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! *

 

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.

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 🙂

Logan

Logan (2017) Directed by James Mangold.

I’ve always been a fan of big, loud comic book movies. I love a couple of hours of mindless escapism, particularly if there’s well-constructed set pieces, computer graphics that don’t detract from the action, strong characters and a good story.

Suffice it to say, most of the X-Men franchise left a lot to be desired in many of these areas for me (despite my enduring love for Sir Patrick Stewart), and I always thought that they pandered to a far younger audience than the source material warranted. In particular, I always wanted to see a Wolverine movie that wasn’t sugar coated.

Finally, James Mangold gave us Logan and I couldn’t be happier.

Right from the outset, Mangold informs us that this is not a popcorn flick for the kiddies. The story is dark, there is plenty of bad language and a lot of quite explicit violence, which I think are all necessary in underpinning the humanity of this film. Hugh Jackman and Sir Patrick Stewart reprise their roles as Logan and Professor Charles Xavier for one last time.

Logan is now visibly aged, his body is no longer immediately regenerating – even his eyesight is failing him, and seeing Wolverine wearing reading glasses was rather lovely. Let’s face it, this is Hugh Jackman, so he is still good looking, but no longer in a youthful, sensual way, which anecdotally some female friends found difficult to deal with. (Female spectatorship and objectification are very much alive and well!) Xavier is gaunt and elderly, suffering from a degenerative brain disorder and requires regular medication to stop him from killing everyone in his immediate vicinity. Logan is keeping him isolated near the Mexican border, and in the care of another mutant, Caliban (played very well by an almost unrecognisable Stephen Merchant).

Into this mix comes Laura, a young mutant who is on the run from a corporation. She is played with alarming ferocity and skill by Dafne Keen who manages to express so much with very little dialogue – it’s a stunning and incredibly mature performance. On the other side of the equation is Dr Rice (played with all the expected urbane menace by Richard E. Grant), who is performing ghoulish experiments on mutants, including young Laura.

The results are a violent, foul-mouthed, yet strangely beautiful and thoughtful take on universal questions about difference, friendship, family and death. This is the X-Men movie I’ve always wanted – a legitimately adult, well-made action movie, set firmly within a comic book universe that also tackles big themes with care and consideration.

I saw it in the cinema when it was first released in Australia earlier this year, and I confess I cried at a couple of key points, especially the end. I watched it again last night and I’m not ashamed to say it moved me to tears again.

Absolutely one of my favourite films of this year.

Excalibur (1981) – Movie Review

As many of you know, I’m doing a Bachelor of Communication at the moment. I’ve recently read one of Mark Kermode’s books and that’s also inspired me. While I’m busy with study, work, gardening and music, from time to time, I want to exercise some of the things I’ve been learning at uni and indulge in two of my greatest pleasures in life – watching movies and writing. I hope you enjoy my musings 🙂

Excalibur (1981) Orion Films. Directed by John Boorman.

I remember seeing this on first cinematic release back in the day, and it’s become something of a guilty pleasure that I like to revisit every year or so. It’s cheesy, at times very theatrical but there’s something about it I really love.

English director John Boorman created (for its day) an incredibly violent yet a very tender retelling of the Arthurian legend. The late Nigel Terry stars as Arthur and brings both tremendous strength and an aching innocence to the role and is surrounded by a “who’s who” of the cream of UK’s up and coming thespians, including Liam Neeson, Ciaran Hinds, Gabriel Byrne, Cherie Lunghi and Patrick Stewart. But the reason I continue to re-watch this is the brilliant portrayal of Merlin by Nicol Williamson. He eats up the screen, and his scenes with a very young Helen Mirren as Morgana Le Fey are simply riveting. Legend has it that Mirren and Williamson absolutely loathed each other at the commencement of shooting but became “very good friends” by the time it was completed. Irrespective, their performances are outstanding.

The original music by Trevor Jones is for the most part excellent but there’s a few times where I feel it intrudes on the scenes. Much of the action is informed by the sumptuous cinematography of Alex Thompson and it’s no surprise to me that he was nominated for an Academy Award for this film. The Irish countryside stands in for Arthur’s England and all its grey, bucolic green and muddy glory is well on display here. Interestingly, I recently read that Boorman had chosen many of the sites for his Lord of the Rings project, which never got off the ground. The similarities as well as the appeal of Ireland isn’t lost on me, and I wonder if Peter Jackson ever watched this and had similar thoughts.

Yes, the practical effects and fight scenes are dated and at times it looks and feels more like stage play but to my eyes it’s the best cinematic retelling of this classic tale – far more entertaining and engaging than either Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) or Guy Ritchie’s King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017). I can’t help but feel that Boorman has a real fondness for the Arthur myth, which shows throughout.

Have you seen Excalibur? Let me know what you think. Also, if you have particular films you’d like me to watch, let me know – I’ve always got time for a good movie!