a small portion of the internet but still opened to the second biggest weekend in movie history, so it can’t be that bad. For me, I thought it was a great story and possibly the best of the new films yet.

11. Wonder Woman

Finally, DC came up with a movie that was less of a CGI-fest, although they couldn’t resist descending into this territory come the film’s final third. Luckily, the rest of the movie was more progressive and engaging, and all the fish out of water stuff with Gal Gadot’s Diana Prince was a delight. It also gave us a female superhero as the lead of a blockbuster for the first time, one that has gone on to inspire countless women and girls around the world.

12. Free Fire

Ben Wheatley, as a director, is no stranger to dark stories and messed up visuals. And he’s always had mostly a British cast to work with. As his name has grown everyone wants to work with him now, and this film represents his biggest, most A-list cast to date. So what does he do? Stick them all on the floor in a dirty warehouse crawling around shooting at each other for an entire movie. Hilarious and genius.

13. Hidden Figures

This film is about racism AND sexism. It tells the story of the amazing work done by three women of colour who worked at NASA during the space race with Russia in the ‘60s. All three were instrumental in some of NASA’s biggest achievements at the time. Definitely file under ‘feel good’ movie, but it’s also one that highlighted the true story of three women who dealt with ingrained racism and sexism in the most magnanimous, humbling way.

14. Blade Runner: 2049

Living up to the original film must be a tough gig, and it’s a brave director that takes on the challenge of giving us a sequel, but Denis Villeneuve, hot off of films such as Arrival, Sicario and Prisoners, thought himself up to the challenge. It helped that he had the legend that is Roger Deakins on cinematography duty. It’s too long, but a decent sequel and Gosling was a good fit.

15. The Lost City of Z

Based on the true story of British explorer Percy Fawcett, played by Charlie Hunnam, and his forays into South America and the Amazon in search of an ancient lost city. The film is too long, but takes its time setting everything up, and has a real Apocalypse Now feel about it at times. Recommended.

16. What Happened To Monday

Netflix release, this film went under a lot of people’s radars but it’s pretty darn good. Starring Noomi Rapace it’s a sci-fi set in a world where families are only allowed one child, due to the population. Willem Defoe’s character ends up with seven identical girls, which he names after each day of the week. On their name day they take turns going out into the world. So Monday goes to work on Monday, Tuesday on Tuesday and so on. Then Monday vanishes. It’s up to the remaining sisters to discover what happened. Outstanding performances from Rapace as all of the sisters.

17. okja

Okja, this year, was one of those modern oddities, in that it was released exclusively on Netflix and featured an A-list cast, including Tilda Swinton, Paul Dano and Jake Gyllenhaal. It tells the story of a world where food is scarce so a corporation grows super pigs. A girl becomes attached to hers and fights to save it from slaughter. Directed by Bong Joon-ho it’s supremely strange but lovingly told.


There’s also a rather hefty list of films I have yet to see. These are:

Dunkirk
Lady Macbeth
The Meyerowitz Stories
Call me by your name
The Florida Project
God’s Own Country
Personal Shopper
The Shape of Water
Mudbound
Raw
War For The Planet of The Apes
The Death of Stalin
La La Land
John Wick: Chapter 2
Logan Lucky
The Beguiled
Detroit
Elle
Jackie
The Handmaiden
Paddington 2
Manchester by the Sea
Split
Lion
Prevenge
The Love Witch
Collosal
My Cousin Rachel
Patti Cake$
The Killing of a Sacred Deer
A Cure For Wellness
Gerald’s Game

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.

Rogue One: upping the game

So how on earth do I review a Star Wars film without spoiling it? It’s tough but let’s try. To start with, it’s not called Star Wars colon something, so it already sets itself apart from the others. It’s linked, definitely. But it’s a little rebel of its own, which is kind of great.

Plot wise, I’ll keep it light. Scientist Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen) has left the Empire behind, until they find him and recruit him to build the Death Star. His daughter witnesses this and then grows up to be Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), a freedom fighter of sorts – who gets recruited by the rebels. They’ve learned of the Death Star and who Jyn is and want to use her to get close to Galen and perhaps kill him. Jyn learns that her father put a weakness in the Death Star and, if they can capture the plans for it, they’ll know how to take it down. Along the way she teams up with rebel Cassian Andor (Diego Luna), former Imperial droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk), a force-believing monk (Donnie Yen), mercenary Baze Malbus (Jiang Yen), and former Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed). Trying to stop them is bad Empire chap, Director Krennic (Ben Mendelsohn, doing his best impression of close to maximum crazy).

