Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

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The saga returns and the 2nd of the new Star Wars trilogy whams into the cinema with director Rian Johnson ensuring he gives fans a lot to be pleased about whilst gifting the starry sci-fi blockbuster some neat stylish additions of his own.

Continuing on from Rey’s (Daisy Ridley) island meet up with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), she hopes to learn the ways of the Jedi. Meanwhile Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is desperately trying to evacuate the Rebel base as the First Order try and diminish hope from the galaxy and wipe out the chance of Luke’s return. As they keep trying to escape, Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is at odds with his place in all this, not helped by visions that unwillingly connect him to someone else.

Rian Johnson ensures the Star Wars aficionados can enjoy seeing certain characters, screen wipes and the charm of space opera good versus bad as the ever central theme. Hope and the notion of crushing that ideal is what drives the franchise and this is no exception but gladly the director after J.J. Abrams hands this outing some stylistic moments; ones that almost step out of the comfortable SW bubble, that I thoroughly enjoyed. These choices keep the film fresh and help it look exciting but more brooding than ‘The Force Awakens’. A sequence with endlessly mirroring a character, the salted planet of red surface and crystal critters and an extremely amazing breathtaking snappy edit of a soundless explosion are some examples of the visual splendour Johnson and his huge crew have created, which keep the galaxy alive with big screen wonder.

There are some points, mostly that lay within the story, that can feel utterly safe and predictable. Obviously I’m not wanting to spoil anything in this review so I’ll keep hush on the negatives I had but sufficed to say there are space filled deus ex machinas abounds and little character events that I expected straight away which sort of took me out of the immersive thrill. Also, some writing choices they give the action and/or characters felt cheap or not wholly unnecessary and without spoilers I really felt no need for a kiss that comes at one time.

Luke’s island hideout is rife with creatures and one species is the well advertised and product placed Porgs that clearly strike for the kids and the cute factor. Granted they can be quite fun but the clear merchandise cash in that they are and their constant gaping mouth wide eyed shtick becomes less amusing and ever tiring. Aside from a couple of story gripes and these puffin-esque beasties this movie has a good amount of twists and turns that keep the narrative interesting, a mission on a casino centred Canto Bight is rich with wealth, class differences and a couple of fun cameos. Another positive is John Williams returning with a score that’s safe but swells and simmers with the fan buzz of familiar sounds to satisfy all. I also love that a lot of the creatures you see are handled with animatronics which look much better and charming than the sheen of CGI.

Mark Hamill gets his teeth into much more screen time and it’s nice to see Luke Skywalker back, though he’s getting to play well with the bitter side of things. Hamill delivers enough emotion into his journey of who he is now and why he’s left the Jedi Master qualities behind with a tinge of will he/won’t he be a bad egg. Both Mark Hamill and Carrie Fisher lift the film with an explainable grace that probably stems from the nostalgia of their presence amongst the whirlwind of desperate escape tactics. Fisher herself still carries Leia as a beacon of hope and strength, she’s good and efficient and Fisher performs this effortlessly filling the General shoes with ease. Adam Driver gets to slowly break away from his angsty teen fits and dramatics and the conflict in his path is nicely evident in the performance. Daisy Ridley manages to keep up the brave and strong qualities of Rey, a hero through and through but one where Ridley nicely plays with the pressure of balancing her place in the Force and the pull of the dark side. Domhnall Gleeson amps up the villainous panto switch with sneers aplenty. Supreme Leader Snoke gets more screen time and has more depth and a constant creepy shadowy presence thanks to the mo-cap work from Andy Serkis.

It’s definitely a long film and this is a long review to almost reflect that. It’s the longest one yet but luckily it never feels a slog; it may not zip on by but it’s a well handled and well paced space adventure that feels like a grand step up from Episode 7 and one that has humour and stakes around every corner.

8/10

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Frank (2014)

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Wonderfully absurd and somewhat engrossing, this comedy/drama manages to be off-beat, clever and heartfelt enough in places that makes it a worthwhile film of unique content and a giant fake head.

Wannabe singer/songwriter Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) crosses path with a band and chats to one of the guys, which leads him to fill in and perform with mysterious papier-mached masked man Frank (Michael Fassbender), an enthusiastic musical visionary who takes to Jon even if the rest of the band don’t. Jon and his social media decide to try taking the band to America but first they have an album to record.

