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)

★★★★

Pokèmon Omega Ruby and Alpha Sapphire (2014) review

I wasn’t an avid ‘Gen three-er.’ Gold and Silver will always rule my heart as well as their excellent remakes Heart Gold and Soul Silver and I’d gone off the series by the time it had made its way onto the Gameboy Advance. However, not unlike George Michael at Christmas, my heart was stolen by a saucy minx known as Pokèmon Emerald version. As remakes of Pokémon Ruby and Sapphire these games have a lot to live up to, to please their nostalgia starved fans. Luckily for Nintendo, the gamble of X and Y and their Digimon style mega evolutions paid off, leading to some interesting mechanical updates that make the already great campaign even more playable.

   So the first thing to touch on is the plot. Let’s be fair, you’re never going to get Citizen Kane out of Pokèmon, but its serviceable here. The updated designs allow for a little more expression which is complemented by character development through larger amounts of text. While of course they’re all still two dimensional as the sprites they’re based off of, the updates to the evil team leaders in particular, are strong and give them an inch more weight than the originals. Besides this, the plots remain largely untouched, albeit with a sprinkling of mega evolution hastily latched on. Otherwise, you know the drill: beat the leaders, get the eight badges, complete the Pokédex and become the champion. 

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   The game is, however, exceedingly life consuming and has a good forty or so hours of main story content if you are a nook and cranny explorer. Of course, as always you can storm through with your overpowered Blaziken and eventually, even more over powered Primal Groudon, but where’s the fun in that? Where the game really excels is in gameplay. The much needed special/physical split finally comes to Hoenn and appropriately balances the experience. Of course we also have the specific features of X and Y including an experience share that makes levelling up a doddle, easy trade functionality and  Pokèmon Amie which allows you to get up close and personal with your favourite monsters. New mechanics however include the return of Pokémon contests, not seen since generation four and a creep system that allows you to get a good look at a critter before going in for the catch. 

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   Being a remake, this game naturally boasts vastly improved graphics and sound design. Building upon the engine from X and Y, ORAS manage to provide an even more stunning atmosphere, with wide angle shots of the scenery all beautifully rendered and huge cities feeling justifiably large and lived in without the detriment of a poor camera angles. In battle scenes, it’s the same story; amazingly well rendered Pokémon and move animations show show the full power of the graphical capacities of the 3DS.

 

   But what does this game bring to the table that couldn’t be found in the original games? Well, the post game content is a pretty epic. Without spoiling anything, after defeating the champion, a new adventure is unlocked that expands both the lore of the series and the replayability of these titles. It’s a great ride that provides a brain melting plot and some impressively challenging battles, as well as more than a little fan service. The only issue is that it’s length. The fact that it’s named ‘Episode 1’ suggested that DLC was on the way, but as we know now, that was merely a pipe dream…

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   Music also plays a huge part in creating the games various different tones and atmospheres. Generation three had some of the greatest music in the series, so the remixes has to be strong here. Generally, all is well. Like X and Y there is a heavy focus  nostalgic elements of previous games, with some tracks having 16-bit elements directly from the GBA cleverly weaved into them. The battle music for Groudon/Kyogre uses this to its fullest and is a highlight. Some tracks however, are lacklustre. The gym leader theme is upsettingly weak and a little bland. Fortunately, these are few and far between though and the soundtrack is a major highlight.

   In review, if you played Ruby and Sapphire back in 2002, you’ll enjoy this. It’s a love letter to fans of all generations and the attention to detail to capture the feeling of the originals is explicit. While it still encounters some of the problems from the original game including a less than stellar story, it has all of the elements that make a Pokèmon game such an enjoyable experience. If you haven’t already tried it and are a fan of the turn-based RPG genre in general, you won’t go far wrong here.

9/10

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Lord of the Rings: The TV show…?

