Star Wars: The Last Jedi

Star Wars: The Last Jedi 2017. Directed by Rian Johnson.

I can rarely be bothered to go to big releases in their opening week but I made an exception with this, the latest installment in the Star Wars franchise.

I should say from the outset that while I like the original movies, I’m film studies scholar – not in the simpering fan-girl brigade. In fact, I’ve always felt a degree of frustration because I could always see how good these films should be but never seemed to hit the mark.

Having said that, I thought The Force Awakens (2015) was infinitely better than any of the prequels and reignited my interest in the series. But this was completely eclipsed by the stand alone and beautifully self-contained Rogue One (2016), which (despite a baggy first act) is a fabulous sci-fi war movie.

But Thursday I saw something really good, much better than I anticipated, and I reacted accordingly.

The Last Jedi explored complex themes – in a far more nuanced way than I expected – about family, friendship, connection and the nature of difference and subversion. Given the global political climate this past 12 months, it was an excellent commentary, and a reminder that nothing is ever just black or white.

The young cast are really very good, with Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver outstanding, providing emotional depth to their characters. They are ably supported by John Boyega, Oscar Isaacs and Kelly Marie Tran. Despite being a wee bit sentimental about seeing Carrie Fisher in her final role (yes, I did well up!) the thing that reduced me to tears was seeing the wonderful Laura Dern showing all the kids how it should be done – and a scene that immediately reminded me of her father Bruce Dern and Silent Running (1972), one of my favourite films.

If this is what Star Wars is going to be from now on, I’ll have some more thanks!

* This is an expanded version of a review that was included in Kermode & Mayo’s Film Review on BBC 5 Live (15/12/17) – and yes, I was thrilled to hear Simon Mayo read it out! *

 

Atomic Blonde – Day 21 NaBloPoMo 2017

Atomic Blonde 2017. Directed by David Leitch.

I only watched this for the first time a few days ago – it had quite a short run at my local cinemas – and I was expecting something of a spy-romp, in the vein of Modesty Blaise (1966). It was a surprisingly taut and very stylish spy thriller but I found the narrative (based on a graphic novel “The Coldest City”) a little on the light side.

The cast are universally excellent, from Charlize Theron leading the pack as the MI6 agent, Lorraine Broughton, James McAvoy at his sleazy best as the Berlin MI6 agent, and Sofia Boutella as the French agent, Delphine. They are ably supported by three of my favourite actors – John Goodman, Eddie Marsan and Toby Jones. And look out for baby-faced Bill Skarsgard who recently starred as Pennywise in It (2017).

There’s a couple of editing choices in the action scenes that I questioned but generally, this is where the movie shone. Unfortunately, the script is pretty flimsy and if it weren’t for Theron’s incredible and insightful performance as the world-weary spy, this probably would’ve collapsed in on itself and totally bombed. It’s yet another case of a really fine cast of actors having little to work with.

Having said that, this is a perfectly serviceable first feature from David Leitch, a well-known stuntman and stunt coordinator (he’s been Brad Pitt’s stunt double in something like five of his films). Leitch has worked a lot with the Wachowskis and was an uncredited director on the surprise hit, John Wick (2014). I look forward to seeing how his directing career progresses – apparently his next film will be the Deadpool sequel.

Nevertheless, Atomic Blonde is another perfectly fine popcorn movie and (despite narrative issues) a solid start for David Leitch.

The Woman in Black – Day 20 NaBloPoMo 2017

The Woman in Black 2012. Directed by James Watkins.

This is quite an interesting film in several respects. Firstly, it was based on the wonderful novella of the same name by English writer, Susan Hill. Despite its Edwardian setting and reading like a period Gothic horror, it was originally published in 1983.

Secondly, it was part of the re-emergence of Hammer Film Productions, that most famous British horror studio. In the 60’s and 70’s Hammer was the spiritual home for so many people like me, who grew up watching Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

Thirdly, it was the first bona fide adult screen role that Daniel Radcliffe took on post Harry Potter. And despite the fact (to me at least) he looks almost impossibly young, he really brings a lot of heart to the role of Arthur Kipps and undeniable star power to the whole film. And he pretty much carries the movie. I particularly enjoyed his scenes with Ciaran Hinds, and by the end, found myself genuinely caring about poor Arthur.