What’s great about this film is the general quirkiness involved, the way scenes cut and the unusual things we see in them makes it different to most movies you’d have seen before. Of course just having one of the main characters covered up for the majority of the run time helps make it different because we get a sense of who Frank is but not the true quality of his story.

The music in this film is as off the wall weird as you may imagine, from theremin’s to a burning Korg on stage, the screams and scrapes of ‘music’ involved tells us all we need to know about the extremely indie sound of Soronprfbs. Yes, even their band name is so hipster it hurts. It is done in a funny way though as some strained cabin fever episode sets in whilst they all try to complete a recording of their album. Jon, as the outsider is the character we link to and with him we see the strangeness yet interesting vibe this unpronounceable band give off.

Lenny Abrahamson; most wonderful director behind most wonderful ‘Room’, directs this thoughtful story about identity and togetherness in a coolly refreshing way. A lot of it is shot in Ireland as he wanted that landscape and the music is actually the actors performing their weird tracks live. Abrahamson manages to well connect us to Jon and Frank, which is something considering we never see him for most of it. The comedy of their failings and aspirations is handled very well through most of the movie.

What I can say is that sadly, this film is let down by a mopey third act that drift tediously into Frank’s home-life and issues that perhaps for me got too bogged down and lost that black comedic spin of the first two acts. It’s what I’d comment on as being too dramatic and soap opera like, the unique nature seems to be lost in almost conjunction with Frank losing his head. It wasn’t annoying, just a weak close for a screenplay and idea that had up until that point been silly, smart and hypnotic.

Domhnall Gleeson takes us on the journey very well, the painful lyrics delivered in voice over at the beginning are laughably performed and as he transitions into the band, he thrusts his wanting leadership over things very convincingly. Maggie Gyllenhaal is kooky and 100% loopy, if not psychotic as a sidekick of the piece, her staring eyes and scowls saying it all about she feels with Jon joining them. Michael Fassbender manages to act as Frank extremely well, so much so that even with that hunk of unmoving art on his head you can sense his mannerisms and facial expressions through the mask making every thing he does funnier and more poignant. It’s a shame he ever had to remove the thing!

Oddball is the word of choice to explain this film; with unusual music, loud personalities and honest ideas this movie turns into a more sad film than you’d expect and though it has a bad third act, it doesn’t dampen on the sheer brilliance of everything before.

7.5/10

The Revenant (2016)

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Undeniably epic, this western drama moulded from real life events is beautiful to look at and shows again how masterful Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is as a director, one who could soon become an auteur of this age in film-making wonder. It has to be said that even with all the praise I could muster for this film, it doesn’t rid the slight meh factor of it all.

A large group hunting for pelts to then sell on are ambushed by a tribe, leading to many fatalities. Captain Andrew Henry (Domnhall Gleeson) needs to get his few remaining men back to barracks but after experienced tracker Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) is attacked by a bear they have to leave him in the hands of Jim Bridger (Will Poulter) and John Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy) who end up leaving Glass for dead.

Inarritu is back for awards season one year later after his astonishing theatrical based ‘Birdman’ and this film has the same stamp of directorial authority. The smooth movements of the camera and the apparent love he has for panning shots really present the scope of this wintry landscape. Shot on location in Canada and then Argentina, this movie is a slow burner but the way we calmly float throughout battles, past characters or on shots of snow covered plains helps this film look the part. It may not provide pace but it demonstrates what an eye Inarritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki have for creating art in cinema.

Lubezki breathes a bleak beauty over the tundra and cold snap of the environment that Glass must crawl, limp and escape through. The set up of so many shots are fantastic and knowing that the production cut down to only using natural light makes you admire the artistry of making this scenes also. An example of this can be seen as a group of men search a woods, the tall trees like spindly shadows against the flickering yet huge glow of flamed torches.

