Category Archives: Star Wars

My Best and Worst Films of 2019

First of my annual end of year posts – my thoughts on the films that have come out this year. I should note I haven’t seen as many as I’d hoped – Shazam and Toy Story 4 being the main omissions – but here’s my take on the rest of the years best – and worst – offerings in cinema.

No Major Spoilers. Some minor ones.

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker: If this was just any old Star Wars film, both me and other reviewers may have been kinder to it. In many ways it suffered because of bad decisions Disney made during Force Awakens production (i.e. not setting out a clear plan of where the series was going or focusing on innovation and decent world-building). As a result this overstuffed mess tries to do far too much in 2h 30, with leads to the first hour being a confusing garble of ideas and set-up likely to leave its audience with whiplash, so quickly does it jump from scene to scene and planet to planet. It jettisons most of what Last Jedi accomplished and will doubtless annoy most fans of that film (particularly its needless marginalisation of Rose and its dull revelations/retcons of Snoke and Rey’s origins). The score by John Williams is surprisingly lacklustre, and while several of the new and returning characters shine, none get the kind of screen time they deserve. The film emerges with some credit for Leia and Kylo Ren’s arcs, but ultimately fails on too many levels. Too generic by far, it plays out like a limp rehash of Episode VI, with boring fetch-quest taking up much of the first half, silly death fake outs punctuating the second and a conclusion which is a insult to both any audience goers with intelligence and the character and gravitas of Emperor Palpatine, who’s return goes unexplained. As the end of a trilogy and something meant to cap off the entire Skywalker Saga, this needed to be good. It isn’t even close. Come back George, all is forgiven… even the prequels had far more cohesion, imagination and spectacle than this mess.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Spiderman: Far from Home: The seconding most disappointing film of the year, Far from Home has echoes of Iron Man 3 – i.e. good first half, misguided plot twist, terrible second half. Like the Mandarin twist, Mysterio’s predictable (to literally anyone who knows 1 thing about the character) mid-film revelation derails things and they never recover. Some things are positive – Jon Favreau is at his best here as Happy, Peter and MJ’s relationship is nicely done and Ned’s romance with Betty is hilarious. But the problems are far more numerous – first off, you should never make the villain’s real plot less interesting than their fake plan the heroes expect to deal with. Samuel L. Jackson puts in one of the worst performances of his career here, but that’s due to how badly the script writes Nick Fury. The main problem is this film completely misses what Spiderman should be about – he isn’t an Avenger, he’s his own hero protecting his own city, who works with the Avengers when needed to stop cataclysmic threats. He’s certainly not Tony Stark mark 2, so please stop trying to make him so. Great final scene though – its about time that a certain character returned to the Spiderman films – and what a way to do it.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5

Zombieland 2: Double Tap: On a more positive note, Zombieland 2 was a fun, amusing follow-up to its predecessor. The cast, including Woody Harrelson, Emma Stone, Abigail Breslin and — are as good as ever, and the interplay between them is once again, the core of the movie. The best jokes involve Columbus’ new love interest Zoey Deutch, the categories of zombies (ranging from fast, smart killing machines to the dumb, virtually harmless Homers) and various hilarious zombie kill methods – most memorably involving a monster truck. Not as good as its predecessor, some jokes don’t land and the finale isn’t as memorable, but still a good effort and something you’ll enjoy.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

How to train your Dragon: The Hidden World: The only animated film I’ve seen in cinema this year, The Hidden World capped off a very consistent trilogy of HTTYD movies. All have been entertaining, heartfelt and lovingly designed, and while they aren’t a patch on stuff like the Incredibles or Toy Story, they’re very enjoyable. The story of this one is less dark than film 2 and feels like a good way to end things. Given how other, far more important, films have shown how easy it is to muck up the third film in a trilogy, The Hidden World should be commended for providing a satisfying conclusion to Hiccup and Toothless’ story. It’s probably my favourite of the three.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Captain Marvel: Samuel L. Jackson gets his best role in an MCU film here – as a digitally de-aged version of him plays sidekick/guide to Brie Larson’s Captain Marvel – one of the most powerful characters in the Marvel Universe. Her powers make for some great action sequences, Ben Mendelsohn’s Talos is a superb supporting character and the story is one of Marvel’s better origin stories (only Guardians of the Galaxy and Ant-Man are better). The humour is on point throughout, with some laugh out loud moments, mainly involving Nick Fury and the Flerkin. There’s a good soundtrack and a touching tribute to Stan Lee too. The only drawbacks are some 2 dimensional alien characters, lack of development for lead Carol Danvers and predictable plot lines. Its a very fun Marvel film, but isn’t quite up there with their best.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Avengers Endgame: Now this is how you conclude a saga. Avengers Endgame gives its characters room to breath and commits a lot of screen time to its set pieces and key events, and comes out all the better for it. The special effects, direction and acting come together to form an epic conclusion to the third phase of the MCU, and gives central characters like Iron Man and Captain America fitting ends to their arcs. There’s lashings of humour but its far more restrained than normal, to the films credit (though a few crap jokes – i.e. America’s ass – probably should have been cut). It succeeds in its quieter moments, such as Cap’s regret over a missed life with Peggy or Tony spending some time with his father. It has a few flaws – Alan Silvestri’s soundtrack and Thanos reduced screentime among them – but frankly who cares – the film nails its final act and produces one of the best onscreen battles in cinematic history – its up there with Pelennor Fields in Lord of the Rings. Any other year, this might have topped my list… but not this year…

Rating: 5 out of 5!

Joker: Joker has to come out on top. With interesting themes, an intelligent, focused script, no CGI or effects to distract you, its a full-blooded character exploration of one of the most interesting DC comics characters, as you’ve never seen him before. With a heavy, almost oppressively intense soundtrack and masterful direction by Todd Philips, everything comes together to form one of the best films I can remember in a long time – if not one you’ll what to watch too frequently – its too damn draining. While there’s sterling work from the likes of Robert de Niro and Zazie Beetz in the supporting cast, the film hinges on its lead: Joaquin Phoenix. If he doesn’t get an Oscar for this then its a serious miscarriage of justice. The man owns and inhabits the role in a way even Heath Ledger didn’t, and is possibly the only live action portrayal that can hold a candle to Ledger’s take on the character. To say too much would spoil it, but this film will have you gripped, horrified and delighted throughout its entire runtime. Its that good. Even the spectacle infused Avengers Endgame isn’t on this level of film making – if anyone wants to argue that film is a medium of art… Joker is exhibit A. You may not like it, it may not be your kind of film – but you need to see it and decide for yourself.

Rating: 5 out of 5!

My film awards 2019:

Best Actor: Joaquin Phoenix (Joker)

Best Actress: Scarlet Johannson (Avengers: Endgame)

Best Supporting Actor: Robert de Niro (Joker)

Best Supporting Actress: Zoey Deutch (Zombieland 2)

Best Director: Todd Phillips (Joker)

Best Script: Joker

Best Soundtrack: Joker

Best Special Effects: Avenger Endgame

And the less deserving..

Worst Actor: Oscar Isaac (The Rise of Skywalker)

Worst Supporting Actor: Samuel L. Jackson (Spiderman Far from Home)

Worst Director: JJ Abrams (The Rise of Skywalker)

Worst Script: The Rise of Skywalker

Worst Soundtrack: The Rise of Skywalker (even John Williams didn’t bring his best)

There you have it, my view on some of the year’s biggest releases. I’m sure some of you will disagree, but that’s the good thing about cinema – there’s something for everyone.

Next Up: My Top Video Games of 2019

 

The Rise of Skywalker Review

As I always do for reviews of films that have just come out, the first half will be spoiler-free and i’ll insert a warning before the spoiler-filled second half so fans who haven’t seen the film yet can back out.

Starring Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Billy Dee Williams and Ian McDiarmid.

The Rise of Skywalker had an AWFUL lot to do. It had to provide a satisfying conclusion to the Sequel trilogy, tie up a multitude of loose ends and character arcs and act as a fitting finale to the entire 9 movie saga. An additional challenge was to try and reunite a fanbase deeply divided by Force Awakens and Last Jedi.