So we’ve got a story that slots relatively neatly into the middle of the saga – in that the events that led up to the creation of Vadar come first, then this, then the original films (blowing up the Death Star), then the quest to find Luke (the most recent one, The Force Awakens, with Daisy Ridley). Got it? Make sense? Let’s carry on.

heres-the-first-cast-photo-of-star-wars-spin-off-movie-rogue-one

Sticking with story, it’s funny. In that you could argue it doesn’t actually offer up anything new if you put it under a spotlight. We get a gang trying to get one over on the Empire on a planet’s surface while a space battle rages above. This gang is made up of a main guy and girl, a robot, a guy who believes in the force, and a shaggy man-creature who doesn’t say much. Our main character has major issues reconnecting with her father, convinced of the good in him when others doubt there is any, sound familiar?

I could go on, but I don’t want to criticise too much. It’s still, in some ways, more original than The Force Awakens. It might not have the same heft of character; in that you’re missing Adam Driver’s Ben Solo – possibly the most interesting thing to come out of the new films so far. But what you do have is a real sense of spectacle and weight. The battle scenes in Rogue One are visceral and impactful and put me in mind of Saving Private Ryan‘s Normandy beach landings, and the city battles in Jedha conjured up images of Blood Diamond‘s street skirmishes and Children of Men‘s firefights, all of which are high praise indeed. So hats off to director Gareth Edwards (a normal director, not an evil Imperial one) for the sense of immediacy and danger he gets across.

And in general, the film looks gorgeous too (helps I saw it at the BFI IMAX) and Edwards has gone all out in terms of location and scale. You get a real sense of the different worlds that make up this universe. In particular, the Jedi’s homeworld of Jedha (now fallen into ruin) looks epic and suggests an ancient culture now largely gone from the universe. And the film’s finale on tropical planet Scarif – with all surf, palm trees and beaches, feels fresh and different.

rogue-one-star-wars-story

Cast wise, the film more or less belongs to Felicity Jones and Diego Luna – both of whom put in convincing performances. And there are numerous scenes where they exchange looks or moments that, if left for a second longer, could be seen as romantic. But the filmmakers resisted this, which is great. It isn’t that kind of story. This is war and it’s encouraging they didn’t waver and bow to audience expectation. It’s also perhaps testament to the direction, script and cast that, in a stand-alone film (that’s part of an epic saga), Edwards gets us caring about the main characters pretty quickly. There isn’t a huge amount of time to build their stories, but just enough so that their plight means something. There are high stakes.

So all in all, this is a highly enjoyable entry in the saga. It’s got humour, thrills, spectacle and a certain level of inventiveness. It nods to canon without being overwhelmed, and it puts a twist on a number of things we’ve come to expect to see, making them feel a little fresher, but still familiar. Which is no easy task. So it’s a bit like Russian roulette, in that Edwards has pulled the trigger, the chamber has revolved and he’s gotten away with it. Next up to try his luck: Rian Johnson for Episode VIII. Still, after Looper and his past work, I’m pretty optimistic.

 

 

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.

The-Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens

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.

finn-new-star-wars-teaser3-xlarge

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.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awakens-teaser

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.

the force awakens finn poe

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.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – thoughts?

Star-Wars_The-Force-Awakens_First-trailer-cap_Joe-Boyega-top.2-1-1-001

Let’s be honest, J.J. Abrams would have had to monumentally and catastrophically mess up the new Star Wars teaser trailer for the fans to descend upon him, venting their wrath.

That said, there’s some intriguing imagery and things to consider. Whilst the internet is ablaze with speculation as to what these visual clues could mean, they could simply just be tasty shots of the upcoming film. Ever considered that?

What we DO know is: there will be stormtroopers (or at least a character played by John Boyega dressed as one for a brief moment in the trailer); there will be Sith (or at least one Sith with a light sabre shaped like a greatsword); there will be X-Wing fighter jets; there will be… the Millenium Falcon.

