STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Cert 12A 152mins Stars 5

This spectacular addition to the long running sci-fi action adventure series is wonderfully exciting, funny and moving, and often at the same time.

Totally committed to providing top drawer popcorn entertainment for the casual cinema goer, hardcore fans will love it for it’s respect it has for the franchise history and for what it promises moving forward.

There is self sacrifice, light sabres and space battlesCharacters develop and yes, are killed off. Old crowd favourites unexpectedly return and new ones are introduced. 

Younger fans will love the cutesy penguin-like Porgs, and droid BB-8, has a starring role. Plus there’s no new version of mega weapon the Death Star, which is a huge relief. 

It begins in traditional fashion with John Williams hair-raising fanfare and text crawling up the screen.

Following immediately on from 2015’s The Force Awakens, the legions of the evil dictatorship the First Order have imposed a reign of terror over the galaxy far, far away. 

Played by the majestic Carrie Fisher in her last filmed role before her death, General Leia Organa carries herself with dignified authority while organising a desperate retreat for the decimated resistance.

Ever the fighter and the flirt, Fisher can still handle a blaster and keep a mischievous eye on Oscar Isaac’s swashbuckling space pilot, Poe Dameron. The swaggering hotshot has an endearing propensity to blow things up as a first response in a crisis.

Meanwhile Fisher’s real life daughter Billie Lourd has a minor role as a resistance lieutenant. They share a poignant moment and more than one scene, and Lourd is presumably being lined up to play a bigger role in the next film, due in 2019.

Laura Dern is full of forthright steely elegance as Organa’s Vice Admiral. It’s refreshing to have two women of a certain age in key roles in major film. 

Organa is convinced her self-exiled twin brother and Jedi master Luke Skywalker will return to bring a spark of hope to the resistance, and has sent Daisy Ridley’s Rey to recruit him.

However Luke is reluctant  to teach Rey the ways of the Force, the mysterious and powerful energy which connects all life. Mark Hamill embraces his return to the character which made him famous he’s never been this much fun on screen. Age suits him.

I’m not sure I believe what we’re offered as the truth about the orphaned Rey’s parents, as many different versions of the truth are provided during the story.

The script delights in teasing us and wrong- footing us, and constantly toys with our knowledge of what’s gone before and plays with our expectations. While respectful to the mythic past, it keeps puncturing the legends which have congealed around these famous characters, none of which are perfect.

Many characters are conflicted and/or cagey in their motives and we’re never sure which way they will turn. All of this snowballs into an avalanche of doubt in the audience’s mind, making the finale all the more nail-biting.

For a huge film it’s surprisingly nimble. So many conflicts are set up its astonishing there’s time enough for them all to successfully pay off in the way they do. 

Ridley developed a brilliant chemistry with John Boyega in The Force Awakens. He returns as Finn and this time is teamed with Kelly Marie Tran as Rose, a member of the resistance who works in maintenance.

Meanwhile Adam Driver’s emotionally unstable servant of evil, Kylo Wren isn’t trusted by anyone.

His commander Lord Snoke is no longer a hologram but a flesh and blood being whose bold gold fashion sense suggests decadence has crept into the dark side.

This is a big improvement on last year’s prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. It was visually stunning but often flat and downbeat.

By necessity of being the middle part of a trilogy, this is not a triumphant film and is closer to the spirit of my favourite Star Wars episode, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back.

Princes William and Harry visited the set during filming but we can’t tell if their much reported cameos are on screen. It’s not as Star Wars needs the publicity.

They reportedly dressed up as stormtroopers who are the evil nazi soldiers of the galaxy. As Prince Harry has form in this sort of dressing up, it’s probably just as well they can’t be identified.

Writer director Rian Johnson keeps the film fresh while working within rigid constraints laid down by existing Star Wars lore and the dictates of the powerful Disney empire.

He sneaks in comments about exploitation, oppression, poverty and who fuels the wealth of arms manufacturers.

Although dark at times, the film is a hymn to the power of stories to encourage us to dream, to believe we can change our world for the better.

This is a very Disney ideal and very in keeping with the optimistic ethos of the original series. Oh, and the identity of the last Jedi is revealed but I just can’t say whom. The Force has just got stronger.

