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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 17 2016 12:13AM

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016) Dir. Gareth Edwards

[Some minor spoilers]

Midlands director Gareth Edwards (yes, he’s from Nuneaton, folks) helms this new “anthology” film which spins off from the Star Wars Episodes with a Marvel-style franchise expansion feature. His movie is a literal interpretation of A New Hope’s opening text crawl which describes the rebels' attempts at securing the plans to a star-of-death-sized space station, that isn’t a moon, which the evil Empire controls.

In this story, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is a lonely rural youngster with lost parents who ends up joining the rebels as her father is the key to its destruction. My immediate thought was “this again?” In all fairness, Star Wars REALLY needs to up its game with the sole child/parent narrative set up (Jyn joins Anakin, Luke and Rey as the similar stereotype) but the film to its credit begins to move away from the clichés to deliver new ideas of its own.

Familiar tropes are seen – droids, stormtroopers, holograms, desert-y locations – but without Jedis and the “old” gang there is space in the movie for more experimentation. Edwards certainly takes a different style to Lucas and co with many more shots using out-of-focus foregrounds and much of the action from character’s point-of-views which echoes his Godzilla work – particularly effective when the gigantic dino-esque AT-AT walkers appear.

The film has some great support characters too, in the form of Alan Tudyk’s droid K-2SO – who gets all the best, and funniest lines – whilst I desperately wanted to know more about blind warrior Chirrut Îmwe (played by Donnie Yen) whose limited screen time didn’t stop him from being far more interesting than Jyn herself.

Other highlights included a much-anticipated cameo from Darth Vader – albeit only 2 scenes. The first is a Lord of the Rings style castle for the villain on volcano planet Mustafar which has been hinted upon since Ralph McQuarrie’s concept art for Empire Strikes Back. The second was a must-see scene of violence, the likes of which has not been viewed by audiences before. I was slightly hoping Hayden Christensen may even had been asked back to link up the prequels to the originals (the film takes place between the two trilogies) and although he didn't show there were a few nods to those stinkers with references to the Clone Wars and Bail Organa (Jimmy Smits does reprise his role from the prequels) who also mentions his “friend” in the desert (Obi Wan).

Much of this may not make sense to first time viewers and it has the same problem I noted with Disney’s other multi-film franchise (Marvel) where the uninitiated will struggle to follow some of the references. But in its defence the film does enough to deliver a narrative without too much shoe-horning of Star Wars lore and inconography. Newcomer Ben Mendelsohn as Imperial Military man Orson Krennic gets some great lines and scenes as his duplicitous villain has a seething menace under the surface. This was a joy to watch as he squirms to his superiors and dishes out violence as a bully to his inferiors.

Some weak spots included the score – oh how John Williams is missed – and it even made me yearn for The Force Awakens’ rather unmemorable themes but at least ithat film had some. Nothing of the sort here and one sequence of a crashing Star Destroyer had an awful musical accompaniment. Also, the story is quite superficial – with so many new characters it doesn’t have the driving force of a Luke and Ben or a Rey and Finn which I feel it needed to propel it along. I never once thought Jyn was invested in it even as she delivered her pre-battle speech in the third act.

Another unique but uncanny aspect was the use of CGI to digitally recreate Grand Moff Tarkin by resurrecting the face and voice of Peter Cushing, long since dead for 20 years. A great idea in concept, the face is far more convincing than Jeff Bridges’ in Tron: Legacy but also far from perfect. In doing so, I barely remember his scenes as I scanned the semi-realistic face in detail – taking me out of the film each time he appeared.

The visuals are however suitably gorgeous – the CGI battle sequences were bombastic in the final part of the film – and it was good to see some extended space battles which the Force Awakens mostly omitted. But Rogue One did seem very patchy in editing. Just as scenes got going, the audience were sent onwards to the next planet for another short sequence of unknown aliens and underdeveloped characters. The problem of reshoots? Rewrites? Possibly. But sequences of a mind-reading squid could have been easily jettisoned for more character development.