After seeing the film, there feels like a massive man versus nature theme. The power of nature and how it either helps or hinders the central character truly sticks true. On top of that is an even more felt theme of spirituality. I don’t know how the novel comes across but here in the screenplay by the director and Mark L. Smith it is clear that the notion of God, religion and a stronger power aiding the adventure and toil of Glass’ return to camp is the driving force. Without trying to be critical, it makes the story seem quite pretentious espicially with the amount of arty shots that could have been cut down, in the end of it all it makes the film feel overly long. It just niggles me that the screenplay isn’t really that inspiring and that it’s merely a revenge tale surrounded by great camerawork and dedicated performances.

The score didn’t stand out and happily it didn’t get recognised for awards because it doesn’t really add or take away anything, it’s just sort of there. The prosthetics also bugged the heck out of me as more than a few occasions it’s so obvious that the marks on Glass’ shoulders are fake or the scarred hand is a made-up glove which does detract from the harshness of the movie’s plot.

I honestly loved the near opening ambush scene as we the audience seem to hover in and out past characters whilst a bloody battle rampages around us. The courage and cleverness to know not to cut in the exciting sequences is great as shown when Glass saddles up and rides to escape a tribe before tumbling over a deathly drop. The bear mauling scene is the moment a lot of people will end up talking about, by lordy is it brutal. The CGI is mostly brilliant and the attack just keeps on coming making you want to look away but not at the same time.

Leonardo DiCaprio to be fair does deserve the praise and awards noms he’s getting. It’s a brave role in the fact he doesn’t have a lot to say but what he does speaks more than words. The stuttering movements and the pain in his eyes mixed with the unflinching motivation to gain revenge and his life does enough to see you through the 2 and a half hour trek. Tom Hardy is good but why he’s up for a golden statue is beyond me. It’s a fine watch as he plays the unblinking baddie but there’s not much more to his performance that sparks amazement. Will Poulter is a young actor that is growing all the time and this role hints at the emotion he can provide, the good man routine being a strong characteristic in his arsenal if we try and forget Maze Runner. Domnhall Gleeson steps away from villainous duties after Star Wars and plays a beardy Captain with a steely reserve for his men and to do the right thing, it’s a role the squares up to the might of Leo and to Tom Hardy also.

It’s a longwinded route that we go on following the painful struggle of Hugh Glass and at the end of it all we face a question of whether it’s all worth it. Well for the sheer wonder of how it looks then yes but if you want a more exciting yarn or at least a story with less of an endurance to no avail then this may not be the one to see.

7/10

Brooklyn (2015)

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Now usually period dramas are not my go to film, not even remotely, but this looked like a film with a tenderness and character based interest. Perhaps coming back from New York itself helped that interest factor along slightly but upon viewing this film I can say I liked it, it’s rich and acted really well throughout.

Irish shop worker Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) is funded a move to New York from the church. She says goodbye to her sister and their ill mother and finds herself getting accustomed to Brooklyn life, weather and boys as she falls in love with Italian charmer Tony (Emory Cohen). After a tragedy strikes back in Ireland, Eilis comes back and then has to face the tough choice of a new romance at home or shipping back to America for the life she’s come to know.

The look of this historical drama set in the 1950’s is quality. The costuming is marvellous with each character fitting into the time and truly selling the period of this piece. I know all period films do this but something about the change from the Emerald Isle to our cousins across the Pond felt amazingly authentic. As we wash over to the shores of the US, Brooklyn’s setting feels magical in a way; the lush greens and busier atmosphere making the 50’s feel like their livelier selves and giving us reason to why at first Eilis is overwhelmed, but then agreeable to this change of pace and lifestyle.

Nick Hornby’s screenplay is layered with emotion. Adapted from Colm Toibin’s novel the family angle is soaring from the lead’s predicament alone, then there’s the family-esque set up in the boarding house to Tony’s Italian American family home. That strong sense of togetherness and theme of home where the heart is stays ever present becoming the shaky decision for Eilis to land on. Of course, there’s romance here and normally that’s what makes me stray away from these movies but it’s well done here, enough to make look past some of the soppier obvious writing moments. Tony is a likable and smooth character with a fun and engaging family. Jim from Ireland may have little screen time to win the central character over, but he too is nice and genuine which gives us reason to why she finds it hard making that ol’ love triangle routine less cliched.