Despite being a fairly standard tale in many respects, this is a genuinely fine old-school horror film, with good measures of tension, scares and pathos. It also caused quite a stir in the UK when the BBFC (British Board of Film Classification) decided to rate it a 12A instead of a more appropriate 15. The producers offered to cut a few scenes in order to get the lower rating – and capitalise on Radcliffe’s huge box office appeal to young audiences.

Nevertheless, this is still a good and very entertaining film. I think it’s worth a watch, if only for Radcliffe taking his first steps to shake off the shadow of the boy wizard.

I Saw the Light – Day 14 NaBloPoMo 2017

I Saw the Light (2015) Directed by Marc Abraham.

This is a movie I’ve been meaning to watch for quite some time – yes, it’s been in my pile of shame for too long! – and I’m really sorry I left it so long to give it this a first viewing.

Hank Williams had a tragically brief life but meteoric career and penned songs that remain classics of the country and western genre. He also inspired artists such as Elvis Presley and Bob Dylan and can be seen as something of a stepping stone in popular music from the 40’s across to the post-war boom in record sales and interest in celebrity.

As much as I enjoy Tom Hiddleston’s diverse body of work, I seriously wondered if he could pull off portraying Williams but he really delivers the goods – who knew he could sing as well! He is matched by Elizabeth Olsen (also on leave from MCU duties) as his first wife Audrey, and the chemistry between them on screen is great. It is shot with great care and obvious love for the material, (kudos to DoP, Dante Spinotti) which gives the whole film an appropriately melancholic air. This was a passion project for director Marc Abraham, who started working on this as far back as 2009 and it is lovingly crafted in a very traditional bio-pic manner.

However, I can see why this was a box office flop. Almost the entire film is taken up with Williams’ relationships and his ongoing battles with alcoholism and painkiller addiction. While that’s undoubtedly the story behind his death at 29, I would have loved to have seen a closer, critical examination of his music and songwriting.

A beautiful looking film, with a stellar performance by Hiddleston – good but not great.

Star Trek: Discovery – Day 13 NaBloPoMo 2017

Star Trek: Discovery (2017-) CBS Television Studios. Created by Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman.

As many of you are probably aware, I’m very much a movie person rather than television but in recent weeks I’ve become completely hooked on Star Trek: Discovery.

I’ve always loved science fiction and I’m old enough to remember the original when it first aired. Up until now, I’ve always thought of the Star Trek universe as reasonably vanilla but Discovery is a completely different beast. Characters are quite real, conflicted, have agendas outside of Starfleet, suffer very human maladies, like PTSD, and (despite all the standard space opera shenanigans) it has splashes of wry humour.

The cast are all excellent but Sonequa Martin-Green, Anthony Rapp and Jason Isaacs are absolute standouts and the scripts have been very solid.

I’ve just watched the first half of season one, apparently it will be resuming in January and it has been signed up for a second season. I can’t wait!

Let me know what you think and I’ll see you tomorrow 🙂

Wonder Woman – Day 10 NaBloPoMo 2017

Wonder Woman (2017). Directed by Patty Jenkins.

Finally, the elephant in the blockbuster, comic book movie room got a mention – that is to say, a female super hero at long last got her own dedicated feature film. Those of you who are regular readers will immediately understand this is a big thing for me and many other comic book movie fans. And let’s face it, after yesterday, female representation has been on my mind quite a lot!

The fact that it came via DC and not from the Marvel Cinematic Universe was something of a surprise initially – I was hopeful that Marvel would’ve got the memo and given Scarlett Johansson her richly deserved Black Widow stand-alone film. Sadly, I think it’s very unlikely that will ever happen now, but I was heartened to see last week that Tessa Thompson (Valkyrie in Thor: Ragnarok) has pitched an all-women Marvel ensemble film to MCU production chief, Kevin Feige. And there’s Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larsen to look forward to in 2019.

