Toy Story 4 (2019) review

Besides ‘we have no cheese’ and ‘live action remake‘ there are few words that fill me with such dread as ‘Toy Story 4.’ A trilogy that is unanimously agreed to be as close to animated cinematic perfection as possible really didn’t require a fourth entry, and the list of good third sequels could barely fit on a sentient spork. Alas, here we are. But, in a ray of optimism, Toy Story 4 is not bad. Far from it, in fact. Does it live up to the immense standards of its predecessors, though? Well, no.

There’s a lot to like in Toy Story 4 (it still feels weird to type that). From the fun new players like Keegan-Michael Key and Jordan Peele as Ducky and Bunny, to the mercifully fresh narrative, we can all breathe a sigh of relief as the credibility of the franchise remains intact. In what will come as a surprise to nobody, leading man Tom Hanks is still likeable and compelling as Woody, a role he’s been played with affable joy for nearly thirty years. Let that one sink in. Everyone (except Bonnie’s) favourite Sheriff’s arc is undoubtedly intended as a metaphor for Fathers of children who’ve left home, as he struggles to find purpose in an Andy-light world, where he’s no longer the number one toy at play time. Hanks slips back into the role with ease, delivering on both the comedy and the mushy moments through the warm gravitas that only his voice can bring.

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Sadly, besides a near unrecognisable Bo Peep, Woody is the only member of the OG gang to get much of any focus. Fan favourites like Slinky, Jessie, Rex, and my beloved Bullseye are afforded almost no screen time, and are hastily left out of the action in favour of new players. Even once co lead Buzz Lightyear feels not only sidelined, but also dumbed down, to the point that he feels a shell of his former, heroic self. As a big fan of Buzz, this was a shame to see, especially as the initial draft of the script was reportedly Buzz-centric, an element that hasn’t reappeared since the first film.

Nostalgic gripes aside, the new players are mostly welcome. Christina Hendricks’ Gabby is a suitable evolution of the bitter-toy-villain stereotype, and despite her frankly horrific organ harvesting plan, she does garner a suitable level of audience empathy. A big shout out must also go to the ventriloquist dummies; a genius concept for henchman that are as hilarious as they are nightmare inducing.

So, about Bo. She’s great here, though entirely unrecognisable from her original appearance, even sporting a new voice. Her former damsel in distress / weirdly sexy voice persona has all but evaporated, as she (somehow) trades in her porcelain dress in favour of a badass cloak and bandage combo. She leads an underlying motif of girl power than runs throughout the film, as Jessie, Dolly, Gabby, and Bo all either lead the gang or take the reigns of power from the male leads. You could take an academic feminist reading and say they’re taking back power from the patriarchy. Hell, Woody even literally loses his voice to a woman. Perhaps I’m reading too deeply into it and they’re just better written characters.

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In terms of the technical stuff, this is Pixar working with all engines running. The visuals are fantastically realised, with smooth animation that reminds you how refined the medium has become since the gang first broke ground in 1995. The Antique store’s cat in particular looks amazingly lifelike, especially when compared to the very polygonic dog guarding Sid’s back garden in the original. The colour palette is equally lovely, with far less murky blacks and greens than its darker predecessor. The carnival setting allows for vibrant and varied technicolour machinations at every turn.

The traditional Randy Newman score also makes a somewhat triumphant return, with a wonderfully nostalgic montage song near the beginning, harkening back to the days of ‘Strange Things’ and ‘I Will Go Sailing No More.’ It would also be a lie to say that the reprise of ‘You’ve Got a Friend in Me’ didn’t put a big smile on my face. The orchestral score however, does seem entirely phoned in. Character leitmotif is one thing (and one thing I’m VERY passionate about), but entire musical cues are seemingly ripped in their entirety from previous entries, which is just lazy.

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It is the script that is ultimately the film’s greatest strength, yet its biggest weakness. In many ways the plot is a breath of fresh air, and many jokes and emotional moments do indeed stick (or rather crash – you’ll get it when you watch it), the landing. However, there’s just something absent, that makes the experience ring hollow. Perhaps it comes down to the MIA main cast, or the bittersweet ending that’ll undoubtedly be a divisive topic. Personally though, I feel the pacing drags, far more than in its predecessors. There was just more of a sense of urgency in those films, that left you genuinely tense. Here however, through the admirable exploration adult topics like life purpose and existential crisis (!), the film loses a bit of what made Toy Story so great. The camaraderie and simplistic storytelling is lost, but what replaces it isn’t bad, just different.

I ultimately feel warmer about Toy Story 4 the more I think about it. It remains in my mind, unnecessary in its existence, when the third and at the time, ‘final instalment’ had a sense of finality that will always be unmatched. However, Toy Story 4 justifies itself by taking the characters (well, two of them) in bold new directions, touching on important, difficult aspects of life in a sugar coated, comedic skin that stop things getting too real. If a Buzz focused Toy Story 5 is in the future, then so be it. If it’s this good, then we have little cause for concern.

★★★★

My series ranking, if you’re interested:

Toy Story 2 (1999)

★★★★★

Toy Story (1995)

★★★★★

Toy Story 3 (2010)

★★★★★

Toy Story 4 (2019)

★★★★

Ranking the MCU movies (November 2018)

Last time I did a big spiel here about the influence these movies have had on cinema, blockbusters, the way film universes are created blah blah blah. We just want to get to the ranking, right? So let’s get to it. Here’s March 2018 if you missed it.

