Friday, 15 December 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi - SPOILERS

Speaking as one of many for whom Star Wars was a formative part of my early childhood, the resurgence of the franchise to its former glories in recent years has been something I have joyously watched over. Force Awakens was a great, fun ride, Rogue One was the closest the franchise has ever come to what I’d refer to as a great FILM, rather than just a great movie. It was with baited breath then that I attended the midnight screening for Episode VIII. Willing it to live up to its recent predecessors. I needn’t have worried. It blows them out of the water, and even the original trilogy along with it.

Let’s begin of all places at the end. That last 60 seconds. The moment you realise hope is truly still alive in the galaxy. It’s a beautiful and enchanting vision of the rebellion, and unlike anything which has come before in 8 films truly seems to present how important the rebellion is not just to those few ragtag fighters but to the whole oppressed galaxy. These 3 children, telling the story of Luke Skywalker, are as important as any Jedi or Sith or Rebel or First Order fighter. Where Empire Strikes Back leaves the universe in torment at the end of its trilogies second act, Last Jedi's message is one of hope from tyranny. I know even after one viewing that this tops even Empire Strikes Back, long held in my heart as the high watermark by which Star Wars should be judged. A statement of intent on how the franchise could work. 

Last Jedi is without a single shadow of a doubt in my mind the most well crafted Star Wars film ever made. Peril which genuinely felt perilous; a story which took everything I expected (an Empire carbon copy to follow on from Force Awakens’ New Hope carbon copy) and turned them on their heads; and even while it’s probably the bleakest vision of this universe we have had to date it’s also somehow the funniest. Yoda being his playful mischievous self - and a PUPPET NOT CGI - was wonderful. Also a far younger puppet than the one in Jedi, because it would seem like Anakin in NewJedi he has decided to present himself in his prime not at the point of his death. No, even in the darkness of a film in which we learn Luke nearly murdered a child, director Rian Johnson is brave enough to intersperse a nice amount of comedy and brevity to the proceedings without for one moment lessening any of those big moments. We learn that where we thought Snoke was going to be our big bad a la The Emperor, in the grand scheme of things the point was that Snoke wasn’t that important. We assumed we would relive Jedi, and the struggle would be for Rens soul against Snoke as Vader’s was with the Emperor. But then they killed Snoke and Ben was still evil. The twist was the real important bit, not Snoke. Ren was able to hide his true feelings from Snoke. Suggests Snoke was never that powerful a Sith, and that his apprentice is already WAY more powerful. Supreme Leader Kylo Ren is a bad guy reborn from the ashes of his failures in Force Awakens. He is a mad man the likes of whom cannot be reckoned with, and to see him battle Luke at the end, with even Luke - who could turn Darth Vader of all people - conceding that Ren could not be saved sets Kylo up as an almighty big bad come Episode IX and his seemingly inevitable reunion-come-battle with Rey and her new Jedi order. On Rey, her not being a skywalker or a Kenobi or a Solo is a bold, some might even suggest inspired choice. She’s just Rey. Its huge for the franchise because it takes it beyond the Skywalker saga. If Ren dies, the final part of the Skywalker bloodline dies with it. It also once again helps to subvert every expectation that this was going to be Empire2. We spend the film waiting for a huge familial reveal, because that is what must come, and it simply doesn’t. I wept when Luke and Leia reunited, and actually cheered out loud when we finally got Leia's force moment. We have always kind of known she was at least passably force sensitive, but she is literally like a fully untrained Jedi. These characters have lived with so many of us for so long that to finally see them shine again on the big screen is incredible. 

Carrie Fisher’s General Organa is fantastic. She has matured from the Princess cracking wise to a leader who understands that every life lost in the resistance is a blow which could wipe it out. Her expression while everyone else celebrates the Dreadnaught kill and she simply looks at the screen listing the fleet members lost is one of the more finely played moments in the franchise to date.
It is Mark Hamill though who deserves the most plaudits. Luke Skywalker, our legend, our hero, has been torn asunder, and its in Hamills performance that it never for one moment feels forced. He gets the odd laugh (brushing himself off after the AT-AT barrage is a particular highlight), but for the most part he has completely inhabited the role of the old and broken master, desperate to end the Jedi once and for all, not because he has turned to the dark side, but because he believes it is the only way to bring balance to the force, ending the Jedi’s hold over it once and for all. 