Edwards does know how to compose great shots and the opening filmed on the dark southern coast of Iceland gave us some suitably extraterrestrial landscapes which were a great addition to the Star Wars cannon. I wanted to see much more of the Jedi temple and the briefly-explained Kyber crystals which power lightsabres (also omitted in the film) but these were again, underdeveloped and part of a number of story threads which sadly went nowhere.

All that said, you won’t be particularly disappointed with Rogue One as it delivers the same level of retro reminiscing that we saw in Force Awakens. In my review of that film I pleaded for more originality now they’ve course-corrected the franchise and Edwards does an admirable job of delivering some new (although not too acute) ideas into the mix. Is it better than that film? Personally, I think not. The narrative was all over the place and I never connected with the new characters unlike Poe, Kylo and the new crew from TFA.

However, with enough action, throwback ‘easter eggs’ and a host of characters whose journeys we haven’t followed before, Rogue One delivers a solid sci-fi story of hopeful resistant fighters rising up against their wicked oppressors. It's done with fun, flair and impressive visuals that whisks you off to that galaxy far, far away like the annual family holiday. Comforting, expected but with an extra trip or two thrown in. We'll all be back again next year.


Midlands Movies Mike

By midlandsmovies, Aug 30 2016 01:28PM

Star Wars warms the heart under the stars

The Summer Nights Festival has been a staple of the Midlands movie scene for the past few summers as Derby Quad arrange a selection of brilliant film shows at unique venues across the region.

These outdoor film screenings began with just a handful of stately homes showing mainstream movies in picturesque surroundings amongst neo-classical mansions and exotic gardens and parklands.

2016’s season was no different in this respect but has seen both the number of screenings AND the areas in which they are shown grow in size dramatically. Now no longer so Midlands-centric, this summer’s events have spread as far as RHS Garden Wisley in Surrey, Blickling Estate in Norfolk and Dunham Massey in Cheshire.

These new events compliment the established shows of Calke Abbey in Derbyshire and Wollaton Hall in Nottingham where that home’s Elizabethan mansion stood in for Wayne Manor in Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight Rises.

And it is at Wollaton Hall where my experience began a few years ago – they showed the aforementioned Batman movie – whilst this year also saw a more-than-appropriate screening of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. A suitable Nottingham film for a Nottingham location

The final film at Wollaton over the August Bank Holiday was the recently released Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A friend and I headed down Sunday with the sun shining brightly before parking in the grounds of the mansion. A short walk up the hill in the evening sunlight fully encapsulated the impressive beauty of the building which sits atop a small rise. It must be said that these events are prone to the whim of the British weather but the outlook for tonight’s screening looked pretty good.

Heading to the side of the building we entered the grounds which sloped back down towards the screen. Over 1500 people would eventually fill this space with a selection of portable chairs, picnics and food and drink for a completely sold out show.

Although I wore a Bane outfit for the Batman showing, I toned it down (a bit) this time by only bringing my Kylo Ren helmet which was a leftover from our own themed Star Wars night back in June. I need not have worried as there were plenty of fully dressed Stormtroopers as well as pilots, Ewoks and a Darth Vader who ended up posing for photos with children and MANY adults throughout the build up.

As the night drew in, the film began with the classic opening crawl and the John Williams fanfare which boomed across the field. The sound was good and the picture clear and a magical evening was had as the sun (just the one mind) disappeared from view, and was replaced by a vast array of stars in the clear night sky above.

I’ve seen the film many times (6 times on the big screen yet none so far on home release) and the family adventure between the light and the dark side was enjoyed by all those in attendance. One slight flaw was the food stall, who packed away using a huge floodlight to move their equipment into a van during the show. Trying to be whisked to a galaxy far far away in the dark was difficult when the movement of 60ft silhouettes were jostling about on the side of a building for 30 minutes.

That small criticism aside, the night was a fun screening and the addition of people in suitably galactic costumes helped the evening’s atmosphere.

With ten more events still to come in 2016 (including Midlands shows in Lincolnshire and Shropshire) I encourage film fans to experience these fantastic evenings in special backdrops that can turn a regular movie-going trip into a sparkling show at a beautiful location.

Midlands Movies Mike

For more information, show times and to purchase tickets then please go to www.summernightsfilm.co.uk

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

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