For those who don’t know, I like both of them, despite their flaws – though I suspect after this, I may look back on Force Awakens a lot less fondly, because a lot of the problems here stem from how little set up and world-building Abrams managed in Force Awakens.

Anyway, sad to say, Rise of Skywalker ultimately fails to meet its objectives – it doesn’t even get close to being something the fanbase can reunite over. The fact that its critical review score is actually LOWER than Phantom Menace’s was a bad sign, and while I don’t always agree with critics, here my only issue with them is that they arguably didn’t go far enough.

First, the positives, because the film itself isn’t all bad. The way it handles the late Carrie Fisher’s role as Leia is commendable and gives the character a fitting send-off, if not one as grand as was probably planned. Billy Dee Williams shines in his limited role as Lando, perhaps even giving his best performance in the role. Richard E. Grant and Keri Russell make for superb additions to the cast as a First Order General and one of Poe’s smuggling comrades respectively. Kylo Ren’s arc is well done, even if it may not have been exactly what you expected (or indeed wanted) done with the character. The Kylo/Rey connection established in Last Jedi is very well used here, and one of the few ways that Abrams adds to the previous film rather than detracting from it. John Boyega, Adam Driver and Daisy Ridley all do well with what they are given.

Other than that… um, well the opening crawl sets things up well… C3PO is less annoying than usual… John Williams score is okay if a bit bland…Ian McDiarmid clearly relishes his return as the Emperor (that isn’t a spoiler – its in the damn opening crawl). Okay, sod it, I just ran out of positives.

The film has a litany of problems. For starters, it needs to be about an hour longer. It tries to cram WAAAAYYYY too much in. We cut from scene to scene and planet to planet so rapidly in the first half it legitimately gave me a headache. Moments that could have worked with more time to take them in or would have been tenser with a slower pace simply fall flat. Think of the classic scenes in Star Wars history – Han and Luke rescuing Leia from the Detention block, the X-Wing assault on the Death Star, Luke’s duel with Vader on Bespin, the Speeder Chase on Endor, Darth Maul fighting Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan, Order 66, Anakin vs. Obi-Wan, the Battle of Scarif in Rogue One…. all of them take time to build up to a crescendo. All have a good amount of screen time and are centrepieces or conclusions to their films. By comparison, the first third of Rise of Skywalker is rushed, confusing and frankly, poorly edited. Good special effects are meaningless when the action sequences chop and change and last all of two minutes before the scene changes to another plot strand.

It’s clear that Disney and Abrams had no idea what they wanted the final chapter to look like when they made Force Awakens or let Rian Johnson take over for Last Jedi. Nothing in the first two really set the stage for this one – leaving the film to fall over itself trying to retroactively fit everything together. The frantic rush to set this film up in the first hour is terrible cinema (particularly as the plot is driven by little more than a fetch quest – yeah, and not a memorable one either). Compared to say, Avengers Infinity War, which had far more to do in its first hour but managed it far better, Rise of Skywalker’s efforts in its opening hour are uninspired, convoluted and show up the weakness of the rest of the trilogy. We finally get answers to some key questions, but the answers either aren’t satisfying or are delivering in such an underwhelming way they might as well not have bothered. If you are in the part of the fanbase who like Last Jedi, i’ll warn you, you’re in for a rough ride – the film either ignores or overwrites a lot of what it brought to the table.

The second act is far better than the first, granted, but your enjoyment of this film will hinge entirely on its third act as Rey and the Resistance confront the First Order and Palpatine in a massively against the odds final battle. Sound familiar? Yeah it should – its a half-baked version of Return of the Jedi’s finale, involving characters you care much less about than Han, Luke, Leia and Vader, and features some very uninspired twists and generally lacks imagination. The climatic spaceship battle is very disappointing – even Phantom Menace’s assault on the droid control ship is better devised. But ultimately, whether you approve of the choices the film makes about Rey, Kylo and the Emperor’s plotlines will probably be the key factor in whether you like it or, like me, consider it to be a massive disappointment.

Overall the film has decent acting, good special effects and is entertaining enough in places, particularly its middle act. If you’re a mainstream cinemagoer only in it for entertainment value, you may like it. But if you’re a hardcore Star Wars fan or like the films you watch to have some semblance of intelligence? Brace yourself.

Rating: 2 out of 5. The last film I rated this lowly was Suicide Squad. I’ll just let that sink in.

I could go on, but everything else I want to say requires spoilers, so if you haven’t seen it yet, bail out now!!

WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!!

First up, how many wasted characters have we had this trilogy? Captain Phasma was criminally underused, Benicio del Toro’s conman DJ goes unmentioned here, Hux has to be the least interesting character in the whole franchise (despite having two more films than Darth Maul got – I mean somethings wrong there), Rose gets sidelined unfairly (good job JJ, you basically let the trolls win) and the film introduces so many new characters, you suspect mainly to augment Disney’s toy sales, that none of them get the chance to make a lasting impression, which is a shame, because Zori, Jannah and General Pryde are all quite good characters, and had they been introduced in films 1 or 2 in this trilogy, they could have added a lot to it.

Lando and The Emperor at least get some screentime, but only about 5 or 10 mins each respectively. Instead most of the journey is spent with the leading trio and Kylo Ren, but the problem is, they lack the memorable nature of the original leads or even Obi Wan, Padme and Anakin in the prequels. Its not John Boyega’s fault, he gets nothing to work with here. Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver do well, but are arguably the only two characters who are well served by the script. The biggest failing is Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron – the guy was originally designed to only be in the first 30 minutes of force awakens, and it shows. His history is poorly expanded upon and attempts to portray him as a han-esque rogue or leia-esque leader have never been merited by the material he’s got. Ultimately, I think Isaac may have been miscast, he’s a fine actor but has never seemed a natural fit (except when acting opposite BB8 or blowing stuff up in an X-Wing, then and only then has Poe worked as a character).

But, character problems aside, this film creates so many problems for the wider Star Wars universe. If Rey and Kylo’s force healing abilities are so strong, how come Obi-Wan couldn’t save Qui-Gon in Phantom Menace? Why couldn’t Anakin use it to save Padme in Revenge of the Sith, rather than selling his soul to the Emperor in panic? Why couldn’t Luke revive Vader? If Force Healing is a Jedi ability, it really should’ve been used before now – it makes no sense for far more well-trained Jedi to be unaware of it.

More unforgiveably, the film gives no explanation for Palpatine’s survival. All those theories about whether he was a clone, a force ghost or got resurrected – a complete waste of time. Just like all the speculation about how the White Walkers would be defeated in game of thrones – the actual answer is far less interesting than the ones the fans came up with in their imaginations and knowledge of the lore.

Also, Snoke was just some generic evil force user Palpatine created? That really isn’t satisfying. Rey being a Palpatine DOES make sense, but it would have hit far harder if Snoke had told her that last movie – Kylo doing so here was very undramatic. Other questions raised by Force Awakens go completely unanswered. How did Maz get Luke’s old lightsaber? No. How did the First Order become so powerful compared to the Republic? No. Why did C3PO have a random red arm in Force Awakens? No. Put all this disappointment and rubbish world-building together and you can see why i’m annoyed.

Had Rian Johnson or JJ. Abrams done the whole trilogy themselves, it might have been more coherent. But Abrams has proved yet again, just like with Star Trek, he utterly lacks creativity and while his films are always entertaining, they consistently lack depth. Say what you like about the prequels, at least they were well structured and built to a clear conclusion. Lucas’s vision is sorely missed here. The Star Wars Legends novels created a convincing, vibrant and believable universe post-Return of the Jedi. Disney hasn’t.

Some ideas here are good ones – Luke training Leia but her giving up to avoid her destiny is interesting, but needed some build-up or foreshadowing that it never got. Kylo’s turn to the light is done well, but like everything else in the film, its rushed and his about turn is far less convincing than say, Vader’s.