His final emotional sequence as he pronounces the rebellion (an interesting choice of words, not Resistance but Rebellion, just like the old days) reborn, and that he is not the last Jedi after all is the completing of a story arc more than 40 years in the making. Him then bowing out in silence before the twin suns, clearly having transported his consciousness back to Tatooine one final time, is the beautiful and touching end to a character we saw come from nothing all those years ago.

I can't remember how long its been since I felt so entirely euphoric coming out of a movie. I am so excited to see how they move forward, because right now we are in a position of great hope. They have to rebuild the rebellion, and they have to rebuild the Jedi order, and getting there is going to be so intriguing. There are what, maybe 50 people on the Millennium Falcon. Thats technically the entire Rebel Alliance (a phrase which as mentioned above I think may be about to make a resurgence). Yet somehow we know they will overcome. We have what George Lucas knew was most important to the franchise decades ago, when he came back to sub-title Episode IV. We have: A New Hope. 

Saturday, 29 April 2017

Review: Guardians Of The Galaxy Vol.2

The sequel is never as good as the original. Its an adage as old as Hollywood itself, and has very very few exceptions to the otherwise hard and fast rule. After the overnight success that was Guardians of the Galaxy then, there was a level of trepidation surrounding Marvel’s return to their band of space mercenaries. 

Thankfully it picks up right where the first film left off from a comedic point of view, and from the exuberant opening sequence which sees Baby Groot dance to Mr Blue Sky while his friends fight an inter-dimensional space slug in the background, its impossible not be smiling, and the laughs just keep going and going.

Its not just the comedy that keeps on giving though. This film sees our heroes really grow as characters. Where the first film concentrated heavily on Chris Pratt’s Starlord, somewhat at the expense of his compatriots this new entry concentrates far more heavily on the background players, as we see Nebula, Yondu and in particular Rocket take centre stage.

After Rocket’s “I didn’t ask to be made!” explosion in the first film, he is desperately searching for a true family bond, but doesn’t know how to ask for it, and so ends up sinking deeper and deeper into his outcast role, arguing and acting out constantly, just hoping to be noticed. As the group constantly mock him as a “trash panda” or “triangle faced monkey” his dejection only grows, as does his descent into anger and depression.

Its heartwarming therefore to see his relationship with Yondu grow, as they realise they are effectively two sides of the same coin. Both are reckless loners who long for acceptance, but both believe themselves irredeemable. Its my favourite thread through what is an excellent adventure, and really helps to round both characters beyond their rather flat roles from the first outing.

Nebula too grows beyond her “generic evil super villain” role here too as we realise that Gamora isn’t the only daughter of Thanos to see the darkness for what it is. We find out that Nebula was jealous of Gamora, seeing her as Thanos’ favourite and that this feeling of abandonment even from her adopted father is what had turned her heart cold. 

For all the love that the Avengers will get within the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and their part in the eventual battle with Thanos come the Infinity War, it would only be truly fitting at this point for either Nebula or Gamora to deal the final blow that brings the monstrous tyrant down. As deep and sweeping as Thanos’ terror has been across the galaxy, it is these two above all others who truly have that intimate terror, and inextricable link to Thanos. 

We are also reintroduced to a character who, despite only uttering 3 words, came to be the symbol for everything we loved about the first film: Groot. Long gone are the days of him being Rocket’s “resident houseplant and occasional muscle”. He’s now reborn from a single twig of the original, and is a hand sized Baby version of himself. Not only does this make him infinitely cuter, but it also brings a real change to the character, as the Guardians now have to look out for him, keeping him out of the fray of the darkest battles - a direct comparison to the first film. It was really interesting to see this evolution, and its wholly successful. You instantly believe that this is the same character, while equally understanding the shortcomings he now suffers. It will be interesting to see where Volume 3 goes, whether it will pick up from the post credits sequence with Teenage Groot or whether we will go back to his full grown form next time around. 