And there will be a girl in desert robes (Daisy Ridley) who appears to be on Tatooine, but we don’t know for sure.

Star-Wars-The-Force-Awake-010

That’s about all you can say.

The release date of the film is a year away, so there’s bound to be more clues, but to go overboard now seems premature. Save your excitement I say. At least until the next trailer comes out and we have a bit more to go on.

One thing I WILL say, from the scant scenes shown in this teaser, Abrams looks to have the nailed the tone. It looks exciting. Modern, fresh, slightly dark and gritty, yet light and adventurous. Exactly what you’d have hoped he would bring to this franchise. However, we all interpret things differently.

So, judge for yourself. I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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!

Natalie Portman’s top 5 performances

natalie portman

natalie portmanThis piece slightly follows on from my recent post on how Hayden Christensen ruined Star Wars. After writing I began to think about the other actors in those films, particularly Natalie Portman and how highly I rate her work.

Other than Leon in 1994, her first major role as an adult actress was Star Wars. She was cast in 1997 – just 3 years after Leon – with the first film out in 1999. That said, I didn’t really become a fan until 2004 and her indie phase.

Her appeal for me is that – in terms of actresses that combine brains and beauty and mix up Hollywood blockbusters with cool, little indie films – she’s one of the best. Let’s look at what I consider to be her best performances.

  1. Black Swan (2010)
    This obviously has to make the top spot. Portman won an Academy award as Best Actress for her role as Nina – perhaps drawing on earlier experience playing characters in Closer and V for Vendetta – she gave a mesmerising, unsettling and yet captivating performance which firmly pushed her into the A list.
  2. natalie portmanLeon (1994)
    What can we say about her performance in this one? Holding her own against big names; Jean Reno, Gary Oldman etc. Without her performance here we may never have had Hanna – a super cool film with Saoirse Ronan. Also, Gareth Evans – Director of critically-acclaimed film The Raid – cited Leon as a major influence.
  3. Garden State (2004)
    I loved her in this – so sweet and vulnerable, yet bubbly and optimistic. A perfect contrast to Zach Braff’s dour character. It’s roles like this that cemented her in my mind as one of my favourite actresses. The ultimate girl-next-door who listens to The Shins and makes you love life!
  4. natalie portmanV for Vendetta (2005)
    She got a hard time for her accent in this – swinging from super posh to cor blimey Dick Van Dyke. However she gave the character – Evey – a perfect mix of strength and vulnerability. Plus how many actresses do you know that would shave their head for a role and end up looking more beautiful?
  5. Closer (2004)
    Released the same year as Garden State and a brave breakaway from her relatively wooden turn in Star Wars (I blame Lucas, he’s known for giving actors little direction or getting much out of them). Here she uses her brilliant mix of vulnerability and sexuality to full effect – although the scene where Jude Law’s character breaks up with her is heartbreaking – how could he? It’s like kicking a puppy, she’s so lovely.

So there’s my list, what do you think? Any missing that you feel should have made the cut?

What’s next for our Natalie?
In terms of future projects, she’s in Terence Malick’s Knight of Cups which is in pre-production. Although he’s known for editing out big actors, so who knows if she’ll appear much in the finished film. Let’s hope so. She currently filming Thor: The Dark World, plus a few rumoured films for 2014.

I’ll leave you with her audition tape from Leon. Worth watching more than once, there’s subtle expressions she gives you might miss first time round. She displays a sharp wit, sassy nature, intelligence and maturity – no wonder she got the part.

Dammit Christensen, you ruined Star Wars!

You know how these days Google predicts search terms as you type based on searches others have made? The reason I mention this is the other night Star Wars: Attack of the Clones was on TV. I found myself watching despite the fact that disappointment lurked around the corner.

I am, of course, talking about Hayden Christensen. Now this film was released in 2002 and I cannot believe that, despite the amount of time passing, Christensen’s performance still bothers me. Enough to motivate me to write this piece at least.

Straight after the film I fired up my laptop and began to type ‘Hayden Christensen c…’ and you know what Google predicts? (Get your minds out the gutter for a second.) As soon as you hit the last ‘c’ it gives you, ‘can’t act’, ‘career over’ and ‘criticism’. Seems I’m not alone in my assessment of his performance.