Is this a good idea? New versions of existing IP’s tend to be pretty shocking, so why should one of the most beloved trilogies of books and films be treated any better? If you’re a need of a little more context as to what’s going on here, let me elaborate. After some reportedly intense negotiations with the Tolkien estate, Amazon Prime: the online streaming service rival to Netflix, have acquired the rights to create a ‘Lord of the Rings’ based television show for a multi season run. Very little is known about the project right now, but Amazon have released a statement saying that the writing team would be looking into ‘unexplored stories based on J.R.R Tolkien’s original writings.’ This is, in my mind, a more hopeful comment that hints at more than jus another reboot or remake. As a huge fan of Peter Jackson’s, in my opinion, flawless trilogy, it’s reassuring to know that the project won’t likely be retreading existing beats from a version that already tells that story in a pretty perfect way.

So what does this vague statement tell us and what could it mean? It sounds unlikely that it will touch on the works of ‘The Hobbit’ either, which, as a hugely unsatisfying and underwhelming trilogy, could’ve been a more forgiving option. The term ‘unexplored stories’ offers a myriad of potential options and allows for what could be the first onscreen incarnation of another Tolkien epic set in the same universe (though crucially not just Middle Earth); ‘The Silmarillion.’ As by no means an expert on the topic, please don’t take my word as law, but from what I understand, the works take on a larger scale story with a spiritual approach to the familiar lands of the ‘LOTR’ trilogy, focusing on the first age and the creation of many of the races from subsequent books; hobbits, men, elves etc.

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So as a largely unexplored work, ‘The Silmarillion’ could be the best option for a Middle Earth based television show. It’s a massive epic that is too large for a movie, or even three, despite the famous length of Peter Jackson’s fantasy repertoire. The entire purchase is reportedly to rival HBO’s absolute mammoth franchise, ‘Game of Thrones’ and Netflix’s hugely successful sci fi serial ‘Stranger Things.’ (Side note- I promise to get through a blog one day without mentioning ‘Stranger Things.’) If the intention is to make a huge, multiple character spanning and multi season product that also carries a familiar tone, then ‘The Silmarillion’ seems like the obvious choice. This is one use of the franchise that I would actually be quite happy to see as while it may have a familiar setting and tone, no doubt with references galore, it is still a new IP; something that we’ve never seen on screen before and a work that isn’t massively well known to the general public. If this is the direction they decide to go, I’m all for it.

What I am not all for however, is a ‘LOTR Origins: ARAGORN’ or ‘Bilbo Begins.’ A prequel series that is set shortly before either ‘LOTR’ or perhaps more sensibly ‘The Hobbit’ have no business being made. All this will accomplish is a demystification of characters already familiar with audiences, as well as feeble attempts to tie their ‘previous’ adventures into existing lore without creating a time paradox. Think back to the dismal failure that was the third ‘Hobbit’ film; what were the worst parts of that? It was the elements that attempted to ‘fill in the gaps’ to ‘Fellowship of the Ring.’ The inclusion of Sauron (yes, yes the Necromancer- whatever), the huge battles not present in the books and basically everything that happens after they defeat Smaug, were hugely uninteresting, because they hadn’t come from Tolkien’s brain and therefore, felt out of place and weird. It’s the same thing with ‘Game of Thrones’ going of course in later seasons as they strayed further from Martin’s works. Sure, you get to roughly the same place in the end, but if the journey was haphazard and worse than previous seasons; what was the point? What I’m saying here, is nobody really wants to see Mike from ‘Stranger Things’ (damn, there I go again) playing the youngest Bilbo we’ve seen yet, getting into made up adventures with characters we’ll never hear about in future instalments, while also shoving in references to things that he shouldn’t know about for another thirty years, just so the audience can declare ‘I understood that reference’ at the television set every thirty minutes. Please Amazon, for the love of God, do not turn this into another ‘Gotham.’ As another side note, if you think ‘Gotham’ is a good representation of the ‘Batman’ franchise, you’re wrong. But that’s a topic for another day.

