Thursday, 14 December 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Last Jedi (first-pass)





Star Wars: The Last Jedi (first-pass / 3D / SPOILER-FREE)
Cert: 12A / 152 mins / Dir. Rian Johnson / Trailer



Oh, and here we are again; too many thoughts, too many feelings, not enough words. Although I assure you that there are categorically no spoilers (stated or inferred) in this review, my sole piece of advice would be to neither click, read, watch nor listen to anything Star Wars related until you have seen The Last Jedi. Including this. You need to see the new episode knowing no more than you currently do.

Go on. You can come back to this when you get in from the cinema.

Ah, welcome back. As I write this, it's 3am. I have a fresh beer open and I'm trying to think of what I can say, never mind how I can say it. It's outstanding that a series this far into its mythos can still return a product so unexpected, and with so much delightful uncertainty. Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi addresses some (but by no means all) of the questions raised in The Force Awakens, and even then those answers are split between sincere, vague and frankly-suspicious. But there's plenty for future dissection in there, that's for sure.

In terms of overall tone, this latest installment is much the same as its chronological predecessor. The melancholy is increased the year-old loss of Carrie Fisher of course, an inescapable backdrop to every one of her scenes, but the film is a fitting tribute to the princess we all miss. Leia's screentime is increased and Rian Johnson has written (and more importantly directed) a more satisfying role for her, here. Truth be told, Johnson gets more layered performances from all the cast here, although obviously the returning actors have more backstory to draw from now. Oh, and the spot-the-cameo game has been raised to the same level as Rogue One, which is always entertaining*1.

The main thread of narrative connection is to The Force Awakens for obvious reasons, but there are still strong links with the Original Trilogy-era (and fleeting references to the Prequel Trilogy). Fans of the animated TV shows will spot a few visual nods here and there, but there seemed little more on this first-pass of the movie. Steve Yeldin's cinematography is more urgent than Dan Mindel's work in SW:TFA, to reflect the story it's telling. Higher in contrast, richer in tone and more dynamic overall. John Williams does the business with the score as one would expect, but as usual there's far more to be unpacked in there than can be accomplished by just watching the film once. Much like the film itself, in fact.

Aficionados of the saga will love The Last Jedi. As mentioned above, the screenplay doesn't devote itself to box-ticking, but isn't afraid to ask new questions and take the story to new, unexplored places (physically and metaphorically). Whether casual audiences will get quite the same buzz remains to be seen; this isn't 'for-the-fans' Star Wars, but it's certainly by-the-fans. Rian Johnson's love and respect for the Galaxy Far, Far Away is clear, but what I took away as 'pleasant surprises' may be received by others as pushing the envelope.

But what the hell do I know?
I've only watched it once…



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The Star Wars.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
Yes.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Yes.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's strong.
It's very strong
.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shall look over my spectacles and ask you to jolly well explain yourself.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
As usual, I didn't hear one this time but will be listening intently during future-passes.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: This is Star Wars.



And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 Oh and if you're reading this AJ and Owen? Told ya! [ BACK ]

DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Wednesday, 13 December 2017

Review: Star Wars - The Force Awakens (twelfth-pass)





Star Wars: The Force Awakens (twelfth-pass / 3D)
Cert: 12A / 135 mins / Dir. J.J. Abrams / Trailer



There are two moments across the Star Wars films which make me involuntarily stop breathing. Every time. The first is the part of Revenge of the Sith where Vader has his helmet fitted, the cut-out silence of Palpatine's makeshift operating theatre is filled with an electronic 'charging' whine and we finally hear the infamous respirator. The second is the visual exchange at the end of The Force Awakens, with Rey and Luke on a clifftop, wordlessly communicating over a proffered lightsaber. In those moments, I forget to breathe. Until I'm roused by the sound of the breathing apparatus or the 'directed by' credit. Every time.

Quite often, people will ask me "yeah but what do you get out of watching Star Wars over and over again?". Which is a fair question, even I have to admit*1. One one (quite literal) level, it's like the childhood bedtime story that you never got tired of hearing. But as the years wear on and I become more nitpicky in my enjoyment of films, Star Wars is the gift which keeps on giving. Every time I watch one of the movies, I'll notice a facial twitch, inflection of a line of dialogue or a detail on a set or costume which I haven't seen before*2.

It's only been two years since the release of The Force Awakens, and already the film has that air of established familiarity*3 - that feeling of being at home in the Star Wars universe*4. And having had a whole year to digest and reflect upon Rogue One, this (short) distance highlights the stylistic differences between the two*5. Although well received, The Force Awakens has a classical structure which is all but absent in the Death Star heist-movie (even though that was also very well received).