Lukesaberanh

Star Wars – the original trilogy – was massive, huge, so influential it became ingrained in modern culture and it’s stood the test of time and remained popular from the first film in the late ’70s to the present day. The world George Lucas created was captivating… the Force, the Jedi, the Sith – all of it so richly drawn out but – and this is a big but – above all, it was human.

The characters he created were human ones, they were flawed, they struggled and fought and loved and lost. For example: Luke to understand where he came from and what his power was; Leia, in part, the same; Han to get his rocks off with Leia and prove to himself he wasn’t as selfish as he first came across. And so on.

That is why if you’re going to do a bunch of new films it’s essential you cast Anakin Skywalker as well as you possibly can. All the background about separatists, the republic, the senate, political power plays – that’s all it is, background. These films have always been about the Jedi and the Force and the whole story arc (in this case) revolves around Anakin and his journey from light to dark. It’s what we all want to see and have paid our bucks for – everything else is window dressing, to a degree.

Anakin

So why couldn’t he deliver?

Now I know it’s easy to condemn and hard to create but honestly, how did Hayden Christensen get the part? He had been in precious little before Star Wars and his career after has been sparse to say the least. I know some say these films are career killers; for example in the Family Guy version Peter Griffin (playing Han Solo) introduces himself by saying ‘I’m Captain of the Millennium Falcon and the only actor whose career isn’t killed by this movie’.

I suppose this was more true of the original trilogy than these modern prequels, established actors like Ewan Mcgregor and Liam Neeson all fared well post-Star Wars, but then they didn’t have the heavy burden of being the lead. They propped him up as best they could, but it wasn’t enough. Not nearly enough.

Just to put things in perspective: I didn’t buy the way Christensen attempted to portray inner conflict as he wrestled between the two sides of the Force; I felt his delivery of dialogue was stilted and forced; I felt he lacked chemistry with Natalie Portman’s character; I didn’t like his stupid haircut; I didn’t like the fact that a number of his scenes had a homoerotic undercurrent, he had more chemistry with Ewan Mcgregor’s Obi-Wan for Christ’s sake.

To be serious for a second, one of the few scenes in which he actually convinced was his final battle with Kinobe on the river of lava. Much closer tonally to the original films… dark, brooding, dramatic and intense. In that respect maybe their bromance helped, ‘I loved you Anakin!’ (Ahem, like a brother.)

Who else?

It would be fascinating (or infuriating) to know which up-and-coming actors auditioned for the role at the time and were rejected. Given Attack of the Clones came out in 2002 guys breaking out then included: Jack Gyllenhaal (Donnie Darko, 2001), James Franco (Spider-man, 2002), Christian Bale (American Psycho, 2000) and Ryan Phillippe (Way of the Gun, 2000).

Christian Bale wasn’t right as he was probably too old and just doesn’t seem the right fit, however there’s a few scenes in American Psycho that make you think maybe he could have done something pretty interesting with the role. Ryan Phillippe is similar in appearance to Christensen and showed great inner conflict in Way of the Gun with a surprising level of emotional depth. (Incidentally, it’s a great film and worth a watch if you get the chance.)

Then there’s Jake Gyllenhaal. He would have been a brave albeit unconventional fit – his creepy and tormented downward spiral in Donnie Darko showed he could have handled the character’s journey from light to dark. And James Franco may have been an interesting choice too, as he’s since showed in his career he likes to take on alternative types of roles, such as 127 Hours and Spring Breakers.

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In a galaxy far, far away

Anyway, none of this matters. We’re stuck with Christensen as Anakin – so as a rule of thumb, if you’re bored one day and fancy a Star Wars fix, one that has classic scenes, tension, dread, adventure, joy and wonder – stick with the originals. If you want glossy CGI action aimed at kids, Jar Jar sodding Binks refusing to shut up and Samuel L. Jackson flashing his purple light sabre around the place, go with the modern prequels.

But then, if you’re reading this blog you’re most likely film fans (you clever lot) and know this already. In fact, maybe I’m just taking this all too seriously and had better go watch the Family Guy version to lighten up. May the farce be with you.

PS Read my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens here.
http://mikeysfilmreviews.com/2015/12/22/star-wars-the-force-awakens-review/