The main feeling I got was of a bittersweet one, which mixed with memories and new chapters gives this film a satisfying tinge. It honestly is a film that feels like life, as we make decisions, something else could happen that may have been affected by that. It also pulls deep at the heart, maybe more people will weep at more points but even I had to suffer a choking throat and wet eyes as Eilis hears of the tragic news thousands of miles away. The only problem the film had was becoming duller as it got nearer the end, a blackmailing revelation is squashed before getting in any way dramatic and the romantic choice is obvious from the halfway point, meaning the closing minutes of the movie were expected and less impacting, sort of tainting the beautiful moments that had been seen up until that point.

Saoirse Ronan is absolutely splendid, delightful and subtle in this dramatic narrative. She must be in regards for the awards season coming sooner than we always expect. I don’t know if it’s golden statue material but her understated emotion from top to bottom is utterly convincing and she’s a pure pleasure to watch. Julie Walters is merely a name and cameo but acts her socks off as the light material to balance the more heart tearing moments. Emory Cohen gets a bigger break than in ‘The Place Beyond the Pines’ and proves to be an assured leading man as he cozies up to Ronan and bewitches us with the gentleman routine. Domhnall Gleeson doesn’t have much to do but it shows what a capable actor he is that with such little run time he can show just why his character is so big of a obstacle option for Eilis to come to terms with. It’s a fantastically performed treat from everyone, that Irish and American mash of cultures giving it enhanced delight.

The weaker end aside, this film triumphs for the acting and beauty of life story. It’s something that comes across like a deeply resonating movie for so many people, that inescapable pull of home and family being something personal and different to us all. It’s dealt with by director John Crowley and Nick Hornby in such nostalgic vision.

7.5/10

Ex Machina (2015)

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Tremendous, impressive, gorgeous and worrying, this sci-fi thriller is an astounding debut feature for Alex Garland and every second is worth the watch. Tech and futuristic developments are scratched away slowly but surely leaving the fundamental elements of troubling reliance on robotics for all to see.

At work one day, coder Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson) finds out he’s won a lottery, entitling him to visit the quarters of his company’s CEO director, Nathan (Oscar Isaac). There he has the chance to sign a contract letting him see a wondrous new creation of A.I crafted by Nathan. Ava (Alicia Vikander) is there as a test but what other things will Caleb uncover in his week long stay?

I swear that every frame in this movie is beautiful, whether Rob Hardy fills moments with the entrapping progression of Nathan’s home or lovingly squares on lush green landscapes, this film is magnificent to look at. Considering it goes into the thriller genre, it has a calming influence running throughout, a soft almost blur like quality that can be taken as welcoming you into a false sense of security and also in matching the perfect softness of Ava’s design.

This film can draw relations to other movies, as I’m sure it will and as I too shall do. This by no means takes anything away from the story as it does it’s own special thing but the undercurrent of tension and playing God feels the same as ‘The Skin I Live In’ and the far away resort and tech savvy world feels akin to ‘The Machine’. This film however takes these moulds and makes a more interesting take on the motive of generated technology. The will to survive is examined through meetings with Ava and stirring dialogue about power, Turing tests, playing people along or not and the possibility of loving something not human.

The direction is precise and builds to a bubbling and great crescendo, where the end is satisfying, at least I felt it was the right way to have this film go. Alex Garland who has background experience in suspense and thrills from scripting the work of ’28 Days Later’ uses his knowledge to build tension while keeping some seductive romanticism to it all. The film is as smartly constructed as the screenplay is and Garland is to credit for both. A behind the camera presence to keep an eye on for sure.

The way characters are studied, not just the robotic element of Ava, is fascinating to watch. The flaws of us as people are stunningly done and both Caleb and Nathan are subjects of science in seeing how they work against one another. Ava is amazingly executed and the visual effects of her body are glorious, the make-up team behind this work must be applauded, their prosthetic achievement gives Ava a unique look making her a sci-fi character to remember.

Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury are to credit for a skin-crawling score that can switch from placid and misty, echoing the other wordly lush mountains surrounding Nathan’s building, to a more buzzing troublesome sound as the film twists into the horror realm. It’s certainly plays on the electronic element and as the music rises at points it puts goosebumps over your arms.

The only little weakness that I came away with is, that a couple of developments in the script are predictable. It doesn’t lose the cleverness it just lost any shock factor a better twist could have given. But this is honestly the tiniest of critiques, the story is just as thrilling and thoughtful knowing the danger around the corner.

