icons-02 icons-01 MM Logo Instagram


Movie news, reviews, features and more thoughts coming soon...

By midlandsmovies, Dec 19 2019 06:20PM

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019) Dir. JJ Abrams

Retcon or narrative development? Do you want story risks and surprises or a reprise of the best of SW? Well, The Force Awakens director JJ Abrams returns with a bit of both to helm a sequel to both his first film of the new trilogy plus also Rian Johnson’s controversial (but far superior) second instalment.

Does JJ manage to bridge the gap or jump the shark? In fact, it’s mostly a success – a bit disorderly throughout but filled with a great (force) spirit of adventure with only a few missteps along the way.

The film begins by wasting no time with the narrative and rather than a slow reveal, it’s shown within the first 5 minutes that the Emperor is resurrected. On a secret planet called Exegol he now hopes to create a new Galactic Empire with an armada of Star Destroyers using Kylo as a pawn to rule the galaxy.

Rey still trains as a Jedi and in order to confront Emperor Palpatine, she rejoins the resistance efforts and with Poe, Finn, Chewbacca, BB-8, and C-3PO attempts to search for Sith artefacts that will lead them to the big bad.

The film throws action constantly at the screen, sometimes at the detriment of characters' development and boy are there a lot of them. The group cross with Lando Calrissian (a rather effective cameo from old-timer Billy Dee Williams) but there’s also a host of alien and humans welcomed to the fold, some more interesting than others. Keri Russell is underused as a space criminal yet new droid-mechanic Babu Frik could easily have been annoying but is mostly a fun addition.

As they continue their travels, Rey’s parentage is revealed during a Force-bond fight (projections can now interact with each other – and so much more later) and Abrams simply cannot resist curtailing to some fan’s need for Rey’s lineage being somehow tied into the saga.

It’s the need for a do-over that are the worst parts of this final episode of the nine-part "Skywalker saga". Adapting unused Carrie Fisher footage is hugely impactful though and her story has an amazing emotional resonance. And whilst C3PO is very funny, his goodbye to his “friends” as his memory is wiped hits the heart strings hard and references the audiences’ own goodbye to familiar faces.

Therefore, whilst Johnson’s film was about throwing away the past, JJ’s film is definitely more about goodbyes but there is a lack of finality at times and the death “fake-outs” are an overused trope that undermine the film’s weighty ambitions.

The resurrection of previous threads and the nods to the two previous sagas were somewhat expected but again, more than satisfying in the main. Rey and Kylo’s overblown lightsabre battle on a water-logged Death Star is the aquatic equivalent of the fiery battle between Obi-Wan and Annakin on the volcanic lava trails of Mustafar. And huge chunks of Return of the Jedi (visually and musically) are echoed on a visit to the rubble of the Death Star.

Other standouts include Richard E Grant who is so fantastic as a First Order general that I almost wished for him to have been in this trilogy from the start. But the focus on Kylo and Rey has always been the best part of this series and wisely, the film works best when focused on them. From heated battles and horrific visions to quieter more tender moments, the trilogy has consistently been watchable anytime stars Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver are on screen. Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe are window dressing at times but them taking a back-seat to let the conflicting couple slice and dice wasn’t unwelcome at all.

A bit overstuffed with characters – old, current and new ones get mere minutes at times – The Rise of Skywalker ends with an appropriate space battle alongside a darker duel of differing fates for Kylo, Rey and the Emperor. It’s not the stunning success surprise that was The Last Jedi nor the easy re-tread of a New Hope that was The Force Awakens yet it works as a glorious and worthy, albeit messy, send-off to the saga.

We’ll no doubt get all the YouTube hate reactions, ‘10 things wrong with’ and “fan” criticism over on Reddit in the coming days but with so many people to please, JJ has stuck safely to familiar beats. And although too familiar at times, The Rise of Skywalker is a fitting tribute to this trilogy and may just bring a bit of hope, and certainly a tear to your eye, knowing we’ve finally left this galaxy far, far behind.