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So, although nothing’s confirmed, we’ve established a few things: It probably won’t be a re-telling of ‘Lord of the Rings’ again, thank God. It also probably won’t be a re-telling of the Hobbit. Ok. It could disturbingly be some sort of contrived prequel focused on a main character from one of these works. Hm. It could be an adaption of ‘The Silmarillion’ giving us the first on screen adaption of this work and its characters. Ok, that actually sounds pretty good! Or, it could be something else entirely based on either relatively unknown or even unreleased material from Tolkien. Who knows. The final question posed is, assuming this does indeed take a brand new tangent, adapting either ‘The Silmarillion’ or another obscure Middle Earth work: will it take place in an all new ‘LOTR universe’ or the existing Peter Jackson universe? Many fans, myself included, see his trilogy as the definitive adaption and the new series is in conjunction with New Line Cinema, the distributors of the original trilogy. If they’re going to reboot the existing works, then obviously this wouldn’t be the case. However, if we are going down the favourable road of new source material, then why not have it set in the Jackson-verse? It wouldn’t change a whole lot in a narrative sense, but the inclusion of the familiar filming styles, sets, costumes and in particular, Howard Shore’s absolutely iconic score would be incredibly welcome. Seriously, can you imagine a Middle Earth story without the triumphant ‘Lord of the Rings’ action theme, the ‘Concerning Hobbits’ theme for the Shire, or ‘the one ring’ theme for anything to do with Sauron or the ring? I’m not saying all of those elements would be present, but whilst I struggled through the painfully average ‘Hobbit’ trilogy, the soundtrack, both new and re worked existing tracks, was one element that helped me find enjoyment in that mess.

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So, that’s my speculation on the new ‘Lord of the Rings’ based Amazon show. It’ll probably be average to crap, but hey, who knows; it could be absolutely fantastic and along with Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ television show, start a whole new trend of existing IP’s getting their own massive tv show universes instead of new film remakes. It seems like a logical progression with how much film and tv are blending into one medium at the moment with more and more huge budget shows like ‘Game of Thrones’ rivalling big Hollywood movies in terms of sets and stunts. Perhaps we’ll see a ‘Blade Runner’ tv series, or ‘Jurassic Park’, or even, dare I say; ‘Ghostbusters’? Oh, how the mind boggles. Let’s wait and see.

Ranking the MCU movies (March 2018)

Cast your mind back to 2008; a simpler time. Well, in the world of movies anyway. Amidst the launch of the original iPhone and the start of the presidency of a man who isn’t completely insane, the film world was doing just fine.  The superhero film in particular was a well established sub-genre, with box office sensations like Sam Raimi’s Spiderman movies, the X Men series and most critically, Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight series (at the time, a duo yet to be concluded by the wet fart of a trilogy capper). Yet in the same year that The Dark Knight set a new standard for the level of quality, something was happening that would completely change the landscape for how blockbuster films would be conceptualised for a decade to come. We just didn’t know it at the time. Director Jon Favreau created Iron Man, a movie adaption of a fairly B list comic book character, casting a leading man with a notorious past and who was in need of a second wind, career wise. Everyone thought that The Dark Knight would beat Iron Man both critically and commercially and you know what? They were right. But here’s the thing: DC won the battle, but Marvel won the war, and continue to demolish their direct competition at every hurdle. Through the crafting of an intricate connected universe, EVERYBODY now wants to emulate the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Why do you think we have the DCEU, the Universal Dark Universe, a wider Transformers universe, multiple Star Wars films, a Ghostbusters universe and literally dozens of others. Its because Marvel and therefore Disney, have made billions from this model and now have the creative freedom to take obscure comic book characters like the Guardians of the Galaxy or Black Panther and turn them into roaring success stories. This is largely due to the leadership of producer Kevin Feige, a man I admire to no end. So as we lead up to the culmination of ten years of groundwork, and not just the films, but multiple short films, movie based comics and shared universe Netflix shows, lets examine the eighteen (yes really!) movies that have been produced at the time of writing by ranking them in terms of overall quality and enjoyment. As my intro was far longer than I intended, I’ll keep each section pretty succinct and just focus on the main headlines for each.

18. 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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17. 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.

16. Iron Man 2 (2010)

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.

