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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Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

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Better late than never, I finally got myself around to seeing this spectacular addition to the Star Wars franchise. The feel of the movie is nostalgic and that classic wonder runs throughout even with the injection of new faces and special effects.

As the scrolling yellow text states, this seventh Star Wars feature sees the First Order risen from the Empire. Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) has disappeared and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is on a mission to find the map leading to Skywalker’s location. He doesn’t count on Finn (John Boyega) and Rey (Daisy Ridley) teaming up and discovering both the Resistance and the Force.

Scale wise this movie is immense, from the aerial dog-fights between TIE fighters and X-Wings to the planets visited along the way. All of this really sucks you into a new and exciting world still in that memorable Star Wars galaxy. It’s this glory of old that makes this film so good, the look of the new bases and villains speak out as classic Death Star/Vader imagery, the introduction of the Force by a tiny creature is akin to master Yoda and the humble yet potential filled beginnings of Rey draw up hopeful connections to Luke Skywalker. This film does brilliantly right what all three prequels did wrong, it shoots back to the feel good simplistic story telling of good versus evil and doesn’t rely heavily on CGI. Of course it’s there but it aids the scenes and it boosts the vision of the spectacle.

The special effects are quality, gone are the days of obvious green screen and in come detailed and lush worlds, fantastic immersive motion capture performances and explosions that serve purpose and not a Michael Bay wet dream. The little things like the sound and lights of the lightsaber spark nerd delight as the Luke blue bolt shines up, the new tweaks also excite even if the red hilt of Kylo Ren’s weapon could be self damaging. I guess for me the only CGI that gnawed at my head was the overbearing hologram of Snoke which felt perhaps too overbearing, more like a LOTR character than anything else.

J.J Abrams pulls back on lens flares and crafts a near perfect entertaining blockbuster. The way the characters interact and the stories meld are directed efficently leading us to further buy into the continuing saga. It’s his direction that adds a new quality, an almost shakier dark tone that helps a lot, of course the screen wipes and smooth panning shots over deserts raise a smile but the hand-held camera on Stormtroopers or the pacy back and forth cutting during battles makes everything more dramatic and energetic. He has managed to retrieve the joy of Star Wars and lets hope the new directors for 8 and 9 can continue that feeling.

John Williams rightly gets a nod for Original Score at the Oscars because his control and music making is always reliable for bringing in the hair raising emotion. The moment you hear the classic score you feel right at home. The brooding factor is there also as we meet new villains Kylo Ren and General Hux. Sound design too needs a mention as robotic bleeps from old favourite R2-D2 react with what will be the stand out point for most in rolling dude BB-8.

I didn’t expect the movie to make me laugh as much as it did. Obviously it isn’t a comedy but there a lot of moments that truly make you chuckle out loud. There’s an endearing push towards the lighter moments that work in making this a bold and exciting family film. A lot of the laughs emenate from Boyega’s turn as Finn who is a riverting addition and the writing for his character is believable and comedic. The moment a pair of Stormtroopers turn and walk away from a raging Kylo Ren is also classic Star Wars humour which made a lot of the audience audibly cackle.

Daisy Ridley has been plucked from virtual obscurity and thank goodness because she’s a breath of fresh air as this driven scavenger with a talent for something bigger. She’s powerful, not a damsel in distress, stunning and interesting in seeing what’ll happen next. John Boyega is fantastic, like a lad born out of an evil past he brings the funny as I wrote but also develops into a more frustrated and vulnerable character which is acted well. Adam Driver is fantastically despicable as Kylo Ren and luckily he does get the chance to remove the mask so we see into his fleeting troubled eyes before the true villainy sets in. Oscar Isaac is a great watch as he shuttles into the opening and proves his worth as untampered Resistance fighter. Harrison Ford may do a lot of bad things but coming back as Han Solo is not one of those, it feels as if he never left even if he is older. The wry and arrogant manner is back but there’s fear in the mix too. Carrie Fisher makes her comeback too and does well as a general and leader but a worried mother also. Mark Hamill is the actor I was most looking forward to as he shies away from the limelight now but his late reveal is very much the wait in what can come. It’s a sizzling ensemble cast of actors either live action or in mo-cap they all work together in creating a delightful starry universe.

It’s more than worth a watch because it shows how CGI and 3D can be done right and that the Star Wars saga is nowhere near dead. Disney but more importantly Abrams and his unknown actors have revamped this franchise with the satisfaction of retaining what we all adore about the first three.