Michael Sales

By midlandsmovies, Jul 29 2018 04:00AM

Pacific Rim Uprising (2018) Dir. Steven S. DeKnight

From a director mainly known for his work on the Spartacus TV show comes a film of equal low-budget quality in the follow up to Guillermo Del Toro’s quirky sci-fi smash ‘em up between skyscraper-sized robots and huge monsters.

Star Wars’ John Boyega appears as Jake Pentecost, the son of Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba) from the first film, who is an underground scavenger buying and selling parts for Jaegers which are now being built illegally.

He crosses paths with a young girl who has built her own from scrap (Cailee Spaeny as Amara Namani) and after a brief skirmish with the authorities, both are taken to a military academy to be trained on the next generation of robotic behemoths.

Boyega is his charismatic and likeable self but the whole cast are a selection of stereotypes and clichés to which no one can hang much characterisation on given their one-dimensional roles. Here we have the sarcastic kid, cocky pilot, mad tech guys and a training academy rival all present but definitely not welcome. Pentecost’s daughter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) is also back alongside the two quirky (and annoying) scientists played by Charlie Day and Burn Gorman.

Although the first film was hardly known for its depth, the characters had a simplistic charm, whilst here they only appear as ciphers for the action.

And speaking of the action, the editing on the fights has moved into the super quick arena which echoes the Transformers films. As with those, it becomes increasingly difficult to see what’s happening and discern who is fighting who. In the original, each Jaeger and Kaiju were explained which clarified their skills and abilities and gave some breathing space that is desperately needed here. Therefore, what we get is mindless smashing between two, mostly anonymous, giants that we don’t know, or care, much about.

With a few additions to the franchise involving the development of new technology concerning Kaiju blood and the use of rockets and drones, the funky neon colours and night time visuals of the Far East seen in Del Toro’s vision have been replaced with stark (and boring) daylight – emphasising the cheap and nasty CGI.

And by the end, the look, style and tone of Pacific Rim: Uprising goes off the rails with buildings coming down like the conclusion of Man of Steel with not a member of the public in sight.

So sadly the film has little of its own personality to engage with and by its headache-inducing conclusion it unfortunately *wants* to be Transformers, which is bad in itself, but in reality can barely hit the heady heights of the Power Rangers. A sequel to avoid.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Dec 15 2017 08:59AM

The Last Jedi (2017) Dir. Rian Johnson

WARNING: Contains spoilers

After the soft-reboot that was The Force Awakens and the misstep, for me, of the dull prequel Rogue One, with The Last Jedi comes Disney’s third foray into the galaxy far, far away with director Rian Johnson (Looper) stepping into the director’s chair.

We pick up where Force Awakens left us. Luke has banished himself on an island after failing to train Ben Solo, now Kylo Ren who is again played with evil ‘emo’ glee by Adam Driver. A courageous Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on a mission from the Resistance being tasked with coaxing the powerful Jedi back into action against the dastardly First Order. The internet was buzzing over what his (or her) first words would be. Two years in the making and every possible theory pored over and Johnson builds up tension with lingering shots on the two protagonists. And what are they? Well, essentially none. Cool-hand Luke slowly accepts his lightsaber in his robotic palm and then...simply chucks it over his shoulder and walks away.

And this favouring of the unexpected over the predictable is its winning formula and a metaphor for Johnson’s whole film. The moments an audience give assumed importance to are given little significance whilst the smaller details are given prominence throughout. Heck, Johnson provides an entire 10 minute battle sequence even before we return to the island and pick up the story JJ Abrams left us with.

Narrative wise, the film sticks to a basic plot where the resistance have been decimated to a few ships then go on the run tracked by huge star destroyers (now with a super-sized dreadnaught class version). Supreme Leader Snoke, another amazing Andy Serkis creation with pitch-perfect CGI, tasks Domnhall Gleeson’s pantomime Hux and Kylo Ren to continue their search for Rey in a bid to get her to turn to the dark side. The light-hearted family feel is there from the opening, the loveable rogue Poe Dameron, filling Harrison Ford’s shoes (AND clothes at times) delivers an overtly comedic exchange over a radio – again echoing Han in A New Hope. Despite its slightly awkward tone which made me fear “I have a bad feeling about this" it luckily settled down and Johnson balanced the light and dark with vigour.