Finally (because i’m near 2000 words and don’t want this to turn into a dissertation – although I could probably go on that long) the last act just doesn’t work for me. Ben Solo survives a fatal fall then dies for no clear reason. The spaceship battle is mediocre – we know the reinforcements will save the day, and the scene carries little conviction – its hardly an epic helms deep or knights of the vale type rescue. Palpatine’s motives change with the wind – its hard to know if he was just manipulating Rey and Kylo the whole time and lucked out or merely took advantage of an unseen opportunity. But the biggest problem is how the Emperor is beaten. One thing I’ve said ever since I knew he was returning was that Rey and Ben couldn’t beat him, even together. Only one person in the entire Star Wars canon (Mace Windu) has beaten the Emperor in a straight fight. Even Yoda could only manage a draw. The whole idea of Rey being the vessel for all the Jedi’s power is ludicrous – had she summoned the force ghosts of Obi-Wan, Yoda, Luke, Anakin, Qui-Gon, Leia and Mace etc., and the group of them combined powers to defeat the Emperor, that might have worked. Her just blasting him away with his own lightning? That sucks and is lazy writing. The Emperor deserved better.

So there you are. I’m sure some of you will vehemently disagree with all this. Good for you. But for me, there’s no doubt – this is the worst Star Wars film ever made.

In the words of Yoda:

Failed, Disney has. A clusterfuck, this is.

 

5 Years of Blogging: Top 5 Books and Authors

For the second part of my 5 year anniversary of this blog, I thought i’d give an overview of my top 5 books and authors. I don’t review novels that often on this blog, so I felt this was long overdue.

Contains no spoilers for the books mentioned other than brief plot or genre overviews.

Top 5 Authors:

5: Dan Brown: Dan Brown’s work can be divisive, but you can’t deny the success of his Robert Langdon novels (or his other works such as Digital Fortress or Deception Point). The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons and Inferno are great romps with satisfying plot twists and hunts through glamorous locations like Paris, Rome and Venice. While Origin and The Lost Symbol fail to match up, all were engrossing first-time reads and whenever one of Brown’s new books comes out, I take notice, so he gets the fifth spot on this list.

4: Rick Riordan: Riordan’s works are mainly geared towards teenagers, but as a classist I can’t help but love his fiction focusing on modern day adventures of Greek and Roman demigods. Awash with humour, pop-culture references and characters who are easy to root for, his Percy Jackson and Heroes of Olympus series are excellent ways to encourage younger readers to learn about Greek and Roman mythology, while his entertaining style makes them a joy for all ages. He takes a couple of books to really hit his stride, but once he does, he delivers really consistently.

3: George R.R. Martin: While I haven’t sampled his other series, Martin makes this list solely for his Game of Thrones related work – there’s very little that matches the sheer scope and scale of his world-building, gargantuan casts of characters or detail-rich prose. If the man wasn’t so damn slow at finishing his ‘magnum opus’, he might be a bit higher on this list. Nevertheless, there’s a reason his books inspired one of the most successful TV series of all-time – one that could never hope to match the complexity of the original novels.

2: Simon Scarrow: Scarrow is a master of military focused historical-fiction. Whether its his long running ‘Eagles of the Empire’ series focusing on two Roman soldiers or his 4-part series contrasting the careers of Wellington and Napoleon, his works are always engaging. Scarrow’s knowledge of military tactics and structures helps create believable narratives and conflicts, and has written stories with settings as varied as Ancient Britain, Imperial India and WW2 Greece. There’s no better writer of military fiction.

1: Robert Harris: Harris rarely fails to deliver. His Cicero trilogy is a sublime piece of historical fiction that eschews more famous Romans like Caesar and Pompey in favour of focusing on one of the greatest orators who ever lived and presenting a compelling tale of his strengths, failures, flaws and triumphs. The variety of his work is notable – novels have focused on Chamberlain’s dealings with Hitler prior to WW2, a fictional papal election, and most memorably a murder investigation in Germany in an alternate history where the Nazi’s won WW2. Harris is a prolific writer who can turn his hands to many a setting, and in my opinion is the best of the authors whose work I follow closely.

Top 5 Books:

5: A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin: Containing the Red Wedding, the Purple Wedding, Daenerys’ conquest of Slaver’s Bay, Jon and Ygritte’s doomed romance and Jaime and Brienne’s journey to King’s Landing, this 3rd entry in the Song of Ice and Fire series is still the undisputed highlight, with compelling twists, great character development and a great overall story. Martin has yet to better this, but then again it would take one hell of a book to do so.

4: Heir to the Empire by Timothy Zahn: Zahn is one of the most established and beloved Star Wars novelists – his work in the 90’s helped sustain interest in the series while it was off-screen, mainly due to his ‘Thrawn Trilogy’, which Heir to the Empire is Book 1 of. The Thrawn trilogy is no longer canon after Disney brought the franchise, but to be honest the three novels (and the two-part Hand of Thrawn which follows it) make for a far better follow up to Return of the Jedi than Force Awakens and Last Jedi. Set 5 Years after the Emperor and Vader’s deaths, Heir to the Empire focuses on Luke, Leia and Han’s efforts to protect the fledging New Republic from a resurgent Imperial Remnant led by the tactical and strategic genius Grand Admiral Thrawn. Thrawn is arguably the most popular Star Wars character created in the novels, primarily because he’s a villain who isn’t a Sith Lord but presents a real threat to the heroes. This first entry is my favourite Star Wars novel, simply because it presents a believable follow to Return of the Jedi and presents the Empire in a more nuanced way that simply being evil for evil’s sake.

3: Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince by J.K. Rowling: The Harry Potter books are still a good read as an adult, and Half-Blood Prince was always my favourite of the 7. While the film wasn’t as good, the book shines with a lighter tone to balance out the increasingly dark plot, greater emphasis on Dumbledore than previous books and significant revelations that set up the final book perfectly. If I’m feeling Nostalgic, this is still one of the first books I’ll turn to.

2: The Generals by Simon Scarrow: Scarrow’s four-part tale of Napoleon and Wellington is at its apex in this second entry, which follows both men as they begin to forge their careers in earnest and win great successes in Italy, Egypt and India. Napoleon’s story is definitely a shade more compelling, but Wellington’s tougher journey to the top still has dramatic value. A great piece of military fiction – if you’re interested in the Napoleonic Era, this is a must read.

1: Inferno by Dan Brown: Inferno’s mix of hellish imagery, Dante’s Inferno influences and over-population fears combine to create Brown’s best novel, and the one I’ll probably return to most often. I won’t claim its the best book ever written (Langdon’s amnesia is a lazy plot device, even if it works wonders) but its arguably my favourite and one I will happily pick up again and again. A real page-turner, this isn’t a book you will find easy to turn down. Pity the film adaptation was so weak and disjointed by comparison. Please don’t get put off if you’ve seen the film but not read this – its got far more depth and its ending plays out completely differently.

Hope you’re enjoying this series, I’ll be back tomorrow with my Top 5 PC Games and Game Developers. See you all then.

Best and Worst Films of 2018

This is a run-through of all the films I have watched that were released this year – and a quick comment about each one, plus the rating I would give it. Films are ordered from worst to best. Needless to say, this isn’t a definitive list – there’s various films I haven’t seen this year (Aquaman, Venom, Into the Spider-verse etc.) but it includes all the ones I have managed to catch – either in cinemas or on Amazon/Netflix.

The Death of Stalin: I expected better from Armando Iannucci. I really can’t work out this film’s intended audience or why critics loved it so much. Its not funny enough to be a comedy, not cutting enough to be a satire and not believable enough to be historically accurate. The thing is wonderfully shot and well-directed, but ultimately that isn’t a big comfort. The cast by and large try their best, but Jeffrey Tambor is a total waste of space and the whole thing is just dull and uncomfortable.

