Friday, 18 December 2015

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Below the picture you will find my thoughts on Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens. This will be a spoilerific discussion, so if you've yet to see the movie and what to go in clean, go away now. Otherwise read on.

"This will begin to make things right" utters Max Von Sydow at the very beginning of Episode VII. It is the very first line of the movie. He is talking about the map fragment that will allow his resistance brethren to locate Luke Skywalker. But more than that, director J J Abrams is speaking directly to the fans.

We all know that the prequels didn't live up to the hopes we had for them. I don't ardently hate them as some do, but they just don't feel like they exist in the universe of Star Wars. They were characters with recognisable names, but weren't those characters.

From minute one Abrams makes it his mission to return the franchise to form. A massive Super Star Destroyer fills the screen, just as it did in 1977, as a cute droid - on which more later - is entrusted with secret plans as the movie's Big Bad marches in, all guns blazing.

It is impossible not to be mentally transported back to the corridors of the Tantive IV as you see Kylo Ren first search Poe for the data, and then take him captive, just as Vader did with Princess Leia all those years ago.

From here the movie doesn't let up on its nostalgia kick. We knew that it would be exciting to see Han and Leia back, but to see Han in such a key role was just excellent. From the first moment he and Chewie run back onto the Falcon, it is not just they, but the audience too who sigh happily. We are home.

This isn't just a nostalgia movie though, playing on the blue print of A New Hope, but an entity which works unto itself as well. A New New Hope if you will. A New Hope for A New Generation. This relief comes in the hands of John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, and most importantly: Daisy Ridley.

Ridley, a practical unknown (she has done some minor television roles, but nothing even within the basic realm of this kind of film) is a revelation as the scavenger girl Rey. She is one of the most finely drawn characters the franchise has laid eyes on, and even early on in proceedings as we see her beat up two aliens who try to mug her for BB-8 it is clear this isn't a damsel in distress.

She takes charge, and despite the assumptions one might have from the trailers, it is her and not Finn that will carry the franchise. The Force which is awakening is within her. She is a Jedi, and must find her place in the universe. As Lupita NYong'o's Maz Kanata tells us, her future is with Luke, the lightsaber has chosen her. Luke's lightsaber. Anakin's lightsaber. She is so incredibly important, and to see a women at the head of the franchise - in a way that arguably even Carrie Fisher never was - is a truly special moment.

It is clear that despite her relative inexperience however that she can more than hold her own, and she steals every scene she is in. Whether she is crying out over the death of Han; taking control of the Falcon through a spellbinding TIE Fighter battle on Jakku;  openly weeping over Finn's body; or battling Kylo Ren in what will go down as the finest saber battle in all 6 films, this is an actress who can command the screen.

It is not just Rey who captures attention here though, but the simply wonderful BB-8. From the very first quarter second clip in the original teaser a year ago the fanbase watched in wonder as this little guy rolled his way into our hearts. Here in full the beauty continues forthwith.

He has several genuine laugh out loud moments as the movie goes on: from his rolling and falling around the ceiling of the Falcon as it flips around; the excellent lighter thumbs-up; and his clear respect for R2D2.

Its nice because J J hasn't simply forgotten R2 and C3PO, but gives them the roles of veteran's showing the new guy the ropes, just as Han and Leia do for our new cast. BB-8's adventures moving forward will be of great interest.

I could go on all day about everything that was right about this film. John William's score, to Adam Driver's dark, brooding, anger filled Kylo Ren, there isn't a hair out of place in the whole film.

To say it the only way I know how I will say this: J J has woven a tale worthy of the name. If the prequels struggled to maintain the identity of the original trilogy then allow me to pay The Force Awakens the greatest compliment I can give it: This is a Star Wars film. And a damn good one at that.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

NXT Nottingham Review

Below you will find my thoughts on the NXT tour show at the Capital FM Arena in Nottingham last night. For the first international tour for NXT anywhere outside the states, its clear that the young men and women of the third brand (it seems silly to call it developmental now, it is a third brand) wanted to pull out all the stops and put on a great great show


Even before the show got started the crowd was hot, with various chants circling the busy arena. And then, as 7:30 rolled around, and Greg Hamilton made his way to ringside to get the show on the road, the NXT chant got rolling fully, and the crowd rose another notch.

The show opened with Enzo and Big Cass Vs Blake and Murphy. They had a really solid tag match, with Enzo carrying most of the work for their team, taking the beating from the heels, bringing the already loud crowd to their feet as the How You Doin’ and SAWFT chants rose louder and louder until Cass could finally get the hot tag and clean house. It was a really great opening match, getting the crowd pumped.