Domhnall Gleeson gives a great performance in this ‘Black Mirror’-esque tale of suspicion in technology. Facial tells and held gazes all play into his role as he begins the journey of discovery into what an A.I can do to someone. The more nervous side of things plays nicely against the muscular scheming Nathan. Oscar Isaac is powerful and keeps giving off degrees of menacing intent through his towering way of trying to charm. The silent glances or flips in how he speaks to Caleb make him a worrying Dr. Frankenstein figure to witness. Alicia Vikander is a star to look out for, her quiet approach to Ava makes her instantly likable and her plight as the real victim is played brilliantly, though the unflinching stare and half smile of Vikander never make you forget the unpredictability of her desires.

This dystopian sci-fi has many subtleties to admire as the tension of tech terror is explored. A sexy, intelligent tale with three riveting performances and a creative shifting tone from debut director Garland.

8/10

Unbroken (2014)

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Grand and quite powerful in the scale and true to life story but it fails to bring about any overwhelming feel of emotion or connection as it ticks off cliched boxes in an obvious turn to try and suit the Academy Awards board.

This film, the second Angelina Jolie directed feature, sees the dramatic telling of New York born Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell), his Italian family upbringing leading to problems but in the end, a big open door for sport and running which makes him become an Olympic distance runner. The film portrays this and his later assignment in World War 2, his trials lost at sea and his shocking trauma as a Japanese POW figure.

Angelina Jolie, undeniably has some behind the camera skill, evident in this movie through sweeping shots of grand war torn scenery, worrying plane-wrecked shots of them stuck in life rafts and it all hits the bio-pic and war trademark with ease but as if trying too hard to fill those quotas. It’s not overly fantastic when a film feels as though it’s really attempting to garner Oscar buzz and in fact it sort of fails because it doesn’t feel effortless, as say ‘Birdman’ does. Jolie captures heart and grit but it pales in the bigger picture feeling small of potential substance.

It is a good film for celebrating the unity of war and comradely passion comes across well, the impact of conflict and spirit marry nicely with human faith and strength, all massive traits of Louis’ character in being unbroken through whatever trial is thrown his way. This feeling hits its biggest whack in the sweet pre-credits with the typical biographical facts and footage of Louis at the age of 80 before a photo of the amazing man rests on the screen. That’s actually one of, if not the best part of the film, the touching real life Louis blazing on the big screen.

Alexandre Desplat utilises on suitable music that feels very stirring and in place for this war time film. It also bubbles away at points and none more so than the trickling of tension in the score as Louis is subjected to holding a beam over his head. The shots are rather great too, skylines and rain drenched jungles provided conflicted images of pre and during war. The coal camp is a bleak and murky affair and serves as a cold and well shot segment of the movie.

Unbroken’s downsides lay in a rather annoying and poor decision to have mainstream music over the credits. Coldplay whine through the speakers as this years U2/Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom film/artist mash up. The CGI of the shark attack is so silly. That’s all, you’ll know if you see it. It also feels odd to have the non linear structure for a while and then drop it for the last hour and forty minutes or so. I liked the back and forth timeline, it shook it up but once it plays out in normal chronological order, it becomes slightly stale and slow. That’s the biggest flaw to be honest, the film feels very long. It’s never great when a film drags and this one does on more than one occasion.

Jack O’Connell is assured and a good leading man, tackling the endeavour of Louis’ life, though I’m not sure he’ll be up for an Oscar nod, possibly a Bafta. He’s charming, gritty, loyal and brave and though the film feels like you’re going through forty seven days and some with him, you do root for his cause all the time. Domhnall Gleeson and Finn Wittrock are amazing co-stars and as the three cope or don’t in their ocean stranded predicament you kind of forget the almost ‘Life of Pi’ feeling it has. The best talent in my eyes comes from a professional acting debut and that’s Miyavi who plays the big bad Japanese sergeant Mutsuhiro aka ‘The Bird’. Every look in his eye or underplayed flicker of sadism brings chilling realism to this power hungry man.

You need as much enduring power as Louis Zamperini to sit through this straight forward Oscar try hard film. Inspiring and beautiful at times, yes but it doesn’t get that stirring flavour it so desperately should.

5/10