15. 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, its been eclipsed by a far, far greater sequel. No, not ‘The Dark Bore’, we’ll get to Ragnarok later…

14. Captain America: The First Avenger (2011)

Another film finding its feet and thus suffers for 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.

13. Iron Man 3 (2013)

Most peoples other least favourite, but I think it gets a bad wrap for being worse than it is. It has excellent character development for Tony Stark that makes sense in a post-Avengers world and a great score, which is more than most MCU movies can claim. Sadly, a weak pull of the rug twist and an even weaker villain stop this one from soaring any higher. The Christmas setting and Dora the Explorer watch are both amazing though.

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12. 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.

11. Spiderman: Homecoming (2017)

Another one that people seemed to love that I just liked. 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 is still just good, not great, in my opinion. I like what they’re doing compared to the Amazing series travesty, but give me the original Sam Raimi trilogy any day.

10. 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.

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9. 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.

8. Ant Man (2015)

This could potentially be another controversial pick due to it beating out other solo movies like Dr. Strange and Spiderman: Homecoming, but in my opinion, Ant Man sets and achieves its goals with more success. 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.

7. 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.

6. Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Essentially an ‘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 actual teenager Tom Holland. I look forward to seeing what directors The Russo brothers do with Infinity War.

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5. Black Panther (2018)

The newest MCU movie on the list is also one of their best. 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 single greatest MCU villain we’ve seen yet, perfectly captured in the angry and determined weight of Michael B Jordan’s incredible performance. Yes, I think he’s better than Loki.

4. 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 boyscout 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 lame newcomer, Falcon and you’ve got one of the slickest solo movies we’ve seen yet.

3. 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.

2. 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?

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

Damn, 2017 was a good year for the MCU. This is a potentially jarring pick for the number one spot and I may be slightly bias in that its one of few on the list that I was able to see on a proper cinema screen in IMAX. However, theres no denying that this film completely achieves its objectives. 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.

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

Stranger Things 2 (2017) review

Following an incredibly successful and critically acclaimed first season is not an easy feat. Fan and critical expectation is high, as are the stakes to try and capture the same magic that made your initial creation so well loved. Evolution is also important; you can’t just re-tread the same beats from the previous season. Change is important for both character and plot to move the story forward in a logical, but fresh way. What I’m trying to say, is that it’s very difficult to keep momentum going and create a second season as strong is the first. Stranger Things 2, in my opinion, is not only as strong as the first season, but exceeds it.

Very rarely do I get so connected to a cast of characters on my screen that I actually feel like they’re legitimate, real people going through fantastical and horrific experiences. Stranger Things 2 builds on their characters in a way I never thought possible and manages to deliver emotional gut punches multiple times throughout the season with the Duffer Brother’s masterful knowledge of how real people act and react to trials and tribulations. Development and change is a risk managed wonderfully; as an example, if you’d told me at the end of season one that Steve Harrington would be my favourite character by the end of the sequel season, I’d offer a snort of derision. Many characters here have wonderful arcs that help them progress as people and at the core of this is the relationship between fan favourite characters Eleven and Jim Hopper. These two absolutely steal the show for me this time around and their evolving father-daughter relationship reaches a moment of absolute poignancy in the final episode that I’m not ashamed to admit had me wiping tears from my crusty, cynical eyes. Also strong is Noah Schnapp, who gets much more screen time this season as Will and is able to show off some serious acting chops. His facial expressions provide some of the most disturbing moments we’ve seen yet, but you also just feel for the kid and his family so much and truly root for Will to get through it.

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Another difficult aspect of a second season is introducing new faces into an already well loved and established cast. Delightfully, the four new main characters of this season are woven in carefully and with slick precision. Sadie Sink’s ‘Mad Max’ is a welcome addition to the ever growing cast of talented younger actors and her psychotic brother Billy presents a great foil to now antihero and all around good guy, Steve. Sean Austin also joins as Joyce’s boyfriend Bob and instantly oozes likeability. He’s goofy, warm and the antithesis of Hopper, who seems to be being built up as her ultimate love interest. If there’s one character who suffers this time around, it’s previous male lead Mike, played by Finn Wolfhard. Wolfhard’s performance remains strong and you feel all the raw pain associated with the death of a loved one, but without Eleven, he’s mostly a damp squib. He doesn’t do much until the final two episodes and plot driven moment are largely handed over to Lucas and Dustin. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s certainly great to see two great characters take more screen time, it just means Mike is slightly short changed as a payoff.