As the resistance plans to infiltrate the First Order to stop their tracking device, John Boyega’s fantastic Finn gets a chance to shine as he joins feisty newcomer Kelly Marie Tran as Rose on a trip to Canto Bight and its wealthy casino patrons. Gambling on alien-horse races sees Johnson add a throwaway but thrilling CGI chase sequence which along with the city’s building design had the worrying look of the much maligned prequel trilogy. However, for me it felt as though it brought back the links between all trilogies which Johnson had fun in delivering. There’s also seeds sown of a wider universe with farm orphan slaves (“it’s like poetry, it rhymes”) being drawn into the events, perhaps helping to establish Johnson’s recently announced stand-alone trilogy. We’ll have to wait and see.

Rogue One’s fan-service appeared tokenistic but R2-D2’s playback of Star Wars’ original “you’re our only hope” message and a hugely surprising cameo from Yoda as a Force ghost were more than welcome. Context is everything and both served the story and I loved the fact the ghosts had returned for the first time since 1983’s Return of the Jedi.

However, at every turn the film swept me off my feet and pulled out something unexpected in each new scene. Expanding the myths of the force we see new powers including a resurrection and transcendence. Mark Hamill as Luke and the late Carrie Fisher as his sister Leia are both mesmerising in career defining performances and their coming together showed that amongst the battles, fights and comedy, the film’s tender emotional beats are what really draw you in.

Away from the nods, we get new creatures – the loveable puffin-like Porgs avoiding Jar Jar Binks levels of annoyance in the main – as well as new characters. Benicio Del Toro’s stuttering code-breaker and Laura Dern’s focused Vice Admiral are welcome additions with the latter’s sacrifice by flying a ship at lightspeed into another craft is one of the film’s visual highlights. With bombastic sounds being replaced with an eerie silence, the image is lingering and powerful. Alongside that, Snoke’s blood red throne room and a Kylo-Luke showdown showed the film’s cinematic ambitions were far more than space banter and franchise references.

In the end, this is epic blockbuster cinema at its very best. It would have been easy to follow the established pattern but the film sets up a precedent that anyone could be expendable which kept tension high. It also highlights how The Force Awakens, a film I hugely enjoyed, really didn’t tackle many new things yet this one twisted my expectations from the start.

With an expansion of its themes and both the classic and new characters finding their place The Last Jedi will hopefully satisfy super Star Wars nerds and general film audiences too. With such great filmmaking from Johnson, it’s a huge task to tackle the lore and the fan expectations of the infamous space opera, but the director more than comes through. Yet the main thing is the film is a lot of fun. Lots of unadulterated fun. And like the best cinema has to offer The Last Jedi leaves you both with a smile on your face and a lump in your throat.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Dec 20 2015 02:35PM

The Force Awakens (2015) Dir. J J Abrams


Let’s get this off the bat – this was one of the most enjoyable cinema experiences in years for me. My first ever midnight showing with over 500 eager fans made the atmosphere at the screening electric. The showing I saw was in 3-D and premiered at Leicester city centre’s Showcase X-Plus screen (Tesco value IMAX) but the sound and picture quality were absolutely outstanding.

There was an audible tension in the air and the inevitable long wait after the cinema adverts and trailers increased the anticipation before the logo, obligatory plot crawl and the infamous John Williams score burst forth and a round of applause engulfed the audience.

So, where does JJ Abrams take this sequel set 30 years after Lucas’ “Return of the Jedi” and with the god awful CGI-infused prequels still looming heavy over everyone’s minds. Well, a return to practical effects, sets and locations were a great start. The story begins with Luke Skywalker now missing and his possible location hidden in a droid (BB-8 doing a great R2D2 impression) which ends up on a desert planet and being hunted by the new Imperial First Order – a force of evil rising from the ashes of the Galactic Empire.