20. Thor: The Dark World (2013)

Easily the weakest; incredibly dull and forgettable with the worst villain in the MCU (and that’s saying something!) Most people forget it exists and to be honest, I can’t blame most people. It adds nothing to the overall Infinity War storyline and doesn’t even work as its own movie so my advice is to skip it. More like ‘Thor: The Dark BORE’ am I right? Am I right? Sorry.

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19. The Incredible Hulk (2008)

A Mark Ruffalo-less Hulk film that was pretty standard for the representation of Hulk in film at the time- ie he is ‘big, dumb, green and runs away from tanks.’ Its run of the mill and doesn’t try anything hugely interesting, but it isn’t awful. Fairly decent villain, dull love interest and I’m not a huge fan of Edward Norton in this role. Again, pretty forgettable.

18. Iron Man 2 (2010)

This tends to be most people’s least favourite. It introduces War Machine which is cool, but suffers from terrible pacing and a seriously underdeveloped and under utilised villain. Consistent solid performances from the leads and the introduction of Black Widow to the MCU, push this one just slightly above the other two for me.

17. Thor (2011)

It was early days and these films were trying to find their feet, so I cut most of the phase one films some slack. Thor isn’t bad at all- the casting is spot on and the direction and depiction of Asgard is stunning. It also introduced us to the second best MCU villain, so props for that. Alas, it’s been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

16. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film trying to find its feet and suffering by having to establish so much in one solo movie: Howard Stark, the Tesseract, Cap himself, Bucky, Peggy Carter, Red Skull, Vibranium, the list goes on. The point is, there’s a lot going on here that the film needs to juggle. To its credit, it does it pretty well but again, becomes largely eclipsed by two stunning sequels that just do everything better.

15. Dr Strange (2016)

I’m sure having this one this high up the list will be controversial. Don’t get me wrong, I liked this movie a lot, I just didn’t love it. Cumberbatch is a great Dr. Strange, but the villain is the weakest since Thor: The Dark World. Casting Mads Mikkelsen, one of the finest actors going as the villain and then writing a character so two dimensional he’s practically flat is unforgivable. For shame, Marvel.

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14. Ant Man and The Wasp (2018)

This pint sized flick had the insane challenge of following Infinity War and unfortunately, came across pretty mediocre as a result. I still love the casting of Hank, Scott and Hope and the size changing gimmicks are fun, but it just feels a little safe compared to the other more recent additions. The villain has no excuse to be this bland following Killmonger, The Grandmaster and Thanos showing that Marvel can actually make compelling villains. Watch the last five minutes on Youtube, otherwise skip it.

13. Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)

Ah, the sequel that could just never live up to the hype. After The Avengers stunned audiences, Joss Whedon was under immense pressure to capture that same magic again. Alas, the result is more so-so than the original, but still a great blockbuster. The decision to make Ultron a more comedic presence is rather puzzling, but the voice acting chops of James Spader redeem it. The stunning team dynamic pulls this one forward for me, with the banter and chemistry between many now well established characters driving some of the more excellent scenes.

12. Ant Man (2015)

This used to be higher on my list, but sadly following a re watch, hasn’t aged too well. Still, it’s a fun ride despite being more than a little generic and Ant Man sets achieves more than it fails. It establishes a key cast of characters and makes them likeable and memorable from the get go. It provides a new genre for the MCU to take on with a heist premise and it uses the gimmick of the film (things getting smaller or bigger) in amusing and creative ways. All in all, its a pretty awesome flick. Oh, but the villain sucks. SHOCKER. Speaking of ‘The Shocker’…

11. Iron Man (2008)

The one that started it all, propelling both Robert Downey Jr and Tony Stark out of the depths of obscurity and into household names. Iron Man is still a solid movie with great pacing, excellent casting and a brilliant retelling of what could easily be a pretty clunky origin story. The standard of weak Marvel villains to come is somewhat set by Obadiah Stane, but as the first film in the series and an origin movie, that can be overlooked simply because the rest of the film is still so tight.

10. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I found just ok. I like Tom Holland in the role and loved Michael Keaton as The Vulture, but the rest of the film kind of dragged for me. Some great action scenes and a cool ‘breakfast club comedy’ kind of vibe aside, this one has grown on me over time. I didn’t fall in love with it straight away, but now appreciate the lighter tone, compelling villain and an actually young Spiderman. I dig this waaaaay more than the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day. It’s all about Maguire, people.

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9. Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

This was the turning point for Marvel: a risk that other studios would’ve never taken in a million years, no matter how successful their films were. But Kevin knew better and produced, alongside director James Gunn, one of the most fun films we’ve seen from the studio yet, whilst simultaneously expanding the universe quite literally into the stars. The spot on casting of the team, the seamlessly integrated retro soundtrack and the consistent tone make this film a favourite of mine. Can you guess the weak link? It starts with a v and ends with an -illain.

8. Iron Man 3 (2013)

I LOVE IRON MAN 3 AND I WILL NOT APOLOGISE. I know a lot of people hate this one and I used to be one of you people. But guys, it’s actually just plain fun. It doesn’t take itself too seriously, has great comic book action, a strong cast, and feels like its own story, rather than a retread.  Not to mention excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-‘Avengers’ world and a really upbeat and memorable score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Putting aside the weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain, it’s a really great time. And who can forget the Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch? Come on. Those are some banging writing choices.

7. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially ‘Avengers 2.5’, Civil War takes its namesake and basic gist from the widely successful comic book of the same name. Obviously the only thing it really takes is the concept of ‘Team Cap’ and ‘Team Iron Man’ as the conflict is based on events from previous movies rather than secret identities. The juggling of characters is insanely well handled and the film does a good job in making both sides of the argument compelling to really illustrate the tragedy by the time you get to the final fight. The movie handles previous continuity of The Winter Soldier perfectly and introduces new fan favourite Black Panther nicely. It also marks the triumphant return of Spiderman to the MCU, with perhaps the best casting for the wall crawler ever in actually teenaged, Tom Holland.

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6. Black Panther (2018)

There isn’t much to say that hasn’t already said as the box office and critical reception has been insane. The use of a mainly black cast is so appropriate and such a big step forward for Hollywood that Black Panther gains props outside of the movie as much as it does with its excellent content. The film itself owes a lot to the James Bond series and again tackles an expanding world for Marvel by introducing us formally to Wakanda. It also contains the second greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s stunning performance.

5. Captain America: The Winter Soldier (2014)

If Ant Man is a heist movie, then The Winter Soldier is a 70s spy flick. Everyone was blown away that a movie about Captain America, the boy-scout of the Avengers could be this good. Sebastian Stan brings a terrific performance as the titular Winter Soldier, being genuinely intimidating at times as well as sympathetic. Robert Redford also makes for a great un super powered antagonist. Throw in Nick Fury, Black Widow and sadly lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

4. The Avengers (2012)

The first culmination of the MCU also remains the tightest team up so far. Despite a fairly generic plot, the juggling of characters, organic relationships and excellent antagonist make this one of the best and most exciting adventures the studio has put out yet. It laid the groundwork for every film to come since and has become the gold standard for how to combine your solo films into one truly epic team up. Justice League take note. It also ties in nicely to the Infinity War storyline, giving us our first glimpse of Thanos in the end credits, even if 90% of the audience at the time had no idea who he was, its still hype as hell.

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3. Thor Ragnarok (2017)

The biggest surprise on the list yet, Thor: Ragnarok can only be described as a breath of fresh air. After a pretty good origin movie followed by the dullest MCU movie yet, Thor needed a big break. Thank Odin, he got one, with this weird comedy/buddy cop/road trip/gladiator/space opera epic. Completely flipping our perceptions of these characters on their head, director Taika Waititi showed us the first glimpse that the MCU would need to adapt and evolve in order to stay fresh and exciting, not being able to just repeat the same movie every time. Taking more from Planet Hulk than the actual Ragnarok storyline, the inclusion of fan favourite Hulk, also made this particularly special. Throw in Loki, the amazingly camp and hilarious Grandmaster and a semi-good villain in Cate Blanchett’s Hela and you have one ‘Hela’ fun ride. See what I did there?

2. Guardians of the Galaxy vol. 2 (2017)

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. There is no denying that this is a stunning sequel. It manages to capture the spirit of the first film without feeling like a retread. It moves the story forward and further develops every single one of the team. Rocket and Star Lord must overcome their ego (little Marvel joke for you there), Gamora must settle differences with adopted sister Nebula, Drax befriends a new alien and Groot is reborn as a tiny baby twig. The show stealers are the two ‘fathers’ of Peter Quill though; EGO, the living planet who gets third place in the MCU villain rankings and Yondu, a previously one note character who provides one of the few tearjerkers in the series. Add to that another stunning retro soundtrack and some epic visuals, with a slightly darker, Empire Strikes Back esque tone and you have, in my opinion, the finest film that the MCU has produced to date. OR, I would’ve said that, bar one little thing…

1. Avengers: Infinity War (2018)

You know it is. Almost unanimously hailed as the finest entry in the series, the Russo Brothers did the impossible, combining a cast of over twenty characters into one engaging film that is completely compelling. Everyone has at least a moment to shine (even Falcon, who everyone hates) and unbelievably very few characters are missing. It has the bleakest tone yet, but somehow still manages to seem fun, memorable and enjoyable. The ending is one of the most daring moves ever taken, even if it’ll almost certainly be completely undone. And Thanos, oh Thanos. Josh Brolin is simply perfect and is by far the most compelling MCU villain yet. I even forget that he’s CGI sometimes as the rendering is so lifelike, which is such a rarity in itself. All in all, this is it. The tenth anniversary of the MCU could not have been more perfect. Now let’s see if it can be topped in 2019…

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Pirates of the Carribean: Salazar’s Revenge (2017) review

The Pirates of the Caribbean series is so rich in nostalgia for me that, much like a recovering alcoholic, every time I have a bad experience with it, I inevitably have to go back for more. ‘The Curse of the Black Pearl’ remains a modern classic in the adventure genre and is still in my top ten favourite films. However, the decreasing quality of each subsequent overblown and over the top sequel became apparent as early as ‘Dead Man’s Chest.’ That was what I thought up until I saw this film, that is. 2011’s ‘On Stranger Tides’, the fourth movie in the franchise hit a low point of mediocrity that was a far cry from the already problematic, overstuffed and clunky mess that were Gore Verbinski’s ‘At World’s End’. However, ‘Salazar’s Revenge’ breathes new undead life into the franchise with a few (though not many) new ideas, some genuinely good character beats and above all, a spectacle worthy of a Marvel film; this film looks gorgeous.