 

 

LIFE

Cert 15 Stars 4

Sony executives must have been pulling their hair out with frustration when this terrific horror sci-fi failed to monster the box office. 

Costs were kept to a reasonable £45m, but it only grabbed a meagre £77m.

With a strong international cast on top form, great CGI and a tight script to keep this space station thriller rocketing along, it’s easily one of best sci-fi films of the year.

Jake Gyllenhaal, Rebecca Ferguson and Ryan Reynolds star among the crew of astronauts trying to survive being consumed by a star beast.

WAR FOR THE PLANET OF THE APES

Cert 12A 142mins Stars 5

There’s no monkeying about when the fur starts flying in this epic end to the sci-fi trilogy.

It’s a mean, meaty, and hair raising action adventure which doesn’t hang around and becomes increasingly tense and spectacular as the explosive conclusion approaches.

And it’s far superior to this year’s other monkey movie, the disappointing Kong: Skull Island.

This is a rare beast of a series, improving in quality from good to great to gripping.

In 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes, scientific experiments led to apes talking, and in 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, the humans were mostly wiped out by a virus.

Now the remainder of humanity is on the warpath and the talking apes are being hunted to extinction.

Caesar the chimp is a thoughtful tribal chief who abandons his responsibilities and sets off on a mission of personal revenge with a small group of friends.

When he’s confronted with the consequences of his disastrous failings as a leader, father, and spouse, Caesar seeks to redeem himself and save his tribe.

Heading a strong cast and reprising his role as Caesar, Andy Serkis provides the powerful emotional heart of this film with another mesmeric and masterful performance.

He is the king of motion capture technology, the process which convinces us the apes, gorillas and orang utans exist as living, breathing, and bleeding creatures, not just animated computer pixels.

Woody Harrelson brings a controlled menace to role of Caesar’s nemesis. He plays a crazy army colonel who has established the power of life and death over his troops.

Using humour to light the darkness is Steve Zahn as a stray ape in a beanie hat, and young Amiah Miller is a slight, sweet presence as mute human, Nova.

An ambitious script owes as much to British classics such as The Bridge on the River Kwai as it does to westerns such as Clint Eastwood’s The Outlaw Josey Wales. And there are unmistakable references to Vietnam war epic, Apocalypse Now.

This is a world of difficult choices and painful consequences, filled with madness, torture and death. Even older primary school kids may struggle with the heavyweight tone of a film pitched far ahead of films featuring spangly spandex superheroes or wise cracking giant robots.

Though the Hollywood jungle drums suggest this may not be the end of the story, the emotional finale guarantees you’ll go ape for this chest beating brute of a blockbuster.

TRANSFORMERS: THE LAST KNIGHT

Cert 12A 148mins Stars 1

Run for your life as the giant alien robot franchise returns to obliterate the box office.

The previous four films have taken nearly £3 billion in total at the box office and this wretchedly repetitive and grindingly incoherent episode will probably add considerably more.

Never afraid to do less with more, director Michael Bay takes his £200m budget and adds King Arthur to this mangled mess of globe hopping machines, endless explosions and terrible bantzEven the supposedly quiet moments are played with a rock music video intensity.

The plot shamelessly apes the plot of the most recent Fast Furious film. Hero robot Optimus Prime is coerced by a glamorous female villain to turn on his former comrades so she can rule the universe, or something. 

As Optimus is a pompous, vain, and speechifying dumbbell, it’s a blessing he’s sidelined for long periods.

Mark Wahlberg resumes his role as Cade Yeager, a struggling inventor and now legendary resistance leader. He gamely runs around, shooting stuff and flirting with Laura Haddock.

The Brit actress has been jettisoned in to provide a glamorous love interest and miraculously escapes with her dignity intact.

This is despite her character being described as a ‘professor in a stripper dress’ and being obliged to perform a zero gravity pole dance during one of the many lengthy action sequences.

Anthony Hopkins’ broader eccentricities are unleashed as Sir Edmund Burton, a historian with back door channels to Downing street.

He explains the sub-Da Vinci code nonsense as they chase about castles and stately homes in pursuit of the staff of Merlin.