While the characters may be all change, what haven’t changed are the fantastic tone, the creepy atmosphere and the brilliantly woven homages to classic 80’s media. If the first season owed its horrific imagery to James Cameron’s ‘Aliens’, then ‘Stranger Things 2’ owes its shocking and disturbing moments to ‘The Exorcist.’ The horror is amplified this time; the feral, animalistic and survivalist instincts of the Demigorgan gone and instead replaced by the overbearing and unknown presence of The Mind Flayer. The idea of this creature being more methodical rather than just being driven by instinct, coupled with the complete lack of information of what exactly it is and what it wants, creates a much more terrifying foe for the gang to tackle. One that it doesn’t seem likely will be leaving the fictional town of Hawkins alone any time soon. The stakes have been well and truly raised so it will be interesting to see the continued expansion of the unknown lore of ‘The Upside Down’ in future seasons.

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The show also continues to be a love letter to films and pop culture of the 80’s. The fact that the show is able to blend different elements of such vastly different source materials is a credit to the different directors working on it. There are countless references, but the pieces that came to mind while I binged it over a week included ‘Halloween’, ‘The Exorcist’, ‘Flight of the Navigator’, ‘Aliens’, ‘Close Encounters’, ‘The Wizard’ and even ‘The Last of us’ video game. The gorgeous synth soundtrack could be pulled straight from a Sega Megadrive game and the 80’s songs used to support key moments work really well. The use of ‘Ghostbusters’ is particularly fun and is a great example of the wonderful humour and childhood nostalgia that blends so surprisingly well with the darker elements.

I have only one complaint and it’s one that the internet has been pretty unanimous about, so I don’t mean to beat a dead horse. It really bothered me while watching, however, so I must mention it. There are some bad choices in terms of episodic structure. The opening scene presents a group of new characters including a tease of a connection to Eleven that isn’t followed up until the now infamous episode seven, ‘Lost Sister.’ While the episode is dull and the characters even more so (bar the always excellent Eleven), it could’ve been forgiven easier had it been placed within the first few episodes. Episode six ends on a huge cliff-hanger and it’s a strange move to then completely ignore that for  what is essentially a single character episode, with the rest of the cast entirely absent. I’m sure that this is meant to be foreshadowing some season three content, but to have it as the pre title sequence in episode one and then place it in this way was an odd choice that didn’t pay off. I hope not to see more of Eight or the other gang members in the future; they do not work for this show.

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Despite this, ‘Stranger Things 2’ is wonderful on the whole. It builds on already rich and developed characters and makes them pop out of the screen with realism. The nostalgia, themes, tone, atmosphere, soundtrack and writing all blend together to create one of my favourite pieces of television in a long time. It does exactly what a sequel should do and builds on its source material while adding in new elements (nearly) seamlessly. I wanted to give this another 10/10, but sadly, ‘Lost sister’ was a real weak point and acts as a blackhead on an otherwise beautiful face.

9/10

And now we have to wait HOW long for season 3?

Oh God.

Stranger Things series one (2016) review

 Once every so often, something completely unexpected will take our screens by storm and hook the wider viewing audience whilst having a profound impact on the media; spawning memes, fandoms, cosplays and countless merchandise. Prior to the pop culture takeover by Game of Thrones, who would’ve thought back in early 2011 that the most popular show on TV would feature dragons and medieval politics, topics previously reserved only for Tolkein obsessed geeks? Indeed, who would’ve thought in 2016 that the next big thing to grace our streaming screens would be an 80’s themed horror/sci-fi with five pre-pubescent children as the stars? While not quite on the scale of George R.R Martin’s fantasy leviathan, the Duffer brothers’ ‘Stranger Things’ has taken the world by storm since its introduction onto Netflix last year, for very good reason.