As a long time fan, the re-introduction of Keira Knightley and Orlando Bloom, regardless of the brevity of their appearances, is great to see. Newcomers Kaya Scodelario and Brenton Thwaites are actually welcome additions to the mythos, feeling suitably fleshed out and realised, not succumbing to the very real danger of becoming the ‘obligatory love interest characters’ and instead being the driving force for the plot. The decision to put less focus on Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow (we’ll get to him) is a wise one, with lessons somewhat being learnt from ‘On Stranger Tides.’ The plot feels much more organic this time and despite featuring elements almost entirely derived from previous instalments, manages to feel fresh and capture a sense of adventure and scale not felt in the series for quite a while. Whilst the macguffin of Poseidon’s trident is fairly cheap, it works as a goal for all of our characters to work towards.landscape-1488452253-pirates-of-the-caribbean-poster

I would also be remiss not to mention Javier Bardem’s titular Captain Salazar, who along with the always fantastic Geoffrey Rush, gives the most convincing performance as a sinister ghost sailor, ably aided by some pretty convincing and cool ‘underwater’ CGI effects. As alluded to previously, the films main strength is its remarkable visuals and spectacle, with every scene being a feast for the eyes. Though it slightly saddens me to think back to a time where a simple sword fight was enough for these films, I must admit that seeing an entire bank being dragged half way through a town is an impressive feat of effects, if nothing else.

While the film has the honour of being the shortest of the series, it’s paced rather oddly, with the action being thrust at the audience at breakneck speed only to be stopped by some random ‘humorous’ scenes.  Examples include Jack being thrown into an (actually pretty sexist when you think about it) arranged marriage with an over the top repulsive woman. Scenes like this I’m sure were intended for comedy, but unlike the razor sharp writing and wit of ‘Curse of the Black Pearl’, they come off as childish and unnecessary, damaging the tone of the film significantly. It starts off with a grittier approach and shows a down on his luck Jack, drunker and seemingly madder than ever losing everything. This should be the springboard for a redemption arc that makes us triumphantly roar by the time he gets the Black Pearl back in the third act, but sadly, it’s all played for laughs. And most of the time, they’re just not very funny, it’s sad to say. Pirates-5-Geek-Ireland

And speaking of things that aren’t funny, this leads me to Captain Jack Sparrow. Oh Jack, what did they do to you? What was once one of the most interesting, mysterious and compelling characters in recent blockbuster history has become an absolute joke. I don’t know whether to blame the writing, the direction, Depp’s performance or a mixture of all three, but Jack Sparrow was easily the absolute least compelling aspect of the whole film. Even ‘On Stranger Tides’, where Depp’s performance was getting into pantomime territory, kept the integrity of the character intact. The scene where Barbossa tells him he lost the Pearl to Blackbeard and Jack totally loses it, shows that his character still means something; he still has goals, a purpose and isn’t a total idiot. In this film, he’s just there for laughs. And again, most of them aren’t funny. They’re childish and stupid. It pains me to write this as I love Jack Sparrow in the first three, heck, even four films. This was like a parody; it was like Scary Movie deciding to throw in someone doing a bad Jack Sparrow impression. Good Lord, if you’re doing a Pirates 6 (which with the box office performance they obviously will) please, please give Jack some credibility back and turn him back into the witty, clever pirate that we once knew. Not this insane pantomime dame owing more to Carry on Pirates than Captain Jack Sparrow. The one and only redeeming aspect was a brilliant flashback scene showing young Jack in his prime. If we had seen more of the young, confident Jack, played as a competent and credible pirate albeit with a humorous manner, as we saw in the other films, the picture could’ve been much stronger. landscape-1488467243-pirates-of-the-caribbean-jack-sparrow-young-johnny-depp

All in all, I liked ‘Salazar’s Revenge.’ I may be bias for my own personal love of the series and in particular the characters of Will, Elizabeth and especially Barbossa, but with the (admittedly huge) exception of Jack, the film worked for me. The three new main characters were engaging, well acted and well written and the execution of the plot, while sloppy and childish in places, generally came together well. The film ends on a triumphant note with it’s excellent third act being the clear highlight. If Depp hadn’t been playing an escaped lunatic dressed as a pirate instead of Jack Sparrow it might have even been close to the level of ‘Curse of the Black Pearl.’ As it stands, it isn’t. But it’s still worth a watch  if you’re a fan of adventure films. Oh, and Hans Zimmer’s score is fantastic as usual. Most of it is reoccurring motifs from the previous films, but they’re all used well and it’s great to hear action themes used for Will and Elizabeth being cleverly utilized as a ‘Turner motif’ for their son Henry.

★★

Wait…

Wait, what? What’s this post credits sce…

What?!