But back to Diana Prince. Although this iteration of Wonder Woman was first introduced in Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice, (and was possibly the best thing about the movie) this is entirely her film, and origin story. Unlike most DC material, the lighting and colour palette are much brighter and in the first act on Themyscira (Paradise Island in the comics), even downright colourful! The war scenes are a decently downbeat colour contrast and even London looks less drab that one would normally expect (apologies to UK friends – but I’m sure you know what I mean!)

The first act is really great fun, the Amazons are fabulous with Connie Nielsen and Robin Wright excellent as Hippolyta and Antiope. In fact, I’d love to see a movie about them – that would be excellent!

And I have to say, Gal Gidot is a joy. She is beautiful, athletic and admirably portrays that mix of strength and self-assurance against innocence and wonder, not an easy thing to balance. She carries the film and does it (where the script allows her) very well indeed. I know it’s expected to have a love interest in these kinds of mainstream films, but it disappoints me that she had to fall for the first man she sets eyes on. Chris Pine is suitably handsome, bland and heroic as Steve Trevor, but thankfully doesn’t overplay his role and is a good foil for Gidot’s Diana. To me, this immediately points to good direction from Patty Jenkins. The supporting cast are solid but the standout is the wonderful Lucy Davis, who steals every scene she’s in as Steve Trevor’s assistant, Etta Candy.

For the most part, the fight scenes are reasonable and quite well choreographed but there are some very obvious CGI clunkers that took me out of the moment and reminded me that this is after all, a DC film.

The final act however, and the “boss fight” descend into an overlong and almost turgid mess. I think this is something that has become an all too common feature of nearly all blockbuster comic book films in recent years, but I’m hopeful that the producers will get the message sooner rather than later and tighten up their endings. Coupled with this, the lighting and colour all ebbed away into the usual DC trademark dark blue grey tones. I don’t know who told them that these film tones signify “cool” and “edgy” but they’ve certainly been sold a lemon on that one!

Overall, I was really impressed with the first two thirds of this film and Patty Jenkins is a director I’ll be watching now with interest. It’s just sad that the ending fell pretty flat after such a solid build up. This is a good popcorn flick and while it isn’t world changing, it’s certainly a step in a more equitable direction. More please!

Thor: Ragnarok – Day 6 NaBloPoMo 2017

Thor: Ragnarok (2017) Directed by Taika Waititi

I went to see this last week, trying not to have too many preconceptions, but I’d seen the trailers and posters (anyone with an internet connection and a social media account couldn’t have missed them could they?) and I started reading Marvel Comics as a small child, the much lauded “Silver Age”, so I had some context to draw from and the poster I’ve included above particularly reminded me of the Jack Kirby comic books I read as a kid.

Despite their problems with gender representation, I’m a huge fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe and love the Thor franchise – not for the titular character, but for Tom Hiddleston’s version of Loki. Even in the comics way back in the day, Thor was something of a vanilla hero – but Loki was far more entertaining and often provided the comedy that’s been lacking on screen. I’m also a big fan of Taika Waititi’s work as an actor, writer and director, What We Do in the Shadows (2014) is one of my favourite indie comedies. So it was difficult to go into this without some expectations.

I really needn’t have worried. I thought the first Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) was a fabulous and very well timed break in the seriousness of the MCU – but Thor: Ragnarok is a veritable breath of fresh air. I still have some issues but they are minor compared with many of the previous films in this franchise. (I’m happy to discuss in the comments if anyone’s interested).

This time the usual cast from Asgard are joined by Mark Ruffalo as Bruce Banner/Hulk, Cate Blanchett as Hela, the Goddess of Death, Karl Urban as Skurge, Tessa Thompson as Val/Valkyrie, Taika Waititi as Korg and Jeff Goldblum as the wonderfully campy Grandmaster. I really loved Blanchett’s villainous Hela, and Tessa Thompson was great as the alcoholic Valkyrie who gets to redeem herself. The sets for the Grandmaster’s planet Sakaar are just wonderful, evoking Kirby’s artwork and the soundtrack (featuring Led Zepplin’s “Immigrant Song”) works really well.

A friend described this film as a romp, and I think that’s a great word. This movie is irreverent, loud, brash and very, very funny.

Go see it and let me know what you think 🙂

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