It makes absolute sense of course that the 'anthology' movies should have a different cinematic style from the saga-entries, but the first of tonight's double-bill raises two questions:
1) Will The Last Jedi be going firmly back to this more sweeping style of storytelling? And,
2) What will the more casual-end of the critical sphere make of the gear-change if it does?

Anyway, I enjoyed The Force Awakens again.
As you would expect.



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
The Star Wars.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
You've pretty much missed your chance with this now, but yes.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's at the top-end of the list, yes.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shall sigh heavily and ask you to explain yourself.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There is.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 0: This is Star Wars.
(I'm not doing the long-link for a short review like this. Sorry kids, they just take too long, and I've got to do one for the first-screening of The Last Jedi)


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 The general answer is here, although it doesn't quite cover the Star Wars phenomenon. [ BACK ]

*2 I try to do this with all movies of course, hence me writing a review for each subsequent cinema viewing. but in all honesty who wants to sit through (to pull an example completely out of the air) Transformers: The Last Knight more than once, to see if it's magically any more charming or coherent on repeat? [ BACK ]

*3 Although bear in mind that I *did* watch it eleven times during its initial run, so you'd expect me to know it by now anyway.
[ BACK ]

*4 And remember that I'm someone who says (and has always said) the same thing about about the prequel trilogy, so adjust your reliance on my enthusiasm accordingly... [ BACK ]

*5 Not that Rogue One isn't Star Wars in any way, just that it's very different Star Wars. Plus Lucasfilm need all the differentiators they can get, now they've essentially abandoned the episode-numbers, outside of the opening crawls. [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Tuesday, 12 December 2017

Review: Jumanji - Welcome To The Jungle





Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle
Cert: 12A / 119 mins / Dir. Jake Kasdan / Trailer



Before I get stuck into Jake Kasdan's latest effort, I should point out that I actually haven't seen 1995's Jumanji. No agenda behind that, I just didn't catch it at the time and it hasn't crossed my path in the intervening years. My increasingly-usual manic schedule for December means I haven't had time to slot the film in for cramming.

So it was partly this 'not knowing exactly what to expect' which subdued my excitement for Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle. I say partly, it was also that the more I saw the trailer, the worse the prospect became. Although I enjoy Dwayne Johnson as a comic actor, his overall record is far from exemplary. And while I actually quite liked his recent double-act with Kevin Hart, the thought of reuniting the two for similar bouts of shrieking did not sit well with me. Elsewhere we have Jack Black, who other than a solid turn in Goosebumps is also on a downward trajectory in my eyes, and Karen Gillan - a great performer who appears to be being held back by an agent who accepts every undemanding job which lands on the desk.

I have already gone on record as saying I was not looking forward to this.
I am now on record to say that I am delighted to have been proved wrong.

So, when four disparate teenagers (Alex Wolff, Ser'Darius Blain, Morgan Turner and Madison Iseman) come across an old mid-90s console (complete with a cartridge of an unknown adventure-title) while cleaning a store-room in detention, they're magically zapped into the game where they inhabit the bodies and in-game skills attributes of the playable characters (Johnson, Hart, Gillan and Black). In order to win their freedom, the gang have to work as a team, learning the structure of the game as well as their own limitations and untapped potential. Plus it's set in the jungle and there's an artefact to recover, necessitating the actual adventure setpieces. So sort of The Breakfast Club meets Tron meets Indiana Jones.

And against all my expectations, it's great.

Don't get me wrong, you're not going to find the meaning of life, the cure for cancer or the basis of an enduring cinematic franchise in Welcome To The Jungle's 119 minutes. But in terms of a fantastically fun, funny family-friendly yet sassy adventure movie for the holiday season, this movie delivers on its own terms. That's all I ask.

Yet at the same time, the new iteration of Jumanji is by no means a perfect nor revolutionary movie, but it's at least aware of its flaws. And while that knowledge doesn't always forgive those flaws, you can be sure that the 1) linear nature of the ongoing story, 2) convenience of the game-to-film mechanics, 3) overtly sermonising themes and 4) ridiculousness of Karen Gillan's outfit are all issues which have been considered thoroughly by the writing team. The movie just then deemed them fit for use anyway. Welcome To The Jungle absolutely should not work, which perhaps ironically is its greatest strength*1.

The central cast have natural chemistry, and since theirs are essentially body-swap roles, they're each doing twice the work they would normally. As this is A Studio Comedy™, my worry was that they'd each be playing themselves (Mr. Black especially) and leaving behind the story's 'real-world' personas for the main drag of the movie, but Jake Kasdan's direction and a careful script don't allow this to happen*2.

But most importantly, I laughed loudly and consistently throughout Jumanji: Welcome To The Jungle (as did the rest of the audience). On that front alone, this is already better than most comedies this year. And while the overriding message may be slightly trite, the film still has more dedication to its own characters than most comedies, too. It's just a shame that it'll reach nowhere near the audience it deserves because Sony Pictures' general-release window pits it against Star Wars*3...