CAN NOBODY STAY DEAD IN THIS DAMN PIRATES UNIVERSE

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) review

When Disney announced that they were buying Lucasfilm way back in 2012, people were skeptical. On the one hand, their beloved Star Wars was being bought by a corporate conglomerate that, by its very nature, has to make things child friendly and applicable for all audiences. However, on the other hand, this is the same company that hired Kevin Fiege and now has a near monopoly on the superhero genre, even more so with their recent acquisition of 20th Century Fox. 2015’s ‘The Force Awakens’ was met with considerable fanfare at the time, with articles commenting that it ‘perfectly captured the tone of the original trilogy’ and audiences seemed to love it too. However, in the following months and with the lukewarm reception to 2016’s ‘Rogue One’, it became the increasing norm for people to hate ‘Force Awakens’ for being a clone of ‘A New Hope.’ While that’s a story for another day, director Rian Johnson had a real challenge when putting together ‘The Last Jedi.’ Expectations were incredibly high with many questions left lingering from TFA, in a typically J.J Abrams fashion. Supreme Leader Snoke, Rey’s parents, The Knights of Ren, how Maz obtained Anakin’s lightsaber and perhaps most pressingly of all, the character of Luke Skywalker, who made a 15 second, non speaking cameo at the end of TFA, were all on the top of reddit posts and speculation articles. Not helping matters was fan darling Mark Hamill himself, who publicly stated that ‘disagreed with every choice that he [Johnson] made with the character [of Luke Skywalker]. And though it’s sad to say, as a true, loyal Star Wars fan, I not only agree with that statement, but think the film suffers from the hubris of the director and the ‘Disneyfication’ if you will, of the whole saga, a great deal. With full spoilers ahead, lets dive in.

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First the elephant in the room: Carrie Fisher. Every scene with Carrie is made immensely more melancholic thanks to her tragic passing last year. That aside, she gives a wonderful performance. In fact, all but one of the main cast absolutely nail their characters. The scene where she uses the force should’ve been amazing, but was done in such a cheesy and stylised manner, that it came off as weird and out of place. A big shame. The question of how Leia, who is very much alive and still in charge of the resistance, will be written around in the next film, is a lingering one. It’s a very tight and unfortunate spot for J.J to have to deal with in episode 9. Other performances worth highlighting are the fantastic Adam Driver, who matures and develops Kylo Ren far more effectively with his emotive face, than the script ever does. Daisy Ridley continues to do a sterling job as Rey and the reveal that she comes from nothing, actually really worked for me. The idea of greatness coming from anywhere, not just the Skywalker family, is a nice direction. John Boyega and Oscar Isaac also continue to ooze charisma and likeability and charm, but both fall victim to dreadfully boring and/or stupid and incoherent storylines. More on that in a bit. But the show stealer in terms of performance is Mark Hamill. Working with such a warped version of the character we know must’ve been infinitely challenging and frustrating, but the feelings of anguish, fear and sadness are portrayed beautifully, even if the surrounding script is weak. The decision to have Luke turn into a curmudgeonly old man who hates the idea of the Jedi and has disconnected from the force, is not something that I think fans ever expected or wanted. The final action scene is a great twist, I’ll say that much, but I also strongly disagree with Luke dying at the end of it. Firstly; why? And secondly; no really, why? Both films seem to relish in being rid of any familiar elements from the original trilogy for seemingly no reason. There’s passing on the torch and then there’s just sloppy writing. I guess Chewie’s next for the chop then? All in all, this is not the Luke Skywalker I wanted to see and the lack of a reunion with Han Solo, or even a meaningful reunion with any of the main cast bar Leia, is deeply disappointing. Luke for me, is the main area where this film fails. It destroys years of established Star Wars lore, all so that the director can say he ‘did it his way.’

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The Luke mess as well as Snoke’s random death, no mention of the Knights of Ren and the ‘destruction’ of both the Jedi and the Sith all seem to stem from the issue of having multiple directors for the trilogy. J.J had set up so many questions and Rian didn’t want to answer them, simple as. He wanted a self contained, smaller scale story that shook up the formula. I can understand that and even agree with a bit of a shake up, but this went way, way overboard. Going back to Snoke, to have him as such a presence and encourage so many questions about his origin, only to unceremoniously and abruptly kill him two thirds into the movie with no questions answered is inexcusable and pointless. It makes the world seem smaller and gives us even less players on the board going into episode 9. I know that in theory, both Luke and Snoke could appear as force ghosts, but the damage to the fans has already been done.

Also made completely irrelevant in this film is fan favourite ex Stormtrooper, Finn. The B storyline here is so pointless that it manages to make the whole half hour on the Casino planet, incredibly boring. If there is one thing Star Wars should never, ever be: it’s BORING. Even the prequels for all their crappy love scenes and overuse of CGI were at least entertaining. The introduction of completely random love interest ‘Rose’ doesn’t help either, with a very dull and irritating performance from Kelly Marie Tran, being the closest thing to Jar Jar Binks that the new films have got. The whole segment is one massive toilet break and comes off not only as dull but also preachy. I’m a big animal lover, but did we need that animal cruelty message hammered in so hard along with a dreadfully cliché ‘rich profiteering off of war’ message. Come on Star Wars. We’re better than this; we can get messages like this across in smarter ways. Like teddy bears killing trained Stormtroopers with logs.

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So, after four paragraphs of venting and angst, you probably think I hate this film. Well while I certainly don’t love it, it does have its merits. As said, apart from Jar Jar Rose, all the performances are spot on and I love the evolution of Kylo, Rey and Poe in particular. All of their character arks are strong, but unfortunately come at the expense of stupid plot developments or unanswered questions. Where credit must be given though, is in the visuals. Stunning shots of the salt planet and in particular the hyperdrive destruction of a Star Destroyer are real highlights. The movie also starts off strong, with the brilliant opening action scene being reminiscent of the ‘straight into the action’ approach of the original trilogy. While the MCU-style humour can become tiresome, most of it landed for me and Poe was as funny as likeable as ever. However, you can bet I was pissed when Luke through that lightsaber though; I’m fuming just thinking about it. John Williams’ score is stronger this time around too. It felt a little rushed for TFA and lacked any memorable action scores. The decision to reuse the asteroid chase music for a Millennium Falcon dogfight was a welcome return. Yoda’s cameo scene along with his iconic theme, were also welcome returns that did help to make this mess actually seem like a Star Wars film. Finally, I would be remiss not to mention the action scene following Snoke’s death. It’s fantastic. Watching Kylo and Rey destroy those red Imperial guards was just amazing. The shooting of all the action was great, with wide frame shots showing the characters whole bodies, giving a Samurai vibe to the action.