I make mention above of Mr Blue Sky, and it would be remiss in any review of a Guardians film not to bring up Awesome Mix Volume 2. Like the first film, this has a pumping soundtrack at it’s heart, as Quill’s walkman brings the music of the 70s and 80s to the big screen. I’d say it's not QUITE as good a mix as the first film offered, but that was always going to be a hard measuring stick, and this is great nonetheless. 

This film then takes everything which was great about the first films, these characters and their camaraderie, and boosts it up to 11, building on the universe with new characters, and really getting to the hearts of the characters we came to love first time around. 

To put it simply, this is a sequel with real heart, proving what the first entry in the series suggested: the Guardians are Marvels best movie property. Now the long wait begins. Bring on Volume 3 and the long awaited entrance of the Sovereign’s secret weapon: Adam Warlock! 

Tuesday, 7 February 2017

Why "Gilmore Girls - A Year In The Life" Cannot Be The End [Spoilers]

Today, I completed the final episode of the four part Gilmore Girls revival, A Year in The Life, and to say I have thoughts would be an understatement. I should say from the outset - I am not a long time GG fan, I haven’t waited nearly a decade to see this continuation, indeed I completed my first run through of the original series a little over a week ago. I should also say that despite the much maligning that original series’ finale has taken over the years, I actually think it was a perfectly decent ending, tying the show up nicely. So what of this revival and its finale?

Lets start, perhaps paradoxically, at the end. The last four words, fabled for so long in the Gilmore Girls fandom. The four words Amy Sherman-Palladino had meant to end with all those years ago that finally came full circle here:

Rory: Mom?
Lorelai: Yeah?
Rory: I’m pregnant. 

Do I believe this was always going to be the end? Yes I’m inclined to say so, but the finale of season 7 under Palladino, with Rory at just 21 years old would have been drastically different than the finale of this special, all these years later, and so the lead in to those last 4 words would be drastically different too - you’d set it up more, with a full season behind it, really hitting the situation home before the 4 words fall.

It would be a denouement, a final revelation, not a cut to black cliffhanger. I would picture her finding out about her pregnancy early in the finale or even an episode or two earlier, telling the father, and then, together, announcing it to Lorelai, as the music swells and the pair hug eachother, all smiles.

No, what we had at the end of A Year in The Life was decidedly not about ending the show, but about giving Netflix and the Palladino’s a back door into a seemingly inevitable full Season 8.

There is just too much open ended about it - we know the baby could be Logan’s, we see her sleep with him, but clearly, between Logan, Jess, Paul and even Wookie-One-Night-Stand-Guy there are options. This isn’t just a “You get to imagine what happens to the characters next” situation, this is a legitimate cliffhanger, and one which needs examining.

If fans were left unsatisfied by the original finale, at least it could be said to have tied everything up, the party at the end seeing everyone get their happily ever after moment. This had none of that. 30 seconds earlier it did, just letting the Gilmore Girls enjoy the first moments of Lorelai’s finally happy married life. But the final 30 seconds, and those final four words in this context cut deeper. They force you to cry out for the next four words, and the next four lines, and everything which follows them.

A Year in the Life was far from a disappointment though. At its best was the final redemption between Lorelai and Emily. We got a glimpse to it in the original finale, as Lorelai found a way to engineer the continuation of Friday Night Dinner, but this four parter took it one step further. As both of the Gilmore matriarchs tried (and often failed) to come to terms with the loss of Richard, they found solace in each other.

First in therapy, then in the last conversation we see between them as Lorelai belatedly shares her memory of Richard, its a moment with overwhelming power, and one which left me in total tears.

To see how far these two have come from the start of the series is remarkable. Its a troubled relationship, but one which has clearly taken both women to their limits and back again, in their quest to come together. They love each other deeply, and always have. 

They will never be firm bosom buddies in the way Rory and Lorelai are, but the fact they have been able to come to this point is wonderful.

On Emily, Kelly Bishop puts on a tour de force performance throughout the revival. The loss of Edward Herrmann to the show was always going to be a tough one, especially for Emily, who had almost exclusively appeared along side Richard in the original series - their stories permanently linked.