Rating: 2 out of 5

Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom: You know, after watching this, I’m glad Star Wars fired Colin Trevorrow. The film is pretty much your standard B-Movie: entertaining, but utterly ridiculous and so, SO STUPID in places. Still not the worst Jurassic Park Sequel (III will always be the series nadir – at least you’d hope so) but it came close. Its cast keep things watchable and the special effects are good, but the villains are way too cartoonish, the script laughable and the direction flat. Talk about a fall from grace.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Deadpool 2: Oh dear. I really wanted to like this one. In places, it’s up their with the first movie. Josh Brolin is great as cable and Zazie Beetz perfect if underused as Domino. But the rest of the cast are not on form – Firefist is a very forgettable villain, Morena Baccarin is wasted in a thankless and predictable role and TJ Miller is still the biggest waste of space in acting. It makes an effort to have a less predictable (if still cliched) plot than the first movie, but isn’t anywhere near as funny. The action sequences are better, but honestly, I’m not sure I’ll bother with the inevitable third film.

Rating: 3 out of 5

Slaughterhouse Rulez: The latest Pegg/Frost film gives the duo less screen time than normal, but the young cast by and large make up for it, particularly the wonderful Asa Butterfield. The script isn’t their best, but its still involving and funnier than some of their previous efforts (looking at you World’s End) if nowhere near their best work (Paul and Hot Fuzz).

Rating: 3 out of 5

Solo: A Star Wars Story: Once it stops pandering to its intended audience with on-the-nose fan service, this actually becomes quite an involving heist/action film. The cast are good value and the direction and soundtrack work well, but ultimately, it’s all a bit too predictable and lightweight. Alden does the impossible in actually playing Han Solo in a way that feels plausible but not a parody of Harrison Ford. Donald Glover nails Lando (who really should have been the main star in a spin-off) and Phoebe Waller-Bridge has a nice role as a comedic, rebellious droid companion of Lando’s.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald: An entertaining if convoluted film. The cast all perform well, but the variable direction and an overpacked script let things down a bit. Depp and Jude Law are the standouts as Grindelwald and Dumbledore, and the final act is worth waiting for. Not bad by any means, but not one of JK’s best either.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Black Panther: A milestone for cinema, but a very overrated one. While the script was quite good, its execution could have been a lot better. With a forgettable soundtrack, predictable plotline and some of the worst CGI we’ve ever seen in a Marvel film, Black Panther was entertaining and thought-provoking, but nowhere near the classic some reviewers seem to have tried to frame it as.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Tomb Raider: While this didn’t prove video game films are good, it did prove they aren’t universally terrible. Alicia Vikander is perfect in the role of Lara Croft, and the film is well-structed and shot beautifully. That said, the script isn’t the most original, and the dialogue could definitely be better in places. Still a pleasant surprise though.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Avengers: Infinity War: Probably the most ambitious superhero film ever made, Infinity War is a bombastic crowd pleaser that mixes Marvel’s first truly great villain Thanos with tons of fan-service and excellent action sequences. Its still a Marvel film though, and pulls its punches too much and is hampered by very much being ‘part 1’ of 2, whatever the film’s title says.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Incredibles 2: It doesn’t match the original, but boy, they gave it a good go. Incredibles 2 features some of the best animation I’ve seen in a long time, and is a very engaging, slick ride. Its humour is on-point throughout, and while the villain doesn’t match Syndrome, the films plot and script have few flaws. Very entertaining stuff.

Rating: 4 out of 5

Ant-Man and the Wasp: Top of the pile again? Ant-man remains the best and most undervalued of Marvel’s franchises, with this funny, heartfelt sequel. Like the original, it takes 45 minutes to really get going, but once it gets there, its utterly brilliant. Paul Rudd remains an extremely likeable lead, and Evangeline Lilly is ever bit his equal. The villains aren’t that memorable, but for once, I didn’t really care.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Overall, I think its fair to say this hasn’t been a classic year for cinema. Most films I’ve seen have been underwhelming or distinctly average. The rule of increasingly inferior sequels has definitely reared its head again (aside from the odd exception like Avengers and Ant-Man). Here’s hoping for better in 2019. To finish off, here’s my awards for the standout actors, actresses, soundtracks and direction from films this year.

My Film Awards 2018:

Best Actor: Josh Brolin (Thanos/Cable)

Best Actress: Alicia Vikander (Tomb Raider)

Best Supporting Actor: Asa Butterfield (Slaughterhouse Rulez)

Best Supporting Actress: Letitia Wright (Black Panther)

Best Animated Film: Incredibles 2

Best Film: Ant-Man and the Wasp

Best Script: Black Panther

Best Director: Ron Howard (Solo: A Star Wars Story)

Best Special Effects: Infinity War

Best Soundtrack: James Newton Howard (Fantastic Beasts: The Crimes of Grindelwald)

Best Hero: Iron Man

Best Villain: Thanos

Worst Actor: Rafe Spall (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom)

Worst Actress: Amber Heard (Aquaman) – I haven’t seen this yet, but given her performance in the trailer, it seems like a sure fire bet. Also – I couldn’t think of anyone in the films I have seen who deserves it.

Worst Supporting Actor: TJ Miller (Deadpool 2)

Worst Supporting Actress: Brianna Hildebrand (Deadpool 2)

Worst Film: The Death of Stalin

Worst Script: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

Worst Director: David Leitch (Deadpool 2)

Worst Special Effects: Black Panther

Worst Soundtrack: Avengers: Infinity War (Alan Silvestri)

Coming up next, my look at 2018’s TV highs and lows before I sign off the year with my take on the hit Video Games of 2018.

 

 

 

10 Things to watch out for in 2019

Before I get to my traditional ‘Best of Year’ articles, I thought i’d take some time to do a preview of the likely hits that 2019 might give us. While this type of article is pretty common for this time of year, I’ve never done one before, but I thought I’d try my hand at it. So without further ado, here’s my pick of what films, TV and gaming to watch out for in 2019.

1.Game of Thrones, Final Season: Season 7 really upped the scale of events in Thrones and gave us cinematic battle sequences and long-awaited character interactions into the bargain. Now Season 8 has 6 hour-plus long episodes to wrap everything up. With the White Walkers finally past the wall, expect huge scale battles and significant character deaths. However it ends, its sure to be unmissable television.

2. Avengers: Endgame: Infinity War broke all kinds of records and finally, FINALLY delivered a truly great villain for the MCU. That said, it wasn’t a flawless film, even if it was extremely entertaining. But it set the stage for this: the final Avengers film (at least for this group of Avengers). With a high probably that Iron Man and Captain America will either die or bow out at the conclusion, this might finally be the Marvel film where there are actual consequences. But whatever the fate of the heroes, its another 3 hours (supposedly) of Thanos, and that alone makes it worth seeing.

3. Captain Marvel: Marvel finally gives us a female-superhero movie. Brie Larson certainly looks the part, and the trailer really gives you a sense that there’s some ambition in this one. Expect it to lead straight into Avengers: Endgame too. Throw in a significant role for Samuel L. Jackson, and this could be Marvel’s best origin story since X-Men: First Class. Its only real hurdle is it has to live up to Wonder Woman. Speaking of which…

4. Wonder Woman 1984: One of the two good Worlds of DC films (aside from Man of Steel) finally gets a sequel. With iconic Wonder Woman foe cheetah and a no-doubt rousing soundtrack from Hans Zimmer, this might finally be the film where DC turns the tide. Or it could be the final nail in its coffin if DC screw it up. Either way, its Wonder Woman, so you know its worth a shot.

5. The Last of Us, Part 2: After the first Last of Us and the Uncharted Games, expectations are sky-high for this PS4 exclusive next year. Not only does Naughty Dog have a great track record, but the first game is still one of the best we’ve had this decade. With the same mix of epic storytelling and zombie survival horror, I’ve got very high hopes for this one.

6. The Outer Worlds: Made by Obsidian, this looks like it could be the Dark Horse of gaming releases in 2019. Not only is it the product of the brains behind Fallout: New Vegas (AKA one of the best Fallout games) but it looks like a mash-up between Borderlands and Fallout. That can only be a good thing. We haven’t have a good sci-fi RPG since Mass Effect 3 came out.

7. Stranger Things, Season 3: With House of Cards finished, most Marvel shows cancelled and Orange is the New Black drawing to a close, Stranger Things is kind of Netflix’s last standout show. Its also the best Sci-Fi show on television right now (admittedly not hard when its up against Star Trek: Discovery and Chibnall’s bastard version of Who) with one of the best young casts in television and superb support from Veteran actors such as Winona Ryder and David Harbour. With an incredibly catchy theme, a great soundtrack and brilliant special effects, you’d be mad to miss it.