So, closing thoughts. When I walked out of ‘The Last Jedi’, I told my friends that I loved it. Luke’s badass closing confrontation with Kylo was fresh in my mind, there were new ideas and it wasn’t just another ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ However. After a few days of festering thoughts and discussions with friends, I’ve decided that this is a deeply flawed film. It has all the makings of a great piece: amazing actors, talented director, John Williams doing the score, stunning shots and angles and a stellar first film to spring board from. Where this film fails isn’t on any of those technical levels, its in two fundamental and crucial areas; the core philosophy and lore, and the commercialisation and incorrect filmmaking approach for a Star Wars film. The first, I’ve touched on a lot here; I believe that Johnson wanted to make his mark and make Star Wars the way he thought it should be and to subvert expectations following backlash from TFA. I can understand that, it’s a stylistic and creative choice. I think its absolutely the wrong choice and it sounds like Mark Hamill and many other fans agree with me, but I can respect a directors artistic vision. What I can’t respect, is the way Disney is trying to make Star Wars films in the same way they make Marvel films. Star Wars should be made every couple of years and really get people excited for it, with some time to flesh out wonderful scripts. With the vast volume of Marvel characters, you don’t feel suffocated with a new film every 4 months or so, Star Wars has a deeply entrenched lore that at present doesn’t lend itself to multiple films a year. If we started going Old Republic years, then perhaps that approach could work, but thats a gripe for another day. Star Wars also doesn’t lend itself to humour in the same way as Marvel. It has a generally more serious tone and the ‘Marvel’ approach of inserting humour into what first appears to be a more serious scene, clashes terribly with the established way of things and the characters we all know so well. Ultimately, Disney needs to make money, I get that. I can forgive them including Porg to see a billion toys like I forgave the inclusion of the Ewoks to do the same thing. What I can’t forgive is sacrificing creativity and a coherent story in order to get something out the door quickly. I wanted so badly to love this and have it be my new ‘Empire Strikes Back’, but there is just too much fundamentally wrong with it.

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And oh yeah, Captain Phasma sucks and is pointless. AGAIN.

I give ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’, with sadness in my heart, two stars (★★). And my updated ranking of the series is:

Empire Strikes Back- ★★★★★

Return of the Jedi- ★★★★★

A New Hope- ★★★★★

The Force Awakens- ★★★★

Revenge of the Sith- ★★★

The Last Jedi- ★★

Rogue One- ★★

Phantom Menace- ★

Attack of the Clones- ★

Avengers: Infinity War (2018) review

To quote a great fictional man, ‘there was an idea.’ Never has a movie quote been so appropriate in the context of an idea within its universe and the production of said universe in real life. The idea of establishing four lesser known comic book characters in their own movies that would be largely alien to a mainstream blockbuster audience only to bring them together in one singular event seemed to beg for disaster. But, in hindsight, what almost feels like projecting, the watchful one working eye of Nick Fury in universe and Kevin Feige in our reality both knew that this was a winning idea. As we know 2012’s ‘The Avengers’ was a sensational hit and quickly rose to become the third highest grossing film of all time. So what’s more mad than trying to set up a superhero film that juggles six protagonists, a functioning narrative and an effective villain? Well, how about throwing twenty plus main characters, a narrative that follows three different groups across the galaxy and a totally fresh villain that has no prior film establishment (I’m not counting three minutes in ‘Guardians of the Galaxy’ as extensive character building). If ‘The Avengers’ was a gamble, then ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is Marvel throwing everything, quite literally, onto the table. With the exception of one shrinking Paul Rudd and a confused normal man who wondered onto set with a bow and arrow for some reason, literally everyone is present here. 

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So, big question: is it any good? Quite amazingly, by some alignment of the stars and the moons (we probably have Thanos to thank for that), this movie somehow manages to live up to the hype and also pay appropriate respect and homage to its previous ten year long legacy. Feige makes a decision worthy of the intellects of Bruce Banner, Shrui and Tony Stark combined by giving directing reigns over to the Russo Brothers, whose previous work for Marvel includes ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’ and ‘Captain America: Civil War’, otherwise known as two movies that are in literally everybody’s ‘Top five MCU films’ lists. The meandering pace, bizarre villain choices and tangents to set up for solo films from Whedon’s underwhelming ‘Age of Ultron’ are firmly abolished here, with the focus being where it should be: Josh Brolin’s Thanos. It has been an excellent year for Marvel villains, as they once again learn from past mistakes and give the ‘Mad Titan’ exactly the right amount of screen time and backstory necessary to make him thoroughly compelling and simultaneously hateable. The true mark of a great villain relies on two things; An understanding (not to be confused with agreement) of their motivations and an incredible on screen presence. The combination of the writing and Josh Brolin’s breath-taking performance achieve this in spades; I genuinely feared for the lives of my favourite characters whenever they came into contact with him.