It’s the weapon of ultimate power. Which is useful as the robot planet Cybertron is en route to suck the life out of Earth. I now understand exactly how that feels.

This obsolete hunk of junk should be sent to the wreckers yard.

 

 

COLOSSAL

Cert 15 109mins Stars 4

Despite the giant lizard co-star which is seen stomping across the Seoul skyline, it’s Anne Hathaway’s talent which dominates this sci-fi black comedy.

The Oscar winner is permanently dishevelled under a heavy fringe and black eyeliner, she’s an irresistible combination of vulnerability, determination, comic ability and sex appeal.

She plays Gloria, a thirty-something writer whose inner demons have prompted a retreat to her small hometown in the US. She wakes one hungover afternoon to discover a real monster has appeared in South Korea.

Though the twisted script threatens to be a romantic uplifting tale of empowerment, we’re repeatedly pushed off balance by its dark turns into childhood trauma, domestic violence and alcoholism.

The creature is designed in homage to Japan’s Godzilla, and this is easily more entertaining than Hollywood’s two most recent attempts to make a Godzilla movie.

But for all the monsters on display, it’s the green-eyed variety which is the most colossal and terrifying.

HOW TO TALK TO GIRLS AT PARTIES

Cert 15 103mins Stars 3

Three sex hungry teenagers have a very close encounter in this raucous and oddball 1970’s-set British sci-fi comedy.

Looking for an late night party in Croydon, the lads mistakenly blag their way into an avant garde latex fetish swingers club. Which almost always never happened to me when I lived in the South London borough.

Based on a short story from the weird and wonderful mind of  writer, Neil Gaiman, the central joke is no one can tell the difference between punks, aliens and Americans.

Dazzlingly put together by Brit multi-Oscar winning costume designer, Sandy Powell, the costumes are a riot of electric colours.

Nicole Kidman unleashes her inner anarchist as a punk matriarch called Boudicca, and Elle Fanning is demented as an alien with only 48 hours to experience life, or at least Croydon.

For all its punk posturing the film is more fun than ferocious, and its alarming appearance disguises a surprisingly sweet nature.

 

ALIEN: COVENANT

Cert 15 122mins Stars 5

Scream as though no-one can hear you as the galaxy’s greatest space horror franchise is back to terrorise us once again.

Director Ridley Scott returns to the sci-fi thriller which made his name, and delivers an epic of spine-busting action, exotic locations and stunning design.

The Oscar winning director made the original Alien in 1979 when he was a young man in a hurry. As one of cinemas elder statesmen, in 2012 he belatedly  followed up with the grandly ambitious but less well received, Prometheus.

Now he splices the pair to create an explosive hybrid of blood-splatting thrills and apocalyptic destruction on a mythic scale. It’s all very familiar and at times daringly new.

There are chest-bursters, face-huggers, and acid blood. Orifices are penetrated and cavities evacuated, as we’d expect. But Scott plays on our knowledge of the franchise to skilfully toy with our expectations of the narrative.

We’re challenged to have some sympathy with the the ferocious flesh hungry parasitic alien, called a Xenomorph. A seduction is played with such subtle grace and integrity, it disguises how audacious and mind bendingly freaky it is. 

Set ten years after Prometheus, a small team of colonists are stranded on a planet and are unable to communicate with the orbiting mothership.

As the script wrestles with the big questions of existence, our heroes have to grapple for their lives.

Leading the fight for survival is Daniels, played by Katherine Waterston. The tall, dark-haired beauty is slyly styled by Scott to resemble the undisputed queen of the franchise, Sigourney Weaver.

Despite displaying Weaver’s kick-ass aptitude, Waterston is overawed by a majestic Michael Fassbender. He’s mesmeric in a dual role as synthetic androids, David and Walter.

Scott’s final theatrical flourish sends the franchise spinning out in a new direction. This is screamingly great cinema.

GHOST IN THE SHELL (2017)

Cert 12A 107mins Stars 2

Beneath the glossy exterior there’s not much spirit to be found in this curate’s egg of a sci-fi action thriller.