After the match, as Enzo went around high-fiving the front row, it was immediately noticeable that he wasn't just slapping them and moving on as you would usually see, but taking the time to stop with anyone with a camera for a selfie, or anyone with a sign which he could sign. It was clear he wanted to make this night special for as many fans as he could, and despite being such a little thing, it gave me a huge deal of respect for him

Next up it was the turn of Bull Dempsey and The Perfect 10, Tye Dillinger. After the hard hitting first match, this was a far more comedic affair, with Bull playing off his Bull Fit gimmick, star jumping in place (and even trying - and failing - to cartwheel), but the centre piece was a moment towards the end of the match where, after Dillinger had been getting his 10-10-10 chant going, Bull flattened him, and then proceeded to roll across the ring back and forth, straight over Dillinger’s chest. He did it, you guessed it, 10 times, as the crowd counted, ending in the loudest 10 chant of the match, and with Dempsey taking the win.

Moving along was Apollo Crews Vs Samoa Joe in what was undoubtedly the hardest hitting match of the night. With both men building towards big matches at Takeover, they looked to get one up on each other at every turn, throwing punches back and forth, and with Joe even kicking out of Crews’ standing moonsault, which came as a surprise. This was the first time the crowd had really felt divided too in who they wanted to win. Joe has long been a favourite in the UK from his TNA days, while Crews - as Uhaa Nation on the indies - had wrestled for our local Nottingham promotion Southside a few times before making his way to NXT, so fans were on both sides. In the end a mustlebuster from Joe would secure the victory, finally giving a bad guy the win. 

The last match before intermission was a Womens division tag match, with the team of Emma and Nia Jax taking on Asuka and Bayley. If the crowd was raucous before, the entrance for Bayley was something else. As the music hit, the place just came unglued, with everyone on their feet, dancing and singing along.

Even Asuka got in on the act, as you’ll see in the video I posted last night. They went to the ring wearing each others tshirts, and actually functioned really well as a team. Although one assumes once she eventually drops the womens belt that Bayley will make her way up to the main roster, I wouldn't be against her and Asuka actually forming an alliance on TV, because on the basis of tonight they have great chemistry, and it allowed Asuka to show a brighter, different side of there than the usually mysterious vista we see on television.

As for the match itself, as should be expected it was something of a barn burner. Nia Jax in particular stood out to me as someone to watch - perhaps because I hadnt had too much experience with her, up to now, but it feels like she has good heel instincts, and knew just the moment to strike against her opponent at which it would draw a response. It goes without saying of course that Asuka and Bayley were also incredible to witness in person, and that after a Bailey to Belly on Emma, they would walk out victorious.

As a sign of honour to her Japanese friend, Bayley bowed in the centre of the ring to her partner, who reciprocated, before again the wacky waving inflatable tube men rose into the sky and the dance party recommenced into the interval.

Just as the first half had, the second half got started with a tag team match, this time pitting tag team champs Dash and Dawson against Jason Jordan and Chad Gable. I cannot stress what I am about to say any other way than this: Jordan and Gable are the most over entity in the entire company. I am including the New Day, I am including Bayley, I am including anyone you can think of. They are Daniel Bryan immediately before WM30 over.

As they make their way to the ring the chants reach a crescendo that they will not reach again all night. The noise is deafening, and all but drowns out their entrance music, and as the match begins it doesn't let up for even a second. They go on to have the match of the night, in a match that would make old school WRESTLING fans proud.

The heels cut off the ring, with Chad Gable being stretched and contorted in various holds while Jordan on the outside rallied the fans to their aid. Every attempt at the tag was thwarted, bringing the anticipation level that little bit higher, until as either Dash or Dawson (I feel really bad not knowing which is which) is going for a power bomb Gable hops over his shoulders and dives into Jordan. Its nice not to see a hot tag come from a double knockout as has become the default method recently, and added to the explosion as Jordan makes his way in.

This being a house show of course the belts couldn't change hands, but in one last stroke of excellence the heels actually cheat to win, with one of them tripping gable as he attempted a duplex from the apron into the ring, before holding his foot in place without the ref noticing while the 3 count fell.

While it is Enzo and Cass who will get their title shot in London, one has to assume Jordan and Gable’s time is coming. They are a powder keg ready to explode, and all it is going to take is to strap the rocket to them because they will go to the moon.

Carmella and Alexa Bliss had the unfortunate job of following this tag team clinic. The girls actually did a great job, but the crowd were just tired from the 15-20 minutes of non stop screaming they had just taken part in, so as good as the in ring work was the match felt rather flat, and very very quiet in comparison to the rest of the night.

Finally it was time for our main event of the evening. By now pretty much everyone had worked out that it was going to be Baron Corbin Vs Finn Balor as the only two major stars who had yet to appear, but when Greg Hamilton announced it would be a Triple Threat for the NXT title suddenly the crowd realised there was someone announced for the tour that they were forgetting, and the Ole Ole Ole chants began.