Though the story is firmly told from the viewpoint of Thanos, the obvious appeal of the movie for any fanboy such as myself comes from the sheer number of heroes in one flick. In the hands of less competent directors, combining the Guardians of the Galaxy, the Avengers and the numerous subsequent heroes and side characters could’ve been more of a disaster than the DC movie universe (cheap shot, sorry.) Thankfully, all of your fAvengersInfinityWaravourite heroes are represented and almost all of them have witty lines and adequate roles to play to drive the story forward. That said, not all heroes are created equally and if I had one criticism, it would be a little too much reliance on the Guardians of the Galaxy and not quite enough love for the likes of core Avengers ‘Black Widow’ and ‘Captain America.’ This is of course a super minor nit-pick and with the state of the universe at the end of the film, I’m sure they’ll have much more prevalence in next years as of yet untitled ‘Avengers 4.’ But we’ll get to that ending later. My other nit-pick regards the generic evil henchmen- ‘The Black Order’ As you might expect, they don’t receive a huge amount of development and despite being pretty tough, are killed off without much consequence. As I say, another minor point as the main villain is so engaging and there is so, so much going on, but I feel that a bit more personality wouldn’t have gone amiss. 

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So if those are my two tiny problems, what did I like about the film? Honestly, nearly everything else. The now well established cast bring their ‘A game’ here, with everyone (except Elizabeth Olsen’s ‘Sokovian’ accent) being on point. Stand outs include Chris Hemsworth as Thor, who honestly just gets better in every movie he’s in. He not only nails the dramatic moments, but his comedic timing rivals even the greatest stand up artists at this point. ‘Sweet Rabbit’ is my new favourite thing and his interactions with the Guardians in general made the Marvel fan boy in my squeal with excitement as well as laugh. Tom Holland’s Peter Parker is also amazing here. I was one of the few not actually sold by ‘Spiderman: Homecoming’, but I’m totally on board following a soul destroyingly real death scene. Move over Toby; I have a new favourite Spidey. As I said, there are too many other characters to give individual praise to, but the interactions between our favourite characters weaved in with that trademark Marvel wit, make this a surprisingly humorous affair to begin with, that slowly sits you down and rips out your heart as it brutally murders your childhood heroes… 

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…we best start talking about that ending then. Despite a few early deaths, things seemed all good in the hood for most of the cast and I thought we’d wrap things up with Thanos in some intergalactic prison, with the emotional weight coming from the (very well done and suitably respectful and brutal) deaths of Loki, Gamora and Vision. Not so. After Thor stabs Thanos and he smirks with a reply of ‘you should’ve aimed for the head’, I knew this wasn’t going to be a happy ending. Thanos savagely rips the mind stone from Vision’s head and achieves his goal of wiping out half of the population of the universe. Yep; an MCU movie where the villain wins, without question. The death toll is more akin to the kind of body count Jason Vorehees or Michael Myers (not Austin Powers) tend to rack up; Star Lord, Groot, Drax, Mantis, Black Panther, Falcon, The Winter Soldier, Dr. Strange and even poor Spiderman are all kaput. The movie then ends on a dour note of hopelessness with a cliff-hanger more enticing than ‘Empire Strikes Back.’ It punches you in the gut and is the only Marvel movie to end with a solemn, quiet credits soundtrack to signify the severity of the situation. Now while that is all bleak, it is slightly undercut by the fact that the Marvel diary has already confirmed: ‘Guardians 3’, ‘Spiderman 2’, and ‘Black Panther 2’ post ‘Avengers 4.’ So while I’m sure no one seriously think these flagship characters were dead for good, it does slightly undercut the emotional weight of the scene. While Spidey’s death genuinely nearly got a tear out of me, I was at the same time relieved as I knew that meant this is likely to be undone. It leaves us in an interesting place though, as the remaining Avengers (by no accident) are the core members from phase one with the addition of Rhodey, a few Wakandans and one angry ‘Sweet Rabbit.’ The focus will undoubtedly be on the original team in the follow up and I for one, can’t wait for next summer to see the real conclusion.

 

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It should also be noted that this movie doesn’t waste time introducing newbies to the franchise; quite frankly it doesn’t have the time. It fully expects its audience to be up to date and have knowledge of all previous 18 (!) movies. This also applies to character development as the key dynamics between Tony Stark and Peter Parker for instance are far more compelling with the established relationship from previous flicks. I realise I’ve spent a lot of time talking about plot and not much else in this review, but its such an overwhelming experience that I feel a splurge of information from my brain is the best approach. Taking my fanboy hat off for a second though, it is worth noting the phenomenal production values and stylistic choices. The visuals are more ambitious than any film prior; even the insane, ‘Inception’ style visuals of ‘Dr. Strange’ are dwarfed by one cosmic set piece after another, with the effects highlight being an entire moon being lobbed at Iron Man. I was also very pleased to see the return of Alan Silverstri as composer, who has been absent from the MCU since ‘The Avengers.’ As the composer of easily the most iconic tune in the franchise, it was great to hear his bold, heroic, hype inducing score make a triumphant return here to signal strong character moments. This, balanced with the ominous drone composed as the theme for Thanos really added a lot of weight to the film. One minor (very nerdy) nit-pick, is that I would’ve loved to have heard a reprise of Tyler Bates’ equally excellent motif for the Guardians of the Galaxy when they made their appearance. Motifs are severely lacking in the MCU and it would’ve been equally good to have heard the familiar fanfares for Iron Man and Captain America established previously.