A hard working Scarlett Johansson stands at the centre of the spectacular visuals, but even the Avengers star can’t bring the soulless storytelling to boil.

The story is based the acclaimed Japanese cyberpunk comic strip which was followed by a successful big screen animated version in 1995. They were a huge influence on The Matrix, which is why a lot of the ideas here seem very familiar.

This future version of Japan is a neon vision of eye popping CGI. The population pay for cybernetic enhancements to make themselves quicker, stronger, smarter, etc.

Johansson gives a nicely judged mechanical performance as a kick-ass military cyborg known as the Major. She’s a human brain in a synthetic body and possessed of unexplained powers of flight and invisibility.

Investigating the assassination of corporate suits, the Major discovers a secret about her past which causes her to question her mission.

Controversy was caused by the casting of Johansson in the lead role. Giving an Asian role to a caucasian actress has led to accusations of whitewashing.

But technically Johansson is playing a robot, and the film’s Chinese financiers don’t seem to have a problem with it. And anyway, it’s the least of the films problems.

Despite casting one of the worlds most desirable women and encasing her in a nude body suit, this is a remarkably sexless enterprise.

Plus the cardboard cutout characters are dwarfed by the locations and the drama is lost in the scrambled action sequences.

A flat script fails to explore the idea of identity, and the dull dialogue suffers from a severe humour malfunction.

And without love, poetry or anything else to give it humanity, the Ghost In The Shell offers very little of substance.

 

THE PREDATOR

Cert 15 106mins Stars 2

Misjudged, misfiring and overbearingly macho, this sci-fi action comedy sequel is easily the worst in the four strong franchise.

When a hi-tech alien hunter crash lands on Earth, a US mercenary and a scientist team up with war damaged army veterans to fight it.

The original 1987 classic was an allegory for the Vietnam war and a blockbuster smash. It was directed with brio by John ‘Die Hard’ McTiernan, and fortified by the commanding presence of Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There’s no-one of his statue here, and the last film of new writer and director, Shane Black, The Nice Guys, was a box office bomb.

In his typical self back-slapping style Black mixes blood-splatting violence with boring banter-heavy bromance while casually exploiting Tourette’s Syndrome for cheap laughs.

His workaday storytelling isn’t helped by the studio cutting a scene after Black cast a friend who was a registered sex offender, and failed to inform his bosses, or the unfortunate female lead, Olivia Munn.

 

 

 

STAR WARS: THE LAST JEDI

Cert 12A 152mins Stars 5

Go lightspeed to the cinema for this sensational sci-fi action adventure which explodes with laser powered popcorn entertainment.

Episode VIII of the long running series is a supernova of shocks, action, comedy and big budget special effects, and will please even the most demanding hardcore fans of the series.

It begins with a spectacular space battle, the first of several thrilling and dazzling set-pieces.

Though it’s great to reunite with the cast of 2015’s The Force Awakens, it’s the longer serving actors and the newest additions such as young Kelly Marie Tran who make the more lasting impression.

Daisy Ridley, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac return as Rey, Finn and Poe. They’re cornered by the First Order dictatorship, lead by Adam Driver’s emotionally unstable servant of evil, Kylo Ren. He’s a far more complex and powerful figure than his grandfather, Darth Vader, and his scenes are among the most compelling.

Played by the majestic Carrie Fisher in her last filmed role, General Leia carries herself with dignified authority alongside newcomer Laura Dern as a Vice Admiral. It’s refreshing to have two senior women play key roles in a blockbuster. 

Leia has sent Rey to recruit the exiled Luke Skywalker, and Mark Hamill has fun and wears his age well on his return as the Jedi master.

The script delights in wrong- footing us, with many characters conflicted or cagey in their motives we’re never sure which way they will turn. All of this snowballs into an avalanche of doubt in the audience’s mind, making the finale all the more nail-biting.

This is a big improvement on last year’s prequel Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Dark in tone at times and hopeful but never triumphant, it’s close in spirit and very near to the quality of the best Star Wars episode, 1980’s The Empire Strikes Back. And thankfully we’re spared another new version of the Death Star.

Oh, and the identity of the last Jedi is revealed but I just can’t say whom. You’ll just have to find out for yourselves.