8. Metro: Exodus: Since there is suddenly an unexpected market for a decent post-apocalyptic RPG game, Metro: Exodus seems likely to do very well next year. The Metro series has always had an interesting story, set in the tunnels underneath a nuclear devastated Russia, it had a pretty unique tone and feel. With Exodus its third and easily most ambitious entry, this not only looks set to pick up many disaffected Fallout fans, but also has little competition in the February release window. I’d put money on it doing quite well so long as they don’t botch the release (looking at you Bethesda).

9. Orange is the New Black, Final Season: Netflix’s longest running hit finally comes to a close in 2019. While the last few seasons have been divisive, I’ve loved them, and I’ll be sad to see it go. With several characters fates up in the air after S6, it’ll be interesting to see how they wrap it all up. With the usual mix of comedy, drama and heartache, i’m sure it’ll be a memorable ride.

10. Star Wars, Episode IX: After the critically successful but audience divisive Force Awakens and Last Jedi, Disney has a fight on its hands to bring the Star Wars fanbase back into balance. With yet another film which had to change director halfway through (this time bringing back J.J. Abrams to replace Colin Trevorrow) we know very little about how this will go. Will it be a Rogue-One-esque triumph? A Force-Awakens style remake of Return of the Jedi with plenty of style but no substance? An innovative yet divisive entry that keeps fans guessing like Last Jedi? (yeah right, this is Abrams. The guy hasn’t had an original idea ever aside from how to overuse lens-flares). Or will it be irrelevant and will audiences just stay home like they did for Solo? Wherever it ends up, it will either be the end of an era or the moment the Star Wars franchise goes back on hiatus. So either way, its going to be an unmissable end to 2019!

The three things I’m most hyped for at this point have to be The Last of Us Part 2, Avengers: Endgame and Stranger Things S3, but who knows – one of the others may pleasantly surprise me and outdo all my expectations. Either way – 2019 is definitely looking good in the entertainment industry (which is reassuring, since the outlook is dire everywhere else!).

Next Up: My look at the best and worst films that have released in 2018, with TV and Video Game articles close behind…

Star Wars: The Last Jedi Review

Starring Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, John Boyega, Domhnall Gleeson, Kelly Marie Tran and Andy Serkis

First half is spoiler-free, spoilers after the warning half-way through.

I liked Force Awakens. But I didn’t love it. While a funny, entertaining and well acted entry in the franchise, it played things far too safe and was far too similar to A New Hope. It also left far too many questions unanswered, leaving The Last Jedi with the difficult balancing act of providing answers, setting up Episode IX and still providing a good enough story to be a hit with audiences. Fortunately, Rian Johnson seems to posses a far greater understanding of what makes Star Wars great than J.J. Abrams, and delivers a touching, epic film that, while somewhat reverential to the original trilogy, is still focused on telling an original, engaging story and not just rehashing the franchises greatest hits (like the second half of Force Awakens). It stands well on its own merits and also serves as a fitting middle segment of this sequel trilogy. As for the lingering questions from Force Awakens: it explains Rey’s origin and the reasons for Luke’s disappearance well enough, while Snoke’s backstory remains frustratingly obscure, as does the First Order’s rise to power between Episodes 6 and 7.

The film itself isn’t perfect (its slightly longer than necessary and the dialogue can feel a bit forced and clunky in places) but overall is a resounding success. Even the Porgs aren’t that annoying (they aren’t up there with Ewoks or Gungans anyway). New cast members Kelly Marie Tran (playing Rose, a young resistance fighter who gets entangled in Finn’s storyline) and Laura Dern (Leia’s second in command) slot into their roles with ease, while the regulars all give accomplished turns. Mark Hamill and Daisy Ridley bounce off each other well, while Adam Driver and Carrie Fisher keep the other plotlines engaing. General Hux (Gleeson), Snoke (Serkis) and Poe Dameron (Isaac) all get a welcome amount of extra screen time which helps flesh out their characters far more than in Force Awakens, although Gwendoline Christie is still rather wasted as the underused Captain Phasma.

The production team have performed equally well. Rian Johnson’ direction helps return a sense of wonder to proceedings, and he handles the action squences remarkably well, particularly the opening space battle and the various bits of lightsaber action. John Williams’ musical score is an improvement on his lacklustre effort for Force Awakens, and although its still below his best work for the series it serves well enough throughout. The film’s plotline is refreshingly well-crafted, even if the script could have used a bit of polishing to cut some of the corny dialogue (and perhaps losing 5-10 minutes would have helped the film feel tighter).

Overall Last Jedi delivers on giving us an engaging story without just re-treading old ground. It’s a touch too long and the dialogue can be a bit clunky, but some brilliant action pieces, surprise twists and good performances from the cast help it to surpass Force Awakens and leave the stage set perfectly for Episode IX. Hopefully J.J. Abrams can improve upon his previous effort and give us a fitting finale to the current trilogy.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5

WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS FOLLOW!!!

So, onto the specific plot points. We’ll probably never know who Snoke was now, but given how long the film already was, I can understand why they didn’t bother fleshing out his backstory. It would only have worked well if Luke had been present for the reveal anyway, given that no other character had met Sidious or might have heard of Darth Plageius (the only two good Snoke theories). Either of them revealing themselves to Rey alone would have just fallen flat. Snoke just being an evil guy who rebuilt imperial forces into the first order isn’t exactly a satisfying answer to who he is, but I think the fanbase may have simply overthought it. This does make it more of a pity we never got any flashbacks to how the First Order formed, which might have fleshed Snoke out a bit. Fortunately, Andy Serkis’ performance still made Snoke a memorable foe, making the surprise twist of Kylo Ren turning on him all the more effective. Having Snoke and Ren both still in play in Episode IX might have led to Abrams crafting something too close to Return of the Jedi anyway, so only having Ren and Hux left on the villains side should provide a different dynamic. Phasma’s death was less impactful, mainly because she’s done bugger all so far, though her fight with Finn was pretty decent.

Speaking of fight scenes, Rey and Ren fighting Snoke’s bodyguards was pretty epic (nice to see Imperial bodyguards actually doing something for once – Sidious’ men looked cool but never sprung into action once). Johnson did a good job of teasing one of them turning to the light or dark side, but I’m not surprised he didn’t follow through on it. Kylo taunting Rey about her ordinary parentage was an effective enough way to reveal that Rey ISN’T a Kenobi or a Skywalker or the daughter or Sidious or Snoke (the later theories night have worked but, in the end, Rey not being born someone important with a famous family seems more appropriate than forcing a connection with Luke, Leia or Obi-Wan. I was mildly surprised they gave Finn another love interest in the form of Rose, but as someone who never entirely brought into Finn and Rey i’d be quite happy if Finn did end up with Rose, as Boyega and Kelli Marie Tran have good chemistry with each other. Rian Johnson did a good job of making Finn’s death feel like a genuine possibility in the final sequence, but this is Star Wars, not Game of Thrones, so I wasn’t surprised by the Rose-ex-Machina rescue. Admittedly Rose and Finn’s trip to the casino was probably where the film’s runtime could have been cut down easily, but the two made an interesting enough pairing that it was still an enjoyable part of the film.

One thing that really pleased me in the film was how the force was dealt with. Too often in the prequels the Jedi merely felt like skilled warriors rather than powerful wielders of ancient power, but here Luke, Snoke, Rey, Kylo and Leia all used it in interesting ways. It was nice to see Leia finally use some force ability other than telepathically sensing Luke or Han, while Rey and Kylo’s psychic connection was a neat trick to allow dialogue between the two of them. It was a slight pity we never got to see Luke square off with Snoke, given that Snoke seemed potentially even stronger than the Emperor ever was, while Luke’s force projection ability provided a neat final twist.

To sum up, it wasn’t perfect, but the combination of surprises, quality acting and diverting action sequences place this above Force Awakens in the Star Wars saga. It may not be the series’ absolute best, but it’s still top 4 or 5 as far as I’m concerned.