First came Corbin, then the champ, both of whom got great pops, but then - and it was produced perfectly, with just a split second of black screen and the lights dimmed, the letters SZ flash across the screen and the roof came off the Capital FM Arena. While we knew Sami was on the tour, it had been assumed that London might be the only show he actually worked on (as is the case with several superstars - the Hype Bros and Vaudevillians among them), but as the Montreal native made his way to the ring we realised we were in for something special.

What followed was admittedly slightly less hard hitting than I might have hoped, it was a match clearly meant to ease Zayn back into his duties. Indeed there was a rather drawn out section in the middle of the match in which (having thrown Corbin out to the floor), Sami steels Finns leather jacket and tries it on much to his dismay, before Finn in turn stole a jacket and hat that Sami had worn to ringside (the chants of Put The Hat On rising up throughout the arena. It was handled well though. In some peoples hands this could have turned into a farce, but they did more than enough around the comic moments to make up for it. One particularly great spot saw Finn gut punch Sami, throw him head first into Corbin’s arms before dropkicking Corbin, basically making Corbin DDT Sami as he fell backwards. Its difficult to explain but trust me it looked awesome.

In the end it was Balor who stood victorious, putting the cherry on top of a great night as he and Sami stood in the ring hugging, before congratulating Baron on a great performance too (they shook hands, only for Corbin to shove Sami, causing one last ruckus ending in a big Helluva Kick from Sami, sending everyone home happy.

I’ve been to plenty of house shows in my time, but it must be said I cannot remember the last time the crowd was this hot, and it made the entire night just feel so incredibly special. If I wasn't already excited to head to Takeover tomorrow, I sure am now.

And remember, you too can catch NXT Takeover London on the WWE Network for just (say it with me:) 9.99!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Doctor Who - Hell Bent - Review

Just like that, another season of Doctor Who is over, and what a season it has been. From the excellent Zygon double bill, to last weeks episode - which I have maintained is the best of the Doctor Who revival - there have been a whole host of great moments. Not to be outdone though, Steven Moffatt has saved the biggest reveal for last. Following on from last weeks incredible Heaven Sent, Hell Bent sees the Twelfth Doctor finally make his way home to Gallifrey.

Returning to the shack from which he ended the Time War all those life times ago, he finally does what he knows had to be done: relieve the President of his duties. The last time Rassilon and the Doctor did battle in End of Time the Time Lords were banished back into the war, and here The Doctor’s mind once again trumps the President Rassilon.

He does not turn weapons on him, or even suggest his life should be paid as penance for all those lost - something he knows the President would do if the roles were reversed - but instead forces the Gallifreyan army to lay down arms and banishes the President and the council.

Capaldi’s cool calm delivery of “Get off my planet” shows just how far he has slipped into the role over the course of this season.

He is far more sure of himself now, far less reserved. He has a swagger which makes him seem almost like a rockstar - fitting given all the references to his guitar playing over the course of this season - right up to its climax.

It is the return of Clara Oswald though that will be the most divisive thread of the episode. I have already read thoughts from some that bringing her back so soon diminishes the impact of her death. I must disagree though. Her end point in Face the Raven felt rather rushed, almost the after thought of what was already a high concept episode. A building block which would allow the story to go through Heaven Sent, but not a true conclusion in the way we are accustomed to seeing companions leaving the show.

The revelation that The Doctor and Clara as a combination are The Hybrid paves the way for a proper goodbye. We learned in Heaven Sent that he would do anything to get Clara back, even if it meant waiting 4.5 billion years, whereas Hell Bent gives us the real end point of their story together. One must forget the other, or neither can move on.

He is willing to see the entire universe - and the planet he spent so long searching for - burn if it means he can have her back. In the same way he inspired recklessness in her, she too inspires it in him
. They are simply not good for one another anymore, so they must go their separate ways and in the end he must forget her if the show is ever to move forward. 

I will concede however that their story should have ended with the Doctor playing his song for a woman he doesn't realise is stood beside him, before walking into the TARDIS and seeing the Run You Clever Boy message, with Clara then returning to Gallifrey immediately. The fact we know she has time left, and is going to travel with Ashildr for a while in their stolen TARDIS before finally facing the raven does rather raise the question: What is her death for? If she can continue like this for the foreseeable why not just keep travelling with The Doctor?.

It is here that Steven Moffatt has clearly struggled with the way out. He has given Clara her proper goodbye, but somehow still can’t shut the door entirely, instead trying to have his cake and eat it too. The idea that she is still running around out there doesn’t allow the viewer to properly get the closure the episode went back to give her. You almost feel that she could cross paths with him again down the line should Jenna ever wish to return, during this undisclosed period of time while she keeps running.

It is a small quibble on a brilliant episode though, and doesn’t dampen the enjoyment any - at least on an initial watch. It is just a shame that what could have gone down as an all time classic is let down slightly by its very final act, without which (i.e with the bittersweet ending it should probably have had) the episode would jump from good to great in an instant.

All of that said, roll on Christmas and Twelve’s first meeting with River. That should be a true sight to behold.