8/10

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

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A fully energetic spy movie with fierce fun to be found in its send up of James Bond aspects. The story based on a Mark Millar/ Dave Gibbons comic is as sharp as the suits on display in the Kingsman tailor shop and the action is stylish, with extra energetic influence delivered by Matthew Vaughn.

(vague spoilers will follow in this review) 

Suave gentleman spy Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is part of a well ordered spy unit titled the Kingsman Secret Service and after the death of a fellow knight, Hart and others have to find a candidate to go through tests to fill the absent spot. Smart yet petty criminal Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is Hart’s pick and soon missing parachutes and flooding rooms aren’t as bad as stopping a villain with a plan to cull the worlds population.

It’s a superbly smart screenplay by Matthew Vaughn and collaborator Jane Goldman. They mix spy genre tropes into their own narrative and add twists and tasty treats along the way in this non-stop action thrill ride. The send-ups aren’t forced and work into the plot really well, they’re also done lovingly with a clear and smiling nod to the films of old that influence this cheerful movie.

Adding in specific themes of celebrity culture is a stroke of genius, of course apt for the times we live in now and as The Sun newspaper front covers adorn Hart’s office, it’s befitting and sadly true hearing how a lot of people only like hearing of skin-deep news, the major important stories take a back seat…past page 3 to be even more current. The celebrity obsession continues in this story as the villain of the piece seems keen to keep big named figures safe from his plan. The dropping in of turns in the road make the film continuously entertaining, the threat of Valentine’s scheme coming back time and time again leading countries of the world fighting to the death as Eggsy attempts to prove himself as Kingsman material.

The Bond jokes are perfect, from little funny moments such as Eggsy ordering a martini in his own special way to huge parallels of spy movie plot lines. The way in which Valentine adored the classic Bond movies, as do I, is neatly explored. This film has callings of Bond and then does its own thing with them also. A major and actually shocking surprise comes as Valentine skips a typical Bond spiel. The mirroring doesn’t stop there as the baddie has his own trademark like Blofeld’s scar or Le Chiffre’s bleeding eye, Richmond Valentine has a vocal impediment and a vomiting reaction to blood. The henchman act once taken by Oddjob or thighs of thunder Xenia Onatopp is filled by metal legs of terror, Gazelle. The final setting even resembles the hollowed out base vibe loved by SPECTRE. As I said, this film plays on the massive series of Bond but then adds its own unique touch which is great. The guy getting the girl is flipped and an expected romance never happens as the growing chav hero ends on an eye-winking moment akin to Connery in ‘Dr No’ or Moore in ‘Moonraker’.

The actual direction of this movie is stunning, the sequences are boldly done and all work in never making the film feel long for a run time of 129 minutes. Camera movements are frenetic for fights making it feel more real in similarity to Bourne handicam. The camera seems to bounce, zoom in and out and dosey do pumping up the action a lot. It comes with that Vaughn touch he showed in ‘Kick-Ass’ and the comic book style is evident. Moments without action are just as great with tension mounting as Eggsy is pushed in his quest to become the new Lancelot. A close up of a pugs face will never try and move you as it does in this film.

Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson get a ten out of ten for their score, it might not be Whiplash standard but it ticks all the boxes for a film of this calibre. Suspense heaps up through the plane dive really making you dread how it’ll play out. A ferocious guitar riffs during a church fight making it so much more thrilling. The music really added to the filmic experience and I guess the IMAX speakers pronounced their work that much better.

Colin Firth breaks his mould in this film, a trend after ‘Before I Go to Sleep’ that I hope he continues. The swearing yet posh act is elevated as he becomes a spy with edge and gleeful heroism of fighting anyone who gets in his way. Taron Egerton gets a big break here and he does fantastic stuff with it. He’s never not likable, the crime angle being one side of his life and you root for him as he comes up against toff prejudice. The journey to his Kingsman world is acted well and looking slightly like a young Firth as the film progresses helps sell the story too. Samuel L. Jackson looks to have tremendous delight in speaking with a devilish lisp as tech baddie Richmond Valentine. The perfect villain to oppose the good persona of the plot.

Stand out fun stylish movie-making that echoes extravagant Bond gadgetry while mixing in its own brand of sinister threat and test of gentlemanly conduct. An exhilarating tour de force that sparkles with jovial over the top violence, spy sophistication and intelligent story craftsmanship. Bravo.

8.5/10