Star Wars: Battlefront 2 Review

Yep, I brought it. A bit of a gamble to be sure but it’s not the worst purchase I’ve made this year (for anyone interested that would be either Mass Effect: Andromeda or my rather underused Gym membership). If by some miracle you’ve missed the furore that has seen EA being repeatedly eviscerated on Reddit, Twitter and every conceivable form of social media because of this game, let me explain. Battlefront 2 costs full price at release (£50 for either console or PC) but features a levelling and reward system so slow and complex that the only way to get everything out of it was to either sink weeks-worth of time or fistfulls of extra cash into the game. Even then you aren’t guranteed to get exactly what you want, because the reward system relies on (sigh) random loot boxes, which leaves a very ‘luck of the draw’ feel to which players are rewarded most. As a result, Battlefront 2 has had the most difficult launch of any game since Mass Effect 3, whose ending got ripped to shreds by fans. And, as with that mess, EA has backed down. Sort of. Scrapping the ability to buy extra in-game currency with real cash does cut out the whole play-to-win issue, and they have reduced the cost required to unlock heroes and weapons. But the game still has plenty of other problems. So why’d I buy it? Simple: the gameplay’s actually quite good.

I loved the first remake last year (at least at launch). The multiplayer was really good, the servers were normally reliable, and everything felt pretty balanced. I didn’t really miss a substantial single-player mode because the online was nailing what I wanted from the game. Then EA messed about with it and fucked it up a bit. They did this because they wanted to sell £30-40 of DLC, which you basically had to buy to access all the new abilities and heroes the DLC packs included (the multiplayer became significantly harder if you persevered with the abilities/heroes from the base game only). The DLC was also a mixed bag (Outer Rim and Death Star were good expansions, but Rogue One and Bespin were undercooked and the maps nothing special). Although EA/DICE did balance out a lot of issues through updates, the gameplay wasn’t as pure as it had been at launch. I’ve still got the original, but I was kind of falling out of love with it, which is part of the reason I brought the new one (which EA has guaranteed will only have FREE DLC).

First up: the good news. Visually, the game’s a massive step up from its predecessor (which looked pretty damn good). The space battles in particular are stunningly rendered. You now can also play as Light or Dark Side in any of the three Star Wars eras (and you get heroes from the Prequel and Sequel trilogies into the bargain, such as Yoda, Darth Maul, Rey and Kylo Ren). Fans of the original Battlefront series will be pleased to hear that it feels a lot more like the originals than last year’s battlefront did (mainly because it has its own unique combat system and classes this time, not just a Battlefield 1 system with a Star Wars paintjob). The multiplayer has also been simplified, now there are only 5 distinct game modes: Blast (Team Deathmatch), Heroes vs. Villains, Starfighter Assault (Space Battles), Galactic Assault (Massive 40v40 game modes) and Strike (a smaller, 8v8 mode similar to Galactic Assault but easier for low level players). While the loss of modes like Cargo and Drop Zone are a slight shame, the lack of crap modes like Turning Point, Infiltration and Sabotage is an improvement, as is the new system of picking one mode and sticking with it for as long as you like (not cycling between modes, as happened in the first game’s DLC). I’m sure EA will throw in extra modes in DLC packs, but the original 5 are more than sufficient atm. The main improvement is the scrapping of power ups. Now, instead of having to memorise where power-ups appear on the battlefield, you get battle points from kills and completing objectives, which you can trade in to get access to jump troopers, flame troopers, heroes and vehicles. It’s a much better system, and ensures that only good players actually get the power-ups, which feels a lot fairer.

Heroes vs. Villains has actually been significantly improved. The new 4v4 battle between heroes is much better than the old version, simply because you don’t have to spend one of every two rounds waiting to be a hero (and getting repeatedly slaughtered as a standard soldier). Instead, each side has 4 heroes, one of which on each side will be marked as a target for the other side to kill. After a minute or so (or when a target is killed), the target player will switch (first side to 10 target kills wins). This allows for some great battles, as most heroes are pretty evenly matched (The Emperor and Lando are still pretty crap to play as but they’re the only duds). Well, they’re evenly matched unless there’s a single high level hero in play, which can get annoying very fast (especially Boba Fett, because Jedi are next to useless against him while he’s airborne).

This can be a recurring problem in the other modes. Galactic Assault, Strike and Blast can all be really fun, but players who’ve sunk time into the game or got lucky with loot boxes can repeatedly annihilate low level players (I know this is normal for multiplayer, but normally a skilled-enough player can compensate at low-level, but the difference here between low and high level players seems a bit more pronounced that it needs to be. Fortunately, there are no such problems in Starfighter Assault, i.e. Battlefront II’s best game mode. Ship combat and handling has been massively improved since the last game, the variety of Hero ships is better and they are all less overpowered. High level players won’t walk this mode, as skill is much more important than levelled abilities here. There are now 3 classes of ship: Interceptor (good at ship to ship fighting and very manoeuvrable but bad at doing damage to objectives), Bombers (highly damaging but slow and hard to manoeuvre) and Fighters (good all-rounders but not perfect at either style).

Looking at the single player, we’ve actually got a campaign this time. It’s a bit short (4-5 hours) but I suspect DLC will add to it. There are some great set pieces (The Battle of Jakku is a highlight, as are Luke and Leia’s levels) and Iden Versio makes for a compelling enough main character, even if the storyline is VERY predictable and the first few levels nothing special. Single-Player/Co-Op Arcade Mode is pretty fun, but is weakened by another stupid game mechanic, which limits the number of credits you can earn from Arcade mode in 24 hours. This seems utterly needless, given that you only get 100 credits per round (and thus would need 100 rounds worth of credits to unlock heroes like Chewbacca anyway) and disincentives you from completing the various challenges.

Overall, the gameplay, feel and look of the thing are perfect, so well done DICE. It’s just a shame you’re owned by EA, whose greed and outright stupidity have left a levelling system and in-game currency that are both needlessly complicated and rather frustrating if you’re not lucky with the loot boxes (Loot Boxes seriously need to DIE! This is the last multiplayer game I will buy which uses them. They are a toxic idea dreamt up by fat executives in suits who presumably could rival Jabba the Hutt for Greed and general Morality). In short, this game still needs work, but it is worth buying (preferably when its on sale – its worth £30, but not the £50 release price), so long as you’re willing to put the time into it. If you’re after a game you can play every so often but not consistently, ignore this. It isn’t an entry for casual gamers.

This isn’t a total failure, and it doesn’t miss the point of what fans wanted from it, but it could (and should) have been a lot better.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

My Top 10 film moments of 2016

I’ve missed a few of the major films this year (notably Arrival slipped by me) so instead of doing a top 5 films I’ve instead decided to pick out my favourite moments from films this year, as even the weaker blockbusters like Dawn of Justice had their moments. Enjoy.

Warning: Minor Spoilers for Fantastic Beasts and Rogue One, Major Spoilers for Batman vs Superman.

10. Jacob and Queenie (Fantastic Beasts) While Newt and Tina were the lifeblood of the film, Jacob and Queenie stole every scene they were in and were undoubtedly its soul, and their pairing was both sweet and believable. Jacob’s smile at the end when Queenie strolls into his bakery and seemingly restores his memory is the icing on the cake for arguably two of the best characters JK Rowling has given us. They better be back in the sequels!

9. Wolverine’s Cameo (X:Men Apocalypse) The X-men series is always accused of over-using Wolverine, and somewhat ironically, his best two appearances have now been cameos (him telling Xavier and Magneto to fuck off in First Class and here, where Wolverine’s psychopathic rampage through Stryker’s bunker reminds us of just how badass/terrifying/awesome the character is). Hugh Jackman now is so intrinsically associated with the character I doubt anyone else will be able to play him for a good 20 years (and they shouldn’t, hopefully next year’s Logan is a worthy send-off to both the character and the actor). Anyway, while Apocalypse was a very fun movie, this was the sequence that will stick in my mind the most.