So, watch this if you enjoyed?
Well Jumanji obviously, but any lighthearted action-adventure like Indiana Jones, Romancing The Stone, Willow.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
In between watching The Last Jedi several times, sure.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
It does.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
As a group-effort, it's certainly one that other writers, directors and producers will try to replicate.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
Nope.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
Not that I heard.
Ridiculous
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 2: Missi Pyle is in this, and she was in 2005's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory along with Garrick 'Biggs' Hagon and Sir Christopher 'Dooku' Lee.

And an interesting (…) duo of GFFA trivia for you: the first Jumanji was directed by Joe Johnston, the guy who basically designed Boba Fett. This second movie is directed by Jake Kasdan, son of Empire/Jedi/Force Awakens/Solo screenwriter, Lawrence Kasdan.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…


*1 And trust me, as much as I'm defending the film, Karen Gillan's hotpants/crop-top outfit here is not irony. It's just a thing they noticed could be problematic, referenced in the script, then carried on using it as if that absolves them of the exploitation. The same arguably goes for Jack Black's entire performance, although I'd be lying if I said I didn't find it funny all the same. [ BACK ]

*2 There are four screenwriters here, mind, which is never usually a sign of anything coherent. And although I haven't watched the original Jumanji, I can still see the glaring hat-tips in the new movie's script when it's being referenced. But generally speaking, the "standalone sequel" Welcome To The Jungle works well enough on its own terms to not have to rely on these moments. [ BACK ]

*3 It's not even as if this is a cunningly scheduled 'alternative' flick (cf. Sisters, In The Heart Of The Sea and a two hour melodrama about mops) it's basically playing to the same demographic. And given the opportunity, would you rather watch a shrieking Kevin Hart, or Star Wars? [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Review: Stronger





Stronger
Cert: 15 / 119 mins / Dir. David Gordon Green / Trailer



You'd think I'd be happier about this. Being a curmudgeon of monumental dimensions, I usually berate the December/January-scheduled, über-worthy, awards-bothering, true-story releases for being excessively mawkish and exploitative, for expecting an audience to wistfully grip a tissue in their quivering hands for every minute of the run-time, for wringing the earnest, soul-wrenching drama from every last calculated frame of celluloid.

Stronger doesn't go to those lengths. And I'm not happier about this because Jake Gyllenhaal, Tatiana Maslany and Miranda Richardson are acting their thespic socks off while screenwriter John Pollono and director David Gordon Green apparently don't care. This is the story of Massachusetts production-worker Jeff Bauman, a spectator at the finish line of the 2013 Boston Marathon when an explosive device was detonated next to him*1, resulting in the loss of his legs. The film isn't so much about the event itself as Bauman's struggle to get back into the world, to be the inspiration that people assumed him to be even before he was ready for that mantle.

Well, it should be about that, at least. Instead we get more of a fleeting docu-drama filled with unlikeable characters and a dearth of mechanical detail*2. Given how dramatic the first act is out of necessity, the film we have is oddly bereft of emotion. Not quite clinical, but anaesthetised certainly. A short setup takes us to the day of the marathon*3, breezes over the immediate aftermath, skips out completely on the six weeks of in-hospital rehab, then just drifts along with snapshots of Jeff's recouperation. We get glimpses into the recovery, but never really enough to emotionally invest in the character (a real actual person, don't forget). Dramatic outbursts and flashes of PTSD come as much of a surprise to the audience as they do to the characters surrounding Jeff, almost suggesting that we're not being told the story from his point of view in the first place. Which is odd because the only other main character is his partner Erin, doing her best to help Jeff's rehabilitation*4, but we don't really see the film from her point of view either.

The central performances are, as noted, solid enough, but the writing isn't there to back them up. And while Gyllenhaal is one of the finest actors of his generation, it feels like this part (certainly as it's written) isn't complex enough for Jake to represent good value for money*5. There's the feeling that rather than present Bauman as a challenging/conflicted character, the screenplay just doesn't particularly like him*6, which becomes a waste of a great performer. Mark McMark could play this role. There moments of dark humour in the film, genuinely funny for all the right reasons, but they're too sporadic to be classed as an actual feature of the script. A tale of redemption should be a rollercoaster, this is like being pulled over waste-ground in a cart with wooden wheels for an hour and a half, before…

And then, around twenty minutes from the end of the movie, Jeff resigns himself to meeting a man named Carlos in a bar. It's Carlos who pulled Jeff out of the carnage in Boston, who tourniquet'd his legs to stop him bleeding to death, who reassured the semi-conscious man that help was on its way. Carlos has his own backstory of course, and this could be the one genuine scene in the whole two hours. Everything after this point is absolutely fine, the movie I was expecting it to be throughout (which is to say it's overly-sentimental, but the details of the plot have earned it by that point). But it's too little, too late. You can't just fill the screen with sports-fans waving Stars and Stripes flags and call that a happy ending. No really, you can't.