This sets in motion a series of plots also including lucky escapes, a Stormtrooper with a conscience (a brilliant John Boyega as Finn) and the droid ending up in the hands of Rey (Daisy Ridley), a desert scavenger. These scenes hark back to the original trilogy and Abrams’ lens flare and handheld camera are massively reigned in for some Original Trilogy-inspired vistas and the classic Star Wars dissolves and wipes. In addition there is much more comedy in the film, but rather than the stupid pratfalls of a Jar Jar, Boyega’s quirky performance and confusion about what is happening is family friendly fun with a character you really root for.

My main gripe with the film however – and why I cannot make it the best film of the year – was the recycling of the plot. I get that JJ would have to homage the style and iconography of the classic universe but far from revolutionising the franchise, he’s repackaged A New Hope. Not a bad thing per se but I wanted more of the new and innovative and less of the nostalgic “old”.

For example, both films could be described as thus:

A droid (R2/BB8) is given an important map by the resistance in part to help stop the rising of a fascist organisation (Empire/First Order). The “beep-booping” droid is being sought by a black-cloaked villain (Vader/Kylo Ren) whose reliance on the dark side of the force is being overseen by a tutor (Emperor/Snoke) and the droid ends up on a desert planet (Tattooine/Jakku). A desert orphan (Luke/Rey) who trades in space junk ends up with the droid before leaving their home planet and runs across a wise old man (Kenobi/Solo) who knows about the Force. *breathes* They end up on a ship (the Falcon both times) before liaising in a bar with a band in an attempt to avoid Stormtroopers. After learning about the mystical nature of the force from a small alien (Empire's Yoda/Maz Kanata), the resistance plans to take out a planet destroying moon-sized space station (Death Star/Starkiller Base) using X-Wings running down a trench (!) Without going any further, there are more story beats as family connections are revealed and important deaths occur.


It was a shame this was the case as an hour into the film I kept noticing these each time they occurred and it took me out of the film completely. The three main planet locations had familiar terrain – desert, woods and snow- but there were many opportunities to move into new areas. Boyega’s mutinous on-the-run Stormtrooper was great (and different) but the film focused on Daisy Ridley whose acting was “solid” (that’s being generous) and I very much wanted to see more of Oscar Isaac’s X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron. By playing safe the film avoids any huge errors but it’s just a little too safe. John William’s score was ok but yet again, whenever the old themes could be brought out it literally signposted “THIS IS IMPORTANT” and had a “hey, do you remember this” feeling. And I think the film deserved better than that. Think of the great "Duel of the Fates".

That said, there are some hugely impressive set pieces, the action is superb and given weight by cleverly plotted character motivations and Adam Driver as Kylo Ren is a simply brilliant baddie who I hope we can see more of in future instalments. Driver’s acting is the perfect blend of confusion, brat-like tantrums and unsympathetic evil and are exactly the traits Lucas could not get across in his story of Anakin.

The film also contains one of the cuts of the year as we shift from one location to a Star Destroyer in space which (in 3-D) comes so far out of the screen there was a huge “Whoah” moment in the cinema and one that I won’t forget any time soon.

Moving Star Wars back to its origins was the perfect (and needed) step to re-engage with the universe many originally fell in love with and JJ Abrams has created the most accessible film of the year and no doubt of his career too. Despite the story flaws, the film shows that you don’t need to force CGI down an audiences’ throat for them to be impressed with a blockbuster film and amongst all the space battles, (limited & rightly so) lightsaber duels and Stormtrooper shooting action, it’s really the small intimate moments that make you care again. JJ successfully plants the seeds of a new direction, fresh characters and I have a new hope the franchise continues with the innovation that we glimpsed throughout.

8/10 Midlands Movies Mike

RSS Feed twitter