8.Doomsday battle (Dawn of Justice) Doomsday may have had a completely different origin from the comics, but his threat level was actually genuinely impressive for a superhero film in 2016 (he wasn’t easily beaten in 5 mins in a final confrontation – looking at you Enchantress in Suicide Squad and Kaecilius in Doctor Strange!!!) as Wonder Woman, Batman and Superman team up to stop him and barely survive… and Superman doesn’t. We all know he’ll be back in some form for Justice League but his heroic sacrifice, backed by Hans Zimmer’s haunting ‘This is My World’ still made this a very emotional moment. Also nice to see a superhero film where not every hero makes it out alive (basically EVERY MARVEL FILM EVER apart from X-men), bold move DC, bold move. Even if the first half of the film was a total mess, you did nail the ending.

7. Inside the Case (Fantastic Beasts) The beasts were appropriately the centrepiece of the film, from the cheeky niffler to the amorous Erumpent to the magnificent Thunderbird, with those and many others stunningly showcased in the heartwarming sequence where Next shows Jacob around the inside of his travelling case where he keeps the animals for their own protection. A very sweet interlude in this loveable film.

6.Vader Returns and Kicks Ass (Rogue One) After the tremendous battle of Scarif sequence, Rogue One could have easily ended as the Death Star opened fire. But it didn’t, instead giving us the best scene with Darth Vader since ‘No, I am your father’. Vader’s first scene in the film where he threatens Krennic was tense/awesome in its own right, but the second is full-on terrifying as Vader is unleashed on a group of rebels and scythes through them with brutal ease. It might be the best 40 seconds of cinema in 2016, hell maybe ever. If it wasn’t so short a scene it would have been much higher up the list, but still, damn that that was awesome!

5. The Fight in the Cistern (Inferno) Inferno may have been a relatively weak film, but was saved by its riveting climax as a betrayed Langdon allies with the WHO to try and stop a viral breakout in a cistern in Istanbul. Hans Zimmer’s superb track ‘Cistern’ really makes this a heart-stopper and the divergence from the book really leaves you with no clue how it will play out as Langdon and co fight with Zobrist’s extremists. Hell of an action scene.

4. Everything K2 does (Rogue One) K2 was easily the best character in Rogue One (not that that was easy or anything) and made the film sassier and more hilarious that I’d have ever expected it would be. His constant deadpan humour and the brutal way he took down imperial soldiers were the icing on the cake in one of the best films of the year.

3. Airport Battle (Captain America: Civil War) Civil War was the best superhero film of the year, and its highlight was the fight between Team Cap and Team Iron Man in a deserted airport, which was both highly amusing and seriously cool. Spidey and Ant-Man arguably stole the show, but every character got a chance to shine even if, as usual with Marvel, there weren’t really any lives at stake here. Still, this was a high point of an excellent film – shame they bottled out on giving it a memorable ending afterwards, but still, perfect popcorn cinema here.

2. Batman takes down Superman (Dawn of Justice) Despite the controversial way the fight ended with the whole ‘Martha’ scene, the fight itself between the two giants of the DC universe was the high point of the film. Batman uses a state of the art battlesuit and some Kryptonite gas-grenades to not only pose a genuine threat to superman, but after a titanic struggle, actually beats him. The whole ‘Man VS God’ thing the film was going for paid off beautifully here, even if the film as a whole still has a wealth of problems, this scene alone was worth it.

1. The Battle of Scarif (Rogue One) Wow. Now that is how you do a finale! The battle between the Rebels and the Empire had everything: awesome visuals, high stakes, tension and good direction. An epic way to cap off the first Star Wars spin-off film and without doubt the best sequence in film this year. Well done Gareth Edwards, Felicity Jones et al, this was simply amazing!

I’ve seen a fair few films that don’t have appearances here (Deadpool, Star Trek Beyond, Doctor Strange etc.) but I couldn’t think of any stand-out moments in those films – they are entertaining throughout, but there aren’t any moments of greatness. Suicide Squad was too poor to merit a place here, and I haven’t seen many other films this year, so there may be some omissions.

My Film Awards 2016:

Best Film: Rogue One
Best Director: Gareth Edwards (Rogue One)
Best Script: Captain America Civil War
Best Special Effects: Doctor Strange
Best Soundtrack: James Newton Howard(Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them)
Best Actress: Felicity Jones (Inferno/Rogue One)
Best Actor: Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool)
Best Voice Actor: Alan Tudyk (Rogue One)
Worst Actor: Jesse Eisenberg (Dawn of Justice)
Worst Actress: Holly Hunter (Dawn of Justice)
Worst Script: Suicide Squad
Worst Director: David Ayer (Suicide Squad)
Worst Soundtrack: Suicide Squad
Worst Film: Suicide Squad (noticing a pattern here? Well done DC…)

Star Wars: Rogue One Review

Starring: Felicity Jones, Diego Luna, Ben Mendelsohn, Donnie Yen, Alan Tudyk, Riz Ahmed, Jiang Wen, Forest Whitaker, Mads Mikkelsen and James Earl Jones.

The first half of this is spoiler-free (the only facts mentioned are bits included in the 3 main trailers – and the trailers gave very little away). I’ve included a massive spoiler warning at the halfway point. So first up, the basics.

The force is strong with this one.

Its far superior to episodes 1 and 2. Its better than Return of the Jedi or Force Awakens. It either surpasses or matches 3-5 depending on what order you tend to place them in. Its that good. However – whether you enjoy it as much as I did is dependent on 1 major factor – that you can see past the fact this isn’t a normal Star Wars film.

To explain: there’s no opening crawl (only the ‘in a galaxy far, far away tagline’).You get location descriptions telling you what planet you’re on. John Williams isn’t composing (and very little of his themes are part of the score). There’s about 2 minutes of lightsabre action in the whole thing. The main villain isn’t a Sith Lord. Its missing or barely utilising a lot of the main Star Wars tropes. This may sound like heresy to Star Wars nerds. Indeed it might jar you a bit in the first half of the film. But in the second half you won’t care because you’ll be having far too much fun. The last hour in particular is as good as anything the series has ever given us.

The acting is stellar throughout, with Felicity Jones delivering a Daisy Ridley worthy powerhouse of a performance as lead character Jyn Erso. (Star Wars is getting a great track record with female action heroes – well, ignoring Natalie Portman anyway!) The other rebels in the Rogue One team are all memorable, with Luna’s morally conflicted Cassian, Ahmed’s nervous defector Bodhi and Jiang Wen’s badass mercenary Baze making a believable band of rebels. However its Donnie Yen’s spiritual warrior and Alan Tudyk’s reprogrammed imperial droid K2 who will really stick in your memory. K2 May even be the best robotic character Star Wars has ever given us (yes even including R2 and BB8). He’s certainly the funniest. The humour in general is one of the film’s main strengths. Its VERY sassy in places, with a mixture of deadpan humour and physical comedy from K2 the icing on the cake. You will not have laughed this much during a Star Wars film before (except maybe at the awful dialogue and effects in the prequels. Fortunately the CGI in this is exceptional and barring one or two clunky speeches, the dialogue’s not bad either).

The supporting cast are just as stellar as the main, with Ben Mendelsohn’s ambitious, power hungry, imperial officer Krennic being one of the most memorable non-Sith villains in the series (he certainly puts General Hux from Force Awakens to shame, and is a far better-developed character than say, Dooku or Grievous). Mads Mikkelsen is good as always as Jyn’s father, despite his lack of screentime. The returning characters from Revenge of the Sith and a New Hope were also nice to see (lots more on them later).

As for the production itself, director Gareth Edwards deserves a lot of credit, the film looks amazing from start to finish, the action set pieces and battle scenes in particular standing out – the final battle on Scarif is awe-inspiring. The set design and CGI blend nicely in a way the first two prequels failed to achieve – we’re talking Revenge of the Sith level visuals with Force Awakens level realism – its more than a winning combination. The script is also, very, very good, giving us the right mix of ‘more of the same but something new’ that Force Awakens lost by playing it too safe. Its all self-contained as well, there’s no mysteries that won’t be explained till a future film to annoy you (again, looking at you Force Awakens!). The one thing that doesn’t quite work is Michael Giacchino’s score. The soundtrack itself would be very good for another sci-fi or action film, but underuses John Williams existing themes more than it probably should have, and in the first half in particular, this may vex you. It is a very good score, but not really a star wars one.