The usual rules apply for this sort of thing: You want to honour survivors of an ordeal, film-makers? Then take a film crew to their house and get the base-footage for a documentary...



So, watch this if you enjoyed?
This Sort Of Thing™.


Should you watch this in a cinema, though?
While Stronger isn't exactly televisual, it's not particularly cinematic either.


Does the film achieve what it sets out to do?
Nowhere near as much as it would like, I suspect.


Is this the best work of the cast or director?
It's not.


Will I think less of you if we disagree about how good/bad this film is?
I shouldn't think so.


Yes, but is there a Wilhelm Scream in it?
There isn't.
Not even when the bomb goes off
.


Yes, but what's the Star Wars connection?
Level 1: Savage Opress is in this.


And if I HAD to put a number on it…
And it's only the last twenty minutes which lift it up that far.


*0 If you're at this first footnote because of the asterisk in the 'post description' on social media (and for the sake of HTML coding, let's call this *0), I put "Boston Strongler" in there because even I didn't think I'd get away with "Marathon Man(gled)". Who says I'm not a sensitive guy?

*1 Now you would think they'd have done a shared-cinematic-universe thing and given a cameo to Mark McMark, to tie in with last year's Patriots Day, but apparently not. Normally I'd insert a link to my review of the film there, but since I refused to watch Patriots Day as it looked like 90 minutes of histrionic flag-waving, I can't do that. You're right, maybe I'm not a sensitive guy… [ BACK ]

*2 It's quite a feat that in a movie full of aimless self-centred drifters, that the HR policy of the Costco corporation comes out looking like the good guy. I'm assuming the blink-and-you'll-miss-it reference to a health insurance claim for an underperforming, low-grade 'poultry-technician' is what paid for his robot legs, the likes of which are normally reserved for military veterans. Because the film doesn't explain it otherwise. Jeff comes out of hospital to live in his mum's flat in the housing projects, and the extra financial burden on a woman who's already not working just isn't mentioned. And while I'm on, in one scene he's been out of the hospital for weeks and nobody's thought that a guy with no legs might have trouble reaching the toilet-roll which is kept on the opposite side of the bathroom from the toilet. Jeff's family are dicks in this. [ BACK ]

*3 Really though, Jeff's on/off girlfriend Erin is running a full marathon and leaves getting sponsorship until the day before. Then she does this by going to a pub and sitting down, and has the temerity to call him lacklustre in his commitments... [ BACK ]

*4 By the way, if you're unfamiliar with the phrase "Boston strong" (*raises hand*), I advise you to look it up before watching the this. The second-act is in love with the phrase, but not to the point where it actually explains the etymology of it. Jeff's surname isn't Strong, and at that point in the story he's displayed few actual signs of endurance other than being interviewed repeatedly on TV (or so we're told, that's another thing the film doesn't bother showing us). Anyway, apparently it just means that the people of Boston are strong. Which is fair enough, but here in the UK we got news reports about the bombing itself, but the rest of this awful world quickly filled the follow-up schedules. What I'm saying is, don't @ me for not knowing what the hell 'Boston Strong' meant. I'm a sensitive guy. [ BACK ]

*5 Seriously though, not to demean the actual Jeff Bauman's struggle at all, but Stronger's approach to post-traumatic stress disorder is much like that of American Sniper: 1) Lead character is sad and angry for a bit, 2) Lead character shouts for a bit, 3) Lead character is reflective for a bit, 4) Yay, lead character is better now! That's all he had to do all along!! [ BACK ]

*6 There's a lot of consequence-free alcohol/medication mixing going on in this movie. As well as the drunk-driving scene which has no comeback. And apparently losing your legs means never having to wear a seatbelt, somehow. If anyone is thinking of looking to this movie as a source of inspirational reference, they're going to take away the message that it's okay to be a complete tool for as long as you want. The bizarre thing is that when photos of the real, actual Jeff Bauman appear in the obligatory credits-montage, I was thinking "funny, he doesn't look like the dick that Jake's just made him out to be". Who knew? [ BACK ]


DISCLAIMERS:
• ^^^ That's dry, British humour, and most likely sarcasm or facetiousness.
• Yen's blog contains harsh language and even harsher notions of propriety. Reader discretion is advised.
• This is a personal blog. The views and opinions expressed here represent my own thoughts (at the time of writing) and not those of the people, institutions or organisations that I may or may not be related with unless stated explicitly.