So in conclusion, ‘Avengers: Infinity War’ is about as amazing a comic book movie that you could ask for. It felt like a true crossover ‘event comic’ come to life. While I still feel that ‘The Dark Knight’, with its compelling themes, complex characters and Oscar worthy acting will always reign supreme as the greatest comic book movie, this movie achieves the seemingly impossible task of juggling so many characters, bringing the pages of a comic book to life and, perhaps most impressively of all, being a satisfying first part of a conclusion to ten years of hype. While it won’t make any great shakes in the Oscars or as a piece of high brow cinema, it isn’t trying to. It knows what it is; a smart action blockbuster and a reward for comic book fans everywhere who have followed and supported Marvel eagerly for the past ten years. Now they have the equally daunting task of finding a satisfying way to conclude this monster of a story. But with Feige, the Russo brothers and the rest of Marvel Studios at the helm, I have every faith that it will just as exhilarating, hilarious and satisfying as this was.

★★★★★

Also pleeeeease, please can this film beat ‘Titanic’ and ‘Avatar’ at the box office? I’d kill to see the look on James Cameron’s pretentious, smug, comic book hating face.

Incredibles 2 (2018) review

Nostalgia is a powerful thing, especially when it comes to beloved Pixar classics from our youth. The Incredibles returned this summer to bombastic 1950’s style fanfare, a whole fourteen years after the ‘incredible’ (ha) smash hit directed by Brad Bird, way back in 2004. The result is an altogether safe sequel that doesn’t take many risks, but satisfies with compelling action scenes, a relatively quick pace and some fun satire of gender roles and superhero media that make for an enjoyable, if run of the mill sequel.

One might assume that the introduction of a time gap of fourteen years would be a no brainer to incorporate into the narrative for a change of pace and a different approach story wise. One would, however, be wrong. The time jump is purely for our dimension only, as for the Parr family, mere seconds have passed since the thrilling cliffhanger conclusion of the first film. What follows however, is a decent progression of the narrative that does manage to successfully drive the story into new directions, but unfortunately, many of those directions are ‘incredibly’ (I’ll stop soon I promise) predictable. I don’t think anyone is going to have too many issues working out who the ‘surprise’ villain is, for example. However, as a member of the nostalgia infested horde, moaning orgasmically for the latest Pixar sequel like a walker craving brains, I must remind my ‘revertigo’ infested brethren that this is in fact, a film meant for children. As a film for the kids, it entirely works and will be satisfying. It may not succeed as a totally compelling follow up, but still provides enough meat for fans of the original to enjoy and more than enough for their spawn to sink their millennial teeth into.

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Director Brad Bird brings a trademark wit to the film and its humour is its greatest asset. Many of the jokes had me chuckling in self reference, particularly those that make a mockery of humanities greatest atrocity: maths.  Parents around me also audibly (to my extreme annoyance) voiced acknowledgment and approval of the stress of being a single house parent. This combined with the reintroduction of baby Jack Jack’s newfound powers, make for some truly hilarious scenes, so kudos for that. If the first ‘Incredibles’ is about a mid life crisis and escaping the mediocrity of the working world, then ‘The Incredibles 2’ is about acknowledging the difficulties of juggling work and family and how exhausting it can be. This is where the film truly shines; ironically, I found watching the ‘B storyline’ of the powered family just live their lives to be far more engaging (and admittedly, hilarious) than the antics of Elastigirl in the ‘A storyline’. The performances are all largely solid too, though Bob Odenkirk is largely just being Bob Odenkirk and I was surprisingly underwhelmed by Brad Bird himself as fan favourite, Edna Mode, who sadly seemed inappropriately shoehorned in for some disappointingly dull fan service.

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What isn’t disappointing though, is Michael Giacchino’s phenomenal score. Perfectly blending elements of Bond, Batman and hell, even a bit of Austin Powers, the score is sensational. Many themes are, naturally, reused from the first instalment, but this only cranked up my nostalgia dial up to eleven and had me beaming like a cheshire cat in some of the climactic fight scenes. Though what is good music without good animation? ‘The Incredibles 2’ need not concern itself with that question, as it has both. The CGI models of the original have only been slightly tweaked and still look recognisable and slick. The approach is clean but stylistic, with a strange but awesome kind of idealised American utopia vibe to it, where every building is pristine and huge, with sharp, jagged edges. This, in juxtaposition with the comparatively simple character models, gives the skylines their own personality and gives the film a unique and frankly, cool look. It was like walking into an simple, expressionist, 1950s painting with a New Orleans jazz band playing in the background; I loved it.

In review, ‘The Incredibles 2’ is a solid film, though not quite on ‘Parr’ (sorry) with the original. The story is basic, but still compelling and funny and the action is spot on (Bird does more with Elastigirl’s powers than any Fantastic 4 film has ever dared to with Mr. Fantastic.) While I find the lack of use of the time jump to be a misstep, what is produced instead is still wholly entertaining and enjoyable and I’m blogging about the movie I saw, not the movie I had planned out in my mind. While I won’t say it was absolutely worth the fourteen year wait, it is clear that the team behind this took their time to create a sequel worth seeing. The ending also leaves the door open for further adventures with a more expansive world, so perhaps the ‘Incredi-verse’ I was hoping for could be coming with a third instalment. If it keeps to this level of well written jokes and amazing, animated action, it would be most welcome.

★★★★

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