WARNING! MAJOR SPOILERS INCOMING!

Now onto specifics.

Let’s start with Vader. First off – that base was on Mustafar?!!? Talk about feels! His two scenes in the film were both awesome uses of the character – he hasn’t been that intimidating since Episode V! The scene with him at the end in particular… that is how lightsabre combat should be done! There was only two minutes of it but god it rocked!

That said – Vader wasn’t the only returning bad guy who stole the film. Grand Moff Tarkin, appearing for the first time since New Hope, lent a real sense of menace to proceedings (and will doubtless make you look at his character in Episode IV with total loathing). All the more surprising given his actor, Peter Cushing, has been dead for twenty years. Instead his likeness is CGI implanted over Guy Henry’s performance, and while this could have been a disastrous gimmick, it actually looks pretty decent and really adds another level to proceedings and gives Krennic’s character an equal to face off with. It really elevates Tarkin from a one-shot character to one of the series’ signature villains.

Giving Bail Organa a cameo was a nice touch even if he didn’t do much – this film is the perfect way to tie Revenge of the Sith and New Hope together, and touches like that add to the experience. There’s some pretty famous faces on the rebel council too (Barristan Selmy from Thrones and Anderson from Sherlock! Too many fandom crossovers!) The CGI-Leia may not have looked as good as Tarkin, but giving her the final word seemed appropriate.

Now the ending. In an era where every bloody Marvel film refuses to take any risks with character deaths *COUGH * CIVIL WAR! *COUGH* and Doctor Who showrunners repeatedly wimp out of killing off companions (Moffat and Davies!!!) the bleakness of the ending was all the more shocking, even surpassing Revenge of the Sith’s second half for emotional distress. I expected that not everyone would make it, but I didn’t expect that even Jyn and Cassian would die as well (there goes my theory about Rey’s parentage. Bugger.) Arguably though, the film is much stronger for it and I doubt you’ll forget the final scenes anytime soon (even Krennic staring up at the Death Star had a tragic feel to it). The whole ‘sacrifice for the greater good’ and ‘hope against impossible odds’ themes are proper Star Wars, and this film had both of those in spades, and the ending combines both to create something truly special. Well done scriptwriters, you aced it!

Overall, like Revenge of the Sith, it has its problems but for the most part I don’t give a damn. Yes, some of the dialogue is clunky and the music doesn’t fit all that well, but at the end of it, the humour, charm, top-notch acting and phenomenal action scenes are what this will be remembered for. That and its bleak ending. Not perfect, but pretty close.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 – A flawed masterpiece.

I think this may be my second favourite Star Wars film. As good as New Hope and Empire Strikes Back are, I’ve only gotten this level of excitement from Revenge of the Sith. Only the fact its not a true Star Wars film keeps it below that.

Wow Episode 8… now you have a REALLY tough act to follow. May the Force be with You.

Final thought: this is what Suicide Squad should have fucking felt like. The two films have equally praiseworthy ensembles and are part of a much bigger film universe, but Rogue One aces the humour, good script, exciting set-pieces and interesting plotline where Suicide Squad failed repeatedly. Someone please make sure David Ayer watches this before he makes the Suicide Squad sequel!

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

The Force Awakens starring Harrison Ford, Peter Mayhew, Carrie Fisher, John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver and Mark Hamill.

Warning: MAJOR SPOILERS. DO NOT READ BEFORE WATCHING!

Easily the most anticipated movie of the decade so far, this was always going to be momentous, whether it succeeded or failed. Thankfully, it wasn’t another Phantom Menace. It was true to the spirit of the original trilogy, even if it felt very different under J.J. Abrams. It wasn’t perfect, but it was immensely enjoyable.

It introduces a new cast: loner scavenger Rey (a brilliant Daisy Ridley), remorseful former stormtrooper Finn (John Boyega, who demonstrates a talent for being comic relief without being C3PO or Jar-Jar levels of annoying), skilled pilot Poe Dameron (a fun but underused Oscar Isaac – maybe X:Men Apocalypse cut into his filming schedule) and Adam Driver as villain Kylo Ren (who while being similar to both Anakin in the prequels and Vader in the Originals avoids straying too close to either). Out of the newbies, it is Ridley and Driver who impress the most (Rey is easily one of the best characters in the series, while Kylo Ren has a lot of potential and is easily a cut above villains like Dooku, Grievous and isn’t underused like Maul or Boba Fett). The new robot, BB8, is fortunately more of a cute R2 than another irritating droid like 3PO.

The original cast are back as well, though due to how much the script tries to cram into 2h 15m some favourites like Luke and R2 have only fleeting appearances (leading to a more substantial role in XIII and IX?). Its Han Solo and Chewbacca that get the lion’s share of the material here, arguably its the best of Chewy’s 5 appearances so far, so credit to Peter Mayhew and the scriptwriter for making a character with untranslated dialogue so likeable (amusing how he and R2 are more treasured than most of the characters we can actually understand!). It was fun seeing cameos from some of the minor characters like Admiral Ackbar and Nien Nub (Lando’s co-pilot from Return of the Jedi) as well as a C3PO that isn’t on screen for too long (and hence isn’t as annoying as usual).

Abrams seems to have a talent for making good sci-fi movies. But he’s yet to make a great one (and while Force Awakens is no different, thankfully he tones down the use of lense flares this time!). The feel of the film is understandably different without Lucas at the helm and instead feels like a Star Wars film in the Abrams Star Trek style (and John Williams’ score, while having familiar elements is markedly different from previous films). The tone is different as well, with far more humour than previous instalments – mostly resulting from the banter between Poe, Finn, Rey and Han. None of this is a bad thing. Like ‘Into Darkness’ though, the film seems heavily reliant on a previous film in the series, in this case a New Hope rather than ‘The Wrath of Khan’. The similarities are obvious enough that I don’t need to list them, but the film stops just short of going into remake territory. The film’s different enough that this isn’t as overly irritating as it must have been to trekkies in Into Darkness.

It avoids the prequels’ error of underusing its main villain (though some of the supporting villains like Gwen Chrisitie’s Captain Phasma are woefully underused) and the revelation that Kylo Ren is Han and Leia’s son adds a welcome dimension to the interactions between the heroes and villains (similar to the way the ‘I am your father’ twist turned Luke and Vader’s confrontation on its head). Adam Driver is a definite improvement on Hayden Christensen (though he looks far less threatening without the mask). The lightsaber fights between Finn and Ren and then Rey and Ren are both believable and fun to watch as well.

The film does leave a lot of questions and loose ends that need answering though. Who is Rey? Who is Snoke and how did the First Order become so powerful again? What has Luke been doing the whole time? Why did Ben Solo turn to the Dark Side and who exactly are the Knights of Ren? I know people don’t like long films, but I feel a extra 15 mins to explain the origins of some of the characters or what happened in the 30 years between this and Return of the Jedi might have been helpful.

Now for the one major spoiler I’ve deliberately left till the end of the review. I had a feeling we’d lose a major character from the originals during this film (it kind of had to happen so there was a genuine feeling of danger – plus every first film in a trilogy has killed off a major character i.e. Qui-Gon or Obi-Wan) and it became increasingly clear that it was either going to be Han or Chewbecca here. Thank god it wasn’t Chewy, I’m not sure the fans would have coped with that (would have been Jon Snow all over again – we don’t need any more internet mourning this year!) and while it wasn’t an overly dramatic exit, it felt a fitting one (Han trying to do the right thing and facing the fight rather than running from it was always part of his character). Harrison Ford originally asked Lucas to kill Han off in Return of the Jedi, so I’m guessing he might have had some involvement with the decision to kill his character off here. I’ll miss him, but the stakes for Episode VIII feel a lot greater with him gone.

Overall, it was exciting, enjoyable and an excellent start to a fresh trilogy. Better than episodes 1 and 2 and on par/slightly better than 6, it’s not the best Star Wars film, but its definitely a good one.

Rating: 4 out of 5.