   The show is very aware of its roots and makes reference to them throughout. The styles and influence of Steven Spielberg, John Carpenter and especially Stephen King, are obvious and are executed in unique and exciting ways that make them feel fresh and crucially, leaves the viewer on the edge of their seat from episode one. In particular, the incredible opening titles masterfully composed by Kyle Dixon and Michael Stein evoke memories of synth scores typical of the time period. For me, ‘Halloween 3: Season of the Witch’, the panned threequel of John Carpenter’s popular slasher romp, always comes to mind when those artificial notes first boom on screen, sending a chill down my spine every time.

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   The plot is well written and easy to follow, but I won’t get into too many details here, check out the Wikipedia page for that. It’s simple and some might say generic on the surface, but it spreads a clever science fiction mystery perfectly over excellently paced over eight ‘chapters’, showing another clear inspiration for the series: classic 1950’s serials. The plot itself is also a love letter to 80’s sci fi, horror and coming of age stories. ‘The Shining’, ‘ET’, and in particular ‘Stand by Me’ all have strands of DNA expertly woven into the narrative. The vision of the 1980s is vivid and realistic with an excellent attention to detail. From Mike’s toy Millennium Falcon to the upbeat and playful tones of the Jam playing through Johnathan’s cassette player; the show screams authenticity. Speaking of screaming, it is also of course, in part at least, a horror. From the decaying buildings and gory bodies of ‘the upside down’ reminiscent of a Ridley Scott alien hive to the slender-man inspired creature with its jump scares, the Duffer brother’s evoke as much horror and disturbing elements as they do humour and coming of age drama. A slight editing critique is in the final showdown in episode eight far overuses flashing strobe visuals that took me out of the action for having to physically look away from the screen.

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   Besides that, there isn’t a huge amount to critique within ‘Stranger Things.’ As someone who has grown weary of terrible child actors over the years, the cast of youngsters are a welcome breath of fresh air. Each character is not only written to be distinct, but all the performances are pulled off with believable gravitas and where necessary, pathos. If there was a slight criticism to make, it would actually be with the shows biggest star: Winona Ryder. As Joyce Byers she certainly sells the performance of a frantic mother desperate to find her child, but as the episodes go on and she gets more and more screen time, this is taken to frustratingly loud and, for want of better word ‘screechy’, levels. While the direction is largely spot on, advising poor Winona to rein it in a tad to limit her spectacular meltdowns to key dramatic beats, could’ve made for a more believable character. This is however, a mere nit-pick amongst the stunning cast of both children and adults. In particular, David Harbour’s curmudgeonly cop Jim Hopper starts the series as a stereotypical sheriff, but as the series evolves and backstory is slowly revealed, layers of humanity are pulled back and thrown to the forefront of the emotional action creating some truly heart-breaking and disturbingly real moments. In fact that sums up the whole series: while it might take its basis within stereotypes and well known cliché, it blends them so seamlessly in with realistic drama, raw character emotion and a genuinely interesting mystery that the nostalgia is not the driving force of the story, it’s simply an excellent backdrop that gives the series that much more charm and appeal, making it stand out against other shows that try to weave pop culture references into their narrative.

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   All in all, ‘Stranger Things’ is smart, scary, funny, well-paced, exciting and has an absolutely gorgeously realised atmosphere, setting and tone. The wide shots of the town again evoke the opening scene of ‘Halloween’ with crusty brown leaves flying across the credits as we’re introduced to Haddonfield. The Duffer brothers capture the tone of 80’s horror, sci fi and child coming of age stories all in one magnificent package. With the support of a mostly consistent cast, a haunting soundtrack and a good helping of humour to keep the potential bleakness at bay, ‘Stranger Things’ can only be compared to a rollercoaster ride; It throws you around and keeps you on the edge of your seat, only to be over in what seems like seconds and leaving you waiting with baited breath for a second ride could possibly offer.

10/10

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- ★

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