To see Mrs Richard Gilmore find her place in the world, to learn how to be Emily Gilmore again, was beautiful. Her grief at the funeral/wake ; her spur of the moment selling then reversal of all the goods in her home; and then finally the decision to quit the D.A.R and sell the Gilmore mansion, these are all evolutions of the character we know and love, making her a more rounded character, a fuller person. Bishop was a master throughout and every time she was on screen she stole the scene out from under everyone else.

I am genuinely excited to see that relationship flourish more than any other the show has to offer as it moves forward, assuming it does - that and I long for more Lane, something drastically missing during A Year in The Life.

The revival as a whole felt like a snapshot, a view back into the lives of these characters, but as I’ve said, it didn’t feel like an end. I long to see where we go from here, with a full season. I get it that with scheduling getting all these characters back full time is difficult. I get it that we will lose Sookie, but thats not a reason to drop the entire show, especially when its reaching such an intriguing point. 4 episodes was always going to be a big ask to get everything lined up. It had to drop a number of the characters down to single scenes, with little room for growth. A full season would allow these characters to flourish, but also to answer the questions at the heart of A Year in the Life’s finale.

We need to find out whether Jess or Logan (the two presumably viable options) is the father, and indeed where Rory’s heart lies, none of which has been resolved yet.

My partner (who is a long time fan of the show), refers to Logan as Rory’s Christopher, and Jess as her Luke, and I’m inclined to agree. Jess is the right man for Rory (to use Lorelai’s logic from the final scene: he fits). It would be especially interesting seeing that play out if Logan turned out to be the father, while Rory’s true affection lay with Jess - it really would be a full circle finish, both for Rory’s book, and the show, a mirror reflection between the two Gilmore Girls, but with Lorelai showing the acceptance for Rory’s decisions that her own mother couldn't at the time. 

Only with one more season can we wrap the show up properly, once and for all. So lets get it done, and soon. Lets get Season 8 recorded and onto Netflix soon. 

Friday, 6 January 2017

Review - A Monster Calls

This weekend I was able to get down to my local Cineworld to watch A Monster Calls. I’d heard good things going into the film, but I honestly couldn’t have been prepared for what followed.

In short, the film was a masterpiece. 

It’s visually stunning, and everything from the CGI of the Monster himself, through to the beautiful water colour animations are a feast on the eyes. 

One early shot as we first meet the Monster in particular stands out in my mind, as we see Conor stood at his bedroom window while the silhouette of the Monster gets closer and closer, on the house the street lights flickering with every step so the silhouette flashes, growing larger each time. Its innately cinematic, and its terrifying on the big screen. 

It is in its characters though that the film will come alive ever more. 

Lewis MacDougall is a bewitching screen presence as the young Conor O’Malley, and from the first moments you are invested in his story. 

As his mother slips deeper and deeper into her illness, you see Conor slip further and further into a state of despair, and retreat deeper into the fantasy he has created for himself, the Monster on whom he can project his fears and the darkness he is feeling. Under lesser hands, this might feel twee, but MacDougall more than holds his own. 

Felicity Jones also continues her hot streak as the boy’s terminally ill mother. She is at times completely unrecognisable, but you truly feel that through all the decisions she makes this is a mother deeply and madly in love with her only son, trying to protect him from the darkness as long as she can, never wanting him to see just how much she is suffering until he absolutely must.

I’m not afraid to say I spent the last 20-25 minutes of the film just openly weeping in the cinema. What started as a single tear I tried to hold back was soon floods of them, and a quick glance around the packed cinema confirmed I wasn’t alone - the film was having a deep affect on everyone around them.

When the film ended, many - myself included - sat completely still while the credits rolled. So deeply moved by what we had witnessed that we couldn’t bring ourselves to leave, taking instead a few silent moments of reflection to process everything we had just seen. 

Even now, I cannot get the film out of my head, and I’m desperate to see it again. Director Juan Bayona has created a modern masterpiece with this film. I know its early in the year, but I am already as certain as I can be that this will be my Film of the Year 2017 - put simply: Its one of my favourite films ever, so to bring it down to just this year, something is going to have to go one hell of a way to beat it.